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Today’s post is taking us all the way back. We are going to the beginning of civilization ca. 3700–3500 B.C. when the first cities sprang up from the mud of Mesopotamia and the near East. This figurine is one of thousands and thousands which were found in Tell Brak, a vast mound which is what now remains of one of humankind’s first cities—an urban settlement which was built at around the same time as Ur and Sumer (although Tell Brak was in what is now–or recently was– Syria). Tell Brak is the name of the mound of rubbish, dirt, and artifacts where the ancient city once was—the original name of the city is unknown (although the city which sprang up nearby, after the destruction of the first metropolis, was known as Nagar).
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The urban inhabitants of Tell Brak loved these evocative little eye statuettes, but sadly we don’t really know what they are either. The best guess is that they were votive statues. Supplicants would leave them at the temple as a sort of offering for the god or goddess. An alternate theory is that they are simplified idols of Inanna–THE goddess of war, sex, and the planet Venus. The wide eyes are thought to betoken adoration or excitement or maybe the attentiveness of the gods. Sometimes there are multiple sets of eyes or smaller eyes beneath a larger pair. Some of the statues had ornamentation or even jewels.

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As you have probably surmised from this meandering speculation, we don’t really know what the eye statues symbolized or what reason people made them (although it was almost absolutely certain that they are religious). Whatever their original purpose was, I love them. I can’t think of a more evocative religious artform to come from a nameless early city. The simple haunting lines and wide-eyed knowingness of the unknowable mystery forms is exhilarating. You can practically feel them looking at you out the internet (to say nothing of when you are in an abandoned corner of the Met with other objects from 6,000 years ago…or on some mud hill in Syria). Ferrebeekeeper has long been fascinated by the art of the first cities…and by cities in general. I am going to be writing more about urban culture and meaning…and I will be featuring more art. So keep your eyes open!
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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.

It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who found dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.

And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!

The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tabley features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.

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The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V he heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.

The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.

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April 7th is national beer day. While this blog would certainly never popularize an intoxicating beverage (even if that beverage were delicious, omnipresent, and held in universal esteem), it is our scholarly duty to note the importance which beer held in the ancient Mesopotamian world. Around seven thousand years ago the first known human civilizations sprang up between the Tigris and the Euphrates river valleys.  These civilizations  were beholden to beer as an economic and cultural staple. Indeed, many archaeologists and anthropologists speculate that beer is the fundamental reason that agriculture and cities were invented to begin with: the hunter gatherer lifestyle offered greater freedom and greater leisure, but civilization offered beer (albeit at the terrible price of always having grotty kingpriests and bureaucrats yelling at you—a trend which continues to this day).

Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia (from http://www.preceden.com)

Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia (from http://www.preceden.com)

Of course agriculture brought other benefits as well—famine became less of a problem, populations could grow larger, and humans were able to settle in one place. Yet the fundamental importance which the inhabitants of Eridu, Ur, and Sumer placed on beer can be seen by looking at the pantheon of ancient Mesopotamian deities. The most important child or Eridu, the lord of the watery abzu and grand old man of the gods was Ninkasi, the goddess of beer also known as “the lady who fills the mouth” (which seems to support the archaeologists who believe that the invention of beer and agriculture were related).

Image from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal

Image from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal

The worship of Ninkasi will seem familiar to anyone who has ever read a beer can. She was born in “pure sparkling water” and her sigil was the barley spade. Worshippers and supplicants would beg her to “satisfy the desire” and “sate the heart”. During a divine ordeal her father Enki the ancient received eight terrible wounds, and it was Ninkasi who cured the most painful one. In Eridu and Sumer, beer was stored in great earthenware vessels and sipped with long ornamental drinking straws. Many ancient artworks depict this activity, and I always wonder if Ninkasi is the woman behind the drinker concerned about how her brew came out.  Sadly there are no known images of Ninkasi from ancient sources (although I am half tempted to get out my brushes and paint her as an act of devotion, um I mean educational interest).

Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the "Great Death Pit" in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the “Great Death Pit” in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

Among the earliest human writings is a beautiful hymn to Ninkasi which was written in Sumerian in the nineteenth century BC. It is a lovely panegyric to agriculture, civilization, and the benign blessings of loving gods, but it is also a recipe. Warning: attempting to mimic the actions described in this ancient religious tablet may result in an alcoholic beverage! Beer makers of the modern world were inspired by the ancient recipe and set out to create an ancient Sumerian beer. The beer, made with date honey and thick loaves of an ancient multi-grain bread was less alcoholic than most modern beers (having an alcohol content of 3.5 percent—as opposed to Bud Light which has an alcohol content of 4.2) but it was apparently quite potable.

Time to celebrate spring!

Time to celebrate spring!

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