The Sources of Commentarial Explanations

By Eckart Frahm | Cite this page
Frahm, E., “The Sources of Commentarial Explanations,” Cuneiform Commentaries Project (2015), at (accessed April 24, 2017)

The cuneiform exegetical tradition is essentially anonymous. In contrast to the copyists and owners of specific commentary tablets, whose names are often disclosed in colophons, the scholars who authored commentaries are never identified by name. Subscripts on commentary tablets provide, however, some indirect information on them – they ascribe the commentaries to the efforts of unnamed master-scholars called ummânus, thereby situating cuneiform hermeneutics within the milieu of the Babylonian and Assyrian intellectual elites. The specific expression used in the subscripts, ša pî ummâni, literally, “according to the mouth of an ummânu-scholar,” seems to points to an (originally) oral background of significant portions of the Mesopotamian commentary tradition.

It appears that many explanations found in Babylonian and Assyrian text commentaries are indeed ad-hoc clarifications not attested in any other texts. Explanations of this type were apparently known to the ancient scholars as šūt pî, literally, “those of the mouth.” The expression šūt pî is primarily attested in the aforementioned subscripts, but occasionally the term also occurs within the commentary itself, always after explanations that have no parallels elsewhere.

Not all the explanations found in Mesopotamian commentaries, however, go back to the oral reasoning of some ummânu-scholar. Many are derived instead from other texts, works that formed the Mesopotamian “stream of tradition.” In other words: Babylonian and Assyrian commentaries are not only meta-texts, that is, texts that say something new about other texts, but also inter-texts, texts that juxtapose passages from two or more different “pre-texts.” To a significant extent, the authority that the commentaries apparently possessed was owed to the canonical or semi-canonical status of the texts quoted in their explanations.

Establishing the written sources used by Mesopotamian commentators is often difficult, since the number of explicit references to them is small. The following paragraphs provide a very brief overview, organized by text type. It should be noted that longer and more complex quotations are rare in commentaries from before the Late Babylonian period.


Lexical Lists

Due to the atomistic, lemma-centered approach preferred by the Mesopotamian exegetes, commentary entries often simply pair a word (or a short expression) from the base text with another word that explains it. In countless cases, the equations thus provided derive from the large corpus of ancient Sumero-Akkadian or Akkadian-Akkadian dictionaries, the so-called lexical lists. The lexical lists of the first millennium BCE are gigantic repositories of synonyms and homonyms that offered scholars tens of thousands of lexical equations ranging from the obvious to the obscure and representing an enormously rich resource for all possible forms of textual interpretation.

Explicit references to lexical sources are very rare in commentaries and limited to the series Erimḫuš. One such reference occurs in the following entry from the commentary CCP 3.6.3.A (published by Finkel, 2006I. L. Finkel, On an Izbu VII commentary, in If a Man Builds a Joyful House: Assyriological Studies in Honor of Erle Verdun Leichty, A. K. Guinan, Ellis, MdeJ. , Ferrara, A. J. , Freedman, S. M. , Rutz, M. T. , Sassmannshausen, L. , Tinney, S. , and Waters, M. W. Brill, 2006, pp. 139-148., which deals with Šumma izbu, a divinatory series about malformed births); it provides synonyms for the word namurratu “splendor”:


(22) na-mur-ra-as-su gaba.ri nu tuku-ši : na-mur-ra-as-su : (23) imni : ní-gal : su-lim me-lám-ma : pu-luḫ-tú nam-ri-ir-ri (23) šá-lum-ma-tú : me-lam-mu ina erim-ḫuš qa-bi
(22) “His splendor (namurratu) will have no rival” (= Šumma Izbu VII unknown), “his splendor”: (23) “(Sumerian) im, (when read) /ni/, (as well as Sumerian) ní-gal, su-lim (and) mé-lam-ma (24) (correspond to) fearsomeness, radiance (namrīru, a word very similar in meaning and sound to namurratu), glow, (and) aura,” (this) is said in Erimḫuš.
(CCP 3.6.3.A ll. 22-24)


More common are passages in which commentators refer, rather vaguely, to ṣâtu- and lišānu-lists as sources of their explanations. The former term, ṣâtu (which can also denote commentaries), seems to refer, in the passages in question, to the large corpus of lists that pair Sumerian with Akkadian terms, whereas the latter, lišānu, was used with regard to monolingual lists that provide Akkadian words with Akkadian equivalents. The following example, from a commentary on the eighth chapter of the extispicy series (K.2086+ = CCP 3.4.8.B.a), refers both to ṣâtus and lišānus:


(ii 20’) [šumma kakki imitti s]à-ḫi-ir suḫuš-su la-mì sa-ḫa-ru la-mu-u ina e[me] (ii 21’) m[u-ni qabi šumma] ina ṣa-a-ti mu-ni ana igi-ka gi sa-ḫa-ru gi [lamû]
(ii 20’) “[If a Weapon (a mark on the liver) on the right] curves and its base is encircled” (quotation from the commented text): “to curve” (means) “to encircle” – [the respective] entry [is provided (lit., “said”)] in a lišānu-list. (ii 21’) [If] you have the respective entry of a ṣâtu-list before you, (you will find): gi (means) “to curve,” gi (means) [“to encircle].”
(CCP 3.4.8.B.a ii 20’-21’)


In most cases, though, commentarial equations taken from the lexical tradition occur without any reference to their sources, which leaves the task of identifying these to the modern scholar.


Other Commentaries and Explanatory Texts

The Principal Commentary on Šumma Izbu and the lexical commentary ḪAR-gud were exegetical treatises that could be studied as lexical lists in their own right. Both of them are occasionally quoted in other commentaries. An entry from the Principal Commentary, equating ba-an-za with pessû “cripple” and kurû “dwarf,” is reproduced in the Sa-gig 1 commentaries AO 17661 (CCP 4.1.1.A.b) and SpTU 1 27 (CCP 4.1.1.B), while the medical commentary BM 59596 (CCP 4.2.S) seems to quote ḪAR-gud A, 1: 36 when it equates muštaptinnu (a potter’s tool) with multaškinu.

Quite a few commentarial explanations are attested in more than one commentary, yet in no lexical lists or other texts. This could indicate that the authors of Mesopotamian commentaries drew rather heavily on information provided by other commentaries. It is, however, equally possible that such entries were based on some more widespread oral lore to which many cuneiform scholars had access.


Omen Texts

Mesopotamian scholars, who wrote more commentaries on omen texts than on any other genre, occasionally also quoted omen entries in their explanations. The commentary SpTU 1 27 (CCP 4.1.1.B), for example, which deals with the medical-divinatory tablet Sa-gig 1, explains the phrase “If (the exorcist on his way to the patient) sees a black pig, that patient will die; or, he will reach a crisis and then recover” as follows:


(o 14) [libbū] diš šaḫ ana qé-reb ur-ši KU₄-ub e-si-ir-ti [ana] é en-šú ku₄-ub (o 15) [ša ina šumma ālu] ina sukud-e gar-in a-si-ir-ti šá e-ú e-sèr GIG
(o 14) [(This is) as in] “If a pig goes inside a bedroom, a concubine (lit., ‘confined woman’) will come [into] her master’s house,” (o 15) [(an omen) that is (attested) in (the terrestrial omen series) “If a city] is set on a height.” “Concubine” (asirtu), is what (the text) said – (she represents) the confinement (esēru) of the patient. (o 14)
(CCP 4.1.1.B o 14-15)


As pointed out by George, 1991Citekey George1991 not found: 155, the commentator, by quoting the Šumma ālu entry on the pig and the concubine, seeks to demonstrate “the significance of the pig as a portent of captivity, which in the case of a sick man is confinement to bed.”


Rituals, Incantations, Prayers, and Magico-Medical Texts

Several quotations from these text types are attested in commentaries. An example is the following entry from the Šumma ālu commentary SpTU 3 99 (CCP 3.5.u2.a). In an attempt to explain the word muštaṣnu ( 

(40) šá ši-si-it-su (41) ma-gal ra-ba-a-ta lìb-bu-u én mu-uš-ta-aṣ-nu ṣi-i-ri (42) šu-pu-u ra-šub-bu : šá ki nam.bú ana diškur e-u
(40) Whose cry (41) is very loud – as in the incantation “The exalted thunderer (muštaṣnu), (42) resplendent and terrifying,” (this is) what is said in/with Namburbis (addressed) to (the weather god) Adad.


The term namburbi denotes rituals and incantations aimed at mitigating the negative consequences of a bad omen.


Cultic Laments

Commentaries normally deal with texts related to the sphere of the exorcist (āšipu), and not the lamentation-priest (kalû), the specialist for performing cultic songs in the Sumerian Emesal dialect. Despite this separation, commentaries sometimes also provide quotations from the corpus of cultic laments (kalûtu). An example is found in SpTU 2 54 (CCP 6.1.29), a commentary on the lexical tablet Aa 29. In order to justify the lexical equation between Sumerian me-er-me-ri and Akkadian meḫû “storm,” the commentary offers the following citation, which seems to come from a Sumerian Balaĝ lamentation supplied with an Akkadian translation:


(9) me-er-me-ri zi-gu-ú i-bí-bi saḫar-ra bí-in-dul (10) me-ḫu-u it-ba-am-ma e-per pa-ni-šú ik-tùm ina šú-tú qa-bi
(9) “(Sumerian) me-er-me-ri zi-gu-ú i-bí-bi saḫar-ra bí-in-dul (10) (has the Akkadian translation) ‘A storm arose and covered his face with dust’” – (This) is said in the kalûtu-corpus.
(CCP 6.1.29 o 9-10)


Commentarial quotations from legal texts are extremely rare, but two commentaries (DT 113 = CCP 4.2.u1 and BM 41286 = CCP 6.1.16.A.a) seem to quote short passages from the famous Laws of Hammurapi.


Several Late Babylonian commentaries include quotations from literary texts. Some of these quotations are explicitly attributed to their sources, while others are not. The quoted works include the wisdom text Ludlul bēl nēmeqi, the series Sidu, the Fable of the Fox, the great Šamaš hymn, Examenstext A, the Aluzinnu Text, the Ninurta epic Lugal-e, the Babylonian epic of creation (Enūma eliš), and the Erra epic. The Epic of Gilgameš, the most famous ancient Near Eastern text, while itself apparently never subject to commentary, is quoted several times in commentaries as well. One of these quotations occurs in a commentary on the first tablet of the medical-divinatory series Sa-gig (SpTU 1 27 = CCP 4.1.1.B), at the end of an entry explaining the omen “If (the exorcist on his way to the patient) sees a potsherd standing upright in the street, that patient is dangerously sick; one must not go near him.” The commentator responds to this omen with a quotation from Gilgameš I 102-03: “(The mother goddess Aruru) pinched off clay and threw it down in the wild. In the wild, she created Enkidu, [the hero].” It seems the commentator wished to provide credibility to the connection established by the omen between a potsherd (made of clay) and the idea of sickness and eventual death. He achieved this through an invocation of the fate of Enkidu, who was made from clay and eventually had to return to it.


Quotation Marks

When commentaries refer explicitly to a quoted text, they often use the expression inaqabi “(this) is said in …,” or some similar phrase. Late Babylonian commentaries occasionally introduce quotations with the word libbū “as in.” The phrase ša iqbû “((this is) what (the text) said”) follows and marks quotations from the base text, whereas kī iqbû (“as if (the text) said”) concludes the subsequent explanation. On the technical terms used in Mesopotamian commentaries, see further the section Technical Terms and Signs.


Guide to Further Reading

For an overview of the texts quoted in cuneiform commentaries, see E. Frahm, 2011E. Frahm, Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries. Origins of Interpretation. Ugarit-Verlag, 2011.: 86-110 (portions of which have been excerpted here). Commentarial quotations from the corpus of the lamentation priest are discussed by U. Gabbay, 2006U. Gabbay, Emesal passages cited in commentaries, N.A.B.U. Nouvelles Assyriologiques Brèves et Utilitaires, vol. 2006/81, 2006.. A new assessment of the terms ša iqbû and kī iqbû is provided by U. Gabbay, 2014U. Gabbay, Actual Sense and Scriptural Intention: Literal Meaning and Its Terminology in Akkadian and Hebrew Commentaries, in Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations between Jews, Iranians, and Babylonians, U. Gabbay and Secunda, S. Mohr Siebeck, 2014, pp. 335-370.: 351-64.

For a thorough introduction to Mesopotamian lexical lists, see N. Veldhuis, 2014N. Veldhuis, History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition. Ugarit-Verlag, 2014..