Updated: Apr 20, 2022
Sargon of Akkad (also known as Sargon of Agade and Sargon the Great, reigned 2334 to 2279 BCE), the founder of the Akkadian Empire, was a man keenly aware of his times and the people he would rule over. While he was clearly a brilliant military leader, it was the story he told of his youth and rise to power that exerted a powerful influence over the Sumerians he sought to conquer. Instead of representing himself as a man chosen by the gods to rule, he presented a much humbler image of himself as an orphan set adrift in life who was taken in by a kind gardener and granted the love of the goddess Inanna. According to the cuneiform inscription known as The Legend of Sargon (his autobiography), he was born the illegitimate son of a "changeling", which could refer to a temple priestess of the goddess Inanna (whose clergy were androgynous) and never knew his father.
His mother could not reveal her pregnancy or keep the child, and so she placed him in a basket which she then let go on the Euphrates River. She had sealed the basket with tar, and the water carried him safely to where he was later found by a man named Akki who was a gardener for Ur-Zababa, the king of the Sumerian city of Kish. In creating this legend, Sargon carefully distanced himself from the kings of the past (who claimed divine right) and aligned himself with the common people of the region rather than the ruling elite.
The Legend of Sargon is one of many works in the Mesopotamian literary genre known as naru literature. According to the scholar O.R. Gurney:
A naru was an engraved stele, on which a king would record the events of his reign; the characteristic features of such an inscription are a formal self-introduction of the writer by his name and titles, a narrative in the first person, and an epilogue usually consisting of curses upon any person who might in the future deface the monument and blessings upon those who should honour it. The so-called "naru literature" consists of a small group of apocryphal naru-inscriptions, composed probably in the early second millennium B.C., but in the name of famous kings of a bygone age. A well-known example is the Legend of Sargon of Akkad. In these works the form of the naru is retained, but the matter is legendary or even fictitious.
Even though the extant legend was written long after Sargon's death, it is thought that it conveys the story Sargon would have presented regarding his birth, upbringing, and reign. Naru literature such as The Legend of Cutha (or derivatives from naru literature such as The Curse of Agade) uses a well-known historical figure (in both cases Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson) to make a point concerning the proper relationship between a human being (especially a king) and the gods. Other naru literature, such as The Great Revolt and the Legend of Sargon, seeks to tell a tale of a great king's military victory or life. In Sargon's case, it would have been to his benefit, as an aspiring conqueror and empire builder, to claim for himself a humble birth and modest upbringing.
At the time Sargon came to power in 2334 BCE, Sumer was a region which had only recently been united under the king of Umma, Lugalzagesi, and even then it was not a cohesive union. Prior to Lugalzagesi's conquest, Sumerian cities were frequently at warwith each other, vying for resources such as water and land rights. Further complicating the situation was the discrepancy between the rich and the poor. The historian Susan Wise Bauer writes on this, commenting:
Sargon's relatively speedy conquest of the entire Mesopotamian plain is startling, given the inability of Sumerian kings to control any area much larger than two or three cities [but the Sumerians] were suffering from an increased gap between elite leadership and poor laborers. [The rich] used their combined religious and secular power to claim as much as three-quarters of the land in any given city for themselves. Sargon's relatively easy conquest of the area (not to mention his constant carping on his own non-aristocratic background) may reveal a successful appeal to the downtrodden members of Sumerian society to come over to his side .
By presenting himself as a "man of the people", he was able to garner support for his cause and took Sumer with relative ease. Once the south of Mesopotamia was under his control, he then went on to create the first multi-national empire in history. That his reign was not always popular, once he was securely in power, is attested to by the number of revolts he was forced to deal with as described in his inscriptions. Early on, however, his appeal would have been great to people who were tired of the wealthy living as they pleased at the expense of the working lower class. The class system in Sumer was fairly rigid, with only a very few enjoying lives of leisure, and the majority doing all the work which allowed the cities to function. In this kind of social situation, a contender for rule who was the child of a single mother, abandoned, and taken in by a gardener, would have won the approval of the people far more than any of the elite who then ruled the cities.
The following translation of the legend comes from J.B. Pritchard's The Ancient Near East, Volume I, pages 85-86. It reads:
Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I. My mother was a changeling, my father I knew not. The brother(s) of my father loved the hills. My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed My lid. She cast me into the river which rose not (over) me, The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water lifted me out as he dipped his e[w]er. Akki, the drawer of water, [took me] as his son (and) reared me. Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener, While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me (her) love, And for four and [ ... ] years I exercised kingship, The black-headed [people] I ruled, I gov[erned]; Mighty [moun]tains with chip-axes of bronze I con- quered, The upper ranges I scaled, The lower ranges I [trav]ersed, The sea [lan]ds three times I circled. Dilmun my [hand] cap[tured], [To] the great Der I [went up], I [. . . ], [ . . . ] I altered and [. . .]. Whatever king may come up after me, [. . .] Let him r[ule, let him govern] the black-headed [peo]ple; [Let him conquer] mighty [mountains] with chip-axe[s of bronze], [Let] him scale the upper ranges, [Let him traverse the lower ranges], Let him circle the sea [lan]ds three times! [Dilmun let his hand capture], Let him go up [to] the great Der and [. . . ]! [. . .] from my city, Aga[de ... ] [. . . ] . . . [. . .].
The inscription was discovered in the Assyrian city of Nineveh in 1867 CE by the archeologist Sir Henry Rawlinson who was excavating the site. Rawlinson is famous for many important discoveries throughout Mesopotamia but perhaps most for uncovering the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. The Legend of Sargon was part of that library and was a copy of a much earlier text. This, of course, indicates the story was still being read in the 7th century BCE, almost 2,000 years after Sargon's reign. The great king is carefully presented in the first twelve lines as the child cast off by his mother, who finds a home with Akki the gardener, and is loved by the goddess Ishtar. Once Ishtar and her favor is established in line 12, the narrator moves instantly to, "And for four years I exercised kingship" in line 13 and then devotes the rest of the piece to his exploits as ruler. To the people of ancient Mesopotamia, this would have inspired much in the same way that a "poor boy makes good" tale does in the present day. Sargon not only boasted about what he was able to accomplish as king, but told the people of his very humble beginnings, and how it was through the kindness of a stranger and the grace of a goddess that he was able to achieve his great triumphs.
There is no way of knowing whether any of what Sargon says about his early life in the inscription is true; that is precisely the point of it. Whoever Sargon was, and wherever he came from, is obscured by the legend - which is the only known work giving his biography. "Sargon" is not even his actual name but a throne name he chose for himself which means "Legitimate King", and although inscriptions and his name would indicate he was a Semite, there is no way of knowing even that for certain. He claims his home city is Azupiranu, but such a city is mentioned in no other extant texts and is thought to never have existed. "Azupiranu" means "city of saffron" and, since saffron was a valuable commodity in healing as well as in other applications, he was perhaps simply linking himself to the concept of value or worth. The repetition of the image of Sargon being rescued from the river by a "drawer of water" would also have had symbolic resonance for an ancient Mesopotamian audience, in that water was considered a transformative agent.
The means by which a person accused of a crime was found guilty or innocent was known as the Ordeal, in which the accused was thrown into the river or leaped in and, if they were able to survive the ordeal, they were innocent; if not, the river had given judgment of their guilt. Further, the afterlife in Mesopotamian belief was separated from the land of the living by a river, and the deceased left their earthly life behind as they crossed over. His journey, then, from his home city, via the Euphrates River, to his destiny with the "drawer of water" would have symbolized transformation and also his worthiness, in that he had survived his own ordeal as an infant. The legend replaced whatever biographical truth there may have been and, in time, became the truth. This seems to have been the effect of much of the naru literature. The myth, in time, became the reality. Regarding this, the scholar Gerdien Jonker writes:
It should be made clear that the ancient writers were not aiming to deceive with their literary creations. The literature inspired by the naru formed an excellent medium with which, by departing from traditional forms, a new social "image" of the past could be created (95).
This is not to say that the legend could not be completely factual. Perhaps the child was abandoned by his mother in the river, floated downstream to be found by the gardener, was granted the love of a goddess, and rose to become the most powerful man in Mesopotamia through her grace and his own character. As there is no conflicting story to compare it to, it must be accepted as his accurate account of his life or, at least, the version he wanted future generations to remember. To some modern readers, of course, it may sound implausible but, to others who accept the re-working of Sargon's early life story in the tale of Mosesfrom the Book of Exodus, it would not be. People around the world in the present day accept the story of Moses and the bullrushes and the Egyptian Princess as complete truth, and this is how Sargon's legend would have been received by the people of ancient Mesopotamia. It certainly did not hurt his cause, however, to be known as the orphaned son of a priestess instead of privileged heir to a throne.