Friday, July 24, 2015

The liminal barrier of literacy: peering into the neolithic abyss

One of the lizard-woman statuettes found in the Al Ubaid archaeological site in Iraq. They date to about 7000 years ago and their meaning remains unknown. 

With her novel "Memoirs of Hadrian,"  the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar tried to bring back to life the mind and the personality of a Roman Emperor who had lived nearly two thousand years before her. She succeeded, within some limits, and reading her book we have the sensation to be there, to be talking with the ancient emperor, to see the world around him with his eyes.

But Hadrian, as ancient as he was, is still comfortably on this side of the liminal border of literacy, the barrier that separates the section of history for which we have written documents and the other side, the illiterate one, that vast span of time that goes from the earliest written documents all the way to the great barrier of ice of the Pleistocene. The ice melted down some 10,000 years ago, to leave our ancestors to gaze on a new world, appearing in front of their eyes: a fertile land that had emerged from under the great glaciers.

That was the start of the period we call the Holocene, and it meant at least six thousand years of human life on earth without any written records having arrived to us. Thousands of years of life, of songs, of poems, of myths, of loves, of hates, of battles and more. All disappeared, collapsed in that mythologized universe of Gods and Heroes that the Australian natives call "dreamtime". Of these thousands of years, there remain for us only dreams. 

But perhaps the task of interpreting that ancient dream is not beyond our means. The song that Sirens sang, it is said, it is not beyond all conjecture. The same is true for the attempt to reconstruct at least something of those ancient times, the times before literature.

One way to peer into those far away times is to look at the  earliest literature we have. Back to the third millennium BCE, we can see the slow development of cuneiform writing in the valley that we call Mesopotamia. Starting with lists of items defined by simple ideograms, cuneiform slowly developed into a fully fledged writing system; a way to record human thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams. And able to write down the poems that, once, were only sung and recited.

The earliest "modern" literature we have are probably the poems written by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, going back to some moment in the second half of the third millennium BCE. It is a curious quirk of history that not only her name and many of her poems have survived all the way to our time. But we even have a portrait of her; perhaps a realistic one.

From what she wrote on clay so many centuries ago, Enheduanna comes forth to us; a human being like us. In the lines of her "Nin Me Sara" ("Lady of many virtues"), we recognize ourselves. We recognize our awe in front of the universe, the mystery that surrounds us and, at times, the desperation of being
nothing in front of it. When Enheduanna writes her prayer to her beloved Goddess, Inanna, she says, "If I am yours, why do you slay me?" It is like if we were seeing her in front of us, in flesh and bones, summoned by that mysterious spell we call "poetry".

If Enheduanna is still on our side, on the side of the literate world in which we comfortably stay, Inanna is a creature that has jumped over the barrier, but still carries with her plenty of baggage from an earlier age. From Enheduanna's poems, we can get glimpses of this earlier world, remote for her as it is for us. In the translation by Betty De Shong Meador, we read how Inanna wears "the robes of the old, old gods," before going forth to battle her enemies. This Inanna has nothing of the gentle bride of the shepherd Dumuzi, one of her later aspects. She is a terrible creature that destroys everything she faces, demolishing entire mountains with her mace. An elemental divinity, shrieking in the sky. How was she seen by those who worshipped the "old, old Gods?"

Beyond Enheduanna, crossing the liminal literacy barrier, we have only what archaeology has been able to dig out of lost cities and villages. And it is a strange world. A world of images that look alien to us. Think of the snake-women of Ubaid; think of the curious "eye idols" found in Mesopotamia. What should we think of the mouth-less "Urfa Man", perhaps the oldest human shaped piece of statuary ever found? Think of the Neolithic city of Catal Huyuk; a city where the dead were buried right under the floor of dwellings, sometimes under the beds of the living.

What kind of world was that? How did these people think? What did they think? According to Marija Gimbutas they were a peaceful and egalitarian society, dedicated to the cult of the Mother Goddess. Julian Jaynes has seen not completely conscious, hallucinated people who were really "hearing" the voices of the gods in the form of their statuary. Lewis Williams and Pearce see Neolithic art as the result of "Altered States of Consciousness."

Many others have tried to project themselves into the mind of persons living before the liminal barrier of literacy. Did they succeed? Most likely, we will never know. And, yet, these thoughts tell us of at least one thing: the infinite variety and fascination of the human mind, in history and all over the world. In a sense, they are all an enlarged exploration of Terence's line that "nothing human is alien to me."

1 comment:

  1. That's a beautiful post for a very fascinating topic: the history of mankind.
    That would be a great theme to explore: the history of writing, from the first symbols ever known to the proper writing system. I hope you will do more articles about this.