May the Grass Grow Long

Hierarchy and Destruction in Ancient Mesopotamian Lamentation


  • Petra Ellerby Western Washington University Honors Program


hierarchy, status, religion, disaster


Many of the texts which form the backbone of this brief paper reside in a class of composition that eludes facile categorical definition. Indeed, as "there is no absolute scholarly consensus on a list of [ancient Near Eastern] texts that might be described as 'historical' or 'historiographic' writing", my analysis of Mesopotamian myths, poems, and city laments must focus on a particular use of evidence.1 Rather than embarking upon a quest for chronological certainty, this work will employ an emic perspective with a cultural insight as its goal. In this manner, I hope to ascertain how local populations conceived and perceived their own social order. So while the sources I employ may be "of doubtful value for the program of an histoire événementielle, they will—if approached on their own terms—tell us a great deal about the social and political matrix of early Babylonia, through their vision of history as a symbolic or mythical reality".2 The place of hierarchy and disaster in that native vision of history is what this essay seeks to unearth. 

Through an holistic treatment of nine ancient Near Eastern literary works, I aim to provide a portrait of a key Mesopotamian conceit: the interaction of ruin and social order. Breaches of hierarchical norms precipitate suffering in the poems, dialogs, and myths which form the first half of my examination, and sorrow is often expressed as a disintegration of status and society in the city laments which are treated in the latter portion of this paper. Ties between rank, religion, and cross-hierarchical cooperation become clear as we progress from a focus on individual suffering to an examination of the fall of cities as chronicled in the Laments for Akkad, Eridu, and Uruk. As I will argue, these reckonings of disaster ultimately reinforce the centrality of hierarchy and its divine backing in the self-expressed functioning of Mesopotamian civilization. 

I focus, then, on "mythological history as a subject in itself".3 What the Mesopotamians thought of calamity matters more to my inquiry than any factual reconstruction of collapse ever could. For while the latter would no doubt provide compelling evidence of social disintegration and its concrete role in the fall of states and cities, it can only tell us so much about the deeper structure and significance of ancient Near Eastern hierarchy. For that, we must listen to the Mesopotamians themselves.