Sunday, May 01, 2016

The part played by labor in the transition to man

 (Bulgarian readers can find the same post in Bulgarian here.)

This year, our Orthodox Easter coincided with Labor Day. This gives everyone a democratic choice what to celebrate. Our family of course opted for Easter with its amusing and tasty traditions: painted eggs, baked lamb with newly harvested potatoes, sweet Easter bread, chocolate bunnies and (for the children) egg hunt in the garden or the living-room. Labor Day has something to offer only to leftists and I regret that it has driven to oblivion good old May Day. At least, after the fall of communism we have no mandatory rallies on this day anymore. Let me honor the double holiday by writing a post that will treat both religion (though not exactly Christianity) and labor.

A pet peeve of mine is that the theories of Marx, Engels and Lenin still cannot be purged out of our textbooks, and not only those of social sciences but even those of natural sciences. Bulgarian high school biology textbooks still discuss labor as one of the factors of anthropogenesis (i.e. human evolution); we even had this subject at the entrance exam of our University a month ago. The idea that humans owe their origin to labor is rooted in Engels' 1876 essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. To my annoyance, Wikipedia praises the work in question. The important thing, however, is that you can read a kilogram of modern scientific works on human origin and evolution without finding a word about the role of labor in this process. Actually, what distinguishes human (or pre-human) labor from the analogous activities of other animals? We don't call it "labor" when a squirrel gathers food supplies; why does the same count for labor if a human is doing it? Because the human is aware of what he is doing. In other words, it is not labor itself, it is consciousness that is important and (as we think) uniquely human.

Of course, questions about human origin have been asked for millenia before Engels. Each self-respecting religion discusses it at least briefly. In Norse mythology for example, gods have created humans in order to use them as allies in the final battle of Ragnarok that will put an end to the world as we know it. For that purpose, souls of dead warriors are collected in the hall of Valhalla. Pay attention that the Norse myth ascribes to gods selfish motivation for the creation of man and does not try to convince the human audience that the supreme god Odin loves them. The same "realism" can be found in other ancient mythologies and religions, including those in the cradle of human civilization - the Fertile Crescent.

The earliest preserved Mesopotamian tale of human creation is the Epic of Atrahasis. Preserved as a cuneiform script on clay tablets, the oldest of them dated to 17th century BC, it begins as follows:

"When the gods, instead of man
Did the work, bore the loads
The god's load was too great, the work too hard, the trouble too much.

Of course, those who could shirk the hard work, did it by forcing it on others:

"The seven great Anunna-gods were burdening
 [lesser] Igigi-gods with forced labor."

Allthough lesser, Igigi were gods nevertheless and the results of their labor were magnificent. Look e.g. at their irrigation canals:

"The Igigi-gods were digging watercourses
canals they opened, the life of the land.
The Igigi-gods dug the Tigris river
and the Euphrates thereafter.
Springs they opened from the depths,
wells ... they established...
They heaped up all the mountains.

However, after some time, they got fed up and went on strike and even something more:

"They counted years of drudgery,
... and forty years, too much!
... forced labor they bore night and day.
They were complaining, denouncing,
muttering down in the ditch:
"Let us face up to our foreman the prefect,
he must take off our heavy burden upon us!
Enlil, counsellor of the gods, the warrior,
come, let us remove him from his dwelling!"...

"Now them, call for battle,
battle let us join, warfare!"
The gods heard his words:
[apparently, one of the Igigi has become leader of the rebellion]
they set fire to their tools,
they put fire to their spaces,
and flame to their workbaskets.
Off they went, one and all,
to the gate of the warrior Enlil's abode...

It was night, half-way through the watch,
the house was surrounded, but the god did not know.

And what did the supreme god Enlil do when he finally knew what was going on? He sent to the rebels a messenger with the following question:

"Who is the instigator of this battle?
Who is the instigator of these hostilities?
Who declared war,
that battle has run up to the gate of Enlil?
...He transgressed the command of Enlil.

What a jerk, wasn't he? However, the lower gods like all serious rebels knew the importance of solidarity and gave the following reply:

"Everyone of us gods has declared war;
...Excessive drudgery has killed us,
our forced labor was heavy, the misery too much!
Now, everyone of us gods
has resolved on a reckoning with Enlil.

The great gods urgently gathered in a divine council. The clever god Ea, also known by his Sumerian name Enki, said that the disaster was predictable and then proposed a solution:

"Ea made ready to speak,
and said to the gods, his brothers:
"What calumny do we lay to their charge?
Their forced labor was heavy, their misery too much!
Every day... the outcry was loud, we could hear the clamor...
Belet-ili, the midwife, is present.
Let her create, then, a human, a man,
Let him bear the yoke!
Let him bear the yoke!
Let man assume the drudgery of the god."

They summoned and asked the goddess
the midwife of the gods, wise Mami:
"Will you be the birth goddess, creatress of mankind?
Create a human being, that he bear the yoke,
let him bear the yoke, the task of Enlil,
let man assume the drudgery of the god."
Nintu made ready to speak,
and said to the great gods:
"It is not for me to do it,
the task is Enki's.
He it is that cleanses all,
let him provide me the clay so I can do the making.

There was just a teensy, weensy problem: to create a rational being, the birth goddess (alternatively called Belet-ili, Nin-tu and Mami) didn't need only clay. She needed also the flesh and blood of another rational being, a sacrificed god. Mesopotamian gods did not age and had no natural death, but could be killed.

"Enki made ready to speak,
and said to the great gods:
"On the first, seventh, and fifteenth days of the month,
let me establish a purification, a bath.
Let one god be slaughtered,
then let the gods be cleansed by immerson.
Let Nintu mix clay with his flesh and blood.
Let that same god and man be thoroughly mixed in the clay.
Let us hear the drum for the rest of the time.
From the flesh of the god let a spirit remain,
let it make the living know its sign,
lest he be allowed to be forgotten, let the spirit remain."
The great Anunna-gods, who administer destinies,
answered "yes!" in the assembly.

The great Anunna-gods were quick to answer "yes", because they knew that the victim would not be chosen among them. One of the Igigi rebels, allegedly a leader of the rebellion, was made a scapegoat. His name is given as Aw-ilu, We-ila or Geshtu-e (the latter means "he who had intelligence"):

"On the first, seventh, and fifteenth days of the month,
he established a purification, a bath.
They slaughtered Aw-ilu, who had the inspiration, in their assembly.
Nintu mixed clay with his flesh and blood.
That same god and man were thoroughly mixed in the clay.
For the rest of the time they would hear the drum.
[i.e. the heartbeat]
From the flesh of the god the spirit remained.
It would make the living know its sign.
Lest he be allowed to be forgotten, the spirit remained.
After she had mixed the clay,
she summoned the Anunna, the great gods.
The Igigi, the great gods, spat upon the clay.
Mami made rady to speak,
and said to the great gods:
"You ordered me the task and I have completed it!
You have slaughtered the god, along with his inspiration.
I have done away with your heavy forced labor,
I have imposed your drudgery on man.
You have bestowed clamor upon mankind.
I have released the yoke, I have made restoration."
They heard this speech of hers,
they ran, free of care, and kissed her feet, saying:
"Formerly we used to call you Mami,
now let your name be Belet-kala-ili (Mistress of all the gods)!

As we see, despite the pledge not to be forgotten, the poor victim was forgotten immediately, even by his former comrades. They were just too happy to be relieved of the hard work. From his flesh and blood mixed in the clay, seven men and seven women were created to become founders of mankind. This way, according to residents of ancient Mesopotamia, labor indeed had a decisive part in the transition of less organized matter to man: it motivated gods to create man.

By the way, Hebrews who placed their Garden of Eden between the Tigris and the Euphrates, were related to the people of Mesopotamia and, like them, spoke an Afroasiatic (Semitic) language. Their tale of human creation echoes the crucial role of labor: "The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it" (Genesis 2:15, a verse considered important by a Christian friend of mine.)

How did the mytho-history of man continue after his creation? Initially, Enlil was in his Heaven and all was well with the world. However, after a period of time, 1200 years to be precise, humans multiplied so much that their noise disturbed Enlil's sleep. Instead of finding some ear-plugs, he resorted to genocide: "Man multiplies rapidly, for 1200 years. Enlil sends plague to destroy Man. Enki teaches Atrahasis worship of Namtar, thus saves Mankind. Again Man multiplies 1200 years; Enlil sends drought. Enki teaches worship of Adad (rainstorm), saves Mankind. Again Man multiplies 1200 years; Enlil embargoes all goods --> famine.  Enki releases the fishes, saves Man. Again Man proliferates; Enlil sends Flood."

Ea/Enki had no room for maneuvering. He could not openly warn the humans, because he had pledged to the divine council not to reveal their secrets. So he sent a prophetic dream to his human friend called Atrahasis ("Very wise"). In the dream, Ea was standing in front of Atrahasis' house and talking not to its inhabitant but to the reed wall:

"Wall, listen to me!
Reed wall, pay attention to all my words!
Flee the house, build a boat,
forsake possessions, and save life!

After that, there is much lost text in the Epic of Atrahasis, but the story of the flood is told in detail in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Ea gives Atrahasis instructions how to build the boat: "These are the measurements of the barque as you shall build her: let hex beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures."

Such an enterprise apparently cannot be kept secret, so Atrahasis asks Ea what to tell the people and elders of his city. The god replies: "Tell them this: I have learnt that Enlil is wrathful against me, I dare no longer walk in his land nor live in his city; I will go down to the Gulf to dwell with Ea my lord. But on you he will rain down abundance, rare fish and shy wild-fowl, a rich harvest-tide." Ea can be quite cynical when he wishes.

Everything happens as predicted. Atrahasis boards the beat together with his family and the shipwrights. The scale of the disaster frightens even the gods, who are no longer sure that the flood has been a good idea: "Even the gods were terrified at the flood, they fled to the highest heaven, the firmament of Ann; they crouched against the walls, cowering like curs. Then Ishtar the sweet-voiced Queen of Heaven cried out like a woman in travail: "Alas the days -of old are turned to dust because I commanded evil; why did I command thus evil in the council of all the gods? I commanded wars to destroy the people, but are they not my people, for I brought them forth? Now like the spawn of fish they float in the ocean." The great gods of heaven and of hell wept, they covered their mouths."

As Atrahasis tells later: "For six days and six nights the winds blew, torrent and tempest and flood overwhelmed the world, tempest and flood raged together like warring hosts. When the seventh day dawned the storm from the south subsided, the sea grew calm, the, flood was stilled; I looked at the face of the world and there was silence, all mankind was turned to clay. The surface of the sea stretched as flat as a roof-top; I opened a hatch and the light fell on my face. Then I bowed low, I sat down and I wept, the tears streamed down my face, for on every side was the waste of water."

Another week is needed for the boat to reach dry land, the mountain of Nisir. What is the first job of Atrahasis after he disembarks? If you know the facts or at least the spirit of mythology, you can answer immediately: his first job is to make a sacrifice. Gods not only exploit the labor of men but feed on smoke from their sacrifices. They are now hungry because they have not eaten since the beginning of the flood.

"When the gods smelled the sweet savour, they gathered like flies over the sacrifice. Then, at last, Ishtar also came, she lifted her necklace with the jewels of heaven that once Anu had made to please her. "O you gods here present, by the lapis lazuli round my neck I shall remember these days as I remember the jewels of my throat; these last days I shall not forget. Let all the gods gather round the sacrifice, except Enlil. He shall not approach this offering, for without reflection he brought the flood; he consigned my people to destruction.""

As for said Enlil, he is still in denial of his mistake and eager to find out how a bunch of humans have survived:

"When Enlil had come, when he saw the boat, he was wrath and swelled with anger at the gods, the host of heaven, "Has any of these mortals escaped? Not one was to have survived the destruction." Then the god of the wells and canals Ninurta opened his mouth and said to the warrior Enlil, "Who is there of the gods that can devise without Ea? It is Ea alone who knows all things.""

The divine savior of humanity, however, is also unrepentant and launches a counter-attack:

"Then Ea opened his mouth and spoke to warrior Enlil, "Wisest of gods, hero Enlil, how could you so senselessly bring down the flood?
Lay upon the sinner his sin,
Lay upon the transgressor
his transgression,
Punish him a little when he breaks loose,
Do not drive him too hard
or he perishes,
Would that a lion had ravaged mankind
Rather than the f loud,
Would that a wolf had ravaged mankind
Rather than the flood,
Would that famine had wasted the world
Rather than the flood,
Would that pestilence
had wasted mankind
Rather than the flood.

It was not I that revealed the secret of the gods; the wise man learned it in a dream. Now take your counsel what shall be done with him.""

Enlil relents, makes Atrahasis and his wife immortal and sends them to live far away from other humans. As for mankind, the Epic of Atrahasis describes how the gods led by Enki make a plan to ensure that the noise will remain within limits: they introduce limited life span, infertility, infant mortality and celibacy.

"Enki made ready to speak,
and said to Nintu the birth goddess:
"You, birth goddess, creatress of destinies,
establish death for all peoples!...
"Now then, let there be a third woman among the people,
among the people are the woman who has borne
and the woman who has not borne.
Let there be also among the people the pasittu (she-demon):
let her snatch the baby from the lap who bore it.
And etablish high priestesses and priestesses,
let them be taboo [celibate], and so cut down childbirth.

This way, human condition was settled and Enlil could sleep at last. Did you like the story? And another question: would you like to believe that all this is true? There is beauty and majesty in myths... but nevertheless I am glad that we have outgrown them.