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The Penis-word Resource - PRSR:Mesopotamia Part II: Išarum (akkadian)

Jul. 5th, 2007

12:19 am - PRSR:Mesopotamia Part II: Išarum (akkadian)

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Penis Root Special Report: Mesopotamia

Part 2: Akkad and the Imperial (word for) Penis (Išarum)


Sometime around 2400BCE, the high-priestess of the city of Azupiranu conceived a child. She suffered her pregnancy in secret and, also in secret, bore a son. For whatever reason, she set this infant in a reed basket, sealed the lid, and set the child adrift on the Euphrates. some time later, as the basket passed near the city of Kish, a man named Akki noticed the basket, fetched it from the river and discovered the infant boy. He raised this child as his own and the child grew to be cup bearer to the king. At about this time he met and started dating the goddess Ishtar, who gave him a special destiny which required that he murder the king of Kish and usurp his throne. Obviously, this entire story is bullshit. It is in fact an amalgam of two stories about the origins of Sargon of Akkad (Sargon the Great to his friends), a bastard child of humble birth who went on to found the first empire in human history, and to create a multi-generational cottage industry white-washing his lowly birth and justifying his kingship. Even his name, Šarru-kinu, is a piss-poor attempt at justification. It translates, roughly, to "The legitimate king." How's that for overcompensating?

The reason Sargon could command such a hum-dinger of a personal myth is that the Akkadians had appropriated writing from their Sumerian neighbors.

Let me back up just a bit. When the last episode of the PRSR left off, the city-states of Sumer, inventors of Cuneiform, had established a cultural dominance over that portion of the fertile crescent surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These city states belonged to a now-vanished enthno-linguistic group based around the down-river (southernmost) end of the Mesopotamian flood plain. Make no mistake, the Sumerians were military badasses and regularly knocked the shit out of their neighbors, but they were a disunited lot, and up until near the very end each city battled more for bragging rights, defence and resource accumulation than anything else, probably because no single city had the military resources to hold much more than its immediate surround. Their culture, however, was communicated far and wide, and one of the most important components of that culture was its literacy.

The central and northern ends of Mesopotamia were commanded by a similar collection of disunited city-states, but they spoke Semitic languages related to Hebrew, Arabic and Phoenician. The Semites could not properly be called "invaders," indeed it is equally likely that the Sumerians invaded the floodplain as it is that Semitic-speakers did. In fact, it kind of looks like they both did. The current-most-likely theory is that the Semitic language developed around the area of modern Yemen and then travelled up the Red Sea coastline to what was, at the time, a very habitable savannah along the northern edge of the Arabian desert, finally colonizing central Mesopotamia some time in the 4th millennium BCE.

Shortly after the Sumerians developed Cuneiform script, the Semitic-speakers adopted it as their own. This was hugely problematic, as Sumerian (a highly agglutinative language) was just catastrophically different from Akkadian (a largely inflected one). A very, very brief and oversimplified explanation might be useful: English (as with most languages) makes use of both agglutination and inflection, which is a huge bonus since I am fluent in English, so we'll use it in our example. A morpheme can be thought of as the atom of a language, its smallest meaningful unit. In essence, a word. Agglutination works by joining morphemes together to construct novel meanings (combining the morpheme "point" with the morpheme "less" to construct "pointless"). You can see how this lends itself to logographic writing systems. Inflection works by altering the form of the morpheme itself to indicate a novel meaning (changing "sleep" to "slept" to indicate a change in tense).

By 2500BCE Sumerian cuneiform had adapted phonetic elements into their previously logographic system, presumably because someone with some sense got sick of creating new logograms every time something got invented, and it was in this hybrid form (called logo-syllabic) that the Semites began applying the band-aids required to make it comprehensible to their language.

At about this time, three very prominent cities become important to us: Uruk, Kish and Nippur. Uruk was the predominant city of the Sumerian south while Kish, located in the heart of Akkad, had that regions most powerful military and a long history of rulers with Sumerian names. Nippur had no such pretentions to suzereinity, but it didn't need them: Nippur was the home city of Mesopotamia's chief deity, Enlil the Lord of the Winds. It had also been the city where, when the region had been threatened by external invasion in the far past, the various kings of Mesopotamia would meet to elect a war-chief. To rule over Uruk and Kish (and to be certified by the priests in Nippur) was a thing that had never been done, but to achieve such a feat was to become more than a mere petty-king. And this, uh maybe, was the feat accomplished by Gilgamesh, fifth king of Uruk, when he defeated Agga of Kish in c.2650BCE. Seven descendents of Gilgamesh ruled as King of Uruk and Kish, chosen by Enlil in Nippur until a king of Ur knocked their dynasty off the playing field and re-ignited the ages-old inter-city pissing matches. But the pandora's box had been opened and now a great king knew he might aspire to more prodigious gains.

Until the 23rd century BCE Sumerians dominated the important legal and liturgical roles over much of Mesopotamia. Real overlordship - even when a Semitic town was ascendent - had been more or less exclusively the provenance of Sumerian kings. This all changed when Sargon's celestial girlfriend Ishtar convinced him to murder the Sumerian king of Kish and start fucking up the neighborhood. This he did with world-historical élan, etablishing more-or-less outright control over all of Akkad and Sumer by smashing their armies one after the next and then tearing down the defeated city's walls as a form of symbolic pantsing. Upon conquering Lagash he made the grand gesture of washing his blade in the Persian gulf as if to say "From Kish to here, I own all your asses." Sargon had become the worlds first emperor.

Not content with ruling from Kish, Sargon established for himself a new capital called Akkad (or Agade) and built a presumably awesome (Agade's ruins have never been found) new palace and a temple to Ishtar and another to his patron war god Zababa. He then stuffed his armies full of fresh recruits and headed off east, where he brought the Elamites under his authority (and sowed the seeds of his empire's undoing) and then west where he conquered the Semitic kingdoms of Ebla and Mari and brought the Lebanon and parts of the Taurus under his control. By the end of Sargon's 55 year reign (c.2334 - c.2279) he had conquered, in the words of his historians, the entire world (or an area roughly the size of Poland, whichever). "Now," Sargon is said to have said, "If any king wishes to call himself my equal, let him conquer what I have conquered."

The important point here for us is that, while Sargon kept and respected the Sumerian institutions in his empire, he preferred Akkadian-speakers in those institutions' leading roles. This was the first of several fatal blows to both Sumerian cultural hegemony and to their language as a viable entity. Sumer had its periods of resurgence, to be sure, but their historical primacy was shattered by Sargon and, by 2000BCE the language would be dead in general-use, preserved first as a liturgical language and then as a curiosity until by the first century BCE it had died entirely. The mantle of Mesopotamian linguistic primacy was shifting, inexorably, towards Semitic.

As for penises, The Akkadians kept in use the logogram we last looked at. Unfortunately they kind of ruined the great, dicky look of the Sumerian form. So let's put a new symbol up on the big board:



In Akkadian, the word was išarum (probably pronounced something like EE-sha-room). Obviously they kept, after screwing up, the symbol. This was not always the case, as the transition from logogram to syllabary was not a clean one, but the symbol for penis weathered the storm. Under the Sumerians, it stood both for "penis" (as a logogram) and for the sound "GISH," (as a syllabaric phoneme). Under the Akkadians it retained its logographic place representing the dick, but the syllabaric sound became "USH," at least through Sargon's day. And Sargon's Akkadian Empire is, in fact, where we are signing off for this episode.

We will next look at the Babylonian, Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires, as well as take a closer look at the the cuneiform symbol for penis as it morphed, both stylistically and phonemically over time. All that and some shitty jokes await you in PRSR:Mesopotamia Part III: Cocks over Babylon

I would like to take this moment to extend another huge "fuck you" to Hittitologists everywhere for stalling the PRSR:IE by being prudes and singularly incapable of putting stuff on the Internet for the benefit of others. You all suck.

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