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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The gods and deceit

The Mesopotamian gods were sensitive sleepers. They were always complaining about noise. Also work. They had to work all the time. Finally their complaints about the work load became too much, so they agreed to create human beings. Human beings could do the work:

“They called up the goddess, asked
The midwife of the gods, wise Mami,
You are the womb-goddess, to be the creator of Mankind!
Create a mortal, that he may bear the yoke!
Let him bear the yoke, the work of Ellil
Let him bear the load of the gods!
Nintu made her voice heard
And spoke to the great gods,
On the first, seventh, and fifteenth of the month
I shall make a purification by washing.
Then one god should be slaughtered.
And the gods can be purified by immersion.
Nintu shall mix the clay
With his flesh and blood.
Then a god and a man
Will be mixed together in clay.
Let us hear the drumbeat forever after,
Let a ghost come into existence from the god's flesh,
Let her proclaim it as her living sign,
And let the ghost exist so as not to forget the slain god.”

The stories all tell, in one way or another, of the creation of man. But immediately upon creating man, the gods will all play tricks of one type or another. Yahweh levels prohibitions that only make sense after the prohibition has been violated – thus demonstrating not only his power to Adam and Eve, but the problem with badly ordered sets. The Mesopotamian gods just wanted a break and a siesta, but they did mix in enough of the slain god into the essence of the human so that the human would always be half ghost. As for the Greek gods, the tricks they played on humans were innumerable. However, there is an obscurity in the Greek myths about who created man and woman anyway. Was it Zeus or was it Prometheus? In Hesiod’s Theogony, men already seem to exist, but not women. Women are a trick themselves. Prometheus pulls a trick on Zeus by covering up some bones with some likely looking fatty meat at a meal and asking all the gods to take a portion. Zeus takes the bones, which implies that he was tricked, but Hesiod claims that he was not tricked - as is often the case, in myths as in dreams, negation is avoided by bifurcating the story, telling both sides of the contradiction as if they were both true. From thence ensues a complicated fight:

“For when the gods and mortal men had a dispute at Mecone, even then Prometheus was forward to cut up a great ox and set portions before them, trying to befool the mind of Zeus. Before the rest he set flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox paunch; but for Zeus he put the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat. Then the father of men and of gods said to him:
`Son of Iapetus, most glorious of all lords, good sir, how unfairly you have divided the portions!'
(ll. 545-547) So said Zeus whose wisdom is everlasting, rebuking him. But wily Prometheus answered him, smiling softly and not forgetting his cunning trick:
(ll. 548-558) `Zeus, most glorious and greatest of the eternal gods, take which ever of these portions your heart within you bids.' So he said, thinking trickery. But Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, saw and failed not to perceive the trick, and in his heart he thought mischief against mortal men which also was to be fulfilled. With both hands he took up the white fat and was angry at heart, and wrath came to his spirit when he saw the white ox-bones craftily tricked out: and because of this the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the deathless gods upon fragrant altars. But Zeus who drives the clouds was greatly vexed and said to him:
(ll. 559-560) `Son of Iapetus, clever above all! So, sir, you have not yet forgotten your cunning arts!'
(ll. 561-584) So spake Zeus in anger, whose wisdom is everlasting; and from that time he was always mindful of the trick, and would not give the power of unwearying fire to the Melian (21) race of mortal men who live on the earth. But the noble son of Iapetus outwitted him and stole the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire in a hollow fennel stalk. And Zeus who thunders on high was stung in spirit, and his dear heart was angered when he saw amongst men the far-seen ray of fire. Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire; for the very famous Limping God formed of earth the likeness of a shy maiden as the son of Cronos willed. And the goddess bright-eyed Athene girded and clothed her with silvery raiment, and down from her head she spread with her hands a broidered veil, a wonder to see; and she, Pallas Athene, put about her head lovely garlands, flowers of new-grown herbs. Also she put upon her head a crown of gold which the very famous Limping God made himself and worked with his own hands as a favour to Zeus his father. On it was much curious work, wonderful to see; for of the many creatures which the land and sea rear up, he put most upon it, wonderful things, like living beings with voices: and great beauty shone out from it.
(ll. 585-589) But when he had made the beautiful evil to be the price for the blessing, he brought her out, delighting in the finery which the bright-eyed daughter of a mighty father had given her, to the place where the other gods and men were. And wonder took hold of the deathless gods and mortal men when they saw that which was sheer guile, not to be withstood by men.
(ll. 590-612) For from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”

This is a bizarre story, for among other things the gods seem to be fully sexed already, so that it is hard to see how they were astonished by woman. Woman does become a marker dividing the divine from the human in this story – for only the gods can see woman as sheer guile, whereas mortals – men – can’t – on the contrary, they are overcome by it. Again, this is odd when you consider how often the gods end up chasing human women.
However confusing all these stories are – there is always some lack of clarity in the creation story, as if the teller had forgotten the most important part, somehow, and was piecing it out with half remembered details - the creation of the human race is almost always tied up with some trickery, some deceit.

However, if the Gods trick mankind, mankind repays the favor by overturning the gods. Heine’s little sketch, the Gods in Exile, is about what happens to Gods that have fled from that particular human revolt called Christianity. He takes an old conceit, which is that the Gods became demons, or that the celestial was driven underground, and uses the logic implied in it to show how the Gods become secularized. They devolve, in a sense. Not only do they descend into the human division of labour, but they abdicate their geographic realm – the sunny gods of Greece flee to the cold north. The most powerful of the Gods go the furthest north – at the end of the Gods in Exile, Heine tells the story of the horrible end of Jupiter, trapped in the suspended animation of a long senility on an island surrounded by ice.
To be continued


amie said...

LI, coincidentally, I'm seeing Pandora's Box tonight, at the Lincoln Center!

roger said...

Amie, have a good time! Such an excellent movie, and you will probably get great movie music, too.

Brian said...

roger: not really on topic (very much) but your Sumerian paragraphs intrigue me: have you run across the fantasy novel "Vellum" by Hal Duncan? Quite fascinating-and somewhat clumsy and challenging to read.

roger said...

Brian, you stumped me. I haven't heard of that writer. Is he contemporary?

Brian said...

I know you are too literary for me, roger :) but yes, very contemporary. He's a gay Scott living in Glasgow in his mid-30s. Very, very strange, non-linear sci-fi novel about "The Vellum," the parchment which describes all reality. Confusing stuff-but it includes a lot of fascinating Sumerian mythology.

roger said...

I'll see if I can find that. Sounds uh oh like literary sci fi to me!