Saturday, 27 June 2015

Standing in the Place of Ea: The Adapa Discipline and Kingship in the Neo-Assyrian Empire

This paper contains extensive information about the Adapa discipline and its role in the preparation for kingship in Sargonid Assyria, and the the place of both within the Assyrian model of the world. 
Both the myth and the discipline of Adapa can be argued to have been of central cultural importance in the Sargonid period; the evidence for this is particularly strong in the textual remains of the later kings, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. This aspect of the kingship illuminates the self-perception of the Sargonids perhaps more clearly and concisely than any other single form of evidence, and may even constitute the backbone of that self-perception, providing the order about which the other types of evidence ought to be arranged.

It is interesting to see that Assyrian kingship in this period (mainly eighth and seventh centuries BCE) was firmly associated with moral action. Much in the Assyrian state depended on the king, his skills, and the performance of ritual observances. This is partly the result of the Assyrian understanding that moral action occurred within a teleological frame. As representative of the divine Ashur on earth, the king reflects an understanding of the perfection of Ashur, and that such perfection should be emulated in his life. Good order in the state depended on this. 

The paper was written some years ago, and reflects my views at the time of writing. I would write it a little differently now, particularly in connection with the meaning of the Adapa myth. But that is true of many papers that we write. 

It is also clear now that it was possible for the Assyrian king to assume a temporary divinity in special circumstances. The same is true for other functionaries in Assyria. This rather surprising state of affairs is discussed in some detail in The Sacred History of Being.

Thomas Yaeger, 26 June 2015.


We have two principal sources concerning the myth and discipline of Adapa:

1. The myth is known to us principally from a document found in two locations: the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, and an earlier text from the Amarna archive in Egypt*1

2. The Annals of Ashurbanipal, in which he describes the discipline of the Adapa, which formed part of his training for the kingship while crown prince*2

The myth of the Adapa is currently understood to have provided a contemporary explanation of the convention that Assyrian kings were not divine, and also a justification of their right to rule*3 The account given by Ashurbanipal of his training gives us something of the context in which the myth functioned, and the way Assyrian kings understood their role. His description breaks down naturally into three categories of instruction:

1. Scholarship and inquiry
2. Military Skills
3. Emulation of the King's administrative function

The importance of this pattern of training for the later functioning of the king may be illustrated by analytical comparison with the royal correspondence. It may be broken down into roughly parallel groupings:

1. Religion
Magic and Medicine
Astronomy, Astrology and Divination

2. War

3. Provincial administration
Agriculture and Commerce
Court and Officials
Property and Revenue of the Temples*4

The Myth of Adapa (I)

Adapa is instructed in the ways of heaven by Ea, the "broad eared one" (signifying wisdom)*5 Dalley remarks that

"Adapa was also known as Uan, which is the name given as Oannes by Berossus to the first sage; the name Uan also forms a pun on the Sumero-Akkadian word for a craftsman... as the first sage, Adapa-Oannes introduced the correct rites of religious observance to mankind, and was the priest of Ea in his temple in Eridu" *6

The precise meaning of the story is unclear, but it appears to explain why Adapa was not granted immortality and remained as a mortal sage (apkallum). According to the fourth fragment of the text, lines 10-11, Anu decreed freedom from compulsory service for the city of Ea (Eridu). To glorify his high priesthood "until faraway days [he decreed] as (his) destiny"*7

The Discipline of the Adapa

The text which tells of Ashurbanipal's training for the role of king proclaims that:

"[Marduk], master of the gods, granted me as a gift a receptive mind (lit., wide-ear) and ample power of thought" *8

This is a deliberate allusion to the granting of divine wisdom by Ea (the broad-eared) to Adapa. He further tells us that:

"the art (lit., work) of the Master Adapa I learned (lit., acquired), the hidden treasure of all scribal knowledge, the [signs] of heaven and earth" *9

The scribal training was the most important part of the education of the crown prince. Since the future Assyrian king was understood to stand in the same relation to the gods as Adapa stood in relation to Ea, we are also told by Ashurbanipal that he participated (to some degree, impossible to quantify) in the life of artisans:

"in the assembly of the artisans I received orders (?)." *10

This would appear to suggest that not only was it part of his training for kingship that he know something of other social groups but that he should also know how to take instruction. He continues:

"I have studied (lit., struggled with) the heavens with the learned masters of oil divination."

He also tells us that he has:

"solved the laborious (problems of) division and multiplication, which were not clear."

he has read also: "the artistic script of Sumer (and) the dark (obscure) Akkadian, which is hard to master, (now) taking pleasure in the reading of the stones (i.e., steles) (coming) from before the flood, (now) being angered (because I was) stupid (and) addled (?) by the beautiful script." *11

The foregoing requirements of the discipline of the Adapa fall under the heading of scholarship and enquiry. Next follow details of military skills. He tells us that he rode a horse, went hunting, was skilled as an archer and as the thrower of heavy lances. He could handle the aritu and kababu shields; in addition to these skills he could drive a chariot (he is depicted as a chariot driver in the palace reliefs)*12

All these appear to have been understood as crafts, for he concludes these remarks by saying that "I wished to be the great lord (?) of all the craftsmen" (i.e., to be the best of them all).*13 Given the nature of the coronation ceremony, for which we have an invaluable text, it would seem that he required the acclamation of his inferiors, to be perceived to merit the honour of occupying a transcendent office*14 Indeed, in speaking of his skills as an archer, he specifically says that he "shot (lit., let fly) the arrow, the sign of my valour"

Ashurbanipal then passes on to a description of his preparation for the highest office: "At the same time I was learning royal decorum, walking in the kingly ways."*15 He says that he

"stood before the king, my begetter, giving commands to the nobles. Without my (consent) (lit., without me) no governor was appointed, no prefect was installed in my absence."

Thus the role of the crown prince is to emulate the king as it is the role of the king to emulate Adapa.

Though the office of king must be merited, the merit of the candidate for the crown prince-ship was understood to be conferred through the favour of the gods:

"The father, my begetter, saw for himself the bravery which the great gods decreed as my (portion)."

The king conceived a great love for this particular son, but, it is explicitly stated that this love is the command of the great gods. The particular son was chosen from the assembly of brothers by divine will; that he might rule depended upon the king imploring the gods, addressing his prayers "to Nabu and Marduk, who give throne and sceptre, who establish kingship..."*16

Ashurbanipal describes his installation as king in the bit-riduti:

"at the command of Assur, father of the Gods, Marduk lord of lords, king of the gods, he raised (exalted) me above the (other) king's sons".

This installation is represented as causing peace in the land:

"the four regions (of the world) were in perfect order, like the finest oil." *17

He also says that in his first year of rule

"I laid hold of the hem of the garment of his great godhead, I gave my attention to his sanctuaries." *18

That is, the chain of connection between the world of the gods and that of man was his first priority.

The Perfection of the King

Throughout the texts and inscriptions and iconography we are presented with images of the king as a kind of perfection. He is at the apex of the social structure of Assyria and is its principal priest (in terms of his symbolic participation in the key rituals). Thus he is the most excellent of human beings and holds his position because of his theoretical excellence in all aspects of Assyrian life: exercising the virtues of kingship, justice, statecraft, warfare, divination, administration, etc.It would be easy to argue that the king was understood to have the privilege of contact with the divine on account of his pre-eminence in human society; almost that the king arrogated this privilege to himself on account of his power to do so. However this would be to retroject a secularism into Assyrian society which the evidence does not warrant.*19

Instead, much of the evidence is explained if we infer that the king owed his privileges of contact with the gods and his rulership over mankind to the fact that he was perceived as a paragon of excellence and perfection: he was rewarded according to his merits within the framework of a gift economy. In other words, that his wisdom and power came to him as corollaries by virtue of his perfection, not only in eminence among men, but among all men*20 From the Assyrian point of view, the reason for the existence of a point of contact between the king and the gods at all is that they have something in common, and that the point of contact is precisely the pre-eminence, the excellence, and the perfection of the king in all his roles. It is this commonality which establishes the harmony between the world of man and that of the gods.*21

It was widely held in antiquity that perfection was a characteristic of completion: the perfect is that which is complete, and that which is complete is perfect. Thus the king is also complete, in his attainments, his power, his wisdom and his capacity. In this the king emulates the divine, all aspects of which must be complete in their own natures.*22 Thus, in acting as "apkallum" (in effect standing in for Ea) in rituals necessary for the continuation of the Assyrian state (as illustrated in the throne room relief where the king is shown apparently engaged in the business of fertilizing the date palm represented as a sacred tree) the ritual is brought closer to the divine creation, and the consonance of the act with the divine will is emphasised*23

The king is the agent of the divine in the fight against chaos and the maintenance of order in his realm (which struggle might be characterized as war with the imperfect and the incomplete: cf. the Enuma Elish and the strange creatures which were made in the first creation)*24 The divine is understood as a place on the other side of the limit of the world which the king rules, from which he is excluded except in terms of priestly contact.*25 He is near to the divine, but not so proximate to qualify as divine himself.*26

As the most perfect individual in his state the king nearly emulated the divine in containing all things: he is complete. It is a short step from such a view to the notion that the completion of his nature and that of Assur can be made concrete by its literal realization. The king is "king of kings", and the concept is rendered emphatic by means of conquest and the subjection of surrounding states from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea.*27 Hence also his description as "king of countries" and "king of the four quarters (lit., edges) of the world". It is possible that the king's embodiment of the idea of the divine extended so far that his "official" moods were in imitation of the gods, understood to be manifest in the motions of the planets: the evidence which suggests this as a possibility is the fact that the Crown Prince was excluded from the presence of the King when Mars was in opposition to the Sun and hence subject to retrograde motions (which exclusion is itself an interesting reflection of the Adapa myth: Ea knew that Adapa was not fit to appear in the presence of Anu without some schooling in what to say).*28

It is difficult to specify exactly what is going on here, but it would appear that there is some kind of transactive relationship understood to exist between the abstract (gods) and the concrete (the earthly responsibilities of the king): the character of some of the acts for which we have evidence is best explained by presuming that the principal point of the actions of the king was to create a harmony between heaven and earth - literally to join them together; to act as agent of the divine, not to supplant its position, or to exploit it for personal ends*29

The King and Totality

The concept of totality, a feature of both the Adapa (myth and discipline) and Assyrian theology, is the logical corollary of the association of the king with completed action: it is another way of framing the idea that the universe is structured according to degrees of participation in the ultimate completion (the realm of the divine). This ultimate completion is necessarily transcendent - the completion of completions - in that we can have no commerce with it except via certain special individuals in auspicious circumstances. However, the essential characteristic of the divine, if it cannot be said to exist in the world, can be emulated within the limitations imposed by the nature of earthly reality. Hence we find the king engaged in conquest and empire building, attempting to take hold of the known universe and to subject it to his will (which is naturally the will of the divine).*30 This ambition (if not necessarily the reality) is reflected in the style of the kings inscriptions, whether addressed to a human or divine audience. Client kings make sense within this emulatory system: a king need not rule directly, just as Marduk need not. A proxy representative (bound by oaths to the Assyrian king, just as the king is bound by oath to the god) is not only satisfactory, but fits harmoniously into the Assyrian model of the world.

The Myth of Adapa (II)

Several key concepts are brought together in the myth, or rather appear to be spun out of one central idea, related to the problem of man's connection with the divine: in the poem Anu is the supreme god: Ea knows the mind and the plans of Heaven and Earth. Adapa has connection with Ea on two counts:

1. he is his son, and
2. he has been initiated into the ways of heaven and earth by him.

Men in general have connection with the divine through the kingship of Adapa, and latterly through the kingship of those who have studied the discipline of the Adapa.

Adapa breaks the wing of the southwind (a wind favourable for kingship) while at sea fishing for the temple of Ea at Eridu.*31 He is on the wide sea (described as "like a mirror"); Ea's wisdom is explicitly compared with the wide sea, and Adapa is both in the place of Ea and clearly identified with it at the time when kingship is destroyed (note also that since the occurrence takes place at night the sea must be like a black mirror, with the same characteristics as the liver at the moment it is removed from the body of a sheep. This parallel is probably deliberate, since the point of divination is to know the mind of the gods).

Wide understanding was associated with the power to make decrees, and both were characteristics of kingship. The first fragment tells us that Adapa possessed wisdom and that "his command was like the command of [Anu] [...] (line 2); "with wide understanding he had perfected him to expound (?) the decrees of the land" (line 3). His power to give decrees comes from his perfection, his completion, which is like that of the gods; but, naturally, it is not the same completion. His connection with the divine is to be understood as functioning through his completion: see Plato's Phaedo, 100, "greatness is the participation in the great". But, though he had been given wisdom by Ea, he had not granted Adapa eternal life (line 4). Ea had however created him as a leader among mankind (line 6) and: "no one treated his command lightly" (line 7) *32

Thus Adapa is in the place of kingship, in that he has been placed in the realm of his father; because he is in that place he has the power to make decrees and he breaks the wing of the South wind with the utterance of his command. He in effect has usurped kingship, because he was cast deep into the realm of his father.

Why did the south wind bring Adapa into the realm of his father? To answer this we should ask why it is that the south wind should be associated with kingship in the first place. It is partly because in Mesopotamia the south wind is associated with storms and unpredictability. Thus the south wind connotes power, and power which transcends our capacity to predict its behaviour. As the gods are powerful and transcendently unpredictable, so the kings as their representatives (and emulators) are likewise powerful and unpredictable.

There is a two way process involved here: standing in the place of wide understanding promotes the power to make decrees and kingship, and kingship itself promotes wide understanding, expressed by Adapa's immersion in Ea's kingdom, the Apsu. Thus the southwind, emblematic of kingship, is responsible for conferring the power on another entity to break its wing (its power to be what it is)*33

This aspect of the myth is probably significant for the understanding of how the Sargonids understood royal succession. The kings had institutionalised the transfer of power from the king to the crown prince (possibly as the result of numerous occurrences of factional infighting in the royal court). His education prepared him to stand in the place of his father. While his education continued, he was not allowed to live in the same place as his father (the royal palace), but instead lived in a separate establishment which mirrored its character and functions. The crown prince was given an entourage like that of the king, drawn from the sons of the nobles forming his own court. Thus, as the king is the image of the god, so the crown prince is the image of the king. The crown prince was chosen by the king from amongst his sons and the decision was confirmed by omens and divination. That is, the kingship of the crown prince was legitimate only if confirmed by the gods.Note that Adapa was engaged in fishing out of sight of the sun god (i.e., at night) at the time he encountered the south wind, and that therefore the sun god could not see what was happening and give his sanction.*34 Therefore the arrogation of kingship, even divinity, by Adapa, is illegitimate.

Adapa is hauled before the gods to answer for his crime. He is instructed by Ea as to what to say. He expresses dismay that two gods are missing from the land, Dumuzi and Gizzida. The meaning of the first name is 'faithful son', and the second (translated by Dalley as 'trusty timber') may be translated as 'legitimizing throne' (GIS.ZI.DA). As the destroyer of the kingship belonging to his father he has failed to be a faithful son, and has usurped the throne.

His father however, being wiser than Adapa, knowing the plans of the gods, instructs him to refuse the food and water offered to him, saying that he will be offered the food and water of death:
28...... As though standest before Anu,

29. They will offer thee the food of death;30. Do not eat (it). The water of death they will offer thee;31. Do not drink (it). A garment they will offer thee;32. Clothe thyself (with it). Oil they will offer thee; anoint thyself (with it).33. The instruction which I have given thee do not forget; the words34. Which I have spoken unto thee, hold fast...."

He is instructed only to accept the mourning garment and the anointing oil. But in fact Anu instructs that he be offered the food and water of eternal life (which is in effect Adapa's due, since he has emulated the gods). He refuses, perhaps because he trusts his father, which is, according to this kind of world view, a mistake, since the ways of the gods are forever beyond our capacity to understand. According to Dalley, the actual words used in the text to denote the food and water of life involve wordplay which renders the sense confusing and ambiguous, which is appropriate for the circumstances in which Adapa finds himself. Dalley comments that the verb chosen to alliterate with the words for "food" and "eat" is unusual [akalu, kalu, and akalu (different stress)]. Also that "an unusual plural form of the word "heaven" produces a pun, "bread of heaven/bread of death" [shamuti/sha muti]

It is worth comparing the following neo-Babylonian text for the purposes of illustration of the Mesopotamian perplexity at the nature of the gods:

I taught my land to observe the divine ordinances,

To honour the name of the goddess I instructed my people. (30)
The king's majesty I equated to that of a god,
And reverence for the royal palace I inculcated in the troops.
Oh that I only knew that these things are well pleasing to a god!
What is good in one's sight is evil for a god.
what is bad in one's own mind is good for his god.
Who can understand the counsel of the gods in the midst of heaven?
The plan of a god is deep waters, who can comprehend it?
Where has befuddled mankind ever learned what a god's conduct is?

And, speaking of men:

When they are hungry they resemble corpses,

When they are sated they rival their god;In good luck they speak of ascending to heaven,When they are afflicted they grumble about going down to the underworld. *35

Adapa's unreasonable response confirms to the gods the accidental nature of Adapa's emulation: if he had truly understood the ways of heaven and earth (like his father) he would not have refused the offer of food and water. It is probably for this reason that Anu orders that Adapa be brought back to Earth: Adapa did not merit the corollary of a complete emulation of the gods. It was always Ea's intention that Adapa be a leader among mankind [I. 6-14] and Ea seems to have made sure that Adapa returned to fulfill the role for which he, like the crown prince, was chosen.

Wisdom, the king and the Akitu contest

The character of Ea and its associations with wisdom appears problematic, but probably the difficulty is more apparent than real. Wisdom to those without it is necessarily mysterious - its order is glimpsed on occasion, but mostly it appears like chaos, for which water is an excellent metaphor. In the Mesopotamian cosmology the entire world is surrounded by water, which simultaneously represents both its limitation and its foundation. The inhabited world is a world of relative order separated out of the waters of chaos; the king, as agent of the gods has as one of his functions the maintenance and increase of the available order within the limits of his rule.

Hence the representation of the battle between Ashur (or Marduk) and Tiamat in the Akitu festival. As W.G. Lambert points out, Sennacherib instituted an Assyrian Akitu festival as part of his attempt to substitute Ashur for Marduk "the 'High God' of the land..."*36 The festival took place in the Akitu house of the city, and:

"A well known inscription describes the door of this house on which was portayed Ashur advancing to do battle with Tiamat, escorted by ten gods in front and fifteen behind. A slightly broken list of the same ten gods occurs on a Late Assyrian ritual fragment... which describes them as "preceding [Ashur] to the Akitu house"... A combination of these two items of information suggests, if it does not prove, that the procession of gods from the city to the Akitu house was construed as a setting out for battle with Tiamat."

The battle, Lambert presumes, took place inside the Akitu house. If there is a parallel here with Adapa's breaking of the wing of the south wind while on the sea we should expect that at some point in the Akitu festival that either the king or a statue of the 'High God' should be represented as on the sea; literally standing in the place of Tiamat. Three pieces of related evidence from Babylonia are offered by Lambert: the first he describes as a comment on a late magical text, quoting the line:

This refers to Bel who sits in the middle of the Sea (Tiamat) in the Akitu *37

The second piece of evidence comes from the text called "the topography of Babylon" which gives us information about small cultic structures in the city:

Tiamat (Sea) is the seat of Bel on which Bel sits.

The third piece of evidence comes from a "hitherto unidentified epic which appears to describe Nabu's exaltation to equality with his father Marduk". This passage is interesting in itself as reflecting ideas present in the myth of Adapa, since, "if the text has been correctly understood, Nabu went with his father, as usual, to the Akitu, but then insisted on performing the rites which properly should have been done by his father" (my emphasis). The line quoted by Lambert is:

He set his feet on the rolling sea (Tiamat) *38

Note that the sea is described as "rolling" - that is, the sea is not calm and is in the condition in which it most resembles chaos, paralleling the struggle between Adapa and the south wind. Lambert argues that "the Sea (Tiamat) was no doubt a small cultic structure in the Akitu house (probably a dais) and when the statue of Marduk was taken there, it was set on the dais to symbolise victory over Tiamat."*39 Further, "the presence of the gods there and their heaping up of gifts for Marduk is entirely consistent with the idea that Marduk delivered them from danger by taking their part in fighting with Tiamat."*40


Clearly the myth of Adapa explains a great deal about the character of Sargonid kingship. The myth embraces a number of themes, including the importance of wisdom for kingship, the order and power of the gods (and the corollary: their inscrutability to mere mortals); the significance of rational arrangement, shown by the fact that Adapa is also the name of a musical instrument; the conquest of chaos by the forces of order; the transfer of power from one legitimate authority to another (i.e., the succession); that all aspects of Assyrian society were understood to be embraced in the meaning of kingship, from artisan to soldier, from scribe to priest. Much of the nature of Sargonid kingship can be related to the myth of Adapa: this is already known to us because Ashurbanipal informs us of the discipline of kingship which bears his name (Adapa). Close examination of the myth (alluded to by the other Sargonid kings) shows that aspects of the Neo-Assyrian Empire not referred to in royal documents and inscriptions in connection with the myth, can be explained on the basis of the themes which it contains.

In drawing these themes together, the myth reflects the Assyrian concept of the symbolic function of the king, which was to embody the various aspects of the Assyrian state, and to be, emblematically at least, the totality of the world, the embodiment of all earthly power, wisdom, learning, justice, valour, skill, etc. Assyria itself likewise should contain within itself the best of what the rest of the universe had to offer: hence the botanical gardens, the zoological collection, and, from our point of view most significant of all, the library at Nineveh, collected by Ashurbanipal and intended to embrace important documents and texts from all over Mesopotamia, and from all periods of its history.

Since occupation of the throne of Ashur implies an emulation of the divine, (the king embodying some of the characteristics of the gods, in particular their unpredictability), the king is standing in the place of the divine. By being like the gods, the gods are present in the land. In sitting on a throne mounted on a dais representing the "rolling" sea, the king acquires the character of the abyss (which is unpredictable and unknowable). This way of looking at things is, at first sight, consistent with J.G. Frazer's analysis of the principle of sympathetic magic, and ties the image of the king into the pattern of ideas which made the exaltation of statues and the sacrifice of animals "rational" acts*41

If the character of the divine can be acquired by the performance of the appropriate actions and the collection of its attributes, then it might be reasonable to expect to find some kind of iconographic representation which depicts aspects of the Adapa myth gathered together in one place. Such a representation may exist: a sculpture found lining the processional route to the Ishtar temple at Nineveh shows a shaven figure (a "priest")wearing a peculiar cap, looking for all the world like the body of a fish with its tail in the air. The garments of the priest are of a design which suggests water, and he is playing a musical instrument (not an "adapa" however, but a form of dulcimer, with strings stretched from a wooden post in the form of a hand).

If these details are intelligible as part of an attempt to draw together aspects of the divine by means of their likenesses, what has the iconography of the myth of Adapa got to do with a procession to the temple of Ishtar? There is no reference to the goddess in the myth itself, but we can perhaps detect a connection with the ideas in the myth in the Akkadian version of "The Descent of Ishtar to the Nether world". As Ishtar stands at the entrance to the Netherworld, the gatekeeper announces her to her sister, the queen of the Netherworld (Ereshkigal), describing her with the words: "She who upholds the festivals, Who stirs up the deep before Ea, the k[ing]" (my emphasis).*42 Thus it is possible that what we see in this sculpture is a 'priest' of Adapa, perhaps based at Eridu, participating in a procession to the Ishtar temple, acting symbolically and cultically as Adapa; bringing to the temple a complex of notions regarded as essential for the completion of the ritual; drawing together the pattern of ideas in the myth, and making present the required divine powers. If so, then he is standing in for the king; standing in his stead, in his place; just as the king stands in the place of Adapa, and Adapa, (temporarily, like the Assyrian Kings) in the place of Ea.


1 In her book Myths from Mesopotamia Stephanie Dalley states incorrectly [p. 183] that the Assyrian tablets come from Assur, and seems to think that they belong to the late second millenium, which would make them nearly contemporary with the Egyptian tablet, rather than belonging to the 7th century B.C. Further, Dalley's version is not a complete traslation of all the fragments - compare for example the version in Heidel's The Babylonian Genesis [pp. 147--53]. The texts were edited in 1915 by Knudtzon: Die El Amarna Tafeln, 964-8; and Picchioni in 1981: Il poemetto di Adapa.
2 ARAB, vol. II s.985ff. Luckenbill.
3 see SLA 137, Pfeiffer [= [Harper 992]:

"The king is my god and the king is (to me) as the morning light"
[Rev. line 17]. Thus the relationship of the Assyrian citizen to the king is as the king to a god: to the king's servant the king might as well be a god. Concerning the second part of the metaphor, compare the fact that in Egypt

"the king's accession was timed for sunrise, and the same verb denoted the sun's daily appearance and the appearance of the Pharaoh at public functions"
[Kingship and the Gods, ch. 13, p148, Frankfort].
4 This arrangement is drawn from Pfeiffer's SLA.
5 Enki-Ea: "the broad eared one who knows all that has a name... budgets the accounts..." [Roux, G. Ancient Iraq, p95].
6 Myths from Mesopotamia, p182. Parallels with Greek mythology are obvious (Prometheus, for example); in Plato's Timaeus the Demiourgos is sometimes referred to as a craftsman, and both the Demiourgos and Adapa are closely connected with music as well as the order of the cosmos: Plato's craftsman constructs the universe according to a scheme of Pythagorean harmony, and a musical instrument (a drum) used in Assyrian cultic contexts was termed an "Adapa" (similar to the tegu). Discipline and order are inevitably associated with music, and vice versa.
7 Heidel, op. cit., p152. This probably implies that the supply of fish for the temple at Eridu was not compulsory. In the light of the events later in the text, one might guess that the privilege was granted to prevent future damage to the wings of the south wind.
8 ARAB, vol. II, s986
9 Compare the words spoken by Anu in the Myth of the Adapa: "why did Ea disclose to wretched mankind the ways of heaven and earth...?" Dalley, op. cit., p187
10 This probably means that Ashurbanipal received oracular instructions from Ea and other gods via an assembly of diviners, along the lines suggested in Esarhaddon’s text, ‘The renewal of the gods’, published in Borger’s Die Inschriften Asarhaddons. In this text Esarhaddon says that he ‘arranged diviners in groups in order to obtain a favourable oracular pronouncement’. This was in connection with the renewal of the cult images. Ea of course was the god of craftsmen.
11 We might take Ashurbanipal's claims with a pinch of salt. It is likely that the desire to master the scribal skills was perfectly genuine, precisely because it was understood as a sign that the king had been granted proximity to the ways of the divine and marked him out for his special role in the Assyrian political and religious structure. However, because it was a requirement of the position, it is natural to expect the claim to be made that he mastered the skills - and with relative ease in comparison with other mortals: his skill at mathematics must reflect the fact that he belongs to a different category of human being. Modern comparisons which suggest themselves include the claim by Elizabeth the First of England that she translated Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy from the Greek in a mere twenty-four hours, or the pretensions of Queen Cristina of Sweden to classical scholarship (noted by Descartes to be unjustified).
12 ARAB, vol. II, s.986. See also Reade, J, Assyrian Sculpture, pl. 98, showing Ashurbanipal inspecting the booty of Babylon from the vantage point of a chariot [British Museum, Room 89]; also pl.83; pl. 80 [both British Museum, Room 17], showing Ashurbanipal in the course of a lion hunt; and pl. 79 [British Museum, Room 17] shows him in preparation for the same. Pl. 69 & 79 show Sennacherib at Lachish in a ninth century style of chariot [both Room 17].
13 See the letter to the king from Marduk-shum-usur, in which he says that Assur had spoken to the king's grandfather in a dream saying:

O wise one... you,the king, the lord of kings, are the grandson of the wise one and Adapa... the extent of your knowledge surpasses that... of all the craftsmen - SLA 248 [= Harper 923].
According to the "Enuma Elish" [Heidel, op. cit. p148, frag. no 1, lines 6 & 10.]:

Ea had created him (Adapa) as a leader among mankind... with the bakers he does the baking...

14 Ashurbanipal's Coronation Hymn illustrates some of the qualities he was expected to manifest: "may eloquence, understanding, truth and justice be given to him as a gift" (line 8) [SAA vol. III, pp26-7]
15 The nearest we have to a contemporary discussion of kingship and magnanimity is in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: the monarch can possess virtues, the "crown" of which is magnanimity, because he can act most freely. For Aristotle virtue could only be achieved through action, therefore those whose choices and actions were limited were necessarily less virtuous. If the king is the most virtuous and just in the land, it follows (according to Aristotle's prescription) that a king must act in certain ways if he is to be seen to be just and virtuous, to be a legitimate king. He says that he,

since he deserves most, must be good, in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most. Therefore the truly magnanimous man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of the magnanimous man [Nicomachean Ethics 1123b].
The Aristotelian prescription holds broadly for the moral universe of the Assyrian kings in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., since both systems are honour based. The Assyrian king deserves his wealth and power because he has virtue, and must act in order to possess his virtue.
16 ARAB, vol. II, s.986
17 ARAB, vol. II, s.987. Compare lines 5-7 of Ashurbanipal's Coronation Hymn which lists items understood as good in themselves as metaphors for kingship:

just as grain and silver, oil [the catt]le of Shakkan and the salt of Bariku are good, so may Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, be agreeable to the gods [of his] land! [SAA vol. III, pp26-7].
18 Compare line 13 of the Coronation Hymn:

He who in his heart utters improprieties against the king - his foundation is (but) wind, the hem of his garment is (but) litter.
The hem of a garment was frequently used in swearing oaths and also as a seal in legal and financial contexts [SAA vol. III, p27].
19 The office of priest, for example, is not distinguished by a term which we can easily equate with "priest". The kalupriest is designated simply "kalu". In other words, the function of these officials is not seen as something apart from the function of the rest of the Assyrian social structure: religion and society are inextricably intertwined, having never been conceived as separate ways of looking at the world (Compare for example the elaborate intertwining of everyday life and the understanding of the structure of the world illustrated by Marcel Griaule's study of Dogon belief: Conversations with Ogotemeli). To read "kalu" simply as a name for a position in the context of a highly ritualised culture is a mistake, yet it remains the common practice of scholars to transliterate such words in their translations, as if the meaning has little or no bearing on the overall sense of the passage. The term "apkallum" (used to describe Adapa's priesthood of Ea at Eridu) is an Assyrian term indicating a "mortal sage", though in connection with Adapa I think the term has a more precise technical meaning not well served by such a translation.
In any case, there is little evidence that people thought in this way . Even if someone did steal privileges by virtue of his power to do so, the act would be understood and explained within a moral framework, and the success of the act would depend on the will of the gods (it is important to understand that we are not dealing with a familiar moral universe: it is an honour based system, with its own characteristic values). When Esarhaddon entered Nineveh and sat on the throne of his father, he describes how

favourable powers drew close in heaven and earth... messages of gods and goddesses they sent me continuously and gave me courage [Borger, Rykle Die Inschriften Asarhaddons (AfO Beiheft 9) 1959, Nin. A-F Ep. 2] (translation supplied by A.T.L. Kuhrt).
20 The king is described as "king of kings", which concept was understood as an essential component in the function of his kingship, and not merely as a vainglorious styling. That is, the totality of his kingship is in itself of functional importance .
21 Cf. Plato, Timaeus 31c-32c; also Aristotle, Politics 1277a; Nicomachean Ethics Bk X, chap. 8, concerning connection with the gods through completion.
22 That completion was understood as a virtue in itself is illustrated by the fact that, in Mesopotamia and elsewhere, sin was often countered not by an attempt to undo the sin directly, but by the perfect performance of rituals and incantations. Each of these, properly performed, counted towards the expiation of the sin, irrespective of the nature of the original act. Thus, to undo the damage done by sin, it is not necessary to repair the damage, to make good the imperfection, directly (often impossible - see the "Sin of Sargon" text in SAA vol. IV, Starr): to undertake repair without regard to context but complete attention to purpose is the requirement. See SLA 323 [= Harper 629], lines 1317, for an illustration of the perceived value of abstract ritual completions . (13-17?)
23 The king was "chosen" by the gods because of his excellence and his virtue, and he was the person responsible for performing actions of key importance. Everything associated with the ritual being performed was of equal and critical importance: upon the timing of the ritual depended its success - see for example SLA 342 [= Harper 406], where the auspicious day for a sacrifice is discussed; see also SLA 344 [= Harper 365], and SLA 328 [= Harper 356]. Oaths were a matter for auspicious days also, and the king was available to be visited likewise only when the day was judged right - see SLA 341 [= Harper 384]. The throne room relief is in the Nimrud gallery [19] of the British Museum., from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II.
24 Heidel, op. cit. pp. 23-4 [tablet I, lines 132-45] See also pp. 75-81 for the surviving Greek accounts by Berossus and Alexander Polyhistor. The struggle against chaos is vividly illustrated in the palace reliefs according to the metaphor of the battle between Marduk and Tiamat: see room 26 in the British Museum. (the Assyrian Transept). The king is also the final judge (on earth), meaning that his insight into the true nature of matters is second to none - see SLA 322 [= Harper 1006]
25 SLA 327 [= Harper 565], illustrates the contemporary view that no contact with the celestial world is possible except through observation.
26 ] Though a letter suggests that part of the aura of the king was the power to do exactly as he wished - see SLA 324 [= Harper 137]. To those lower down the social scale in Assyria this might count as divinity; but to those able to juggle with the pattern of ideas within which Assyrian royalty functioned, it would connote no more than proximity with the divine - see SLA 137 [= Harper 992].
27 Ashur is designated "King of Kings" in the so-called "Ashur Charter" of Sargon II: see Saggs, H.W.F. "Historical Texts and Fragments of Sargon II of Assyria", I. "The Assur Charter" IRAQ 37, 1975.
28 SLA 328 [= Harper 356]; see also SLA 342 [= Harper 356]; SLA 344 [= Harper 365]; SLA 345 [= Harper 652]. The same kind of equation was made between the geography of the Mesopotamian worldand the surface of the moon at the time of lunar eclipse - see SLA 322 [= Harper 1006]. Roaf in his Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia appears to illustrate this letter, but gives no citation (22 May 678 B.C.). See also SLA 324 [= Harper 137]. See also Parpola's doctoral thesis, LAS, 1971, Appendix 3B, from which this information is drawn.
29 Prestige and propaganda are naturally of significance in a world dominated by metaphors (the king being a metaphor for the divine), but the state machine is driven by, both the internal logic of its theology, and the theology functioning as a tool of state.
30 Sharru, the Akkadian term for king, may have been understood in the Neo-Assyrian period to carry some of the connotations of the Sumerian SAR, which has the meanings: to multiply, to gather, to let gather, and to drive together. Hence perhaps the association of Neo-Assyrian kings with shepherdship, which has no parallel in the earlier periods of Assyrian history. Sharru is not specific to any kind of ruler and can be applied to petty kings and local rulers (the term was applied to rulers in the Zagros region and also to the kinglets in the Egyptian Delta). The term appears to imply sole power, rather than international scale of operation. The term, "king of the totality", was used as far back as the Agade period, but it is generally held that Shamshi-Adad I used it as a newly coined term. Its use often reflects a situation where control is total, though its precise meaning is debated. See Larsen's Power and Propaganda.
31 "In Addaru, a favourable month, on... a festival day of Nabu, I joyfully entered Nineveh, city of my lordship, and seated myself gladly on the throne of my father. The southwind blew, the breath of Ea, a wind whose blowing is favourable to the practice of kingship..." [Borger, Die Inschriften Asarhaddons]
32 In line 8 Adapa is described, curiously, as "the skilful, the exceedingly wise among the Anunnaki..." This implies divinity as does the fact that he is Ea's son. Why therefore does the myth treat Adapa as mortal?
33 It is also spoken of as the "breath of Ea" by Esarhaddon, which confirms the essential identity of the different elements in the myth [Borger, Die Inschriften Asarhaddons].
34 "May Shamash, king of heaven and earth, elevate you to shepherdship over the four [region]s!" [line 1 of the Coronation Hymn, SAA vol. III]
35 Pritchard, ANET, from: "I will praise the lord of wisdom" p. 435, trans. R.H. Pfeiffer.
36 Lambert, W.G. "The great battle of the Mesopotamian religious year: the conflict in the Akitu House" in IRAQ 25, 1963, pp. 189-90.
37 AfO XVII, p.315 F4. Lambert refers also to AfO XIX, p.118.
38 E. Ebling, Parfumrezepte, pl.26, 13.
39 Saggs, H.W.F. "Historical Texts and Fragments of Sargon II of Assyria", I. The Assur Charter, IRAQ 37, 1975, line 36a, in which Sargon equates the making firm of his dynasty and the giving of a "sure foundation to the throne base" (in connection with the restoration of freedom from taxes for the citizens of Ashur): the annual defeat of Tiamat and the installation of Marduk (and his ishiak) is part of the same complex of ideas. In order that the creation of order out of chaos is maximal the condition of the throne base or dais before the contest is unfixed and "rolling"; afterwards it is fixed and provides a sure foundation to the throne base (elsewhere in the text Assur is equated with Enlil, "without whom they cannot give final judgement" (line 4), and Enlil is described in the same place as GISH - which is the determinative for throne). Equating Assur and Enlil yokes the king to the mythology in another way: the king becomes the agent of the Sumerian god and thus responsible for the re-enactment of the primal battles enshrined in the tradition. Hence the description of Ashur as "the seat of the dynasty, the most ancient of settlements" (line 12): it is the same place, and the same actions occur. Assur is also spoken of as "the city of privilege" (line 12), which recalls the exemption of Eridu in the myth of Adapa.
40 IRAQ V, p.61,14 = PSBA XXII, p.367,1. See Reade, J, Assyrian Sculpture, pl.73, which shows Sennacherib inspecting the booty from Lachish, mounted upon a throne. The royal party, led by the crown prince, seems to be congratulating him upon his victory. The iconography of the sculptures works on the basis of the recapitulation and variation on identifiable themes: the victory over chaos stands behind many of the images.
41 The ritual of the substitute king, discussed by Lambert, makes sense only if the likeness of the king and his actions was understood to be sufficient to draw the malefic influences onto the substitute [see also Parpola's doct. thesis: LAS pt. 2]. Note also that in the texts of the queries to the sungod, the ritual requests that the god "be present" in the sacrificial animal [SAA vol. IV].
42 Pritchard, ANET pp106--9.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Locke, Newton, and the Rejection of Reality

The text of The Sacred History of Being is now being proofed for publication, chapter by chapter. Seven of the chapters are available on this blog. Recently 
I’ve been exchanging mail with a friend in the US who knows something of the wider implications of the arguments in the book.

Sometimes unexpected things happen as the result of such conversations. I received an email from her a few days ago telling me that at an open house event for the Philosophy Faculty at Baudouin College in Maine, in connection with her nephew’s graduation, she had described my work to the Head of the Faculty (the "Chair"), partly in connection with some remarks I’d made concerning John Locke and his rejection of the idea that something might arise out of nothing, since that defied common sense  (a common view in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). The Chair of the Faculty is a specialist in John Locke.

My! The Sacred History of Being isn’t yet published, yet it is out there already, engaging people in argument!

She wrote to me a few weeks ago in response to a case I’d made concerning the western rejection of paradoxical ideas:

Interesting points about the east-west division being the consequence of something more profound than colonial bias, i.e. a division between philosophy which embraces paradox and "common sense" understanding/rationalism (I take it that you don't consider Locke's ideas to be true philosophy, that the only true philosophy is one that embraces paradox). I agree that reality is beyond human understanding. It seems to me that accepting that fact threatens a lot of people, especially Westerners, making them feel frightened, powerless, and lacking in control, but that Eastern cultures found ways to deal with it, including as you said, embracing paradox (doing a paper on "Siddhartha" in high school opened my mind to this way of thinking). The West's prioritization of doing business, commercial utilitarianism, is an interesting way to frame it. It seems to me that the West has been drunk for a long time on our seeming power to control the world, most recently via technology, destroying the environment and civilizations in the process, and that we haven't wanted to acknowledge or accept our limits. Unfortunately, the rest of the world seems to be following our lead.
I responded, mentioning that while a student at UCL I had taken the course on the History of Political Ideas,
 during which I had the opportunity to take a close look at John Locke (I may have written a paper). He argued that people are born as blank palimpsests, and that all knowledge is down to the association of ideas, since nothing pre-exists in our minds (Socrates spins!!). That’s the essential basis of  advertising, marketing and brands, and all efforts to seduce us into  accepting models of reality which serve the beguilers, not the beguiled.  He passes for one of the greats.
So, not true philosophy. But ‘true’ philosophy is hard to define.
This exchange has its roots in an earlier argument I’d made about the difficult relationship between east and west which has endured for centuries. Edward Said’s book Orientalism is the one which is the source of the idea that colonial attitudes and the imperatives of colonial power were responsible for negative western ideas about the east. This argument is a little thin, especially if you are looking at the detail of the relationship, over time, and in a number of cultural areas, including philosophy. Referencing Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, which sees the issue in terms of a developing eurocentric racism, I wrote that:

Bernal’s thesis, even to me in 1987, didn’t entirely seem to hold water. But he’d locked on to what had happened to the discipline of classics in  the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and he was spot on about that. Even if his research students didn’t understand the context of some of the details (they did a lot of the work).
 Where I was going at the time was that there was a problem with the interpretation of Plato’s arguments, which didn’t seem to have anything to do with their internal coherence. And it was classicists that were responsible.
I began to think around 1988 that there were characteristics of foreign and ancient philosophies which were the real problem. The west, particularly since Newton, has tended to avoid philosophy which embraces paradox, and instead prefers common sense understanding (John Locke in particular).

So this is a third explanatory framework, which may lie underneath both the colonial imperatives and the eurocentic racism, which might now be understood as expressions of a deep, though ill-defined cultural anxiety about where the west stands in the scheme of things, and how much sense it makes. I expanded on this theme:

Most eastern religions have a paradoxical core, because they understand reality to be beyond human understanding. I understood this when I was relatively young. But it doesn’t please everybody. It doesn’t suit the west.
Plato argues in the same way. But as far as the western tradition is concerned, Plato is the fountainhead of rational thought. And rational thought isn’t based on a paradoxical view of reality. So we have had a meaningless scholarly stand-off for nearly two centuries between those who argue Plato was doing research, and those who think he was expounding a doctrine (though they don’t know what it was).
What these scholars are actually doing is protecting us from Plato. As long as they are arguing within this irrelevant frame about his dialogues, Plato is as dangerous to the modern truths of the world as a stuffed Dodo.
If you put all that together with an antipathy to apparently illogical patterns of thought in the east (read as ethnic credulity and stupidity), and model yourself on the undisputed (and the only) creators of science, mathematics, art, architecture, and civilization itself, you have a heady brew. And of course the development of racist ideas on top, when scientists started to look for physical characteristics in populations that would allow them to place people on a scale of intelligence, or of civilisation. Typology looks scientific, but it always was about labelling and assigning value.
Where does that leave us? Effectively in a place where we have erected a physical and materialistic paradigm of reality which has no root. It does not mean anything, and cannot mean anything, since there is no way to understand how or why it might have come to be. We think we can say that it is here now, and that it wasn't here 14 or 15 billion years ago, so it seems to have exploded into existence out of whatever might have been there before, which we know nothing about. Or maybe it did come out of nothing, but we can't say anything about that at all, so we pass over the question in silence.

Such poverty. But we get on with things. I concluded with a description of the current cultural arc of the west:
We have inherited a number of axiomatic ways of approaching the world since Newton. We measure, we define, we control. What cannot be measured, defined, or controlled is dangerous and irrational. So we strive to get rid of these aspects of reality. What can be  measured, defined and controlled allows us to do business, and do it much better than anybody did it before.
I think that’s what it is about, in the end: doing business. The end point of this cultural arc is the complete destruction of all patterns of thought and belief which aren’t capable of what we define as rational analysis. They are useless at best, and dangerous at the worst. Knowledge will be what can be understood through measure, meaning will revolve around useful definition, and the edifice so created will be subjected to whatever kind of control is appropriate in the circumstances. A wholly commercial utilitarianism.
Like most cultural arcs, the process is unlikely to be completed, so I'm not despondent. How the process will be interrupted, I can't say. We can trace it back in the west as least as far as the Spanish conquest of the Americas. What they wanted was gold, and the souls of the indigenous population. Having custody of their souls through induction into the Catholic Church made it easier for the invaders to operate in strange and sometimes hostile territories. What happened to the social and material culture of the Americans was not a matter of importance; it was described by some of the priests, but it was not understood. As far as the Spanish were concerned, there was nothing to understand.

Since then our history has consisted largely of the struggles between competing empires and their pursuit of commercial gain. It is easier to engage in this struggle if the cultures being overrun and assimilated are thought to be irrational or of no worth.

Imperial struggle does not always result in the complete destruction of patterns of belief and material culture. But sometimes, as we can see happening now in the Near east, the absolute destruction of material culture, and all knowledge of what went before, is on the imperial agenda. The intention is that there will be one winner, and one model of reality. Isaac Newton did not start this process, but by making it possible (and profitable) to understand the objective world as real and a place to be understood through mathematics and calculation, he provided the tools.