Sumerian Economics


By Peter Lamborn Wilson

Source: Reality Sandwich

Public secret: everyone knows but no one speaks. Another kind of public secret: the fact is published but no one pays attention.

A cuneiform tablet called The Sumerian King List states that “kingship first descended from heaven in the city of Eridu,” in the south of Sumer. Mesopotamians believed Eridu the oldest city in the world, and modern archaeology confirms the myth. Eridu was founded about 5000 BC and disappeared under the sand around the time of Christ.

Eridu’s god Ea or Enki (a kind of Neptune and Hermes combined) had a ziggurat where fish were sacrificed. He owned the ME, the fifty-one principles of Civilization. The first king, named “Staghorn,” probably ruled as Enki’s high priest. After some centuries came the Flood, and kingship had to descend from heaven again, this time in Uruk and Ur. Gilgamesh now appears on the list. The flood actually occurred; Sir Leonard Wooley saw the thick layer of silt at Ur between two inhabited strata.

Bishop Ushher once calculated according to the Bible that the world was created on October 19th 4004 BC at 9 o’clock in the morning. This makes no Darwinian sense, but provides a good date for the founding of the Sumerian state, which certainly created a new world. Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees; Genesis owes much to the Enuma Elish (Mesopotamian Creation Myth). Our only text is late Babylonian but obviously based in a lost Sumerian original. Marduk the wargod of Babylon has apparently been pasted over a series of earlier figures beginning with Enki.

Before the creation of the world as we know it a family of deities held sway. Chief among them at the time, Tiamat (a typical avatar of the universal Neolithic earth goddess) described by the text as a dragon or serpent, rules a brood of monsters and dallies with her “Consort” (high priest) Kingu, an effeminate Tammuz/Adonis prototype. The youngest gods are dissatisfied with her reign; they are “noisy,” and Tiamat (the text claims) wants to destroy them because their noise disturbs her slothful slumber. In truth the young gods are simply fed up with doing all the shitwork themselves because there are no “humans” yet. The gods want Progress. They elect Marduk their king and declare war on Tiamat.

A gruesome battle ensues. Marduk triumphs. He kills Tiamut and slices her body lengthwise in two. He separates the halves with a mighty ripping heave. One half becomes sky above, the other earth below.

Then he kills Kingu and chops his body up into gobs and gobbets. The gods mix the bloody mess with mud and mold little figurines. Thus humans are created as robots for the gods. The poem ends with a triumphalist paean to Marduk, the new king of heaven.

Clearly the Neolithic is over. City-god, war-god, metal-god, vs. country-goddess, lazy goddess, garden goddess. The creation of the world equals the creation of civilization, separation, hierarchy, masters and slaves, above and below. Ziggurat and pyramid symbolizes the new shape of life.

Combining Enuma elish and the King List we get an explosive secret document about the origin of civilization not as gradual evolution towards inevitable future, but as violent coup, conspiratorial overthrow of primordial rough-egalitarian Stone Age society by a crew of black magic cult cannibals. (Human sacrifice first appears in the archaeological record at Ur III. Similar grisly phenomena in the first few Egyptian dynasties.)

About 3100 writing was invented at Uruk. Apparently you can witness the moment in the strata: one layer no writing, next layer writing. Of course writing has a prehistory (like the State). From ancient times a system of accounting had grown up based on little clay counters in the shapes of commodities (hides, jars of oil, bars of metal, etc.) Also glyptic seals had been invented with images used heraldically to designate the seals’ owners. Counters and seals were pressed into slabs of wet clay and the records were held in Temple archives-probably records of debts owed to the Temple. (In the Neolithic Age the temples no doubt served as redistribution centers. In the Bronze Age they began to function as banks.)

As I picture the invention of real writing took place within a singly brilliant family of temple archivists over three or four generations, say a century. The counters were discarded and a reed stylus was used to impress signs in clay, based on the shapes of the old counters, and with further pictograms imitated from the seals. Numbering was easily compacted from rows of counters to number-signs. The real break-through came with the flash that certain pictographs could be used for their sound divorced from their meaning and recombined to “spell” other words (especially abstractions). Integrating the two systems proved cumbersome, but maybe the sly scribes considered this an advantage. Writing needed to be difficult because it was a mystery revealed by gods and a monopoly of the New Class of scribes. Aristocrats rarely learned to read and write — a matter for mere bureaucrats. But writing provided the key to state expansion by separating sound from meaning, speaker from hearer, and sight from other senses. Writing as separation both mirrors and reinforces separation as “written,” as fate. Action-at-a-distance (including distance of time) constitutes the magic of the state, the nervous system of control. Writing both is and represents the new “Creation” ideology. It wipes out the oral tradition of the Stone Age and erases the collective memory of a time before hierarchy. In the text we have always been slaves.

By combining image and word in single memes or hieroglyphs the scribes of Uruk (and a few years later the pre-dynastic scribes of Egypt) created a magical system. According to a late syncretistic Greco-Egyptian myth, when Hermes-Toth invents writing he boasts to his father Zeus that humans never need forget anything ever again. Zeus replies, “On the contrary my son, now they’ll forget everything.” Zeus discerned the occult purpose of the text, the forgetfulness of the oral/aural, the false memory of the text, indeed the lost text. He sensed a void where others saw only a plenum of information. But this void is the telos of writing.

Writing begins as a method of controlling debt owed to the Temple, debt as yet another form of absence. When full-blown economic texts appear a few strata later we find ourselves already immersed in a complex economic world based on debt, interest, compound interest, debt peonage as well as outright slavery, rents, leases, private and public forms of property, long distance trade, craft monopolies, police, and even a “money-lenders bazaar.” Not money as we understand it yet, but commodity currencies (usually barley and silver), often loaned for as much as 33 1/3rd % per year. The Jubilee or periodic forgiveness of debts (as known in the Bible) already existed in Sumer, which would have otherwise collapsed under the load of debt.

Sooner or later the bank (i.e. the temple) would solve this problem by obtaining the monopoly on money. By lending at interest ten or more times its actual assets, the modern bank simultaneously creates debt and the money to pay debt. Fiat, “let it be.” But even in Sumer the indebtedness of the king (the state) to the temple (the bank) had already begun.

The problem with commodity currencies is that no one can have a monopoly on cows or wheat. Their materiality limits them. A cow might calve, and barley might grow, but not at rates demanded by usury. Silver doesn’t grow at all.

So, the next brilliant move, by King Croesus of Lydia (Asia Minor, 7th century BC) was the invention of the coin, a refinement of money just as the Greek alphabet (also 7th cen.) was a refinement of writing. Originally a temple token or souvenir signifying one’s “due portion” of the communal sacrifice, a lump of metal impressed with a royal or temple seal (often a sacrificial animal such as the bull), the coin begins its career with mana, something super-natural, something more (or less) than the weight of the metal. Stage two, coins showing two faces, one with image, the other with writing. You can never see both at once, suggesting the metaphysical slipperiness of the object, but together they constitute a hieroglyph, a word/image expressed in metal as a single meme of value.

Coins might “really” be worth only their weight in metal but the temple says they’re worth more and the king is ready to enforce the decree. The object and its value are separated; the value floats free, the object circulates. Money works the way it works because of an absence not a presence. In fact money largely consists of absent wealth-debt — your debt to king and temple. Moreover, free of its anchor in the messy materiality of commodity currencies, money can now compound unto eternity, far beyond mere cows and jars of beer, beyond all worldly things, even unto heaven. “Money begets money,” Ben Franklin gloated. But money is dead. Coins are inanimate objects. Then money must be the sexuality of the dead.

The whole of Greco-Egypto-Sumerian economics compacts itself neatly into the hieroglyphic text of the Yankee dollar bill, the most popular publication in the history of History. The owl of Athena, one of the earliest coin images, perches microscopically on the face of the bill in the upper left corner of the upper right shield (you’ll need a magnifying glass), and the Pyramid of Cheops is topped with the all-seeing eye of Horus or the panopticonical eye of ideology. The Washington family coat of arms (stars and stripes) combined with imperial eagle and fasces of arrows, etc.; a portrait of Washington as Masonic Grand Master; and even an admission that the bill is nothing but tender for debt, public or private. Since 1971 the bill is not even “backed” by gold, and thus has become pure textuality.

Hieroglyph as magic focus of desire deflects psyche from object to representation. It “enchains” imagination and defines consciousness. In this sense money constitutes the great triumph of writing, its proof of magic power. Image wields power over desire but no control. Control is added when the image is semanticized (or “alienated”) by logos. The emblem (picture plus caption) gives desire or emotion an ideological frame and thus directs its force. Hieroglyph equals picture plus word, or picture as word (“rebus”), hence hieroglyph’s power and control over both conscious and unconscious — or in other words, its magic.

This entry was posted in conditioning, culture, Economics, History, Philosophy, Social Control, society and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sumerian Economics

  1. astyages says:

    A most interesting article from Peter Lamborn Wilson on the meaning of the origin of writing, and the latter’s effect on meaning and desire… I’m reblogging this on An Atheist in Adelaide; thanks for posting…


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