Sumerian Kings and the Birth of Divine Privilege

The quest for immortality is a theme for much of Sumerian literature, best illustrated in the epic of Gilgamesh, but present in many forms in other texts. Immortality has always been a human obsession, of course. What interests me about Sumerian culture is what it reveals about the human mind at the onset of civilization, and in this particular blog, when and how began the notion of a “king” (or “queen”) as an entity with divine powers with a birthright to rule.

When and why did humans begin to entertain the notion that some humans are more special than others and entitled to have life and death power over the lives of others? While most of us take the idea of royalty for granted, the shift that historically took place from showing respect and obedience to those whose leadership was earned, and ascribing a “divine right to rule” to kings as a birthright, with all the accompanying petty privileges that come along with that birthright, is not quite so obvious, at least not to me.

I do not yet have an answer, but some clues can be found in Sumerian culture. The ideas discussed in this blog are extracted from a scholarly article by Gebhard J. Selz titled “THE TABLET WITH HEAVENLY WRITING’ OR HOW TO BECOME A STAR.”

Selz makes a persuasive case that the interests that third millennium Sumerians took in astronomy also reflected the Sumerian people’s beliefs that the cosmos (the stars, the constellations, etc.) was a “tablet” upon which the gods wrote not just their decrees but also the destiny of especially worthy people. Unlike tablets of clay, the sky tablet was indestructible. Therefore, to have one’s deeds written in the cosmos would ensure an immortal presence in the recorded history of the heavens.

The different stars and their arrangements in a constellation were presumed to be the gods’ equivalent of the Sumerian people’s cuneiform writing. That some tablets were made of lapis lazuli with specks of pyrite may suggest an attempt to symbolize or emulate the blue of the heavens and the sparkle of stars of that permanent written record that is the cosmos.

Aware of their mortality and fearing being forgotten, kings aspired to become stars, and/or to have their deeds recorded in the cosmos. This explains why the sign to indicate divinity (dingir) was a star appearing before the name, and why some mortal kings took on that designation after their death. As Selz puts it, “‘becoming a star’ means therefore that these kings became part of the divine cosmic world order.”

Similar to the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, funerary rituals for at least some Sumerian kings involved a journey from earth to heaven, with ceremonies that involved sailed “heavenly” boats, or ritualistically releasing a caged bird. Presumably, upon death, with the blessings of the gods, third-millennium kings had the opportunity to become astral bodies while simultaneously living out eternity as ghosts in the underworld.

Entering one’s name into the permanent record of the gods in the form of a star would naturally lead to a strong and uncontested cultural association with privilege and with divine power. It’s easy to see how only kings or extremely influential people would have the means to make such involved post-mortuary arrangements, moreover. The leap that kingship took from respected and honored leader to divinely-appointed ruler with nearly limitless power over others becomes a bit clearer in this light.

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

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