The Songbird: Linking Music and Blindness in Ancient Babylonia

Eric J. Harvey

In the middle of the 17th century BCE, there was a young blind girl living in the northern regions of the fading Old Babylonian empire. She was called Shinunutum, named after a small mountain bird with a striking song.[1] We know almost nothing of this girl, except that one day, shortly after midwinter in the year 1661, her life changed. She was to be a musician, dedicated to song like her namesake bird, and she was brought from her home in an unknown town to begin her training in the city of Kish.

This lonely detail of a life long past survives because the Babylonians kept diligent records. Most empires do, of course, but the Babylonians wrote theirs on clay tablets that could survive, more or less intact, for millennia.

And among these records, these thousands upon unending thousands of letters, receipts, contracts, court documents, lists of agricultural yields, taxes, offerings, and ration distributions, we find many such details—isolated moments from the lives of real people unchanged and unedited for thousands of years. These were strictly functional documents, written not for posterity but for parties who already understood the context and cultural conventions. They offer a level of accuracy and realism unparalleled in ancient art and literature,[2] but they make no attempt to explain themselves and their contents are often intriguing but elusive.

Image shows a fired clay figurine of a female holding a small drum against her breast.
A small (5.7 cm) baked clay figurine of a female musician with a handheld drum against her breast. Like Shinunutum, the figurine dates to the Old Babylonian period, but it was discovered in the city of Ur, far to the south of Kish. Photograph by The Ur Project. © Trustees of the British Museum. Used under Creative Commons License (CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0).

The tablet that mentions Shinunutum is not much more than a lump of clay a few centimeters across, bearing just ten lines of cuneiform script in the Old Babylonian dialect. It was found somewhere in or near the site of ancient Kish, and now resides at the University of Manchester Museum in Manchester, England.[3] My translation of the short document reads:[4]

On the 18th day of the month of Tebitum,[5] they brought Shinunutum the blind girl[6] here before me to learn the art of music.

(Written on) the [broken]th  day of Tebitum, in the Year When King Ammi-Ditana Set Up Statues of Himself and Protective Deities in the Ebabbar temple.[7]

And this is it, a note meant only to confirm the transfer of Shinunutum’s residence and guardianship and its date. Everything else remains obscure—already known by the parties involved but now lost to time. Who was the teacher, and who were the “they” who brought her? Where was “here,” where was she brought from, and what were the terms of her education? It is impossible to know the specifics of Shinunutum’s situation, but information from other sources can help, at the very least, to place it in better context.

It is likely, for example, that this note confirmed compliance with a prior, more complete agreement. Assyriologists have discovered written apprenticeship contracts in Babylonia that name parties and stipulate the terms and penalties for breach of contract, but these date from a millennium or more after Shinunutum’s time.[8] In the Old Babylonian period, we know that apprenticeship was a formal arrangement with legal responsibilities and consequences,[9] but not whether it was governed by written contracts, verbal agreements, or cultural convention.

So apprenticeship was known, but what of Shinunutum’s specific circumstances? Was it common for the blind to become musicians? To work at all?

For this we must cast about once more among the records, looking for references to other blind Mesopotamians. Dozens of such references survive in the archives of the Third Dynasty of Ur, a southern Sumerian city that dominated most of Mesopotamia about four hundred years before Shinunutum’s lifetime. In this vibrant period blind workers occupied positions in many areas of society.[10] Some jobs, like water-drawing and flour-milling, gave simple and sedentary work to newly-blind adults and prisoners of war who had been blinded in vengeance, but many others required skill and expertise.[11] Among the best attested occupations for blind people, in fact, was music. Lists of ration distributions from the cities of Umma and Girsu preserve the names of eleven blind musicians (eight male and three female), making it the third most common occupation after milling and water-drawing.

Their presence on distribution lists suggests that these blind musicians were either slaves or shirku (individuals bound to a temple),[12] and it is likely that Shinunutum was as well. As such she would have had little say in her education or career, but this is unsurprising—few people did at the time. Throughout Mesopotamian history, a person’s station in life was largely a function of heredity and the perceived will of the gods.

This principle is illustrated explicitly in the Sumerian myth known as Enki and Ninmah, which gives an account of the origins of disability.[13] After creating humankind to do their work for them, the self-satisfied gods throw a feast and drink beer until “their hearts became elated” (lines 52-53). Ninmah, the divine womb, drunkenly boasts that she forms each human being, and their fate in life depends on whether she makes their bodies good or bad.

The shrewd high god Enki—ever on the side of the underdog—responds that he can countermand her designs and decree a good fate for anyone, no matter their physical condition.

Thus challenged, Ninmah begins to create people with a variety of deformities and disabilities, but Enki is able to find a respectable occupation for each of them. She creates one who cannot bend his fingers and one with an intellectual disability; Enki sets both of them in the king’s service. He teaches a man who cannot walk to be a silversmith, makes the intersex person a palace eunuch, and trains the barren woman to weave rich cloth. To the blind man he gives the art of music and installs him as chief musician in the royal court.[14]

Remarkably, only one man is healed of his infirmity, the one “who cannot hold back his urine.” Otherwise, Enki places Ninmah’s creations in positions where they can contribute and excel as disabled people. Furthermore, they are not consigned to menial or low status work, but placed in positions with prestige and proximity to power.

Troubling as it is for this myth to locate the origin of disability in a drunken divine power struggle, it also contains a realism and a productiveness that sets it apart from most other literature, ancient and modern. It acknowledges that the world we inhabit is populated by people with various disabilities, working in all manner of positions at even the highest strata of society, but it forces no pity upon them. It does not consign them to beggary, require their healing, or grant them compensating supernatural powers. Ninmah’s creations remain as they were made, for the most part, and still contribute.

And we know this is no mere mythological fancy, because we see it illustrated in the mundane records of everyday life, sources whose authors were interested in documenting their financial and institutional transactions with accuracy and efficiency, not developing potent narrative, symbolism, or characterization.

Myth and lived experience work together to shape the values of a community, and we find blind musicians represented in Mesopotamian texts from both of these spheres. I cannot help but wonder if Enki and Ninmah itself played some role, large or small, in the course of Shinunutum’s life.[15] Perhaps the myth (or its ideas) was well-known, inspiring her guardians to enroll her in musical training. Or perhaps she encountered it later, as she filled out her repertoire with the classic works of Sumerian and Babylonian literature.

If she did hear it, I hope she smiled, because it confirmed something she had always known—that the blind and disabled have potential to succeed as they are, when the gods (and the community) allow it.

—Eric J. Harvey holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. He studies the historical transmission and development of sacred Near Eastern texts and issues of disability and accommodation in the ancient world. Find him at his blog, www.blindscholar.com, and follow him on Twitter @blind_scholar or Facebook at Blind Scholar.


[1] Or perhaps the southern constellation that resembled the bird. See Erica Reiner, et al., (eds.), The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Volume 17: Š Part III (Ann Arbor, MI: Cushing-Malloy, 1992), 55-56. References to this dictionary will hereafter be abbreviated CAD.

[2] Blind characters are common in Greek myth, for example. These representations provide an important witness to concepts of blindness and blind people as fact, symbol, and metaphor in their socio-historical milieu, but concern for accuracy is generally subordinated to literary and stylistic goals. In Egyptian tomb art, the so-called “blind (solo) harpist” motif appears frequently, but its interpretation requires caution on two fronts: first, it may represent a symbolic artistic convention that did not reflect the actual prevalence of blindness among harpists (cf. Lisa Mannish, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt [London: British Museum Press, 1991]). Second and perhaps more importantly, these depictions may not have portrayed the harpists as blind at all. The various artistic elements that have been historically interpreted as indications of visual disability could have different explanations—absent pupils could result from the degradation of the original paintings, and closed eyes could just be closed eyes. Thus, the nature and significance of these paintings cannot be determined for certain. Understanding them as straightforward representations of lived experience, therefore, cannot be done without qualification. In the Mesopotamian sphere itself, literary depictions of blindness are rare, and blindness in visual art is (as far as I know) nonexistent.

[3] The tablet is held by the University of Manchester Museum in Manchester, England, item’s museum reference  number is UMM G 40. The text is published in Emile Szlechter, Tablettes juridiques et administratives de la IIIe Dynastie d’Ur et de la Ire. Dynastie de Babylon (Paris: Recuell Sirey, 1959), no. 151. Unfortunately, many cuneiform tablets are not excavated in credible scientific archaeological excavations, and information regarding provenance is often uncertain or insufficient. The University Museum cites the origin of this tablet as Kish, but Szlechter (p. ix) identifies it as an unknown provenance in northern Babylonia.

[4] The Akkadian text of UMM G 40 reads as follows (bracketed text represents a broken portion of the tablet on which the text has been reconstructed).

1   iš-tu ITI Tebītum

     UD.18.KAM

     ši-nu-nu-tum IGI.NU

     a-na na-ru-tum a-ḫa-zi-im

5   a-na ma-aḫ-ri-ia

     ub-lu-ni-iš

——————————————————

     ITI Tebītum UD.[x-KA]M

     MU Am-mi-di-t[a-na LUGAL-e]

     ALAN-[ALAN-A-NI ù dLam]ma dLamma

10 É-BAB[BAR-RA-Š]È I[N-NA-TU-R]A

[5] Tebitum was the tenth month in the Babylonian calendar. Since Mesopotamians used a lunar calendar, the time of year varied somewhat, but it generally fell somewhere in the range of December-February in the Julian calendar.

[6] The logographic writing IGI.NU reflects the Old Babylonian lā nātiltum, literally “one (fem. who does not see.” This was a general term for blindness, but usually described blindness by natural causes (I.e., congenital or by diseases like cataracts). Old Babylonian had a separate word for those blinded by accident or violence, ḫuppudu (sometimes written IGI.BAL). See CAD N/2, 122, and CAD Ḫ, 240.

[7] During the Old Babylonian period, years were identified by one or more specific things the ruler had accomplished during that year. Official scribal year lists allow us to reconstruct the internal chronology of the Old Babylonian period accurately, but it is more difficult to link this relative chronology to absolute dates. For the year names of Old Babylonian rulers, see the helpful resource at the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI), Year Names of Ammi-Ditana.

[8] See Johannes Hackl, “Apprenticeship Contracts,” in Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium bc: Economic Geography, Economic Mentalities, Agriculture, the Use of Money and the Problem of Economic Growth. (ed. Michael Jursa; AOAT 377; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010), 700-725. Of the 25 or so apprenticeship contracts that have been discovered from the Neo-Babylonian (ca. 620-539 BCE) and Late Babylonian period (after 539 BCE), only one concerns the education of a musician. The arrangement in that contract set the training period at three years, and the teacher’s payment at fifteen shiqlu of silver. The text is BE 8/1 98; see ,Albert T. Clay, The Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pensylvania, Series A: Cuneiform Texts, Volume VIII, Part I (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1908), no. 98.

[9] See the Code of Hammurabi, §188–189 in Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (2nd ed.; Atlanta, GA: SBL Press,1997), 119.

[10] Wolfgang Heimpel, “Blind Workers in ur-III Texts,” KASKAL 9 (2009), 43-48 (esp. table on pp. 45-46. Evidence for blind workers in the Middle Babylonian/Kassite period can be found inJonathan S. Tenney, Life at the bottom of Babylonian Society: Servile Laborers at Nippur in the 14th and 13th Centuries BCE (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 61-62.

[11] The full list includes weaving, laundry, water-drawing, flour-milling, “grass-carrying,” dock work, fishing, shepherding, ox driving, and grooming livestock, as well as one or two job titles that are still not understood. One distribution is also made to an elderly blind man who can no longer work. See Heimpel, “Blind Workers,” 45-46.

[12] So Heimpel, “Blind Workers,” 46-7. For the limitations and protections imposed by the status of shirku, see CAD Š/3, 106-110. The shirku were bound to a temple and could not leave, but they were also not subject to buying and selling, as were private slaves. People could become shirku because their parents or owners gifted them to the temple, and the position could also be hereditary. I speculate that blind children were sometimes given to temples for training in music to ensure their livelihood, since music was known to be a possible occupation for blind people and only large institutions like the temple and the palace could support full-time artists and skilled craftspeople.

[13] The full text of this myth can be found at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL) in Sumerian and English translation. See also W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns), 330-345, for an edition and bibliography.

[14] This myth, in which a man is created blind, then given music as a profession, provides an interesting point of comparison with the better known characters of Themyris and Demodocus from the Iliad and Odyssey, respectively. Themyris was a talented musician who boasted that he could outsing the muses—a crime for which he was blinded and bereaved of musical ability. Demodocus was beloved by the muses, who blinded him but also gave him the gift of music as compensation for his lost sight. For discussion of these two characters, as well as the origins of the legend of Homer as a blind poet, see Claudia Michel, “Blindness and Blinding in the Homeric Odyssey,” in Gaze, Vision, and Visuality in Ancient Greek Literature (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2018), 78-83.

[15] It is entirely possible that she came into contact with this story, since the three best-preserved copies date to the Old Babylonian period, during which inunutum lived. See Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths, 335.