The chicken-or-egg of big gods, morality, and societal complexity
January 22, 2020 11:18 AM   Subscribe

First there were little gods. People then developed complex civilizations, and those people then created big, "morally concerned" gods. That's a very succinct summary of a study using a huge historical database (The Conversation, March 20, 2019), which was published in Nature (abstract; link to full PDF via Nautilus article titled The Worth of an Angry God: How supernatural beliefs allowed societies to bond and spread, which poses a counter-argument to this theory). The huge database is Seshat Databank, named after the ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom, knowledge, and writing (Wikipedia).

Intro from the article in The Conversation:
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them.

Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.

Now, thanks to our massive new database of world history, known as Seshat (named after the Egyptian goddess of record keeping), we’re starting to get some answers.
Counterpoint from the Nautilus article:
Joseph Henrich, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, sees it differently. He contends that moralizing gods spurred societal complexity because belief in moralizing gods leads to success in intergroup competition. It increased trust and cooperation among a growing population of relative strangers, he said, and buttressed traits like bravery in warfare. “The word ‘moralizing’ is not a useful term,” though, he added. “People use it casually, because people are interested in morality, but the theory specifies this very specific set of things that increase your success in intergroup competition. Most people want to call greater cooperation, helping strangers, things like that, moral. That’s just a Western preoccupation.”
...
How did gods help build societies?

The way to think about it is that there’s lots of different groups coming to different beliefs about their gods. You find gods that care about what kind of foods you eat, who you have sex with, how you have sex, how you treat your neighbors, how you treat strangers, and some of these things help societies to expand and grow. Some just appeal to various aspects of our psychology so they can stick around because they fit human psychology well. These beliefs are favored by some groups and lead to competition with others. And these religious beliefs, including rituals, have allowed society to scale up.

Does that help explain why certain religions have merged into the ones that we see today? For example, in the Bible, you can see traces of beings that existed in Mesopotamian myths.

Exactly. In Mesopotamia, there’s this rich exchange of different supernatural beliefs. The Jewish god is changing through time. Robert Wright has a nice book on this, The Evolution of God, showing how you go from this kind of desert war god into the god of Christianity today.
If you want to get into the data-geekery details behind Seshat, here's a conference paper from 2016: Building the Seshat Ontology for a Global History Databank.
posted by filthy light thief (38 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting food for thought, thank you. I tend to agree with Murray Bookchin's contention that the most common and primary historical purpose of the "morally concerned" god was to foster "epistemologies of rule", encouraging a mindset and ideology that pushed people toward accepting a hierarchically stratified society. I wonder whether further studies of this database might support or contradict this idea.

From chapter 4 of The Ecology of Freedom:

Urban life began with an altar, not simply a marketplace, and probably with walls that were meant to define sacred space from the natural, not simply as defensive palisades.

It is breathtaking to reflect on the intricate variety of ideological threads in this new tapestry,with its stark insignias of class and material exploitation. By converting mundane nature spirits and demons into humanlike supernatural deities and devils, the priestly corporation had cunningly created a radically new social and ideological dispensation — indeed, a new way of mentalizing rule. The guardian deity of the community increasingly became a surrogate for the community as a whole — literally, a personification and materialization of a primal solidarity that gradually acquired the trappings of outright social sovereignty. Ludwig Feuerbach was to unwittingly mislead us when he declared that our humanlike gods and goddesses were the projections of humanity itself into a larger-than-life religious world; actually, they were the projection of the priestly corporation into an all-too-real pantheon of social domination and material exploitation.

In any case, the communal lands and their produce, once available to all by virtue of the practice of usufruct, were now seen as the endowment of a supernatural deity whose earthly brokers voiced its wishes, needs, and commandments. Ultimately, they acquired theocratic sovereignty over the community, its labor, and its produce. Communal property, to toy with a contradiction in terms, had emerged with a vengeance as the communism of the godhead and its earthly administrators. The communal whole, which had once been at the disposition of the community as a whole, was now placed at the disposition of the deified "One," if only a patron deity in a super-natural pantheon, who in the very role of personifying the community and its unity had turned it into an obedient congregation ruled by a priestly elite. The nature spirits who had peopled the primordial world were absorbed into tutelary deities. The Mother Goddess who represented the fecundity of nature in all its diversity, with its rich variety of subdeities, was trampled down by the "Lord of Hosts," whose harsh moral codes were formulated in the abstract realm of his heavenly Supernature.

posted by One Second Before Awakening at 11:56 AM on January 22 [12 favorites]


Thanks for this post. Adapt, adapt, adapt. I'm reminded of the David Byrne TED Talk from 2010, How Architecture Helped Music Evolve, recently linked by belarius in this music discussion.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:44 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


Fantastic FPP - right up my alley, thanks.

The Stuff to Blow Your Mind (podcast) xmas special on Is Santa a God? touched upon the chicken/egg aspect of Big Gods: did they arise because of urbanisation & agriculture to control the morality & behaviour of increasing populations (in place of, say, village or tribal norms)?

Or was increasing urbanisation an effect of these religious concepts, which enabled that transition?

From memory, the second episode (of 2) went into this a bit more, and almost certainly referenced the research in the FPP.

It started out by evaluating Santa Claus against one theorist's five defining aspects of any god, in terms of the psychology of religion. I can't remember them all, but they included:

1. is minimally counterintuitive (this helps propagate the idea of the god and its associated stories)
2. acts with agency in the world (otherwise, who cares?)
3. has special / strategic knowledge or insight
4. has rituals etc that encourage the perpetuation of belief in the god ("believe in me or else!")
5. Five, five, I forget what five was for

So a rough argument goes that there were traditionally all kinds of gods for all kinds of purposes. Let's say a God of Fishing. She's basically like a mermaid but with nets for hands, and knows where the fish are and will help you catch them if only you sacrifice the first-caught fish on her altar.

And they often didn't lay down laws (except "do my ritual or I will ignore you") and weren't always benevolent.

But supposedly coinciding with urbanisation, these minor gods get replaced with the big vengeful gods that don't occupy fringe niche positions but demand to be placed at the centre of everything, so everybody kowtows to that god instead of there being one for the fishers and one for the bakers and one to explain lightning, etc.

As an aside, the symbolism of the Ka'aba in Mecca and what made Islam so strong and rapidly spreading, was that it was the destruction of the temple of these multiple idols, with monotheism replacing them, and the practices of everybody (*cough* male, in particular) lining up, facing the same direction, and ritualising together reinforced this shared belief in a way that even the Romans hadn't achieved - who I understand still had things like their private household gods.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:07 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


BILL: I can't get behind the Gods, who are more vengeful, angry, and dangerous if you don't believe in them!

["Bill" is William Shatner]
posted by chavenet at 1:45 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


1) This is cool shit and look forward to digging in.
2) There's a certain meta-ness to this post - in particular the use of "Ontology" in computer science terms that more often could in most other frameworks be considered "Taxonomy".
3) This then posits a sort of chicken/egg scenario in itself. Ontology deals with the grounds of being. So here we consider - if we mean Ontology in the CompSci it takes consciousness as the ground of being (that is - we construct via our Epistemologies these categories and it is THAT which is the REAL).
4) Conversely, there are the a priori determinists who consider that indeed, there is a world out there, and they exist as Ding-an-sich - the things in themselves, regardless of our own categorizations and claims of "ontos" for them.

So what came first, the little gods, the big gods, man, the concepts of god, the concept of man. the concepts of little and big. the concept itself, the word?
posted by symbioid at 1:48 PM on January 22


Interesting coincidence that he mentions Robert Wright's, The Evolution of God. I was just thinking about that subject on the drive to work this morning.

It's anti-Semitic (and inaccurate) to characterize the Old Testament God as vengeful and the New Testament God as forgiving. The book of Revalation is rough and tumble, to say the least, and I'm told that Hell is a Christian addition. But something clearly happens to the concept of God over time. In Exodus, the commandment says "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." Wait, there are other gods? What's going on here?

Thanks for this post, and it's included reading recommendation!
posted by Richard Daly at 2:03 PM on January 22 [7 favorites]


I have looked only at the Conversation article so far, but I am skeptical of the whole argument.

People who have grown up in societies dominated by Abrahamic monotheism have a distorted view of religion. For most of human history, including the eras of the great empires of the ancient world, "religion" was of the "small gods" variety. Neither Rome nor the contemporaneous Persian empire had "big gods" and their societies were plenty complex. And in East Asia the whole idea of moralizing gods never caught on at all.

Also I look at askance with the throwaway remark about Ashoka and Buddhism. It's not like there weren't complex societies in India before that, nor is karma as a theory of justice something that began with Buddhism.

And really, once you recognize that Yaweh and Jehovah and Allah are all the same guy in different robes, what other big moralizing gods are there?
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 2:05 PM on January 22 [17 favorites]


In Exodus, the commandment says "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." Wait, there are other gods? What's going on here?
Not a Bible scholar to point you at the verses, but the progression of Yaweh from "one among many" to "first among many" to "one and only" is something that left traces there. When Exodus was composed, there were many gods in the Eastern Mediterranean.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 2:16 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


BILL: I can't get behind the Gods, who are more vengeful, angry, and dangerous if you don't believe in them!

["Bill" is William Shatner]


Also Bill: What does God need with a starship?

I'm looking forward to digging in here for a lot of different reasons, but my initial reaction is the same as Aardvarks: the Inca, Rome, Persia, the Mayans, Han China - there are lots of examples of complex civilizations that didn't have "big gods".
posted by nubs at 2:21 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


Christianity may have been the first "confessional" religion. It wasn't "merely" the traditions of a group, but rather something that you, personally, had to ascribe to... to believe in. But anyone could be in (or out) depending on what they believed.

This seems liberating. Yay, we're free of traditional claninish nonsense. Personal agency!

But on the other hand, it raises, perhaps for the first time, the ideas of heresy and apostasy. It matters exactly what you believe in. (See Nicene Creed). Suddenly ideology is front and center. Your ability to belong in a community depended on what you claimed to believe.

I think that, in the West, we tend to think of spirituality in the confessional model. Buddhists would find that perplexing and problematic. In fact, most religions besides Christianity and Islam would.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:25 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]


And really, once you recognize that Yaweh and Jehovah and Allah are all the same guy in different robes, what other big moralizing gods are there?

The Conversation article includes this map shows the global distribution and timing of beliefs in moralising gods shows that big gods appear in big societies.

The Americas are devoid of Big Gods, but not the rest of the world, but I agree that there are some areas and civilizations that didn't have Big Gods. The Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas are Central and South American examples of complex societies.

I didn't dig around enough to find any other counter-arguments that looked at more detail at these or other complicated societies and described how the original hypothesis fails, or at least is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:27 PM on January 22


I can see the progression: weather gods, small gods, darned big gods, one great single God, Moderators.
posted by sammyo at 2:43 PM on January 22 [13 favorites]


I can see the progression: weather gods, small gods, darned big gods, one great single God, Moderators.

I feel like we're stuck between "one great single God" (capitalism) and "Moderators" on this scale
posted by nubs at 2:45 PM on January 22


I like this essay series: Practical Polytheism, for describing how Greek and Roman polytheism worked, really digging into how it emphasized practice over orthodoxy/belief.
posted by foxfirefey at 2:57 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


No big gods in Persia? Who's Ahura Mazda then, chopped liver?

Zoroaster reformed a polytheistic system into a monotheistic one, sometime before 1000 BCE. (There are other entities, but they aren't god— a concept shared with the Abrahamic religions.)

Let's not forget Akhenaten and his Aten, either, c. 1300 BCE.

"Many gods" religions were often henotheistic, not polytheistic. That is, a single worshipper usually worshipped one god, simply ignoring the rest.

Polytheism need not be primordial: it can easily arise from syncretism. E.g. people worshiped Amun in Thebes, Ptah in Memphis, Ra in Heliopolis. In unified Egypt, lo and behold, you have a religion that worships Amun, Ptah, and Ra. A similar story happens in Mesopotamia.

Given all this, I'm not that comfortable with statements that the Inkas' Wiraqucha, or the Shāng god Shàngdì, were not "big gods". (I haven't read the paper referred to, but when you're dealing with a database, these things tend to be reduced to a binary— Big God or not— and that could be misleading.)
posted by zompist at 3:11 PM on January 22 [14 favorites]


Akhenaten got robbed!
posted by clavdivs at 3:12 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]


Yep, before confessional religions, it was all about tradition (origin myths, cultural touchstones) and practice (ritual, societal norms). Nobody cared what other tribes believed; that was their business and you had your own problems.

After confessional religions (and I maintain that Christianity, perhaps with a bit of input from Buddhism and Zoroastrianism introduced this notion) there was also a question of faith, or what, in particular, you believed in. It was potentially inclusive because in theory anyone could be a member of the faithful. But it was also brutally exclusive because you could be an apostate or an infidel or be promulgating a heresy and none of that was even a thing before.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:15 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Tired: digital humanities
Wired: digital divinities

Interesting idea for a database. Thanks for posting.
posted by eirias at 3:18 PM on January 22


How supernatural beliefs spread?

They were good people, but they were wrong.
posted by meehawl at 3:31 PM on January 22


I can see the progression: weather gods, small gods, darned big gods, one great single God, Moderators.
posted by sammyo at 4:43 PM on January 22

Forgot Mathowey- THE ONE TRUE CREATOR.

Typical post-nietzschean moral order posting, I see...

Some of us still remember.
posted by symbioid at 4:08 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


Its all true. This is how the Elf on the Shelf religion started.

I think moving away from the land into cities was a big part of it. The small gods are still out there and people still respect them. Especially people who live on nature. I doubt many farmers or sailors or ski patrollers dont secretly prey to their own deities.
posted by fshgrl at 4:17 PM on January 22


Yeah yeah. Whatever. (Haven’t read the article.) But how do these eggheads explain how Jesus rose from the dead? And, you know, miracles?
posted by oluckyman at 4:48 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Yeah yeah. Whatever. (Haven’t read the article.)
posted by great_radio at 4:54 PM on January 22 [17 favorites]


Recently I had the opportunity to observe what seemed to be the genesis of a new "god" on a local playground, while letting my niece run around like a maniac over a period of a couple weeks.

There was a large tree. One day I saw a couple of kids taking fallen branches and making a variety of structures with them. One of those structures leaned up against the large tree in a sort of fan-like arrangement.

Next time I was at the playground, the fan structure was in the process of being elaborated with arrangements of pine needle clusters by different kids.

Week or two later, it's basically an altar assembled out of branches, needles, and symmetric arrangements of pine cones.

Week after that, and kids are bringing it flowers and, literally, sprinkling water on it in a semi-ritual thing.

Give that sort of thing a few years, probably in a slightly more isolated location, with no adult interaction and you'd probably have a new nature spirit, complete with a name. Perhaps tellingly, all of the kids involved were roughly 4-7 years old. It's not like the first kids set out to create an altar, it just sort of ended up that way as different groups of kids interacted with it. By the end it was pretty clearly a pseudo-mystic place, created for no specific reason.

(unfortunately, the altar tree was a hazard, and later removed)
posted by aramaic at 5:02 PM on January 22 [23 favorites]


People who have grown up in societies dominated by Abrahamic monotheism have a distorted view of religion.
Indeed, folk religion does not fit into models made for Big God religions. It's the dominant religion in a number of large countries with "complex" societies, but it seems that it's swept under the rug in such discussions, even though it very important to its believers. If you want to build a house in Hanoi, you go first to the little shrine on the corner that's dedicated to the local genie/god/hero (often one that was brought to the city by the villagers who founded the district). It's a infinite pantheon of little gods, many of them Locally Important Persons that were deified at some point, and they're only good for you if you worship them. I once visited Roma with a middle-aged Vietnamese woman, and she was delighted by the little district churches where Italians prayed to local saints in the way she prayed to hers in Vietnam. It was strikingly similar: the Official Big God gets the top billing, but it's the Local Little God who can help your kids with their exams. One problem Little Gods have is that their rules are poorly codified, which can get confusing; Big Gods are more remote, but easier to pray to. Still, while Little Gods did make room for the big ones, they didn't go away in many societies.
posted by elgilito at 5:10 PM on January 22 [7 favorites]


aramaic,

That reminds me of “Myths Over Miami” a 1997 article from the Miami New Times about the mythology created by the homeless children of Miami around the figure of “La Llorona”, the angelic Blue Lady. Unfortunately I’ve read some pieces questioning the veracity of this report, but it’s an interesting read.
posted by the legendary esquilax at 5:19 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


Heveena: "Who is she?"

Mercer: "That's Dolly Parton."

Heveena: "She speaks with the might of a hundred soldiers!"

Mercer: "Yeah, yeah, I guess she does".

Heveena: "This is the voice of our revolution."

-The Orville. Season 2. Episode 12: "Sanctuary".
posted by clavdivs at 6:07 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


"For cooperation to be possible under such conditions, some system of surveillance was required"

Like what, who takes the night shift. Cuneiform decoder rings. This is contingent one the premise that society has come to a workable methodology with bark, sea, fire gods. But...

"What better than to come up with a supernatural “eye in the sky” – a god who can see inside people’s minds and issue... Believing in such a god might make people think twice about stealing or reneging on deals..."

Well, dunno, I think maybe people had that fear before, like with crops or weather. They most likely thought twice doing wrong in the guise of self interest. But self interest run rampant can challenge supreme power like Akhenaten and his dad. The all seeing eye is the Aten ironically. And what about the religious mash-up of Angkor, multiple gods but the big god was the human turned divine?
posted by clavdivs at 6:29 PM on January 22


In Exodus, the commandment says "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." Wait, there are other gods? What's going on here?

This is why I think it must be nearly impossible to really understand ancient religions. Here's a passage from a monotheistic text still in use today which ostensibly supports polytheism. How are we to appreciate the relatively few texts we have from extinct religions, particularly when we don't know how they reflected their actual adherents' beliefs?

The verse you cite is a good example of how cultural practices and assumptions change the meaning of a text. That translations is ultimately descended from Greek and Aramaic ones used in public readings by the Jewish communities of their day. You may have seen people writing "G-d" rather than writing it out in full: that's a nod to the Jewish tradition in which people avoid writing or speaking God's name. You know, the name. The four-lettered one. The Tetragrammaton. That one. This aversion is very old, certainly as old as these translations.

Because of this aversion Jews typically substituted a word meaning "my lord" or "my master" when encountering the Tetragrammaton while reading the Bible aloud. When reading other texts they'd go to an even less explicit term, like "the holy one" or "the name". In contrast, the word translated as "thy God" or "gods" stands as it is, even though it really just means lord/master/power. Consequently, the two terms almost switch roles: the specific name is reduced to a generic title, while the title gets treated as a name.

The Septuagint (a very old Greek translation) reflects this aversion by translating Exodus 20:2,3 like this:
ἐγώ εἰμι Κύριος ὁ Θεός σου, ὅστις ἐξήγαγόν σε ἐκ γῆς Αἰγύπτου, ἐξ οἴκου δουλείας. οὐκ ἔσονταί σοι θεοὶ ἕτεροι πλὴν ἐμοῦ.
In English that's
I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods beside me.
But, a direct translation of the Hebrew with less influence from the Septuagint might be:
I am your master GODNAME, who took you out of Egypt, from the slaves' quarters. Don't let me see you having any other masters!
In context the next verse goes on to prohibit making “figures or any representation of anything in the sky above or the earth below, or the waters beneath the earth: don't worship or serve them.” Things that are found in "the earth below”, at least, cannot be celestial beings. So while I suppose the "other gods"/"other masters" implicitly does mean "other things worshipped as deities", it doesn't imply the existence of competing celestial beings.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:09 PM on January 22 [12 favorites]


Thanks Joe, I've often wondered how that phrase was justified, although I've considered that it may be a false flag for the elders to catch rational questioners before a bit of logic or rationality could infect the thinking of the, cough, lambs.
posted by sammyo at 7:45 PM on January 22


I wish I didn't have work tomorrow so I could just curl up in bed and lose myself in this wonderful post. 😩🙌♥️
posted by Kitchen Witch at 9:55 PM on January 22


I can hardly believe that nobody has yet quoted Terry Pratchett.
posted by e-man at 10:15 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]


Nobody has yet linked The God of Arepo (a tumblr crowd-sourced mythfic; link to full story on Imgur), either?
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:53 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


Thank you for this post, I look forward to reading this stuff. This is one of my amateur "hobbies" though I'm no theologian or scholar of religions by any measure.

One thing I've found fascinating in my observations when it comes to us humans and the little gods vs Big God(s) thing is that, at least from what I can see in modern times, a lot of people essentially want both. That is, they envision a Big God who, despite what physics tells us, knows the position and momentum of every electron in the universe but who is also enough of a little god that He is deeply invested in making sure that their favorite football team converts on a crucial 3rd and long in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.

And I'm not saying that to be all loltheists or lolsportsballfans. I'm sort of an agnostic, but I have been known to say things like "Please, God, if you're listening, let this guy make these free throws so that my team can advance to the NBA finals over these you-damned Lakers" and "God, could you please give that PK a little nudge at the last minute so that it gets past the keeper? Thank you" with a sincere hope that my prayer reaches the ears of some benevolent and interested being.

it seems like times past or in certain belief systems, there would have been a little deity or familial deity one might petition for help in those cases rather than The One and Only.

Fascinating stuff. Thanks again for the post.
posted by lord_wolf at 7:18 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Interesting reading. Thanks for posting.

The Americas are devoid of Big Gods, but not the rest of the world, but I agree that there are some areas and civilizations that didn't have Big Gods. The Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas are Central and South American examples of complex societies.

I suspect a bit of handwaving on the part of the researchers. It seems more likely to me that they lack the in-depth knowledge of those belief systems to make a judgement. My admittedly limited experience of travelling in South America suggests they had (and may yet have) some very Big Gods indeed, but they were predicated on different conceptions of time, space, psychology and consciousness. It's disappointing that the study doesn't even begin to address this, because I bet there are elements of their world view that could be useful to the thesis.

From the Nautilus article:

It seems clear that with the rise of strong secular institutions, representative governments, Western-style judicial processes, religion has become less and less important. And, in fact, one of the things our research shows is that it’s belief in a kind of punishing god that does a lot of the work of keeping people in line and policing people....It’s the belief in Hell that seemed to do a lot of the work of keeping people in line... So it seems like effective secular institutions can take the place of God. But this doesn’t work in places without effective secular institutions. If the police are corrupt and nobody trusts the police, priming people with the police doesn’t help.

As for the relevance of institutional religion or lack thereof, it's all very well to hold up the Dutch and the Danes as examples of high functioning civil societies, but I don't rate our chances if and when the one Big God we can all agree on turns out to be Hobbes' Leviathan.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 9:35 AM on January 23 [2 favorites]


Our gods are dead. Ancient Klingon warriors slew them a millennia ago. They were more trouble than they were worth.
Worf
May we all advance past this anthropomorphic egocentricity one day. It seems like horrific baggage to drag along should we ever manage to head to the stars in corporeal form.
And many thanks for the post. Prescription perfection
posted by Redhush at 7:03 PM on January 23


There is a startling passage in the Epic of Gilgamesh after Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the 'monster' Huwawa which seems to reflect or at least foreshadow the transition from gods of a single people to a God with wider concerns:
Humbaba is first mentioned in Tablet II of the Epic of Gilgamesh. After Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends following their initial fight, they set out on an adventure to the Cedar Forest beyond the seventh mountain range, to slay Humbaba (Huwawa): "Enkidu," Gilgamesh vows, "since a man cannot pass beyond the final end of life, I want to set off into the mountains, to establish my renown there."[2] Gilgamesh tricks the monster into giving away his seven "radiances" by offering his sisters as wife and concubine. When Humbaba's guard is down, Gilgamesh punches him and captures the monster. Defeated, Humbaba appeals to a receptive Gilgamesh for mercy, but Enkidu convinces Gilgamesh to slay Humbaba. In a last effort, Humbaba tries to escape but is decapitated by Enkidu, or in some versions by both heroes together; his head is put in a leather sack, which is brought to Enlil, the god who set Humbaba as the forest's guardian. Enlil becomes enraged upon learning this and redistributes Humbaba's seven splendors (or in some tablets "auras"):

"He gave Humbaba's first aura to the fields. He gave his second aura to the rivers. He gave his third aura to the reed-beds. He gave his fourth aura to the lions. He gave his fifth aura to the palace (one text has debt slaves). He gave his sixth aura to the forests (one text has the hills). He gave his seventh aura to Nungal."[7]

No vengeance was laid upon the heroes, though Enlil says, "He should have eaten the bread that you eat, and should have drunk the water that you drink! He should have been honored."
If we see the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu in part as exemplars of different ethnicities, the death of Huwawa (the Sumerian version) reads a lot like an ethnic cleansing or a genocide (his 'seven sons' are also killed), and their God is angry about it.
posted by jamjam at 7:50 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]




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