Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Ancients Whisper: Enlil and the Wind

I've been reading Samuel Noah Kramer's History Begins at Sumer, published in 1956. My edition was the first Doubleday Anchor paperback published in 1959, sold for $1.95, and one of those classic old paperbacks that the bibliophile loves to fondle. Alas, like so many old paperbacks, the spine did break despite my best efforts. None of the folios have slipped out, though.

Preserving an old book is what Kramer did, of course, though his books were in the form of tens of thousand of broken clay tablets. Kramer does not lack for pride in his work, but he did put together many previously separated chunks of fable and myth. I am not sure what his reputation is now in the field; the Wikipedia article is certainly laudatory.

What I know about Sumerian religion entirely derives from Kramer, and something like six readings over the course of my life of the Babylonian epic about the Sumerian Gilgamesh; I am going to tackle that again once I am done with Kramer. So what I write here is pretty impressionistic, meant more to illustrate where my mind is going in trying to imagine for myself the nature of consciousness in the earliest civilization about which we have written evidence.

Written evidence, of course, is what defines civilization if only because we know a great deal of what we know from written evidence. Cuneiform was a remarkably long-lived and relatively stable form of writing; it was in active use for a longer period of time than the time that separates us from Homer! And, of course, because its medium was clay, we have an enormous resource of fragments and remnants.

I am interested in the scribes; I am always interested in the classes to which I might have belonged had I been born into another era. The earliest writings about Sumerian civilization in Uruk (in modern southern Iraq), the biblical Erech, include descriptions of the intense curriculum and strict corporal punishment provided to prospective scribes. The graduates stood to inherit high position in society, at the cusp between the religious establishment and the political power. Most of what they wrote was bureaucratic, and this provides us with a deep look into economics and social relationships at the dawn of history. But there is enough writing on myth and attitude to give us great insight into the mind.

Kramer points out that the Sumerians did not write what we might call meta-prose ... speculative supervening prose that situates and explains. I would say that this reflects what I called the immediacy of myth and speculation when I discussed Herodotus. The Sumerians were very good at lists, as were their inheritors, and those lists have provided not just enumerations and chronology but also great sources for translation and deciphering. Lists and the immediacy or unmediated quality of reflection are characteristic of chirographic society ... that is a society in which writing is produced by experts for consumption by a society which remains radically oral.

So in the case of the myths which Kramer outlines, we see the repetitive style and textual chunks typical of oral texts, but we see them in written form. By chunks, I refer to stock phrases ready at hand for an oral storyteller; the most famous is the Homeric "wine-dark sea". The storyteller has these elements, preformed with rhythms and measure appropriate to the genre, at ready hand so as to make easier the task of putting a story together in performance. BTW, Kramer makes an error typical of his era (see page 137) when he says that the scribes are the "heirs and descendants of the illiterate minstrels of much earlier days" ... first of all, I prefer "non-literate" rather than "illiterate" because you can only be illiterate in a society which is radically literate, in other words in a society in which the vast majority of people read and write. This was not the case in Sumer, or indeed in any society until much later. But more importantly, we can have little doubt that the "minstrels" were contemporaries of the scribes, as evidenced by the oral techniques with which they wrote, but also by induction since storytellers have been characteristic of all radically oral societies. The "minstrels" and the scribes lived in the same lifeworld and they had exchanges and interchanges which we can only imagine since they apparently are rarely if ever depicted in the sources.

So the scribal arts, notwithstanding the literate caste that produced them, reflect the oral society in which the life world is immediate and unmediated. The gods are viewed as ever present, constantly going about their work, and living their lives, but invisible to humankind except in the effects that they produce. The four major gods are An (heaven), Enlil (the air god), Enki (god of the abyss and wisdom, and the organizer god), and Ninhursag (the mother goddess). But there are also hundreds of gods in charge of more or less everything and anything. It becomes a rather impersonal system, one fitting for a people unprotected against ill-fortune and bad fate, so they developed a system of the personal god who could serve as an intermediary to petition for or act on behalf of the individual with the other gods who, seemingly, were unconcerned with the fate of one person or another.

It is noteworthy that in a thought system where there is no evident conceptual mediation (i.e., where cause and event and consequence are seen as immediate and connected and inseparable), a mechanical form of mediation is invented in the ethereal realm to represent the possibility that cause and effect can be split apart. Compare that to our personal god ... Jesus ... who mediates between the very distant, unerring, and unchanging god the father, but in doing that, he himself is distant, unerring, and unchanged despite his dabble in history 2,000 years ago. There is something deeply revealing about this structure of divine portrayal, and the evident necessity to invite a mechanical means in the form of the personal god of breaching the divide between the immortals and us.

The unchangeability that we project to the immanent but distant god, the Sumerians found in their everyday life. It was a lifeworld that appeared as stable and immutable, and change was something that had to be entreated. Kramer writes, "The main thesis of our poet [of the first version of the Job myth] is that in cases of adversity and suffering, no matter how seemingly unjustified, the victim has but one valid and effective recourse, and that is to glorify his god continually, and keep wailing and lamenting before him until he turns a favorable ear to his prayers." That god is the personal god of the individual supplicant who, by this means, had some recourse against the immediacy of fate ... but a recourse of little effect and much wailing and bemoaning.

Again, this is pretty broad speculation based on a limited set of facts known by the writer, but it is how I try to imagine consciousness when people are in possession of a different set of not only notions but also explanations and facts.

I think this idea also explains why Enlil appears over time to have displaced An, the heaven god, as the primary god. Again, for us, the primary god is always in heaven, and heaven which is above us, unknowable and unimaginable, unreachable except through death and redemption. For the muslims, it is a layered above, albeit rather fully explained in their much more mechanical textual approach to religion, but admission is at the behest of the god who is without intermediary.

But for the Sumerians, the action was not in heaven. Enki, the god of wisdom and organization, ran the world. But Enlil was the wind, the air ... that is, Enlil was what mediated between heaven and earth, what caused change, what brought good and evil, what moved. Enki established the rules of culture and living, and ultimately ordered people as they died and went to the underworld. But Enlil, the wind, was the great god, most in need of sacrifice and appeasement. He was the divine representation of mediation, and thus appeasing him was of central importance in undoing the terible effects of change upon a world where immediacy was the coin of the realm.

Again, this is a mechanical way of representing mediation in a world in which mediation was not the default position.

I hope that this is not too obscure ... and I really hope that it is not utterly wrong. I'll try to return to this when I have re-read Gilgamesh.

Photos by Arod of the sky. Top photo taken at MRU, the major research university where I hold out my hands expecting a rain of heavenly delights; second photo is of the hill in the park behind my house in San Francisco. the third is the sky reflected in a window which, as I recollect, is on Haight Street in San Francisco.

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