Tag Archives: religion

Of Confucius, Holy Clowns, and Holy Murderers: Some Advantages of China’s Religious Atheism

[This space has  been quiet because I've been fact-checking and otherwise researching my Unsucky Gilgamesh chapters so far (which I hope to publish as a book when finished) and, since school started two weeks ago, writing for my students. The below is one such piece for my History of China students. There's no reason other students -- whether in school or out, and regardless of ability to pay the high tuition of the private school I work for -- should be excluded from the fun. Call it a Do It Yourself form of Open Courseware. I enjoyed writing it because I enjoy trying to make sense of that deep, rich ocean called Chinese history. So I hope some of you enjoy reading it. Any mistakes are my own, and I'd love to hear your corrections or other pushbacks.]



First, to set the mood: A 2-minute clip from Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, in which Mickey’s (played by Allen) Jewish parents are freaking out because he has found Jesus Christ and converted to the Catholic faith. It ends with one of my favorite comic lines in film history:

–It’s also a line I think China’s religious sages would find wiser than most of what they hear coming from the West about these questions.

And here we go:

~     ~     ~

Of Confucius, Holy Clowns, and Holy Murderers:
Some Advantages of Chinese Religious Atheism

           MOTHER
  (offscreen in the bathroom)
Of course there's a God, you idiot!
You don't believe in God?

          MICKEY
        (sighing)
But if there's a God, then why is there so much
evil in the world? Just on a simplistic level...
Why were there Nazis?

          MOTHER
  (offscreen in the bathroom)
Tell him, Max.

          FATHER
       (offscreen)
How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?
I don't know how the can opener works.

--Woody Allen
Hannah and Her Sisters

I. Why Today’s Students, Particularly, Should Care

Why should anybody today care about knowing ancient Chinese religion? A few sentences can make the case:

First, anyone who is East Asian — Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, Vietnamese — should care because their family life and personality are very likely molded by the ideas that arise in the Warring States Period.

There’s a 2,500-year-old reason East Asian airports are safe.

Even people who are not East Asian have good reason to learn it: it’s no secret that the 21st Century is shaping up to be the Century of China (and, yes, India), so odds are that anybody with a future will cross paths with East Asia either socially, romantically, or professionally. So they should know what a different world they’re entering when they do, and thus be able to navigate that world with better success, be it at the business dinner or the girl-friend’s parent’s dinner.

A third reason, of course, is that it’s simply good mental traveling to learn about all this.

II. Confucianism

ConfuciusPoint blank: when we talk about East Asia, we’re talking about Confucius, the man most religious studies scholars agree is by far the most influential “religious” figure and moral philosopher of all time — more than Moses, Jesus, Buddha, or Mohammed. One in four people on the planet today is Chinese; from the beginning of history to today, China’s population has always been larger than that of Europe, Central Asia, Africa, and the Americas. And China’s  people — plus, later, those of Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore — have lived the core Confucian values since 200 years before Jesus until today. (And they live them seven days a week, not just on the Sabbath.)

Even Christianized Asians live Confucian lives as their daily norm: family values, respect for elders and authorities, humility and a distaste for vulgarity and boasting, a gentle distaste for conflict, the importance of “face” and, glaringly obvious at SAS, of education — all of those things go back to Confucius.

So understanding Confucius is understanding most of East Asia today — from family life to social attitudes to manners and etiquette and sexual norms. (And to understand Confucius, the Shujing we read from last week will take you a long way.)

Second, Confucius is not a teacher about religion and life after death; on the contrary, his focus is the good life on earth, and how to live it wisely, happily, and graciously. When asked about who made the universe, where we go after we die, and the other Ten Thousand Unknowable Things, Confucius said:

To know when you know something, and to know when you don’t know something: that is wisdom.

He knew humans don’t know about the Unknowable, so he advised it best to pay attention to ritual and ceremony, yes, but to keep a clean distance from questions that can’t be answered — and from people who claim they know the answers. He thought those people dangerous to social order, and their superstitious claims dangerous to individual intelligence.

The Analects, the major collection of Confucius’ alleged sayings as recorded by his students, is a refreshingly easy book to read. Nothing in it is hard to believe except that its common sense and rationalism, which arrived in the West only during the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment a short 500 years ago, rose in China a very long two thousand, five hundred years ago.

III. A Holy Clown: Zhuangzi and the Tao

Zhuangzi

Zhuangzi dreaming he's a butterfly dreaming he's Zhuangzi dreaming...

And while Confucius does have a sense of humor in places, it’s one that at most makes you smile a little as you read. Like practically every other religion or philosophy, laughter and a sense of humor seem somehow against the rules. Confucius is serious this way too. But his “opponents,” the Daoists? They give us laughs by the belly-full, while all the while discussing the same subjects the more sober religions talk about. Reading the great Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second great sage, is like reading Jesus doing stand-up comedy. You can’t help but love the guy. He’s a hoot, and he’s also as deep as they come (in my book, anybody who insists there’s nothing unholy about laughter, that it’s every bit as sacred as all the more depressing emotions we usually find glooming up houses of worship, is wise by definition. Why shouldn’t laughter and play count among the holy things? What’s more heavenly than that?).

Zhuangzi had no patience for the Confucians. He was an individualist and an escapist, believing the wisest reaction to suffering is not to try to “fix the problem,” but instead to flow with it, “like water — seeking the path of least resistance.” You can’t fix human society any more than you can fix an earthquake or a drought. You fix your own mind’s way of reacting to things, stop freaking out when life is hard, slow down and enjoy it, and don’t get caught up chasing gold and honors. It’s all a fool’s errand to him. He prefers to go fishing and tell good, deep, playful stories. Your favorite weird uncle. (And one of my five favorite human beings in history.)

IV. A Tangent: Connections to Greece

These might help, if you remember the basics about Greece from other classes:

Greek and Chinese philosophy share a sort of “philosophical relay race” pattern: Socrates taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle. In China, Confucianism has a similar threesome: Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi.

Socrates, like Confucius, never wrote his philosophy down. We know Socrates through the writings of Plato, yet Plato took Socrates’ ideas into areas Socrates may not have agreed with. Similarly, Mencius studied under Confucius’ grandson, so there’s a Socrates-Plato/Confucius-Mencius pattern there.

Aristotle studied under Plato, but ended up arguing against his master. Xunzi similarly argues against Mencius concerning, above all, human nature. As Ebrey explains, Mencius thought human nature was essentially good, but a bad environment can corrupt it (thus the importance of a model king). Xunzi says this is naive, that human nature is prone to stupidity and vice, and thus needs education. (Not the kind of education in today’s world, which more and more seems to teach that education is simply a means for getting a job and making a lot of money, which is what success means. Confucians taught that the pleasures of an educated life are themselves the wealth, and the success. The gold is in the mind, not the bank.)

Xunzi is also interesting as the first flat-out atheist in Chinese philosophy. Confucius was not, mind you, an atheist. He said “We can’t know about God, Gods, and before and after life.” That’s an agnostic position: “a-” means “not,” and “gnostic” means “knowledge” — so Confucius is agnostic. Xunzi is different. He says, flat out, no gods are out there, as plain as an atheist can put it. But he continues with a totally interesting argument: “Even though all of this religious belief is superstitious nonsense, we should continue and support it.” Why? Because first, rituals are beautiful. They add pleasing colors to our days. And second, they’re useful. People need an outlet for fears of death and frustrations with life, so let them pray away, even though it’s totally pointless. You AP Lit people might think of Aristotle’s argument that Greek Tragedy was healthy because it was “cathartic” — it let people drain out all of their fear and horror at the dark sides of life. Xunzi seems to think religion is a similarly useful form of “mental hygiene.”

And then there’s Laozi, Daoism’s “Old Master.” Laozi wrote the Dao de Jing (“The Classic of the Way”), and it’s so deep, mysterious, and paradoxical that I pretty much refuse to even try to teach it to high schoolers. Deer in headlights gazes is all I’ve seen each time I’ve had students read it. So taste it if you’re curious, but we won’t focus on it in class much, if at all. We’ll focus on Zhuangzi instead.

V. Holy Murderers

There’s one final “So what?”, and I’ll close with it: it’s tantalizing to wonder what Jesus and Mohammed would have thought about Confucius. I picture them totally approving of his morality: he argues, like they do, that greed and the fever for gold are vulgar and the “root of all evil.” He also argues that we should love our neighbors and treat everyone well. Confucius, too, would approve of the moral teachings of Jesus and Mohammed — at least their social ones. But Confucius probably would have drawn the line at believing their claims to “know” about beginnings and endings, heavens and hells, spirits and demons. One can only imagine how interesting their conversations would be if they had the chance to debate these things. And while that’s impossible, of course, somehow it still points to something I notice every time I pass through airports in the Middle East, the West, and in China: pretty much everywhere but China, soldiers patrol airports looking for suicide bombers — and they obviously do it for good reason. Muslims, Jews, and Christians have been fighting for thousands of years because of their conflicting knowledge-claims based on their ancient religious texts.

But traveling through Confucian airports, you simply don’t see these soldiers, and you don’t see the terror threats (nor do you see doctors who provide abortions being murdered by Those Who Know When the Soul Enters the Embryo, or political priorities in an age of global warming, economic chaos, and several other urgent problems, being dominated by strange issues like gay marriage by  Those Who Know that Homosexuality is an Abomination. Chinese newspapers and TV don’t argue about whether their president is a secret Muslim, either. On and on.)

Confucian countries are free of all of these strange things because in their culture, they know, thanks to Confucius, that they are Those Who Cannot Know Some Answers and, knowing they can’t know these things, they have no such Knowledge to Kill For. In their airports, instead of soldiers patrolling for Those Who Do, you more often see just a bunch of families, parents leading the kids, the kids leading their suitcases stuffed with textbooks, cramming that education day and night to please their parents — people who don’t know what any Creator of the Universe thinks, but who do know this: family is important, and education is important.

And it’s all because of a guy who read the Shujing during the Warring States Period 500 years before Jesus, thought it was wise, taught it to students, and left teachings that, 2,500 years later, have worked for more than half of the world.

Unsucky English Lecture 7: Gilgamesh: A Goddess Prays

[The Unsucky English Gilgamesh series so far: 1: Dangerous Questions ~ 2: The Day I Thought Gilgamesh Would Cost Me My Job ~ 3: Adam and Eve, Backwards ~ 4. The Seven Deadly Sins, Backwards ~ 5. Good, Evil, Nature, and the Hero, Backwards ~ 6. Gilgamesh and the Dawn of Man ~ 7. This Post ~ 8. The Modern Mischief of the Gilgamesh Poets]

Gilgamesh - the Earth's Oldest Epic. <br>Stephen Mitchell's fine 2004 adaptation.

Gilgamesh - the Earth's Oldest Epic. Stephen Mitchell's fine 2004 adaptation.

We last left Gilgamesh laughing at the elders for urging him to fear the gods and doubt his own ability to do what none have done before. We noted it was perhaps the first Humanist’s laugh in world literature, 2,500 years before Socrates laughed similarly at the pious believers in Zeus.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu are almost, almost ready to embark on their quest to kill Humbaba, the guardian of the sacred Cedar Forest who is sacred to the god Enlil, but evil to several other gods and goddesses, in the wonderfully grey and grown-up moral sphere of the Sumero-Babylonians, so different from the black-and-white moral simplicity of other, more familiar, religions.

But before we follow them out the gate, we have one more stop to make with our two heroes: the Temple of Ninsun, the goddess who is Gilgamesh’s mother. It only makes sense to visit your mother before you leave to court death (I did the same with my best friend when we left my hometown in the ’80s to hitchhike across America all summer, come what monsters may). It makes more sense when she’s a goddess who might pull some divine strings to help you survive your adventure.

It’s an episode with a few details worth pausing over.

Worship on the Heights

We see in this scene, for example, another instance of Sumero-Babylonian religious ritual that causes me envy: their “worship on the heights.” We saw it before in the Temple of Ishtar, the pyramid-like ziggurat atop which, under sun or moon and stars I don’t know, the king seems to have made ritual love to Ishtar’s high priestess. We see it in this scene when Ninsun, after first bathing in “water of tamarisk and soapwort,” arrays herself in “her finest robe, a wide belt, / a jeweled necklace,” and “her crown,” then ascends to the roof of her temple to light incense to accompany her skyward prayer to the sun-god Shamash.

(Can I pause to share that I learned to speak, read and write the Arabic language when I was in the rightly oxymoronic U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence branch back in the ’90s, and that a word I learned there made this prayer-scene a bit mind-bending? The word was not quite “Shamash,” but it was close. It was “shahms” (شمس) – the Arabic word for, you guessed it: sun. The word stretches back to the beginning of human history, and beyond into prehistory. The young god of today’s monotheistic Arabs, Allah, may have taken the throne of heaven from Shamash in Arab religion a mere 1,400 years ago ; but in their language, he still shares heaven with that 6,000-year-oldest god. Shamash still shines on them today.)

We’ll see more of this preference for open-air, panoramic, sky-as-cathedral worship later. I just love it. Synagogues, churches, and mosques should cast a fresh look at their rooftops, and ask if there’s any potential to get closer to the Unnameable up there, instead of down below. [Self-critical update: It occurred to me later that the rooftop heights seem reserved for the elites only - kings and goddesses, so far, in this case. They ascend alone, and return below to the other devotees, from what I can see. I still like the idea, however unsupported it is on second look.]

A Prayer in Babylon’s Defense

Anyway, on her temple rooftop, under the azure dome of Shamash’s sky, Ninsun has her moment on the world-literary stage. She doesn’t blow it.

She asks Shamash the question every mother of a hot-blooded son asks: “You have granted my son / beauty and strength and courage / – why have you burdened him with a restless heart?” Whether intentional or not, I find it interesting that Ninsun’s list of her son’s gifts lacks the gift of wisdom. Wisdom is what Gilgamesh will gain by the end of the tale – or perhaps only we will, by knowing his story.

Ninsun then goes on to utter what I like to call her “Ode to the Sun” which, in Mitchell’s adaptation, deserves a place in our anthologies of the world’s religious poetry:

O Lord Shamash, glorious sun,
delight of the gods, illuminator
of the world, who rise and the light is born,
it fills the heavens, the whole earth takes shape,
the mountains form, the valleys grow bright,
darkness vanishes, evil retreats,
all creatures wake up and open their eyes,
they see you, they are filled with joy….

If any eight lines of verse can serve to refute all the Bible’s Babylon-bashing – an example of what mythologist Joseph Campbell calls one culture’s “mythic assassination” of its enemy’s culture – these eight have my vote. They’re not deep or fancy, and that’s their merit: the simple reverence of the lines, especially the image of all creatures waking to be filled with joy at the sight of a new day – they bespeak a gentle gratitude and majesty that gives the lie to the “whorish” slurs cast by the Hebrew and Christian texts. It’s wonderful that the Babylonian text can finally speak for itself again. (I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the cuneiform-imprinted clay tablets containing the epic lay mute and buried under the Iraqi sands for over 2,000 years, until they were uncovered by a British traveler around 1850, and then translated about 25 years later. So from the time of roughly Socrates, through the Roman Empire, Middle Ages, Renaissance, and half the modern period, this story was lost to the world, buried in silence. We’re unbelievably lucky to be alive to hear its ancient voice today. It’s a form of time-travel most of our forebears could not enjoy.)

The Visit Ends, the Adventure Begins

Ninsun goes on to do what so many mothers do who fear for their child’s success: she asks the god to cheat for him. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu close in battle with Humbaba, she asks Shamash to pin him with every wind known to nature – East Wind, West Wind, North and South, with tornadoes and gale and hurricane wind thrown in for good measure – to “make it easy” for her son to kill him.

She then descends and returns to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and adds one more civilized gift to the recently-civilized Enkidu: a family. Ninsun tells Enkidu that she is adopting him as her son, places an amulet around his neck, and tells him to be a good brother to Gilgamesh. And Enkidu, gentle as ever (but not for much longer, as we’ll see), weeps. He has a mother now, and a brother.

An interesting detail in this adoption scene shows us more about the heirodules, or “temple prostitutes” in Ishtar’s cultic service, that we met in the first lecture. Ninsun says she adopts Enkidu “as a priestess takes in an abandoned child.” So we learn that the cult of Ishtar served a charitable function in Sumero-Babylonian society by serving as orphanages. I wonder what more the scholars can tell us about that.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu then take their weaponry and march past the cheering young men and the well-wishing elders to the gate, and beyond. That weaponry, by the way? Each had an axe that weighed “two hundred pounds,” knives with gold mountings, quivers and bows and armor “weighing more than six hundred pounds.”

You have to wonder if there were ever any Sumerian or Babylonian fundamentalists who took these details literally – and if there were any Sumero-Babylonian literature teachers who countered them with the question we ask of our own variety of literalist today: “Can you say hyperbole?”

Enkidu and Gilgamesh

Unsucky Literature, Lecture 1: The Dangers of Reading Gilgamesh

To My Few Student Readers: Please Stay

I’m bored writing for adults these days, and most of my readers are adults. If you’re a student, can you send this link to your friends, put it on Facebook, Tumblr it, etc? I want students as my audience for this series, because I want to share with you all a series of posts, beginning today and continuing for years, probably, about:

Why the Classics Only Seem to Suck

I don’t blame students who think classic literature sucks.

They have millions of good reasons to think that. They may, for example, have:

  1. teachers who aren’t that great at reading, writing, or teaching, or
  2. great teachers at not-so-great schools that are afraid to let them read the most controversial literature (almost all schools are really afraid of students and their parents), or
  3. English worksheets that turn literature into anatomy tests (“Identify which phrase below is an example of onomatopoeia” and similar dentist drills), or
  4. five-paragraph essays to write in which the teacher in #1 tells them that they “must not use ‘I’, must have a topic sentence in the first line of each paragraph,” and a million other rules that real writers (we just excluded most teachers there) ignore altogether, or
  5. a lack of time to read the books assigned in English class, what with all the other homework (they want to have a little time of their own to just live their life, after all, to maybe read stuff they want to read – so why not just read the Sparknotes summaries?), or
  6. over-their-head levels of language complexity or adult content that they really shouldn’t be expected to comprehend (language) or care about (a middle-aged housewife’s psychology) until they’re well out of high school, or
  7. dry lists of words and terms to memorize for that most ultra-sucky thing of all – that thing which more and more schools and parents seem to think education is now – the S.A.T.

My Promises for This Series

I promise not to bore you with trivia or showy diction – to use “use” instead of “utilize.”  And I promise to try to give you enjoyable ideas of why, despite the pain of many English classes, this thing called literature, played with naturally, gives pleasure.  Much classic literature is wonderful.  I get more pleasure out of a used one-dollar copy of a Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde play than I do out of my $5,000 home theater.  When I want a buzz, I choose books over booze and bongs. Good literature is the best drug out there.

Added Bonus: I’ll throw in a “big picture” tour of the history of literature from the earliest story ever told – today’s post – forward through the centuries to the Greeks, the Hebrews and their Bible, the Romans, the fascinatingly whacked Middle Ages and the lovely Renaissance, the supremely dangerous Shakespeare and the often-kinky Romantics, straight on up to a few choice books from our modern times. (That’s another thing that annoys me about so many English classes I’ve had to teach: they rip all books out of their historical context, and disconnect them from their times and each other. It’s like studying butterflies pinned under glass instead of watching them fly among the flowers.)

I’ll also avoid constipated scholar-talk in favor of the conversational, occasionally dangerous style of a teacher who can tell you the truth, as he sees it, about these books without fear of being fired for ruffling the feathers of the fearful “three P’s”: parents, principals, and preachers.

Great books are often door-openings to dangerous places, places polite society fears and deems off-limits.  When those doors open in a classroom, teachers often refuse to enter.  There’s always the student who can’t handle it, who complains to one of the three P’s, and forces the conversation to remain, safe and proper, in the well-lit hallway.

Not so here where, away from school, we can touch the taboos, and experience how literature can be a threat and a danger to who we are, to how we’ve been conditioned to see life, to our culture’s status quo.

Doris Lessing really nails the connection between schools and the status quo better than I could dream of doing, so I’ll close this section with her:

“You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others, will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself – educating your own judgment. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being molded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this society.” – Doris Lessing

Now here goes.

Starting at the beginning – literally: c. 3,000 BCE

Let’s start with the oldest story ever told (or at least that we have written down), the first story in the history of our species, the story whose title, tragically, will make your eyes roll and your feet head for the exit door the minute you hear it, because it’s associated with your lifetime of aversion to classroom classics.

I’m talking about Gilgamesh.

Don’t leave.

Gilgamesh - the Earth's Oldest Epic. <br /> Stephen Mitchell's glorious translation from 2004.

Gilgamesh – the Earth

It’s one of the coolest books you’ll ever read.  It comes from one of the earliest cities, literally, on Earth – but it’s so alien to everything we Judeo-Christian types have been conditioned to think of as “good and evil,” “right and wrong,” that it seems a work of science fiction or fantasy more than anything else.

Really, don’t leave. You’ll miss the part about a religion that sees sex as a good and holy thing.

I’m not making this up.  Here’s the background:

Gilgamesh is the story of a Sumerian king who may have actually lived and ruled around 2,700 BCE. That’s almost 5,000 years ago. The city itself was a thousand years old when the story was written, so we’re talking a story from a civilization 6,000 years ago.

Stop and let that sink in.  The Bible is only half that old, with the “Old Testament” reaching its final form around 400 BCE, and the “New Testament” not being slapped together until around 330 CE (or A.D., if you’re out of touch with proper scholarly conventions).  So Gilgamesh is more than twice as old as the Bible. The Bible’s a pup compared to this story, and as I’ll argue, the Bible is less wise, in many deep and fundamental ways, than this Sumerian book as well.

Moving on:  The king’s city, Uruk, was such a walled and templed and terraced wonder that the citizens themselves were blown away by it.  Since the story is from an age close to the agricultural revolution, when we stopped wandering around as nomads and living more like herd animals than humans, we get a sense, when we read this story, that the people who wrote it are totally aware of what a cool thing they’ve accomplished by making one of the world’s first grand cities – first, do you hear?

Looking out from Uruk’s walls across the sandy plains of what is today Iraq (Uruk was not far from later Babylon and today’s Baghdad ), you would have seen no other cities.  Cities, to repeat, were new, and Uruk was one of the first.  When you read this story, it’s like the story-teller remembers the days before the city was invented, the days of wearing animal skins and being goat-herders or hunter-gatherers.  And you can clearly tell he loves his city all the more for the different kind of life it makes possible – the civilized life.

It’s a story, then, of humanity basically crowing its pride over creating civilization by creating that Most Needful Thing for civilization to exist at all: a city.  If someone were to have written a blurb on the back of the book back then (which he couldn’t have done because the “pages” were actually baked clay tablets stacked like bricks in the library, all covered in reed-imprinted cuneiform), he would have written something like,

Unlike our neighbors in every direction, we aren’t hunter-gatherers, goat-herding nomads, or farmers in country villages.  We’re civilized. We built a city.  And we’re damned proud of that.

Luckily, since Uruk was civilized, it had court poets instead of flag-waving idiots to tell the story a bit more gracefully, and to tweak it and revise it over a couple thousand years to make it just so.

On Sex, Good and Bad

I have to be careful about sex here, because the story itself is.

Rendering of a ziggurat in Uruk

Rendering of a ziggurat in Uruk (PD-self from Wikicommons)

On the one hand, the city had temples (like the ziggurat pictured right) dedicated to the goddess Ishtar, the goddess of love, fertility, procreation, and – strangely – war. (Aphrodite is basically the Greek version of the much older Ishtar, and Venus the Roman version. You knew that.)

We’re so blind today to the seeming magic through which sexual intercourse leads to pregnancy, and pregnancy to the creation of life from the womb of woman, that it takes a bit of imagination-work for us to appreciate how much sense it would make to pre-civilized and first-civilized humans to consider sex, pregnancy and birth, and above all women, as magical, sacred things.

That the Sumerians did consider sex sacred is clearly shown by this fact:  the temples of Ishtar were staffed with priestesses whose role was to have sex there, in the temple – whether only with the king or other elites, or with everyone, I don’t know.  These temple prostitutes were not “sinners,” were not “immoral”; they were respected every bit as much as Pastor Teds and Imam Abdullahs in churches and mosques around the world today.

And sex was not a “sin.”  It was a holy thing.  Check out “heiros gamos” on Wikipedia for the juicy (but deep) details.  (And stay tuned for my own theory, when we get to the Bible one of these days in this series, of how Ishtar and the Sumerians influenced the Jewish priests who wrote the Bible’s Genesis to make Eve such a bad character in the story, and sex – everybody’s favorite hobby, to riff off Woody Allen – such a bad, guilty act.)

So in Uruk, it may have been your duty as a good, gods-fearing citizen, to go to “church” occasionally to have sex with a temple prostitute.

In class, this point would get giggles from the immature or freak-outs from the ever-present class prudes, and the following idea would never sink in – which is sad, because it could lead to possibly deep and beautiful ideas such as this:

Think of how different it must have been, as a young person entering puberty, not to be shamed for suddenly discovering sexuality, but to instead, I imagine, be congratulated by family and society, maybe brought to “church” – the temple – to have that sexual awakening honored and instructed through some religious initiation.  To be welcomed into this magical new stage, rather than met with the silence and denial puberty is usually met with in our own culture.  “Abstinence-only” sex education would be laughed at in Sumer, and priests, parents, and schools would be comfortable with this natural thing.  There were far fewer locked doors, hidden materials, and guilt-burdened consciences for boys and girls back then, I suspect.

But it could also lead to less “beautiful” but still “deep” questions like this: For the “prostitute,” how was “temple prostitution” then different from prostitution now? Since sex wasn’t shameful then, was prostitution also not shameful?  Were the temple prostitutes abused and frowned upon the way many prostitutes are today?  Or were they protected from abuse by the temple, and by the reverent treatment of those they served there – treated less like today’s “whores,” in other words, than like today’s preachers?   Since they surely thought of sex differently than we in the West do in the Judeo-Christian framework – and we inherited much of that framework whether we’re religious or not – it’s not an easy question to answer.

(Do you see the “science fiction” side yet?)

But on the other hand, there was such a thing as “bad sex” in this story – and it’s what gets the plot rolling.

King Gilgamesh was a bit of a jerk when it came to sex.  Because he was king, and above the law, he had more choices than his wives or the temple prostitutes.  And the choice he made struck everyone involved – even the gods, who looked on from heaven – as really, really wrong: Gilgamesh chose to treat himself to the bed of every new bride on her wedding day – before her husband did.

So the people of the kingdom get understandably offended by this cocky king, and their complaints finally make it to the ears of the gods: the big-daddy god in particular, Anu (think Zeus and you’re close enough).

And here’s another place I think it gets deep and beautiful – but first let me take a detour to mention a couple of important things that connect to the beliefs of Jews and Christians and Muslims today.  The “deep and beautiful” stuff won’t work unless you know this.

On God, His Leadership Style, and His Fore-Fathers

First, the Gilgamesh epic is from a culture that spoke a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic, and that dominated the Middle East for thousands of years before Judaism, the religion of the Bible and of Jesus, even existed.

Second, the Hebrews who first settled Israel over a thousand years after the Gilgamesh story knew this dominant culture, and included many Sumerian myths in the Bible; two well-known examples are the Six-Days’ Creation and Noah and the Flood in Genesis (the Sumerian Noah, Utnapishtim, will be a major character by this story’s end, by the way – and will tell the original and much older Sumerian version of the Flood later adapted in Genesis). You can read the Sumerian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, yourself to see the similarities.  It’s only a few pages long.

But the differences between the Sumerian and Judeo-Christian gods are even more interesting.

The most interesting difference to me is that the Sumerian religion had male and female gods and, more importantly, that the main Sumerian “god the father” type was, like most fathers, married. It’s always seemed weird to me that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god is alone, unmarried.  Zeus had Hera, the Sumerian Anu had Aruru, but Yahweh, the “God” of the Bible?  No female for him.  You have to wonder why the Hebrews took the female from heaven, who did it, when, and how.  I do, anyway. But I’ll share those thoughts down the road.

The other interesting difference is in the morality – I almost want to say “leadership style” – of the two father gods. To see the difference, let’s do a thought experiment:  pretend Gilgamesh did his wife-stealing stunt in Jerusalem, that Gilgamesh was a Hebrew and his god was not Anu but Yahweh, the god of the Jews and Christians.

When that God hears that Gilgamesh is deflowering all the wives of all “His people” – “coveting” more than his neighbors’ (and subjects’) “asses” and therefore breaking one of the Ten Commandments – how do you think that God would react?

People will argue with me here, but I don’t see how they can win: that God deals with sinners, rebels, and others who disobey him with this “leadership decision”: punishment.  He’s an “angry God,” as he says himself.  It’s hard to see that God doing much but using angry force to punish Gilgamesh and make him change his ways.  Human obedience is what matters to that God, as I read him; human wisdom comes a distant second.  You want evidence?  God’s instructions for dealing with people who disobey his laws, over and over (in Deuteronomy especially), is to simply kill them. And Adam and Eve received one hell of a punishment because of their disobedience, too.

Back to the Story: “What Would Jesus Anu Do?”

But the earlier Sumerian god, Anu?  His reaction to Gilgamesh’s adulterous outrage is totally intriguing, and in my view, totally cool.  I like this god.

He doesn’t say “Punish him.”  He doesn’t say “Kill him.”  Instead, he turns to Aruru, the goddess who the Sumerians believed created humanity from earthly clay, and tells her to do it one more time.

He tells her, more interesting still, not to create any old human, but instead a special type. “Now go and create,” he tells her,

“a double for Gilgamesh, his second self,
a man who equals his strength and courage,
a man who equals his stormy heart.
Create a new hero, let them balance each other
perfectly, so that Uruk has peace.”

And so she does.

I’m going to stop here for the moment, and just share why I think Anu is a god worthy of the title.  Because by creating a “double” for Gilgamesh instead of simply killing him on the spot, he shows that to him, “sin” is a lack of wisdom.  As you’ll see, he creates this double so that Gilgamesh may have the experiences he needs to grow wiser.  I also think he’s just plain smooth for not freaking out and throwing a temper tantrum, but instead coolly coming up with this mysterious idea:

“Make a double for him. That should do the trick.”

What a wtf plot twist. Love it. Suspense accomplished.

And it’s a wonderfully optimistic view of man for a God to have: not “fallen” and in need of salvation, not infantile and in need of a list of Commandments to unthinkingly obey, not tainted by any “original sin,” but instead: capable of growing through experience, of learning and finding his own way, of finding “balance” that brings “peace.”

That “double,” by the way?  His name is Enkidu – and he’s Gilgamesh’s double in a curious and fascinating way: Gilgamesh is two-thirds divine, one-third human; Enkidu, on the other hand, is – get this – two-thirds animal, one-third human. Gilgamesh is the king of civilization; Enkidu is a wild-man living naked in the wilderness, alone with no human companionship.  But this animal-man is actually innocent and good – shades of some pre-Biblical Darwinian understanding that, hello?, humans are indeed animals in the animal kingdom, and that that bit of natural obviousness is nothing to freak out about?

Before Closing:

Challenges, corrections, extensions, additions, and anything else are welcome. More on Gilgamesh soon.

Next: 2: The Day I Thought Gilgamesh Would Cost Me My Job ~ 3: Adam and Eve, Backwards ~ 4. The Seven Deadly Sins, Backwards ~ 5. Good and Evil, Nature and the Hero – Backwards ~ 6. Gilgamesh and the Birth of the New Man 7. A Goddess Prays ~ 8. The Modern Mischief of the Gilgamesh Poets 9. The Original “Original Sin”

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On Leaving Teaching to Become a Teacher

More and more I wonder: is school a good place for teachers who want to make a difference in the lives of their students, and to the future of the world? Is there a way to leave the daily farce of gradebooks, attendance sheets, tests, corporate and nationalist curriculum, homework assignments, grade-licking college careerist “students” (and parents), fear of parents and administrators, and fear of inconvenient socio-political truths – and at the same time, to make a far more meaningful impact on the lives of the young?

I’m thinking yes. I’m thinking, moreover, obviously. I’m not sure how much longer I want to work for schools. I’d so much rather teach.