Dialogue between a master and his slave; tenth century BC.
Translated from the Sumerian


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“Quick, fetch my chariot, hitch up the horses: I’ll drive to the
palace!””Drive to the palace, my master. Drive to the palace.
The King will be pleased to see you, he will be benevolent to you.”
“No, slave. I won’t go to the palace!”
“Don’t, my master. Don’t go to the palace.
The King will send you on a faraway expedition,
down the unknown road, through hostile mountains;
day and night he will make you experience pain and hardship.”


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“Fetch water, pour it over my hands: I am to eat my supper.”
“Eat your supper, my master. Eat your supper.
Frequent meals gladden one’s heart. Man’s supper
is the supper of his god, and clean hands catch the eye of Shamash.”
“No, slave. I won’t eat my supper!”
“Don’t eat your supper, master. Don’t eat your supper.
Drink and thirst, food and hunger
never leave man alone, let alone each other.”


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“Quick, fetch my chariot, hitch up the horses: I’ll go for a ride in
the country.””Do that, my master. Do that. A carefree wanderer
always fills his belly, a stray dog always
finds a bone, a migrating swallow is especially skilled in nesting,
a wild donkey finds the grass in the driest desert.”
“No, slave. I won’t go for a ride in the country.”
“Don’t go, my master. Don’t bother.
The lot of a wanderer is always dicey.
A stray dog loses its teeth. The nest
of a migrating swallow gets buried in plaster.
Naked earth is a wild donkey’s bedding.”


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“I feel like starting a family, like begetting children.”
“Good thinking, my master. Start a family, start a family.
Who has children secures his name, repeated in posthumous prayers.”
“No, slave. I won’t start a family, I won’t have children!”
“Don’t start it, my master. Don’t have them.
A family is like a broken door, its hinge is creaking.
Only a third of one’s children are healthy; two-thirds always sickly.”
“So, should I start a family?” “Don’t start a family.
Who starts a family wastes his ancestral house.”


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“I shall yield to my enemy;
in the court, I’ll stay silent before my detractors.”
“Right, my master, right. Yield to your enemy;
keep silence, my master, before your detractors.”
“No, slave! I won’t be silent, and I won’t yield!”
“Don’t yield, my master, and don’t be silent.
Even if you don’t open your mouth at all
your enemies will be merciless and cruel to you, as well as numerous.”


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“I feel like doing some evil, eh?”
“Do that, my master. By all means, do some evil.
For how otherwise can you stuff your belly?
How, without doing evil, can you dress yourself warmly?”
“No, slave. I shall do no evil!”
“Evildoers are either killed, or flayed alive and blinded,
or blinded and flayed alive and thrown into a dungeon.”


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“I’ll fall in love with a woman.” “Fall in love, my master. Fall in
love!Who falls in love with a woman forgets his griefs and sorrows.”
“No, slave. I won’t fall in love with a woman!”
“Don’t love, my master. Don’t love.
Woman is a snare, a trap, a dark pit.
Woman is a sharp steel blade slitting man’s throat in darkness.”


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“Quick, fetch water to wash my hands: I am to make an offering to my
god.””Make an offering, make an offering.
Who makes offerings to his god fills his heart with riches;
he feels generous, and his purse is open.”
“No, slave. I won’t make an offering!”
“Rightly so, my master. Rightly so!
Can you really train your god to follow you like a doggy?
All the time he demands obedience, rituals, sacrifices!”


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“I’ll invest with the interest, I will loan for the interest.”
“Yes, invest with the interest, make loans for the interest.
Who does so preserves his own; his profit, though, is enormous.”
“No, slave, I won’t lend and I won’t invest!”
“Don’t invest, my master. Don’t lend.
To lend is like loving a woman; to receive, like siring bad children:
people always curse those whose grain they eat.
They’ll resent you or try to reduce your profit.”


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“I shall do a good deed for my nation!”
“Very good, my master, very good. You do that!
Who does good deeds for his nation has his name in Marduk’s gold
signet.””No, slave. I won’t do a good deed for my nation.”
“Don’t do that, my master. Don’t bother.
Get up and stroll across ancient ruins,
scan the skulls of simple folk and nobles:
which one of them was a villain, which one a benefactor?”


“Slave, come to my service!” “Yes, my master. Yes?”
“If all this is so, then what is good?”
“To have your neck broken and my neck broken,
to be thrown into a river—that’s what is good!
Who is so tall as to reach the heavens?
Who so broad as to embrace plains and mountains?”
“If that’s so, I should kill you slave: I’d rather you go
before me.””And does my master believe that he can survive for three days
without me?”

This text dates back to eleventh or tenth century BC and is known amongSumerian scholars as The Dialogue Of Pessimism. In antiquity it was regarded as a philosophical text; now some argue that this is rather a skit. For my translation, I used two interlinear renditions: one was taken from “Babylonian Wisdom Literature” by W.G. Lambert, Oxford, 1960; the other, from “Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament,” by James B. Pritchard, Princeton, 1955, Ind. ed.

This Issue

November 19, 1987