Burning, Drowning, and Cheating: Legal Codes in the 155 Cuneiform Tablets

It’s time for some more information on those 155 tablets I went through. This time- legal documents. Same caveats as the last post: I am not an expert in cuneiform and will be using translations.

We are going to investigate the legal codes found amongst the cuneiform tablets in my sample today; specifically as it relates to alewives and brewing. But first, an overview of law in ancient Mesopotamia to give you some context.

E.A. Speiser contended that the laws of ancient Mesopotamia had a great impact not only within their own culture, but those around them.[1] Importantly, the central idea of these legal codes was that, ‘the law is an aspect of cosmic order and hence ultimately the gift of the forces of nature. The human ruler is but a temporary trustee who is responsible to the gods for the implementation of the cosmic design’.[2] Therefore, the king is merely a representative of the codes set forth by the gods themselves.

Sumerian law followed the key principles of ‘truth and right’, and it was these that guided everything within them. Speiser found the following to be true with regards to these cuneiforms laws: that the interpretation of the law must be by professional judges, that judges need to look at precedent and this could be helped by using the many dictionaries of legal phrases, the written document was paramount, and commitment in writing was not just a commintment between people but also to the gods.[3]

This gives us a solid background with which we can begin to understand the role of these laws in society and their importance.

Importantly, references appear in the Laws of Hammurabi from the Old Babylonian period, written in Akkadian circa 1755-1750 BCE. You are perhaps familiar with these laws, some 282 of them, repeated often throughout history. And certainly understood as one of the oldest published examples of legal codes. Famously written on a stele, which is a kind of vertical pillar or slab with inscriptions, as seem in the image above. You can see a carving of Hammurabi himself atop the laws, depicted alongside Shamash, the Babylonian sun god and keeper of justice. This echoes Speiser’s arguments about law codes being passed down by gods, and Hammurubi himself declared the same.

Within this text, we have several references to alewives and brewing. Again, the translations may say beer, but we are referring to unhopped ale here.

Let’s look at the first one:

              If an alewife

For the price of beer

              Barley has not accepted,

 but by the large stone

silver has accepted,

  and the market price of beer

 to the market price of barley has reduced,

  against that alewife

they shall prove, and

  into the water they shall cast her.[4]

So here we see a law regarding perhaps cheating or fraud. There are quite a few different translations for this law code (108), with various phrasing that changes the meaning somewhat. Paraphrasing this particular translation another way, it perhaps means that if the alewife accepts money by the large stone, but not barley, for the price of ale; and the price of ale is less than the price of barley, she is cheating, and therefore shall be killed. This anxiety about cheating alewives is something often repeated throughout history. Indeed, there are many such laws in the books in medieval Ireland, for example, to regulate who can brew and the portion sizes for sale.

Another legal code regards nefarious conferences taking place in alehouses:

If an alewife:


In her house

Have gathered, and

Those criminals

She has not seized

To the palace

Led off,

That alewife

Shall be killed.[5]

Basically here we can see that all alewives have a duty to make sure nothing illegal happens on their premises. And should such bandits or murderers gather at her tavern, then she is legally bound to not only to reveal their whereabouts, but to seize them herself, on pain of death.

Another legal code involves those of the religious order, specifically women of religious orders who do not reside in what the translation calls, ‘the cloister’, meaning a secluded religious dwelling in this instance:

If a nadītu or an ugbabtu

Who with the cloister

Does not reside

A tavern has opened

For beer

A tavern

Has entered

That woman

They shall burn.[6]

And finally, what happens when alewives loan out ale and what they deserve in return:

If an alewife

One vat of beer

As a loan(?) gave,

At the harvest

5 sūtu of barley she shall take[7]

Laws regarding ale also occur in a perhaps less famous, but not less important set of legal codes which pre-date the famous Hammurabi Code. The Laws of Eshnunna were found in a series of excavations which took place between 1945 and 1949 in Iraq.[8] They were located in an outpost of the kingdom of Eshnunna during the early Old Babylonian period. Eshnunna was a key center of political power before it was conquered. And it was conquered by none other than Hammurabi. Indeed, one point Eshnunna apparently held much power over ‘most of the East Tigris region, Assyria and part of Upper Mesopotamia’ according to Albrecht Goetze.[9] So this was quite a powerful city-state.

And in these legal codes we can find one law regarding ale:

‘If a foreigner, a napṭaru, or a mudû his beer would sell, the woman innkeeper at the current rate the beer shall sell for him.’.[10]

[1] E. A. Speiser, ‘Cuneiform Law and the History of Civlization’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Vol. 107, No. 6, Cuneiform Studies and the History of Civilization (Dec. 20, 1963), p. 536.

[2] Speiser, ‘Cuneiform Law, p. 537.

[3] Speiser, ‘Cuneiform Law, p. 538.

[4/5/6/7] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P464358

[8] Albrecht Goetze, ‘The Laws of Eshnunna’ in The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research

Vol. 31, The Laws of Eshnunna (1951 – 1952), p. 1.

[9] Goetze, ‘Eshnunna’, p. 2

[10] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P480696