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The eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen, author of Treasures of Darkness, here presents translations of ancient Sumerian poems written near the end of the third millennium b.c.e., including a number of compositions that have never before been published in translation. The themes developed in the poems—quite possibly the earliest poems extant—are those that have fascina The eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen, author of Treasures of Darkness, here presents translations of ancient Sumerian poems written near the end of the third millennium b.c.e., including a number of compositions that have never before been published in translation. The themes developed in the poems—quite possibly the earliest poems extant—are those that have fascinated humanity since the time people first began to spin stories: the longings of young lovers; courage in battle; joy at the birth of a child; the pleasures of drink and song.


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The eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen, author of Treasures of Darkness, here presents translations of ancient Sumerian poems written near the end of the third millennium b.c.e., including a number of compositions that have never before been published in translation. The themes developed in the poems—quite possibly the earliest poems extant—are those that have fascina The eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen, author of Treasures of Darkness, here presents translations of ancient Sumerian poems written near the end of the third millennium b.c.e., including a number of compositions that have never before been published in translation. The themes developed in the poems—quite possibly the earliest poems extant—are those that have fascinated humanity since the time people first began to spin stories: the longings of young lovers; courage in battle; joy at the birth of a child; the pleasures of drink and song.

53 review for The Harps that Once...: Sumerian Poetry in Translation

  1. 5 out of 5

    Grady

    The Harps that Once offers a generous selection of myths, epics, hymns, and laments composed in Mesopotamia between roughly 2500 BCE and 2000 BCE (so, 4500 to 4000 years ago). There are at least two ways to read poetry from a remote culture: as art that reflects and recreates an experience of life; or as a historical artifact that can offer a window into the culture that created it. In other words, as a subject that acts on the reader; or an object that the reader analyzes. I tried the first app The Harps that Once offers a generous selection of myths, epics, hymns, and laments composed in Mesopotamia between roughly 2500 BCE and 2000 BCE (so, 4500 to 4000 years ago). There are at least two ways to read poetry from a remote culture: as art that reflects and recreates an experience of life; or as a historical artifact that can offer a window into the culture that created it. In other words, as a subject that acts on the reader; or an object that the reader analyzes. I tried the first approach -- reading the poems as poems -- but found the cultural gap just too wide for my empathy to cross. Far from inspiring, the poems seemed incredibly formulaic and lacking discernible humor or striking images. The translator notes that Sumerian poetry does not appear to have used rhyme; and "meter and rhythm, which must be assumed to be a prominent feature since the poetry was sung, are not sufficiently recognizable from the texts to invite attempts at imitation"[xv]. The translator's excellent footnotes explain images and obscure metaphors, but that doesn't lend them emotional force. More recently, though, I've been reading Gwendolin Leick's Mesopotamia Invention of the City, which explores the political and cultural history of ancient Mesopotamian cities. Leick mentions several of the poems in 'The Harps' (for example, the Curse of Akkade, or the Lament for Ur), and discusses the inferences archeologists have drawn from them to better understand Sumerian culture. Suddenly, with that context, I'm finding the poems rich and exciting, and Jacobsen's very fine introductions to each poem are making a lot more sense, too. Other readers may respond directly to the poems standing on their own, but at least in my case, being able to switch back and forth between the poems and an accessible history of the period has made all the difference.

  2. 4 out of 5

    James F

    This is an anthology of poetry from Sumerian, the first language to be written, and the earliest extant literature. It contains most of the more important poetic texts, divided into eight categories: the texts concerning Dumuzi (the dying and resurrected shepherd god, similar to the later Adonis), including variations of his courtship and marriage to Inanna and his death; lovesongs, ostensibly about kings and queens, and very sexually explicit, as is much of the Sumerian poetry; three hymns addr This is an anthology of poetry from Sumerian, the first language to be written, and the earliest extant literature. It contains most of the more important poetic texts, divided into eight categories: the texts concerning Dumuzi (the dying and resurrected shepherd god, similar to the later Adonis), including variations of his courtship and marriage to Inanna and his death; lovesongs, ostensibly about kings and queens, and very sexually explicit, as is much of the Sumerian poetry; three hymns addressed to Enlil, Inanna, and Nanshe respectively; myths, including the famous "Descent of Inanna" into the underworld; two Aratta epics and "Gilgamesh and Aka"; the "Cursing of Akkade"; three hymns to temples; and three laments for cities and temples destroyed in the barbarian conquest of Ur. Not knowing Sumerian, I can't speak to the accuracy of the translations, but Jacobsen was considered a major expert. Not everything is understood, and there is room for much disagreement. The translations are fairly understandable, although the translator has a penchent for using the most archaic and obscure English vocabulary possible. He says in the introduction that he was planning a companion volume to include the prose works, but I haven't found any indication that it was ever published; Jacobsen died in 1993.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Debbie C

    In his introduction to the anthology, translator Thorkild Jacobsen closes with this reflection: "The translations here presented can therefore be offered only as a subjective attempt, though one that I sincerely hope and trust is true in its essentials." Without being an expert in this field, I can only say that despite the understanding that this was not by any means a complete collection, the anthology felt complete. There was a nice mix of love poems, hymns, myths, epics, and laments to help m In his introduction to the anthology, translator Thorkild Jacobsen closes with this reflection: "The translations here presented can therefore be offered only as a subjective attempt, though one that I sincerely hope and trust is true in its essentials." Without being an expert in this field, I can only say that despite the understanding that this was not by any means a complete collection, the anthology felt complete. There was a nice mix of love poems, hymns, myths, epics, and laments to help me better appreciate the literature of this great civilization without feeling overwhelmed. I also enjoyed and easily understood the translations. The Dumzi Texts -- a series of poems depicting the life of the shepherd god, including his courtship and marriage with Inanna -- felt strangely human to me despite its supernatural elements, and I think that is probably due to Jacobsen's translation as much as the talent of the original writer. Other stand-out passages for me included "The Eridu Genesis," "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta," and "Lugalbanda and the Thunderbird." I am not sure if my reaction was the intended result, but I found the collection of "royal lovesongs" amusing and will never look at lettuce the same way again. My favorite work by far, though, was "The Lament for Ur," which I can only describe as hauntingly beautiful: "Ur was transformed before her / into a mourner." The story of the city perfectly captures the universal poignancy of prayer and hope in the face of loss and suffering.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin Kass

    Interesting. I don't know much about ancient Sumer, and the footnotes were very helpful for pointing out meanings I'd otherwise have missed. A few of the pieces, especially the Curse of Akkad, were quite striking. I wanted to know what the first people to start writing felt like putting down, and the book delivered. Interesting. I don't know much about ancient Sumer, and the footnotes were very helpful for pointing out meanings I'd otherwise have missed. A few of the pieces, especially the Curse of Akkad, were quite striking. I wanted to know what the first people to start writing felt like putting down, and the book delivered.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Seph

    Thorkild Jacobsen's final work, "The Harps That Once...," is an erudite analysis of Sumerian literature—presented in beautiful poetic form—that illuminates the inner machinations of Mesopotamian culture and theology, making the spirituality of this most ancient of people accessible to both layman and scholar alike. Thorkild Jacobsen's final work, "The Harps That Once...," is an erudite analysis of Sumerian literature—presented in beautiful poetic form—that illuminates the inner machinations of Mesopotamian culture and theology, making the spirituality of this most ancient of people accessible to both layman and scholar alike.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Danny Adams

    One of the best collections of English-translated pre-Classical poetry out there.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Gishzida

  8. 4 out of 5

    Serafina

  9. 5 out of 5

    Othilie

  10. 5 out of 5

    Alberta Ross

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ummia Gina

  12. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Roney

  13. 5 out of 5

    Anna

  14. 5 out of 5

    James

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mae

  16. 5 out of 5

    Barak

  17. 4 out of 5

    Soke Ahmadi

  18. 4 out of 5

    HK

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kafkasfriend

  20. 5 out of 5

    Babru Samal

  21. 5 out of 5

    Robin

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sandra Jacobson

  24. 4 out of 5

    Erik

  25. 4 out of 5

    James

  26. 4 out of 5

    Selin Gaona

  27. 4 out of 5

    Micah Joel

  28. 5 out of 5

    Zenodotus

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    Sir He-Man

  35. 5 out of 5

    Megan

  36. 4 out of 5

    James

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    Laura

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    Brian

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    Dean Echenberg

  40. 4 out of 5

    Angela Dismuke

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    Christopher

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    Terry Kuny

  45. 4 out of 5

    Frank

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    Brad

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    Michelle

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    Kevin Dunn

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    Anna

  50. 4 out of 5

    David

  51. 4 out of 5

    Lanea

  52. 5 out of 5

    Vicki

  53. 4 out of 5

    Susan

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