The edubba schools

The major source of manuscripts for Enheduana’s poems are school copies made during the Old Babylonian period. The Exaltation in particular was a crucial part of the curriculum of these schools, which are known as edubba (“house where tablets are given out”): students in the later stages of education were made to memorize, copy, and possibly recite the Exaltation as an exemplar of Sumerian eloquence.

Around the year 2000 BCE, following the collapse of an empire known as the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III), the Sumerian language changed from a living to a learned language, meaning that it no longer had any native speakers: it had to be studied in schools. For the following two millennia, Sumerian continued to be used much as Sanskrit in India or Latin in Medieval Europe, as a language of religious rituals, scholarship, and learned literature.

The best-known example of an edubba school is a building known as House K, located very close to the temple of Enlil in Nippur. It was built around a central courtyard and was a modest 45 square meters (480 square feet). It was probably the private home of a priest at that temple, who received students in his house: school texts were found by the hundreds throughout the building.

The board game known as the Royal Game of Ur, a set of which was found in House K. Wikimedia Commons.

The students of the edubba mostly followed one of two career paths. They either became priests in the temples, in which case they would have used Sumerian in the rituals they performed or oversaw; or civil servants in the Old Babylonian state, using their literacy to compose letters and administrative texts. For the latter, knowledge of Sumerian would have been useful because it showed that they were part of an educated cultural elite.

Because of the amount of school texts produced, we can reconstruct the curriculum in impressive detail. The ancient students were made to learn the cuneiform writing system, progressing from simple strokes to complex combinations, and then memorize long lists of words and technical terms in Sumerian.

They then wrote out sample sentences, grammatical tables, model letters, and contracts, as well as mathematical exercises (famously including a tablet that displays knowledge of Pythagoras’ theorem). Finally, the last and most advanced phase of their education consisted of studying Sumerian literary texts, including the Exaltation.

Sophus Helle has argued that Enheduana’s poems were widely studied in the Old Babylonian schools because they fit neatly into the curriculum’s goal of presenting Sumerian culture as a coherent world that the Babylonian students could appropriate and use. The Temple Hymns organized the once disunited cities into a single literary arrangement, while the Exaltation served as an exemplar of effective prayer in Sumerian composed by a woman from an Akkadian-speaking dynasty.

Further reading

Robson, “Tablet House.”

Tinney, “On the Curricular Setting.”

George, “In Search of the é”

Michalowski, “Transmission of Knowledge.”

Delnero, “Literature and Identity.”