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ḪI-(še3) la2

Niek Veldhuis < >
University of California, Berkeley

Ur III terminology, leather-working, incantation

§1. An incantation against headache
§ 1.1. In one of the Ur III incantations recently published by Van Dijk and Geller 2003, the expression ḪI la2 appears for the first time in a non-administrative context.

§ 1.2. TMH 6 1 1-7 (//HAV 220 Ni 2187)



lu2-ra sag-gig-ge šu mu-ga2-ga2

Headache is laying hands on the man,

sag-gig-ge gu2-sa gig-ge-de3 šu mu-ga2-ga2

headache is laying hands in order to make the neck muscles ill.

ig tur-am3 ḪI-la2 nu-la2

As a small door to which no covering is bound,

sag-gig-ga-a nig2-la2 nu-la2

no bandage is bound to headache.

guruš-am3 sag-gig-ge i3-dab5

Headache seized the man,

ki-sikil tur-am3 gu2-sa gi-a šu mu-gud-gud

it made the little girl tremble like? a reed in her neck muscles.

§1.3. In line 4, Geller emended ḪI-la2 to gal5-la2 (“there is no small opening which can ensnare the galla demon”), but the text gives better sense as is. I will argue in the present note that the expression means: “to cover an opening” (usually with leather).

§ 2. Previous discussions
§ 2.1. The expression was discussed by Sigrist 1981, 184-185; and by Civil 1994, 74 and 185 (see also van de Mieroop 1987, 140). Sigrist’s discussion primarily concerns texts about the construction of doors. The records that use the expression ḪI la2 list large amounts of hides in various colors, leading Sigrist to the conclusion that the hides were used to decorate the door, or that the door itself consisted of hides hanging from the upper lintel.

§ 2.2. His interpretation was challenged by Civil in his discussion of the same expression in texts recording hides for the construction of plows. Civil argued that ḪI la2 probably refers to a leather strap, which was part of the construction of a plow and a door.

§ 2.3. Civil’s solution is plausible for the plow texts, but does not hold for the door records because of the numbers of hides involved. Even though these doors are important and probably large, the delivery of over twenty ox hides in different colors seems extravagant for the production of straps for a single door.

§ 2.4. Both previous interpretations remain unconvincing when the evidence from both text groups is taken into account. In the following, I will explore the various contexts in which the expression is used in an attempt to identify a meaning that is common to all. Before analyzing the semantics, the construction of the phrase will be briefly discussed.


§3. The Construction of the Expression
§ 3.1. In its fullest form, the expression is: kuš (absolutive) Noun-locative ḪI-še3 la2: “to tie a hide to the ḪI in the N.” While ḪI la2 is most frequently found in non-finite forms (ḪI la2; ḪI la2-a; or ḪI la2-de3), there are two attestations where the verb is fully inflected, demonstrating the structure of the expression (OrSP 47-49, 268):

2(diš) kuš anše 2 donkey hides
gišapin u3 gišGAN2-ur3-ra bound to the ḪI
ḪI-še3 ba-la2 on plow and harrow.


§3.2. The passage demonstrates that ḪI is a noun and is governed by the terminative postposition. A similar passage in UET 3, 826, lists parts and supplies to be used for the covering of a door (obv. ii 1: ḪI-še3 ba-a-la2). The locative case ending in the full construction is confirmed by TCL 5, 5672 rev. ii 11-12: 1(u) 3(diš) kuš gud gišig dšara2-ka ḪI la2-a, and by the phrase kuš anše gišapin-na ḪI la2-de3 (“in order to tie the donkey hide to the ḪI in the plow”; several Umma texts; see below). The locative case ending of sag-gig-ga-a in the incantation quoted above (line 6) apparently reflects a similar construction.

§ 3.3. In the early Isin text BIN 9, 477, the expression is ḪI-la2-bi-še3 ba-an-[la2], which probably indicates that by that time the term ḪI-la2 was understood as a single noun.

§ 4. Doors
§ 4.1. Ancient Mesopotamian doors were usually made of wooden frames with panels of reed covered in bitumen (see Moorey 1994: 357). This type of door is referred to by the expression gišig suh4. Other types of materials used for panels are palm fronds (ze2-na) and small boards (mi-ri2-za). The latter type, which results in a door that is entirely made of wood, was relatively expensive (see Prang 1976: 24-25).

§ 4.2. The ḪI la2 texts refer to doors with leather panels, produced by tying the hides to the boards of the wooden frame. This results in a door that is lighter than a door with wooden panels, but presumably more prestigious or more appealing than an ordinary reed paneled door. The Umma texts show that the technique was used particularly for large and important doors. In several cases we learn that hides of various colors were used, apparently to enhance the attractiveness of the result. The number of hides and the number of workdays necessary to complete a door like this could be considerable. The text SACT 2, 96 records a total of 132 man-days to do the ḪI la2 job on “the big door that was brought to the palace.” TCL 5, 5672 rev. ii 5-9 lists a total of 24 1/2 ox hides for the panels of the door of šulgi. According to SAT 2, 251, the door of the god šara needed the following outlays (1-4):

1(u) 3(diš) kuš gud ḫab2 13 red-dyed ox hides
8(diš) kuš gud kukku5 8 black ox hides
6(diš) guruš ašgab ud 5(diš) 6 leather workers for 5 days
ig dšara2-ka ḪI la2-a tying them to the ḪI on the door of šara


§4.3. Two Umma texts record hides and man-days for the production of doors without using the expression ḪI la2 (UTI 3, 1744, and UTI 4, 2605). It may be assumed that the same type of door was meant.

§ 4.4.
Two texts record the delivery of a number of bronze ḪI-la2 (in these contexts clearly a noun; s. RA 14, 180):

2(u) ḪI-la2 zabar za-ri-in twenty panels of zarin bronze
ki-la2-bi 1(u) 7(diš) 1/3(diš) ma-na 8 gin2 their weight is 17 1/3 mana and 8 shekels
1(u) 5(diš) gin2 an-na ba-a-gar 15 shekels of tin has been applied
mu gišig dib tab-tab-ba ka2 ki-[gal-še3] for the quadruple door of the gate of the kigal.


§4.5. The amount of tin recorded is too small (1.4%) for being the full tin component of the bronze. It may have been used for upgrading the zarin quality or for decorations on the bronze panel (for uses of tin in artifacts and as a component of bronze see the discussion by Reiter 1997, Chapters 5 and 6).

§ 4.6. Each of these panels weighed 52.4 gin2, which is almost exactly the weight of the two bronze panels for the door of the courtroom (ki di kud) recorded in SANTAG 6, 322 (52.5 gin2 each; for the text group to which these two records belong, see Neumann 1993: 122-123 and SANTAG 6, p. 244, note to text 314).

§ 4.7. ḪI-la2zabar differs from ar-ma-tum, another metal item occasionally recorded for the production of doors, in that the latter is always listed by weight rather than counted (Steinkeller 2002: 367). ḪI-la2, therefore, is a bronze door panel, perhaps of more or less standardized size and weight, whereas ar-ma-tum is “sheet metal,” a semi-manufactured product which may be used for metal covering or for other purposes (see CAD s.v. armatu A).


§5. Plows
§ 5.1. Several texts recording the delivery of one or two donkey hides use the expression gišapin-a (or gišapin-na) ḪI-(še3) la2. These texts differ in several respects from a much larger group of records (predominantly from Umma) which record the delivery of relatively large numbers of hides (usually more than 10) to be used for covering various parts of the harness (ad-tab and ša2/šu-dul9; the semantics of these words are in need of further clarification), and whips (kušusan3 gu2-ba), and for the production of straps (kušsag-keš2) and watering buckets (kušnag; all these items in Syracuse 154; see Sigrist 1981: 185 and Civil 1994: 101 n. 24; several additional texts have appeared since). One of the more explicit texts of this latter group is MVN 15, 83 = JCS 24, 167 83 obv. 1-10 (Umma, šS 4):

1 (u) 8(diš) ša2-dul9(URxA) kuš [si-ga]

18 leather-covered šudul’s,

ki-la2-bi 2(diš) 1/2(diš) ma-na-[ta]

2 1/2 mana (of goat hair) each,

kuš gud-bi 3(diš)

their ox hides: 3,

kuš udu-bi 1(u)

their sheep hides: 10.

1(u) 8(diš) ad-tab kuš [si-ga]

18 leather-covered adtab’s,

ki-la2-bi 1/2 ma-˹na˺-[ta]

1/2 mana (of goat hair) each,

kuš udu-bi 6(diš)

their sheep hides: 6.

5(diš) kušusan3 <<U>> gu2-ba

5 whips,

ki-la2-bi 1/2 ma-na-ta

1/2 mana (of goat hair) each,

kuš udu-bi 1(u) 2(diš)

their sheep hides: 12

§5.2. The weights in ma-na refer to amounts of goat hair, explicitly so in JCS 28, 214 23, and confirmed by many texts that record the delivery of goat hair “for the plowing oxen.” Several texts that record comparable entries demonstrate that ša2-dul9 and ad-tab are usually delivered in multiples of six, apparently corresponding to the number of draft animals in a full team (AUCT 3, 243; Syracuse 22; Syracuse 154; JCS 28, 214 23; MCS 6, 18 BM 112980; SAT 3, 1209).

§ 5.3.
In contrast, the expression gišapin-a (or gišapin-na) ḪI-(še3) la2 refers to work on the plow itself, never referring to the animals. Moreover, the number of hides is always small (1 or 2) and they are always donkey hides, suggesting that a particular quality of leather was needed. The expression may refer to the leather object that is called kušim-du5-mu in Farmer’s Instructions 43 and whose function was, according to Civil’s interpretation “to close any gap between the seeder and the plow’s frame so that no grain would spill out” (see Civil 1994 80). This corresponds nicely to the use of the ḪI la2 idiom for doors where the hides are attached to close the openings in the frame.

§ 5.4.
The interpretation proposed here runs into one unsolved problem. In OrSP 47-49, 268, the expression ḪI-še3 – la2 is used for a plow and a harrow (GAN2-ur3). A harrow basically consists of a wooden frame with numerous “teeth” to break up clods of earth. Why one would use a hide for a harrow remains unclear.

§ 6.
Other uses of ḪI-(še3) la2
§ 6.1.
The expression ḪI la2 is used for several other (wooden) objects: the bench (gišhu-um) of a boat (2 texts), the wheel(?) of a chariot; and a bariga vessel. A bench may well consist of a strong frame with a leather seat attached to this frame, very similar to the construction of doors discussed above. The boats in questions are no ordinary boats as they require a considerable investment of time and material (UTI 4, 2538):

1(diš) gišḫu-um

1 bench

kuš gud babbar2-bi 2(diš)

its white ox hides are 2;

5(diš) guruš ud 1(diš)-še3

5 men for one day

gišḫu-um ma2

attaching them to the frame

lu2-ur3-ra GIN2?-ka ḪI la2-a

of the bench of the boat of ...

§6.2. MVN 13, 378, records the expenses in beer mash (dida) for the workers who do the ḪI la2 work for the bench of the ma2-gur8 boat of the ensi2. TCL 5, 5672 rev. ii 17 records 5 calf hides for a new barig vessel:
        5 kuš amar ba-ri2-ga gibil ḪI la2-a

§ 6.3. While references to leather lids or leather wrappings around clay vessels are relatively common (Sallaberger 1996: 18-22), this entry remains unique; without further parallels I do not hazard an interpretation.

§ 6.4. Finally, UTI 4, 2528 1-3 reads:
        1(diš) ku gud mu 1 ˹u2-ḫab2˺
        gišumbin! gišgigir-da DI dšara2-ka
        ḪI la2-de3
This text is published in transliteration only and has too many problems of reading and interpretation to be taken into account in our present argument.

§ 7. Conclusion
§ 7.1. Despite a few unsolved problems, the general meaning of ḪI-(še3) la2 seems to be to close an opening by means of a tying a hide. This meaning of ḪI-(še3) la2 is clearly distinct from the usage of the verb si.(g) which means “to cover” (with leather or metals), where the object covered is solid (see Stol 1983: 541). The meaning and reading of ḪI remains unclear.

§ 7.2. In the incantation from which this argument started, the bandage that is supposed to keep headache out is compared to the leather panel of a small door. The absence of the bandage leaves an opening for headache to enter. The imagery used here is comparable to that of the arkabinnu or “unfinished door” in two Akkadian incantations from the Old Babylonian period: “I will cross over you like a doorsill; I will pass back and forth through you like an arkabinnu door” (see Whiting 1985). Most famously, the goddess Ištar is compared to such a dysfunctional door in Gilgameš’ insulting answer to her proposal: “you are an arkabinnu door which does not keep out wind or draft” (VI 34).

§ 8. Attestations
§ 8.1. The preceding discussion is based upon the following texts. With the exception of UET 3, 826 (Ur), all Ur III texts come from Umma.

OrSP 47-49, 268 plow and harrow Ur III/Umma leather
AnOr 1, 86 door Ur III/Umma leather
BIN 5, 106 door Ur III/Umma leather
BIN 5, 215 door Ur III/Umma leather, beer, and man days
Georgica 1.1.3 plow Ur III/Umma leather
MVN 13, 378 bench (huhum) of the magur boat of the ensi2 Ur III/Umma beer for workers
RA 14, 180 door Ur III/Umma bronze
SACT 2, 96 palace door Ur III/Umma man days
SANTAG 6, 322 door Ur III/Umma bronze
TCL 5, 5672
SAT 2, 251 doors (šulgi, dšara); barig vessel Ur III/Umma leather
UET 3, 826 door Ur III/Ur leather
UTI 4, 2528 chariot Ur III/Umma leather
UTI 4, 2538 bench (ḫu-um) of a boat Ur III/Umma leather
UTI 4, 2657 plow Ur III/Umma leather
UTI 5, 3002 plow Ur III/Umma leather
UTI 5, 3449 (restored) plow Ur III/Umma leather
BIN 9, 174 door Isin leather
BIN 9, 477 door Isin leather


§8.2. Note that TCL 5, 5672 (šulgi 40), is a balanced account for lu2-sag10 concerning hides. The thirteen ox hides for the door of dšara in rev. ii 10-11 are apparently identical with the thirteen ox hides for the same purpose in SAT 2, 251 (same year), but since the latter text includes, in addition, eight black ox hides, not accounted for in TCL 5, 5672, the relationship between the two texts remains unclear to me.


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  1994 The Farmer’s Instructions. A Sumerian Agricultural Manual (=AuOr supp 5). Barcelona: Editorial AUSA.
Moorey, P. R. S.
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Prang, E.
  1976 “Das Archiv des Imgûa.” ZA 66, 1-44.
Reiter, K.
  1997 Die Metalle im Alten Orient (=AOAT 249). Münster: Ugarit Verlag.
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van Dijk, J.J.A., and M. J. Geller
  2003 Ur III Incantations from the Frau Hilprecht-Collection, Jena (=TMH 6). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.
Whiting, R. M.
  1985 “An Old Babylonian Incantation from Tell Asmar.” ZA 75, 179-187.

Version: 20 December 2004