Ancient Wisdom of Sumerian Riddles

Dating back to cuneiform tablets written in the 18th century BC, the following two ancient Sumerian riddles hold clues to a person’s quest for knowledge.  I find them amazing.  They share wisdom which was later conveyed in not only the Bible, but in other beliefs and teachings, as well.

These everlasting nuggets of wisdom seem similar to the type of Truth so eloquently described by a quote included in the Maranatha Puzzle book;

“As with all genuine Truths, there is no beginning, for Truth is a constant.  Nothing affects its grace except the balance of an individual’s understanding of that Truth.”– D. Thomas

The riddles are timeless and cause a person to contemplate words in ways which impart significant meaning on different levels.  Although some of the ancient riddles’ intentions may be lost to time, others are realized, and reveal valuable insights.

Many may have heard the short version of the following riddle.  It is often asked in this manner;

‘There is a house.  One enters it blind and comes out seeing.  What is it?’

The riddle is one of twenty-five known Sumerian riddles etched on a clay tablet discovered from Sumer.  The riddles were translated by E.I. Gordon in 1960.  The answer to the above puzzle was provided immediately after the question.  It is ‘A School.’

This alone offers an interesting perspective on knowledge.  It would seem a person is being informed there are many things we cannot ‘see’ until we have acquired the wisdom to do so.

Yet, what is even more amazing about this particular ancient riddle is it actually offers much more detail about the ‘house’.  The short version does not include the additional descriptions, because complete understandings, and different translations of the words comprised in the riddle, remain unexplained and are still questioned.  The full riddle, in one translation, is as follows:

A house based on a foundation like the skies
A house one has covered with a veil like a secret box
A house set on a base like a goose
One enters it blind,
Leaves it seeing,
Answer: the School

So from this, we learn the ‘House’, which is a ‘school’ and a way for a person to obtain ‘sight’, is ‘based on a foundation like the skies?  Is covered with a veil like a secret box?  And is set on a base like a goose?’

Totally fascinating!  The longer version of the riddle exposes an entirely new and immense level of meaning than the cut version did.  It is not just ‘any school’. It is a school, or a way of teaching, which connects to the descriptions provided within the riddle.

In a commentary on the riddle (sourced below), the word for skies could also translate to ‘heavens’ or ‘god’.  The second verse seems to imply the House is hidden and, I feel, the third verse suggests it may be guarded.  A goose is known for its protection of the nest and hissing.  Could ‘set on a base like a goose’ imply the school is guarded and teachings are not given to merely anyone?  Or, like a goose which ‘hisses’, is this base linked to a serpent?

Another Sumerian riddle found on the same tablet asks:

“An open house,
A locked up house,
He sees it,
But even then it remains closed.”

(who is he?)

To answer this riddle a person has to think of what ‘open and closes’ in a ‘house’?  One easily considers a door, but why does it remain closed?  The answer given is a ‘deaf person.’  Here, the door compares to the ‘Mouth’ and since a ‘deaf’ person can see it (the mouth) open and close, it (the house/knowledge/words) remains locked/unheard.

Commentary on this riddle states the word in the riddle which is commonly used for ‘deaf’, can, however, imply ‘one who is difficult to teach’ or is ‘obstinate’ in some cases.

Thinking back with the fist riddle, where the house is a school, a similarity is noticed.  In this riddle, it is said the ‘door’ remains closed to the ‘house’ to those who ‘are deaf’ or ‘do not understand the teachings.’  Is then that one of reasons why the house is considered guarded or hidden in the first? Does he not ‘hear’ in order to enter?

Both of these riddles echo thoughts found in the Bible and parables.  For example, Matthew 13:13-15; “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.  In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:  “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.  For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.  Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”

Verse 11 of Matthew 13 includes Jesus speaking to the disciples, “the knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.”  Do these secrets, mentioned in Matthew, refer to the same ‘hidden, possibly guarded sights, learned in the school/house’ of the 1800BC riddle?

For me, and I think for most, it seems the depth in these ancient Sumerian riddles provides a bit of light for one’s path.  A quote from The Lost Keys of Freemasonry by Manly Hall comes to mind.  He mentions “all peoples seek the temple where God dwells, where the spirit of the great Truth illuminates the shadows of human ignorance.”  Hall calls the world both a school and a prison.  Each person struggles to reach beyond the limitation of self.  Like a seed first sprouting, a person will slowly gain roots of learning and grow with knowledge.  Always on life’s quest for wisdom, we can only keep listening and looking, in hopes to hear and see, or learn, what remains hidden.

Sources: Sumerian Riddles, reviewed November 2012


9 thoughts on “Ancient Wisdom of Sumerian Riddles

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  2. I love it! I believe there is ALWAYS more to expressions than can be read at first glance. I am going to look into these riddles more as they are very instructive. Thanks.

  3. My thoughts on the school riddle, for whatever they’re worth. If the house is based on a foundation like the skies and is covered with a veil, this doesn’t sound so much like a school but like a temple. Of course, in ancient times they would be the same. In temples they would teach astrology/astronomy (same thing in those times), and some knowledge would be hidden from the laymen.

    As for the “base like a goose”, I have no idea, but it made me think of the three fingers on the feet of geese. Priests often used tripods to hold bowls of incense.

  4. I don’t think the secrets mentioned in the gospel of Matthew would be the same as the ones one might learn in a Sumerian temple in 1800BC. It’s fairly clear to me that the whole reason behind the New Testament was to offer something new that was not already available in the Old Testament.

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