Ten Things to Know About the Sumerian King List

Ten Things to Know About the Sumerian King List

As you may already know, the Sumerian King List is a fascinating ancient document that list kings of Sumer, the cities from which they ruled, and the lengths of their reigns. The list begins with prehistoric rulers from before the Great Flood and covers the subsequent kings all the way down to the dynasty of Isin (c. 18th century BCE).

In the past, it was assumed that the text could be used to reconstruct the reigns of the kings of Sumer, because many of the names (particularly in the latter part of the list) have been verified as historical by checking them against economic and administrative documents from times contemporary with the kings. The problem is that the list contains many inaccuracies as well, so it cannot be trusted completely. The King List is more valuable when viewed as a literary composition. Conceptually and stylistically, it exerted a widespread influence on later Mesopotamian compositions and chronographic sources. Here are ten things about the Sumerian King List, which you may not know:

1. We currently have many versions of the List. Several different recensions are represented by a number of cuneiform sources (most of these are fragmentary), which have come from many different quarters of ancient Mesopotamia and its periphery, including Isin, Kish, Nippur, Larsa, and Susa. No two of these documents are identical. However, there is enough common material in all versions of the list to make it clear that they are derived from a single, “ideal” account of Sumerian history, which probably originated in the time of the Akkadian empire (c. 2334-2154). The oldest source we have is a small clay tablet unearthed at the ruins of Larsa. It dates to the time of Shulgi (ca. 2093-2046 BCE), the second king of the Third Dynasty of Ur. The most famous version is the “Weld-Blundell Prism,” which is housed today at the Ashmolean Museum in England. It’s a vertical prism from the period of the Isin dynasty (c. 2017-1794 BCE). Most of the other sources come from the same period. There are some later versions as well.

Fragment of the Sumerian King List from the Ur III period

2. Originally, the List did not contain the antediluvian kings. It expanded over the course of transmission, new chronographic information, stylistic formulas, and anecdotes being added over the years. In our earliest version of the list, the text begins with the First Dynasty of Kish. It opens: “When kingship came down from heaven, Kish was sovereign.” Later copyists apparently felt uncomfortable with the prominence accorded to the city of Kish in earlier versions and decided to provide a new beginning in which kingship began in the city of Eridu before the Great Flood. Unlike the rest of the List in which the kings’ reign are measured in years, the antediluvians’ reigns are measured in numerical units known as sars (units of 3600), ners (units of 600), and sosses (units of 60).

3. The Sumerian conception of a royal “dynasty” is not based on blood ties, but on divine favor. What is immediately apparent upon reading the list is that it is organized according to dynasties. But please do not get the impression that it is speaking of dynasties in the sense of the word we are familiar with. Kings of a single dynasty were not necessarily related, and kingship did not pass automatically from father to son. A king’s legitimacy was established by his perceived favor by the gods. This could have been exhibited in many different ways, such as through success in battle, economic prosperity, charisma, or other special abilities.

4. The List had a political, rather than historical, purpose. The composition presents a fictional view of the past in which the whole land of Sumer was ruled legitimately by only one man. Although probably starting out as piece of propaganda to legitimize domination of  Mesopotamia by the kings of Akkad, later dynasties co-opted the List as a means to prop themselves up. This is why use of the List as a primary source for the reconstruction of history has been heavily critiqued by scholars.

5. The text incorrectly presents dynasties sequentially. Since it promulgates a political doctrine that hegemony in Mesopotamia could only be exercised by one city at a given time, the List does not present the reality that rival city-states held sway at the same time. It turns out that many of the List’s dynasties overlapped in time.

6. The List conspicuously leaves out the rulers of Lagash. We know from other sources that the city-state of Lagash was an important power in Sumer during the time that the Sumerian King List covers. And yet, no dynasties of Lagash are mentioned. Great kings like Ur-Baba and Gudea are simply passed over. The reason for the omission is unknown, but it is likely that there was a political reason for it.

Weld-Blundell Prism

7. Much of the information presented in the early part of the List is fictional. According to the List, each of the antediluvian kings ruled for tens of thousands of years. In the other early dynasties, the kings are said to rule for hundreds of years (apiece). Beginning with the Dynasty of Mari (c. 25th century BCE), the reign lengths enter the realm of the realistic. As you might surmise, scholars are very skeptical that such long reigns in the early part of the list represent reality. And some of the early kings could very well be mythical. Dumuzi, for example, was a Sumerian god, and he is listed as a king who ruled for 36,000 years.

8. Just because the reign lengths are exaggerated, this does not automatically mean the kings didn’t exist. The earliest king mentioned in the List that we can verify is Mebaragesi, king of Kish (c. 2500 BCE). The Sumerian King List says that he reigned 900 years. The List names other kings before him (with even longer reigns), but he is the first whose name we find in contemporary inscriptions. Though his reign length is likely a fiction, he wasn’t.

9. The legendary king Gilgamesh is on the list and is said to have ruled the city of Uruk. The Sumerian King List gives him a reign of 126 years. He may have been real, but we have no contemporary verification. So the jury is still out on whether there truly was a Gilgamesh.

10. One ruler on the list is female. Her name is Kug-Bau, and she is the sole ruler of the Third Dynasty of Kish. All that is said about her is that she is “the tavern-keeper.” It was common in those days for women to run taverns. The circumstances of her rise to power are unknown.

4 thoughts on “Ten Things to Know About the Sumerian King List

  1. Hi,

    Interesting. Good that you are helping others be better informed about such things.

    Political history in Mesopotamia resembles political history in ancient China. Much turned on making the case that a particular ruler enjoyed divine favor. It also seems fair to say that Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War is not quite the same as what most (western) scholars think of as history today, though it is closer.

    You make a curious statement in related to your point number eight: “Though his reign is likely a fiction…” Why not “It is unclear why Mebaragesi was assigned a reign length of 900 years”? Are you aware of any non-textual evidence that a human flourishing around 5000 years ago could have lived for anywhere close to 900 years? A numerological rationale for the reign length seems worth considering.

    All good wishes.

    Yours sincerely,

    Don Haynie

    1. Hi Don. The numbers in the Sumerian King List are fascinating, and there have been attempts to rationalize them by trying to make the numbers more realistic. I have not yet seen a solution that makes sense of all the numbers in the list. They usually focus just on the unrealistic numbers, but I think whatever mathematical formula is chosen needs to work on the entire list, not just part of it. If you know of any convincing theories, let me know. But I am inclined to think that the list is part history, part myth, and trying to make the mythical part historical is not the best idea. (Check out my article on “Taking Myth as History.”)

  2. Since longevity to Sumerians was a function of virtue, declamations of long lives of kings served as praise of their wisdom and goodness. The Hebrew books continued this tradition (“Methuselah lived 800 years”). Seemingly long life was a sign of divine favor, and divine favor was accorded to virtue. Nowadays, I’ve heard it said, often, how “the good die young”. Such was not so to Sumerian royalty. “Goodness” was rewarded by long life, and so it might have been propitious to kings to exaggerate the longevity of their own ancestors as a P.R. measure to put them in good stead with their subjects. Hence, exaggerating ancestors’ life spans became kind of a contest of competing kings, arguably. Interestingly, Gilgamesh spends a lot of time seeking immortality–escape from death with permanence–to prove his divinity and the excessive worth of his rule if you look at the matter in this context. Eventually, man’s mortality takes over the narrative.

    This theory of longevity and virtue in Sumer is something I read somewhere. The early
    death of the good and noble Enkidu puts the kibosh to the notion, though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *