Let It Begin With Me
Second in the Making Peace series
Copyright © 2000 Dorian Scott Cole
Let it Begin With Me |
Can Stories Affect People |
So how did peace become a whore |
The Story's examples of self-control |
Is Gilgamesh Valid Today? |
Religions emphasize the role of the individual in peace |
"Yet now- if blood shed long ago
Cries out that other blood shall flow
His life-blood, his, to pay again
The stern requital of the slain
Peace to that braggart's vaunting vain,
Who, having heard the chieftain's tale,
Yet boasts of bliss untouched by bale!"
- The Chorus in Agamemnon.
Paraphrased: "The blood of those slain long ago demands that those who killed now justly pay for their deeds with their own blood. Restrain your tongues, you who have heard the ancient stories of the captains of war and are filled with useless boasting - you brag about peaceful times that are untouched by the sick deeds of war."
Let it Begin With Me
Peace is a whore dressed in fine clothing who has the ear of the President. She will take away all of your intentions to conquer the world and give you peace in return. At least that was the strategy of some ancient writers.
Ah, those sly writers - they are the Trojan horses of civilization, working their way into people's hearts and minds with their stories, seducing people to do it… the writer's way, shaping culture through narratives that shape the meaning of our lives.
This is how I think a narrative (story) was used in ancient times to help people learn how to live... in peace.
Can Stories Affect People
Can stories affect people? Most of modern day storytelling is "entertaining" but not necessarily "great literature." It is debatable whether many modern stories have any effect at all on society except satisfying the need for escapism or satisfying the need for a morale boost through seeing a happy ending. If a mirror can induce change, then perhaps modern stories have some subtle effect.
I'm not certain what "great literature" is, but I think that it can be qualified by stories that people relate to, and that have an influential impact on society. They are stories that carry "meaning" with them. For example, those who are interested in the idea of "principles" and "honor" might be affected by the story Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. In the story, after an act of cowardice, Lord Jim tries to recover his honor through a heroic act. After an accidental death for which he is responsible, he respects the mores of the society he is in and instead of running like a coward he allows himself to be shot.
Stories such as Lord Jim that we point to as examples, carry with them meaning for our lives. Lord Jim is great in the sense that people relate to it, and may be affected by it. But is Jim's sense of principles what we embrace today, and were Jim's actions right for everyone? Today, do we encourage personal growth in more subtle and incremental ways, and more diversity? Even if so, the story still carries home a moral point, cemented in our psyche by emotion. It probably is great literature.
In some cases great literature stories are legends or heroic epic poems, such as Homer's tales in the ancient Greek world, and stories from the Sumerian/Assyrian literature. For example, in Homers Odyssey, warriors try to reach home, but get themselves trapped in a paradise land of sexuality and ignore their families at home. Years later they are reminded of family and again set voyage for home by the strength of their own hands, ignoring the gods. But they are opposed by the gods and make no headway. In the meantime, wives remain virtuous and fend off those who would steal the warrior's home and loved ones. In the end, the men learn that they are nothing without the gods. At one level it is a story packed with meaning about the meaningfulness of family and the importance of God (or gods). At another level it is a story that tries to make some sense out of the terrors of foreign campaigns, diversions, and the lengthy displacement of loved ones, and the maturing of the people involved.
In other cases, stories are formalized into religious stories, as in Native American ancestral stories, the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, and other literature. Many such stories are believed to be "inspired by God," either through revelation by God's interaction with man or revelation by God giving man information. In other stories heroes were elevated by fame to the immortal status of gods. If a story was about the actions of "the gods," then it certainly carried more authority and influence.
We can see similar mechanisms in stories today. For example, an element found in many narratives in the '60s through the '80s was the idea that "in the American system of justice the truth will always come out." Writers in television series often used that idea and wrote in the storyline the reasoning that an accused person who was innocent should turn himself in to the police and he would ultimately be proved innocent. That was a very prevalent idea in many stories. And of course in the stories he was always proved innocent, even though it was often by someone working for him. I think that people tended to believe the story. This is this grand meta-narrative that everything in the US and under God always works out for good, and "innocence is always proved" was one story in this meta-narrative.
But in the '90s and beyond we have lost our naive belief in this idea. The accused person in today's stories is more likely to escape or run and prove his innocence. Police corruption trials, and the number of people being freed from death-row in the last ten years has cast a dark shadow over the story. Is it really true that the grand system will ferret out the truth? Or have a significant number of innocent people been imprisoned or put to death? It is interesting that the dying words of Gary Graham, recently executed in Texas in June 00, were, "I die fighting for what I believed in. The truth will come out." If it is to be a truth and not just an ideal, then we all have to work a lot harder to make it so. It is important what we tell ourselves - those things that we set up as meta-narratives and hold to be true. It is up to every individual to keep those ideals true, or we all take the fall and it's a sad story.
So how did peace become a whore?
The Semitic writers of ancient Assyria took a story from the Sumerian epic adventure about the hero Gilgamesh, and reoutfitted it for their own purposes. Even though the Sumerians were the first people that we know about to record history in writing and to create literature, they probably weren't offended by the Assyrian's actions. You see some of the Sumerian stories may have been borrowed from a preceding greater civilization which may have been the basic source for many narratives in the Middle-East, that is the stories in the Judeo/Christian/Moslem heritage and in the Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian ancient epic stories. These same epic stories very possibly circulated the trade routes and conqueror/captivity territories among many ancient cultures such as Greek, Indian, and Indo/European, and were modified by them for their own purposes. The entire world loves a good story.
The Sumerians probably recorded something close to the truth in the Gilgamesh story. Gilgamesh probably was a real historical king circa. 2700 BCE who triumphed over the kings of two other city states, and had all the makings of a good epic figure. The Sumerians seemed to have little imagination when it came to characterization and plot, but at some point the Sumerians endowed their hero with the gift of being able to communicate in person with their gods. But at this point the Sumerian tale really wasn't a very good story.
Why weren't the Sumerians more imaginative writers? Why did the Assyrians change the story? We're talking about the very beginning of man's recorded storytelling here. Show me a story written today that will survive two empires and be alive after 5000 years. The Sumerian civilization began about 5000 years ago and flourished for a couple of thousand years. It developed codes of law influenced by ideas of fairness and equality, and developed schools, etc. But it was gone before the Semitic Akkadian and Hebrew era and not even given honorable mention in later religious literature (Bible/Torah/Koran and Assyrian tablets recorded long after 1200 BCE). Even the Sumerian cities of Erech and Ur (Ur was the original home of Abraham) were not attributed to the Sumerians.
Sumer was assimilated by the Borg... er, wrong story, by the Assyrians. Assyria was a powerful and respected civilization that dominated the MiddleEast and conquered surrounding territories. The Assyrians and the Hebrews were never great friends. In fact, the Assyrians had an appetite for Hebrews and assimilated half of them in the first diaspora that swept them into captivity. That presented considerable opportunity for swapping good stories, but that's another story.
The Assyrians had come to understand the power of great literature and embellished the Gilgamesh story for their own use. The Gilgamesh story existed written only in the Sumerian language for most of the great period of the Assyrian empire. The last great king of the Assyrians, Ashurbanipal, was a patron of the arts and had the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic translated into Semitic Akkadian. After that the empire lost power and slowly disintegrated into city/states again.
Many versions of the Gilgamesh epic exist in Akkadian. Why? What were these mad Assyrian writers up to from a storyteller's point of view? It gets strange. They painted Gilgamesh as one wild young man. He was totally undisciplined, tyrannizing his people and indulging his insatiable appetite for sex. This is the makings of a hero? This sounds more like a villain.
A new device came into the story. A woman. A woman could tame a king in a story and turn him into a civilized person. But a writer could get his head chopped off for writing stories that made kings look bad and subject to the wiles of women. Why would the Gilgamesh story suddenly go in this direction?
There were additional changes to the story. It became the gods who had created Gilgamesh, and it became the gods who were concerned about Gilgamesh's actions. The story was now removed from the opinions of mere people and given the authority of the gods. But, gods came and went in ancient civilizations and nobody really paid that much attention, like today, so they had to find another way to make this story appeal to the kings. They had to find a way to make the king save face in front of the people.
So in the story, the gods decided to create an opponent worthy of Gilgamesh (take note, writers, you must always have a worthy opponent, no milk-toasts). So they created Enkidu. Cute name - women could like this guy. Enkidu becomes the example for the King - he must either be someone the king abhors (a negative example) or someone the king likes and will identify with (a positive example). But the kings who heard the story must never understand this. How is this accomplished? Tactfully.
Enkidu is written as a man created by the gods and who lives with the animals, a person who is totally uncivilized. Of course no king wants an animal for a comrade - Enkidu at this point was the ultimate in what the kings would not want to identify with - a negative example. But the writers want Enkidu to be a positive example. So the gods must make Enkidu worthy of the king's respect. They must humanize Enkidu. Note the perspective presented : the gods are going to make Enkidu worthy of respect from a kings point of view, not from theirs. The focus is shifted to what a king would want, not what the gods or the people want.
How do the gods plan to civilize Enkidu? With a woman, a courtesan. So a woman of Erech becomes the sexual and social mentor of Enkidu, rounding off his rough edges and brute characteristics, transforming him into a wise and civilized man. When he is refined, only then does she present him to Gilgamesh.
Enkidu is now fit for a king... or at least worthy to be a king's opponent. Gilgamesh invites Enkidu to an orgy (or to a Wedding night where the rule is that the king gets first privileges), but the civilized Enkidu is offended by Gilgamesh's unrestrained cravings and prevents him from entering the gathering. Immediately a battle ensues between the two. Gilgamesh could look really bad here. He can show his colors as an unrestrained beast who opposes the gods and all that is refined, or he can endorse this new moral code and get in league with the gods and look good.
Imagine the turmoil in the minds of the kings who hear this story. The gods have fashioned Enkidu as someone that a king would respect. Through these characters, a mirror is held to the kings' own souls. Who do they identify with, the wild Gilgamesh (yes, no), the wild Enkidu (no) the refined Enkidu (yes)? But their behavior can't be both ways. So in the story before any serious harm is done, Gilgamesh comes to his senses, embraces Enkidu (the symbol of refinement) and the two become best of friends, setting a path forward through the dilemma that is in the minds of the kings. In the story, before long Gilgamesh and Enkidu grow tired of the good life and are thinking up new adventures and proving themselves to be true epic heroes. At this point the real kings can either emulate the example, or wrestle with looking bad to the people and themselves.
I can't decipher the real motives of the Assyrian storytellers any more than I can decipher the motives of current writers. Some writers know exactly what they are doing, and some create stories and only stumble onto good elements. (Part of why I chose the Gilgamesh example was to help get people interested in ancient literature by looking more deeply into it. Calling peace a whore was just a gimick to get readers into the article. [effectively or ineffectively]) I not only can't decipher motives, I don't even have access to all of the Gilgamesh stories, or the ability to correlate different translations with events, as an Assyriologist would. But what it looks like to me is this: In the city/states of those days (and even in governments of today), the people who became kings were often those who did well in battle, but they weren't necessarily full of the social graces. They could be as tyrannical with their own people as with those that they conquered. The story took a great epic figure from history, an example to kings of what a great king should be, and the story was modified to teach a specific lesson without being offensive to the kings.
Perhaps this modification came from the King's mother, perhaps from the King's court, perhaps from his wife or even his courtesan in a desperate Shaharazad (1001 Arabian Nights) attempt at influence. Perhaps Ashurbanipal himself ordered the new storyline. Perhaps the Hebrew Diaspora influenced the story. Perhaps the popular story circulated aurally and a priest or scribe "stylused" another one in clay to be read to the Kings, or slipped it into the library where he knew someone would find it. Most likely of all, storytellers were influenced by the public, government personnel, culture, and events, and through the centuries watched the king's and other's reactions and related talk and spontaneously softened and improvised the story as they told and retold it. It evolved into instructions for the king.
Who knows who or why the Assyrians modified the Sumerian story. But what it seems to me to be is an inoffensive example to kings, a narrative intended to provide part of the meaning structure of life in those times. It is a story about doing the right things so that people live in peace.
The Story's examples of self-control
The story contains several examples about self-control related to making peace. These examples were probably forged out of necessity during very difficult times, and they are probably practical stories that endured because they worked. This narrative has the following examples:
- Shows that even the best of action figures require some grooming to make them suitable for use by the gods and for the people.
- Uses "friendly persuasion," that is, a woman's influence, to create social sensitivity in those who don't know restraint. (Dangerously close to abuse of women, although there are plenty of willing candidates for courtesans.)
- Uses the example of epic heroes as a teaching device (Gilgamesh) for kings and citizens.
- Uses an influential figure (a worthwhile opponent) to press a point (opposes a king's "first privileges" with women, or the idea of an orgie.)
- Uses respect of others and self, through a worthwhile opponent as a place to start influencing someone to exercise self-restraint.
Stories of today provide similar examples to those taught to the kings of Sumer and Assyria. People still love an epic hero and they still like examples on how prominent figures should behave, such as the movie Air Force 1 in which the President stands up to terrorists. The story has an example role about peace in that it presents and reinforces for people the position that the US doesn't negotiate with terrorists under any circumstances.
Who do the Presidents of today look to for examples? Presidents that they think were great, such as Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, etc. And they point out the examples of these past Presidents to the American people to support their plans and actions of today. These Presidential examples are stories that form the meaning framework of our lives, telling us how to act and how to interpret the situations and events in life. They answer, "What does this event or situation mean to me?" How well any particular story does at influencing the way we live probably has to do with how well the story sticks in the popular imagination. Most stories don't stick, although many probably help reinforce selected ideas.
The Assyrian version of the Gilgamesh story is a story for kings. It influences them to live in peace with their people by following moral codes and exercising self-restraint.
Is Gilgamesh Valid Today?
Real or imaginary? Are these points just as valid today as they were 3 - 5 thousand years ago?
Point 1: Even the best of action figures require some grooming. People aren't born beating a peace drum, even though we are fashioned by God. Like Enkidu, we are born rather animalistic in nature, and it isn't natural to find peaceful ways to resolve conflict. More like animals, we selfishly sieze our share or more, and only share with other animals when it serves our purpose. There are exceptions in both men and animals, of course. It is natural, like Gilgamesh, to selfishly suppress and misuse others to get what we want. No different than Gilgamesh in character, President Nixon misused his powers to get information to suppress the opposing party, and even Kennedy and Clinton misused women. Yet, for individuals, groups, and the species to survive and prosper we must address these issues and change, to live together peaceably.
Point 2: The need for women's influence. It is no secret to me that neither men nor women should rule the world. Alone they can make a fine mess of it. But together they moderate each other's extremes. It is also no secret that the President's wives have been influential in their husbands jobs, and are usually the butt of jokes because of it. The ancient Assyrians realized that some men have boundless ambition and boundless lust, and that without a woman's influence, they quickly get out of hand. Once a warrior is victorious in conquering, raping, and pillaging, then he is in a mode of getting what he wants by force and he is likely to do the same to his own people. On the other hand, Hitler had his mistress and she encouraged him in the wrong direction.
But there is a peace-making influence in a woman's presence. Mothers cultivate civility and sensitivity. Female friends and associates encourage a different perspective. Wives and lovers encourage responsibility and restraint. The Biblical book of Esther and the story Anna and the King of Siam are true examples of a woman's influence with kings.
"Friendly persuasion" is effective, but I will stop short of endorsing the courtesan approach despite the fact that it is definitely in use, and save the story of men's influence on women for a more "appreciative era" (in other words, I'm still looking for that story…).
Point 3: Epic heroes as a teaching device. Already illustrated in the preceding text such as the "The truth will come out" and "Never negotiate with terrorists" elements in stories.
Point 4: The influential figure. Which "King" of today has not been called into service to influence another king who respects him as a friend and protégé? A measure of peace was brought to Serbia through the military intervention of many nations. But the US President, or his envoy, had to repeatedly visit the heads of state of those other countries to maintain a unified front. Similarly the President of Russia was called into service to influence the Serbian head of state. And Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco often influence each other in policy decisions, as well as the other Arab states. Even former opponents have influenced each other in summit meetings, such as the US and Russian heads of state. No different today than in ancient Assyria, worthy opponents and respected colleagues can be used to influence others toward peace. Of course there is always someone like Idi Amin, the young Gilgamesh who went the other direction.
The protégés of "kings" are not just short term influences to keep situations in check, they are long term influences that help shape the attitudes and future actions of their comrades.
Point 5: Respect of others and self, through a worthwhile opponent as a place to start influencing someone to exercise self-restraint. Exactly what Gilgamesh thought (supposedly) when he stopped fighting Enkidu and embraced him isn't known. Probably Enkidu represented something good and right to him and he realized that in fighting Enkidu he was choosing the wrong path. When the kings look in the mirror of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, they realize that they are good people and are fighting the wrong thing within themselves. Gilgamesh chose to respect himself, and to gain the respect of someone that he respected.
So there you have it, it was a courtesan who was the instrument of peace in the life of Gilgamesh. "…I cherish the inhabitants of the land of Sumer and Akkad; in my shelter I have let them repose in peace..."
- Hammurabi, the King who presented a code of law to the ancient Assyrians.
Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerologist and cuneiformist, is the leading authority on this literature. He noted about the Assyrian and Sumerian versions of the Gilgamesh epic, "Only the broad outlines of the plot are held by the two in common." The content changed almost entirely.
The Gilgamesh epic was a good story framework on which to evolve a decent meaning framework example story for kings, and to even share with other cultures in the regions with which they traded. The wonder is, the Assyrian version is probably as applicable today for living together peacefully as it was three thousand years ago.
Various versions of the Gilgamesh story exist, and I haven't read all of the others for comparison. But to me this Assyrian Gilgamesh story seems like a story which grew out of the collective wisdom of the eon. It is probably the story of people getting some control over unrestrained kings. Like Homer's epics, the Gilgamesh epic probably contains the collective and refined wisdom of a growing civilization, which was hammered out on the forge of countless storytellers through the millennia who were either received warmly or thrown out, depending on how they told their new version of the story.
The ancient Assyrians sought peace with their kings through a story that said that the person who is causing the conflict has to become civil, whether it be an individual or the king.
Religions emphasize the role of the individual in peace:
A similar idea is presented in Buddhism: Misery originates within us from the craving for pleasure and for being or nonbeing. This craving can be eliminated through a methodical way or path that must be followed.
The Judeo/Christian/Moslem heritage places a great emphasis on the guidance of faith and wisdom leading to peace. "Happy is the man who finds wisdom… for she is better than gold and silver… Her ways are the ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace." - Paraphrased from Proverbs 3:13-17; and "O ye who believe! enter ye into the peace, one and all… " - The Koran
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. (From the song Let There Be Peace On Earth by Sy Miller and Jill Jackson)
U B Peace. - Scott
I noticed that the movie, The Patriot, 2000, echoes similar themes. Benjamin states,
"I have long feared that my sins would visit me, and the cost would be more than I could bear." He also echoes themes about the influence of women.
For another commentary on another version of the Gilgamesh story, visit:
For additional information on Mesopatamia, visit:http://saturn.sron.ruu.nl/~jheise/akkadian/mesopotamia.html
and The Internet Ancient History Sourcebook at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/asbook1.html
If these Web links get out of date, simply look up "Gilgamesh" on the Web.
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