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Father’s Day Advice From History’s Oldest Dad

The ancient Sumerian King Shuruppak left a lot of his worldly wisdom behind — nearly 5,000 years later, a surprising amount of it still applies

Father’s Day is upon us, and if TV tropes are to be believed, Dad is the go-to for solid advice. Which got me thinking — if all dads are smart, who’s the smartest dad? Because surely, if your dad’s the authority, then his dad must have known even more. Your great-great-grandfather, meanwhile, must have been a Goddamn genius.

Now, the oldest advice I could find was a Cuneiform tablet from the Sumerian king Shuruppak, inscribed some 4,600 years ago. This is quality counsel, too, because Shuruppak’s son grew into a sage old man who advised history’s first hero, Gilgamesh, to quit ridin’ fences and let somebody love him before it was too late. To read Shuruppak’s original teachings, essentially, is like training with Yoda’s father.

Nevertheless, times have changed, and not all of his Chalcolithic Age wisdom is still applicable in our world. After eliminating the incomplete translations, I assessed what still works (anything about rising tide lines), and what’s outdated (anything about germ theory). Here’s what I learned from my historical surrogate dad.

What Holds Up

You shouldn’t vouch for someone: that man will have a hold on you; and you yourself, you shouldn’t let somebody vouch for you, that man will despise you. A truth recognized by anyone who’s ever recommended a friend for a job at their company.

You shouldn’t make a well in your field: People will cause damage on it for you. Still applicable in any town with a bored college population: People will break shit on principle just to keep anyone else from enjoying it (rich kids are the fucking worst).

You shouldn’t place your house next to a public square: There’s always a crowd there. And you thought living downtown would be so cool. FYI, the Sumerians invented beer, so it’s safe to assume Shuruppak knew exactly what he was talking about here.

Nothing at all is to be valued, but life should be sweet. You shouldn’t serve things; things should serve you. Now let’s get this Fight Club started!

You shouldn’t loiter about where there’s a quarrel; you shouldn’t let the quarrel make you a witness. Once, I was at a beer garden having a lovely Oktoberfest when a fight broke out between two different species of frat bro. My friend and I stood up to calm everybody down like the heroes we were, but at the first sound of breaking glass, I jumped back. You know why? Other people’s bullshit isn’t worth getting your throat cut like Mercutio. What’s the best-case scenario — you punch some angry drunk without breaking your hand? This is grade-A advice, although you can make up your own mind about the “no snitches” post-script.

You shouldn’t make a young man best man. There’s always that one guy at the wedding who can’t handle his liquor, hits on the bride’s mother and dances dangerously with the bridesmaids. Very often this is the groom’s college buddy Tyler. I guarantee you won’t care about Tyler in five years. Make your older brother the best man. If you don’t have an older brother, fly me to your wedding. I can be paid in bridesmaids and beer — both of which I can handle, unlike Tyler.

You shouldn’t travel during the night: It can hide both good and evil. In addition to being good advice about late-night minicabs, this is probably the best ever lyric from Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career.

You shouldn’t eat stolen food with a thief. Because no one is more loathsome than the office lunch burglar.

A weak wife is always seized by fate. “Can’t make a ho a housewife” is the takeaway, if I read Shuruppak right.

Property is something to be expanded; but nothing can equal my little ones. A little disjointed, but who can disagree with, “Family is more important than possessions”? Your dad certainly shouldn’t, at any rate.

If you hire a worker, he will share the bread bag with you; he eats with you from the same bag, and finishes up the bag with you. Then he will quit working with you, and saying, “I have to live on something,” he will serve at the palace. I’m mostly just impressed they’d invented bags by then. But yeah, I’ve hired enough freelancers to know not to pay a dude in full until the work is done.

You shouldn’t pass judgment when you drink beer. Right??? You have to pity our grandkids, who are going to have nanobots and synthetic livers that prevent them from understanding this, the most fundamental lesson of human history.

Only insults and stupid speaking receive the attention of the Land. And that’s how Donald Trump became president, kids.

A loving heart maintains a family; a hateful heart destroys a family. Fairly obvious, but worth repeating in this modern political climate.

The negligent one ruins his family. That kid throwing rocks at cars inevitably has a deadbeat dad, amirite?

One appoints a reliable woman for a good household. Ahhhh, crap. My girlfriend wants to move in together and Alpha-Dad is telling me to quit dragging my heels. Don’t you hate it when you learn something about yourself?

You shouldn’t speak arrogantly to your mother; that causes hatred for you. You shouldn’t question the words of your mother and your personal god. The mother, like Utu, gives birth to the man; the father, like a god, makes him bright. “Respect your mom” is approximately 68 percent of the teachings of Mr. T, so confirmed that this is a timeless rule.

The wet-nurses in the women’s quarters determine the fate of their lord. Either he’s pre-stating, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” or he’s warning celebrities to stop having sex with their nannies. Either way: Sound counsel!

My son, you shouldn’t sit alone in a chamber with a married woman. Eh, kind of Mike Pence-ish, but back in a world without cops, I can see it: Dudes get jealous. Plus, you’d probably have to travel like seven da-na just to get near her, and that’s an all-day journey. You’re better off just hiring a prostitute.

You shouldn’t buy a prostitute… Dagnabbit!

…she is a mouth that bites. And you don’t even want to know how much extra that costs.

Lightning round!

You shouldn’t pick a quarrel; you shouldn’t disgrace yourself.

You shouldn’t boast; then your words will be trusted.

You shouldn’t deliberate for too long.

You shouldn’t speak improperly; later it will lay a trap for you. This is a concise summary of Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta.”

What Doesn’t Hold Up

A lot of metaphor gets lost over time, but I did my best for you.

You shouldn’t work using only your eyes; you won’t multiply your possessions using only your mouth. It’s nice to know that even millennia back, people were telling each other to quit yapping and start working. On the other hand, “YouTube influencer” is a legitimate occupation these days, so… y’know.

You shouldn’t scatter your sheep into unknown pastures. In theory, yeah, but America is pretty well mapped. Ohhhh wait, is this about raw dogging with strangers?

You shouldn’t buy an onager: It lasts only until the end of the day. An onager is a wild ass, and Wikipedia says, “Onagers are notoriously untamable,” so this is sort of a roundabout way of saying, “If it seems like too good a deal to be true, it is.” Maybe we can update it to, “Never buy a Dodge Nitro.” Or else this is a metaphor for prostitutes again?

You shouldn’t curse strongly: It rebounds on you. In polite company, sure, but Deadwood proved there’s poetry in the artful utterance of “cocksucker.”

You shouldn’t provide a stranger with food; you shouldn’t wipe out a quarrel. Not seeing the relation between those statements, but if a beggar actually takes food instead of asking for drug money, I say feed him. Even junkies need to eat.

You shouldn’t drive away a strong man. “You Should Not Drive Away a Strong Man” is a terrific Loretta Lynn song, but this just isn’t true unless you’re building an army to fend off the Lullubi.

You shouldn’t destroy the outer wall. Damn it, Dad, the Lullubi haven’t been a threat for four millennia!

You shouldn’t drive away a young man; you shouldn’t make him turn against the city. This is the premise of The Revenge of the Sith, and therefore, demonstrably false in our modern era.

You shouldn’t boast in beer halls like a deceitful man. But boasting’s half the fun of drinking now that people are less stabby!

Fate is a wet bank; it can make one slip. Pithy! Yet unhelpful. Fate is de facto immutable.

You tell your son to come to your home; you tell your daughter to go to her women’s quarters. Obviously we’re not at parity yet, but at least as a society women can leave the house alone without getting accosted… wait, no they can’t. Jesus, men are the worst.

You shouldn’t worry unduly about what leaves the house. I dig your anti-materialism, but not two seconds ago, you told us to imprison the women.

To have authority, to have possessions and to be steadfast are princely divine powers. You should submit to the respected; you should be humble before the powerful. My son, you will then survive against the wicked. Starting to think Shuruppak was a Republican.

The father is like a god: his words are reliable. The instructions of the father should be complied with. Yep, that’s a Republican, alright.

You shouldn’t buy a donkey at the time of harvest. Plainly, the men of Sumer spent the harvest festival drunkenly making bad personal transport decisions.

A small city provides its king with a calf; a huge city digs a house plot. If you ever get down on yourself, just remember you’re living better than 99 percent of history’s kings.

You shouldn’t abuse a ewe; otherwise you’ll give birth to a daughter. You shouldn’t throw a lump of earth into the money chest; otherwise you’ll give birth to a son. Leaving aside the magical element, what options remain to me? Still, this one might be coming back into vogue as we expand our concept of gender. Stand by.

What Holds Up, But for Different Reasons

You shouldn’t have sex with your slave girl: She will chew you up. First off, you shouldn’t have slaves. If you meet a slave girl, call the FBI immediately. All other concerns are secondary.

You should not beat a farmer’s son: he has constructed your embankments and ditches. Don’t beat anybody! What makes you think beating people is okay? You just said not to commit violence!

Without suburbs a city has no center either. He’s not wrong, but these days, the suburbs are a morass of big-box stores. Also: Suburbs were a thing back then?

To get lost is bad for a dog, but terrible for a man. On the unfamiliar way at the edge of the mountains, the gods of the mountains are man-eaters. They don’t build houses there as men do; they don’t build cities there as men do. Since forever apparently, man hasn’t trusted the mountain people. Damn Swiss, with their inhuman precision and clockwork trains! Have you ever tried to temper chocolate? Only a god can do it.

What Doesn’t Make Sense

You shouldn’t buy a donkey which brays; it will split your midriff. This sounds uncomfortably like the ending to the Mr. Hands video. Do people still buy donkeys? Aren’t America’s gold mines empty and its prospectors dead of cholera? Seriously, how many donkeys exist on the planet right now? I bet you it’s less than 800.

You shouldn’t sink your hand into blood. Yeah, but if we’re going to list all of the givens, we’re going to run out of clay tablet before we run out of ideas.

Having reached the field of manhood, you shouldn’t jump with your hand. Is this about masturbation?

Who works with leather will eventually work with his own leather. Okay, this one’s definitely about masturbation. Are we pro or con here?

A drunkard will drown the harvest. Come on, where’s he gonna get that much water? That happened like ONE TIME, and you can’t blame Tyler for the flood.

Final Verdict

You could learn a lot from everybody’s great x 50 grandfather. But you should also ignore at least half of it — just like with your own dad.