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A Self-Praise Poem of Shulgi, King of Ur
I find Shulgi of Ur (c. 2094-2046 BCE, according to the Middle Chronology), second king of the Third Dynasty, to be an incredibly poignant figure. He called himself King of Ur, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World, and included this little stamp “𒀭” before writing his name as an indicator of his divinity after declaring himself a god in his twenty-third year of kingship. He wrote a number of “self-praise poems” that, among other remarkable assertions, claimed that he was the fastest runner in the world.
I often produce “indirect translations” (by which I mean paraphrases of existing translations, since I cannot read any language other than English) of Sappho or Catullus or other ancient writers. I am limited here by being monolingual, but nonetheless am deeply interested in reconfiguring classical affects, particularly passive-aggression, self-aggrandizement, defensiveness, and hostility via paraphrase. It’s a lot of fun, and I hope to do it indefinitely.
Here is some of his work, indirectly translated; all original translations are linked below via the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature.
Praise poem of Shulgi (Shulgi B)
I am a king. For proof of this you need look no further than my father, a king, and my mother, a queen, which worked well for me right away, straight out of the womb.
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Even better than this, when I was small, I went to school. There I learned how to read, and how! Nobody was doing the things to clay I was doing. The noble children, the other students of the academy, they were losing their minds to see me, and I was regularly inventing new shapes, saying, “Let this symbol represent grain,” and it would be so, and so forth. Fully qualified in adding, subtracting, reckoning, and accounting. If you can do it to numbers, I know it; if I don’t know it, it’s not worth doing. Experience. Consistency. Results. On the ball-osity. That’s how I am known as a scribe. We haven’t even gotten to the king part yet.
If you are worried I only focused on schoolwork and neglected my pursuit of physical fitness, baby you have got another thing coming! I was galloping like a wild horse! I was springing up like a young lion! People heard about me everywhere, even south of here, which is a very difficult place to get to! I have an unlimited stick-to-itiveness, to say nothing of getting-after-it-itis, and I have up to three weapons with me at any given time, so I am never at a loss!
Let me talk about it! Let me tell you what I’ve done! I am more than qualified for this position!
When I walk forth from the palace, it’s like no one has ever walked before! Majestic does not begin to describe the encompassing motion of my arms and legs over terrain, baby! I pass over esparto grass like a thresher! I seek out lions and I tear out their vocal cords in full view of their own mothers. Dragons too. But when I see my good friends the shepherds of this country, they comfortably relax and nod their heads in respectful greeting, because they know what I am about, and how no one could ever count the number of lions I have personally eaten.
I’m a simple man. When a robust wild boar rushes out across the plain, I simply pierce its armored lungs with one of my arrows. One arrow; I do not bother to aim. The boars do not get back up again.
Whenever I run someplace, I always get there, and I never leave the desert without bringing back a gift for my mother.
Oh and by the way — when I interpret omens? It’s always, categorically, during a state of ritual purity. There is nothing anyone living or dead can teach me about hand-washing. I have the knees of a three-year-old stallion, I hand-pick the most absolutely top-notch priestesses, and I can tell apart the entrails of a lamb and a sheep at a hundred paces with one eye closed. Because I have good intentions and the gods can smell it on me.
There is no piece of music too complicated for me to listen to or play. When I fix a broken lute, I never damage the neck. Not even the first time I fixed a broken lute. I know how to tune lyres, I’m a born drummer, even if you hand me an instrument I’ve never seen before, say from Egypt, I will figure it out right away, no practice. I don’t even think I’m ever going to die, and I am as steadfast and honest as the stars, and I can kill anybody I want to.
By the way, I happen to know (and speak) all five languages, and if the gods ever see fit to create a sixth, I have no doubt but I will master that one too.
Self-praise of Shulgi (Shulgi D)
O King, wonderful terrific, the big cow with the nicest arms and legs, who is mostly dragon but also has plenty of lion in him too! Born a bull, on the biggest farm anyone can think of, right away in the 99th percentile for height, weight, and head circumference, holding neck erect and steady and already loves looking at new faces, smiling at parents, focusing on objects as well as adults, rolls from tummy to side, can easily lift head at 90-degree angles, and so on. Imagine a very powerful leopard who only drinks the richest and thickest eggnog for its milk! Imagine a powerful bull who was born to become a very powerful bull! Picture a human beard made of lapis lazuli, if you dare, and look at him! King, the crown rejoices that you place it on your stupendous head, and while we’re at it your name sounds so good to say it’s all anyone wants to talk about!
Does the king get lonely at the top? Does the sun mind illuminating the earth and sky? You were the richest baby alive when you were born, and you still are.
I cannot even name all the names of the lesser kings you have destroyed. Who were they? Nobody; they’re destroyed. You destroyed everyone who needed destroying, and that’s all. Mighty, that’s you. Brave, that’s you. When you plunder foreign countries you’re like…you’re like a plundering lion, like a mighty lion, like a raging lion, like a….I can’t even think of what you’re like, you’re like “fragments missing” from the house of ideas, you run around like a lion, like a lion who’s also a dragon…
And you can run so, so fast. You can run as fast as two people running. You run like a wild bull that is also virile, and that was born with the destiny of a wild and virile bull, so that it grew up to become a wild, virile bull, that runs so fast. Everyone loves to watch you run away, although we hate to see you go.
Do you want me to list the trees I think you’re better than? Mighty king, I hope you did not have plans for the rest of the day! You are strong as an ildag tree, which is very strong for any out-of-towners who may be listening to this poem. Beauty-wise, you are like a mec tree, which needs no further explanation. People love you like they love date palms, and you cast a very pleasant shade around noon. You’re like all the best trees I can possibly think of.