Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Ancients Whisper: Mesopotamian Religion

I have been reading the superb Jean Bottéro's Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia (1998; tr from French to English 2001). So these are notes about what I take away from the last couple of months of reading about ancient Mesopotamia, focused on religion; I will stick in a few page references so I can get back to the source when I re-read this down the road.

I want to make five points:

1. Lists

The ancient civilization that we can describe came into view because of scribes and writing and the need to keep track of the accumulation of goods at temples. I do not want to try to describe the flux and reflux of religion and state, or priest and king, and I do not want to make too broad an assertion about the role of religion in the rise of civilization. But writers ... without the scribes, there is no civilization. And they started with lists. Once they made lists, other scribes coped the lists. Whenever Sumerian gave way to Akkadian and became a classical, liturgical language, scribes made translation lists. There were lists of gods, lists of omens, lists of goods.

The listing behavior is evidence of a society whose thinking is mechanical and additive. Indeed, it is easy for us in the modern world to forget that the vast majority of people throughout time have lived in societies which describe their life world in additive, mechanical ways. The careful reader of my scratch-post will recollect that my own academic work concerned the nature of writing in a radically oral society in which a caste of scribes and writers produced writing to be recited to the non-literate and owned by the powerful. The three millennia of Mesopotamia fits precisely in this zone.

So think of that caste of writers. They spent their lives learning the complexities of cuneiform. By the time they became "journeymen" they had copied hundreds of texts and immersed themselves in a long past that was constant, in which change was a terrifying irruption that had no basic impact on how lives were led or how the universe was imagined.

We do not know the lines between scribes and priests. Indeed, we know that there are sundry types of priests, but we are not sure what each type did or how one type related to another. But we do know that the lists upon lists were he closest thing to what we would call scripture, and that the lists were mnemonic devices to remind people how to encounter the divine, how to influence the forces, ow to make the best of what all admitted was a dark and foreboding reality.

Now lists can have more than one element, and this is key. They had lists that gave the Sumerian name followed by the Akkadian name of a god. They had lists that described an event followed by what the event portended. But once you have a list, why not get more lists, and so ...

2. The ancients in the near East favored accumulation over substitution (82). In other words, they liked to add gods, but they never fully discarded a god even if he fell from centrality. An gave way to Enlil who gave way to Marduk. But none of them was banished.

The dialectical frame of mind always sees in the confrontation of elements the immanent possibility of the destruction of one, or both, and the transformation of a counterposed pair into a new, "higher" singularity, itself subject to further contradiction. That is not the way of the ancients. They were compound, not complex, in their explanation of reality. Again, additive ... one explanation did not preclude another. One set of gods did not preclude another. Indeed, for much of time, one king did not preclude another, notwithstanding the periodic impulses to empire.

The additive or accumulating mindset is coincident with the religious notion that the divine world and the material world are roughly parallel if not thereby equivalent. Which leads to ...

3. Doubling the visible world (44). The fundamental conception of the divine among the ancient Mesopotamians was to see in the divine world a parallel structure to the experienced world. Every item or force in the real world had a corresponding and decisive force in the divine world. Nothing happened in the real world without the impetus of the divine world. This is the source, obviously of the accumulating tendency.

We know, of course, that reality is a bitch. And we must assume that, prior to penicillin and modern dentistry, the bitchiness of life was the more acute. So the ancients saw a divine world in which the gods created human beings in order to feed them and so that they did not have to work. This is the source of the elaborate feeding the gods ceremonies of which we have textual evidence. But the ancients didnot feed the gods just because they felt a duty to do so. They fed them because they feared their wrath if they were not fed.

This doubling of the material world was grounded in a conception of the gods as fearful, evoking brilliance and terror (39). If the divine world doubled our own, then what happened in our own world was beyond our direct control. We are the victims of the whims of the gods, alive only to serve them.

Of course, people always want to negotiate with fate, and Bottéro makes a brilliant argument about how exorcism supplanted magic as the primary way in which people approached the gods. In his argument, magic is just a technique intervention. But exorcism relies on the notion that a person by failing to perform a required duty to the gods has sinned, and therefore been punished by some divine flick of the wrist. So if the supplicant can only find the right way to approach the god and mollify and compensate him, then perhaps the god will reverse the punishment. Just as one would approach an angry monarch, or an angry landlord, or an angry judge.

The doubling concept of heaven and earth reflected, then, being trapped in a concept of society and hierarchy. "Reverence, admiration, and self-effacement with respect dominate in the texts." (40) And just as in society one could not deal with everything, so it was in the divine. One had to choose, based upon one's place.

Interlude: allow me to quote a text just for the purpose of tasting how the ancients wrote, albeit the odors faint and elusive.

How long has the river risen and brought the overflowing waters,
so that the dragonflies drift down the river?
The face that could gaze upon the face of the Sun
has never existed ever.
How alike are the sleeping and the dead. (105-6)

Or how about:

I will praise the lord of wisdom, solicitous god,
Furious in the night, growing calm in the day:
Marduk! lord of wisdom, solicitous god,
Furious in the night, growing calm in the day:
Whose anger is like a raging tempest, a desolation,
But whose breeze is sweet as the breath of morn.
In his fury not to be withstood, his rage the deluge,
Merciful in his feelings, his emotions relenting.
The skies cannot sustain the weight of his hand,
His gentle palm rescues the moribund. (190)

Ah, Semitic religion. Then, as now, filled with terror and darkness, where the solicitude of the god is not expected but rejoiced upon should it make its occasional entry.

4. The Personal God. Bottéro argues that Mesopotamian religion was not precisely polytheism, but rather henotheism which "admits the plurality of the gods but is interested in and attached at least hic et nunc, to only one of them" (41).

First of all hic et nunc ... Latin, here and now ... how obnoxious is it that a 2001 translation into English chooses to assume that most of its readership will have enough Latin to know hic et nunc ... now, I am proud that I do, but it is s silly pride given that I am old and one of a tiny minority of folks who plans to take up Latin again when I retire so I can read Catullus and chuckle.

But more to the point, hic et nunc: here and now. Notwithstanding that ancient Mesopotamian civilization lasted longer than the period of time that separates us from Homer ... think about that ... their religion was always focused on the hic et nunc.

Onward ... the personal god ... in a divine world that is a doubled and powerful mirror of the real world, there is a madness of gods. Just as the individual in society has a particular life, so he should have a particular god. I think you see this in India nowadays as well. The individual picks a god who shares, on the other side, roughly his position in the hierarchy. And he goes to that god for help and for mitigation of the problems and miseries of life.

What goes on in the central temples and near royalty are far from the average person. And this accumulating and doubling religion provides him with this answer, a personal god. It is worth noting that we know about this aspect of Mesopotamian religion because of lists of personal names that celebrate the relationship of a given person to a particular god.

But lest we get too euphoric, we have to remember that this religion was gloomy and dark, with no release from fate for the individual. Your personal god, or your relationship with an exorcist priest, might mitigate the miseries of the moment. Butnothing could save you from deth ... that is the lesson of the first great epic, the Epic of Gilgamesh. We are all doomed to die, and thereafter to inhabit a dark world of shadwos with the future or past, not prospects, no activities, no change, no joy.

5. Hell, evil, fate. We have little indication of the exact nature of the cosmology in which our forefathers believed for three millennia. The reason for that is that the scribes did not write treatises on religion or the structure of the universe. They made lists.

But we know that there was a place "under" where the departed went. They did not have a notion of the soul per se. And there does not appear to be a separation between the good and the evil. There does appear to be some sort of hierarchical differentiation ... one cold hardly expect kings to live forever in the "under" with peasants.

But this was a gloomy notion of the end of life. Remember that the gods created human beings so that they could be fed without working. So the reward, such as it was, for a long life spent feeding the gods was a shadowing eternity in this frozen nowhere.

Evil was the result of the gods being angered at the failure of human beings. The Mesopotamians did not have demons per se. But the gods were capable, idiosyncratically, of terrible moods, vengeful actions particularly directed against hose who neglected them. That said, even in the ancient world, there were skeptics who wondered why the pious might get sick while the wicked might get rich.

The brilliance and the terror of the divine. The joys and the fears of life. Parallels.

Photos by Arod of the rather few Mesopotamian relics in local museums. I hope to add the descriptions soon enough.

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