Happy Mother’s Day! - Ancient Sumerian Tablets Reveal Ungrateful Children

May 12, 2024

In a collection of Sumerian clay tablets published by the University of Chicago, you will find ancient text from literally the beginning of history that reveal that the challenges of motherhood have remained remarkably consistent. These tablets, are among the one hundred and fifty letters written in Akkadian with earliest date from the time of King Sargon of Akkad (about 2334-2279 B.C.E.), the latest from the period of Persian domination over Mesopotamia (beginning 539 B.C.E.). They showcase the complaints of ungrateful children who were dissatisfied with the clothes and accessories their mothers provided them, echoing the perennial narrative of maternal challenges.

The first tablet contains a letter from a young man named Iddin-Sin to his mother, Lady Zinû. In his correspondence, Iddin-Sin expresses his frustration with the quality and quantity of clothes his mother has been sending him. He invokes the gods Jamas (Shamash), Marduk, and Ilabrat to wish his mother good health, but swiftly shifts to articulate his grievances, crafting a narrative that is as revealing as it is reproachful.

Iddin-Sin complains that while the clothes of other young men improve year after year, his mother has been sending him increasingly worse and fewer clothes. Despite the abundance of wool in their household, Zinû has made him poor-quality garments. He compares his situation to that of the adopted son of Adad-iddinam, who has received two new sets of clothes, while Zinû fusses about giving Iddin-Sin even one set. The letter concludes with Iddin-Sin expressing his feelings of being unloved by his biological mother, in stark contrast to the love shown by the adoptive mother of Adad-iddinam's son.

Tell the Lady Zinû: Iddin-Sin sends the following message:

May the gods Jamas, Marduk, and Ilabrat keep you forever in good health for my sake.

From year to year, the clothes of the (young) gentlemen here become better, but you let my clothes get worse from year to year. Indeed, you persisted in making my clothes poorer and more scanty. At a time when in our house wool is used up like bread, you have made me poor clothes. The son of Adad-iddinam, whose father is only an assistant of my father, (has) two new sets of clothes [break] while you fuss even about a single set of clothes for me. In spite of the fact that you bore me and his mother only adopted him, his mother loves him, while you, you do not love me! - TCL 18 III


The second tablet, also from the same source, contains a letter from a young man named Adad-abum to his father, Uzälum. In this letter, Adad-abum requests a fine string of beads to be worn around the head. He pleads with his father, stating that if Uzälum wants to be like a real father to him, he should procure the beads and send them with the carrier of the tablet. Adad-abum even suggests that if Uzälum doesn't have the beads on hand, he should unearth them from wherever such treasures are buried.

The young man emphasizes his strong desire for the beads, stating that he will judge his father's love for him based on whether he receives them. He also instructs his father to establish a price for the beads and send him a tablet with the information. Adad-abum is particularly concerned about the secrecy of the transaction, insisting that the young man delivering the tablet must not see the string of beads. He even goes so far as to state that if he dislikes the beads upon seeing them, he will send them back. As an afterthought, Adad-abum also requests a cloak that he had previously discussed with his father.

Tell Uzälum: Your son Adad-abum sends the following message:

May the gods Samas and Wer keep you forever in good health.

I have never before written to you for something precious I wanted. But if you want to be like a father to me, get me a fine string full of beads, to be worn around the head. Seal it with your seal and give it to the carrier of this tablet so that he can bring it to me. If you have none at hand, dig it out of the ground wherever (such objects) are (found) and send it to me. I want it very much; do not withold it from me. In this I will see whether you love me as a real father does. Of course, establish its price for me, write it down, and send me the tablet. The young man who is coming to you must not see the string of beads. Seal it (in a pack-age) and give it to him. He must not see the string, the one to be worn around the head, which you are sending. It should be full (of beads) and should be beautiful. If I see it and dislike(?) it, I shall send it back! Also send the cloak, of which I spoke to you. - Sumer 14 pl. 23 No. 47

These ancient Sumerian tablets provide a fascinating glimpse into the timeless nature of family dynamics and the challenges of parenting. The complaints of Iddin-Sin and Adad-abum about the quality and quantity of the clothes and accessories they receive from their parents are strikingly similar to the grievances of modern-day children who want to keep up with the latest fashion trends.

The tablets also highlight the importance of material possessions as status symbols in ancient Mesopotamian society. The fact that Iddin-Sin compares his situation to that of an adopted child who receives better clothes suggests that clothing was a marker of social standing and parental love. Similarly, Adad-abum's insistence on a fine string of beads and his willingness to judge his father's love based on this gift demonstrates the significance of material objects in familial relationships.

Furthermore, the religious invocations in both letters underscore the central role of religion in daily life and communication during this period. The mention of wool being used up like bread in Iddin-Sin's household also provides insight into the scarcity and value of resources in ancient Mesopotamia.

Mother's Day is a time to celebrate the love, care, and sacrifices that mothers make for their children. As children venture into the dreaded teenage years, they start vying for social status among their peers and looking for outward expressions of their burgeoning identities, often through the latest fashion trends. From poodle skirts and bell-bottoms, to Air Jordans and skinny jeans, young people of seemingly all generations have a fashion status symbol. Even as far as 4358 years ago, young people were demanding that their parents provide them with the latest clothing trend. 

We no have a unique perspective on the timeless nature of family dynamics and the enduring power of a mother's love, thanks to these Sumerian tablets. So, this Mother's Day, as you present your mom with a thoughtful gift or a heartfelt card, remember that even if she sometimes falls short of your expectations, like the mothers of these ancient Sumerian children, her love for you is still timeless. If you find yourself feeling a bit ungrateful, just be thankful that your complaints about gifts aren't being immortalized on clay tablets for future generations to discover!






Oppenheim, A. Leo. Letters from Ancient Mesopotamia: Official, Business, and Private. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1967.


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