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gir3-gen-na and Šulgi’s “Library”:
Liver Omen Texts in the Third
Millennium BC (I)

Seth F. C. Richardson < >
University of Chicago

Sumerian, omina, library, literary series


§1. Introduction

§1.1. Any understanding of extispicy as a literature transmitted from the 3rd into the 2nd millennium depends on the premise of forerunners[1] to the three forms of technical literature arising in the Old Babylonian period: liver-omen models, compendia, and reports. Aside from the size, extent, and comprehensiveness of the OB compendia, several other features have lent plausibility to the existence of a 3rd millennium written tradition for liver-divination texts. These include: later references to extispicy’s antiquity; the appearance of 3rd millennium kings in OB historical omens; the appearance of diviners in 3rd millennium professional lists; 3rd millennium references to sheep omens and liver divination in literary contexts (without reference to textual material); and a few purported examples of 3rd millennium extispical texts (which can be shown to be spurious).[2] Yet nothing has been so influential in this premise than the only piece of 3rd millennium evidence that seems to specifically mention extispical technical literature, two oft-quoted lines from Šulgi’s Hymn B, ll. 132-3, usually translated:[3]

I am a ritually pure interpreter of omens.
I am the very Nintu (creator deity) of the collections of omens

maš2 šu gid2-gid2 zalag-zalag-ga-me-en
gir3-gen-na inim UZU-ga-ka dnin-tu-bi ge26-me-en


§1.2. The translation “collections” (or “library,” or “series”)[4] is derived from the Standard Babylonian word girginakku (CAD G 86-7). The reasons for understanding gir3-gen-na(-ka) as girginakku seem fairly straightforward: aside from the obvious homophony,[5] gir3-gen-na logically suggests the serialization of a library series or collection in the periphrastic sense of a “proceeding-by-foot”: as one puts one foot after another, so one reads (or writes) one tablet after another. The meaning seems to fit well in this passage (§2), if more problematically where it appears in other Šulgi Hymns (§3). The etymology seems further reinforced by an Ur III literary catalog (§4) which employs the term gir3-gen-na, apparently referring to “series” of incantations. Thus, though most other 3rd millennium attestations of gir3-gen-na indicate a semantic field of conveyance or movement, it would appear that Šulgi was indeed referring to a serialized Ur III omen literature much like the Old Babylonian compendia.[6]


§1.3. Yet the supposed “Sumerian loanword” girginakku is in all other known logographic writings (all post-dating the Old Babylonian period) expressed by the altogether different term im-la2 (or im-gu2-la2, or im-gu2-la2-geš-tuku).[7] No known source expresses the lexical equation {gir3-gen-na = girginakku}. The other post-OB reading for gir3-gen-na in Akkadian is tallaktu (AHw 1310-1311): “methods,” “procedures,” “pathways.”[8] Akkadian tallaktu is syllabically attested as early as the Old Babylonian period, while syllabic girginakku is not known until later Standard Babylonian (CAD G 86-87).[9] One might question why Šulgi did not use a more current term like ka-keš2-da if “series” was indeed what was meant?[10] In reading Šulgi B ll. 132-3, should we necessarily look ahead to SB girginakku (always otherwise written im-(gu2-)la2), and understand a “series” of omen tablets, when we might read OB tallaktu, a “procedure” of divination? The essay below argues that neither the context of these lines in Šulgi B — nor other uses of gir3-gen-na in his hymns — nor, finally, the use of the term in an Ur III “literary catalogue” — should lead us to believe that “series” should be the translation of Ur III gir3-gen-na, but rather “procedure,” with implications for the editorial history of extispical literature.


§2. The local context of gir3-gen-na in Šulgi B ll. 132-3

§2.1. The lines in which Šulgi boasts of his skill as a diviner are set in the middle of a long passage about his innate physical and mental abilities, and far from the point at which he begins to discuss his learned abilities. After a brief introduction (ll. 1-12) to the 385-line poem, Šulgi does indeed brag immediately of his ability to write (ll. 13- 20), a skill which he tells us includes “subtraction, addition, reckoning and accounting,” but he does not return to this theme until l. 270 and following. The major subjects of Šulgi B may be profiled thusly:

21-51:military prowess
56-113:hunting ability
118-130: physical strength (e.g., racing and dancing)
131-149:skill at extispicy
154-174: musical ability (tuning, finger technique, natural ability[11])
175-205: kingly nature (innate[12] sense of justice and destiny)
206-220: skill at conversing in foreign languages
221-243: innate[13] sense of justice
244-258: observance of cultic duties
259-269: the pacific internationalist
270-307: learned skill in reading ancient hymns and writing new ones
308-319: establishment of scribal academies, composition of hymns
320-385: valiant deeds preserved in inscriptions[14]


§2.2. The subject of extispicy comes right after Šulgi talks about fighting, hunting, running and dancing—right before music, justice and kingship—and 121 lines before he discusses his knowledge of texts and writing, about how he can read hymns written in cuneiform, and how he instituted a “house of wisdom” (e2-geštu2), “academies” (e2-dub-ba), and “places of learning” (ki-umun2) for education in writing. Extispicy is squarely set within the largest part of the hymn which concerns itself with Šulgi’s innate and natural abilities (ll. 21-269), rather than those learned skills that relate to written knowledge and the propagation of his immortal legacy (ll. 270-385).


§2.3. A closer look at ll. 131-149 in full is in order:

I am a ritually pure interpreter of omens. I am the very Nintu (creator deity) of the GIR3-GIN2-NA of omens. These words of the gods are of pre-eminent value for the exact performance of hand-washing and purification rites, for eulogy of the en priestess or for her enthronement in the gipar, for the choosing of the lumah and nindingir priests by sacred extispicy, for attacking the south or for defeating the uplands, for the opening of the emblem house, for the washing of lances in the “water of battle” (blood), for the taking of subtle decisions about the rebel lands. After I have determined a sound omen through extispicy from a white lamb and a sheep, water and flour are libated at the place of invocation. Then, as I prepare the sheep with words of prayer, my diviner watches in amazement like an idiot. The prepared sheep is placed at my disposal, and I never confuse a favourable sign with an unfavourable one. I myself have a clear intuition, and I judge by my own eyes. In the insides of just one sheep I, the king, can find the indications for everything and everywhere.


§2.4. No elaborate exegesis is required to show that Šulgi is a liver-divination expert not because he learned how to do it, but because he is a “natural.” It is in fact the “expert” here who is the “idiot” (na-ga2), while Šulgi relies on his “clear intuition” (ša3 zalag) and the judgment of his “own eyes” (igi-gu10); the king is not some mere trained apprentice who has been taught a technical skill, he is (quite the opposite) the very “creator deity” (dnin-tu)[15] of such omens. Compare next this passage with Hymn C, the most similar in Šulgi’s hymnic literature, in which he discusses his extispical powers in ll. 97-111:

By heart (ETCSL: “Since from birth”)[16] I am also a Nintu (creator deity), wise in all matters, I can recognise the omens of that extispicy in a pure place. I keep a look-out that ... I am a lord ..., as I range about in my anger. I also have a solidly based knowledge of .... My vision enables me to be the dream-interpreter of the Land; my heart enables me to be the Ištaran (god of justice) of the foreign lands. I am Šulgi, good shepherd of Sumer. Like my brother and friend Gilgameš, I can recognise the virtuous and I can recognise the wicked. The virtuous gets justice in my presence, and the wicked and evil person will be carried off by ... . Who like me is able to interpret what is spoken in the heart or is articulated on the tongue?


§2.5. Šulgi’s extispical skill is innate, not learned: his recognition of extispical signs comes to him “by heart” (ša3-ta). His knowledges and interpretive abilities are derived from his “vision” (igi-gu10) and his “heart” (ša3-gu10), he “recognizes” (mu-zu) “what is spoken in the heart” and “articulated on the tongue.”[17] In this context, a reading of gir3-gen-na in Šulgi B ll. 132-133 as “procedure(s)” is much preferable to “library”:

I am a ritually pure interpreter of omens.
I am the very Nintu (creator deity) of omen-procedure(s).


§3. (ki-)gir3-gen(-na) elsewhere in Šulgi Hymns

§3.1. Six other uses of gir3-gen occur in the Šulgi Hymns. Four of these are formulated as the compound ki gir3-gen, and these all refer to walking or going,[18] not to seriation, collection, compilation, or the like:

B 110ki gir3-gen-gu10 nig2 mu-un-gar-gar,Wherever I direct my steps ...[19]
B 287a2 nam-ur-sag-ga2 ki gir3-gen-na-gu10about my heroic courage and expeditions[20]
B 301lugal-bi ki gir3-gen-na he2-en-duWherever that king’s path may lead[21]
E 28šu TUK4-a ki gir3-gen-gu10and about my expeditions


§3.2. Elsewhere, gir3-gen occurs twice by itself without ki, in ll. 308-336 of Šulgi B, in a passage which is explicitly concerned with written sources. The meanings of gir3-gen here are not contingent on the context of writing: Šulgi may here refer to “method of writing” (though even this is disputable), but that does not mean that all methods (most importantly, the gir3-gen of ll. 131-2) are written ones. The first use of gir3-gen here may be found in ll. 316-8 of Šulgi B[22]:

316.geštu2 dab5-ba-gu10 i3-ne-eš3 ne-e ur5-ra-am3This and this only is now my accumulated knowledge![23]
317.nig2 ka-ge dib-ba ki-šar2-raAll other formulations,
318.gir3-gen-na inim en3-du-ga2-kam a-na mu-ši-gal2-lathe collected words / of all the hymns (that are in my honor) / supersede


§3.3. This translation implicitly furthers the idea of a “collection” by translating “all” (from ki-šar2-ra) twice, both in “all other formulations” and “of all the hymns.”[24] Lines 317-318 are, without doubt, quite difficult to understand, especially with regard to syntax, but several points are in order. The first is that gir3-gen modifies speech (du11 / inim, or perhaps en3-du), not writing. The terms are tangled precisely because the passage discusses the writing down of unwritten forms (spoken and sung compositions), but either A) what are collected are spoken words (inim), not tablets, signs or writing; or B) the meaning is “its procedures” or “the manner of words” (i.e., by reading gir3-gen-na-ka). A translation of “procedure” or “manner” fits well here, neither consequent nor contingent on the passage’s overall concern with writing.

317.Everything which I have composed,
318.what can exceed the manner (gir3-gen-na) of wording of my hymns (inim en3-du-ga2-kam[25])?


§3.4. In this understanding, gir3-gen-na is a reference to the “procedure” or “method” of composition, to style—not to an editorial technique of collection or redaction of manuscripts—a translation which nevertheless does no damage to the idea that (indeed) Šulgi’s hymns are being written down.


§3.5. Our second case (ll. 328-329[26] of Šulgi B) makes this point even more clearly:

328.lugal-me-en a2-ga2 dlama-bi(-im) kalag-ga-ga2 šir3-bi-im nar-e mu-ši-gar

Castellino (1972) 61-64:

328.I, the king, (lugal-me-en), my arm is the protecting genius (a2-ga2 dlamma-bi-im) (and) this is the song of my valour (kalag-ga-ga2 šir3-bi-im)
329.Which I placed (mu-ši-in-gal2) in my “library” (ki-gir3-gen-na-mu) for (the use of) the singer (nar-e).


328.For me, the king (lugal-me-en)
329.the singer (nar-e) has recorded (mu-ši-in-gar) my exploits (ki-gir3-gen-na-gu10) songs (šir3-bi-im) about the strength of the protective deity of my power (a2-ga2 dlamma-bi kalag-ga-na).


§3.6. In this instance, only Castellino proposed to translate “library”—yet he was already aware that it was less probable to understand Šulgi as the subject of the clause in l. 329 and the singer as modified by a terminative particle. He chose instead to see Šulgi as the “true subject” (as the speaker), and thus the song is “placed in my library” (ki-gir3-gen-na has never otherwise been proposed as “library,” but only gir3-gen-na).[27] ETCSL’s translation properly restores ki-gir3-gen-na as the object of the verb: the musician has recorded Šulgi’s exploits (or expeditions, or ways, as in the four examples at the outset of this section) in songs. Once again, even though the passage is explicitly about writing and composition, (ki-)gir3-gen-na is not a term referring to a “series” of tablets or “collection” of songs, but to the “exploits” or “ways” of the king.


§4. gir3-gen-na in the Ur III “literary catalog” HS 1360

§4.1. Outside of Šulgi’s Hymns, the only other known use of gir3-gen-na[28] supporting the later Akkadian girginakku is its use (four times) in the Ur III “literary catalog” HS 1360. This text has received much attention,[29] but has thus far defied a secure translation, and continued reference to the text as a “catalog” of other texts must remain provisional. The structure of the text may be presented in the followed “collapsed” form:

2-7[six incipits, the first of which is den-ki unu2-gal im-e11, followed by double-ruling]
8gir3-gen-na den-ki unu2-gal im-e11-kam
9ša3 LAGAB×U-dili-kam[30]
11-15[five incipits, the second of which is dli-li-a-ke4, followed by double-ruling]
16gir3-gen-na dli-li-a-kam
17ša3 LAGAB×U-dili-kam
18GIR3-SAHAR lu2 inim zi dag PUZUR5?-ba
19gir3-gen-na-bi lu2 nu-da-pa3
 [empty space]


§4.2. Kramer’s original interpretation of HS 1360 was that it catalogued four separate compositions by listing the incipits of at least 15 other serialized tablets, each group of incipits (to tablets) summarized as “gir3-gen-na [name of composition].”[32] Already a quarter-century ago, Civil questioned the idea that the text was an inventory of other tablets on the grounds that the discovery of a duplicate made that function unlikely; Civil speculated about a possible “didactic arrangement” of the tablet’s information.[33] That “catalogue” is a problematic understanding of the text is further suggested by the absence of the term gir3-gen-na (as well as the great structural differences) in all other known Ur III[34] and Old Babylonian[35] literary catalogs — HS 1360 simply has no known analogues. Wilcke, in almost the same moment as Civil, issued a brief (1976) note about the text (“Ritual? Katalog?”), gravitating towards the interpretation that gir3-gen-na here meant “ritual.” Though still holding that the text as a whole was an inventory, the term gir3-gen-na did not itself indicate “library” or “series (of tablets)”, but was, rather, a liturgical directive indicating the ritual’s procedure of the individual incantations (i.e., “the performance of the ritual den-ki unu2-gal im-e11, etc.).[36] Only a few years later, Krecher similarly offered that the text’s use of gir3-gen-na-bi could be read “its sequence” [of doing] as much as “its series.”[37] These three positions have recently been adopted in two important amendments proposed by van Dijk and Geller (2003):

1.first, that the term dub-sag-ta—which Kramer apparently took to mean “first tablet” of the first two “compositions”—ought to be understood as “incipit” (specifically, however, an incipit only at (lit.) “the head of the tablet”);
2.accordingly, the gir3-gen-na’s that conclude the first two sequences refer to ritual procedures as a whole—both recitanda and operanda—rather than (by title) to a ritual text on another tablet.


§4.3. Kramer’s multi-tablet “library-series” (i.e., a collected works entitled “Enki-is-the-unugal-rising”), on these terms, becomes instead a “(ritual/rubric of) procedure.”[38] The subscripts indicating the proper performative sequence of listed incantations (i.e., for the enactment of a ritual called “Speaking-to-the-rebel-city”) thus likely referred as much to unwritten ritual acts as their accompanying utterances.[39]


§4.4. The following interpretive points follow logically: first, dub-sag-ta as “incipit [at the head of the tablet]” indicates that the incantations following on HS 1360 are all contained on one tablet, not that each following incipit marks the head of a new tablet. Consequently, gir3-gen-na (a rubric meaning “procedure”[40]) summarizes the ritual, performed by incanting these incantations in sequence. “Procedure” also makes better sense of the gir3-gen-na in ll. 19-20, the first of which refers to an incantation which has not been found, [41] and the second of which refers to HS 1360 itself, which (single tablet that it is), cannot be a “series”—but certainly a “procedure”. Thus, where Kramer saw the text as an inventory of four compositions on 15+ tablets, the observations made by Civil, Wilcke, Krecher, and van Dijk and Geller lead us to see HS 1360 as a liturgical text outlining a ritual procedure composed of three sub-rituals, whose materials would be found on only three other tablets:

ll. 1-9, a tablet, found in the LAGAB×U, which contains six incantations, the performance of which is a procedure called “Enki-is-the-unugal-rising”;
ll. 10-17, a tablet, found in the LAGAB×U, which contains five incantations, the performance of which is a procedure called “The God Lilia(k)”;
ll. 18-19 is a procedure whose name is known, but whose tablet has not been found (and thus the individual incantations are not able to be listed);
and ll. 20-1 is a subscript summarizing the three procedures above as (together) a ritual procedure called a “Speaking-to-the-rebel-city.”[42]


§5. Ur III gir3-gen-na ≠ girginakku, = tallaktu

§5.1. The difference between understanding HS 1360 as a list of procedures, rather than a list of tablets, is perhaps fine enough to account for a later Middle Babylonian scribal misunderstanding that gir3-gen-na meant the same thing as im-gu2-la2.[43] The implications for the editorial process and observationalism of liver omens are somewhat larger:

I am a ritually pure interpreter of omens.
I am the very Nintu (creator deity) of the omen procedures.

§5.2. The difference between a “run” or “series” of procedures (tallaktu) and a “run” or “series” of tablets (girginakku) marks the difference between a traditional craft knowledge and a manuscript tradition, and this has further implications for how we understand the development of the later OB serials and their pretensions towards observationalism (though these pretensions may, in the end, be our own). A 3rd millennium “library” would lead us to understand the OB liver-omen compendia as the first-known recensions of an as-yet undiscovered (but older and transmitted) scientific literature. 3rd millennium “procedures,” however, is a translation of gir3-gen-na which leads us to see a traditional art (whether intuitive and inspired, orally-transmitted, or both) only later transformed into a written and technical science, sometime between the reign of Šulgi and the post-Išbi-Erra OB liver models found at Mari.


§5.3. Šulgi’s claim to proprietary knowledge of the divinatory arts was, nevertheless, an early rhetorical assertion of a privileged, royal epistemology, one that later sparked the scholastic, technical literature deployed as an instrument of power by OB kings and courts. Epiphenomenal literature emphasizing “secret” knowledge (in this latter case, belonging to diviners in royal service) was—and is—a hallmark of changes in discourses of power which can no longer rely solely on traditional forms of legitimation to secure rule.



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Version: 6 August 2006