The logo of the Melammu Project

The Melammu Project

The Heritage of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East

  The Melammu Project
   General description
   Search string
   Browse by topic
   Search keyword
   Submit entry
   Open search
   Thematic search
   Digital Library
   Submit item
   Ancient texts
   Submit link
  Contact us

  The Newsletter
  To Project Information >


Sumerian dispute poems in Callimachus (1)

Printable view
Topics (move over topic to see place in topic list)

12 Assyrian Identity

04 Religious and philosophical literature and poetry

04 Religious and philosophical literature and poetry

3rd century BCE
Hellenistic Empires
Hellenistic poets

In his fourth Iambus, Calimachus tells what he says is an old Lydian story of a quarrel between two trees, a laurel and an olive. They are arguing about which of them is the more important, and they refer to the various uses to which men put them, and to the place they occupy in religious usage. That Callimachus says it is an old Lydian story is not in itself a certain proof of barbarian origin. but this kind of debate between two nonhuman rivals is a standard form in Mesopotamian literature, going back to Sumerian times. In both instances, the quarrel is put ‘in former days’, and the general tone and manner are alike. Here are some extracts from Callimachus:

“Foolish o[live . . . (the laurel speaks)
What house does not have me at its door?
What seer, what sacrificer, does not carry me?
The Pythian priestess seats herself on laurel
And sings of laurel and her floor is laurel …
And I for my part go to feasts and dances
Of Pythaists; and I am made a prize … .”

And the olive in the course of its reply says:

“What has the laurel for fruit? What use to us?
Eat it not, drink it not, use it not for unguent.”

And here is some of the Babylonian dispute between the tamarisk and the palm, from tablets of different dates from about 1700 to about 1000 BCE:

“The Tamarisk opened his mouth and addressed the Palm:
‘Consider what items of your equipment are to be found in the palace. It is from my dish that the king eats. It is from my bread-basket that the warriors eat … I am the exorcist and purify the temple … Where I am not present the king does not libate … My rites are performed, and my twigs are heaped up on the ground … ‘”

And the palm in the course of its speech says:

“You, Tamarisk, are a useless tree. What are your branches? Wood without fruit!”

And then the palm, just like the olive in Callimachus, goes on to praise the qualities of its own fruit. Clearly then, this is a case of the passage of Near Eastern material into Greek literature.

Source (list of abbreviations)
Callimachus, Iambi 4


West 1969, 118-119West, Martin L. “Near Eastern material in Hellenistic and Roman literature.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 73 (1969) 113-134. [JSTOR (requires subscription)]

Links (external links will open in a new browser window)
Sumerian dispute poems

Erik van Dongen

URL for this entry:

No pictures