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Tale of Game in Sumer, Possibly Using Ball and Mallet.

Salience Peripheral
Tags Ball in the Culture
City/State/Country: Sumer (Southern Mesopotamia, now in Iraq).
Game Unknown
Age of Players Adult

Gilgamesh was a celebrated Sumerian king who probably reigned 2800-2500 BCE.  His legend appears in several later poems.  

In one, he drops a mikku and a pukku, used in a ceremony or game, into the underworld.

One scholar, Andrew George, suggests that the objects were a ball and a mallet.  George translates the game played as something like a polo game where humans are ridden instead of horses.

When the two objects are lost, Gilgamesh is said in this interpretation to weep;

'O my ball!  O my mallet!

O my ball, which I have not enjoyed to the full!

O my mallet, with which I have not had my fill of play!'



The Epic of Gilgamesh, dated as early at 2100 BCE.

Mark Pestana, who tipped Protoball off on the Sumerian reference, suggest two texts for further insight: 

[1] Damrosch, David, The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh (New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007).  For specific reference to the ball & mallet, page 232. Damrosch’s comment on the primacy of Andrew George’s interpretation: “For Gilgamesh, the starting point is Andrew George’s The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation. . . "This is the best and most complete translation of the epic ever published, including newly discovered passages not included in any other translation.” (Damrosch, page 295)

[2] George, Andrew, The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (London, England: Penguin Books, 1999). This book includes a complete translation of the Standard version, a generous helping of fragments of the Old Babylonian version, plus the Sumerian “ur-texts” of the individual Gilgamesh poems. The quote I included describing the ball game is to be found on page 183.

 In the Supplemental Text, below, we provide an excerpt from a translation by Andrew George from his "Gilgamesh and the Netherworld."  


Mark Pestana, who submitted this item to Protoball, observes, "Polo?  Croquet? Golf? Rounders?  I think it's interesting that the spot of the ball is marked at the end of the first day."

See Mark's full coverage in the Supplemental Text, below.

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Have other scholars commented on Mr. George's ballplaying interpretation of the Gilgamesh epic? 

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Submitted by Mark Pestana
Submission Note Emails of 4/23/2018 and 4/28/2018.
Has Supplemental Text Yes


<comments voting="Plus" />

Supplemental Text

Email to Protoball, April 23, 2018, from Mark Pestana

Here is my “brief” on the Gilgamesh story involving (possibly) bat & ball play. I don’t know what you want to make of it, if anything, but I offer it up for what it’s worth.
-Mark Pestana

Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king who probably lived sometime between 2800-2500 BC. The version of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” most familiar to modern literary students is an amalgam of legends that were first written down as independent poems possibly as far back as 2100 BC. These poems were combined first in what is known as the "Old Babylonian" version (approx. 18th century BC) and later in what is known as the "Standard" version (13th-10th century BC).

In the broadest terms, the Epic concerns, first, the adventures of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, and then, Gilgamesh’s existential quest that begins after Enkidu’s death. The poem’s initial fame, at the time of its mid-19th century discovery, focused on the fact that it corroborated the Biblical story of The Flood.

The Standard version comes down to us in the form of 12 cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets. The main epic narrative fills the first 11 tablets, and tells a complete story. The 12th tablet, which may seem at first like a later addition, is in fact a rendering of one of the early independent Gilgamesh poems. Incongruously, Enkidu appears alive in this final tablet; on the other hand, the vision of the “Netherworld” that consumes most of the tablet brings the Epic to a fittingly somber and haunting close.

It is in the final tablet that a possible reference to an ancient bat and ball game appears. Possible, because there remains uncertainty as to the translation of a couple of key words.

Tablet 12 begins with Gilgamesh lamenting the loss of two objects, his mikku and pukku, which have somehow fallen through a hole into the underworld. His devoted Enkidu volunteers for the dangerous task of going down to retrieve them. The meanings of mikku and pukku have not been definitively ascertained. Some have understood them to be musical instruments, such as a drum and drumstick, used in a shamanic ritual by Gilgamesh.

In perhaps the most highly-regarded modern edition, however, that of Andrew George of the University of London, the lost objects are defined as playthings: the mikku, a type of bat or mallet, and the pukku, a wooden ball. Both have been fashioned from a sacred tree belonging to the goddess Ishtar. The Standard version is condensed; we must go back to the oldest Sumerian Gilgamesh poems to get a fuller picture.

In “Gilgamesh and the Netherworld” Andrew George renders a play-by-play of something that looks like a “polo” game, with a most interesting twist - humans in place of horses:
Playing with the ball, he [Gilgamesh] took it out in the city square…
The young men of his city began playing with the ball,
With him mounted piggy-back on a band of widows’ sons.
‘O my neck! O my hips!’ they groaned…
When evening was approaching,
He drew a mark where his ball had been placed,
He lifted it up before him and carried it off to his house.
At dawn, where he had made the mark, he mounted piggy-back,
But at the complaint of the widows
And the outcry of the young girls,
His ball and his mallet both fell down to the bottom of the Netherworld…
He used his hand, he could not reach it…
Racked with sobs Gilgamesh began to weep:
‘O my ball! O my mallet!
O my ball, which I have not enjoyed to the full!
O my mallet, with which I have not had my fill of play!’

Polo? Croquet? Golf? Rounders? I think it’s interesting that the spot of the ball is specifically marked at the end of the first day of play. Also, are there two different games here? At first, the young men are “playing with the ball,” but then the game seems to change as Gilgamesh mounts his human steeds and the youths turn to groaning, and their mothers’ and girlfriends complain about their treatment.

It is at this point that Tablet 12 of the Standard version picks up the tale, and the narrative shifts to discovering the unfolding levels of woe that await in the underworld, more haunting than Dante’s Inferno, without the fire and brimstone of the Italian’s harsh vision.