3. Fertile Ground: Philosophy in Ancient Mesopotamia

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Do the cuneiform writings of Babylonian culture show that it had its own philosophy?



Further Reading
• J. Black, G. Cunningham, E. Robson, and G. Zólyomi, The Literature of Ancient Sumer (Oxford: 2004).
• G. Buccellati, "Wisdom and Not: The Case of Mesopotamia," Journal of the American Oriental Society 101 (1981): 35-47.
• W. Burkert, “Prehistory of Presocratic Philosophy in an Orientalizing Context,” in P. Curd and D.W. Graham (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy (Oxford: 2009), 55-85.
• Y. Cohen, Wisdom from the Late Bronze Age (Ann Arbor: 2013).
• S. Dalley (trans.), Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: 1989).
• S.J. Denning-Bolle, "Wisdom and Dialogue in the Ancient Near East," Numen 34 (1987): 214-234.
• C.S. Ehrlich (ed.), From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature (Lanham: 2009).
• B. Foster, Before the Muses: an Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 2 vols (Bethesda: 1996).
• V.A. Hurowitz, "The Wisdom of Supe-ameli – A Deathbed Debate Between a Father and Son," in R.J. Clifford (ed.), Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel (Atlanta: 2007), 37-51.
• W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: 1960).
• O. Neugebauer, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity (New York: 1969).
• T. Oshima, Babylonian Poems of Pious Sufferers: Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi and the Babylonian Theodicy (Tübingen: 2014).
• K. Radner and E. Robson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (Oxford: 2011).
• F. Rochberg, The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (Cambridge: 2004).
• D. Snell (ed.), A Companion to the Near East (Oxford: 2005).
• M. Van De Mieroop, Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia (Princeton: 2016).


Emma on 2 May 2018


I'm a bit surprised you didn't even mention any of the Sumerian "debates" in this episode. Were they too religious in nature, or was there just not a place for them given everything else you had to touch on?

In reply to by Emma

Peter Adamson on 2 May 2018

Sumerian disputations

Good point - I will make a note that we might want to add something about these texts for the book version. Thanks!

In reply to by Emma

Chike Jeffers on 2 May 2018

Definitely not a matter of avoiding religion

One great point about why it might have made sense for us to mention these works is that they are dialogues of sorts and we emphasize dialogues as a place to look for philosophical thought in ancient Mesopotamian literature. Without speaking for Peter, I would say in explanation that my encounters with these texts prior to us writing the episode just happened to leave less of an impression on me as compared to the two dialogical texts we mentioned (Supe-Ameli, the Babylonian Theodicy). Before thinking of one of those, I might have been more likely to bring up the philosophical nature of the seemingly satirical Dialogue of Pessimism, which can be read as a critique of slavery, among other things. I think that sticks out to me as the text I'm most sad we didn't mention, but I grant that this may be a problem of needing to re-read the texts you're talking about.

I also wish that, given our mention of Saggil-kinam-ubbib and Sin-leqi-unninni, we had mentioned Enheduanna, arguably the first author we know by name in the history of writing: https://www.ancient.eu/Enheduanna/ (and Peter and I have already talked about mentioning her in the book version... given that she is known for her hymns to a goddess, this also shows how it's a not a matter of us wanting to avoid material that is "too religious").  

In reply to by Emma

Dr. Gary S. Greig on 12 May 2018

Thank you, Mesopotamian and Egyptian Wisdom & Philosophy

Dr. Adamson,

My son, Dr. designatus Jonathan Greig, one of your graduate students, gave me the link to your "Philosophy in Ancient Mesopotamia" podcast. Your podcast is very helpful overview of philosophical reflection in Sumerian and Babylonian wisdom literature (and the other genres mentioned in Van De Mieroop and the others cited in your Further Reading bibliography). I did a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago 25 years ago, though I am not active in teaching, research, or current scholarship now. The Further Reading bibliography  on Mesopotamian wisdom literature and philosophy looks like a great place for further exploration, and I look forward to your podcast on philosophy in ancient Egyptian wisdom literature and literary texts.

As you say in the podcast, there were very similar attempts at philosophical reflections on life in Mesopotamian and Egyptian wisdom literature and poetic verse structured literary epics (e.g. the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Epic of Sinuhe, and other epic narratives in poetic verse structure).

I love the idea of short podcasts (20-30 minutes) but is there some way that the podcast could be transcribed so that listeners and readers could more easily skim forwards and backwards in the written form of the podcast message? I admit I am a reader, more than a listener, when it comes to evaluating scholarly content. (Maybe a computer programmer like Jonathan could program an automatic delivery of a transcription of a verbal podcast like that? Or maybe that technology is already out there by google as part of google's quest to take over the world [smile]?)

Thank you again. Best regards.

In reply to by Dr. Gary S. Greig

Peter Adamson on 13 May 2018


Hi, great that you found the podcast! The question about transcriptions is answered under "frequently asked questions" - see the link at the bottom of the page. Short version: the podcasts come out as books, though you'll have to wait a while until Africana is ready in book form of course.

Pat Daley on 2 May 2018

The Epic of Creation

Hi Peter!

First, one minor item in the further reading section.  I have Myths from Mesopotamia, OUP,  translated by Stephanie Dalley, whereas you list her as E. Dalley.

I realize that getting philosophy out of myths is controversial, but there do seem to be opposed myths.  One of the best known Mesopotamian myths is the Enuma Elish, the epic of creation. It seems the much shorter first ceation story in Genesis was a counterstatement.  They seem to have quite different conceptions of the divine. The Enuma Elish represents what old Hermann Gunkel called Chaoskampf, the battle against chaos, which results in the creation of the world we know. There is no Chaoskampf in the first creation story in Genesis, though there is in some other texts in the Bible such as Pss. 74 and 89 and Isaiah 51:9-11, which are about creation of a people, as B. W. Anderson suggests.

Myths can be philosophically interpreted in various ways, but then, so can many undoubted philoosphers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza. So why neglect the Enuma Elish? I know you have to justify what to include in the podcasts, a problem I don't have.

In reply to by Pat Daley

Chike Jeffers on 2 May 2018

I find the Enuma Elish fascinating

But as you can see above, while writing my reply to Emma, I started to reflect on how much I would have liked us to discuss the Dialogue of Pessimism. That feeling has gotten stronger and stronger! So I must admit, at this point, the Enuma Elish - while I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand Mesopotamian thought generally - for this episode on philosophy, it's not my first choice for what we shouldn't have left out!

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Pat Daley on 4 May 2018

Different Interests

I have long had an interest in the history of the notion of divine creation, and so the Enuma Elish and other creation myths are quite relevant to me as is the ME wisdom literature. I have also read some of the East Indian and Chinese religious classics but I never felt I was at home in those cultures, so I have never attempted a thematic study of what they said relevant to creation, or for that matter, anti-creation. But then, I am not really at home in ancient the cultures of the ancient ME, but I suppose they are more familiar. So Peter's podcasts on Indian Philosophy have been quite interesting for me.

I first looked at some of the ancient Middle Eastern literature as a background to what sort of creation texts there are in the Bible. Actually, I found making some overall sense to the creation texts in the Bible to be quite an intractable problem until I read the Introductory essay to Bernhard W. Anderson's useful anthology of scholarly writings called, Creation in the Old Testament, which I thought put some order into the subject.  Briefly, he set five divisions and some traditions. Creation of a People.  Creation and Order, Creation and Creaturely Dependence, Creation as Origination, and Creation and New Creation.  He noted the contributions of the Mosaic Covenant tradition, the Royal Covenant tradition, the Wisdom traditions, and the Prophetic traditions.  There is a lot of cross-fertilization. I don't consider Anderson's essay particulary well-written and organized but I found it learned and helpful. The NT adds mainly a Christological interpretation of creation.

I then moved on the the ideas of the relationship of the divine to to cosmos in the Presocratic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicureans, and recently I have been trying to make sense of Plotinus.  I have no idea how at my age I could plow through the Church Fathers and all the Medieval Philosophers. I know somewhat more about Descartes and modern and recent philosophy. I used to work as a public servant, and got married shortly after retiring, which has kept me busy, so I have been at this rather fitfully for decades.

It has long seemed to me that creation is a rather arcane subject, by itself, as many seem concerned about "creation and . . ." something else, such as science, ecology, or whatever, so I quite understand you may not want to spend time on the main creation myths of the ancient ME.

You do you, as Ana Kasparian says, and I will try to learn as much as I can assimilate.

Alexander Johnson on 5 September 2018

It sounds like there was a

It sounds like there was a lot of Mesopotamian works that were skipped that would be quite interesting to have covered.  It is too bad you couldn't have done two episodes on Mesopotamian philosophy.  I wonder if you can recommend some primary and secondary material that covers all of the parts you didn't touch on.  Specifically the Sumerian Debates, Supe-Ameli, the Babylonian Theodicy, Enheduanna, Dialogue of Pessimism, and Enuma Elish (and anything else mentioned).  I feel like Sumerian records are almost always just touched on and then dismissed in favour of "sexier" civilisations such as Egypt, which feels like an enormous gap (not just in history of philosophy but pretty much all history teachings), so i'm always in favour of giving the near east more of the time it probably deserves.

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 5 September 2018


Yes, for sure. What I should have done is started here and not with the Presocratics when the whole series launched, and done several episodes each on Mesopotamia and Egypt. In this context, it already seemed to be pushing it a bit to do one episode on Babylonian material in an Africana series. (And I guess I am glad in a way not to have done Egypt way back when, since doing it now gave us a good platform for the Africana series - a lot of other episodes in the series will refer back to the material we covered from Egypt.) Still if it gave people the desire to go find out more that is not a bad result!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alexander W. Johnson on 6 September 2018


Ohh, i know i meandered with my question, did you know of any primary or secondary sources on the stuff we talked about in the comments that didnt' come up in the episode?

In reply to by Alexander W. Johnson

Peter Adamson on 6 September 2018


Oh sorry, I overlooked that part! If you have a look at the further reading above some of them are anthologies that should have at least some of the texts you are looking for; a lot of these are books I have now returned to the library but I have some stuff electronically I can check through if you're looking for something specific.

Ro Smith on 8 March 2020

Recording cuts out

The recording cuts out just as you were about to define what it is for a work to be a work of epitemolgy. As an epistemologist I was excited to hear the definition and what you thought with regard to these Ancient Sumarian texts!

I'm going to try downloading the podcast, but it's happened twice with playing directly from the page and you might want to look into that as a technical issue.

In reply to by Ro Smith

Peter Adamson on 8 March 2020

cutting out

Hi, thanks for listening! I just tried it and it seems to play to the end ok, so maybe you just need to re-load it? Let me know if you still have trouble.

Michael Carasik on 9 July 2023

Bible & ANE

Looking forward to listening to this episode – but I'm still hoping you'll go back for a full series on the Bible (which, yes, is crammed with philosophy) and the ancient Near East.

In reply to by Michael Carasik

Peter Adamson on 10 July 2023


Yes, I have been asked about this before so maybe you saw my comments on it - I actually considered this back at the time (like, when doing the history of Judaism and late antiquity) and unusually made an explicit decision not to cover it, in part on the grounds that if I did that I would need to cover analogous texts: both Hebrew Bible OT and NT but also the Quran, the Zoroastrian texts, more than we did on the Vedas, etc. I think approaching these texts philosophically is valuable but I worry about not doing them justice and also causing offense; plus my thought was that they would come up indirectly in discussions of their reception which has certainly happened. So while I do think that I missed some things and would like to come back to them in a special future episode (this is my tentative plan for episode 500), I don't think I've gotten braver in the meantime and would be ready to tackle the Bible. However if I do that "gap filling" exercise I will ask the audience for suggestions so this is all open for debate. Thanks!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 10 July 2023

Maybe you could have a…

Maybe you could have a regular thing where instead of a normal episode you go back and do a gap filling episode? That could be an interesting idea no?

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 10 July 2023

Gap filling

Hm, yes. I worry that it interrupts continuity though (even the two week wait between episodes might make it hard to follow the story for those who are up to date on the series). I would actually have a lot more to fill in with respect to antiquity than more recent series, since I have gotten more comprehensive in my approach as I went along.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 11 July 2023

Two ideas

If this idea is to go forward, I think it will just be a balancing game. Like, if a gap filling episode was made yearly, I don't think there would be any problems about continuity considering how rare a gap filling episode would be. But then, we would be going nowhere fast if it was done yearly. The reverse of those issues would be true if we did every third week (that would be the equivalent to having three podcast streams right next to each other - western, non western, and gap filling) and that would massively affect the continuity problems you mentioned. Finding the golden mean virtue between two vices, Aristotle would be proud.

The other idea I have is, I shall dub it the "in-between seasons" solution, or something along those lines. Essentially, whenever the podcast on either track reaches a good breaking point - like say when Britain in the Renaissance series is over, or you finish Africana before you start China (these are just two examples, I imagine it would be too short notice to implement this now even if you were immediately persuaded by the idea) - you pause the relevant track and do a chunk of gap filling episodes. This gets around the continuity problem, although you would have to be careful how big these chunks are, since people don't really like waiting between two seasons of a series they like.

For whatever reason I prefer the second idea, even if exact reasons are eluding me currently. Maybe because the second one feels more orderly? I don't know. What do you think of either of these ideas?

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 11 July 2023

More gap filling

Well, actually my idea was always just never to go backwards and live with the fact that I will have missed stuff; I think I mention this in the FAQ here on the website. I kind of like the idea of covering just a few things for episode 500 (I had in mind a several episode mini-series here, by the way, like 500a, 500b, 500c) but it might depend on how many good suggestions I get for overlooked topics to cover.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 11 July 2023

There certainly are many…

There certainly are many good topics that you could cover! There might already be enough good suggestions that come to mind and/or have been mentioned across the podcast. 

Homer, Hesiod
The Tirukkuṟaḷ
Islam in India, china, Indonesia etc (depending on how much you would consider those gaps in the Islamic World series or potential material for India part 2, China part 2 (I am assuming the upcoming China series won't get that far), a series on Indonesia etc)
The Hebrew bible
New Testament and Deuterocanonical texts (and maybe some of the books that never made it into the bible)
Quran (and pre-Islamic Arabia? I don't know how much material there could be there. Might be as dry as Arabia itself)
Other old religions like Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism etc
Some of Plato's texts you missed (The Laws come to mind)
Omar Khayyam
I am unsure of his importance, but someone called Roscellinus is, according to Wikipedia anyway, the founder of Nominalism.

Even putting aside the few questionable ones, like Islam in other countries (because of being potential future material rather than treating it as a gap), and the last one because I am unsure of his importance, that right there is already enough for a miniseries in my opinion anyway, depending on how they are cashed out (The bible alone, both Hebrew and New testament, could give more bulk if needed, e.g. Ecclesiastics probably could be an entire episode itself). I feel that all of them are worth going back to.

Also, I knew about that rule, but for some reason I was under the impression that you were considering of dropping it in your reply to Michael. Should not have skim read haha.

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 11 July 2023

Gap filler

Actually Roscelin was covered, though not in his own episode. But the rest was not, or not much, like Homer and Hesiod who I just touched on in the first few episodes. I would put these in different categories: those I would like to go back and do (Thucydides), those I probably wouldn't do (the Bible, like I said, and more Plato - the goal was never to cover all the dialogues, though you are probably right that if I were doing it nowadays I would do the Laws), and those that are a whole big topic that would need to be its own series, like 20th century Islam around the world. In general I think we're looking for worthwhile topics that could be dealt with in a single episode rather than a miniseries. So thanks, this is a good start!

Sophus Helle on 15 February 2024

A few further thoughts

Great episode as always! It covers an area that is profoundly underexplored, even among specialists, and you did a great job navigating tricky waters. I just wanted to add a few comments that you might want to think about in preparing the book version.

First, there are a couple of times where you push back against VD Mieroop but do not do full justice to his argument (or at least, to the strongest possible version of his argument). For example, the link between Babylonian hermeneutics and Derrida might seem specious, but it is substantiated by the fact that Derrida was directly inspired by his encountered with Babylonian writing. The title of Derrida's best-known book, Of Grammatology, is taken from the work of the Assyriologist Ignace Gelb, and it begins with a quotation from an Akkadian hymn to the sun god Shamash. Cuneiform is a particularly neat example of many of Derrida's claims – that writing is inherently polyvalent, that it suffuses and structures our perception of the world, and that meaning is not contained in a single sign but created through difference and deferral within a system of signs. So it is not all that unreasonable to claim that there is something Derridian about cuneiform epistemology – because cuneiform epistemology directly inspired Derrida. 

Likewise, the claim that Hammurabi's Laws evince an interest in epistemology is stronger than you make it seem. The first laws of previous law codes was, "If a man kills another man, he shall be killed," but Hammurabi's first law is, "If a man accuses another man of murder, but cannot prove the charges, he shall be killed," shifting the focus from righteous punishment to questions of proof and due process. Note also that Hammurabi's Laws were never meant to be used as a law code in the modern sense, and are in fact closer in their original function to Ashoka's inscriptions: a treatise on just statecraft in the form of a royal declaration. 

Also, it's worth noting that VD Mieroop is reacting against an older (and, in the case of Wolfram von Soden, explicitly anti-Semitic) tradition of viewing the Babylonians as incapable of abstract thought because they organized their knowledge through lists of signs and words. What VD Mieroop does (or tries to do) is to show that lists of signs and words (and associations between signs and words) can be an extremely powerful way of both organizing and generating knowledge. The Babylonian scribes, especially in the first millennium, thought about the world through the lens of language and thus were, in a strong sense of the word, Presocratic. But this focus reflects, not a failure of abstraction, but the form that abstract and "philosophical" thought most often took in cuneiform cultures. (I'm not saying that you depict it as a failure of abstraction, I'm just explaining the academic background that VD Mieroop is reacting against). 

As others have pointed out in the comments, there is a whole roster of texts from Mesopotamia that might – or might not, depending on one's definition! – be seen as "philosophical". Besides the literary texts that others have mentioned, there is the huge and underexplored corpus of omen texts, with all of the philosophical questions that they pose. A particularly striking example are the Human Behavioral Omens, which find omens in human actions (including tics, mistakes, and mannerisms, ways of speaking and patterns of behavior, sex, sleep, divorce, etc.). But if omens are signs sent by the gods, this would imply that we humans are not in full control of our own actions, since our actions can be used as a medium for omens. 

Not only that, but scholars are currently revisiting the classics of cuneiform culture and finding in them a whole raft of reflections on the nature of the world that had not been previously appreciated. To take just one example, the volume on Enuma Elish  I am currently editing (with Johannes Haubold, Selena Wisnom, and Enrique Jiménez) includes a number of chapters that uncover the epic's reflections on, among other things, political thought, the efficacy of rhetoric, and the same key topic I noted above, the intimate relation between language and the world.

The field of Assyriology is still in its infancy, and currently undergoing a much-needed shift from the (necessary and forever ongoing) task of editing and publishing texts so as to make them readable to the task of interpreting them and thinking with them. As a result, our sense of the "philosophical" content of cuneiform texts is changing dramatically, and will likely continue to do so for the next decades.

Should anyone want to know more about cuneiform literature and thought, you can always reach me at email [at] sophushelle [dot] com.

In reply to by Sophus Helle

Sophus Helle on 15 February 2024

Dialogue of Pessimism

Oh, and on the Dialogue of Pessimism specifically! I would of course refer you to my own article on the Dialogue (🙃) and the article by Christopher Metcalf to which mine responds: 



But more importantly, I would like to point you to Giorgio Buccellati's study of the dialogue ("Il Dialogo del Pessimismo"). It's in Italian, but it draws a crucial connection between the "polarity" of the dialogue (that is, the way it argues for extremes in either direction) and the polarity and freedom of associations that are prevalent in much of cuneiform first-millennium thought, in which the methods of cuneiform hermeneutics do sometimes seem to allow for opposite conclusions to be drawn from the same case (or from the same omen, as is most often the case). So Buccellati reads the Dialogue specifically a critique of the scholarly discourse of the day. Who knows whether he's right! But it's a philosophically intriguing argument. 

In reply to by Sophus Helle

Peter Adamson on 15 February 2024

Babylonian philosophy

Thanks for this very helpful response! Unfortunately the book is already with the publisher so I guess we can't make significant revisions anymore but that is all really interesting nonetheless. One of my/our worries about van der Mieroop was that he seemed to be somewhat perversely looking to the less rewarding cuneiform material for philosophical payoff - I can see how that make sense within a Deriddean framework but what you say about the Enuma Elish does sound more promising. (By the way I know  Enrique Jiménez, he is here at the LMU!)

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Sophus Helle on 15 February 2024

Last thoughts

Yes, I see what you mean about VD Mieroop. Again, though, it makes a little more sense in his academic context (I'm not defending him, just explaining where he's coming from). There was an influential book published in 1946 entitled The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, in which Thorkild Jacobsen also argued that the Babylonians were incapable of abstract thought (it's been a common refrain), and that instead, they expressed themselves through what he called "mythopoetic thought"—essentially, philosophy clothed in mythology in literature. So VD Mieroop is opposing that older tradition of hunting for philosophical points in epics and other literary works, by turning instead to the more "technical" texts whose important to the history of thought had been neglected, like the lexical and omen lists. 

But you could say that the pendulum then swings too far the other way: one can find interesting philosophical points in the literary works without agreeing with Jacobsen on the "mythopoetic thinking." The texts that VD Mieroop looks at are good for establishing the primacy of writing to Babylonian thought, which is an important point, but there is much more to be said about cuneiform thought.

And how great that you know Enrique! As you might know, his project, the Electronic Babylonian Literature, has completely revolutionized the field, and is really helping the shift I mentioned in the first comment, by making the editorial and philological questions much easier to resolve. 

Oh, and finally, the tiniest, teeniest of all quibbles (and no worries if this claim ends up in the book, because it's literally everywhere), but I don't actually think that Mesopotamia means "the land between two rivers." Rune Rattenborg has (I think persuasively) argued that it actually means "the land within the river," that is, within the bend of the Euphrates. Mesopotamia only came to mean what it does now during WWI. You can find his article here, but again, it's really just a pet peeve of mine :) 


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