"I Have Given You my Advice": Educational Principles in the Hittite Empire

by Theo P.J. van den Hout

here once was a waiter called Zidi. The father of the king ordered a harhara-cup of wine for Histayara and Maratti, but he, Zidi, served the king good wine and different wine was given to them. Thereupon one of them said to the king: "They did not give me the wine the king saw." Thereupon the other spoke likewise. They took Zidi away, maltreated him and he died.
This anecdote is drawn from a collection of tales left to us by the Hittite Empire, which flourished in ancient Anatolia, the area we now call Turkey, in the second millennium BC. Hittite Great Kings ruled Anatolia between 1650 and 1180 BC; then the empire vanished and with it the Hittite language. For almost five centuries the Hittites were a superpower in the ancient Near East, together with the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hurrians. They left behind tens of thousands of clay tablets, records of their civilization written in cuneiform script. Together with the non-literary materials archaeology provides us with, these sources allow us to reconstruct their culture and their history.

These stories date to the early days of the Old Hittite kingdom around 1650 BC. They tell of crimes and misdemeanors committed by high officials and were meant to instill in their colleagues a sense of duty and discipline: do not behave like Mr. So-and-So and you'll be fine, they say. The Hittites had a clear preference for such historical anecdotes and believed in the leçon par l'exemple (learning by example).

royal sealWe find such examples also later on, although they were particularly popular in the early period. A later instance stems from the reign of the Hittite Great King Suppiluliuma I. Around 1340 he concluded a treaty with a country in northeast Anatolia, nowadays the mountainous area of Armenia. As so often, the ties between the two treaty partners were strengthened by a dynastic marriage. Suppiluliuma was to give his own sister in marriage to Mr. Hukkana, the representative of the country in question, at a summit meeting of both monarchs. One thing, however, bothered Suppiluliuma: in Hukkana's land of origin it was a man's right to sleep not only with his wife but also with his wife's sisters and further female relatives. For the Hittites this was absolutely not done, unacceptable, a reason for capital punishment. So in order not to raise any hopes on Hukkana's side, Suppiluliuma devoted a separate stipulation in the treaty to this matter. And to drive his point home even more forcefully he inserted the following little anecdote about a man named Mariya:

And as far as Mariya was concerned: why did he die? Did not a female temple servant come his way and did he not make eye contact with her? However, of all persons, the father of the king spotted him from his window and caught him in the act: "Why did you look into her eyes?" That is why he died. A man perishes even for looking from a distance! So watch out!
Before we return to this general didactic principle, let us have a look at what we know about education and the Hittites. In most cases professions were learned in practice. Crafts like that of the smith, carpenter or midwife went from father to son, mother to daughter, irrespective of whether one was self employed or in the service of the state. As long as a profession stayed in the family the education could be said to cost nothing but if someone wanted his or her son to be trained in a certain profession by someone else, something had to be paid. Apparently this happened so often that the state felt the need to formulate general rules and to set a fixed price, although this may have applied to these cases only where the training was done by a state-employed professional. At the very end of the Hittite law code we find the following stipulation:
If anyone gives his son for training either as a carpenter or a smith, a weaver or a leather worker or a fuller, he shall pay six shekels of silver for the training. If the teacher makes him an expert, the student's parent shall give him one person.

This bronze sword testifies to the skill of the Hittite metalsmiths.

It is difficult to assess the value of "six shekels". First of all, it is not specified how long such a training took. However, the last sentence seems to refer to a longer and more thorough training than would have been considered normal. To give some idea of the price: a sheep cost one shekel of silver, a bull ten, and a bottle of extra virgin olive oil two. One shekel weighed 12.8 grams or slightly less than half an ounce. The "one person" compensation mentioned at the end refers to the financing of one entire job position to make up for the time spent by the instructor on the trainee. But every profession has its price: if you wanted to buy a man trained in divination, someone who could interpret divine signs for you--one of antiquity's equivalents of an academic--it cost you twenty five shekels of silver.

2 tabletsIn a state as bureaucratic as the Hittite empire there was a lot that had to be learned for anybody in the civil service. Hittite society had innumerable officials, both secular and religious, men and women, high and low, but how they learned their trade remains largely hidden. This has everything to do with the nature of our sources. The tens of thousands of clay tablets are all the official records of the empire: the internal and international correspondence, treaties and edicts, laws, depositions and administrative texts, prayers and myths, scenarios for rituals and religious festivals, oracles and literary texts of the elite. Everything the result of career people whose "college" days had long since gone.

But being officials in a world power of the day with frequent contacts with the other international courts must have required a rigorous education. Being a scribe--knowing how to read and write and using that capacity in an official position for the Hittite state--was special: the education of such people must have been very time consuming and full of trial and error, but nowhere do we hear the despair of a student scribe about all the cuneiform signs and formulas he has to master, nowhere the despair of a teacher about a student who did not do his homework. Only now and then do we get a glimpse of education like the isolated remark of a man who proudly says that a singer taught him three songs already.

metal tabletOne of the most straightforward pieces of information on training are the so-called Horse Training Texts. These are manuals for the care and training of horses, probably those that were used for chariots (riding on horses was to come several centuries later). The manual had been translated from the Hurrian language but the original has not been preserved or has not been found so far. One of the texts, the so-called Kikkuli-text, gives an exact feeding program, the distances the horses should trot, canter or gallop and other maintenance advice for a period of almost 200 days. A horse trainer in Australia meticulously followed the precepts of the Kikkuli text with a group of 10 pure Arabian horses and found that the ancients were technically ahead of us at quite a few points. To mention just one, the text instructs the horse trainer to completely isolate the stables from the eleventh to the twenty-first day of the training program, and to stop any gaps in the walls and cracks in windows or doors. Having done this, the horses should be kept indoors for those 10 days. The Hittite text does not explain what the purpose is: apparently this was completely obvious to the ancients. Thanks to the experiment we now know that this is an excellent way of weeding out weak horses with respiratory problems.

Reading and writing

title deedsTeaching people to read and write the cuneiform script must have been a major branch of education. This script was, in the time and area under consideration here, a highly abstract collection of some 350 signs with no inherent system. Mastering it meant--and means for the modern student--a considerable investment of time starting with simple signs and little tablets, and gradually taking the step to sign combinations and from there to entire compositions. Speaking of scribes we often think of the medieval monks zealously scribbling away in anonymity. Although such scribes will have existed in the Ancient Near East, they often were high officials with important managerial tasks.

3fragmentsOften, being a scribe was a profession that ran in the family. In one case we can reconstruct a scribal family tree of four generations in the thirteenth century that with some further gaps can be traced back to the fifteenth century. The ultimate ancestor in question bears a Semitic name suggesting he might have been one of those foreign specialists who were hired to provide the Hittite court with specific knowledge. He may have been hired, for instance, to train scribes in the Akkadian language, the diplomatic tongue of the day. All international correspondence between the superpowers was conducted in Akkadian, so knowledge of that language was of great importance.

Apart from the crafts and the scribal training the military must have been an important source of employment. We catch a glimpse of military training in another passage from the collection of anecdotes we started out with. The passage tells of a certain Ispudasinara, a boot camp instructor of would-be charioteers:

As far as the junior chariot fighters were concerned, Ispudasinara trained them in opening(?) the shaft and wheel, and the handling of weapons. He trained this group and that group, and then the father of the king assigned one group to Nakkilit, the Chief Cupbearer, another to Huzzi, the Chief Herald, a third to Kizzu, Chief of the Bodyguard, and they finished their training.

When then they shoot in the presence of the king, they give the one that hits the mark, wine to drink and they are the Royal Troops. But who misses, they give him a cup with iyal and he shall run naked before all to see.

It seems as if after a basic training the recruits are handed over to more specialized instructors in smaller groups, already then an educational ideal. There they continue their training after which an exam in the presence of the king follows. For some a graduation party awaits them but those who flunk are the object of laughter and abuse. We do not know what iyal was, but it will not have tasted very good.

Rites of the king

But how does one prepare someone for the highest office, the kingship? The Hittite empire was ruled by the royal family in the extended sense: brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, cousins and in-laws all held the highest and most influential positions, whether administrative, legal, military or religious. Many of these members of the royal house we encounter as scribes, generals, priests and priestesses. They must have gone through the training specific for each of these professions, but what about the future king? Normally, he would learn the tricks of the trade on his father's side just as in any private enterprise. We know of one thirteenth-century king who had his son become a priest and later a military commander, so he would be prepared to become the religious and military leader that the kingship required.

line drawingPart of a prince's education perhaps was the rite of passage during a religious ceremony called the "festival of procreation." On the third day of this happening we find the prince in a location called the arzana-house. The prince orders several baked goods, milk and two vessels of beer. All this is consumed by the prince and twelve prostitutes. That same night they make him lie down, place breads on either side of his head and feet and draw a line of beer around him. Then they bring in the girls again. At that point the clay tablet breaks off and the rest is left to our imagination. As one Hittitologist put it: "It is possible that prostitutes could have served some function other than having sexual intercourse with the prince during the night, but not probable."

HattusaThere is also more serious advice to be found in the texts. If we may trust the Old Hittite king Hattusili I of around 1650 BC, the reigning king himself was responsible for his successor's training. He tells how he at first had chosen the son of his sister as his successor: he had adopted him and stimulated the boy in every possible way. But ultimately the young man proved to be a disappointment:

He showed himself a youth not fit to be seen. He didn't shed tears, He didn't show mercy. He was cold. He was heartless.
The boy just listened to his mother, "that snake" as Hattusili calls her repeatedly. Finally, he adopts his grandson Mursili and appoints him heir to the throne and gives him an old man's invaluable advice of modesty and temperance:
If you heed your father's word, you will eat bread and drink water. When the prime of adulthood is in your heart, eat two, three times a day, and look after yourself. When old age is in your heart, drink as much as you like and forget your father's advice.
As a good teacher Hattusili knew that repetition is of the highest importance if one wants things to be remembered:
I have given you my advice. Let them read this tablet out aloud to you once a month, so as to close my advice and my wisdom in your heart.
When Hattusili died, Mursili was still too young to take over and his father acted as a regent for some time. He too put his advice in writing, and in keeping with the overall tone of Hattusili's words it is striking, how much emphasis is laid on compassion with the less fortunate in society:
Look at the sick man. Give him bread and water. If heat is troubling him, put him in the cold, but if cold troubles him you must put him in the warmth.

Lessons of history

Clay tablets containing the Hittite-Hurrian parable comparing a cup that curses its maker to an ungrateful child.

If there is one educational principle the Hittites strongly believed in, it is that you learn from history. And with this we come back to the earlier anecdotes. In the Hittite tablet collections a long Hurrian-Hittite bilingual text was found in the early 1980's extending over several tablets. Part of this composition contained a collection of such parables. Here is one:

A smith cast a cup to bring him fame. He cast it, brought it into shape, decorated it, engraved it and made it glow in every detail. However, the foolish copper started to curse his maker in return: "May the hand of him who made me break off, may his right arm get paralyzed!" When the smith heard this, he got sick at heart. Now the smith said to himself: "Why is the copper that I made, cursing me in return?" and he uttered a curse over the cup: "May the Stormgod strike it, the cup! May he rip off the decorations! May the cup fall into the gutter and its decorations fall into the river!"

This is no cup, it is a human being. It is that son who is hostile to his father, who grew up and reached adulthood and no longer looks at his father, but whom the gods of his father have made accursed.

Hittite kings went to great lengths in basing their decrees and decisions on past experiences. Around 1500 BC king Telipinu decided on no less than revolutionary changes in the Hittite royal succession rules. For more than a century the dynasty had witnessed more murder and bloodshed than he could bear. Each murder was answered by another, an eye for eye had been the motto. He came to the conclusion that the traditional system no longer worked and called for a complete overhaul. He began his official edict by recounting early Hittite history and by pointing out where it went wrong all the way to the moment where he himself entered the story. He tried to break the chain by not killing the people who were the latest killers and who tried to thwart him, believing it would only lead to more murders. In his advice he wrote:
Who will become king after me in future, let his brothers, his sons, his in-laws, his further family members and his troops be united! Thereupon you will hold the country subdued with your might. And don't speak as follows: "I will eradicate it", for you won't eradicate anything. On the contrary, you will only implicate yourself! Do not kill anybody of your family, it is not right.
They are sent away unharmed, fully provided for, but stripped of every political power. The historical preamble in which he tells all this takes up half of the already long text and thereby constitutes our most important source on the history of the Old Hittite kingdom. This sense that the present is firmly rooted in the past persists throughout Hittite history and pervades much of its literature. It is the same attitude we see time and again in the oracle texts: whenever something happened that deviated from the norm, it was taken as a message from the gods. But whereas the Mesopotamians took such events as predicting a specific future event, the Hittites saw them as divine reactions to shortcomings on their part in the past. As a consequence they conducted lengthy investigations into what they might have done wrong, what deity exactly was angry and what had to be done about it to restore the right order of things. It is for the same reason that Hittite historiography reached unparalleled heights in the second millennium Ancient Near Eastern world, only to be equaled and surpassed by the later Greeks historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

Two views of a ceremonial bronze ax-head.

In the end Telipinu's new rules did not help and nothing was learned in spite of his ample historical justification, and the dynastic killings went on at much the same scale as before. Like the Hittites we like to say that a lot can be learned from history and it is our basic justification for engaging in the study of history. But if there is one basic lesson we learn from history it is that we--very often--do not learn from history. The more we realize that, the more perhaps we will learn from history, and that lesson is invaluable and goes past education.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Theo P.J. van den Hout

van den HoutTheo van den Hout is probably best described as a philologist with strong linguistic interests. Linguistics was the initial focus of his research but it gradually shifted to more general questions of a cultural-historical nature. His dissertation (1989, published as a monograph in 1995) consisted of both a philological edition of a Late-Hittite treaty and a prosopography of the leading officials of the Hittite empire of the second half of the thirteenth century BC. That period has since then been the center of his further historical-philological research. This resulted in his second book (1998) which identified and edited a large group of oracle texts and used it a source for Hittite history. His recent philological project concerns a new edition of the extensive Royal Hittite Death Ritual.

In his linguistic research he tries to combine the Hittite data with those of the other Anatolian languages like Luwian, Lycian, Lydian and Carian. The growing importance of the not-related Hurrian has led him in recent years to get more involved with that language as well.

Together with the emeritus Harry A. Hoffner he is co-editor of the Chicago Hittite Dictionary and currently is working on the S-volume.

COPYRIGHT | A version of this article was delivered at the University of Chicago Humanities Open House, October 27, 2001. Copyright 2001 the University of Chicago.

(c) 2004 The University of Chicago :: Please direct questions or comments to furlong@lib.uchicago.edu