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Julian Jaynes Society Discussion Forum: Exploring Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind Theory since 1997 • View topic - The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Analysis of ancient texts (such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Bible) and ancient civilizations as it pertains to the transition from the bicameral mind to consciousness.

The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Postby MichaelPrescott » Sat May 11, 2013 2:37 pm

Hello, everybody. Thank you for allowing me to participate in this forum. I've had a long-time interest in Julian Jaynes' fascinating book, but when I recently discussed the subject on my blog, one of my commenters brought up a number of ancient texts that predate the posited "origin of consciousness" and yet show few, if any, signs of bicamerality. One of the most interesting is The Story of Sinuhe, an Egyptian tale usually dated to 1900 BC (though the earliest extant papyrus dates to about 1800 BC). The text, in both English and hieroglyphics, is here:

http://carrington-arts.com/JJSinuhe/Sinuhe.pdf

There is some debate over whether the story is fiction or fact, but for our purposes, what matters is that the mindset of Sinuhe seems distinctly non-bicameral. Sinuhe never reports having been directed by the voice or vision of a god. He seems to view himself as an active agent shaping his own destiny (with one exception, to be considered in a moment). He is able to relate the events of his life in chronological order as a coherent whole, with appropriate dramatic twists and turns, adding up to a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and end - a story that reflects a distinctive personality.

Sinuhe is an advisor to the pharaoh. The turning point in his life comes when the pharaoh dies unexpectedly. Fearing, for unstated reasons, that he will die if he returns to the official residence, Sinuhe flees to Canaan, befriends the king, and becomes a warlord in the hill country, suppressing local uprisings and, at one point, defending himself in single combat. As he ages, Sinuhe longs to return to Egypt and sends word to the reigning pharaoh, who responds with a warm invitation and says Sinuhe was never suspected of disloyalty. The story ends with Sinuhe safely back home Egypt, a lavish tomb having been prepared for him.

There are only two references to Sinuhe responding to the (voiceless) urgings of a god, and both involve his flight to Canaan. In his initial report of his episode, there is no mention of a god's influence. Upon hearing of the pharaoh's fall:

"My heart stopped, my arms crossed, trembling fell through my whole body. I slipped back in starts to seek out a hiding-place, to place myself between the bushes, to remove the way and its farer. I made my way south without thinking of approaching this Residence. I imagined there would be bloodshed, and I denied I could survive it."

Later, however, there is a brief mention of a god when Sinuhe recounts his story to the pharaoh:

"As for this flight made by this servant, it was not planned, it was not in my heart, I did not plot it. I do not know what separated me from my place, it was like a dream. It is as if a Delta-man saw himself in Abu, a marsh-man in the Land of Nubia. I did not fear, I was not persecuted, I heard no accusation. My name was not heard in the mouth of the reporter, and yet my limbs went cold, legs panicked, my heart took hold of me. The god who decreed this flight led me away."

Even here, we see clear signs of reflective (non-bicameral) consciousness: Sinuhe knows he could have plotted it, or made a plan "in his heart," even though he denies having done so. He sees his waking life as similar to a dream (apparently a "modern" type of dream, rather than the annunciatory dreams discussed by Jaynes). He compares himself as an exile to a marsh-man stranded in the desert - an act of empathy probably impossible for a bicameral mind. It seems as if he is saying that his desertion was prompted by panic, and since the panic did not originate in his conscious mind, it must have been foisted on him by some god. (In a similar way, the Greeks attributed hysteria to the influence of the god Pan - hence the word "panic.") He says explicitly that he does not know what separated him from his former place; clearly he did not hear the dictate of a god, even if now, in hindsight, he is reduced to speculating that some god must be responsible.

In short, Sinuhe presents himself as having been baffled by his own behavior, and finding no rational basis for it, he ascribes it to a god. Given that there was no concept of the subconscious in this era, his supposition is natural enough. While his mentality is somewhat different from the modern mind, it's not consistent with my reading of Jaynes' theory. For one thing, a bicameral man would not be able to distinguish between his own intentions and those of his god. For another, he would know in no uncertain terms what the god had told him to do; he wouldn't have to guess.

There is also this reference:

"Whichever god ordained this flight, be at peace, give me back to the Residence. Have mercy on me and let me see the place where my heart resides ... I have appeased the god. May he act so as to bring right the end for one he afflicted. May his heart ail for the one he excluded to live on the hill-land. Today at last he is appeased."

Again, though, there is a clearcut distinction between Sinuhe himself and his god. Sinuhe wants one thing (to live in Egypt) while the god wants another (Sinuhe's exile). In the bicameral world, in which to hear was to obey, this kind of conflict could not exist. Moreover, Sinuhe has no idea which god prompted his flight; he can only hope that "whichever god" it is has been appeased. And note that these are the only two references to a god determining Sinuhe's actions; his successful career as a warlord is credited to no one but himself.

I don't think The Story of Sinuhe can be squared with Jaynes' theory, unless we set the date of the transition in consciousness much earlier - sometime in the 3rd millennium, perhaps. But if we keep pushing it back and back and back, it becomes progressively less credible, because the literary evidence becomes increasingly scanty and difficult to decipher.

As I said, there are other texts (some even older - e.g., The Autobiography of Weni, ca. 2300 BC) that also don't seem to fit Jaynes' conception of a bicameral mind. Of course, there are other aspects of his theory that are distinct from his historical claims. But at least in regard to the "change of mind" that purportedly took place ca. 1500-1000 BC, it looks to me as if a beautiful theory is in danger of being slain by some ugly facts.
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Postby Moderator » Mon May 13, 2013 6:11 pm

Thank you for the post Michael. This text and others mentioned in this section merit thorough investigation. Unfortunately, my current schedule won't allow time for this for the next two months. At that point I hope to offer a fuller response. But perhaps someone else will take up the task before then.

In the meantime, I can offer a general response to this category of objections:

1. THE DATING

Jaynes maintained that he was presenting the timeline for the transition based on the best available evidence, that much more research needed to be done, and that the dates were subject to modification. Jaynes revised the dates back slightly in later lectures. His dating seems to be accurate for Greece, but there are discrepancies with Mesopotamia and Egypt that require further research.

Consciousness as outlined by Jaynes is a package of features rather than an all-or-nothing proposition, and I would argue that these features likely developed at different times, rather than all at once. So not only did consciousness likely emerge at different times in different places, but different features or aspects likely were learned over time as well. Children learn consciousness in stages, so it makes sense that it would develop gradually in history as well.

Another issue is the accuracy of the dating of many of these texts, when specific rulers or other indicators are not present. When the dating is unclear, the tendency is to date them as old as possible.

2. THE TRANSLATIONS

Jaynes was very clear at the outset that his reading of many of these texts differs from popular translations. On page 177 he states:

“When the terms are concrete, as they usually are, for most of the cuneiform literature is receipts or inventories or offerings for gods, there is little doubt of the correctness of translations. But as the terms tend to the abstract, and particularly when a psychological interpretation is possible, then we find well-meaning translators imposing modern categories to make their translations comprehensible. The popular and even the scholarly literatures are full of such sugared emendations and palatablized glosses to make ancient men seem like us, or at least talk like the King James Bible. A translator often reads in more than he reads out. Many of those texts that seem to be about decision-making, or so-called proverbs, or epics, or teachings, should be reinterpreted with concrete behavioral precision if we are to trust them as data for the psycho-archaeology of man. And I am warning the reader that the effect of this chapter is not in accord with popular books on the subject.”

I recommend re-reading this entire chapter for those who haven’t done so recently.

No doubt some will agree with Jaynes on the importance of this issue, and others will not.

But even a cursory comparison of several of the translations of the Sinuhe text quickly demonstrate a range of interpretations. Where you've quoted "I did not plot it" another translation (http://www.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk/~mjn/egy ... Sinuhe.pdf) says "I did not devise it." Perhaps both are incorrect. Other departures are much greater.

... And only looking at this briefly one can quickly see the prominent role of the gods... mentioned 26 times in the translation just cited, with phrases like:
".. he is a god without equal ... excellent of plans, effective of orders, coming and going are by his command." (p. 10)
"This humble servant seeks counsel from his god." (p. 35)
"This god addressed me kindly..." (p. 43)
"If I answer it, it is not because of me, but it is the act of a god." (p. 45) ... so these are clear signs of bicameralism.

I've looked at the translation issue in depth and have come to agree with Jaynes that this is a very important problem. The Fallacy of Presentism, as it is called (imposing a modern psychology or worldview on historical texts, cultures or individuals), is a major problem for even much more recent historical interpretation. For more on this subject I recommend Historians’ Fallacies: Toward A Logic of Historical Thought by David Hackett Fischer.

The default (unconscious?) thinking among historians and classicists seems to be: "people in ancient civilizations look like us, therefore they must have thought like us" ... and then everything is interpreted through that lens. Perhaps we have a genetic disposition to form categories or group things together that look similar.

Part of the reason this problem is ongoing is that historians and classicists in general are not concerned with psychology, and psychologists in general are not interested in ancient history. Translators often seem to feel the need to make the text read like a modern story or modern poetry.

What is needed is a more objective, literal translation of these ancient texts by someone who not only understands the languages but is familiar with Jaynes’s theory. Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen any time soon.

My guess is the outcome would likely be that Jaynes's dates may need further refinement for certain aspects or features of consciousness in Egypt and Mesopotamia (but not in Greece), but that in many cases it would be shown that previous translators had erroneously imposed modern psychological language or concepts onto the texts.

3. THE PATTERN OF EVIDENCE

My experience has been that skeptics of Jaynes’s theory tend to take a very narrow view of the evidence. So, the underlying theme of these textual objections goes something like this: “Jaynes made very specific claims about the dating of consciousness. If I can go and find texts older than say 1500 B.C. that show evidence of consciousness, Jaynes’s theory will fall like a house of cards and we can all move on to other things.”

Don’t misunderstand me – I think objections are valuable and will perhaps lead to necessary refinements in the theory. But I don’t expect that we’ll find one document that invalidates the entire theory.

Jaynes’s theory, much like the theory of evolution, relies on a pattern of evidence. The theory of evolution relies on things like the fossil record, vestigial organs, homologous structures, geographical distribution, and DNA. Viewed in isolation, the individual pieces of evidence are not nearly as persuasive.

For Jaynes’s theory, it’s things like command hallucinations in modern patients, conscience-related imaginary companions in children, guiding auditory hallucinations in normal people under intense stress, the widespread auditory hallucinations documented in tribal groups, cross-cultural evidence for bicameralism in places like China, neurological evidence for a right/left temporal lobe interaction in auditory hallucinations, the widespread evidence for a view of gods as present and involved in the daily lives of ancient societies worldwide, etc.

If one takes a very narrow view, focusing on only one or two data points, Jaynes’s theory is unconvincing. To me, this is similar to a creationist raising objections about the theory of evolution based on gaps in the fossil record, while totally ignoring the evidence from DNA. The objections are important, but need to be viewed within the larger context of the pattern of evidence.

Because in my view the pattern of evidence in so compelling, when I see ancient texts that show elements of consciousness, I’m more inclined to question the translation or look for areas of the theory that need modification, than to see them as a refutation of the entire theory.

It gets back to Jaynes's four hypotheses: 1. consciousness based on language, 2. dating the transition to consciousness, 3. bicameralism, and 4. the neurological model. The dating may need to be refined by location and for particular features of consciousness, but again I think more objective research is needed.

As a final note (meant as a general observation only and not as a direct response to the previous post), I've found that while some are persuaded by Jaynes’s evidence and others are not, once people make up their minds, in my experience they generally don’t change their position. This I think is in part due to the fact that the theory relies on historical evidence that ultimately is difficult to settle one way or the other, and partly due to deeply (and sometimes unconsciously) held false premises and beliefs that negatively influence the way people view Jaynes’s theory from the outset. Some examples include: the belief that consciousness is biologically evolved, the aforementioned belief that the inhabitants of ancient civilizations were psychologically identical to modern people, and mysticism or mystical beliefs such as the belief that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, beliefs in an interventionist God, prophecy as actual divine revelation, etc. Sometimes it takes a bit of digging to unearth these false premises/beliefs but more often than not they're there and in most cases they prevent the individual from ever viewing Jaynes's evidence objectively.

So in the interest of time management, I restrict my role here to clarifying things for those interested in the theory, with no expectation of changing anyone’s mind (esp. in brief forum posts). But I welcome others to continue the debate…

I look forward to taking a closer look at these and other ancient texts and offering more specific commentary, either here or in a future publication, as time permits.
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Postby MichaelPrescott » Tue May 14, 2013 7:17 pm

Thanks, Moderator, for your reply.

I agree that the whole pattern of evidence is what matters, but if enough ancient texts show evidence of a relatively modern mindset, Jaynes' theory (or at least its historical component) would be somewhat undermined.

Regarding this objection:

"And only looking at this briefly one can quickly see the prominent role of the gods... mentioned 26 times in the translation just cited"

... I'd point out that nearly all of those references are to the pharaoh. As far as I can tell, Sinuhe never hears the pharaoh address him except when he receives a written communiqué from the palace, and when he has an audience with the pharaoh. In other words, he does not report hearing the pharaoh's voice in a hallucinated way. It is true, though, that he refers to the pharaoh as a god throughout.

The last reference you cite is "If I answer it, it is not because of me, but it is the act of a god." In the translation I was using, this line reads: "That I might answer it - there is no slight to the god in this."

Not being able to read hieroglyphics, I don't know which version is correct. If it's the second one, then the "slight to the god" again refers to the pharaoh; Sinuhe is saying diplomatically (or fearfully) that he does not mean to offend the pharaoh by the answer he gives. In the translation you cite, the line is footnoted, indicating (I think) that the meaning is controversial.

Of course, all of this does point up the difficulty of translating these ancient writings.

You also noted, "Another issue is the accuracy of the dating of many of these texts, when specific rulers or other indicators are not present."

True, but in this case the pharaoh is identified as Senusret ("the good god Senusret," line 14) with the prenomen Kheperkara ("the dual king Kheperkara," line 173). In the other translation, the pharaoh's name is rendered Sesostris, a variant of Senusret. There was more than one Senusret/Sesostris, but the use of the prenomen fixes the pharaoh's identity as Senusret I, who reigned from 1971 to 1926 BC.

As far as making up one's mind is concerned, I have to say I've gone back and forth about Jaynes over the years. I do think his book is marvelously provocative and brilliantly written, and the plethora of idols with their large hypnotic eyes does hint at some kind of daily "communion" with the gods.

Thanks again for your feedback, and for providing this forum.
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Postby Moderator » Fri May 17, 2013 3:20 pm

Yes but keep in mind, the pharaoh was divine in ancient Egypt. Without the bicameral mind, there is no need for gods at all.

I've only just begun the process of looking into this text in more depth, but to me there's not that much in this text that is inconsistent with Jaynes's theory (vs. the Iliad, for example, although this text is older). There are a few areas where certain features of consciousness are present, but for the most part it is consistent with what I would expect. I think it's often the case that people mis-read Jaynes and then base their expectations for ancient texts on misinterpretation. If you read his interviews in particular, the main thing he was focused on was the presence of introspection, and looking at a broad range of texts cross-culturally shows a clear, linear pattern of growth in introspection-related language over the centuries between say 2000 and 500 B.C., along with a corresponding diminishment of god-directed behavior and insights, and the slow merging of many gods into one. But one has to take a broad, cross-cultural view.

For the areas that indicate more modern mental language, a more careful analysis and literal translations are needed. A good summary of the very real problems associated with the translations of ancient texts can be found on pages 167-172 of Letters to the King of Mari (viewable on books.google.com). I strongly encourage those interested in this subject to read the entire section.

I managed to get to the university library and read four different translations of this text side-by-side. They varied widely. In one translation, each instance of god was capitalized ("God"), almost as if referring to the Christian god. Of course it doesn't, but I thought that an odd choice of the translator. The more I read and saw the obvious moderizations, the less I feel this text presents any real problems for Jaynes's theory. There are no instances of any real introspection, there is the instance of being commanded by a voice, and the text is not all that different from say the Iliad. The reference to the dream is interesting, and it would be interesting to see if this was accurately translated and in the original papyrus or a later copy.

It is quite interesting that it came to be written down much earlier than the Iliad was in Greece. But if it was as simple as all of the ancient texts containing overwhelming examples of bicameralism, presumably other scholars would have come to Jaynes's conclusions on their own a long time ago. Some of the texts show clear evidence (the Iliad, Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, etc.), whereas others do not. It's the overall pattern of evidence that makes Jaynes's theory convincing.

In any case, what is really needed is an accurate translation of this and other ancient texts, viewed from the perspective of Jaynes's theory. If someone reading this is interested in funding such a project, I'm sure I could locate willing translators.

I think after reading Jaynes there is something of a tendency to think of ancient people as unthinking, robotic, and only responding to voices. I understand that in a few instances Jaynes's somewhat poetic language may have contributed to this misconception. But they were really quite similar to us, minus the ability to introspect and with the addition of responding to command hallucinations. Yet the difference is still quite significant and the pre-conscious bicameral mentality explains so much that is otherwise unexplainable.

I think it's important to get away from this notion of people waking up one day fully conscious, and any departure from that in a prior text as massively contradictory. Although perhaps not as sensational, the entire transition must have been a much more gradual process over hundreds of years, taking place at different times in different civilizations. Three thousand years later, we still have a significant number of people responding to command hallucinations on a daily basis, a much larger number who experience occasional auditory hallucinations that guide their behavior, and a large percentage of children who have a "conscience-related" imaginary companion that comments on and directs their behavior.

There are things that deviate slightly from what Jaynes initially proposed that I think are quite interesting and require much more research. For example, divination and omens seem to be present much earlier in Mesopotamia and Egypt than in Greece. If this is the case and the Greeks made the transition to consciousness later, why do we see the sudden "cognitive explosion" of philosophy and science in Greece much more so than in other cultures? Why is it that visitation dreams seem to play a more prominent role in Mesopotamia than waking command hallucinations? All of these interesting cross cultural differences in the transition from bicamerality to consciousness between Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, South America, and the Far East require much more careful study and analysis.
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Postby MichaelPrescott » Sun May 19, 2013 10:36 pm

Thanks, Moderator, for looking into this a little further.

I do know that the pharaoh was considered a god, but nothing in the text indicates that Sinuhe heard the pharaoh's voice in anything other than the normal fashion. The divine status of the pharaoh is consistent with Jaynes' theory, but of course it is also consistent with other interpretations.

It seems to me that as evidence emerges that poses a challenge to the historical component of Jaynes' theory, the response is to push back the date of the transition ever further, stress how gradual it was, and suggest that bicameral man was not nearly the automaton that Jaynes seemed to describe. These modifications of Jaynes' theory may constitute improvements, but there is a danger that the theory, if amended with enough qualifications, will eventually become unfalsifiable.

After all, one could argue that the transition occurred before the dawn of literacy, in which case no written evidence could ever disprove it. But then no written evidence could prove it, either ...

As it is, there seems to be a rather selective reading of the texts. But perhaps it does come down to translation problems. Time will tell.

BTW, whenever I type the word s u g g e s t (without spaces), the forum's software converts it to a dash. Example: "I suggest we go to the movies." Weird, huh?
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Postby Moderator » Wed Jun 19, 2013 6:11 pm

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