Courier

From the Poetry of Sumer by Samuel Noah Kramer

This poem is from a well preserved tablet whose contents Kramer prepared for publication in a memorial volume now in press that is dedicated to the late JJ Finkelstein, one of his former students. Here is a translation and sketch of its contents. The tablet catalogued as BM24975, is inscribed with an elegy, or funeral chant, lamenting the death of a courier in the performance of some mission for a maid, not further identified in the text, who was clearly his beloved. The composition is in the form of a playlet featuring two speakers, the maid and an unnamed friend. It begins with an address by the friend consisting of 19 lines in which he exhorts the maid to prepare herself for the imminent arrival of her beloved courier and then proceeds to apprise her in oblique, allusive, simile laden language of his violent death in a distant land, and the return of his corpse over mountains and rivers to her and the place from which he started on his disastrous mission. The response of the maid constitutes the remainder of the composition. If it is understood correctly, it consists of two sections, in the first she itemizes all the great things she will provide for her courier, presumably as cult offerings for his ghost: cakes, fruits of the field etc. The second section begins with the maids melancholy portrayal of the dead courier upon his arrival: he is unable to walk, see or speak. She then continues with a description of the ritual she performs immediately oupon the arrival of the corpse, and concludes with the bitter realization that her smitten courier lies dead and that his spirit, now it has been ritually liberated from his body, has departed from her house. Here is the chant as composed by the ancient elegist:

"Your courier is approaching - prepare yourself, Oh Maid, your courier is approaching - prepare yourself, Your dear courier is approaching - prepare yourself.

Oh, the courier! Oh, the courier! Your courier, he of the far away place, Your courier of distant fields, of alien roads, Your swallow that will not come forth unto distant days, Your dragonfly of the rising waters, adrift on the river, Your mist drifting over the mountain ranges, Your river covering mountain grass floating on the river, Your ibex traversing the mountains, Your courier carried off by the head winds, Your courier overwhelmed by the head winds, by the storm, Your courier, he of evil omen, Your courier, he of weeping eyes, Your courier, he of grievous heart, Your courier, he whose bones have been devoured by the high flood, Your floating courier, he whose head is supported on the high flood, Your courier, he who has been struck in the broad chest.

After my courier has come home, I will do great things for him: I will offer him cakes and herbs of the grove, I will provide him with the fruits of the field, I will provide him with roasted barley and dates, I will provide him with bitter sweet beer, I will provide him with grapes on the vine, I will provide him with apples of the wide earth, I will provide him with the choicest fruit of the fig tree, I will provide him with dates on the cluster, I will provide him with honey and wine from the orchard.

After my courier has come home, I will provide great things for him: I will provide him with hot water and cold water, I will provide him with rein and whip, I will provide him with a clean garment and fine oil, I will provide him with a chair and a footstool, I will provide him with a verdant bed, I will provide him with cream and milk from stall and fold

My courier - he has come but walks not, he has come but walks not, He has eyes but he cannot see me, He has a mouth but he cannot converse with me.

My courier has come - approach! He has indeed come - approach! I have cast down bread, wiped him clean with it, From a drinking cup that has not been contaminated, From a bowl that has not been defiled, I poured water, and the earth where the water was poured, drank it up. With my fine oil I anointed the wall for him, With my new garment I clothed his chair, The spirit has entered, the spirit has departed, My courier was struck down on the mountain, in the heart of the mountain - he is dead."