Iltani had not seen Tabbija for two days, a long time to contemplate the situation. Tabbija had made a choice, and Iltani decided, as her friend, she was duty-bound to support her. When they met again, Iltani revealed her concerns, and so did Tabbija.
Tabbija spoke very little about Liwira-ana-ilim except to say that he was extremely able and hardworking. In addition to overseeing Tabbija’s land, he managed the property of an elderly couple who were childless and well off. He hoped that in return they would adopt him and leave their land to him when they died.
During the three days festivities, when she knew no one would miss her, she had escaped from the gagû to meet Liwira-ana-ilim. Her face was radiant as she confessed. Iltani did not ask, but assumed there was no real physical relationship between Tabbija and Liwira-ana-ilim, otherwise she might have conceived a child, and if she had, that the gagû authorities would probably take serious measures against her.
Iltani did not know that Tabbija, the daughter of a physician, had been refining her natural skills she had inherited form her father, and used herbs as a means of contraception.
“I’m lonely. I have never been alone before, without my family. It is so difficult,” Iltani said.
“You have your aunt here. She’s family, isn’t she?”
“Yes, but I don’t know. She avoids me.”
“She never takes me anywhere, she rarely eats with me, she hardly speaks, and when she does, she keeps the conversations short.”
“Perhaps she’s unaccustomed to having people around. She’s lived so many years on her own. The nadītu I live with more or less ignored me at first, but in time, she got used to me, and today we are friends. But I did not tell her about Liwira-ana-ilim.”
“Maybe you’re right about Amat-Šamaš. But I have the feeling there’s more to it than that.” Iltani hugged her knees, curling up. “Most of all I miss Sin-rēmēni,” Iltani whispered.
“Give it time,” Tabbija said, putting her arm around her. “You’ll feel better once you start your lessons with the scribe. Many of the nadītu don’t want to be here at first, but eventually they find peace, and so will you. I am not the typical nadītu. You would not believe how clever and accomplished some nadītu are. A few of them have tripled their inheritance, living a very luxurious life.”
“I suppose you’re right. I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I am, after all, where I want to be,” Iltani answered.
* * *
“Have something to eat. You will be hungry later on,” said Mattaki to Iltani.
“I can’t. I feel a fluttering in my stomach. Amat-Mamu’s servant will be here any moment.” She ran to see if anyone was at the entrance.
She had finally received an invitation from Amat-Mamu to come for her first lesson in the scribal arts, and the servant would be coming to take her to Amat-Mamu’s house.
“At least eat some dried figs, they are so sweet,” said Mattaki. Iltani took one from the bowl, her hands trembling with excitement. She almost knocked over a jug of beer. What a bad omen that would have been, she thought with relief.
A plumpish woman entered the courtyard. “May Aja protect this house and those who live in it,” she said in a high pitched voice. “You must be Iltani. I have come to take you to Amat-Mamu. Are you ready?”
“Yes, yes.” Iltani jumped up and smoothed her dress to make a good impression.
* * *
Amat-Mamu’s house looked enormous. From the courtyard, Iltani counted five entrances to the different rooms, more than her own family had. The servant led her to a room full of tablets that were scattered on wooden shelves along the wall and packed into reed hampers on the floor. Everywhere she looked, she saw clay tablets in different sizes.
“By Šamaš and Aja!” she exclaimed in astonishment. There were far more clay tablets here then her father had. She had never seen so many in one room before.
“Please do not touch anything until Amat-Mamu arrives,” said the servant, and with a nod of her head, she left the room.
Iltani had to fight the urge to pick up one of the tablets. But she would never have done such a thing without permission. There were several cushions on the floor and beside them a small basket and a pile of styluses and unshaped reeds. Iltani tried to imagine what they would do this first lesson. Perhaps Amat-Mamu will be interested in what she has learned with Abu, or ask her to inscribe a few signs. That’s what she hoped at least. Whatever happened, she told herself, she would do her best and not take offense if Amat-Mamu treated her harshly, as Abu had warned she might.
“Ah, you’re here,” said Amat-Mamu hurriedly as she walked in. Amat-Mamu was shorter by a half a head than Iltani. She was a compact, plump little woman, with grey hair secured tightly in a knot.
“Your first lesson will consist of watching me write an urgent letter,” she said taking clay out of the hamper and a few reed styluses. “Don’t just stand there,” she said beckoning Iltani, who was too perplexed to move. “And whatever you see, you must not, I repeat, you must not say a word or make a noise, even if you’re startled.”
Iltani followed Amat-Mamu out of the house, fearful and disappointed. Where was her teacher taking her? She was walking so fast Iltani could hardly keep up. So they would not read or write anything today, it seemed.
Amat-Mamu did not slow down or talk as they crossed the gagû. None of the houses looked familiar and Iltani was sure, that left alone here, she would have been terribly lost. They stopped at a small house. “Not a word,” Amat-Mamu put her finger to her lips as they entered the courtyard. The house was even smaller than her aunt’s, and badly in need of repair. In the courtyard stood an older nadītu, holding a clay pot over burning coal. “She is inside; she awaits you. I have given her a soothing remedy to drink, but the bruises and wounds . . . are very bad. She will need time and my best herbs to heal.”
Iltani was frightened. What had happened? Apparently something very bad. But who would dare hurt a nadītu? They . . . we, she reminded herself, are under the protection of Šamaš and Aja. Anyone who tries to hurt us will incur the wrath of the gods.
As they entered a small room, Iltani, following close behind, saw a woman sitting on a mattress. The woman’s eyes were red and swollen from crying. But what was worse, there were raw lash marks on her arms and legs. It looked as though she had been severely whipped. She was dressed in a thin white shift that revealed the bleeding gashes on her back. Iltani was so distressed by the sight she wanted to run away.
“Tell me what happened,” Amat-Mamu said soothingly, no longer brusque.
Eli-eresa, the young nadītu, spoke slowly.
“I sewed a garment for a man named Sin-iddinam and delivered it to him. He promised he would pay me the following day, but when I went to collect what he owed me, he did not pay. A day passed, a week passed, still he did not pay. I sent three messengers and they all came back empty-handed. When three months had gone by, I went to see him again, but he would only agree to pay me half the sum. When I went to see him again, instead of paying me what he still owed me, he gave me a thrashing.”
The room was so quiet Iltani was afraid they could hear her breathing.
“And what is worse,” Eli-eresa continued, “he bragged that he beat five other nadītu. How could such a thing happen? How did we not know of this?” she asked in anguish. “Why did those nadītu not report it to the overseer, Rapaš-şilli-Ea?”
Iltani was so shaken she barely noticed that Amat-Mamu had had been taking down Eli-eresa’s story on a clay tablet.
“Here, I have written a letter,” said Amat-Mamu. “Not to the overseer but to a judge. I’ll deliver it to him myself if you like. Shall I read it to you?”
“To my lord say; thus (says) Eli-eresa.
I sold Sin-iddinam son of Ilšu-bani, a citizen of my city, Sippar, a garment. After he wore the garment for three months, he paid me a lower price, holding back half a shekel from the original price of the garment.
I went to him, to remind him to give me the rest of the money, but instead he beat me viciously; as if I were not a servant of Šamaš.
He has treated me in a way which is not acceptable in this land!
The next day I went to him, and said: “Why have you treated me this way?”
Thus he said: “I have beaten five nadītu of Šamaš, besides you.
I will pay only those I wish to pay! No one takes anything from me.”
My lord, you are my judge, pass a verdict on the case I have with Sin-iddinam.”
As they were leaving, Iltani noticed the older nadītu was smearing a brown ointment on Eli-eresa’s wounds. This woman looked familiar, yet Iltani could not remember from where.
Amat-Mamu was silent all the way back and Iltani was too distraught to ask any questions.
Just before reaching the house, Amat-Mamu turned to Iltani and asked: “What did you learn today that is worth remembering?”
Iltani was speechless. What had she learned today that was worth remembering? Nothing about the art of the scribe. What she had learned was that all her notions about the life of a nadītu were perhaps the notions of a silly child, provided to her by her trusting Abu. That was her lesson for today.
Amat-Mamu observed her, waiting for a response. As none came, she said: “A scribe should be seen and not heard. And our services are not limited to those who pay us to write down and witness their business contracts. As nadītu scribes we must help our friends. I know that you will never forget what you saw today and that will make you a better scribe. A scribe whose hand competes with his mouth is indeed a scribe. A scribe who writes without error and without asking the speaker to repeat himself need never sew garments for a living.” Amat-Mamu held Iltani’s gaze until Iltani looked down at her feet and said, “Yes, Mistress, I understand.”
* * *
When Iltani arrived at home she found her aunt Amat-Šamaš sitting in the garden.
“How was your first lesson?” she asked.
Iltani ran to her room and fell on her mattress, her body shaking with sobs.
Amat-Šamaš, who had kept her distance until now, could not but feel for the girl. Beginnings were hard on every nadītu, even those as cheerful and lively as Iltani. She entered Iltani’s room, sat down next to her and stroked her hair.
“What is it Iltani?” she asked softly, removing some of the mental boundaries she had set.
Lying face down in her despair, Iltani told her aunt what had happened. Amat-Šamaš stroked her hair, the first sign of affection she had ever shown. Soothed and comforted, Iltani’s sobbing subsided.
Amat-Šamaš was torn. She longed to be close to Iltani, to offer her the warmth and protection she needed, yet she dreaded the consequences of revealing her secret. How would it affect Iltani, Iltani’s mother, the honor of the family? Seeing this young girl, facing hardship so courageously, she let down her guard—for both their sakes. After all, one day she would need Iltani to nurse her, perhaps even sooner than she imagined.
“Come, Iltani, let’s have something to drink in the garden. That will make you feel better,” and she stood up, waiting for Iltani to follow.
Iltani, picked herself up from the mattress, washed her face and joined Amat-Šamaš. They spoke about the days ahead, and Amat-Šamaš told Iltani about her friend Kunutum, but not about the past which had brought her to the gagû. Tentatively, cautiously, she allowed Iltani into her heart.
The following morning Iltani accompanied Amat-Šamaš to the temple, yet when she asked to join her at other times, her aunt declined.
* * *
A few days later, Amat-Mamu’s servant came again to fetch Iltani for her second lesson. This time Iltani was more apprehensive about going. However once in Amat-Mamu’s room, after being reminded not to touch anything, she gazed around in amazement. Again she was mesmerized by the quantity of tablets in the room. The smell of clay reminded her of her father’s library.
“May Šamaš and Aja keep you well,” said Amat-Mamu as she entered. Iltani greeted her and awaited her instructions.
“How is your Sumerian?” asked Amat-Mamu.
“Not very good. I know a few words, a smattering of signs.”
“Well, that is the first thing you will have to learn. A scribe worthy of the name must know how to read and write Sumerian.”
Amat-Mamu examined the tablets on the shelf, picked one up and handed it to Iltani. Then she took clay and two reed styluses from the hamper and set them down on the mat beside Iltani.
“Let’s begin with this,” she said, having deftly shaped the clay into a tablet small enough to fit into her palm and engraved a sign. “This is DINGIR. It can mean Anum, the sky god, or merely sky or god. Or when used in Akkadian, it merely stands for the sound an.”
Iltani already knew that sign but decided not to boast, sensing that Amat-Mamu would not like it.
“This is the sign for É in Sumerian and bītum (house) in Akkadian. When you add GAL, meaning rabûm (great) in Akkadian you have É.GAL which means ekallum (the palace).”
Amat-Mamu taught Iltani five more Sumerian signs and explained their alternate functions in Akkadian. Iltani concentrated as well as she could; it was not easy to remember everything.
Amat-Mamu showed Iltani how to press the signs into the damp clay and Iltani copied them one by one, repeating the functions Amat-Mamu had just taught her. That done, Amat-Mamu brought her a middle-sized tablet, divided vertically, with a sign on one side and several signs facing it.
“This is the list all scribes must learn by heart—the Sumerian signs are on the left and the Akkadian equivalents are on the right.”
Some of the signs, Iltani saw, were the same she had just pressed into the practice-tablet.
“Take this tablet home with you and by next lesson learn all the Sumerian words, and their meanings, and all the other values in Akkadian. Practice inscribing them and when you’re sure you’ve mastered them, make a good, clean copy of this tablet for yourself, and bring this one back to me. One of my servants will walk you home with more clay and reeds to work with. I assume you know how to sharpen your own reed stylus,” she said rather than asked.
“Yes I do. Thank you for the lesson,” Iltani answered. She wanted to tell Amat-Mamu how thrilled she was to begin the real curriculum, but feared she would not approve of such exuberance.
“I will send my servant to fetch you for your lesson next week. I am sure you will be quite busy until then.” She stood up and summoned a servant to accompany Iltani home with a supply of clay and a bundle of reeds.
On the way back, Iltani reviewed the new signs in her mind. She was excited again. She felt alive. The difficult beginning was over now, it seemed. Her aunt was warming up to her, and she was finally learning the art of the scribe, just like a pupil in the É-DUBBA. She returned home with a new lightness of heart.
Shirley Graetz was born in Dusseldorf, Germany. In her early twenties she went to Israel to study and stayed for good. In 2013 she received her Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern studies from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. She teaches about the history of Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East and is a licensed tour-guide. She is married to Rabbi Tzvi Graetz and is the mother of three young children.
Read an interview with Shirley Graetz.