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The Sumerians

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The Sumerians

The Mysterious Sumerians

Once I had found the Mesopotamian tunings, I became increasingly interested in where they came from. Where was Mesopotamia, exactly? If these musical instrument tunings had been found on clay tablets from the Old Babylonian period, how old did that make them? At least 5,500 years old, I found out. But the people who lived back then were supposed to be primitive in every way - clay pots, primitive writing, early agriculture. How did they know, that long ago, about the Circle of Fifths, and where did they get the mathematics to come up with exact fractions like 1024/729? What else did they know about music? Indeed, what else did they know about everything?

So I began to do some research on ancient Mesopotamia. I discovered that the more advanced cultures were the earliest, just as in pre-dynastic Egypt. (I'll look at some theories of what this may imply below.) I now believe that the Old Babylonian tablets, like much else of that period, were copies of much earlier records of the Sumerians, the first civilized inhabitants of the area.

My investigations took me far afield of music, at least initially. In the end we will come back to music, because I found it was an integral part of spiritual practices and ceremonies that are far older than any yet discovered. What was the effect of music at these times? Is there any hope of reawakening these very old and sacred experiences now, 5500 years later? Memories of Home is my first experiment in this area, and what follows is meant to put that music in historical and spiritual context.

Archeology today

Archeology is in a state of chaos today. There are so many new discoveries regarding our ancestors and their civilizations, that what was current just five years ago is now hopelessly out of date. Archeologists (as are many others in different fields) who are invested in certain beliefs and theories are having a hard time continuing to justify them. And to make matters worse, many of the new discoveries and interpretations are being made by those who can correlate knowledge from several different disciplines outside traditional archeology, such as astronomy and biblical studies. Matters are not helped by the political and religious motivations of certain organizations and governments. Most of ancient Mesopotamia is present-day Iraq, for example.

Because of these factors, and because Sumer is on the very early edge of written history, different sources appear to be talking about different peoples and cultures, all called Sumer. Were the Sumerian gods and goddesses just mythical stories, as we judge such stories today? Foolish and incredible stories that over time were embellished before being written down? Or, as some researchers are beginning to believe, were they real beings who were somehow different and superior to the common Sumerians? Were they considered gods because they did inexplicable things that even today we would call god-like?

In considering these questions we run hard up against the religious beliefs of the researchers and scientists themselves, and their financial backers. "That interpretation can't possibly be true, because there really is no God." They may say. Or, "We'll only support and publish findings that support the Old Testament." (Which was the policy of the Egyptian Exploration Fund.) But the facts are that many of the recent findings flatly contradict modern religious dogmas, especially those promulgated by the Roman Church over the past two thousand years. So here is another complication: do I as a researcher abandon my own personal beliefs (or the beliefs of my State, which is financing my research) in the face of new, contradictory facts, or do I ignore those facts and stay in my (or my State's) comfort zone?

What, in fact, is happening, is that "amateur" scholars have invaded both archeology and the history of religion and have made an end run around the traditionalists. (The fact that these people are running in different directions, even from each other, is no cause for alarm or avoidance of their theories. The new ideas will sort themselves out in time. And probably in a very short time.)

The best one can do is not get overly invested in any one theory, and to stay tuned for the next incremental (or block-busting) discovery. Above all, one must not succumb to the idea that people who lived 6000 years ago had the same concepts, thoughts and world-view that we have today. And certainly we must give up the idea of linear, step-wise cultural development from ancient "savages" and "primitive" people to a modern-day sophistication which is heavily invested in a certain kind of technology. For the facts indicate that the Sumerians, and their mysterious predecessors, were every bit as advanced (and intelligent) as we are today in many areas, even scientific areas.

But what is even more exciting are various clues that they knew things we no longer know today. One of these things, of course, is music. How did the Sumerians employ music in everyday life and in their rituals? Was music one of the ways they were able to contact their gods and goddesses? And if so, could we employ this same music, or at least their musical tunings, to do something similar? Could we, in this way, shed some light on exactly who these gods and goddesses were, and what their functions were?

All and good if this is possible, but it would be merely academic if it only applied to a people that lived 6000 years ago. But what if it still applied today? What if when we reestablished this connection, we found it was still alive and functioning? Indeed, what if it never ceased to function across all those millennia, and it was only we humans who forgot (or who were made to forget) how to make the connection? What would be waiting for us to rediscover on the other end of such a connection?

We have discovered all of our knowledge about the early civilizations of Mesopotamia since about 1850. Before that, no one knew that such peoples existed. It turns out that much of what we thought we knew about the Ancients - mostly the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the stories of the Old Testament of the Bible - had to be reinterpreted in a new light since then. Much in these known civilizations was based on the prior civilizations of the Near East and perhaps elsewhere, the earliest of which were until recently unknown, shedding new light on, and thereby changing, what we thought we knew about them. This has been especially true of the Old Testament. Many of the stories in the Book of Genesis, for example, are found on much earlier Sumerian and Babylonian tablets, but in much expanded form. We will touch on some of the tremendous implications of these changes in meaning in what follows.

It would be nice to say that what has been discovered about the Sumerians and their descendents is well understood, but such is far from the case. We are looking back 6000 years in the past (and more when we ask where the Sumerians came from). We are extremely fortunate to be able to understand their written language (although there is much debate about the meanings of much of it), and there are literally tens of thousands of inscriptions and tablets that have been found to date, many of which remain as yet unread. But how accurately do we understand these Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians? Certainly not as well as we would like.

For now, however, we can just say that many of the records that have been found admit to many, wildly different and controversial theories. The best known of these, for the general public, have been put forward by Zecharia Sitchin, who maintains that the gods of the Sumerians were alien beings from another planet which orbits the Sun, and they created us humans to be their slaves. We will deal with Mr. Sitchin farther on, and just note here that although his scholarship is perhaps top-notch, his conclusions, assumptions and extrapolations may be a bit wide of the mark.

The Mesopotamian region

Mesopotamia was that part of present-day Iraq and Kuwait from the Persian Gulf northwest to Baghdad. (Click on the thumbnail below for a larger map.) The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow through a flat, alluvial valley that was perfect for agriculture six millennia ago.

The next map shows some of the major cities from 3500 BC to 2000 BC, when the inhabitants were overrun by invaders from all sides.

The area from Lagash and Eridu to the present-day shore line of the Gulf were at one time flooded, and as we shall see, this was a crucial event which has yet to be dated with any certainty, although the latest possible date is somewhere around 4000 BC. There is growing evidence that this may have been the Biblical Flood, which was one of the first discoveries I made that intrigued me about the Sumerians. It was not the last by any means, but it was one of the many ways ancient Sumer is deeply connected to the present day and to our own lives.

Their history

Sumer is where civilization began. Well, maybe. There is some disagreement about this, because Jericho in Israel "is now known to be the oldest living city in the world, having been almost continuously occupied for the last 11,000 years" [1]. Unless the oldest city might be Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. In any event, the Sumerian civilization seemed to be thriving several hundred years before the Egyptian; 4000 BC for Sumer and 3500 BC for Egypt. (These early dates, like your mileage, vary according to different scholars.) Both cultures have much in common and much that is different. One theory holds that they both derived from a common antecedent civilization, no records of which are extant. This would explain a remarkable fact about both the Sumerians and the earliest Egyptians: their cultures, according to the archeological record, appear to have sprung up almost overnight. There is no record of the slow and gradual growth of cities, writing and other telltale artifacts. Was there a prior culture? If so, what happened to it? Why do we have no record of it?

Laurence Gardner, commenting on the mystery of Sumer, says,

To this day, everyone concerned is baffled by the sudden, extraordinary emergence of the Sumerians, seemingly from nowhere. But there is no doubt that, upon their advent in southern Mesopotamia, they were already highly advanced, to a level far beyond that recorded or sustained in any place from where logically they could have emanated. Nowhere on Earth was there a culture like that of the Sumerians, who appeared soon after 4000BC. [2]

Well, perhaps that's not quite true. There is new and growing evidence that Sumer was a colony of the Dravidian civilization centered in the Indus Valley in modern-day Pakistan. Located in a vast area called Sind, over seventy cities have been discovered, including Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. This Dravidian civilization was in full swing by 4000 B.C.E. Nobody knows how old these cities might be because the lowest (oldest) levels are under the level of the current water table. [3]

There is much we don't know about these early times. In fact, all we do know has literally come to light in archeological digs since about 1850, so there is still much speculating and guessing.

Other possibilities exist regarding where the Sumerians came from originally. There were other peoples in the area in all directions, the ancestors of the modern Bedouin to the east, another group of Akkadians to the north, and yet another group to the west, but all unrelated culturally to the Sumerians. During the earliest period, around 4000 BC, there seems to have been a drying out of the Mesopotamian delta region at the north end of what we now call the Persian Gulf. The Tigris and Euphrates River valley is what we call Mesopotamia today. About this "wet" period we know next to nothing. Perhaps it is just silt being deposited by the natural action of both rivers, thus forming new land which gradually dried out in time. But there seems to be a considerable amount of evidence - written evidence from Sumerian and later Babylonian clay tablets, of which thousands have been found - that this "wet" period was the Biblical Flood. How much of what later became dry land was actually flooded? Just this river valley? The whole "world," whether this might mean the whole known world at that time, or great portions of the entire globe? No one knows for certain.

Where did they come from?

Since civilizations with large cities and complex societies do not just spring up from nothing, The Sumerians, who do not seem to be related to the earlier inhabitants of the region, had to have inherited their civilization from somewhere, either an antecedent culture or, as Sitchin, Gardner and others have suggested, it was given to them by beings from elsewhere who came to Earth around that time. This is a speculative debate at this time, that I don't wish to get into. I will comment, however, that much of it depends on correlations of Sumerian records with Old Testament records, and the interpretation of many symbols of the Sumerian language. Regarding the Sumerian language, Knight and Lomas have this to say about it in their book, Uriel's Machine:

Because this earliest writing [a pictographic language called Elamite] uses word symbols rather than an alphabet, it can be read only in vague terms. It does not reproduce speech but a series of word images. Because a single sign can be read in several different ways, according to the reader's subjective perceptions, a line of text could have a number of diverse meanings depending on what images he or she perceived. Symbolic language makes it more difficult to refer to specific, concrete instances because symbols naturally have multiple meanings. [4]

Thus, the word-symbol shem, for example, can be taken by Sitchin as a spaceship, by Gardner as a special, kingly food, and by others with a wholly different meanings. (Fortunately, with the numbers that represent the musical tunings, there is no such ambiguity.) We just can't tell with any degree of certainty exactly what the Sumerians were talking about much of the time. So far, it is only by indirect evidence that any progress has been made.

(We should note something important, here, that most authors miss. It is the multiplicity of meanings that inform us about a term, rather than a specific meaning an author may sieze upon to support his theory, to the exclusion of the other meanings. For example, Arabic has 3-letter root words that have complementary meanings, as Idries Shah talked about in The Sufis. There are also correspondences between certain French phrases, taken phonetically, and Greek phrases that at first glance don't seem to be related. The French word for this is argot or cant, where one can appear to be talking about one thing, but is really talking about something quite different. Alchemical authors come to mind here, such as the Sufi master al Jibir, called Gerber, from whom the English word gibberish was coined. He seemed to be talking gibberish, unless one knew the code or the key. At least as old as Sanskrit, this technique is sometimes called The Language of the Birds. It seems certain that the Sumerians also used this technique.)

Recently, Knight and Lomas have put forward an interesting theory. They postulate in Uriel's Machine that the megalithic cultures in Europe, the so-called Grooved Ware people, named after their style of pottery, are the forerunners of the Sumerians and Egyptians. It was their culture that built Stonehenge and Maes Howe in the Orkney's in northern Scotland, this latter of which dates from before 2500 BCE. It's a only theory so far, but a compelling one.

We may never know which theory is correct (unless significant new archeological evidence is found) because there is no more written or cultural records to be examined. There is evidence for one or more geological or climatic catastrophes in the last 12,000 years that included floods, perhaps world-wide, comet strikes, even the Earth shifting on its rotational poles. Evidence for all of these has been found, any of which would have wiped entire civilizations from the face of the Earth. Add to this the religious zealousness to destroy all records of competing groups through the millennia, what additional records that might have existed in times past may be forever lost.

Their Music

In The Twelfth Planet, Zecharia Sitchin talks about Sumerian music. A team of scholars (professors Richard L. Crocker, Anne D. Kilmer and Robert R. Brown) from UC Berkeley in 1974 played what they called the world's oldest song from musical notes "written on a cuneiform tablet from c. 1800 BC, found at Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast (now in Syria)."

Sitchin goes on,

"We always knew," the Berkeley team explained, "that there was music in the earlier Assyrio-Babylonian civilization, but until this deciphering we did not know that it had the same heptatonic-diatonic scale that is characteristic of contemporary Western music, and of Greek music of the first millennium BC." Until now it was thought that Western music originated in Greece; now it has been established that our music - as so much else of Western civilization - originated in Mesopotamia. This should not be surprising, for the Greek scholar Philo had already stated that the Mesopotamians were known to "seek world-wide harmony and unison through the musical tones."

There can be no doubt that music and song must also be claimed as a Sumerian "first." Indeed, Professor Crocker could play the ancient tune only by constructing a lyre like those which had been found in the ruins of Ur. Texts from the second millennium BC indicate the existence of musical "key numbers" and a coherent musical theory; and Professor Kilmer herself wrote earlier (The Strings of Musical Instruments: Their Names, Numbers and Significance) that many Sumerian hymnal texts had "what appear to be musical notations in the margins." "The Sumerians and their successors had a full musical life," she concluded. No wonder, then, that we find a great variety of musical instruments - as well as of singers and dancers performing - depicted on cylinder seals and clay tablets. [5]

Wait! You can hear this! Check out this radio interview with the late Lou Harrison (a noted composer and musicologist) from 1971. He plays this lyre or harp, and explains how it was tuned. There is much more on these tunings on the Ancient Music page of this site.

Back to Sitchin. He goes on to conclude,

What is striking about such music and songs is not only the conclusion that Sumer was the source of Western music in structure and harmonic composition. No less significant is the fact that as we hear the music and read the poems, they do not sound strange or alien at all, even in their depth of feeling and their sentiments. Indeed, as we contemplate the great Sumerian civilization, we find that not only are our morals and our sense of justice, our laws and architecture and arts and technology rooted in Sumer, but the Sumerian institutions are so familiar, so close. At heart, it would seem, we are all Sumerians. [5]

Of course, just because a civilization has a certain aspect, doesn't mean they necessarily invented it. So what we are calling Sumerian tunings may or may not have originated in Sumer. My feeling is the tunings were known there, as early as 3500 B.C.E., and recorded on clay tablets, but were inherited from an earlier civilization. The likeliest candidate seems to be the Dravidians in the Indus Valley, but no one knows at this point.

Whatever the source of the tunings, the situation is a bit like opening a sealed pyramid for the first time and finding an AM/FM radio inside. How did it get there? Is there some trickery going on or are their things about our distant past we know nothing about, but should?

Stay tuned. It's going to get interesting.


See the Bibliography and Links page for the complete references.

1. Knight, Christopher and Robert Lomas,Uriel's Machine, p.10.
2. Gardner, Laurence, Genesis of the Grail Kings,p. 36.
3. Moura, Ann, Origins of Modern Witchcraft.
4. Knight, Christopher and Robert Lomas,Uriel's Machine, p.191.
5. Sitchin, Zecharia, The 12th Planet,p. 45ff.

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