2.4. A Change of Mind in Mesopotamia

ABOUT 1230 B.C., Tukulti-Ninurta I, tyrant of Assyria, had a stone altar made that is dramatically different from anything that preceded it in the history of the world. In the carving on its face, Tukulti is shown twice, first as he approaches the throne of his god, and then as he kneels before it. The very double image fairly shouts aloud about this beggarly posture unheard of in a king before in history. As our eyes descend from the standing king to the kneeling king just in front of him, it is as emphatic as a moving picture, in itself a quite remarkable artistic discovery. But far more remarkable is the fact that the throne before which this first of the cruel Assyrian conquerors grovels is empty.

No king before in history is ever shown kneeling. No scene before in history ever indicates an absent god. The bicameral mind had broken down.

Hammurabi, as we have seen in II.2, is always carved standing and listening intently to a very present god. And countless cylinder seals from his period show other personages listening eye to eye or being presented to the just-as-real figures of humanshaped gods. The Ashur altar of Tukulti is in shocking contrast to all previous depictions of the relations of gods and men. Nor is it simply some artistic idiosyncrasy. Other altar scenes of Tukulti are similarly devoid of gods. And cylinder seals of Tukulti’s period also show the king approaching other nonpresent divinities, sometimes represented by a symbol. Such comparisons strongly suggest that the time of the breakdown of the bicameral mind in Mesopotamia is some time between Hammurabi and Tukulti.

This hypothesis is confirmed in the cuneiform remains of Tukulti and his period. What is known as the Epic of Tukulti Ninurta1 is the next clearly dated and well-preserved cuneiform document of note after Hammurabi. In the latter’s time there is no doubt of the gods’ eternal undeviant presence among men, directing them in their activities. But at the beginning of Tukulti’s somewhat propagandalike epic, the gods of the Babylonian cities are angry with the Babylonian king for his inattention to them. They therefore forsake their cities, leaving the inhabitants without divine guidance, so that the victory of Tukulti’s Assyrian armies is assured. This conception of gods forsaking their human slaves under any circumstances whatever is impossible in the Babylon of Hammurabi. It is something new in the world.

Moreover, it is found throughout whatever literature remains of the last three centuries of the second millennium B.C.

One who has no god, as he walks along the street,
Headache envelops him like a garment.

So one cuneiform tablet from about the reign of Tukulti. 

If the breakdown of the bicameral mind involved the involuntary inhibition of temporal lobe areas of the right hemisphere, as we have conjectured earlier, this statement takes on an added interest.

Also from about the same period come the famous three tablets and a questionable fourth named for its first words, Ludlul bel nemeqiy usually translated as “I will praise the lord of wisdom.” “Wisdom” here is an unwarranted modern imposition. The translation should be something closer to ‘skill’ or ‘ability to control misfortune,’ the lord here being Marduk, the highest god of Babylon. The first completely readable lines of the damaged first tablet are: 

My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance.
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.

This is de facto the breakdown of the bicameral mind. The speaker is one Shubshi-Meshre-Shakkan (as we are told in the third tablet), a feudal lord possibly under Tukulti. He goes on to describe how, with the departure of his gods, his king becomes irreconciliably angry at him, how his feudal position of ruling a city is taken away, how he thus becomes a social outcast. The second tablet describes how, in this godless state, he is the target of all disease and misfortune. Why have the gods left him? And he catalogs the prostrations, the prayers, and the sacrifices which have not brought them back. Priests and omen-readers are consulted, but still

My god has not come to the rescue in taking me by the hand,
Nor has my goddess shown pity on me by going at my side.

In the third tablet, he realizes that it is the almighty Marduk who is behind all that is happening to him. In dreams, the angels of Marduk appear to him in bicameral fashion, and speak messages of consolation and promises of prosperity from Marduk himself. At this assurance, Shubshi is then delivered from his toils and illnesses and goes to the temple of Marduk to give thanks to the great god who “made the wind bear away my offenses.”

The mighty themes of the religions of the world are here sounded for the first time. Why have the gods left us? Like friends who depart from us, they must be offended. Our misfortunes are our punishments for our offenses. We go down on our knees, begging to be forgiven. And then find redemption in some return of the word of a god. These aspects of present-day religion find an explanation in the theory of the bicameral mind and its breakdown during this period.

The world had long known rules and dues. They were divinely ordained and humanly obeyed. But the idea of right and wrong, the idea of a good man and of redemption from sin and divine forgiveness only begin in this uneasy questioning of why the hallucinated guidances can no longer be heard.

The same dominant theme of lost gods cries out to us from the tablets known as The Babylonian Theodicy.2 This dialogue between a sufferer and his advising friend is of an obviously later date, perhaps 900 B.C., but wails with the same pleas. Why have the gods left us? And since they control everything, why did they shower misfortune upon us? The poem also shimmers with a new sense of an individual or what we would call an analog self denoting a new consciousness. It ends with the cry which has echoed through all later history:

May the gods who have thrown me off give help,
May the goddess who has abandoned me show mercy.

From here to the psalms of the Old Testament is no great journey. There is no trace whatever of such concerns in any literature previous to the texts I am describing here.

The consequences of the disappearance of auditory hallucinations from human mentality are profound and widespread, and occur on many different levels. One thing is the confusion of authority itself. What is authority? Rulers without gods to guide them are fitful and unsure. They turn to omens and divination, which we shall take up shortly. And as I have mentioned earlier, cruelty and oppression become the ways in which a ruler imposes his rule upon his subjects in the absence of auditory hallucinations. Even the king’s own authority in the absence of gods becomes questionable. Rebellion in the modern sense becomes possible.

Indeed this new kind of rebellion is what happened to Tukulti himself. He had founded a whole new capital for Assyria across the Tigris from Ashur, naming it godlessly after himself ? KarTukultininurta. But, led by his own son and successor, his more conservative nobles imprisoned him in his new city, put it to the torch, and burned it to the ground, his fiery death leading his reign into legend. (He glimmers in the murky history of the Old Testament as Nimrod3 [Genesis:10] and in Greek myths as King Ninos.4) Disorders and social chaos had of course happened before. But such a premeditated mutiny and parricide of a king is impossible to imagine in the god-obedient hierarchies of the bicameral age.

But of much greater importance are the beginnings of some new cultural themes which are responses to this breakdown of the bicameral mind and its divine authority. History does not move by leaps into unrelated novelty, but rather by the selective emphasis of aspects of its own immediate past. And these new aspects of human history in response to the loss of divine authority are all developments and emphases out of the bicameral age.


In the classical bicameral mind, that is, before its weakening by writing about 2500 B.C., I suggest that there was no hesitancy in the hallucinated voice and no occasion for prayer. A novel situation or stress, and a voice told you what to do. Certainly this is so in contemporary schizophrenic patients who are hallucinating. They do not beg to hear their voices; it is unnecessary. In those few patients where this does happen, it is during recovery when the voices are no longer heard with the same frequency. But as civilizations and their interrelationships become more complex toward the end of the third millennium B.C., the gods are occasionally asked to respond to various requests. Usually, however, such requests are not what we think of as prayer. They consist of several stylized imprecations, such as the common ending of statue inscriptions:

Whoever this image shall deface may Enlil his name destroy and his weapon break!5

or the kind of praising which Gudea bestows on his gods in the great cylinder inscriptions from Lagash. A notable exception, however, are the very real prayers of Gudea in Cylinder A to his divine mother, asking her to explain the meaning of a dream. But this, like so much else with the enigmatic Gudea, is exceptional. Prayers as the central important act of divine worship only become prominent after the gods are no longer speaking to man “face to face” (as Deuteronomy 34:10 expresses it). What was new in the time of Tukulti becomes everyday during the first millennium B.C., all, I suggest, as a result of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. A typical prayer begins: 

O lord, the strong one, the famous one, the one who knows all, splendid one, self-renewing one, perfect one, first-begotten of Marduk . . . 

and so on for many more lines of titles and attributes, 

the one who holds cult-centers firm, the one who gathers to himself all cults . . .

 perhaps indicating the chaos of the hierarchy of divinities when they could no longer be heard,

 you watch over all men, you accept their supplications . . .

The suppliant then introduces himself and his petition: 

I, Balasu, son of his god, whose god is Nabu, whose goddess is Tashmeturn .. . I am one who is weary, disturbed, whose body is very sick, I bow before thee . . . O lord, Wise One of the gods, by thy mouth command good for me; O Nabu, Wise One of the gods, by thy mouth may I come forth alive.6

The general form of prayer, beginning with emphatic praise of the god and ending with a personal petition, has not really changed since Mesopotamian times. The very exaltation of the god, and indeed the very idea of divine worship, is in contrast to the more matter-of-fact everyday relationship of god and man a thousand years earlier. 

An Origin of Angels

In the so-called Neo-Sumerian period, at the end of the third millennium B.C., graphics, particularly cylinder seals, are full of ‘presentation’ scenes: a minor god, often female, introduces an individual, presumably the owner of the seal, to a major god. This is entirely consistent with what we have suggested was likely in a bicameral kingdom, namely that each individual had his personal god who seemed to intercede with higher gods on the person’s behalf. And this type of presentation or intercession scene continues well into the second millennium B.C.

But then a dramatic change occurs. First, the major gods disappear from such scenes, even as from the altar of TukultiNinurta. There then occurs a period where the individual’s personal god is shown presenting him to the god’s symbol only. And then, at the end of the second millennium B.C., we have the beginning of hybrid human-animal beings as the intermediaries and messengers between the vanished gods and their forlorn followers. Such messengers were always part bird and part human, sometimes like a bearded man with two sets of wings, crowned like a god, and often holding a kind of purse supposedly containing ingredients for a purification ceremony. These supposed personnel of the celestial courts are found with increasing frequency in Assyrian cylinder seals and carvings. In early instances, such angels, or genii, as Assyriologists more often call them, are seen introducing an individual to the symbol of a god as in the old presentation scenes. But soon even this is abandoned. And by the beginning of the first millennium B.C., we find such angels in a countless diversity of scenes, sometimes with humans, sometimes in various struggles with other hybrid beings. Sometimes they have the heads of birds. Or they are winged bulls or winged lions with human heads to act as wardens for such palaces as that at Nimrud in the ninth century or guarding the gates of Khorsabad in the eighth century B.C. Or, hawkheaded and broad-winged, they may be seen following around behind a king, with a cone which has been dipped in a small pail, as in a wall carving of Assurnasirpal in the ninth century B.C., a scene like the anointing of baptism. In none of these depictions does the angel seem to be speaking or the human listening. It is a silent visual scene in which the auditory actuality of the earlier bicameral act is becoming a supposed and assumed silent relationship. It becomes what we would call mythological.


But angels were not enough to fill in the initiative vacuum left by the retreating gods. And besides, being messengers from the great gods, they were usually associated with the king and his lords. For the common people, whose personal gods no longer help them, a very different kind of semidivine being now casts a terrible shadow over everyday life.

Why should malevolent demons have entered human history at this particular time? Speech, even if incomprehensible, is man’s chief way of greeting others. And if the other does not reply to an initiated greeting, a readiness for the other’s hostility will follow. Because the personal gods are silent, they must be angry and hostile. Such logic is the origin of the idea of evil which first appears in the history of mankind during the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Since there is no doubt whatever that the gods rule over us as they will, what can we do to appease their wishes to harm us, and propitiate them into friendship once again? Thus the prayer and sacrifice that we have referred to earlier in this chapter, and thus the virtue of humility before a god.

As the gods recede into special people called prophets or oracles, or are reduced to darkly communicating with men in angels and omen, there whooshes into this power vacuum a belief in demons. The very air of Mesopotamia became darkened with them. Natural phenomena took on their characteristics of hostility toward men, a raging demon in the sandstorm sweeping the desert, a demon of fire, scorpion-men guarding the rising sun beyond the mountains, Pazuzu the monstrous wind demon, the evil Croucher, plague demons, and the horrible Asapper demons that could be warded off by dogs. Demons stood ready to seize a man or woman in lonely places, while sleeping or eating or drinking, or particularly at childbirth. They attached themselves to men as all the illnesses of mankind. Even the gods could be attacked by demons, and this sometimes explained their absence from the control of human affairs.

Protection against these evil divinities ? something inconceivable in the bicameral age ? took many forms. Dating from early in the first millennium B.C. are many thousands of prophylactic amulets, to be worn around the neck or wrist. They usually depict the particular demon whose power is to be inhibited, surmounted perhaps by gesticulating priests shooing the evil away, and often underwritten with an incantation invoking the great gods against the threatened horror, such as:

Incantation. That one that has approached the house scares me from my bed, rends me, makes me see nightmares. To the god Bine, gatekeeper of the underworld, may they appoint him, by the decree of Ninurta prince of the underworld. By the decree of Marduk who dwells in Esagilia in Babylon. Let door and bolt know that I am under the protection of the two Lords. Incantation.7

Innumerable rituals were devoutly mumbled and mimed all over Mesopotamia throughout the first millennium B.C. to counteract these malign forces. The higher gods were beseeched to intercede. All illnesses, aches, and pains were ascribed to malevolent demons until medicine became exorcism. Most of our knowledge of these antidemoniac practices and their extent comes from the huge collection made about 630 B.C. by Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. Literally thousands of extant tablets from this library describe such exorcisms, and thousands more list omen after omen, depicting a decaying civilization as black with demons as a piece of rotting meat with flies. 

A New Heaven

As we have seen in earlier chapters, the gods customarily had locations, even though their voices were ubiquitously heard by their servants. These were often dwellings such as ziggurats or household shrines. And while some gods could be associated with celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, or stars, and the greatest, such as Anu, lived in the sky, the majority of gods were earthdwellers along with men

All this changes as we enter the first millennium B.C., when, as we are proposing, the gods’ voices are no longer heard. As the earth has been left to angels and demons, so it seems to be accepted that the dwelling place of the now absent gods is with Anu in the sky. And this is why the forms of angels are always winged: they are messengers from the sky where the gods live.8  The use of the word for sky or heaven in conjunction with gods becomes more and more common in Assyrian-literature. And when the story of the great flood (the origin of the Biblical story) is added into the Gilgamesh stories in the seventh century B.C., it is used as a rationalization for the departure of the gods from earth: 

 Even the gods were terror-stricken at the deluge. They fled and ascended to the heaven of Anu.9

This celestialization of the once-earthly gods is confirmed by an important change in the building of ziggurats. As we saw in 11.2, the original ziggurats of Mesopotamian history were built around a central great hall called the gigunu where the statue of the god ‘lived’ in the rituals of his human slaves. But by the end of the second millennium B.C., the entire concept of the ziggurat seems to have become altered. It now has no central room whatever and the statues of the major gods are less and less the centers of elaborate ritual. For the sacred tower of the ziggurat was now a landing stage to facilitate the gods’ descent to earth from the heaven to which they had vanished. This is definitely known from texts of the first millennium B.C., which even make references to the “boat of heaven.” The exact date at which this change took place is a difficult matter, for the extant ziggurats have been badly damaged and, even worse, sometimes ‘restored’. But I suggest that all of the many ziggurats which the Assyrians built beginning with the reign of Tulkulti-Ninurta were of this sort, huge pedestals for the return of the gods from heaven and not houses for earthly gods as before.

The ziggurat built by Sargon in the eighth century B.C. for his huge new city of Khorsabad is calculated from recent excavations to have surged up in seven stages 140 feet above the surrounding city, its summit shining with a temple dedicated to Ashur, still the owning, if unheard, god of Assyria. There is no other temple to Ashur at Khorsabad. Descending from the temple was no ordinary stairway as in previous ziggurats, but a long spiral ramp winding around the core of the tower down which Ashur could walk, when or if he ever landed and did return to the city. 

Similarly, the Ziggurat of Neo-Babylon, the Biblical Tower of Babel, was no god’s house as in the truly bicameral age, but a heavenly landing for the now celestialized gods. Built in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., it soared 300 feet high, again with seven stages, pinnacling in a brilliant blue-glazed temple for Marduk. Its very name indicates this use: E-temen-an-ki, temple ( E) of the receiving platform (temen) between heaven (an) and earth (ki).10 The otherwise senseless passage of Genesis (11:2- 9) is certainly a rewrite of some Neo-Babylonian legend of just such a landing by Yahweh who in the company of other gods “come down to see the city and the tower,” and thereupon “confound their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.” The latter may be a narratization of the garbling of hallucinated voices in their decline.

The tirelessly curious Herodotus in the fifth century B.C. trudged up the steep stairs and spiraling ramps of Etemenanki to see if there was a god or idol at the top: as in the altar-face of Tukulti, there was nothing but an empty throne.11 


So far, we have just looked at the evidence for the breakdown of the bicameral mind. This evidence is, I feel, fairly substantial. The absence of gods in bas-reliefs and cylinder seals, the cries about lost gods that wail out of the silent cuneiforms, the emphasis on prayer, the introduction of new kinds of silent divinities, angels and demons, the new idea of heaven, all strongly indicate that the hallucinated voices called gods are no longer the guiding companions of men.

What then takes over their function? How is action initiated? If hallucinated voices are no longer adequate to the escalating complexities of behavior, how can decisions be made? 

Subjective consciousness, that is, the development on the basis of linguistic metaphors of an operation space in which an ‘I’ could narratize out alternative actions to their consequences, was of course the-great world result of this dilemma. But a more primitive solution, and one that antedates consciousness as well as paralleling it through history, is that complex of behaviors known as divination.

These attempts to divine the speech of the now silent gods work out into an astonishing variety and complexity. But I suggest that this variety is best understood as four main types, which can be ordered in terms of their historical beginning and which can be interpreted as successive approaches toward consciousness. These four are omens, sortilege, augury, and spontaneous divination.

Omen and Omen Texts

The most primitive, clumsy, but enduring method of discovering the will of silent gods is the simple recording of sequences of unusual or important events. In contrast to all other types of divination, it is entirely passive. It is simply an extension of something common to all mammalian nervous systems, namely, that if an organism experiences B after A, he will have a tendency to expect B the next time that A occurs. Since omens are really a particular example of this when expressed in language, we can say that the origin of omens is simply in animal nature rather than in civilized culture per se.

Omens or sequences of events that might be expected to recur were probably present in a trivial way throughout bicameral times. But they had little importance. Nor was there any necessity to study such sequences, since the hallucinated voices of gods made all the decisions in novel situations. There are, for example, no Sumerian omen texts whatever. While the first traces of omens occur among the Semitic Akkadians, it is really only after the loss of the bicameral mind toward the end of the second millennium B.C. that such omen texts proliferate everywhere and swell out to touch almost every aspect of life imaginable. By the first millennium B.C., huge collections of them are made. In the library of King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh about 650 B.C., at least 30 percent of the twenty to thirty thousand tablets come into the category of omen literature. Each entry in these tedious irrational collections consists of an if-clause or protasis followed by a then-clause or apodosis. And there were many classes of omens, terrestrial omens dealing with everyday life: 

If a town is set on a hill, it will not be good for the dweller within that town.

If black ants are seen on the foundations which have been laid, that house will get built; the owner of that house will live to grow old.

If a horse enters a man’s house, and bites either an ass or a man, the owner of the house will die and his household will be scattered.

If a fox runs into the public square, that town will be devastated.

If a man unwittingly treads on a lizard and kills it, he will prevail over his adversary.12

And so on endlessly, bearing on all those aspects of life that in a previous age would have been under the guidance of gods. They can be construed as a kind of first approach to narratization, doing by verbal formulae what consciousness does in a more complex way. Rarely are we able to see any logical dependency of prediction on portent, the connection often being as simple as word associations or connotations.

There were also teratological omens beginning, “If a foetus, etc.,” dealing with abnormal births both human and animal.13 The science of medicine is actually founded in medical omens, a series of texts that begin, “When the conjuration priest comes to the house of a sick man,” and follow with more or less reasonable prognoses correlated with various symptoms.14 And omens based on the appearance of facial and bodily characteristics in the client or in persons he encounters, which, incidentally, give us the best description we have of what these people looked like.15 And omens in the time dimension: menologies which stated which months were favorable or unfavorable for given undertakings, and hemerologies that concerned themselves with propitious or unpropitious days of each month. And omens that are the beginning of meteorology and astronomy, whole series of tablets being devoted, to phenomena of the sun, the planets, the stars and the moon, their times and circumstances of disappearance, eclipses, omens connected with halos, strange cloud formations, the divine meaning of thunder and rain, hail and earthquakes as predictions of peace and war, harvest and flood, or the movement of planets, particularly Venus, among the fixed stars. By the fifth century B.C., this use of stars to obtain the intentions of the silent gods who now live among them has become our familiar horoscopes, in which the conjunction of the stars at birth results in predictions of the future and personality of the child. History also begins, if vaguely, in omen texts, the apodoses or “then-clauses” of some early texts perhaps preserving some faint historical information in a unique and characteristically Mesopotamian variety of historiography.16 Mankind deprived of his gods, like a child separated from his mother, is having to learn about his world in fear and trembling.

Dream omens became (as they still are) a major source of divination.17 Particularly in the late Assyrian period during the first millennium B.C., dream omens were collected into dream books such as the Ziqiqu where some associative principle between the dream event and its apodosis is apparent, e.g., a dream of the loss of one’s cylinder seal portends the death of a son. But omens of whatever type can only decide so much. One has to wait for the portent to occur. Novel situations do not wait. 


Sortilege or the casting of lots differs from omens in that it is active and designed to provoke the gods’ answers to specific questions in novel situations. It consisted of throwing marked sticks, stones, bones, or beans upon the ground, or picking one out of a group held in a bowl, or tossing such markers in the lap of a tunic until one fell out. Sometimes it was to answer yes or no, at other  times to choose one out of a group of men, plots, or alternatives. But this simplicity ? even triviality to us ? should not blind us from seeing the profound psychological problem involved, as well as appreciating its remarkable historical importance. We are so used to the huge variety of games of chance, of throwing dice, roulette wheels, etc., all of them vestiges of this ancient practice of divination by lots, that we find it difficult to really appreciate the significance of this practice historically. It is a help here to realize that there was no concept of chance whatever until very recent times. Therefore, the discovery (how odd to think of it as a discovery!) of deciding an issue by throwing sticks or beans on the ground was an extremely momentous one for the future of mankind. For, because there was no chance, the result had to be caused by the gods whose intentions were being divined.

As to the psychology of sortilege, I would call your attention to two points of interest. First, this practice is very specifically invented in culture to supplement right hemisphere function when that function, following the breakdown of the bicameral mind, is no longer as accessible as when it was coded linguistically in the voices of gods. We know from laboratory studies that it is the right hemisphere that predominately processes spatial and pattern information. It is better at fitting parts of things into patterns as in Koh’s Block Test, at perceiving the location and quantity of dots in a pattern or of patterns of sound such as melodies.18 Now the problem that sortilege is trying to solve is something of the same kind, that of ordering parts of the pattern, of choosing who is to do what, or what piece of land goes to which person. Originally, I suggest, in simpler societies, such decisions were easily made by the hallucinated voices called gods, which were involved primarily with the right hemisphere. And when the gods no longer accomplished this function, perhaps because of the increasing complication of such decisions, sortilege came into history as a substitute for this right hemisphere function.

The second point of psychological interest is that the throwing of lots, like consciousness itself, has metaphor as its basis. In the language of I.2, the unexpressed commands of the gods compose the metaphrand which is to be lexically widened, and the metaphier is the pair or assembly of lots, be they sticks, beans, or stones. The paraphiers are the distinguishing marks or words on the lots which then project back into the metaphrand as the command of the particular god invoked. What is important here is to understand provoked divination such as sortilege as involving the same kind of generative processes that develop consciousness, but in an exopsychic nonsubjective manner.

As with omen texts, the roots of sortilege go back into the bicameral age. The earliest mention of throwing lots appears to be in legal tablets dating from the middle of the second millennium B.C., but it is only toward its end that the practice becomes widespread in important decisions: to assign shares of an estate among the sons (as at Susa), or shares of temple income to certain officials of the sanctuary, to establish a sequence among persons of equal status for various purposes. This was not simply for practical purposes, as it would be with us, but always to find out the commands of a god. Around 833 B.C., the new year in Assyria was always named after some high official. The particular official to be so honored was chosen by means of a clay die on the faces of which the names of the various high officials were inscribed, the various sides of the cube being inscribed with prayers to Ashur to make that particular side turn up.19 While many Assyrian texts from this time on refer to various types of sortilege, it is difficult to estimate just how widespread the practice was in decision-making, and whether it was used by the ordinary people in more mundane decisions. We know that it became common among the Hittites, and its occurrence in the Old Testament will be referred to in a later chapter.


A third type of divination and one that is closer to the structure of consciousness is what I shall call qualitative augury. Sortilege is ordinal, ordering by rank a set of given possibilities. But the many methods of qualitative augury are designed to divine a great deal more information from the unspeaking gods. It is the difference between a digital and an analog computer. Its first form, as described in three cuneiform texts dating from about the middle of the second millennium B.C., consisted of pouring oil into a bowl of water held in the lap, the movement of the oil in relation to the surface or to the rim of the bowl portending the gods’ intentions concerning peace or prosperity, health or disease. Here the metaphrand is the intention or even action of a god, not just his words as in sortilege. The metaphier is the oil moving about the surface of the water, to which the movements and commands of the gods are similar. The paraphiers are the specific shapes and proximities of the oil whose paraphrands are the contours of the gods’ decisions and actions. 

Augury in Mesopotamia always has a cultic status. It was performed by a special priest called the baru, surrounded with ritual, and preceded by a prayer to the god to reveal his intentions through the oil or whatever medium.20 And as we enter the first millennium B.C., the methods and techniques of the baru break out into an astonishing diversity of metaphiers for the gods’ intentions: Not only oil but the movements of smoke rising from a censer of incense held in the lap of the diviner,21 or the form of hot wax dropped into water, or the patterns of dots made at random, or the shapes and patterns of ashes, and then sacrificed animals.

Extispicy, as divining from the exta of sacrificed animals is called, becomes the most important type of induced analog augury during the first millennium B.C. The idea of sacrifice itself, of course, originated in the feeding of the hallucinogenic idols as we saw in II.2. With the breakdown of the bicameral mind, the idols lost their hallucinogenic properties and became mere statues, but the feeding ceremonies now addressed to absent gods remained in the various ceremonies as sacrifices. It is thus not surprising that animals rather than oil, wax, smoke, etc., became the more important media of communication with the gods.

Extispicy differs from other methods in that the metaphrand is explicitly not the speech or actions of gods, but their writing. The baru first addressed the gods Shamash and Adad with requests that they “write” their message upon the entrails of the animal,22 or occasionally whispered this request into its ears before it was killed. He then investigated in traditional sequence the animal’s organs ? windpipe, lungs, liver, gall bladder, how the coils of the intestines were arranged ? looking for deviations from the normal state, shape, and coloring. Any atrophy, hypertrophy, displacement, special markings, or other abnormalities, particularly of the liver, was a divine message metaphorically related to divine action. The corpus of texts dealing with extispicy outnumbers all other kinds of augury texts and deserves much more careful study. From its earliest and very cursory mention in the second millennium, to the extensive collections of the Seleucid period around 250 B.C., the history and local development of extispicy as a means of exopsychic thought is an area where the tablets are simply awaiting the ordering of proper research. Of particular interest is that in the late period the markings and discolorations are described in an arcane technical terminology similar to what occurred among medieval alchemists.23 Parts of the exta of the sacrificed animal are referred to as “door of the palace,” “path,” “yoke,” and “embankment” and symbolize these locations and objects, creating a metaphor world from which to read out what to do. Some of the late tablets even have diagrams of the coils of the intestines and their meaning. Clay and bronze models of the liver and lungs, sometimes elaborate, sometimes crude, have been unearthed in various sites; some were probably used for instructional purposes. But since the raw organs themselves were sometimes sent to the king as proof of a particular divine message, such models may also have served as a less redolent way of reporting an actual observation.24

Please remember the metaphorical nature of all such activity, for the actual functions here are similar to though on a different level from the very inner workings of consciousness. That the size and shape of the liver or other organ is a metaphier of the size and shape of the intentions of a god is, on an ultrasimple level, similar to what we do in consciousness in making metaphor spaces Containing’ metaphor obj ects and actions.

Spontaneous Divination 

Spontaneous divination differs from the three preceding types only by being unconstrained and free from any particular medium. It is really a generalization of all types. As before, the gods’ commands, intentions, or purposes are the metaphrand while the metaphier is anything that might be seen at the moment and related to the concern of the diviner. The outcomes of undertakings or the intentions of a god are thus read out from whatever object the diviner happens to see or hear. 

The reader may try it for himself. Think of some problem or concern in a vague kind of way. Then look out the window suddenly or around where you are and take the first thing your eye lights upon, and try to ‘read’ out of it something about your problem. Sometimes nothing will happen. But at other times the message will simply flash into your mind. I have just done this as I write and from my north window see a television aerial against a twilight sky. I may divine this as meaning I am being much too speculative, picking up fleeting suggestions from flimsy air ? an unfortunate truth if I am to face these matters at all. I again think vaguely of my concerns and, walking about, suddenly cast my eyes on the floor of an adjoining room where an assistant has been building an apparatus, and see a frayed wire with several strands at the end. I divine that my problem in this chapter is to tie together several different strands and loose ends of evidence. And so on.

I have not come upon this type of divining in a Mesopotamian text. Yet I feel sure that it must have become a common practice, if only because spontaneous divination is both common and important in the Old Testament, as we shall see in a future chapter. And it remains a common method among many types of seers well into the Middle Ages.25 

These then are the four main types of divination, omens, sortilege, augury, and spontaneous divination. And I would draw to your attention that they can be considered as exopsychic methods of thought or decision-making, and that they are successively closer and closer proximations to the structure of consciousness. The fact that all of them have roots that go back far into the bicameral period should not detract from the force of the generalization that they became the important media of decision only after the breakdown of the bicameral mind as described in the first part of this chapter.


So far in this heterogeneous chapter, we have been dealing with the breakdown of the bicameral mind in Mesopotamia, and the responses to this alteration in human mentality, the effort to find out what to do by other means when voices are no longer heard in hallucination. That a further method for finding out what to do was consciousness, and that it first occurs in the history of this planet here in Mesopotamia toward the end of the second millennium B.C. is a much more difficult proposition. The reasons are chiefly in our inability to translate cuneiform with the same exactness with which we can translate Greek or Hebrew, and to proceed with the kind of analysis which I attempt in the next chapter. The very words in cuneiform that might be relevant to tracing the metaphorical buildup of consciousness and mind-space are precisely those that are extremely difficult to translate with precision. Let me state categorically that a truly definitive study of changes in Mesopotamian mentality over this second millenium B.C. will have to wait for another level of scholarship in cuneiform studies. Such a task will include tracing out the changes in referent and frequency of words that later come to describe events which we call conscious. One, for example, is Sha (also transliterated as Shah or Shag), a word in Akkadian, whose basic meaning seems to be “in” or “inside.” Prefixed to the name of a city, it means “in the city.” Prefixed to the name of a man, it means “in the man,” possibly a beginning of the interiorization of attribution. 

I hope to be forgiven for saying rather tritely that these questions and so many others must remain for further research. So swiftly are new sites being discovered and new texts translated, that even ten years frarn now we shall have a much clearer picture, particularly if the data are looked at from the point of view of this chapter. The most I feel I can establish here at this time is simply a few comparisons of a literary kind which suggest that such a psychological change as consciousness actually took place. These comparisons will be among letters, building inscriptions, and versions of Gilgamesh.

Assyrian and Old Babylonian betters Compared

My first comparison to suggest this change from bicamerality to subjectivity is between the cuneiform tablet letters of the seventh century B.C., Assyria, and those of the old Babylonian kings a millennium earlier. The letters of Hammurabi and his era are factual, concrete, behavioristic, formalistic, commanding, and without greeting. They are not addressed to the recipient, but actually to the tablet itself, and always begin: unto A say, thus says B. And then follows what B has to say to A. We should remember here what I have suggested elsewhere, that reading, having developed from hallucinating from idols and then from pictographs, had become during later bicameral times a matter of hearing the cuneiform. And hence the addressee of the tablets. 

The subjects of Old Babylonian letters are always objective. Hammurabi’s letters, for example (all possibly written by Hammurabi himself since they are cut by the same hand), are written for vassal kings and officers in his hegemony about sending such a person to him, or directing so much lumber to Babylon, specifying in one instance, “only vigorous trunks shall they cut down,” or regulating the exchanges of corn for cattle, or where workmen should be sent. Rarely are reasons given. Purposes never. 

 Unto Sin-idinnam say: thus says Hammurabi. I wrote you telling you to send Enubi-Marduk to me. Why , then, haven’t you sent him? When you see this tablet, send Enubi-Marduk into my presence. See that he travels night and day, that he may arrive swiftly.26

And the letters rarely go beyond this in complication of ‘thought’ or relationship. 

A more interesting letter is a command to bring several conquered idols to Babylon:

Unto Sin-idinnam say: thus says Hammurabi. I am sending now Zikir-ilisu the officer, and Hammarabi-bani the Dugabofficer to bring the goddesses of Emutbalum. Let the goddesses travel in a processional boat as in a shrine as they come to Babylon. And the temple-women shall follow after them. For the food of the goddesses, you shall provide sheep . . . Let them not delay, but swiftly reach Babylon.27 

This letter is interesting in showing the everyday nature of the relationship of god and man in Old Babylon, as well as the fact that the deities are somehow expected to eat on their trip.

Going from Hammurabi’s letters to the state letters of Assyria of the seventh century B.C. is like leaving a thoughtless tedium of undisobeyable directives and entering a rich sensitive frightened grasping recalcitrant aware world not all that different from our own. The letters are addressed to people, not tablets, and probably were not heard, but had to be read aloud. The subjects discussed have changed in a thousand years to a far more extensive list of human activities. But they are also imbedded in a texture of deceit and divination, speaking of police investigations, complaints of lapsing ritual, paranoid fears, bribery, and pathetic appeals of imprisoned officers, all things unknown, unmentioned, and impossible in the world of Hammurabi. Even sarcasm, as in a letter from an Assyrian king to his restive acculturated deputies in conquered Babylon about 670 B.C. :

Word of the king to the pseudo-Babylonians. I am well . . . So you, so help you heaven, have turned yourselves into Babylonians! And you keep bringing up against my servants charges ? false charges, ? which you and your master have concocted . . . Th e document (nothing but windy words and importunities! ) which you have sent me, I am returning to you, after replacing it into its seals. Of course you will say, “Wha t is he sending back to us?” From the Babylonians, my servants and my friends are writing me: When I open and read, behold, the goodness of the shrines, birds of sin . . , 28 

And then the tablet is broken off.

A further interesting difference is their depiction of an Assyrian king. The Babylonian kings of the early second millennium were confident and fearless, and probably did not have to be too militaristic. The cruel Assyrian kings, whose palaces are virile with muscular depictions of lion hunts and grappling with clawing beasts, are in their letters indecisive frightened creatures appealing to their astrologers and diviners to contact the gods and tell them what to do and when to do it. These kings are told by their diviners that they are beggars or that their sins are making a god angry; they are told what to wear, or what to eat, or not to eat until further notice:29 “Something is happening in the skies — have you noticed? As far as I am concerned, my eyes are fixed. I say, ‘What phenomenon have I failed to see, or failed to report to the king? Have I failed to observe something that does not pertain to his lot?’ . . . As to that eclipse of the sun of which the king spoke, the eclipse did not take place. On the 27th I shall look again and send in a report. From whom does the lord my king fear misfortune? I have no information whatsoever.”30

Does a comparison of these letters, a thousand years apart, demonstrate the alteration of mentality with which we are here concerned? Of course, a great deal of discussion could follow such a question. And research: content analyses, comparisons of syntax, uses of pronouns, questions, and future tenses, as well as specific words which appear to indicate subjectivity in the Assyrian letters and which are absent in the Old Babylonian. But such is our knowledge of cuneiform at present that a thorough analysis is not possible at this time. Even the translations I have used are hedged in favor of smooth English and familiar syntax and so are not to be completely trusted. Only an impressionist comparison is possible, and the result, I think, is clear: that the letters of the seventh century B.C. are far more similar to our own consciousness than those of Hammurabi a thousand years earlier. 

The Serialization of Time 

A second literary comparison can be made about the sense of time as shown in building inscriptions. In 1.2, I suggested that one of the essential properties of consciousness was the metaphor of time as a space that could be regionized such that events and persons can be located therein, giving that sense of past, present, and future in which narratization is possible. 

The beginning of this characteristic of consciousness can be dated with at least a modicum of conviction at about 1300 B.C. We have just seen how the development of omens and augury suggests this inferentially. But more exact evidence is found in the inscriptions on buildings. In the typical inscription previous to this date, the king gave his name and titles, lavished praise on his particular god or gods, mentioned briefly the season and circumstances when the building was started, and then described something of the building operation itself. After 1300 B.C., there is not only a mention of the event immediately preceding the building, but also a summary of all the king’s past military exploits to date. And in the next centuries, this information comes to be arranged systematically according to the yearly campaigns, and ultimately bursts out into the elaborate annal form that is almost universal in the records of the Assyrian rulers of the first millennium B.C. Such annals continue to swell beyond the recountal of raw fact into statements of motive, criticisms of courses of action, appraisals of character. And then further to include political changes, campaign strategies, historical notes on particular regions ? all evidence, I insist, of the invention of consciousness. None of these characteristics is seen in the earlier inscriptions.

This is, of course, the invention of history as well, commencing exactly in the development of these royal inscriptions.31 How strange it seems to think of the idea of history having to be invented! Herodotus, usually famed as “the father of history,” wrote his history only after a visit through Mesopotamia in the fifth century B.C., and may have picked up the very idea of history from these Assyrian sources. What is interesting to me in this speculation is the possibility that as consciousness develops, it can develop in slightly different ways, and the importance of the writing of Herodotus to the later development of Greek consciousness would make an interesting project. My essential point here, however, is that history is impossible without the spatialization of time that is characteristic of consciousness. 


And finally a comparison from this best-known example of Assyrian literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh proper is a series of twelve numbered tablets found in Nineveh among the ruins of the temple library of the god Nabu and the palace library of the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal. It was written for the king out of previous stories in about 650 B.C., and its hero is a demi-god, Gilgamesh, whom his father, Esarhaddon, had worshiped. Certainly the name Gilgamesh goes far back into Mesopotamian history. And numerous other tablets have been found which relate to him and to this series in some way.

Prominent among them are three apparently older tablets which parallel some of the Assyrian tablets. Where they were found and their archaeological contexts are not at all clear. They were not found by archaeologists, but were bought by private buyers from a dealer in Baghdad. Their dating and provenance therefore are a questionable matter. From internal evidence I would place them at about the same time as some Hittite and Hurrian fragments about Gilgamesh, perhaps 1200 B.C. The more usual date given them is 1700 B.C. But whatever their date, there is certainly no warrant to suppose, as have some popularizers of the epic, that the seventh century B.C. rendering of the story of Gilgamesh goes back to the Old Babylonian era. 

What we are interested in are the changes which have been made between the few older tablets and their Assyrian versions of 650 B.C.32 The most interesting comparison is in Tablet X. In the older version (called the Yale Tablet because of its present location), the divine Gilgamesh, mourning the death of his mortal friend Enkidu, has a dialogue with the god Shamash, and then with the goddess Siduri. The latter, called the divine barmaid, tells Gilgamesh that death for mortals is inevitable. These dialogues are nonsubjective. But in the later Assyrian version, the dialogue with Shamash is not even included, and the barmaid is described in very human earthly terms, even as self-consciously wearing a veil. To our conscious minds, the story has become humanized. At one point in the later Assyrian tablet, the barmaid sees Gilgamesh approaching. She is described as looking out into the distance and speaking to her own heart, saying to herself, “Surely this man is a murderer! Whither is he bound?” This is subjective thinking. And it is not in the older tablet at all. 

The Assyrian tablet goes on with great elaboration (as well as with great beauty) to bring out the subjective sadness in the heart of Gilgamesh at the loss of his friend. One of the literary devices here (at least as translators have restored a damaged part) is repeated questions that describe the outward demeanor of Gilgamesh rhetorically, asking why his appearance and behavior are thus and so, so that the reader is constantly imagining the interior ‘space’ and analog T of the hero. 

Why is thy heart so sad, and why are thy features so distorted?
Why is there woe in thy heart?
And why is thy face like unto one who has made a far journey?

None of this psalmlike concern is in the old version of Tablet X. Another character is the god Utnapishtim, the Distant, who is mentioned only briefly in the old version of Tablet X. But, in the 650 B.C. version, he is looking into the distance and speaking words to his hearty asking it questions and coming to his own conclusions.


The evidence we have just examined is strong in some areas and weak in others. The literature on the loss of the gods is an unquestionable change in the history of Mesopotamia, unlike anything that preceded it. It is indeed the birth of modern religious attitudes and we can discover ourselves in the very psalmlike yearnings for religious certainty that are expressed in the literature from the time of Tukulti up into the first millennium B.C. 

The sudden flourishing of all kinds of divination and its huge importance in both political and private life is also an unquestionable historical fact. And while these practices date back to earlier time, perhaps even suggesting that as civilization became more complicated toward the end of the third millennium B.C., the bicameral gods needed some auxiliary method of decision-making, they only achieve their dominance and universal position in civilized life after the breakdown of the gods.

It is also unquestionable that the very nature of divinities was altered in these times, and that the belief in a world darkened with hostile demons, causing disease and misfortune, can only be understood as an expression of the deep and irreversible uncertainty which followed the loss of the hallucinated decisions of the bicameral mind. 

What is weak in our survey is indeed the evidence of consciousness itself. There is something unsatisfying in my saltatory comparisons among questionable translations of cuneiform tablets of various ages. What we would like is to see in front of us a continuous literature wherein we could watch more carefully the unfolding of subjective mind-space and its operator function in initiating decision. This is indeed what occurs in Greece a few centuries later, and it is to that analysis that we now turn.