Essays and Articles

Ur and Cuneiform

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When I seriously embarked to learn another language, not simply inhabit the labs we had in high school, I questioned why my language had no identifying female and male nouns. La luna, la natura, il sole, la pioggia each was a female or male: the Moon, nature, Sun and rain. English occasionally gets close with Mother Nature, but it does not seem nearly as etched as even the German language, part of our Saxon heritage.

Perforce, the next step is to ask why English-speakers have no gender to our nouns. That may be answered by identifying why other languages do have genders. The moon, female in Latin-based languages, may reverberate to an ancient time when there was a moon goddess. The moon, unlike the sun, may be stared at for the entire night, and sometime even most of the day. It shimmers blue-white and could be identified in, say, silver metal, for the Moche peoples of coastal Peru.

Watching fecund mammals give birth, it is from the female, the mother, in all her fullness that life issues to the first gasps of air for the newly minted. Mother Nature is real and before your eyes. The female moon likewise provided a cycle of twenty-nine days, a synodic month, nearly matching the human menstrual cycle; here were two sequences that gave us phasing, ebbing and rhythm. The sun was more aloof and very hard to stare toward. For the sun, we had to use shadows as in horologium and sundials.

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Ancient religions often are lead by female goddesses: Amaterasu, Bharat, Ceres, Selene, and Vesta. Some, we continue to worship as Ceres, Roman mother of agriculture and growing in our morning bowl of cereal. Some take a new spelling, Celine for the Greek moon goddess Selene, but the pronunciation is the same. When did these mother deities begin to diminish in power and defer to male gods and when did males begin keeping the sacred fires pure, as the Vestals had done. When did god become male, everywhere and nowhere at the same time?

I think there may be a clue in monotheistic Western religions, for all three revere one man: Abraham. So what about Abraham or Ibrahim? The oldest record today is found in Torah, the Jewish Bible. There the Lord notes, "...let us go down and there confound their language..." Genesis 11:7. Shortly after this conversation of the gods (yes, plural), we meet Terah, and his son named Abram. Terah made his living crafting idols for faithful to take to the temple and use in worship. The mute timber gods and goddesses no doubt gave Abram pause: my dad is making gods?

Abram is soon commanded to leave "from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee." So, in his seventy-fifth year, Abram and wife Sarai depart Haran, headed for Canaan.

By Genesis 17:1, Abram is ninety and commanded to be "perfect." Yahweh (which seems to mean the god with no followers) says to Abram (and this name signifies, the man with no god), "Neither shall thy name be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham, for a father of many nations have I made thee." Genesis 17:5 Sarai's name was likewise adapted to Sarah. Sarah can't believe the story, for that conversation of children had been promised her a generation earlier. Were I Sarah and had waited twenty-four years to give birth, I'd have called Nadya Suleman's fertility doctor and opted for in-virto.

The 14th sura of the Qur'an is the Ibrahim Sura. This section (14:39) praises the word of the Lord that is about to arrive. Abraham, now 100, fathers Isaac. But a child in the womb carried additional obligations: circumcision, the weirdest quid pro quo from the gods is this appeasement, the sacrificing of the foreskin of the penis. Women, without a foreskin to sacrifice, about now seem to become male accessories, their former goddess quality, vessels of birth, life-giving, all this seems to diminish and be subsumed.

We stand at Ur Kasdim before the great burnt brick mountain for early in the narratives, "...the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech...And they said to one another, Go to, let us build us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone and slime had they for mortar." The bricks continue to have their ancient cuneiform quite visible. Building a tower to reach god provoked the confounding of the universal language. Languages, as a plural, need to be translated especially when your city straddles the main north-south trade route. Being bi-lingual could have placed you in a great position for economic advantage. Americans often raised or insulated with the official national language, English, have less international opportunities. This model is changing. What if Abraham, before his death, had become the chief oral translator with cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing thrown in to make contracts (legal documents)? A wealthy advocate, a wealthy attorney would provide a stimulating role model for the unemployed of Ur. Abraham was very rich: cattle, silver and gold (Genesis 13:2).

There had been a time when gods and goddesses had relied upon one another, occasionally in a rather randy fashion, to generate new life. There was a Canaanite god named El who ruled with a female consort, Asherah. We all have heard at least some of the tales of Greek mythology, which slides over to become Roman mythology: Zeus is Jupiter.

Standing at the base of the burnt brick temple of Ur, we see buildings covered in cuneiform writing, I think the act of writing became a strengthening of the left-brain. It is highly likely that an old boys club was fashioned to keep writing exclusive. Imagine the power: write the myth and keep it secret and sharing only little bits now and again, grudgingly! Little wonder Father Abraham, or Ibrahim, is revered by religious males.

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Most of us do not handwrite much in the thousand year-old tradition. We use keyboards and that forces us to use both hands, meaning a re-awakening of the right brain as the left hand types away. Icons have returned as an effective communication tool. Look at the dash panel of a modern car and you get the picture.  It is worth a thousand words.

For further:
Shlain, Leonard The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image 1998 Viking
Maccoby, Hyam The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity 1986
Cuneiform brick photography by Peter Langer

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