Sumer & the First City States
Last time we considered the shaman as the original keeper of knowledge and seeker of wisdom. As human societies began to leave nomadic life and settle down by building the first city states, they acquired systems of writing that allowed them to communicate knowledge beyond the limitations of memorized oral traditions. The earliest scholars in Sumer and Babylon of the Tigris Euphrates valley began collecting knowledge of the world and the histories of its peoples.
The early city states were gathering sites for many tribes and peoples, so city life was multicultural from the beginning. While relations between different ethnic and cultural groups has been problematic, it was in the interests of the earliest cities to serve as a meeting site for many groups and cultures to foster trade and development. This contributed to the expansion of systems of thought transmitted through teaching and texts. While the shaman of a tribe could know the great deal of a tribe’s oral tradition, in the early city states knowledge grew to the point that specialists were required. Often, centers of knowledge were temples and the texts and study maintained by priestesses and priests ordained in the traditions. Cosmology, as mentioned last lecture, was philosophy, religion, physics, medicine and psychology together, even as it began to specialize. In the earliest of Sumerian texts used by student scribes, we can see divisions between the historical epic poems, the recorded history and mythology as literature, and the lists of minerals, plants and examples of math problems, a division similar to that between the humanities and sciences that remains today. We sit at the result of this process that has continued for thousands of years.
As we consider the origins of civilization and leave nomadic tribes behind, it is important to remember that the last two powerful civilizations, the Muslims and then Europeans, were themselves quite primitive and nomadic just before gaining power as well as the knowledge and technology of previous civilizations. While European history is often traced to the ancient Greeks, the Germanic and Celtic Europeans (like my ancestors, my father’s side German and my mother’s side Celtic British Isles mixture), were considered barbarians by the ancient Greeks and Romans. They were not thought capable of rational thought and were traded as slaves to Babylon, Egypt, Persia and India for commodities that were the highest valuables of the ancient world. The Romans traded slaves, including exotic blond women from Western Europe, for Indian steel, known as wootz, which was the toughest metal of the ancient world and good for swords and spears.
Later, after the Renaissance as Europeans retold the story of history with the Catholic tradition at the center, the Greeks and Romans became the origin of civilization for the role they played in the texts and philosophy of the Bible’s New Testament. While Renaissance philosophers in Italy still included the Persians and Indians in their timeline of history, the Catholics, and then Protestants, and now modern “Western” scholarship has progressively forgotten even the Romans as they focus on singular events in ancient Greece and then flash forward to Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, just as the tide of trade, gold and silver began to turn along the silk road from most going Eastward to most going Westward. It was only in the early 1700s that Europe had power and wealth beyond what previous civilizations had achieved. The roots of European civilization are in fact bound up with the rise of the Germanic and Celtic peoples, as well as the Arabs, nomadic traders across the Arabian peninsula (modern day Saudi Arabia occupies most of this land today) who ran caravans across the desert of goods between African civilizations such as Egypt and Nubia and Middle Eastern civilizations such as Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Persia and India.
An excellent book for appreciating the earliest city state civilizations is History Begins at Sumer by Kramer. Note that the title basically says, “Hey, remember that Sumer happened”. Sumer was not necessarily the first city state (a walled city that ruled the land surrounding it as a single city empire) but because writing was first developed there it is the first civilization on the written record. Sumer was a city state at the mouth of the Tigris-Euphrates which was then taken over and incorporated into Babylon, which then was taken over by Assyria, which was then taken over by Persia. At each stage, a city upriver on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers took over a city downriver that had become prosperous through trade with various peoples across the land and sea. It appears that powerful empires are conquered by neighbors who are far less powerful and developed. We will consider this again when we get to Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic in the second half of the course. As the Egyptians noted thousands of years ago, those who have power fall, and the powerless become the powerful, only to have this cycle repeat itself again and again. This is certainly what happened in Western Europe, as the Celtic/Germanic tribes came to power after being conquered by the Romans.
The city states of the Tigris Euphrates and Egypt were multicultural societies in which citizenship did not belong exclusively to one ethnicity. This allowed for diverse marketplaces where goods, cultures and ideas could be exchanged. Cities were centers of trade, such that not only was the city a site for many groups to converge and form a new culture but this culture also traded with other convergent cultures. Many are surprised to learn that ancient Sumer and Egypt traded with India hundreds of years before the Greeks and Israel arose, but archeologists have found a small community of Indian merchants living in Alexandria Egypt as early as 300 BCE. From the earliest times, culture, trade and thought have been trans-cultural.
Consider the Assyrians. “Assyrian” did not name one ethnicity but rather a citizen of Assyria. Many people of different ethnicities called themselves Assyrians just as many people call themselves Americans. Jesus spoke Aramaic because it was one of the dominant languages of Assyria and the lands they had conquered. Assyria invented all of the siege weapons that were used in feudal Europe (including the battering ram and the siege tower), but the Assyrians conquered others mostly by trade and diplomacy. Princes would be sent to be educated in Assyria, the center of knowledge in its day, and then the Assyrians would make contracts with the prince’s people to put them on the throne to maintain political control. Just like today the primary method of conquest is economic and military solutions are called for only when the economic methods have failed.
In modern times, John Perkin’s famous book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (he came to speak at BCC a few years ago) gives an excellent account of the same strategy of dominance through economics in modern times as it is used by America today. Perkins says that he was a businessman who traveled the world helping other countries get into debt with America such that American corporations could come in and take over. If this fails, Perkins says that the second level is the “CIA Jackals” (his words, not mine) who make a move here and there to smooth things over for the business interests if a politician or people’s movement threatens this. If they fail, Perkins says the third level is “Here come the marines”, and that Iraq is a result of a failure of the first and second stage of this process. The poverty of the third world is, in part, due to this and similar economic strategies by other wealthy countries.
Sumer had some of the first schools, textbooks (in science and the humanities), medical texts, tax reduction, wisdom proverbs, and laments. One excellent proverb is, “You go and carry off the enemy’s land, the enemy comes and carries off your land”. My favorite Sumerian lament is recorded about 3000 BCE, in which an elderly Sumerian complains that in his time, unlike in the glorified past, politicians are corrupt, teenagers are running around and breaking tradition and having sex, and concludes that the world will certainly end soon at the hands of the gods. The prophet laments of the Bible’s Old Testament (the Jewish Torah) are based on this and other laments from the Tigris-Euphrates civilizations.
While many equate the word ‘democracy’ with freedom incarnate, it is important to remember that democracies have never included everyone, and that traditionally participation has been reserved for the small number of men who own property. This was true in the first records of human history we have, as Samuel Kramer shows in his book History Begins at Sumer. We can read in the first human writings that the Sumerian king Gilgamesh wanted to go to war, and so asked the elders of the senate to support him. When they refused, he asked the lower assembly of property-owning but less prominent men for their support, and they enthusiastically agreed, allowing Gilgamesh to bypass the senate. Such a bicameral congress should sound familiar. Sadly, Gilgamesh did not put the war to a popular vote among the common people, which shows us just how undemocratic a society ancient Sumer was.
As human beings progressed and traded devices and thinking between groups, they gathered into larger groups and settled into cities. The great ancient empires of Egypt and Persia were made of several of these earlier city state empires gathered into larger empires with many powerful cities. Consider that the United States is composed of many states, many of which have only one massive central city. We can see that as many tribes joined together to create city states the number of experts and types of experts multiplied and specialized. The shamans of the tribe became many types of priests and scribes in many temples. We can see that this pattern continued up through the present time. Some priests would specialize in types of math used to chart the stars, others would specialize in healing people and animals. The many hats (or masks, rather) of the shaman became the many types of priests and scribes who recorded knowledge and made new discoveries.
One Babylonian text of the Akkadian Empire (ca. 2334–2154 BC) is a humorous and cynical dialogue between a master and servant that has interesting philosophical undertones. Several times, the master says he will do something, and the servant gives him reasons doing it would be good. Then the master says he will not do the same thing, and the servant gives him reasons doing it would be bad. The master says he will ride to the palace to see the king, and then that he won’t, that he will ride to the wilderness, and then that he won’t, that he will argue when his enemy speaks, and then that he will remain silent, that he will start a rebellion and then that he should not be violent, that he will love a woman and then that he won’t, that he will offer a sacrifice to his god and then that he won’t, that he will feed and help his country and then that he won’t. The servant offers him good reasons for doing and not doing each thing.
When the master says he will not offer a sacrifice, the servant says, “You may teach a god to trot after you like a dog”. When the master says he will not help his country, the servant says, “Climb the mounds of ancient ruins and walk about. Look at the skulls of those who died long ago and those who died recently. Which are evildoers, and which are public benefactors?” Finally, the master says that he will kill both of them, and then that he will kill the servant first. The servant asks if the master can live three days without him. Much as the Scottish philosopher Hume argued that reason is and should be the slave of the passions, desire wants one thing and then its opposite, and reason rationalizes whatever desire wants. In the end, desire wants to kill reason for being a useless guide, but reason asks if desire could live without reasons. The final proposals of the master are similar to Shakespeare asking, “To be, or not to be?” as Hamlet.
Before considering passages of the Egyptian wisdom texts, I want to address two common misconceptions about the Egyptians. First, the Egyptians are rarely portrayed as an African people but rather museums and textbooks portray them as an Eurasian people who are quite light in skin color. When we consider that the Egyptians painted all of their statues and carvings (as did the Greeks), and they always painted men as dark red, as well as having black braided hair. Upper-class women were sometimes depicted as yellow, lighter in skin tone. Herodotus the Greek historian describes the “wooly” hair of the Egyptians. We can also see that the Egyptians depicted other African people, such as the Nubians to the south, as red like themselves, as well as darker in skin, showing a range of African complexions.
It seems that the Egyptians were an African people and we are only slowly growing to recognize this. This remains a debate between Eurocentric and Afrocentric scholars today, but the debate is held largely outside of official academia and universities as Afrocentric scholars are perceived as biased, unacademic and unprofessional in their opinions.
Two good books from the Afrocentric side are Martin Bernal’s Black Athena and Cheikh Anta Diop’s The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality. While these works are well up to academic standards, because some Afrocentric work was done outside academic institutions in unjustifiable ways (one scholar claimed that the ancient Egyptians had batteries and hang gliders), this was used to tarnish all Afrocentric scholarship as dangerously unprofessional. Thus, the universities and academics retain a Eurocentric bias while calling it objectivity in contrast to the Afrocentric bias. I have read one work that called for “Acentrism”, recognizing that the origins of civilization do not come from a single geographic location but rather from a network of the earliest settlements. Hopefully, this perspective can move us beyond the narrow constraints of both Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism, though in my opinion it is Eurocentrism that is quite established and this goes unrecognized.
Second, another common misconception of the Egyptians is that they were a slave-driving, brutal people who were all about authoritarianism. This is then contrasted with the Greeks, who are considered to be wise and questioning and the birth of democracy and civilized politics. In fact, the Egyptians treated foreigners, slaves and women considerably better than the Greeks, and the pyramids were built not by slaves but by conscripted labor. Recently tombs for workers have been discovered, confirming what Egyptologists have thought for several decades. This misconception comes largely from the Bible and movies like the Ten Commandments.
The Egyptians had many types of scribes and genres of texts, including comedies and tragedies, lists of minerals and plants, essays on medicine, ethics and politics, and important to this class, wisdom literature. The Egyptian wisdom proverbs we read come from this last class of Egyptian texts. As many tribes converged to live in city states, people began to see more of people than they had before. Suddenly, obvious truths became questionable. Gathering wealth and power looks good at first, but if one has seen many grab for power over the years, one gets wiser. Rather than never questioning authority, the Egyptians had more variety of authorities and questioning of authority than most cultures before them. They did obey the Pharaoh most of the time, but there were rebellions and civil wars as well. We can see in the wisdom proverbs the questioning of authority, nobility, knowledge, teachers, prediction, wealth, luxury, punishment, and other fundamental aspects of civilization. The Egyptians were not just great builders and rulers, but also wisdom seekers and questioners.
One concept that appears in the texts is the “heart guided individual”. The heart was thought to be the physical and mental center of the human individual. As Egyptian society developed, increasingly being “guided by the king” was replaced with being “guided by the heart”. The heart is the essence of the human and the intention within the action. Repeatedly in the text, individuals are called to listen to their heart rather than build luxury and maintain authority. These are issues that we all struggle with to this day, and so we can learn much about early human experience by reading these proverbs. Let us turn now to the proverbs themselves, considering the wisdom of specific passages.
Do not let your heart be puffed up because of what you know, nor boast that you are wise. Consult with the ignorant as well as with the wise, for there is no limit to where wisdom can be found. Good speech lies hidden like a precious stone, yet wisdom is found amongst the maidens at the grindstone.
This passage of Phah-hotep (Vizier to the Pharaoh, 2500 BCE) is similar to some we will read in Confucius of ancient China and it is also similar to Socrates of ancient Greece. We should learn from everyone, and remember that no one is perfect and no one knows everything when we are tempted to put ourselves above others. This questions not only human knowledge, but social inequality. It does not call for getting rid of social divisions (indeed, the last verse is somewhat sexist) but it does ask us to look beyond inequality and identify with others.
In this verse, we see Marikare (a local king offering advice to the crown prince, 1500 BCE) questioning the value of traditional sacrifice. In India, Greece and China, we will see similar thoughts questioning the value of traditional practice over being virtuous. If the wealthy make sacrifices, but rule with cruelty, those who dare to question will ask if performing sacrifices truly gains one merit. Jesus chasing the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals out of the temple is a similar move. Christianity and Buddhism, likely the largest human cultures that have existed so far, both got in trouble for storing up wealth charging people for services, inspiring revolutions and reformations.
Ani (a scribe of the 18th dynasty, 1550-1300 BCE)
Because we refuse to imitate the wicked, we help them, we offer them a hand…That they may know shame, we fill their bellies with bread.
Amen-em-opet (local king, 1800 BCE) is suggesting that we do the opposite of what we typically think to do to those we consider evil. Rather than punish bad with bad, like fighting fire with fire, we can show them the compassion and consideration they lack even if they do not deserve it. This is similar to Jesus saying, “Turn the other cheek”.
The gods desire respect for the poor more than the honoring of the exalted.
If the poor owe you a large debt, divide it into three parts, forgive two and let one stand. You will find that this is like everything in life. You will sleep soundly, and in the morning greet it like good news. Better is praise as one who loves others than riches in the storehouse. Better is bread when the heart is happy than riches with sorrow.
Amen-em-opet shows not only concern with social justice, but giving freedom of speech to the disempowered.
Whoever plunders the goods of the poor takes the very breath of life away from themselves. Such cheating chokes off justice, but a full measure increases its flow.
The Eloquent Peasant or The Complaint of the Peasant is a story about a peasant who has been robbed by a local official and who gives a series of nine arguments to the local magistrate appealing for justice which shows again that the ancient Egyptians were concerned about the poor and social justice, while also having problems with each as we still do today. It also shows ancient Egyptian cosmology holds that the world works like a giant person, and breath and air carry order downward from the fire of the stars, sun and moon. If we do injustice, we not only choke the universe but ourselves as well. The Egyptians were the foremost doctors of the ancient world and were revered by the Romans in the beginning ages of Roman empire, and only in the empire’s later years did the Romans begin turning to Greek doctors, who had learned much from the Egyptians and added to it.
Consider that we still practice the Egyptian custom of wearing the wedding ring (originally just worn by women) on the ring finger (which is how it got its name) through the Roman Catholic tradition. There is a large artery running through this finger, which the Egyptians found by doing anatomy, and because it was thought to be associated with lust a man puts a wedding ring on his wife’s finger to serve as a sort of lust collar. We do not practice the Israelite tradition of wearing the wedding ring on the index finger, which a man would put on his wife’s finger to prevent her from casting curses on him.
Honor those who achieve and the people will prosper, but keep your eyes open. Too much trust brings trouble…Exalt no one because of birth. Judge people by their actions. People should do that which profits their soul/self/mind. Let them perform the services of their temple. Let them share in the mysteries of their religion.
Merikare shows great skepticism of authority, not only of political position and noble birth but of a central singular religious tradition. Notice both ritual and mystery being included as religion.
Love the wife who is in your house. Feed her belly, clothe her back. Provide oil and cosmetics for her limbs. Gladden her heart all the days of your life, for she is like a field that will prosper its owner, but do not go into court with her, and never let her get control of your house.
Ptah-hotep is being quite sexist, but shows us that women had the power to speak in court and ruled the home as they often do in Islamic traditional culture and our own today in spite of the sexism. Ptah-hotep is giving this advice to his son.
Provide generously for your mother with double rations, and carry her even as she once carried you. It was a heavy load that she bore, but she did not cast it off, and even after you were born, did she not feed you at the breast for three years? Your dirt was unpleasant, but she did not say, “Why should I bother with him?” It was she who placed you in school. It was she who came daily with food and drink for you.
Ani seems to be giving us the old, “You never call, you never write” routine of ancient Egyptian mother syndrome. It is hilarious how he is not only reminding us to take care of the elderly, but of our own mothers as well.
Ptah-hotep shows us that there was social mobility in ancient Egypt, and one could become wealthy or poor depending upon circumstances. Like the passage that tells us the maidens at the grindstone have wisdom yet no one can obtain it entirely, it suggests we always keep the view of the poor and unfortunate in mind to not only appreciate what we have but prevent ourselves from being unjust.
Ani shows us that as people gathered into ancient city states, they became critical of human behavior, such as drinking. Above is an image of ancient Egyptian beer brewing.
Eat no bread while another waits in want, but stretch out your hand to the hungry. One person is rich, another is poor. Yesterday’s master is today’s servant. Don’t be greedy about filling your belly. Where only last year the river ran, this year the course is dry. Great seas have turned to desert wastes, and the sandy shore is now an abyss.
Ani again shows us that one could become rich or poor in society, and it is wise to remember it. The Egyptians considered the desert to be the source of evil and the home of the god Set. This is why seekers and sages, including Jesus, would venture into the desert, to show that they could live surrounded by death.
Amen-em-opet, like Aztec poets and the Indian Vedas, reminds us that no one can predict the future, either through prophecy or science.