Poor Man of Nippur

Server Costs Fundraiser 2023

Running a website with millions of readers every month is expensive. Not only do we pay for our servers, but also for related services such as our content delivery network, Google Workspace, email, and much more. We would much rather spend this money on producing more free history content for the world. Thank you for your help!
$2106 / $21000

Article

Joshua J. Mark
by
published on 17 January 2023
X

The Poor Man of Nippur (c. 701 BCE) is a Babylonian poem on the themes of the obligations of hospitality and revenge for an undeserved injury. A poor man of the city of Nippur feels mistreated when he visits the mayor and then goes to great lengths to avenge the insult; but is he abused or the abuser?

Terracotta Tablet from Nippur
Terracotta Tablet from Nippur
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (Copyright)

The poem relies upon the Mesopotamian understanding of hospitality in which one was obligated to treat a guest well, no matter their station in life, and provide for them as they deserved. The Poor Man of Nippur asks the audience to decide what, exactly, that means. What does one deserve? Why should one treat a nobleman differently than a poor man? Should one be punished for making such a distinction?

Remove Ads

Advertisement

The poem seems to have been part of the curriculum of the scribal school at Nippur and was most likely composed there. Although the most complete text dates to 701 BCE, the story is understood as considerably older and is almost certainly Sumerian in origin as it refers to Sumerian deities (Ea and Ellil, the gods Enki and Enlil) and "the black-headed people", a term used for the Sumerians in their own texts.

The nearly complete poem was discovered at Sultantepe in 1952.

The nearly complete poem was discovered at Sultantepe (in modern-day Turkey) in 1952 but fragments of the work were found earlier in the ruins of Nippur and, at Nineveh, among the tablets of the Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal's famous library. The Sultantepe copy concludes with the name of the scribal apprentice who copied it and a curse on anyone who removes it from the library, somewhat echoing the themes of the work itself.

Remove Ads

Advertisement

The identification of the poem as Babylonian rests on the location (ancient Babylonia) where the tablet was discovered, though it is sometimes referenced as Akkadian, due to the script, or, earlier, as Neo-Assyrian because of the fragment found at Nineveh. Recent interest in the poem was generated in 2018 by a short film dramatizing it by the students of St. John's College, University of Cambridge, under the direction of Assyriologist Dr. Martin Worthington.

Summary & Commentary

The poem begins with a poor man, Gimil-Ninurta, hoping to improve his luck in the city of Nippur. His name is a clue to one of the themes of the poem as it means "revenge of Ninurta", the god of war and friend of humanity, who was also one of the patron deities of Nippur and sometimes associated with retribution. Gimil-Ninurta decides to sell his clothes and buy a goat for a feast, but once he brings it home, he realizes he has no money for beer to make a proper meal. If he serves only a paltry goat and nothing else, his neighbors and family would consider it an insult (lines 1-19).

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

He decides, instead, to bring the goat to the mayor of the city and present it as a gift, asking for nothing in return but relying on the established rules of hospitality in hopes the mayor will reciprocate with a better gift. Gimil-Ninurta, in going to the mayor's house, would be considered a guest who, according to the Mesopotamian laws of hospitality, must be treated well and, having brought a gift, should be given one in return.

Instead, the mayor gives him only a bone, sinew, and diluted beer and has him thrown out of the gate. Gimil-Ninurta tells the gatekeeper he will have his revenge three-fold for the insult and puts his plan into action. He goes to the king and asks to rent a chariot for a day, promising a certain amount of gold in return. The king dresses him in noble finery, lends him a chariot, and Gimil-Ninurta returns to the mayor's house disguised as a royal courier carrying gold. Prior to his arrival back in Nippur, he captures two live birds, which he puts into the box that allegedly holds the gold in order to give it weight (lines 58-84).

Remove Ads

Advertisement

Nippur
Nippur
David Stanley (CC BY)

Upon arriving at the mayor's house, he is welcomed as a noble guest and feasted, and then, after the mayor has gone to sleep, Gimil-Ninurta opens the box and frees the birds, who fly away. The next morning, the mayor is shocked to see the open box and alerts the house to the robbery. Gimil-Ninurta, who as 'courier' would have been responsible for the loss of the gold, pretends to lose control and beats the mayor severely for allowing this theft under his own roof. The mayor pleads for his life and gives Gimil-Ninurta two minas of gold (one of which, it is assumed, he pays to the king for the rental) and new clothes. Gimil-Ninurta leaves after telling the gatekeeper to tell the mayor to expect two more burdens visited upon him (lines 90-111)

He then disguises himself as a doctor (shaving the left side of his head as a form of identification, as doctors would do), returns to the mayor's house, and pretends to have the uncanny ability to detect injuries to the body, pointing out exactly where the major has been beaten and promising to relieve his pain. He claims his cures can only work in the dark, however, and, once he has the mayor alone in a room, ties him to the floor, beats him again, and departs. He next hires a young man who looks like him to go to the mayor's house and yell "I am the one with the goat!' When the mayor's people run out to capture the youth and prevent any further beatings, the mayor is again left alone, and Gimil-Ninurta beats him a third time and then walks away into the country, leaving the mayor to crawl back to his home (lines 113-end).

Text

The following is taken from the Oracc Museum site, University of Pennsylvania, created by Greta Van Buylaere. Ellipses indicate missing words or sentences. Line numbers, omitted from the original, have been added for clarity.

Remove Ads

Advertisement

A young man, a citizen of Nippur, needy and poor,

Gimil-Ninurta was his name, a very unfortunate man,

Was living in his city Nippur in great misery:

He had no silver, as appropriate to his fellow men,

5. Gold he did not have, as appropriate to people.

His grain-bins were deprived of pure grain.

For want of bread, his innards were burnt,

For want of meat and first-class beer, unfortunate was his appearance.

Every day, in the absence of a meal, he slept hungrily.

Remove Ads

Advertisement

10. He was clothed in garments without a change.

With his unfortunate heart he pondered:

"I will strip off my garments without a change,

And on the square of my city Nippur, I will buy a ram."

So, he stripped off his garments without a change,

15. And on the square of his city of Nippur, he bought a three-year-old goat.

With his unfortunate heart he pondered:

"Perhaps I could slaughter the goat in my yard,

But then there would no meal for where is the beer?

The neighbors in my city quarter would hear of it and be angry,

20. Family and clan would be offended with me.

No. I will take the goat and bring it to the house of the mayor.

I will wish all the best for his stomach."

Gimil-Ninurta grasped the neck of his goat,

And he…to the gate of the burgomaster of Nippur.

25. To Tukulti-Ellil, the keeper of the gate, he said:

"Say that I want to enter and see Mr. Mayor!"

The gatekeeper said to his master:

"My lord, a citizen of Nippur is waiting at your gate,

And, as a greeting-gift and present, he has brought you a goat."

30. The burgomaster became angry with the gatekeeper Tukulti-Ellil and said:

"Why is a citizen of Nippur ... at the gate?"

The gatekeeper ... to ...

Gimil-Ninurta, as his heart rejoiced, entered into the presence of the burgomaster.

When Gimil-Ninurta entered into the presence of Mr. Mayor,

35. In his left hand he grasped the neck of his goat,

With his right hand he greeted the mayor:

"May Enlil and Nippur bless the mayor!

May Ninurta and Nusku make him and his descendants flourish!"

The burgomaster said to the citizen of Nippur:

40. "What is the wrong done to you that you bring me a present?"

Gimil-Ninurta repeated his desire to the mayor of Nippur:

"Every day, in the absence of a meal, I sleep hungrily,

So, I stripped off my garments without a change,

And on the square of my city Nippur, I bought a three-year-old goat.

45. To my oppressed heart, I said thus:

'Perhaps I could slaughter the goat in my yard

But then there would be no meal for where is the beer?

The neighbors in my city quarter would hear of it and be angry,

Family and clan would be offended with me.

50. No. I will bring the goat to the house of the mayor.'

... my furious heart.

... the butcher cries out at night.

... and may they be captured.

... may the table be very plentiful…

55. ... may they consider.

... he shouted.

..."

"Give him, the citizen of Nippur, a bone and a sinew" [said the mayor]

"Give him beer diluted to one-third to drink in your rhyton,

60. Chase him away and expel him from the gate!"

He gave him, the citizen of Nippur, a bone and a sinew,

He gave him beer diluted to one-third to drink in his rhyton,

He chased him away and expelled him from the gate.

As Gimil-Ninurta was leaving the gate,

65. He said to the gatekeeper, the keeper of the gate:

"Greetings of the gods for your master! Say to him thus:

'Because of the one burden which you imposed on me,

For that one, I will requite you three times!'"

When the burgomaster heard this, he laughed all day.

70. Gimil-Ninurta now set his face towards the ruler's palace,

"By the order of the king, the prince and the military governor will settle a just case."

When Gimil-Ninurta entered into the presence of the ruler,

He prostrated himself and kissed the ground before him,

He raised his hands to greet the king of the world.

75. "O Lord, pride of the people, king whose lamassu-deity is splendid.

May they give me one chariot at your command!

That, for one day, whatever I wish for, I may achieve my desire.

For my day, my debt will be one mina of red gold."

The ruler did not ask him: "What is your desire

80. That you want to parade a whole day in one chariot?"

They gave him a new chariot, as appropriate to noblemen,

And he set his face towards his city [of Nippur]

En route, Gimil-Ninurta caught two birds,

Gathered them into a box and sealed it with his seal.

85. Then he moved on to the gate of the burgomaster of Nippur.

The mayor went outside into his presence:

"Who are you, my lord, that you are traveling at dusk?"

"The king, your lord, sent me to the center of [Nippur].

I have brought gold for the Ekur, Ellil's temple."

90. The burgomaster slaughtered a ram to make an abundant meal.

The burgomaster said to him, in his presence, "Woe, I am tired!"

Gimil-Ninurta was on his guard at the head of the burgomaster through one watch of the night.

The burgomaster, in his weariness, was overcome by sleep.

Secretly, Gimil-Ninurta stood up in the middle of the night and

95. Opened the lid of that box; the birds flew off to the heavens.

The burgomaster, at the rising of the morning star ... and ... the box.

"The lid of the box is open and the gold is taken away!"

Gimil-Ninurta, with his wailing heart, rent his attire,

He fell on top of the mayor and made him lift his hands in prayer.

100. From his head to the soles of his feet,

He thrashed his limbs and inflicted grief upon him.

The mayor beneath him pleaded for himself and cried out:

"My lord, do not destroy a citizen of Nippur!

Do not stain your hands with the blood of a protégé, taboo of Ellil!"

105. They gave him as a gift two minas of red gold,

Instead of his attire which he had rent, he gave him others.

As Gimil-Ninurta was leaving the gate,

He said to Tukulti-Ellil, the keeper of the gate:

"Greetings of the gods to your master! Say to him thus:

110. 'Because of the one burden which you imposed upon me,

I have requited you one; two remain.'"

The mayor heard this and ... all day.

Gimil-Ninurta ... into the presence of the barber,

He shaved off all his hair on the left side ...

115. He filled a blackened bowl ...

He ... to the gate of Mr. Mayor of Nippur

And said to the gatekeeper, the keeper of the gate:

"Say that I want to enter and see ..."

"Who are you that you should see ...?"

120. "A physician, born in Isin, examiner ...

Where illness and suffering in the body ..."

When Gimil-Ninurta entered into the presence of Mr. Mayor,

He showed him his wound where he had thrashed his body.

The burgomaster said to his eunuchs, "The physician is competent."

125. "My lord" [said Gimil-Ninurta] "my treatments only succeed in darkness."

Where access is blocked, a very dark way,

He made him enter and, in the inaccessible room,

Where friends and companions could not show him mercy,

He threw the bowl into the fire,

130. And drove five pegs into the solid ground.

He tied his hands, feet, and head to them.

From his head to the soles of his feet, he thrashed his limbs and inflicted grief upon him.

As Gimil-Ninurta was leaving the gate,

He said to Tukulti-Ellil, the keeper of the gate:

135. "Greetings of the gods to your master! Say to him thus:

'Because of the one burden which you imposed upon me,

I have requited you a second time; one remains.'"

Gimil-Ninurta was very distressed; like a dog, he raised his ears,

He examined the entirety of the black-headed ones and watched all the people.

140. He looked at one young man ... anything ...

He gave him as his gift ...

"Go to the gate of Mr. Mayor ... cry out ...

So that all the extensive people may gather at your cry:

'I am making my way back to the gate of the burgomaster! I am the one with the goat!'"

145. Meanwhile, Gimil-Ninurta was lying in wait beneath the bridge, like a dog.

At the cry of the young man, Mr. Mayor went outside,

He sent out the personnel of his house, female and male,

And they flew off, in their totality, to look for the young man.

While they were all looking for the young man,

150. Mr. Mayor ... on his own in the countryside.

Gimil-Ninurta sprang out from beneath the bridge and seized Mr. Mayor.

He fell on top of Mr. Mayor and made him lift his hands in prayer.

From his head to the soles of his feet

He thrashed his limbs and inflicted grief upon him.

155. "Because of the one burden which you imposed upon me,

I have requited you three times."

He left him and went out into the open country.

The major, crawling, entered into the city.

... written and checked.

... Nabu-rehtu-usur,

Scribal apprentice, member of the mummu-institution

Of Nabu-ahu-iddina, eunuch,

For the viewing of Qurdi-Nergal.

Whoever takes away this tablet, may Ea take him away!

At the command of Nabu, who lives in Ezida,

May he have no descendants, no offspring.

In the month Addaru (XII) on the 21st day, eponymate of Hanani (701 BCE)

The provincial governor of Til-Barsip.

Do not take away the tablets!

Do not disperse the library!

Taboo of Ea, the king of the Apsu.

Conclusion

The meaning of the poem, including who one should side with, continues to be debated by scholars and is not as easy to discern as one might at first think. As Gimil-Ninurta's name is associated with a god of retribution, he would seem to be the hero of the piece. Gimil-Ninurta takes upon himself the responsibility of avenging an insult to a guest; a duty expected to be performed by the gods who are noticeably absent. Mr. Mayor not only insults Gimil-Ninurta personally, but any poorly dressed guest who might appear at his door, and this breach in hospitality is given emphasis by how the mayor then welcomes the same man disguised as a noble and then as a doctor. Gimil-Ninurta, in the absence of any god to vent wrath upon the mayor, assumes that role for himself.

At the same time, Gimil-Ninurta arrives at the mayor's house under false pretenses. The part of the poem where he explains himself to the mayor (lines 51-57) is fragmented but, at the beginning of the tale, when he says he will bring the goat to the mayor, there is no reason given other than that he has no means for a proper feast. The only reason an ancient audience would have arrived at, based on the tradition of hospitality, would be Gimil-Ninurta's hope of receiving a better gift in return for the goat – which could hardly have been of any great quality as it was purchased with old, worn clothing. An audience might therefore side with the mayor who saw through Gimil-Ninurta's ruse and rewarded him with refuse, as he felt he deserved.

The 2018 film by the students at St. John's College, University of Cambridge – the world's first film in Babylonian – reconstructs the ancient language and presents the story as it, perhaps, would have been performed in Babylonia. Led by Dr. Martin Worthington, the students remained faithful to the original text of the work, presenting a modern-day audience with the same questions posed to those of ancient Babylonia regarding what people owe each other, how they should treat each other, and what, if anything, anyone actually deserves.

Did you like this article?
Editorial Review This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.
Remove Ads

Advertisement

Questions & Answers

What is The Poor Man of Nippur?

The Poor Man of Nippur is a Babylonian poem exploring the themes of hospitality and revenge and what one person actually owes to another.

When and where was The Poor Man of Nippur written?

The most complete copy of The Poor Man of Nippur was written in the region of ancient Babylonia c. 701 BCE, but the story is understood as much older, at least c. 1500 BCE, and was almost certainly originally a Sumerian oral tale.

When and where was The Poor Man of Nippur discovered?

The most complete tablet of The Poor Man of Nippur was discovered at the site of Sultantepe, Turkey, in 1952, a region once part of Babylonia.

Why is The Poor Man of Nippur important?

The Poor Man of Nippur is important because it explores the question of what people owe to one another in society, why some are treated better than others, and whether anyone actually deserves anything. The questions raised by the ancient text are as relevant today as they were when it was written.

Translations

We want people all over the world to learn about history. Help us and translate this article into another language!

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.

Free for the World, Supported by You

World History Encyclopedia is a non-profit organization. For only $5 per month you can become a member and support our mission to engage people with cultural heritage and to improve history education worldwide.

Become a Member  

Recommended Books

 

Cite This Work

APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2023, January 17). Poor Man of Nippur. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2145/poor-man-of-nippur/

Chicago Style

Mark, Joshua J.. "Poor Man of Nippur." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified January 17, 2023. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2145/poor-man-of-nippur/.

MLA Style

Mark, Joshua J.. "Poor Man of Nippur." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 17 Jan 2023. Web. 08 Feb 2023.

Membership