|Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, last discussed at Scholars, Divinities and How the Cosmos was Understood “Scientifically” B.C.E.|
Masks are powerful things. They can change your personality. Well, the word persona originally meant mask, a mask worn by an actor. I once attached a cut-out of a face of a leading political figure to a stick and held the face up in front of my own and walked through busy streets doing whatever as part of a political protest. Without the mask there is no way I could have acted the way I did. Acted. Actor. Mask. But we know it’s all pretence.When ancient Mesopotamian exorcists wore masks there was less sense of pretence. The mask brought one into the presence of gods.
We have seen the texts in which the exorcist claims, I am Adapa! Seth Sanders asks the obvious question:
But how seriously may we take these claims?
He gives a hint to the answer in his next sentence:
In fact there are deeply rooted semantic connections in Sumerian between essences, emblems, and masks.
The Essence of Things: me
Sanders reminds his readers of what “is well known”. Caution: he means “well known” to scholarly readers. This is not a book for the everyday lay reader. There is no clear introductory definition of apkallu, a key term throughout, and an outsider like myself only picks up his meaning from context and double checking via Google. Even abbreviations are not explained, it being evidently assumed readers will not need to be told that CAD refers to the Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. To grasp the full flow of his argument I sometimes find myself having to renavigate earlier parts of a chapter from points that are explicitly identified as salient in its conclusion. But that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this blog: to take such “hidden learning” from the ethereal halls of academia and give plebs like me an opportunity to know what “they are saying up there.”
As is well known, the Sumerian me represent the divine powers essential to the constitution and functioning of a host of institutions belonging to the spheres of culture and religious life. But in fact every element of the universe was understood as having its own distinctive me – its essence. As Cavigneaux as well as Oppenheim himself showed, the term reaches back into the earliest written texts. Already in the earliest connected Sumerian texts of the mid-third millennium we find the me nam-nun-kam, literally, “me of princeliness” and me nu-hal-hal and [me] nu-ha-lam “me of that which cannot be destroyed.” Woods argues [unpublished paper] that the word is likely derived from the Sumerian verb “to be,” with which it shares the same phonological shape, leading to a relationship “that which is” > “essence.” (Sanders, 80)
So far so good. Essences are abstract. But there’s more. They are also very concrete.
The me, the essences, can be picked up, held up, stolen from someone and given to another, ridden, knocked over, hidden, “or stuck in a corner”. There is evidence that the term was also once synonymous with the idea of self or one’s person — and hence possessed by all entities.
The term me is part of another word, melammu, a “burning or radiant me” = “radiance, supernatural awe-inspiring sheen (inherent in things divine and royal).” But it can be removed from those who possess it, too, and the language used is that of removing a cloak or a crown in which the awe-inspiring sheen and terror is housed. Concepts of self could be attached to objects such as a crown or a mask.
What is most distinctively Mesopotamian about this concept of the self, then, is that it is an alienable essence. Inextricably bound with identity, it is nonetheless material and mobile – it can be taken. The me-lam, burning or radiant me, . . . a numinous radiance or blinding mask of light, is similarly both a mark of inherent divinity or magnificence and an alienable object that can be snatched away or handed off (Oppenheim 1943, Cassin 1968).
The universe itself, or rather, “the me [translated in this context as “plans”] of heaven and earth”, is kept in order by the powers of the seven divine fish-like sages or apkallu. (Mere human descended apkallu do not have such powers but only “great understanding”.) (pp. 53-55) As per a protective ritual:
1-2 Incantation: Uanna, who completes the plan of heaven and earth, 3^1 Uanneduga, endowed with broad mind, 5 Enmeduga, ordained with a happy fate, 6 Enmegalamma, formed in a house, 7 Enmebulugga, who grew in a field, 8 Anenlilda, incantation-priest of Eridu, 9 Utuabzu, who ascended to heaven: 10-11 They are the seven brilliant Purâdu-fish, Puradu-i’ish of the sea; 12-13 Seven apkallü formed in the river, who keep the plans [= me] of heaven and earth in order. 14-15 Nungalpiriggal, apkallu of Enmerkar, who brought Ishtar down from heaven into the Eanna. 16-17 Piriggalnungal, formed in Kish, who angered Adad in heaven so that 18-19 he did not let there be rain or vegetation in the land for three years. 20-23 Piriggalabzu, formed in Adab, who hung his seal on a Seal-fish and thus angered Enki in the Abzu so that a fuller struck him with his own seal. 24-27 Fourth, Lu-Nanna, two-thirds apkallu, who drove a dragon out of the Eninkiag-nunna, the Istar temple of Shulgi. 28-29 Four apkallu of human descent, who Lord Enki endowed with broad understanding. 30 Ritual action: Before the seven Purâdu-apkallu who are striped with plaster and black paste, 31 which are drawn on the wall of the side of the sanctuary, you recite (the above).
But to return to the exorcist who wears a mask, another persona, that of a divine being . . . . Continue reading “How to Become a Divine Messenger — continuing Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch“