Aluzinnu – Babylonian

‘The alan.zu/ aluzinnu could sing, play instruments and dance, and in fact from the earliest times (in Mari, Babylonia and in Bogazköy) he is connected with musicians, singers and acrobats who performed at festivals and (para?)religious celebrations’. 


‘According to the lexical lists of the 1st millennium (BCE), the Mesopotamians thought of him as associated with clowns, conceited people and other figures labeled as “farters” and the like.’ (Rumor, M., 2017, p. 207 – all page references below are to this paper).

The profession of aluzinnu provides the tantalising idea that the jester may have been a recognisable role in ancient Mesopotamia. The term travelled over time, morphing here and there, but its kaleidoscopic shifting colours have enough common ground with what we would call a jester, to allow the possibility.

The evidence is complex and incomplete but intriguing and to a degree compelling. It seems it first occurred in the 20th century BCE at Mari (with synonyms attested from the 24th century BCE). Other words appearing next to it in the lexical lists are related to laughter / humour, e.g musihhu (‘clown’ – ‘he who brings to laugh’).  (p. 190)

In the 2nd millennium BCE the term appeared across a wide region from Mari on the Euphrates to Elam in the East, and from Southern Mesopotamia to Anatolia; with various representations of the profession not always recognisable as a jester (p. 191)

Letters from the first half of the second millennium BCE concern the attire of the aluzinnu and attest to his relationship with the palace. I was struck by the mention of 60 elaborate hats / turbans, and 35 pairs of boots or gaiters (delivered ‘regularly’), reminiscent of clothes and shoes listed in European court account books in connection with court fools.

Similarly, it appears that the aluzinnu was provided with ‘eccentric clothes and accessories’ by the palace administration, and could be given as a gift on the occasion of royal weddings (p. 193).  This reminds me of the exchange of jesters among Italian courts, with one noblewoman sending her jester to another to cheer them when they were ill.

More intriguing is the connection with music and the fact that the Mari aluzinnu seems to have worked under the supervision of the nar-gal or chief musician, and in the company of the huppu (acrobat) (p. 192).  This resonates with the widespread musical connection among jesters, including those in China who emerged from court musical institutions. Note also the aluzinnu being paired with the Sumerian a-tar-du, associated with musicans, and with whom he is described as ‘fooling around, jumping / dancing, and running about’ (p. 193).

In the second half of the second millennium BCE, we read of the Hittite ALAN.ZU9 although the humorous element is less apparent and Rumor asks what we might be missing in the Hittite context.  As in Mari and Babylonia, the aluzinnu was financially dependent on the palace or temple (pp. 195-97).

By the first millennium BCE, the lexical evidence has our friend following words for cultic dancers, actors, clowns and braggarts, and preceding some scatologial references.

There is also a text in which the aluzinnu appears as a protagonist in a collection of playful episodes. His role is apparently an ‘intellectual entertainer who enters into a playful dialogue with the scholars of the Assyrian court and their literary products’ (p. 199).  This may resemble the skits and stories we have, particularly from China, India and the Middle East, where the jester mocks the self-importance and even hypocrisy of the religious or literary class (p. 199).

All in all, if you are looking for Mesopotamian jesters, then aluzinnu would be a key search term.  I hope Rumor’s paper stimulates further research on this elusive character.

See also the bibliographic entry for Rumor’s paper.


Source: Rumor, Maddalena, ‘There’s No Fool Like An Old Fool: The Mesopotamian Aluzinnu and its relationship to the Greek alazôn‘, Kaskal: Rivista di storia, ambienti e culture del Vicino Oriente Antico 14 (2017), pp. 187-210



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