Gilgamesh Stories

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.
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Gilgamesh Stories

Post by drossly » Sun Mar 23, 2014 1:22 pm

In "Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living," Gilgamesh says: "In my city man dies, oppressed is the heart,/ Man perishes, heavy is the heart,/ I peered over the wall,/ Saw the dead bodies floating in the river's waters,/ As for me, I too will be served thus, verily it is so!" (S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians, p. 193). This doesn't sound very bicameral to me. As scholars think that this poem dates to the end of the third millennium BCE, long before Jaynes' hypothesized breakdown, I was wondering how one might deal with it from a Jaynesian perspective. Additionally, the "Epic of Gilgamesh" contains many dreams that don't seem to me to conform to Jaynes' paradigm of a bicameral dream (i.e. a dream located where the dreamer is sleeping), and many of those dreams are recounted in the Old Babylonian version, which would date to the first half of the second millennium BCE--again long before the breakdown of bicameralism. Again, how would Jaynes have dealt with these texts? I'm not persuaded that we can simply ignore them on the grounds that very ancient texts are difficult to translate.

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Re: Gilgamesh Stories

Post by Moderator » Mon Mar 24, 2014 5:35 pm

A few quick thoughts:

1. Specifically dealing with this subject, see Jaynes p. 253 and the other references to Gilgamesh in the index.

2. I don't think the dating stated in your post is accurate ("end of the third millennium BCE"). There are different versions dating to different time periods, probably all which have been subject to later editing, and the dating is not without controversy. One must first verify which version is being translated. The "standard version" dates to the time period Jaynes describes as transitional (1200 B.C.) and likely includes edits and additions that reflect a more modern mentality.

Quoted from
The standard version was discovered by Austen Henry Layard in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh in 1849. It was written in standard Babylonian, a dialect of Akkadian that was only used for literary purposes. This version was compiled by Sin-liqe-unninni sometime between 1300 and 1000 BC out of older legends.
This quote summarizes the difficulty scholars have in accurately dating the descriptions found in the text (emphasis mine):

"Since The Epic of Gilgamesh existed in oral form long before it was written down, there has been much debate over whether the extant tale is more early Sumerian or later Babylonian in cultural influence. The best preserved version of the story comes from the Babylonian writer Shin-Leqi-Unninni (wrote 1300-1000 BCE) who translated, edited, and may have embellished upon, the original story. Regarding this, the Sumerian scholar Samuel Noah Kramer writes:
Of the various episodes comprising The Epic of Gilgamesh, several go back to Sumerian prototypes actually involving the hero Gilgamesh. Even in those episodes which lack Sumerian counterparts, most of the individual motifs reflect Sumerian mythic and epic sources. In no case, however, did the Babylonian poets slavishly copy the Sumerian material. They so modified its content and molded its form, in accordance with their own temper and heritage, that only the bare nucleus of the Sumerian original remains recognizable. As for the plot structure of the epic as a whole - the forceful and fateful episodic drama of the restless, adventurous hero and his inevitable disillusionment - it is definitely a Babylonian, rather than a Sumerian, development and achievement. (History Begins at Sumer, 270)."
3. There are also many references to gods, and gods interacting with people. For example, "Did you call me, or why did I wake? Did you touch me, or why am I terrified? Did not some god pass by, for my limbs are numb with fear?” repeated a number of times in Tablet IV. Note that Bottero in Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia writes "The word 'god' here might in fact imply 'ghost'." However there is no basis for this interpretation whatsoever. This is an example of the presentist fallacy - overlaying a modern interpretation on ancient texts. Because historians don't know what to make of examples of bicameralism, they generally ignore or misinterpret them.

4. In discussing ancient texts in general there seems to be a lot of confusion as to what constitutes bicameralism. One should imagine their daily life, subtract the introspection, and add voices from gods in its place. We have many modern day case studies of this (see for example, R.T. Hulbert, "A Schizophrenic Woman Who Heard Voices of the Gods"), although in most cases the individuals also learned consciousness. What one should be looking for in ancient texts are accurate translations that clearly describe introspection in the way that you see texts do in the beginning of the subjective conscious period (what we see in the writings of Solon, for example). Phrases such as "my heart is heavy" are vague, may have been later additions, and should be compared to other translations. They translations often differ widely, and this is especially true when it comes to psychological language.

5. Readers new to Jaynes often have to urge to run out and try to locate an early text with some element of consciousness, thereby refuting the theory. This is a somewhat simplistic approach, both because it ignores the complexities involved in studying ancient texts, and the fact that it only addresses one aspect of Jaynes's theory (the timing of the transition from bicamerality to consciousness). More accurate (non-modernized) translations of ancient texts will undoubtedly help refine our understanding of the timeline for the transition to consciousness in various cultures. Perhaps the transition -- or aspects of the transition... consciousness should be viewed as a package of features -- took place somewhat earlier in Mesopotamia. There are interesting differences in bicameralism in Mesopotamia and Egypt, for example. It is likely that the different features of consciousness arose at different times rather than all at once (perhaps over several generations), and the timing was undoubtedly different in different cultures. Jaynes frequently stated that he was outlining a broad transition and that much more research was needed to further refine and elucidate these issues. Rather than looking at any one text in isolation, I suggest people view Gilgamesh in the wider context of Mesopotamian texts, as well as the larger, multidisciplinary pattern of evidence.

In Mesopotamia, there are many descriptions of bicameralism. Some examples:

“The Mesopotamian is constantly admonished: “Pay heed to the word of thy mother as to the word of thy god.” – Jacobsen, The Intellectual Adventures of Ancient Man

“A man must truly proclaim the greatness of his god; A young man must wholeheartedly obey the command of his god.” – Sumerian Texts of Varied Contents, Vol. 1

“Mesopotamians frequently wrote letters to their gods.” – Jacobsen, The Intellectual Adventures of Ancient Man

“What came out of the mouths of the gods was ‘sublime’ (síru), ‘powerful’ (gasru), ‘imposing’ (kabtu), and, above all,‘impossible to modify and even less suppress’ (sa la inennu, la uttakkaru).” ; “The gods expressed their will through their ‘words’ (amatu) and their ‘commandments’ (qibítu).” – Jean Bottéro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia

“The ensi would go to the temple at night, sacrifice, pray, and lie down to sleep. In dreams the god might then appear to him and give him his orders.” ; “[Only the gods] were truly citizens in the political sense.”; “The basic estate, the main temple with all its lands, was owned and run by the city god, who himself gave all important orders.”; “The ensi [manager of the god’s estate] … was expected to consult the god and carry out any specific orders which the god might wish to give.” – Jacobsen, The Intellectual Adventures of Ancient Man

“A man’s personal god was always ready to bring his dependent … before the great god … he would watch over him and keep him from evil influences.”
“But if, by reason of sin, the believer ceased to be ‘the son of his god’, then the latter would turn his face from him and … one of the demons would enter into the place left empty by the god.” – Georges Contenau, Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria

Wars were all started at the gods’ command. “The preamble to the account of a campaign always contains the statement that it was undertaken at the command of the god [Ashur].” – Georges Contenau, Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria

Jacobsen describes what can be viewed as the breakdown of bicameralism: “All omens and signs became confused, the gods gave no clear answers to man’s questions, no orders were transmitted, sinister portents appeared, and with fear and foreboding man awaited the catastrophe.” – Jacobsen, The Intellectual Adventures of Ancient Man

The reliance on and strict obedience to the commands of the gods, along with bicameral or visitation dreams, would be unnecessary if a culture had the same subjective consciousness we have today.

5. For more on the issue of the complexities involved in translating ancient texts, please see Jame Cohn's The Minds of the Bible as well as his lecture "Consciousness in the Bible" from the 2013 Julian Jaynes Conference on Consciousness and Bicameral Studies (audio CD coming soon). Rabbi Cohn is one of the few scholars currently doing accurate translations of ancient texts from a Jaynesian perspective.

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Re: Gilgamesh Stories

Post by drossly » Sat Apr 12, 2014 12:21 pm

Thank you for your prompt reply--which was far more timely than this reply to your reply. I would like to respond to your point #2.

As I'm sure you know, many different versions (most quite fragmentary) of The Epic of Gilgamesh are extant. You are correct that the "standard version" (and most complete version, I might add) is that found in the library of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who ruled during the 7th century BCE, well within the Jaynesian "conscious" period. Other portions of the epic written in Old Babylonian, Hittite, Hurrian, and other ancient Near Eastern languages have also been found; and scholars use these to fill in the gaps where the Assyrian tablets are mutilated and thus unreadable. Finally, there exists a set of discrete Sumerian stories that appear to be prototypes of the epic as we know it, which came into existence probably during the second millennium BCE. In my original post, I was not referring to the "standard version"; rather, I cited the one of the Sumerian prototypes, which scholars date to the end of the third millennium BCE, and the Old Babylonian version, which seems to go back to the first half of the second millennium BCE. Both would be prior to the hypothesized transition from the bicameral to the conscious mind.

What troubled me were, first, the words "I peered over the wall,/ Saw the dead bodies floating in the river's waters,/ As for me, I too will be served thus . . . ." in the Sumerian poem scholars have titled "Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living," and, second, some of the dream sequences in the Old Babylonian version of Tablet IV. The problem I see in the former is that it seems to indicate self-consciousness, which should not be possible for a bicameral person. The thing I was puzzled about in the latter text was that the dreams are not located where the dreamer is sleeping, which seems to go against what Jaynes says about bicameral dreams.

I am not new to Jaynes' theories, and I have always found them quite stimulating. I think he was onto something (though I'm not sure exactly what). Thus I am not trying to construct a simplistic refutation of the theory. However, I am troubled by the two counterexamples mentioned above and in the interest of the pursuit of truth would like to see a convincing explanation of them from a Jaynesian perspective. Perhaps your suggestion that the transition from bicameralism to consciousness occurred at different times in different cultures would be a good starting point.

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Re: Gilgamesh Stories

Post by Moderator » Fri May 09, 2014 2:19 pm

Again this type of phraseology to me is somewhat vague and would likely be open to the interpretation of the translators. The non-bicameral dream is more problematic. It's unfortunate we can't get Jaynes's comments on this, although he does briefly reference this in a talk he gave on bicameral dreams (see The Julian Jaynes Collection). He notes this as the one major exception of a conscious dream during this time period, in an older Gilgamesh tablet, purportedly dating to 1500 B.C. (from what he referred to as the Pennsylvania Tablet).

There is some relevant discussion here: ... t_djvu.txt

And also here: ... 1000-h.htm

Researching this anomalous conscious dream from a tablet purportedly dating to the bicameral period would make a great research project for someone. One would want to look at not only the accuracy of the translation but also the provenance of the tablet and the level of certainty of the dating of the tablet. We tend to accept things like the dating without question, but there is often much more speculation involved then we realize.

One footnote from An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic, for example, notes that "According to Bezold’s investigation, Verbalsuffixformen als Alterskriterien babylonisch-assyrischer Inschriften (Heidelberg Akad. d. Wiss., Philos.-Histor. Klasse, 1910, 9te Abhandlung), the bulk of the tablets in Ashurbanapal’s library are copies of originals dating from about 1500 B.C. It does not follow, however, that all the copies date from originals of the same period. Bezold reaches the conclusion on the basis of various forms for verbal suffixes, that the fragments from the Ashurbanapal Library actually date from three distinct periods ranging from before c. 1450 to c. 700 B.C."

In The Epic of Gilgamesh by Andrew George, the author writes that "The Pennsylvania Tablet, often known as Gilgamesh P, comes from southern Babylon and probably dates to the late eighteenth century B.C. It was bought by the University of Philadelphia, in 1914 and is now CBS 7771." In The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic George elaborates that it was "bought in 1914 from a dealer in New York. According to its first editor, Stephen Langdon, the tablet was 'said to have been found at Senkereh, ancient Larsa near Warka.'"

As Jaynes notes, these tablets are often dug up out of the ground and dating them can be problematic, and is often done through linguistic analysis. How certain are scholars of the dating of this tablet? In The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts: Volume 2, Andrew George discusses some of the problems in dating the tablet on pages 160-162, writing speculating that "since the spelling conventions employed by the Pennsylvania and Yale tablets speak for a southern origin, their date will be eighteenth-century at the latest."

It would be an interesting subject for further research.

I think the same tablet is referred to as B7771 here:

Provenance: "Iraq, Warka (uncertain)"; no dating information is provided

In any case, it would be very interesting to learn more about this tablet and perhaps write up the findings in an article for the newsletter.

In the meantime, this is how I view anomalies in ancient texts in general (apologies in advance for any repetition of previously stated ideas, for the sake of those viewing this post in isolation):

1. Translations are much more prone to interpretation than most people realize, and a modern psychology is often imposed. We see these challenges not just with the translation of ancient texts but also in efforts to learn the languages of indigenous tribes. Even the translation of modern languages, for those with an intimate knowledge of it, is prone to errors and misinterpretation (albeit less so than with extinct languages). What is needed is a science of translation, which currently is more of an art and involves much more guesswork and speculation than the person reading the translation often realizes. The dating of many tablets is also often open to debate. Ideally, we need someone who can read the ancient texts and is acquainted with Jaynes's theory to reexamine them and attempt a purely literal translation. Admittedly, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but you never know.

In the absence of this, we have to look at the pattern of evidence:

2. The transition from bicamerality to consciousness can be traced in the language of multiple cultures, for example Greek, Egyptian, and Chinese. The transition is evidenced in comparing the oldest to the more recent books of the Bible. As an overall trend is clear, exceptions to the trend deserve additional scrutiny.

3. Vestiges of bicamerality can be seen in the descriptions of every preliterate society I have studied. Thus far, I have found no exceptions to this.

4. The development of consciousness based on language can be studied in child development, and this can be compared to what we know about the transition in ancient history.

5. The neurology and prevalence of auditory hallucinations in children and adults today is suggestive of a historical period of bicameralism.

etc. (see the Summary of Evidence page)

What I think a careful, Jaynes-inspired examination of the ancient texts could help us better understand is:

1. when different features of consciousness emerged in different cultures, and

2. to what extent bicameralism and consciousness overlapped (what Jaynes referred to as the weak version of the theory).

I think that Jaynes used the dating of 1200 - 1000 B.C. as a starting point for future research, based on what he observed in Greece where the record is most reliable.

Jaynes often stated in later discussions that he expected the dating would be further refined by other investigators (at least initially it seems he expected a large number of scholars would be investigating the theory). With the numbers of people that still hear voices today, it seems most likely that the certain features of consciousness overlapped with bicamerality, perhaps for generations. A careful study of ancient history, compared with the development of consciousness in children, could perhaps elucidate those features and to whatever extent possible more accurately trace their gradual appearance.

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