Mesopotamian Monday: Counsels of a Pessimist, Death, and Immortality

Life and death was, is, and will always be a reality for humanity. Throughout time and space, different cultures and individuals have dealt with it in different ways. In the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, one of the most well-known passages is the time speech in Chapter 3: a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to smash and a time to build, etc. Professor Simeon Chavel at the University of Chicago convincingly argues, though, this “poetry… is a sham; life prosaically keeps one off-balance” [1]. In other words, the poetry about time mocks traditional wisdom, wisdom seeking to explain, amongst many other things, death.

Similarly, Greeks and Persians viewed the human soul as immortal, originating in the celestial realm. Therefore, upon death, souls would either return to the celestial realm or underworld for a period of cleansing. Christian tradition understands that the righteous will be granted immortality upon dying [2]. These examples demonstrate how different cultures understand life, death, and humanity. Here, then, I want to look into how a particular Mesopotamian text explores life, death, humanity, and immortality.

In the text Counsels of a Pessimist, a speaker initially expresses how life itself is temporary (lines 1-10). Lines 9-10 come to the following conclusion: “[Whatever] men do does not last forever, / Mankind and their achievements alike come to an end” [3]. The subsequent line, though, makes a sudden shift. The poem places the word “you” at the beginning of line 11, functioning emphatically in the text: “[As for] you to the gods, offer prayers” [4]. The subsequent lines continue by describing aspects and ways for the audience to provide prayers and offerings to the deity, along with the potential consequences of doing such. Finally, the speaker encourages the audience to banish misery and suffering, as they produce bad dreams, dreams which themselves contain portents and ominous signs (lines 16-22).

What the scribe of Counsels of a Pessimist has accomplished more broadly, then, is to create a contrast between the temporality of mankind, on the one hand, and the more important goal of serving and interacting with deities for success within such temporality [5]. After all, the gods hold immortality, whereas humanity does not. This is more explicitly explored in literature like The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the epic, Gilgamesh seeks immortality from Utnapishtim and a plant of rejuvenation; however, upon failure he ultimately “overcomes death” through building enduring structures [6]. I have to wonder, though, if this is exactly what Counsels of a Pessimist pushes against.

In the section describing the temporality of mankind, the end of a line reads “fire burns it.” Most commonly, the verb used here describes burning during warfare, namely the destruction of cities and people [7]. Unfortunately, that is the only readable part of the line. Although highly speculative, I wonder if cities and destruction by warfare is somehow related to the referent of the phrase “fire burns it.” If the line is referencing a city or a building, it means that the Counsel of a Pessimist is actually in disagreement with Gilgamesh’s view of attaining immortality! For whereas Gilgamesh attains immortality through building enduring structures, the Counsel of a Pessimist may be expressing the opposite, pessimistic worldview: even the “enduring structures” ultimately burn. Therefore, “Mankind and their achievements alike come to an end.”

[1] Simeon Chavel, “The Utility and Futility of Poetry in Qohelet,” in Biblical Poetry and the Art of Close Reading, eds. J. Blake Couey and Elaine T. James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 110.

[2] Daniel A. Smith, “Heaven,” in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions, eds. Eric Orlin et. al. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 399-400.

[3] W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 109.

[4] Lambert (1960), 108-109, transliterates [at-]ta, a 2MS pronoun. Moreover, line 11b, transliterated as šu-taq-rib can be normalized as šutaqrib, an Št 2MS Imperative. Because an imperative is present, the 2MS Pronoun is not necessary. Instead, it serves the morpho-syntactic purposes of emphasizing the subject. Additionally, the emphatic nature of the phrase atta ana illimma is evident in the use of a -ma because the subsequent lines 12-19, do not use a -ma. So, the –ma appears to be a non-coordinating -ma functioning to emphasize the initial part of the phrase, namely atta ana ilimma. See John Huehnergard, A Grammar of Akkadian 3rd edition (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 325 (§29.2). So, whereas lines 1-10 focus on what mankind does to endure, line 11 has a strongly marked shift to how the audience interacts with deities. At base, it seems that this form of caus pendens, or front dislocation, of the phrase atta ana ilimma serves to create suspense. By fronting the phrase, the text itself uses Front Dislocation as a means to “amplifies referent enhancement and nonreferent suppression. Front Dislocation is not only an attention-getting device, but also an attention-creating and attention-directing device.” See Paul Korchin, “Suspense and Authority amid Biblical Hebrew Front Dislocation,” in JHS Vol. 15, Article 1 (2015), 14.

[5] This is potentially problematic because lines 23-31 are not transliterated, as they are unclear. So, I am taking the dream section in lines 17-22 as having to do with “interacting with the deities.” I have some preliminary notions on how this relates; however, it is an undeveloped idea. Therefore, even if the dream section does fit into the contrast between serving deities as opposed to the temporality of mankind, that contrast still is present.

[6] Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, Reprint of 1982 edition from University of Pennsylvania Press (Wauconda: Bolchaz-Carducci Publishers, 2002), 7.

[7] CAD Q, qamû.

On the Mahābhārata

One of my courses at the University of Chicago is an English reading of the Mahābhārata, taught by Wendy Doniger. As a scholar interested in Near Eastern and Levantine history and literature, the Sanskrit epic is outside of my area of specialty. Yet, with the growing importance of interdisciplinary work in academia, the Mahābhārata takes on a new meaning for me. Rather than merely being a Sanskrit epic from another region of the world (India), the epic offers a plethora of opportunities to do comparative literature. In order to do so, I am focusing on a few aspects of the Mahābhārata as I read through John D. Smith’s abridged translation of the text.

First, I am intrigued by the use of ritual, especially sacrifice. For example, the Ugrasravas the Suta, the storyteller, comments on the actions of the Brahmins. He notes there equality to Brahma as it relates to ritual and sacrifice: “every one of you is Brahma’s equal! Noble ones, radiant as sun or fire, I see that in this sacrifice of yours you have purified yourselves by bathing, said your prayers, and made the fire-offerings, and now you are sitting at your ease” (2). Ugrasravas implies that the Brahmins are equal because of their rituals. The rituals included purification by bathing, prayer, and fire-offerings. I am interested in tracing the perception(s) of the efficacy of ritual. Once compiled, I wonder how the diversity of understandings might intersect with, or diverge from, conceptual idea of sacrifice within Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, and the Levant.

Second, I am interested in examining the Moses-like account from the Mahābhārata. Although I’ve yet to reach that story within the Mahābhārata, the basic account is that a character is placed into a river. He ends up being raised in a level of society higher than that to which he was born. What I want to think about is how the employment of the motif compares to Cyrus, Sargon, and, of course, Moses. Perhaps it will yield some interesting results and offer a new perspective on the spread of the motif (or autonomous developments?) throughout the ancient world.

Thirds, I am interested in the intersection of narrative and philosophy/wisdom. Perhaps by reading the mix of narrative and wisdom in the Hebrew Bible, as we see in the Mahābhārata, some intentional aspects and nuances of the Hebrew Bible will become more apparent. This could even be applied to other Near Eastern literature, especially Near Eastern epics like Enuma Elish.

In short, I look forward to how this semester will influence my scholarship. I hope I continue having opportunities to consider non-Near Eastern and Biblical material. By doing so, I may strengthen my own inventory of tools for future consideration of texts. Naturally, this may assist in re-constructing history more precisely.