for Wendy’s Subway
Late in the summer of 2015, it was widely reported that ISIS had demolished the remains of the Temple of Bel in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. It was a place at which innumerable histories had been overlaid on one another, where ancient worship had been conducted according to Aramean, Arab, and Greek traditions. The temple itself had been dedicated in 32 CE, and repurposed a few centuries later as a church, then, a few centuries after that, as a mosque.
Among the many artifacts found in the temple was a relief that had once adorned the porch surrounding its inner courtyard, depicting two gods – one in a chariot and one on a horse – battling a serpentine monster. The French archaeologist Robert du Mesnil du Buisson identified the scene as a representation of the legendary fight between the god Bel and the primordial sea beast Tiamat depicted in the Babylonian creation myth. But if Bel was the god in the chariot, and Tiamat the monster, who was the god on the horse?
In the late nineties, the ancient historian Lucinda Dirven proposed an answer, based on a close analysis of Palmyrene religious and political history. The equestrian god might be Nabu, the Babylonian patron of wisdom and writing, present in some form nearly from the birth of writing itself, in a place where, as the variety of shapes taken by worship there would seem to attest, the nature of wisdom has long been given conflicting expression, ranging from the intimate to the monumental.
On the night of December 23, 1853, a team of men stood in a place called Koyunjik, a tell (that is, a mound formed by ancient ruins) across the Tigris from Mosul – then a drowsy town in a quiet corner of the Ottoman empire – and dug manically through the sand under a bright moon. They had to work in secret because, in a microcosm of the rules by which European powers had been busily dividing the world among themselves, French and English antiquities agents had carved up the area outside Mosul, and although Koyunjik had been apportioned to France, the diggers were working for Hormuzd Rassam, operating under the commission of the British. To make things even more complicated, Rassam also felt the need to evade detection by the Ottoman authorities, who he believed would assume he was digging illegally for precious metals, or a mysterious substance with magical properties called “elkimia.”
Rassam had fair cause to feel entitled. A native of Mosul, he was the only Middle Easterner to achieve even grudging acceptance into the circles of nineteenth-century European archaeology. Initially hired by Austen Henry Layard to serve as paymaster at his excavation sites, Rassam had immediately distinguished himself, befriending the Englishman quickly and for life. Over time he would advance to become leader of his own expeditions. (That Rassam was a Christian surely impeded none of of this.) Layard’s digging at the southern end of Koyunjik had already uncovered the palace of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king whose siege of Jerusalem is commemorated in the second Biblical book of Kings. But much of Koyunjik still remained unexplored. And Rassam had a feeling about it.
Sure enough, in their third straight night of digging, Rassam’s team made a magnificent discovery: the palace of Ashurbanipal, Sennacherib’s grandson and king of Assyria from 668-627 BCE. Later, Rassam would express astonishment at how close previous excavations had come to the structure – within inches, at one point even passing, with the grace of pure, historical accident, squarely between two of its gigantic statues, narrowly missing both.
The palace was a cascade of splendors, with giant reliefs of Ashurbanipal hunting lions and of his scribes at work, renderings of Mesopotamia itself, huge sculptures of lamassus, the Assyrian protective spirits portrayed as winged bulls with human heads. The treasure seemed endless. But of one remarkable area of the palace, Rassam in retrospect had strikingly little to say:
In the center of [a] saloon I discovered the library of Assur-bani-pal, consisting of inscribed terra-cotta tablets of all shapes and sizes; the largest of these, which happened to be in better order, were mostly stamped with seals, and some inscribed with hieroglyphic and Phoenician characters. Amongst these records were found the Chaldean accounts of the Creation and Deluge, which were deciphered by different Assyrian scholars.
Rassam’s characterization of his discovery is almost pathologically modest. By “Chaldean accounts of the Creation and Deluge,” he meant the poems we now call the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh, found among the more than 20,000 cuneiform tablets of Ashurbanipal’s library. These texts – most outstandingly the now-notorious “flood tablet” of Gilgamesh – seemed to tell stories that were cognates of familiar passages from the Bible, divergent crystallizations drawn from a shared body of earlier myth in ways that, as the New York Times then noted, might amount to either a “corroboration” of Biblical history or a “confirmation that there are various traditions… apart from the Biblical one, which is perhaps legendary like the rest.”
The thousands of inscribed tablets that constituted Ashurbanipal’s library occupied every literary form familiar to the Assyrian world, in Sumerian, Akkadian, and other languages, long forgotten but recently deciphered and increasingly legible to scholars. A handful of felicities had enabled them to proliferate and survive the sweltering centuries that would engulf them. For one, cuneiform writing was made of marks pressed into clay, cheap and enduring. And in 612 BCE the palace had suffered a conflagration when an army from Babylon trounced the Assyrian capital, decisively ending the dynasty that had thinly endured in the hands of a few different kings since Ashurbanipal’s death fifteen or so years earlier. The flames had reduced Ashurbanipal’s dynasty to ash – but had, in effect, kilned his collection of clay tablets, rendering them even more durable.
In having texts copied for his library, Ashurbanipal mandated certain inclusions that still ring familiar – if a little severe – today:
I have transcribed upon tablets the noble products of the work of the scribe which none of the kings who have gone before me had learned, together with the wisdom of Nabu insofar as it exists. I have arranged them in classes, I have revised them and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knows the light of Ashur, king of the gods, may read them. Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with my own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.
These commands have not been followed. Almost immediately after its discovery, the entire palace was plundered for European collections. In their haste, antiquities dealers accidentally destroyed more than a few artifacts (a number of massive sculptures, for instance, sank to the bottom of the Tigris on their way to the Louvre and were forgotten), and scrambled, un-retraceably, the contents of Ashurbanipal’s library. While we can read many of the texts the king sought to preserve, we know less than we might about the system by which they were “arranged in classes.”
I assume that this – the creation of an order for the preservation and arrangement of written documents – was somebody’s life’s work, the project of a group of people whose sociality had been consecrated to an idea about structuring knowledge and memory. It was their novel task to authoritatively codify a vast literature. From our contemporary predicaments of creating and ordering knowledge, it may be helpful to think of them as the first librarians.
So Ashurbanipal’s library had two fates. On the one hand, as a repository of texts, it achieved a success exceeding any horizons its creators might have dreamed. The wealth of writings it has preserved into the present includes several that have played an important role in our understanding of the most fundamental ideas and stories our world is made of. On the other hand, if we consider the library as a system for arranging language, a practice of knowledge that is physically manifested in architecture but that exists primarily as an intellectual and social construct, it has proved far less enduring. We know so little of what our first librarians knew about knowing.
Addressing exactly this relationship – the tension between the library as a collection of individual texts and the library as a system by which that collection is maintained – Walter Benjamin wrote that “if there is a counterpart to the confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue.” Writing is insistently physical, which is one of the main sources of its value, but in any attempt to store large amounts of writing in an intellectually coherent way, that value spills over into a crisis of spatial and taxonomic adjacencies. What kinds of texts get grouped together? What larger accumulations can be made of such groupings, and in what order? What is the grain of a particular collection’s coherence? At a higher level of abstraction, these questions offer a lens through which we can see the library as a physical tool for working out anatomies of knowledge, imagination, and memory, which in turn are constituted primarily by the library’s contents.
To find a name for this immanent system ordering a particular library of texts, I’d like to look to Antigone. Antigone’s burial of her dead brother Polyneices obeys the law of the gods but breaks the law of the king, producing a rupture in the continuity of cosmos and polis. Describing the horrific punishment she’ll face for her crime, a chorus tells her, “Your autognosis has been your downfall.” Autognosis has been variously translated as “self-willed passion,” “self-willed rebel[lion],” “self-sufficiency,” and “stubborn mood, self-chosen.” The plain meaning of the familiar Greek would be “self-wisdom,” in the same way that autonomia is “self-law,” and what the word means to indicate, in any case, is that Antigone possesses, in the face of conflicting systems of intellectual value, a doggedly interior sense of priority, an intrinsic certitude about which imperative should be subordinated to which.
This is not quite the same thing, of course, as a paradigm for arranging different kinds of writing, but the word resonates in many suggestive ways. I would like to consider the autognosis of a library to be, like Antigone’s, a deeply embedded sense of how a particular order undergirds and structures the objects that constitute it, and to suggest that, like Antigone’s, a library’s autognosis is always a way of mediating between the cosmic-transcendental and the political.
Perched quietly near the end of what is today the Hebrew Bible are two books: Ezra and Nehemiah. Taken together (and indeed they used to be a single document), they tell a story about a collection of texts – extremely various ones – that were gathered, edited, and ordered by a process lasting centuries and moving the hands of an unknowable number of scribes. History has been so kind to the sensibility by which this collection was organized, what I have been calling its autognosis, that its order has hardly changed in the 2,500 years it has spent at the center of its primary readers’ unusually long-lived world.
The story begins far earlier. In the tenth century BCE, much of the land that hugged the eastern hip of the Mediterranean, running as far inland as the Dead Sea and Galilee, was occupied by a group of tribes with a few important things in common. They shared a language, told stories about an overlapping cast of ancestors, and worshipped a few of the same deities, particularly the Canaanite father-god El and the Midianite soldier-god Yahweh, who were slowly merging, being seen first as father and son, and now increasingly as the same entity. Not much is certain about the emergence and earliest history of these people, but by the turn of the ninth century the land had been divided into two kingdoms: in the north, Israel, with its best-known capital at Samaria, and in the south, Judah, ruled from Jerusalem. They hated each other like siblings.
Each kingdom had a priestly tradition and a scribal school, and each produced its own literature, in prose and poetry, allegorically and directly addressing mythology, history, law, ritual, politics. The traditions differed dramatically, along fault lines scholars are still trying to draw. Richard Elliott Friedman, for example, envisions a northern, Israelite priesthood that traced its lineage to a mythic ancestor named Moses, counterposed against scribes in a southern, Judahite tradition who regarded themselves as the descendants of a priest called Aaron. Friedman has conjectured a long list of Israelite stories in which Aaron is repeatedly subordinated to Moses, humbled after failed rebellions against Moses’s authority, or simply told to wait while Moses alone speaks directly with Yahweh. Conversely, he also cites a Southern, Judahite literature in which Moses is a murderer, and only Aaron’s descendants can aspire to any priestly prerogatives. Here, Yahweh lives only “where he sets His name to dwell,” in his temple in Jerusalem.
In Friedman’s view, northern writers went so far as to blame Aaron for the most catastrophic religious reform of their day. Because the temple to Yahweh was in the southern capital of Jerusalem, pilgrims from the northern kingdom of Israel were constantly pouring south over the border, taking northern-raised livestock to the seat of Judahite wealth to be sacrificed. The northern king’s solution was to build two shrines to Yahweh within his own borders. At both, the god’s place was marked with a golden bull calf, emphasizing Yahweh’s contiguity with the Canaanite god El, who was often called “Bull El” and venerated in similar form. But the king didn’t appoint the old-guard Yahwist priesthood to run these shrines; in a fairly classic move, he appointed political cronies instead. The snubbed northern priests sublimated their rage by writing an allegorical version of the story, setting it, in a literary convention that was becoming common, during their ancestors’ legendary escape from the neighboring superpower of Egypt:
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of Yahweh!” Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance.
Friedman’s reading suggests a view of this as an allegory of liturgical betrayal, carrying an implied accusation that the new bull shrines of Israel were downright Judahite in the scale of their impiety, or possibly even that Judahite priests were actually responsible. He notes that the curiosity of the calf being referred to in the plural (“these are your gods”) makes little narrative sense, but could echo the fact that the northern kingdom housed two separate bull shrines. At any rate, Yahweh immediately becomes incensed, and Moses, the northern hero, quickly restores the original rites of worship, exalting himself over Aaron. He also burns the bull idol, dissolves its ash into water, and makes the assembled Israelites drink it, before ordering his army to massacre three thousand of them, to “slay brother, neighbor, and kin” in retribution for the apostasy.
The Assyriologist and Biblical scholar Daniel E. Fleming describes a crucial political difference between the kingdoms as a good point from which to begin tracing out their respective narrative traditions. In the north, Israel was an agglomeration of tribes, characterized by a balance of mutual independence, mutual cooperation, and mutual conflict. Leaders arose periodically as needed, their power dissipating along with whatever circumstances had created it – until, at some point in history, it stopped dissipating, hardened into kingship, and remained. David was such a king, a legendary shepherd-turned-warlord who, from his base in Hebron, had conquered Jerusalem in Yahweh’s name. David’s grandson, Rehoboam, proved an unpopular king, and the surging tides of Israelite politics quickly tore him from his throne. In a rage of fugitive dominance, Rehoboam eloped south to Jerusalem, the city of dusks his grandfather had conquered, and declared it Israel’s new capital-in-exile, inaugurating the southern kingdom. (Fleming’s comparison is to Chiang Kai-Shek founding the Republic of China in Taiwan.) In time, as the kingdoms developed discretely, Rehoboam’s came to be called by the name of the tribe he had emerged from: Judah.
Whatever the exact history, Judah never faltered in its identification of Jerusalem, the city-state at its core, as its primary animating force, the mind that had dreamed it. Jerusalem was home to the temple of Yahweh, and, next door, the House of David. Descent from David remained the sine qua non of kingship over Judah – in Fleming’s words, a “royal ideology” that was “somehow intrinsic to the very existence of the realm.” Indeed, more often than “Judah,” foreign powers called the territory, simply, “the house of David.”
So to rule the northern kingdom of Israel meant navigating the sometimes choppy political surf of a broad tribal confederation; to rule the southern kingdom of Judah meant proving one’s credentials according to a remarkably stable royal standard.
From Fleming’s point of view, then, a characteristic northern story is one that survives about two sisters, Leah and Rachel, both married to the same man, Jacob, a patriarch whose name will later be changed to “Israel,” the same as that of the people that will descend from him. Leah and Rachel engage in an elaborate, years-long contest to bear Jacob the most children. They pray to Yahweh for fertility, order their servants to sleep with their husband (counting the resulting offspring as their own), and give each of their many sons a name that puns on the circumstances of his conception. The sons’ names are also those of the tribes that were confederated in Israel, so that the narrative allegorically commemorates the political realities of the culture that produced it. If this began as an oral tradition, as the punning seems to suggest, it must have been wonderful, a technique for extending political thinking into the northern kingdom’s resonant air. Eventually someone wrote it down, affording it the privileges and comforts, and subjecting it to the risks and distortions, native to writing. We will have more to say of these later.
The rivalry between Israel and Judah burned for a couple hundred years, until in 722 BCE King Sargon II of Assyria – Ashurbanipal’s great grandfather, incidentally – brought years of incursion into the northern kingdom to culmination in its total conquest. The mostly pastoral population, who worshiped Yahweh as a golden bull, were deported en masse to the Zagros mountains in what is now Iran, and vanished into history, remembered today as the “Lost Tribes of Israel.” But at least some of them escaped and fled south into Jerusalem, taking with them both their own oral traditions and caches of scrolls from their collections, which included anti-southern screeds, historic and genealogical documents, and stories set in a version of the local mythology where Yahweh was especially compatible with El, the closely-related god of the nearby Canaanites.
Northern refugees now thronged the dusty streets of the southern capital they had detested, including northern scribes. A vassal state of Assyria, Judah was comparatively stable, and could conduct its internal business more or less unmolested so long as its tribute was paid on time and in full. It was the last Israel standing, awash in a windfall of legitimacy, and its professional scholars now had access to nearly all of the texts that the various Hebrew scribal traditions had produced.
Judah was wedged between two ancient superpowers, Mesopotamia, where Assyria was now the dominant hegemon, and Egypt. Each had its own written language, its own expansive written literature, and its own set of scribal norms and institutions. Hebrew scribal traditions existed in a kind of Venn overlap with those of Egypt and Assyria, sharing different ideas with each. As Judahite scholars reviewed the texts now available to them, there were a great many reasons why they might decide to keep a particular one in their library. Maybe it preserved a ritual law they perceived as important, or seemed to bolster Judahite legitimacy. Maybe it could be easily memorized as a school text by the boys who would become Jerusalem’s next generation of scribes. Shorter fragments might be consolidated, compiled into longer scrolls that contained many such passages, grouped according to some sense of textual kinship in a way that to contemporary sensibilities is almost suggestive of collage. New conventions grew up around these practices – systems for tracking splices and insertions, for example – creating a body of literature whose “index” was the distinctive set of attitudes and conventions embodied by Judah’s professional writers. In this way, in one (or many) of Jerusalem’s stone yellowing towers, a canon began to grow, a sensibility about textual coexistence that had little in common with today’s definitions of “book” or “narrative,” and everything to do with the particular practices of Judahite scribes in dynamic connection with the texts that history had made available to them, the material conditions of their work, and the social reality in which they produced it. It was a tradition that would endure for hundreds of years.
In the meantime, the armies of Mesopotamia would soon roar over the hills of Judah once again. In 701 BCE, Sargon’s son and successor, Sennacherib, besieged Jerusalem (“[Hezekiah] I made a prisoner of his royal residence, Jerusalem, shutting him like a bird in a cage,” he wrote). Ancient sources disagree about the resolution of the conflict, but what is clear is that it inaugurated a century of comparative Judahite stability under the political dominance and intellectual influence of Assyria. Ashurbanipal was one of the Assyrian kings who worked the levers of this dominance. Not long after his death around 627, however, an Assyrian collaborator in the nearby city of Babylon crowned himself King Nabopolassar, rose up, and conquered Assyria, claiming its former imperial holdings, including Judah, as his own. In 598, his son, Nebuchadnezzar II, put down a rebellion in Jerusalem. In 587, Judah rebelled again, and Nebuchadnezzar brutalized the capital. He massacred the royal family, leveled the temple to Yahweh, and expropriated the entire intellectual class of the city to his empire, where they lived for several generations in exile.
The years in Babylon were an active time for Judahite writers. They wrote and revised national histories, sang of grief, envisioned revenge, pondered how the war god Yahweh could have let a foreign army raze his temple. Judging by the documents of the recently-published “Al-Yahudu tablets,” named for one of the centers of Judahite life in exile, they also integrated themselves into the daily life of Babylon, conducting and recording business not in Hebrew written on scrolls, as they would have in Jerusalem, but rather according to the more ancient norms of Babylon – in Akkadian, written in cuneiform on clay tablets. Some grew rich. It was a time of prolific uncertainties, laden with hatred and guilt, but also a moment of mass endurance and cosmopolitan exposure. People from Jerusalem might have encountered new foods, new kinds of music, new forms of writing. It is interesting to wonder how the Judahite community might have developed over time, how its civilization might have been recombined over a long immersion in Mesopotamia’s dynamic milieu. But we can only wonder, because the exile itself did not last long.
Fifty-eight years after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, a Persian king named Cyrus conquered Babylon. Not especially concerned with enforcing his enemy’s punishment against the intelligentsia of a trampled backwater, Cyrus waved his mighty hand and lifted the sandstone curtain that had descended across the desert. Judahites began a gradual process of repatriation.
It is in this period that the core of this hybrid library of Judahite texts, the collection of its first five scrolls, was finalized. The last editor, or at least first promulgator, appears to have been Ezra, a Judahite scribe who had been born in Babylon and managed to ingratiate himself with Artaxerxes, one of Cyrus’s successors to the throne of Persia. The Bible reproduces Ezra’s government credentials in full. In Aramaic, the language of international diplomacy, they empower him to travel to his ancestral city, a place he probably knew only through the writings of the Israelite and Judahite scribal schools, and “enquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem, according to the law of your god which is in your hand.”
It must have been an hour of frenzy in Jerusalem. With the temple laid waste, common people would have spent fifty-eight years without any ritual or intellectual infrastructure. Meanwhile, the foreign-born descendants of a displaced cultural elite had migrated and begun a struggle to re-entrench themselves and spark an upwelling of nationalism (Ezra’s first concern after hitting town, for instance, was to nullify the many intermarriages that had taken place).
What was in Ezra’s hand when he got to Jerusalem was the “Instruction of Moses,” the word translated as “instruction” here being, in Hebrew, torah. It was a compilation of the wildly divergent texts that formed the core of the Hebrew scribal tradition. They were from all around – Israel, Judah, and all the forgotten lands from which the headwaters of innumerable oral streams had once flowed – and they agreed about little.
We still call that same core of texts the Torah – and call its contents the “books” of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But the scholar Karel Van der Toorn has written about how the word “book” distorts our expectations of these texts, which, he writes, were not intended to considered as single, unified narratives. “They rather compare,” he writes, “to archives,” where each “book” is “like a box containing heterogeneous materials brought together on the assumption of common authorship, subject matter, or chronology.” They were assembled not in a sprit of authorship as we understand it today, but rather by what I have been calling an autognosis, a guiding sense of how disparate texts should be brought together.
As the oral culture in which it was originally embedded has ossified into print (and the pixels that may be print’s embers), this archive has indeed become a book – paradoxically, in fact, the book par excellence – in ways that have simultaneously preserved and distorted it. We can picture its autognosis as a being – say, a goddess – and she seems, if we believe in her, to have been one with a remarkably subtle ear, tweaking the assembled texts minutely until, for all the commissures and contradictions, they flowed sensibly together, postulating a single people who held a special relationship with singularity, were descended from ancestors and devoted to a god marked by an inconsistency that suggested verisimilar psychological richness, lived in the most important city in the world, and could trace their own story from the beginning of time.
Nehemiah – a Judahite who had worked in Artaxerxes’s court before traveling to Judah for a twelve-year stint as imperial governor – wrote an account of a public recitation Ezra gave of his body of texts, standing beside Jerusalem’s water gate. Ezra had grown up in Babylon; he probably spoke Hebrew with an accent. In drawling the books he had assembled to the people of the city, he became the intermediary between a polis struggling to conceive of itself and a divinity whose traditions would seem to have been drawn from and ramified into too many separate streams to cohere. He offered a subtle intellectual harmonics minutely attuned to the discords of Jerusalem. He performed not a new text exactly, but an enveloping sense of textual order, an autognosis by which Jerusalem was able to read itself and discover, for the first time, coherence.
We have a tendency, often, to think of the gods in polytheistic belief systems as powerful entities who lived outside the human, experiential world and used exceptional abilities to influence it. But in fact the gods were the phenomena with which they were associated. The Roman Mars was not just a humanoid sitting on a mountain and lusting distractedly after violence. He was the part of human experience that overlaps with war, externalized as an entity that existed beyond – but was also concentrated within – an individual person’s experience. The idea of a “false god,” then, didn’t exist in the ancient world. To a Roman pagan, the assertion that Amun-Ra wasn’t real would have made as little sense as the claim that the sun didn’t shine on Egypt. Specific configurations of pagan belief, as writers like Jan Assmann and Robert Parker have pointed out, functioned largely as techniques of intercultural translation, enabling local populations to make sense of one another through the divergent forms of devotion by which they addressed the same natural phenomena.
This understanding enables us to frame questions about the ancient world in ways that at first seem ungainly, but that may in fact cast much light. Who, in a given time and place, was the sun, or love? More relevant to our current discussion, who was writing, knowledge, wisdom?
In ancient Assyria, wisdom was Nabu, a god often represented in the attire of human priests. Considering the Assyrians’ reliance on technological wherewithal to maintain the boom in agriculture that had enabled their civilization to develop, it makes sense that he was also a god of vegetation and water. The scholar Barbara Parker noted that texts from ancient Borsippa – Babylon’s smaller sister city – used the phraseology that a person “had accepted (something) belonging to Nabu” to mean that they had taken it on loan. This makes sense, too, considering that the technology of writing had recently laid the groundwork for Mesopotamia’s notorious blooming into a haven of intricate finance, that Bosippa was Nabu’s city and the location of his temple, and that that temple, among the vanishingly few “public” institutions only partly distinct from each other (the palace, the military), was among the best equipped to make loans.
The name Nabu appears to have the same derivation as the Hebrew word for prophet, navi’, which means “called.” For much of antiquity, the ruins of the Ezida, Nabu’s temple in his city of Borsippa, were believed to be the Tower of Babel. In fact, after the Persian conquest of Babylon, King Xerxes had suppressed a Babylonian rebellion by destroying the Ezida – exactly the same fate the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem had suffered at Babylonian hands a century earlier. Xerxes’s son and successor was Artaxerxes – the Persian king who would empower Ezra to return to Jerusalem with an anthology of divine instructions for his people. The historical symmetry is fearful.
When it documents financial transactions, writing’s purpose is clear: it is an adjunct to memory, a tool for keeping track of concrete, quantitative relationships. But literary writing’s raisons d’être are less self-evident in an overwhelmingly illiterate society. Indeed, the usual Akkadian metonym for “intellect” is uznum, literally “ear.” Silent reading does not appear to have been invented yet – writing was a technology that instructed speech. And yet the supplemental technology that was turning speech into civilization was, paradoxically, the form of language furthest from speech – a profusion of marks pressed silently into clay. The contradiction had a name in the milieu of Babylonian and Assyrian scribes: Nabu. And just as ancient Hebrew scribes did little conscientiously to document their reasons for connecting particular texts in particular ways, Ashurbanipal’s librarians have not spoken to us directly of how they conceived their project of intellectual accumulation. That conception, rather, must have been embodied in the libraries they constructed.
The wisdom that these libraries instantiated was not just a soundness of intuition and intellect. As Nabu’s association with scribes suggests, his wisdom included advanced scholarship and expertise in the techniques that constituted it – reading and writing to be sure, as well as astronomy, medicine, exorcism, and more. The unique hotbeds of literacy that were ancient Mesopotamia’s scribal academies are well-described, places where various groupings of students rehearsed copying, reciting, and memorizing texts under the supervision of experts. The people who worked in Ashurbanipal’s library, who arranged its tablets in classes, were graduates of such schools, and would have known Nabu well. He was their system of knowledge, their intellectual order, understood as a unified, willful intelligence. He was what it meant to spend one’s days arranging tablets into classes, exerting consciousness over that blank expanse of time that was just beginning to coagulate into history, the vast stretches of space slowly accreting into polities.
If this all sounds exotic from a contemporary perspective, that may serve as a good reminder to be careful about the language we use to describe life in the ancient past. Words like god and book, and certainly librarian, come with a heavy freight of anachronistic associations. People were in constant contact with their gods, because the gods were elements of experience. Their “books” were scrolls or clay tablets, and almost nobody could read them. Among the very few who could, the people I am calling “librarians” were servants in the household of a despot who liked to have himself depicted, in stone relief, doing things like bow-hunting lions, or treating his wives to picnics under trees festooned with the heads of his enemies.
Victor Avigdor Hurowitz translates the recorded response of one of these scribes when Ashurbanipal doubted his own eloquence. Referring to a cross that had recently been erected to symbolize Nabu, the scholar is said to have declared:
On account of that cross, you will speak a word that is as perfect as that of a sage; a word that has been spoken just as it is meant by its nature… by its dignity, that suits the context. Is such a word open to dispute? Does it not inspire awe? Is this not the very acme of the scribal craft of which I am arguing in this way?
The fate of another scribe of the period, Urad-Gula, whom the Assyriologist Simo Parpola has nicknamed “the forlorn scholar,” shows the precarity of intellectuals’ lives in Ashurbanipal’s circle. In a letter to the king, Urad-Gula describes himself as having been raised from the impoverished life of “a dead dog, a vile and restricted person” to the heights of scholarly achievement, serving as a physician and exorcist under Sennacherib and his son and successor Esarhaddon. But when Esarhaddon’s son Ashurbanipal accedes to the throne in 668 BCE, Urad-Gula is stripped of his position, and he writes the king a blistering letter of protest. In language rich with literary allusions, the scribe enumerates his own good deeds, puzzles over the question of why he has been defrocked, and asks to be reinstated. In one particularly intense passage, he mentions a letter the king has written him, claiming not to have known Urad-Gula was sick, and to have sent for him. Urad-Gula replies that Ashurbanipal’s claims are “as recondite as a mountain,” and puts the king on warning by saying he has “placed the letter in safety at the throne of Nabu [in his temple] and guarded it like my only son.” The threat seems clear: as the great library’s royal patron, Ashurbanipal claims a special closeness to the patron of wisdom; as an accomplished scholar in the daily acquaintance of Nabu, Urad-Gula has his own recourse to the deity.
These are a very few examples, culled from an intellectual lineage that spanned several millennia. I like to imagine these people, a hyper-educated elite in a hyper-militaristic culture, slipping off into the brush with their favorite clay tablets, stealing a minute to reconnect with the mysteries that were their charge. Whether or not they took it, the prerogative to hear written texts in solitude was theirs alone. Life made as much sense then as now, but fewer people knew first-hand the miraculous way that written literature distends time and transcends place. They had, of course, songs and poems by which they contemplated their connection to the infinite. But the special qualities of writing – how durable it is, how far it can travel, how stable it can remain, its distinctive (and then infant) modes of intimacy – all were deeply privileged experiences. Reading could only have seemed an experience of the divine that ventriloquized the reader’s voice – in an oral society, identical with “intellect” – and brought a transcendent form of language into the social realm. And the autognosis of the collection these scribes maintained would have been an attempt to give that experience a place to live outside the body of the scribe, to externalize its transcendent immanences into the physical world.
The Book of Jeremiah records an argument that prophet has, on behalf of Yahweh, with his community of Judahite exiles living in Egypt. Jeremiah excoriates the people for worshiping gods other than Yahweh, and the people respond that they will not abandon their devotion to the “Queen of Heaven,” who had been revered by “our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem,” in a happier time before the Babylonian conquest, when “we had plenty of food, and were well, and saw no evil.”
The theologian Margaret Barker has an intriguing idea of who this “Queen of Heaven” may have been. It begins with a story we have already brushed past. Around the time of Ashurbanipal’s death, the throne of Judah was occupied by a king named Josiah, who had ruled since the age of eight. Now in his thirties, and seeing the looming military threat from Babylon all too clearly, Josiah collaborated with Jerusalem’s priests to consolidate sacral and political power in the city. He outlawed the traditional rural shrines where various gods had long been venerated, insisting that Yahweh was the only god to be worshiped, and only at his temple in Jerusalem (where palace and priests could take a cut of everything). The reforms were promulgated through a scroll, said to have been found in the temple of Yahweh, which recorded how the deity had dictated the new strictures of worship to his nation in the midst of their escape from Egypt. The scroll would later be sutured into the developing corpus of Yahwist holy texts, where it would eventually become the Biblical book of Deuteronomy, whose intense focus on the centrality of Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty (a chain in which Josiah would prove one of the last links) would have profound effects on later world history.
Barker suggested that the main cult Josiah’s reform sought to suppress was devoted to a female deity, a “Lost Lady of Jerusalem,” whom she identified as a goddess of wisdom, childbirth, and the sun. She was the local version of Asherah, the Semitic mother-goddess worshipped in some form by most of Judah’s neighbors, and her role in the El-Yahweh mythos was suitably tangled – she seems to have been both the consort of El and the virgin mother of Yahweh. Bread was offered to her, and her symbol was the Tree of Life. Over time, she took on a series of names, including “El Shadai,” an epithet that has long thwarted translators but that may mean “The God with Breasts,” and that seems to refer to a divine being who brings fertility. She is also called “The Living One,” “The Presence,” and “Khokhmah,” meaning, simply, “Wisdom.”
If it seems improbable that a crucial part of Judahite worship should vanish totally from the rich textual record, Barker writes, that is because it did not. Enough of the traditional veneration of Khokhmah survived to become enshrined in various aspects of Jewish and Christian observance. Barker contends that Khokhmah’s was the presence infused within and imparted by the “bread of the presence” (in the King James Version, “shewbread”), an offering that some of the Bible’s oldest laws task the priesthood with maintaining in Yahweh’s temple, and that the menorah, a branched candelabra also associated the temple, portrayed the conjunction of two of Khokhmah’s symbols, the Tree of Life and the radiant fire of the sun.
The validity of Barker’s theory is open to dispute – to be sure, it feels forced in some regards. It is, however, no conjecture to say that the Hebrew Bible repeatedly depicts Wisdom as a woman, often consistently with the view of her as, in Barker’s words, “a Goddess speaking to the people who have rejected her.” The Book of Proverbs, for instance, depicts her as having been present with Yahweh at the time of creation. It also shows her as a desolated wanderer in the streets of Jerusalem who shouts blistering remonstrations to her people as she walks:
How long, you whose lives have no purpose, will you love thoughtless living? How long will scorners find pleasure in mocking? How long will fools hate knowledge? Repent when I reprove, and I will pour out my spirit to you, make my words known to you. But because you refused when I called, and no one paid attention when I put out my hand, but instead neglected my counsel and would not accept my reproof, I, in turn, will laugh at your distress, and mock when terror comes over you. Yes, when terror overtakes you like a storm and your disaster approaches like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble assail you. Then they will call me, but I won’t answer; they will seek me earnestly, but they won’t find me.
It’s a monologue of visceral, raw power that depicts Wisdom as a divinity who returns scorn and disregard in kind. If Barker’s theory is correct and Khokhmah is the “Queen of Heaven” Jeremiah’s interlocutors referred to, it may have been written in the time leading up to the Babylonian invasion, when Khokhmah’s devotees were polemicizing against the recent reforms, or later on, when disgruntled old believers blamed Jerusalem’s destruction on King Josiah’s abandonment of her. The continuing presence of this faction within Judahite politics may have played a role in the scribes’ decision to preserve their dissent from Josiah’s reforms.
The Babylonian Nabu was a holder of debts who could vindicate a scholar even over a king. Khokhmah, by contrast, was a provider of comforts, a bestower of philosophy’s consolations, saving those who appealed to her from purposelessness and “thoughtless living.” She was also, evidently, a holder of grudges, deaf to the pleas of those who had ceased to revere her. While she may not have been a matron of scribes in a way quite complementary to Nabu, she is, as the protagonist of a narrative thread that may partly have survived the ravages of hostile scholarship, a figure of great power, exhorting her people to reject thoughtlessness and ignorance, screaming the shame of her abandonment in the streets of her city. If Barker’s conjecture is to be believed, she was present in the nourishment of grain, the illumination of fire, the promise of new generations – and she seems to have made at least some of Jerusalem’s powerful men very uncomfortable.
The Judahite model that preserved texts by editing them together seems both surly and generous – it aggressively denuded stories of their contexts, but in a way that also preserved them for millennia. In this regard, the similarity to Mesopotamian scribal practice should be apparent. And Khokhmah, as the figure through whom Judahite scholars understood the wisdom that moved their pens, embodies a comparable kind of ambivalence, able to calm the terrors that storm through us, but willing at the same time to laugh at our distress if we have not given her her due. To the scribes who wrote her both into and out of history, she must have been at once nurturing and aloof, companionable and explosive.
This writing is an attempt to recapture a sense of the library’s sacredness as an institution that embodies structures of knowledge and memory, a place where the promise of emergent textual community instigates entire sciences of collecting and ordering language.
Elaine Scarry has described the experience of beauty as an “opiated adjacency,” a source of extreme pleasure by which we are, at the same time, sidelined. I would like to consider the library as a locus of agonized adjacency. In the library, too, we find ourselves sidelined by the primacy of written over spontaneous language, an obvious inversion of the usual order. But rather than pleasure, our adjacency is characterized by the opening up of new axes that torque the relations among texts, offering up new mechanics of connection between the daily political and the cosmic-transcendental. While a tectonics of competing knowledges works itself out before us, we experience a cacophony of possibilities for relating to them.
Some adjacencies, of course, are more adjacent than others, and the history of libraries generating new, heretical, or liberatory senses of intellectual order is vast. A full accounting might include any number of collections – the public writing of the Fatimid Caliphate, for example, or the output of the Toledo School of Translators, to name a few. Less remotely, we should not neglect to include in this inventory of wisdom’s schematics collections like the 18,000-volume library at Guantanamo Bay, or the woefully understocked libraries of the prisons in which nearly one percent of Americans live. These places attempt to make their libraries, like all other aspects of their inmates’ lives, instruments of subjugation. Maybe the closest thing in recent memory to a Wisdom who screams in the streets was the People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street, organized by Betsy Fagin, which survived repeated attacks by the police to become exactly such an engine of agonized adjacencies as I have described. The Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology that grew out of the library, facilitated by Stephen Boyer, was another moment of renegade coherence and funky knowledge.
Computer networks represent another, contemporary realm of wisdom, and grow in part out of the minds and punchcards of library thinkers. These networks have familiarized all of us with the strange feeling of not being sure where our minds end and the vast, digital pool begins. Even as we feel the hyper-present force of the system that organizes our digital experiences, many of us know little about it. To what degree might an ancient religion of systematized knowledge and accessible memory be lingering here? What does this thought mean for who we will become in various possible futures?
Consider the case of Robert T. Morris. On November 2, 1988, Morris, a twenty-two-year-old computer programmer, unleashed what would become known as “the INTERNET worm,” a self-propagating filament of computer code that was intended to duplicate itself harmlessly across the fledgling network for which it was named, to demonstrate some network security liabilities Morris was concerned about. But he had made a small miscalculation, and the worm never stopped duplicating itself, overloading hard drives until they became unusable and crashed. His creation ended up breaking thousands of computers around the world.
In 1991, a federal court convicted Morris under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, and he appealed to the Second Circuit. The statute under which he had been charged criminalized anyone who “intentionally accesse[d] a Federal interest computer without authorization, and by means of one or more instances of such conduct alter[ed], damage[d], or destroy[ed] information in any such Federal interest computer.” Morris argued that the access had been intentional, but the damage hadn’t, and so he hadn’t violated the statute. At the heart of this argument is an attempt to tease out the will that set the disabling of the computers in motion. Had it been Morris’s? The virus’s? Or had it risen like a ghost from the overall abstract organization of the network, with its flawed-but-determined designers, mechanical canons of interpretation, and distracted human interlocutors?
The Second Circuit wasn’t buying Morris’s argument, and upheld the conviction, while noting ominously that in debating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, “Congress [had] expressed concern that the ‘knowingly’ standard ‘might be inappropriate for cases involving computer technology.’”
When the internet feels like a vile frenzy, it’s a comfort to think of it as at least descended from a more benevolent acquaintance, a god of writing who thought in slower cycles, a water-bringer. It’s good to be reminded that for all the internet’s totalizing rhetoric and vast corporate powers, it is still just an order of adjacencies, the incredibly bizarre, endlessly contingent, preposterously gigantic relic of an agonized civilization unable to say what knowing means.
As for the scholarly tradition of Nabu, it persisted for centuries after the Persian conquest. By the third century BCE, a legendary rivalry was in full bloom between the Library of Alexandria and the Library of Pergamum. It had gotten so bad, according to an often-repeated (and perhaps apocryphal) story, that the culturally Greek government in Alexandria cut off shipments of papyrus, the key ingredient in paper (and source of that word), to the culturally Greek government of Pergamum. To keep up with the pace of Alexandria’s acquisitions, Pergamum’s scholars were forced to work on parchment, forever after named for the place. In the shadow of this rivalry, the scholar Ronnie Goldstein has demonstrated how the scholars of Borsippa, a city long past its glory, responded to the contest. The scribes of the period, when they recopied Ashurbanipal’s original letters requesting tablets from the temple of Nabu, would add a few words from the king to their intellectual forebears, requesting “all the scribal learning in the property of Nabu,” or “any tablet which is beneficial to my governance.” It was a small adjustment, designed to evince the vastness of the Nabu temple’s intellectual holdings. From our contemporary perspective, though, what seems more relevant is that, hundreds of years after the fire that baked his tablets and devoured his sovereignty, Ashurbanipal was indeed remembered by the scholars of his often-conquered land as a primary figure of intellectual prestige. To show the value of their own tradition, scholars in Nabu’s city emphasized the high regard in which it had been held by the great library’s compiler.
Writing has existed for only a tiny stretch of human history, and for most of that time cuneiform tablets of the kind housed by Ashurbanipal comprised its most prestigious and best-developed form. Wherever we decide to locate the sources of contemporary crises of power and knowledge – the advent of cybernetics, say, or the industrial revolution – we should allow ourselves the exercise of describing these pivotal moments as the results of still earlier ones, going farther and farther back, until the originating moment, in stylus and clay, of writing – that most echoingly adjacent mode of language. It might be wise, then, to hear as closely as we can the agonies of that adjacency, deriving from the coherences we create by organizing them some guiding sense of preserved wisdoms’ short, bewildered history.