As I write this riots and protests have broken out across the United States over the death of George Floyd (and not just him but many, many, others). The Governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, has declared a State of Emergency for the entire state, which means the National Guard can be called to anywhere in the state to put down unrest. Meanwhile, the death toll from COVID-19 has reached over 100,000–but you can’t trust the numbers because the numbers have been inflated in certain cases.
I’m frightened, fearful for future. At times I feel like I’m bordering on a depression which no medication or drugs can sate.
As the Joker said to the Thief: There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Yet there’s work to be done.
If you feel like there’s something wrong with the world, you’re not alone. People have been writing about the tragedy of the human condition since recorded history. If you feel like you’re living under a tyranny, so did whoever wrote down the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to around 2700 BCE. Gilgamesh was such a terrible god-king it took a wild man named Enkidu to distract him from abusing his people.
They went on a series of adventures, the end of which they destroy the Cedars of Lebanon and the nature spirit Humbaba. Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh spends the rest of the epic trying to discover the secret to immortality. He fails. And thus everybody must die at some point, and until then life is pain.
Or you can rely on the Book of Genesis for an explanation. Here we have another tale of immortality lost with Adam and Eve eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Their eyes were opened and God expelled them from the Garden of Eden.
For either of these stories I wouldn’t rely on a literal interpretation of events; these are parables to explain the human condition. The characters are legendary, which means there is some historicity to their exist, but its hard to say.
Was Gilgamesh an ancient tyrant? Perhaps. His name is mentioned in the Sumerian King List and supposedly ruled for 126 years. He even had a son named Nungal (or Ur-Lugal), who only ruled for 30.
What about Enkidu–did he really exist? Or is his story some kind of fragment of history where two different cultures were coming into contact? What we do know is that around the time Gilgamesh was composed we have the record of the world’s first known Emperor: Sargon of Akkad, who conquered the Sumerians.
With some cursory research you’ll discover that Sargon is a Semitic name, and his mother put him in basket and sent him down rivers. (The parallels between the Book of Genesis and these early Sumerian myths and legends are astonishing. Some real syncretism, formed over thousands of years, was at work as these Mesopotamian cultures fought, mixed, and blended with each other.)
I first read about this syncretism in the Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael–the book with the telepathic gorilla, published in 1992. It, itself, is a parable about the human condition and man’s fall from Paradise. Instead being a part of nature, humans somehow started viewing themselves as above it, as the book argues. Furthermore, the story of Cain and Abel is really about civilized peoples making war upon the herdsmen.
I read Ishmael before I’d even read the whole of the Book of Genesis, before I’d taken any kind of class in theology or philosophy, before I knew about the inconsistencies in the text itself, before I was aware other texts like the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Book of Jasher (where you actually read the conversation Cain had with Abel before Abel’s murder).
In my mind, I can see the Rote Faden, the Red Line running through all these stories: historical, mythical, legendary, and otherwise. All the way down to the present.
The murder of George Floyd (and so many countless others), and watching police forces and National Guard take up battle formations on the streets of America, goes back to the origins of civilization. The Military History of Religion is tied to the origins of civilization, because civilizations can field armies above the military horizon and occupy land, space, and oppress the peoples they rule.
Questions of inquiry:
Did Sargon of Akkad use religion as justification for his military conquests? How much evidence exists to answer this question?
Why does religious violence and military conquests often (but far from always) go hand-in-hand?