Johan Norberg in Open: The Story of Human Progress (2020) claims:

In Sumerian and Akkadian the same word is used both for ‘priest’ and ‘accountant’.

Is this true?

  • Not that this is in scope here... Sumerian and Akkadian resources exist online. You can search them. Notice that doing a simple search for 'priest' or 'accountant' here yields different results: etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk – Jerome Viveiros Feb 17 at 13:02
  • 8
    @JeromeViveiros It is in scope if the claim has been made in a notable place (which it has). Issues of language are often more nuanced than dictionaries tend to admit so it might even merit a decent answer that puts a simple dictionary source in context. – matt_black Feb 17 at 14:47
  • 4
    Is this just a definitional or translation problem? It feels to me like this statement could be rephrased: "In Sumer and Akkad there were people who were responsible for overseeing both ritual observances and finances." That doesn't sound like a particularly surprising claim - I'd bet that even today the leaders of some small religious communities take care of their own finances. So, what would a confirmation, or disconfirmation of this claim look like? Would it suffice to find a use of a word (en seems implied) describing a person doing accounting work? – Juhasz Feb 17 at 19:39
  • 3
    I suspect they just had one word for "The guy in town who can read and write". – Lee Daniel Crocker Feb 18 at 17:42
  • 2
    @LeeDanielCrocker the Latin word for that, clericus, is the source of both clerk and cleric. – phoog Feb 19 at 7:55

Accountant = Kushim

A standard google search throws up no definitive answer, though the word "Kushim" may refer to a generic title of an officeholder, according to "The Administrative Activities of Kushim, Citation 6", Though it may also refer to an individual.

Kushim - Wikipedia

Kushim is the earliest known example of a named person in writing. The name "Kushim" is found on the Kushim Tablet, a Uruk Period (c. 3400–3000 BC) clay tablet used to record transactions of barley. It is uncertain if the name refers to an individual, a generic title of an officeholder, or an institution.

Dingir, enu, entu Dingir, Assyrian, Wikipedia

Now, according to Citation 4 from Dingir, Margaret Whitney Green, with a PhD dissertation at University of Chicago says that there were various words which could describe a priest. Such as DINGIR, enu and entu.

According to one interpretation, DINGIR could also refer to a priest or priestess although there are other Akkadian words ēnu and ēntu that are also translated priest and priestess. For example, nin-dingir (lady divine) meant a priestess who received foodstuffs at the temple of Enki in the city of Eridu.

Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) (for the photograph) The name of Simurrum king "Iddin-Sin" (𒀭𒄿𒋾𒀭𒂗𒍪, I-ti-n Sîn) with the "Dingir" initial silent honorofic 𒀭 for "Divine". The star symbol 𒀭, which can also be pronounced "An", is used again, but phonetically, in the middle of the name, for the sound "n". Stele in the Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq.

In Sumerian and Akkadian, is the same word used for both ‘priest’ and ‘accountant’? So, whilst there is no definitive known word to describe accountant, there "is" plenty evidence that they did indeed have accountants in those days, and there is absolutely nothing available anywhere to suggest that the word descriptions were the same for both, nor even similar. Nowhere have the words Dingir, enu or entu been found to be connected to accounting. But until it can be said for certain what the word for accountant was, then it is hard to say 100% for sure.

  • Part of the problem answering the question might be that there simply was no professional distinction between "accountants" and "priests". The invention of writing was triggered by the need to record who owned stocks of food and materials. We would call the people who did that accountants, but, in a society organised around a religious hierarchy, maybe this was a job for priests. – matt_black Feb 24 at 11:45
  • 4
    @matt_black When you can find an academic source which confirms your hypothesis that priests also served as accountants in ancient Sumeria and Akkadia, then you could write that as an answer. If not, then this might just be speculation. Perhaps based on a European perspective. In medieval Europe, the clerical caste was also the most literate one, which meant they were often hired to perform secular jobs requiring literacy. But that was because the Christian religion is based on a book which the clerical caste was expected to be able to read. Was the Sumerian religion also based on a book? – Philipp Feb 24 at 12:30
  • Based on a quick google search I think the word Norberg had in mind was "sabra"... but there's probably some confusion as to its time framing... – Fizz Feb 24 at 17:44
  • @Philipp Yes, this was speculation. But the origin of writing is well attested as is the literacy of the ruling class (a good, but later, example is king Ashurbanipal who is shown in battle with cuneiform styli in the Assyrian section of the British Museum). My main point was that the very origin of writing served the purpose of accounting but might have predated any distinction between administrators and priests. – matt_black Feb 25 at 12:11

Based on a quick google search, I think the word Norberg had in mind was sabra... but there's probably some confusion as to its time framing as only some lulu.com (self-published) books attribute this word to Summerian & Akkadian. (The confusion being with a later Semitic word.)

The more proper (academic) sources on Akkadian give different words for both notions. The most generic word for priest in Sumerian was apparently susbu. But then, they had a lot of words for priests, depending on their role, e.g. galaturru meant "junior lamentation-priest", isibgallu meant "purification priest", sangu meant "temple manager" etc.

As for accountant in Summerian that was apparently sassukku(m) and there's no indication this also meant a priest in general, although sassukkatu apparently did mean "female accountant of the underworld", which was some kind of goddess.

Ref for the last two paras: Black, George, Postgate & Breckwoldt, A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000.

  • 1
    "sassukkatu apparently did mean "female accountant of the underworld", which was some kind of goddess." ... well, I'm off to mythology.stackexchange.com. "Counting the dead" is a common trope, but would be an interesting conflation of priestly things and actual accountancy. – fredsbend Feb 24 at 18:26
  • The other answer mentions Kushim and you mention a confusion with a later Semitic word. To my amateur eye, Kushim has a very Semitic feel to it. Is that the word you're referring to? – fredsbend Feb 24 at 18:30

You must log in to answer this question.