Like any good hack, I tend to be obsessed about how things came to be. In the case of civilization, the answers keep getting clearer and clearer. Thanks to the library of Ashusbanipal and books like Against the Grain…
So, the common myth I’ve covered before but will summarize here. Babylon’s myths borrowed heavily from Sumer, kind of a Roman from the Greeks kind of vibe.
Here’s the legendary gist
There was chaos, then there were the main gods (Anu–the sky–being one). From the main gods came a multitude of gods, which pissed off the original powers. Ultimately, the gods, under either Anu or his Babylonian-only kid Marduk, rose up and killed the two worst offenders. Apsu first, who was freshwater, followed by the much tougher Tiamat, who was saltwater.
The solution required a lot of labor, which the gods revolted against, so they created humans as slaves to maintain the first (and all subsequent) civilizations.
At some point (pertinent later), the humans pissed off the gods and they took them out in a big flood, except for one hero and his ark full of animals who was warned by a trickster god to get the hell out of there before everyone else got slaughtered. The gods promised not to do that again (since it was shades of Tiamat/Apsu’s crime).
And thus civilization was born.
That’s the myth version.
The modern version is this
Myths are meaningless stories told to keep people in order. Civilization rose during an unprecedented era of climate stability, where people discovered how to farm, a technology distinct from the wanderings of hunter-gather societies. This allowed the people of the Tigris-Euphrates valley to engage in a technology that transformed their dry land into something productive so starving people wouldn’t starve. From this came specialization and from that came cities.
And thus civilization was born.
This is also a myth.
A small problem…
The second version sounds succint and convincing, right? And it doesn’t shy away from problems, like the accompanying diseases/chronic illnesses that came with sedentary life. It just notes that farming was a reproductive success and led to the advanced civilization we enjoy today, whereas starving H/G cultures… well…
Unfortunately for the common narrative, history is far, far messier than that.
The technology of modifying the environment was already hundreds of thousands, if not a million, years old. In part, this was thanks to human pyrophiles spending a lot of times burning things for the better of the tribal community. And it got very, very sophisticated long before Sumer, with growing techniques shared along robust and surprisingly far reaching trade routes.
Embedded in this was the idea that having a very diverse set of delicious foodstuffs–and handy resources like medicine / shelter–was great for both the short and long term health of a community. Something befalls the barley crop? Eh. We can get by on the other stuff.
And it wasn’t a hell of a lot of work either. Estimate was 4 hours a day down to 20 hours a week in good situations. Plenty of time to shape a society to your needs, sedentary or otherwise.
Sumeria at the time when civilization began was a wetland. Plenty of food. Great ability to maintain its population. Farming would have made it less secure, not more. So what the hell happened?
And what about those myths? Why are they important? Well, myths are, at heart, the stories we drill into the heads of our kids, so that society keeps working. That means it might be a metaphor; it might not. But it’s reliably something the elders thought was vitally needed for the next generation.
Here’s where it gets complicated
I’ve discussed in various blog posts that Marduk / Anu was basically an engineer that dealt with flooding, first from the river, then from the sea. Up until now, I didn’t know how.
Originally, I was working off the same assumption others were: Sumer was dry and that the discovered artifacts were evidence of irrigation ditches (which makes sense in a dry region). If it was a wetland, though, the metaphor becomes much clearer.
Proto-Sumer wasn’t starving; we know that. The wetland provided. That didn’t mean there couldn’t be mega-deaths though. Mega-deaths through the very climate change that brought overall stability.
If the river or ocean was flooding relatively randomly, that could seriously jeopardize their social stability. And being pyrophiles doesn’t help against big floods. Or diseases that would flourish with it. Anu or Marduk came up with a two-step process to deal with the situation that was brilliant.
First off, they knew that the answer to the flooding was well designed drainage ditches. Mythologically, the tearing of the earth could be storied into the ripping into of Tiamat or Apsu, killing them. The problem, of course, would be that this realistically would kill the wetlands. Diversity of food goes >poof<! The people would absolutely know that this would be the consequence.
However, Anu (or Marduk) also was in charge (or knew about) of obtaining substantial amounts of food through seasonal flooding. Broadcast certain grasses during that time and weed the fields and you get astonishing, reliable yields. It’s actually some of the easiest gardening you can do.
Mono-cropping (or reduced fields) could also lead to better control
It would take care of some of the disease-carriers that appeared with a more robust ecosystem. Plagues would reduce their ferocity, or at least be better contained.
Hells, Marduk probably figured that you could double the drainage ditches as irrigation ditches later on, restoring his culture to its former greatness. His plan would save people. Life would go on.
Couple of issues. In its initial phases, it was a lot of work and the resulting drop in health would have been dramatic as they suffered a loss from diversity of food. However, there was also an uptick in population, the grain they used had some medicinal properties, and trade was still available. These were better odds than death by flood and plague.
Those problems could also be overcome by employing slave labor, which is exactly what they did. According to the myths, another group lived nearby in an active famine (likely due to Marduk/Anu’s little terraforming project). In the story, the gods made these from clay (white clay being something folks ate when they were starving) and declared them “human”, the permanent underclass to the gods.
Look at Anu’s tale. It’s the equivalent of someone saying “Back in highschool, we were like GODS.” and then removing the word “like”. And then declaring the glee club to be subhumans who should serve you for the rest of their miserable lives.
While people weren’t looking, something else crept in
It’s an interesting story. This idea that man became god by conquering the forces of nature. It’s not complete, though. It’s not complete because even science has fallen for it’s own hype: the common myth that we’re the smart ones.
However, we’re not a “smart” people (how do you even judge that without comparisons?). We are a storied people. And if you want proof of that, here’s what happened next to Sumer and everyone who copied their technology (often out of desperation).
Grass domesticated us.
It’s kind of counter-revolutionary, isn’t it? To consider that a plant got one over on us. But that’s what happened. This plant convinced us that we had to work so hard and treat it so well that literally it had to spend no energy spreading across the planet.
Along with grass came obligates that thrived alongside it. Mice, rats, birds, cats, dogs. Things that unhealthy humans, living on a limited diet, turned to try and grasp for a healthy lifestyle. Because it took so much work, they found it harder to move. They created specific technology to overcome the elements.
Enough food to expand exponentially. Enough diseases due to crowding and animal husbandry to keep that population far lower until recently.
The Babylonian myths filled the gaps Sumer left behind
It slowly transformed into the monstrous founder of civilization we know it for today. They not only pointed out the solution to Tiamat and Apsu (tear at their flesh! Bleed them dry!), but also how cities must have slaves AND that the initial impetus was flooding.
That second story–the one about the Ark and the flood–gained importance because it reflected the original battle against Tiamat and Apsu, except this time it was a human, protected by the technology of the Sumerian “gods” that survived to replant the world anew.
We are a people conquered by grass, spreading its gospel across the world, destroying everything so that the cycle can begin anew but never end.
Now to find a way out of that…