13 April, 2011

Why the Gods created slavery

Slavery, by common consent, is no longer viewed as ‘a good thing’, however, in the ancient world, it was seen as a perfectly natural and normal state of affairs.
For an archaeologist like myself, slavery is not primarily a race issue, it is to do with class, or status; take a close look at the ancient world, and a slave was merely the lowest rung on a remarkably steep social ladder.
In ancient Mesopotamia, it is ladder that goes all the way to heaven and the world of the gods; here the Great Gods created lesser Gods to be their slaves and work in their fields and gardens.
While nowadays, we expect somewhat more liberal attitudes among Gods, their next move was, one level at least, socially progressive, they freed the lesser gods from their bondage – by creating mankind to do their work.

Left; Late Iron Age slave chains from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey. [1]
Social Pyramids
In one sense, the issue with pyramids is not whether built by slaves or freemen, but that a population built them for an individual. Pyramids are about as perfect an expression absolute power in architectural form, as you can create with the materials available in the ancient world. When the social pyramid is this steep, rulers could merge into the realm of the divine, and the resources of an entire civilisation could be deployed to foster this relationship.

In Mesopotamia, a the mud brick architectural heritage is less well preserved, but surviving literature provides an extraordinary insight the stories being told to explain the nature of reality. Epics like Gilamesh, Atrahasis, and Eridu are fragments of real cosmologies, to read them is to look into the past, as if viewing it in the shards of a broken mirror, reflecting things otherwise invisible to archaeology.

Their reality was an extension of a divine world, where gods presided over the [natural] forces of the world and the fates of men. A culture so dependent on nature, which is both capricious and bountiful, had gods whose actions reflected this reality. The great ancient gods could combine the extremes of human behavior with those of the natural forces they personified.

For religion to function effectively, the boundary between the heavenly and earthly worlds has to be permeable, and while in the modern world science has rolled it back, in ancient times it was still a wild frontier. The ancient Gods had sexual relationships not only with each other, but also with other living things, and in both contexts did things, which, where I live at least, would see them to be locked up for a very long time.
By the time the Sumerian epics are being written down, we also have law codes, as well as financial and administrative records, that give a detailed picture of how society worked. However, if heavenly cosmologies reflect earthly realities, in the epic and religious literature, we can catch a glimpse the belief system that drove Mesopotamian society in the late Neolithic and Bronze Age.

The Epic of Atrahasis

While most belief systems and cosmologies appear strange when viewed from outside, there is something particularly grim and unpleasant about subplot underlying the creation story in the Epic of Atrahasis.

This is one of the epics of Mesopotamian literature, copied, recopied, edited and translated onto clay tablets by generations of scribes, until a copy was lodged in a library in Sippar, an ancient city on the east bank of the Euphrates river in modern Iraq. It can be dated the reign of Babylonian king Ammi-Saduqa [1582 BC-1562 BC], but it is part of an older tradition of literature like Gilgamesh featuring the Sumerian Gods. [left][2]
While it offers one of the fullest accounts of the Flood with Atrahasis in the role of Noah, by way of introduction, it explains the creation of mankind by the gods, offering a much more significant insight into cosmological thinking.
In the story, the Great Gods [Anunna] had created a race of lesser Gods [Igigi] to do all the hard work labouring to make their world productive. However,these slave gods rebel, and challenge the authority of the Great Gods. As a compromise, and in order to free the Igigi gods from their labours, they decide to create mankind to do their work.
Later in the tale, mankind has become so numerous that the chief God Enlil has his sleep disturbed by their clamour. In retribution he sends various disasters culminating in the flood. The rest of the story involves building an ark, and proceeds pretty much as expected.
Below is selection of lines from the text covering the creation of mankind, based on a B.R. Foster’s translation. [3] It features the Earth god Enlil, the water god Enki, and the midwife goddess, or ‘mistress of the gods’, Nintu.
The problem

When the gods were man they did forced labour, they bore drudgery.
Great indeed was the drudgery of the gods, the forced labour was heavy, the misery too much: the seven great Anunna-gods were burdening the [lesser] Igigi-gods with forced labour.

The Igigi-gods were digging watercourses, canals they opened, the life of the land.
The Igigi-gods dug the Tigris river and the Euphrates thereafter.
[23 –26]

They were complaining, denouncing, muttering down in the ditch:
"Let us face up to our foreman the prefect, he must take off our heavy burden upon us! Enlil, counsellor of the gods, the warrior, come, let us remove him from his dwelling;…”

The Solution

"Will you be the birth goddess, creatures of mankind?
Create a human being, that he bear the yoke, let him bear the yoke, the task of Enlil, let man assume the drudgery of the god."
[195 –197]

Enki made ready to speak, and said to the great gods:
"On the first, seventh, and fifteenth days of the month,
let me establish a purification, a bath.
Let one god be slaughtered, then let the gods be cleansed by immersion.
Let Nintu mix clay with his flesh and blood.
Let that same god and man be thoroughly mixed in the clay.
Let us hear the drum for the rest of the time.
From the flesh of the god let a spirit remain, let it make the living know its sign,
lest he be allowed to be forgotten, let the spirit remain."
The great Anunna-gods, who administer destinies,
answered "yes!" in the assembly.

The Creation of Man

They slaughtered Aw-ilu, who had the inspiration, in their assembly.
Nintu mixed clay with his flesh and blood.
That same god and man were thoroughly mixed in the clay.
For the rest of the time they would hear the drum.
From the flesh of the god the spirit remained.
It would make the living know its sign.
Lest he be allowed to be forgotten, the spirit remained.
After she had mixed the clay, she summoned the Anunna, the great gods.
The Igigi, the great gods, spat upon the clay.
Mami made ready to speak, and said to the great gods:
"You ordered me the task and I have completed it!
You have slaughtered the god, along with his inspiration.
I have done away with your heavy forced labor,
I have imposed your drudgery on man.

Epic of Atrahasis.
In short, to be human, is to be a slave of the Gods, or, one suspects, their earthly representatives, and they should be the beneficiaries of Man’s labours, however, they did sacrifice one of their own, for which I am sure we should be grateful.
Heaven, like earth, was very hierarchical; drudgery and work in the fields were part of the natural order that even gods had been subjected to; pretty grim stuff

Release from bondage.
In a world where gods and men interact, the stories of this relationship grow and change to reflect and explain the changing nature of mans’ experience. Two thousand years later, and European cosmologies concerning mankind’s creation and early history were dominated by the biblical accounts.
From a scholarly perspective, these accounts in first part of the bible, the Pentateuch, were compiled about a thousand years after the Atrahasis epic was being recorded in Babylonia. The Flood is only one of several themes shared with earlier literature, however, while replacing Gods with a God, the Hebrews also lost the central theme of slavery, and opened up 'serving God' and ‘doing God’s work’ to a potentially more liberal interpretation.
While no longer a central theme of creation, slavery is still an accepted part of the world described in the bible, but it is subject to law and commercial regulation, and is not really a religious issue.

Treaty concerning the return of fugitive slaves c.1480BC [4]

It is perhaps significant, that when the Pentateuch was compiled, the Hebrews had just been released from a period of captivity and enslavement in Babylon, [538 BCE], so in one sense, this is an account of the world written by the victims rather than the victors. Thus, almost by chance, a significant early strand of ancient cosmology slipped out of view; the world, even heaven, continued to be hierarchical, and while slavery endured as an institution, it was no longer implicit in nature of man’s creation.
However, while we may have lost sight of the Gods’ intentions, the early agricultural civilisations of Mesopotamia had not. Thus, when considering their development and achievements, it is important to consider coercion and slavery as significant driving forces. Farming is an excellent way of life, especially if you get other people to do all the work. After all, what we think of as civilisation, is often perceived in terms of the conspicuous consumption of a privileged few.

Slavery in prehistory
In the literature of the ancient world and in most early historical periods, slavery is endemic, and just the bottom of the social pile. While in European prehistory, with no written records, slavery is hard to prove, like religion, it is difficult to imagine a world without it.
I view the spread of Neolithic culture into Western and Northern Europe as primarily as a process of colonisation, perhaps with opportunities to enslave or coerce any existing populations. In this context, along with the crops, animal, and techniques slowly spreading from the near east, went the gods and their cosmologies.

Perforated ground stone axes & hammers [5]
One of the key technologies of the Neolithic was the manufacture of stone tools by grinding, rather than flaking. Ground stone tools are the product of a simple but very laborious process, which is ideal work for slaves, as is mining or quarrying the raw materials.
The potential significance of skilled slaves, in the creation of the material culture should not be overlooked, and has implications for the spread of styles and techniques
The story of Weyland the smith on the Franks Casket [6]
However, I am reminded of the Dark Age story of Wayland the smith, who was enslaved by a king, and imprisoned on an island. He wreaked a terrible revenge killing the King’s sons and violating his daughter, before escaping by flying away; perhaps a cautionary tale for those who would deprive a craftsman of his liberty.

Celtic slavery and bling
Around the time the Pentateuch was being written down in Jerusalem, Celtic culture was crystallizing in Northern Europe, and through increasing interaction with the classical world, we get our first outside descriptions their society and beliefs.
Throughout all Gaul there are two orders of those men who are of any rank and dignity [Nobles and Druids]: for the commonality is held almost in the condition of slaves, and dares to undertake nothing of itself, and is admitted to no deliberation. The greater part, when they are pressed either by debt, or the large amount of their tributes, or the oppression of the more powerful, give themselves up in vassalage to the nobles, who possess over them the same rights without exception as masters over their slaves.

Julius Caesar;The Gallic Wars, book VI, chapter 13 [7]
Material evidence for slavery in European prehistory is very thin, in Britain is probably restricted to the Iron Age slave chains from Lynn Cerrig Bach. [above]. However, there is another type of artefact from this period, associated with opposite end of the hierarchical society described by Caesar, the torc.

The Newarc torc [8]
This neck ring, usually manufactured from precious metals, often has the form of a perfectly effective halter, an effect heightened by its rope-like texture and loped terminals. Assuming that is the intended symbolism, then we can see echoes of ‘man as a slave of Gods’; but a Noble's chain is made of gold, and is somewhat more emblematic than functional.
Torcs occur on representations of Celts in classical art like the dying Gaul [above[9]] , as well in figurative pieces of Celtic art and decoration.

Detail of Gundestrup cauldron panel A[10]; possibly Cernunnos, a nature or fertility god, holding out a torc; could he be bestowing the divine gift of servitude?

On the decorated Late Iron Age cauldron found at Gundestrup in Denmark, torcs are worn by most of the principle figures, presumed to be both male and female deities or mythical characters. If Gods could serve other Gods, then this does not necessarily detract from this idea that torcs symbolised some relationship of servitude with the divine.  
However, of the seven major figures on the outside of the cauldron, two male figures have long beards, and no torc is visible. Sadly, the images on the Gundestrup cauldron, without their myths and cosmology, are not well understood, and thus, the significance of the bearded figures with no visible torcs is impossible to judge. [plates a & d].

A little over a thousand years after this period, in 1086, the Normans conducted an audit of their new English kingdom known as the doomsday book.

This snapshot of feudalism shows, that in terms of tenants, around 10% of the population were ‘slaves’, compared with 14% who were ‘freemen’; the rest of the rural population, [nativi], villeins and cottars [bordars], were born into a status of servitude somewhere in between the two. [left, 11]
Feudalism in Europe is thought of as medieval, certainly this is when it is first described historically, however, Caesars description of the Celtic society in Gaul sounds very much like feudalism, and from the Early Bronze Age onwards there clear evidence of a hierarchical society.

The idea of servitude and slavery is important in Mesopotamian cosmologies, and seems to underlie most classical and early historical societies, and it is possible to view idea that ownership of land included the people who worked it, as a fundamental element in the agricultural revolution that gave rise to civilisation.

Quite when the quest for personal autonomy began as significant theme in history, is also difficult to recognize, but it was undoubtedly aided by a Judeo-Christian cosmology that no longer saw mankind as being created as slaves of the gods.

Sources & further reading

[1] http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/2369/ [Accessed 13/04/11]
[2]http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cuneiform_the_atrahasis_epic.aspx [Accessed 13/04/11]
[3] http://www.livius.org/as-at/atrahasis/atrahasis.html [Accessed 13/04/11]
Before the Muses An Anthology of Akkadian Literature Third Edition Translated by Benjamin R. Foster ISBN: 9781883053765 CDL Press, 2005,
[4] http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ad/Slave_treaty_tablet.jpg
[5] Evans, J 1872, The ancient stone implements, weapons, and ornaments, of Great Britain Longmans, London.
http://www.archive.org/details/stoneimplementsw00evaniala [Accessed 13/04/11]
[6] http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5a/Franks_casket_03.jpg [Accessed 13/04/11]
[7] Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn
http://classics.mit.edu/Caesar/gallic.6.6.html [Accessed 13/04/11]
[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Newark_torc.jpg [Accessed 13/04/11]
[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:StervendeGalaathoofd.jpg [Accessed 13/04/11]
[10] Gundestrup, Himmerland, Jutland, Denmark. The Gundestrup cauldron is housed at the National Museum of Denmark.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Detail_of_antlered_figure_on_the_Gundestrup_Cauldron.jpg [Accessed 13/04/11]
[11] Falkus, Malcolm E.; Gillingham, John, 1981, Historical Atlas of Britain
(ISBN: 0862722950 / 0-86272-295-0 ) p176
Also; Sommerville J P, Medieval English Society
http://history.wisc.edu/sommerville/123/123%2013%20Society.htm [Accessed 13/04/11]
Illustration of the Pyramid of Djoser :http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Saqqara_stepped_pyramid.jpg [Accessed 13/04/11]


Odin's Raven said...

The Gods seem not to have been concerned with the physical comfort of humans. They may have thought they had more important concerns than the lives of humans, especially slaves.

No one had invented the Health and Safety Jobsworth to whine and bluster to them about Human Rights! Society had not progressed from worshiping Gods to worshiping slaves.

Maybe some priests persuaded the Gods that the economy must be developed and that slaves would be excellent items of trade, and constitute portable transferable wealth i.e. money.

Geoff Carter said...

Hi OR,
Human sacrifice would also constitute a major heath & safety issue!
Rulers in this period could be buried with an entourage as found at Ur.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's a little joke about archaeology:

Ned Pegler said...

Dear Geoff

Having looked up slavery in the archaeology books I have and found pretty much nothing, I'm delighted to find this. There are so many images dating back to Naqada and Uruk egypt of captivity and yet little comment on its implications.

Also, I like your thoughts on axe polishing.


Geoff Carter said...

Hi Ned
Thanks for the positive feedback.
Slavery is distasteful,unromantic, and not very interesting on a material level; it is not something archaeologists like to dwell on. However, in a society where an individual could be castrated, or sacrificed to serve their rulers in the after life, individual autonomy was clearly regarded differently.

- yeah verily doth man make the Gods in his own image.

PS Odin's Raven - that link is a great Joke!