The Tale of the Poor Man of Nippur
Artifact: Clay tablet
Period: Neo-Assyrian (ca. 911-612 BC)
Current location: Archaeological Museum, Ankara
Text genre, language: Literary; Akkadian
CDLI page and here for translation on CDLI
Description: Discovered at Sultantepe in 1952 and published by O.R. Gurney in 1956, the so-called 'Tale of the Poor Man of Nippur' caused a stir as the first example of an Akkadian 'humorous tale'. Studies of the work by Gurney (1972) and Heda Jason (1979) revealed remarkable similarities to folktales still in circulation in modern times, including one collected by Burton for the Arabian Nights ('The Tale of the First Larrikin') and folktales collected around Europe and the Middle East in the 20th century.
The tablet tells a story of a man fallen on hard times who resolves to give a goat as a gift to the mayor of Nippur. He imagines that he will be invited to share in the feast, and win some favour with the powerful in the process. Instead he is insulted by Nippur's corrupt mayor and vows to take threefold revenge. This he does, through a series of tricks and disguises. The tale is replete with role reversals, ironic subversion of expectations, and pointed puncturing of pomposity, as well as some good slapstick violence: the stuff of humour down the ages. A colophon on the tablet (S.U. 51/78) tells us that it was copied by trainee scribe Nabû-riḫtu-uṣur 'for the perusal of Qurdi-Nergal'. A second small fragment of this text was also discovered at Sultantepe, and another in the library of Ashurbanipal. However, without S.U. 51/78, we would have no access to this work of Akkadian literature whose discovery was so revolutionary, both in the world of assyriology and in folkloristics, where it has also attracted great attention. (Eva Miller, University of Oxford)