2.2. Literate Bicameral Theocracies

What is writing? Writing proceeds from pictures of visual events to symbols of phonetic events. And that is an amazing transformation! Writing of the latter type, as on the present page, is meant to tell a reader something he does not know. But, the closer writing is to the former, the more it is primarily a mnemonic device to release information which the reader already has. The protoliterate pictograms of Uruk, the iconography in the early depictions of gods, the glyphics of the Maya, the picture codices of the Aztecs, and, indeed, our own heraldry are all of this sort. The informations they are meant to release in those who look upon them may be forever lost and the writing therefore forever untranslatable.

The two kinds of writing which fall between these two extremes, half picture and half symbol, are those on which this chapter is based. They are Egyptian hieroglyphics with its abridged and somewhat cursive form, hieratic, the terms meaning “writing of the gods,” and the more widely used writing which later scholars called cuneiform from its wedge-shaped characters.

The latter is for us the most important, and the remains we have of it, far more extensive. Thousands of tablets wait to be translated and more thousands to be unburied. It was used for at least four languages, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and later the Hittite. Instead of an alphabet of twenty-six letters, as in ours, or of twenty-two letters, as in the Aramaic (which except for religious texts replaced cuneiform around 200 B.C.) , it is a clumsy and ambiguous communication system of over 600 signs. Many of these are ideographic, in which the same sign can be a syllable, an idea, a name, or a word with more than one meaning, according to the class it belonged to, this class irregularly being shown by a special mark. Only by the context are we able to unravel which it is. For example, the sign different things: when pronounced as samsu it means sun; when pronounced ?mu, it means day; when pisu it means white; and it also stands for the syllables ud, tu, tam, pir, lah, and his. The difficulties of being crystal clear in such a contextual mess were great enough in its own day. But when we are exiled from the culture that the language describes by 4000 years, translation is an enormous and fascinating problem. The same is true in general for hieroglyphic and hieratic writing.

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 translation. 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.

With these cautions in mind, then, let us proceed.

When, in the third millennium B.C., writing, like a theater curtain going up on these dazzling civilizations, lets us stare directly if imperfectly at them, it is clear that for some time there have been two main forms of theocracy: (1) the steward-king theocracy in which the chief or king is the first deputy of the gods, or, more usually, a particular city’s god, the manager and caretaker of his lands. This was the most important and widespread form of theocracy among bicameral kingdoms. It was the pattern in the many Mesopotamian bicameral city-states, of Mycenae as we saw in I.3, and, so far as we know, in India, China, and probably Mesoamerica. (2) the god-king theocracy in which the king himself is a god. The clearest examples of this form existed in Egypt and at least some of the kingdoms of the Andes, and probably the earliest kingdom of Japan. I have earlier suggested in I.6 that both types developed out of the more primitive bicameral situation where a new king ruled by obeying the hallucinated voice of a dead king.

I shall take these up in turn in the two greatest ancient civilizations.


Throughout Mesopotamia, from the earliest times of Sumer and Akkad, all lands were owned by gods and men were their slaves. Of this, the cuneiform texts leave no doubt whatever.1 Each citystate had its own principal god, and the king was described in the very earliest written documents that we have as “the tenant farmer of the god.” 

The god himself was a statue. The statue was not of a god (as we would say) but the god himself. He had his own house, called by the Sumerians the “great house.” It formed the center of a complex of temple buildings, varying in size according to the importance of the god and the wealth of the city. The god was probably made of wood to be light enough to be carried about on the shoulders of priests. His face was inlaid with precious metals and jewels. He was clothed in dazzling raiment, and usually resided on a pedestal in a niche in a central chamber of his house. The larger and more important god-houses had lesser courts surrounded by rooms for the use of the steward-kings and subsidiary priests.

In most of the great city sites excavated in Mesopotamia, the house of a chief god was the ziggurat, a great rectangular tower, rising by diminishing stages to a shining summit on which there was a chapel. In the center of the ziggurat was the gigunu, a large chamber in which most scholars believe the statue of the chief god resided, but which others believe was used only for ritual purposes. Such ziggurats or similar towering temple structures are common to most of the bicameral kingdoms in some period.

Since the divine statue was the owner of the land and the people were his tenants, the first duty of the steward-king was to serve the god not only in the administration of the god’s estates but also in more personal ways. The gods, according to cuneiform texts, liked eating and drinking, music and dancing; they required beds to sleep in and for enjoying sex with other godstatues on connubial visits from time to time; they had to be washed and dressed, and appeased with pleasant odors; they had to be taken out for drives on state occasions; and all these things were done with increasing ceremony and ritual as time went on.

The daily ritual of the temple included the washing, dressing, and feeding of the statues. The washing was probably done through the sprinkling of pure water by attendant priests, the origin, perhaps, of our christening and anointing ceremonies. The dressing was by enrobing the figure in various ways. In front of the god were tables, the origin of our altars, on one of which flowers were placed, and on the other food and drink for the divine hunger. Such food consisted of bread and cakes, the flesh of bulls, sheep, goats, deer, fish, and poultry. According to some interpretations of the cuneiform, the food was brought in and then the statue-god was left to enjoy his meal alone. Then, after a suitable period of time, the steward-king entered the shrine room from a side entrance and ate what the god had left.

The divine statues also had to be kept in good temper. This was called “appeasing the liver” of the gods, and consisted in offerings of butter, fat, honey, sweetmeats placed on the tables as with regular food. Presumably, a person whose bicameral voice was condemnatory and angry would come bringing such offerings to the god’s house.

How is all this possible, continuing as it did in some form for thousands of years as the central focus of life, unless we posit that the human beings heard the statues speak to them even as the heroes of the Iliad heard their gods or Joan of Arc heard hers? And indeed had to hear them speak to know what to do.

We can read this directly in the texts themselves. The great Cylinder B of Gudea (about 2100 B.C.) describes how in a new temple for his god Ningirsu, the priestesses placed 

. . . the goddesses Zazaru, Impae, Urentaea, Khegirnunna, Kheshagga, Guurmu, Zaarmu, who are the seven children of the brood of Bau that were begotten by the lord Ningirsu, to utter favorable decisions by the side of the lord Ningirsu.2 

 The particular decisions to be uttered here were about various aspects of agriculture that the grain might “cover the banks of the holy field” and “all the rich graineries of Lagash to make to overflow.” And a clay cone from the dynasty of Larsa about 1700 B.C. praises the goddess Ninegal as

. . . counsellor, exceeding wise commander, princess of all the great gods, exalted speaker, whose utterance is unrivaled.3

Everywhere in these texts, it is the speech of gods who decide what is to be done. A cone from Lagash reads: 

 Mesilin king of Kish at the command of his deity Kadi concerning the plantation of that field set up a stele in that place. Ush, patesi of Umma, incantations to seize it formed; that stele he broke in pieces; into the plain of Lagash he advanced. Ningirsu, the hero of Enlil, by his righteous command, upon Umma war made. At the command of Enlil his great net ensnared. Their burial mound on the plain in that place he erected.4

It is not the human beings who are the rulers, but the hallucinated voices of the gods Kadi, Ningirsu, and Enlil. Note that this passage is about a stele, or stone column, engraved with a god’s words in cuneiform and set up in a field to tell how that field was to be farmed. That such stelae themselves were epiphanous is suggested by the way they were attacked and defended and smashed or carried away. And that they were sources of auditory hallucinations is suggested in other texts. One particularly pertinent passage from a different context describes reading a stele at night: 

The polished surface of its side his hearing makes known; its writing which is engraved his hearing makes known; the light of the torch assists his hearing?

Reading in the third millennium B.C. may therefore have been a matter of hearing the cuneiform, that is, hallucinating the speech from looking at its picture-symbols, rather than visual reading of syllables in our sense.

The word for ‘hearing’ here is a Sumerian sign that transliterates GI?-TUG-PI. Many other royal inscriptions state how the king or other personage is endowed by some god with this GI?-TUG-PI hearing which enables him to great things. Even as late as 1825 B.C., Warad-Sin, king of Larsa, claims in an inscription on a clay cone that he rebuilt the city with GI?-TUG-PI DAGAL, or $B!H (Bhearing everywhere $B!I (B his god Enki.6 

The Mouth-Washing Ceremonies

Further evidence that such statues were aids to the hallucinated voices is found in other ceremonies all described precisely and concretely on cuneiform tablets. The statue-gods were made in the bit-mummu, a special divine craftsman’s house. Even the craftsmen were directed in their work by a craftsman-god, Mummuy who ‘dictated’ how to make the statue. Before being installed in their shrines, the statues underwent mis-pi which means mouth-washing, and the ritual of pit-pi or “opening of the mouth.”

Not only when the statue was being made, but also periodically, particularly in the later bicameral era when the hallucinated voices may have become less frequent, an elaborate washing-of-the-mouth ceremony could renew the god’s speech. The god with its face of inlaid jewels was carried by dripping torchlight to the riverbank, and there, imbedded in ceremonies and incantation, his wood mouth washed several times as the god was faced east, west, north, and then south. The holy water with which the mouth was washed out was a solution of a multitude of exotic ingredients: tamarisks, reeds of various kinds, sulphur, various gums, salts, and oils, date honey, with various precious stones. Then after more incantations, the god was “led by the hand” back into the street with the priest incanting “foot that advanceth, foot that advanceth . . At the gate of the temple, another ceremony was performed. The priest then took “the hand” of the god and led him in to his throne in the niche, where a golden canopy was set up and the statue’s mouth washed again.7

Bicameral kingdoms should not be thought of as everywhere the same or as not undergoing considerable development through time. The texts from which the above information has come are from approximately the late third millennium B.C. They may therefore represent a late development of bicamerality in which the very complexity of the culture could have been making the hallucinated voices less clear and frequent, thus giving rise to such a cleansing ritual in hope of rejuvenating the voice of the god.

The Personal God

But it is not to be supposed that the ordinary citizen heard directly the voices of the great gods who owned the cities; such hallucinatory diversity would have weakened the political fabric. He served the owner gods, worked their estates, took part in their festivals. But he appealed to them only in some great crisis, and then only through intermediaries. This is shown on countless cylinder seals. A large proportion of the inventory type of cuneiform tablets have impressions on the reverse side rolled from such seals; commonly, they show a seated god and another minor divinity, usually a goddess, conducting the owner of the tablet by the right hand into the divine presence. 

Such intermediaries were the personal gods. Each individual, king or serf, had his own personal god whose voice he heard and obeyed.8 In almost every house excavated, there existed a shrineroom that probably contained idols or figurines as the inhabitant’s personal gods. Several late cuneiform texts describe rituals for them similar to the mouth-washing ceremonies for the great gods.9

These personal gods could be importuned to visit other gods higher up in the divine hierarchy for some particular boon. Or, in the other direction, strange as it seems to us: when the owner gods had chosen a prince to be a steward-king, the city-god informed the appointee’s personal god of the decision first, and only then the individual himself. According to my discussion in I. 5, all this layering was going on in the right hemisphere and I am well aware of the problem of authenticity and group acceptance of such selection. As elsewhere in antiquity, it was the personal god who was responsible for what the king did, as it was for the commoner.

Other cuneiform texts state that a man lived in the shadow of his personal god, his Hi. So inextricably were a man and his personal god bound together that the composition of his personal name usually included the name of the personal god, thus making obvious the bicameral nature of the man. It is of considerable interest when the name of the king is indicated as the personal god: Rim-Sin-Ili, which means “Rim-Sin is my god,” Rim-Sin being a king of Larsa, or, more simply, Sharru-Ili, “the king is my god.”10 These instances suggest that the steward-king himself could sometimes be hallucinated.

When the King Becomes a God

This possibility shows that the distinction I have made between the steward-king type of theocracy and the god-king is not an absolute one. Moreover, on several cuneiform tablets, a number of the earlier Mesopotamian kings have beside their names the eight-pointed star which is the determinative sign indicating deity. In one early text, eleven out of a larger number of kings of Ur and Isin are given this or another divine determinative. A number of theories have been proposed as to what this means, none of them very gripping.

The clues to look at are, I think, that the divine determinative is often given to these kings only late in their reigns, and then only in certain of their cities. This may mean that the voice of a particularly powerful king may have been heard in hallucination but only by a certain proportion of his people, only after he had reigned for some time, and only in certain places. 

Yet even in these instances, there seems throughout Mesopotamia a significant and continuing distinction between such divine kings and the gods proper.11 But this is not at all true of Egypt, to which we now turn.


The great basin of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers looses its identity, feature by feature, into the limitless deserts of Arabia and the gradual foothills of the mountain chains of Persia and Armenia. But Egypt, except in the south, is clearly defined by bilaterally symmetrical immutable frontiers. A pharaoh extending his authority in the Nile Valley soon reached what he might raid but never conquer. And thus Egypt was always more uniform both geographically and ethnologically, both in space and in time. Its people through the ages were also of a remarkably similar physique, as has been shown from studies of remaining skulls.12 It is this protected homogeneity, I suggest, which allowed the perpetuation of that more archaic form of theocracy, the god-king.

The Memphite Theology

Let us begin with the famous “Memphite Theology.”13 This is an eighth-century B.C. granite block on which a previous work (presumably a rotting leather roll of around 3000 B.C.) was copied. It begins with a reference to a “creator” god Ptah, proceeds through the quarrels of the gods Horus and Seth and their arbitration by Geb, describes the construction of the royal godhouse at Memphis, and then, in a famous final section, states that the various gods are variations of Ptah’s voice or “tongue.” 

Now when “tongue” here is translated as something like the “objectified conceptions of his mind,” as it so often is, this is surely an imposing of modern categories upon the texts.14 Ideas such as objectified conceptions of a mind, or even the notion of something spiritual being manifested, are of much later development. It is generally agreed that the ancient Egyptian language, like the Sumerian, was concrete from first to last. To maintain that it is expressing abstract thoughts would seem to me an intrusion of the modern idea that men have always been the same. Also, when the Memphite Theology speaks of the tongue or voices as that from which everything was created, I suspect that the very word “created” may also be a modern imposition, and the more proper translation might be commanded. This theology, then, is essentially a myth about language, and what Ptah is really commanding is indeed the bicameral voices which began, controlled, and directed Egyptian civilization.

Osiris the Dead King’s Voice

There has been some astonishment that mythology and reality should be so mixed that the heavenly contention of Horus and Seth is over real land, and that the figure of Osiris in the last section has a real grave in Memphis, and also that each king at death becomes Osiris, just as each king in life is Horus. If it is assumed that all of these figures are particular voice hallucinations heard by kings and their next in rank, and that the voice of a king could continue after his death and ‘be’ the guiding voice of the next, and that the myths about various contentions and relationships with other gods are attempted rationalizations of conflicting admonitory authoritative voices mingled with the authoritative structure in the actuality of the society, at least we are given a new way to look at the subject.

Osiris, to go directly to the important part of this, was not a “dying god,” not “life caught in the spell of death,” or “a dead god,” as modern interpreters have said. He was the hallucinated voice of a dead king whose admonitions could still carry weight. And since he could still be heard, there is no paradox in the fact that the body from which the voice once came should be mummified, with all the equipment of the tomb providing life’s necessities: food, drink, slaves, women, the lot. There was no mysterious power that emanated from him; simply his remembered voice which appeared in hallucination to those who had known him and which could admonish or suggest even as it had before he stopped moving and breathing. And that various natural phenomena such as the whispering of waves could act as the cue for such hallucinations accounts for the belief that Osiris, or the king whose body has ceased to move and is in his mummy cloths, continues to control the flooding of the Nile. Further, the relationship between Horus and Osiris, ’embodied’ in each new king and his dead father forever, can only be understood as the assimilation of an hallucinated advising voice into the king’s own voice, which then would be repeated with the next generation.

Mansions for Voices

That the voice and therefore the power of a god-king lived on after his body stopped moving and breathing is certainly suggested by the manner of his burial. Yet burial is the wrong word. Such divine kings were not morosely entombed, but gaily empalaced. Once the art of building with stone was mastered shortly after 3000 B.C., what once had been the stepped matsaba tombs leap up into those playhouses of bicameral voices in immortal life we call the pyramids: complexes of festive courts and galleries merry with holy pictures and writing, often surrounded by acres of the graves of the god’s servants, and dominated by the god’s pyramidal house itself, soaring sunward like a shining ziggurat with an almost too confident exterior austerity, and built with an integrity that did not scruple to use the hardest of stones, polished basalts, granites, and diorites, as well as alabaster and limestone.

The psychology of all this is yet to be uncovered. So seriously has the evidence been torn away by collectors of all ranks of guilt that the whole question may be forever wrapped in unanswerableness. For the unmoving mummy of the god-king is often in a curiously plain sarcophagus, while the gaudy effigies made of him are surrounded with a different reverence ? perhaps because it was from them that the hallucinations seemed to come. Like the god-statues of Mesopotamia they were life-sized or larger, sometimes elaborately painted, usually with jewels for eyes long since hacked out of their sockets by conscious nonhallucinating robbers. But unlike their eastern cousins, they did not have to be moved and so were finely chiseled out of limestone, slate, diorite, or other stone, and only in certain eras carved from wood. Usually, they were set permanently in niches, some seated, some standing free, some in multiples of the god-king in standing or seated rows, and some walled up in small chapels called serdabs with two small eyeholes in front of the jewel-eyes so that the god could see out into the room before him, where there were offerings of food and treasure and we know not what else, so have these tombs been plundered. Occasionally the actual voices hallucinated from the deceased god-king came to be written down as in “The Instructions which the Majesty of King Amenemhet I justified, gave when he spoke in a dream-revelation to his son.”

The commoner also was buried in a manner as if he still lived. The peasant since predynastic times had been buried with pots of food, tools, and offerings for his continued life. Those higher in the social hierachy were given a funeral feast in which the corpse itself somehow took part. Scenes showing the deceased eating at his own funerary table came to be carved on slabs and set into a niche in the wall of the grave-mound or mastaba. Later graves elaborated this into stone-lined chambers with painted reliefs and serdabs with statues and offerings as in the pyramids proper.

Often, “true-of-voice” was an epithet added to the name of a dead person. This is difficult to understand apart from the present theory. “True-of-voice” originally applied to Osiris and Horus with reference to their victories over their opponents.

Letters too were written to the dead as if they still lived. Probably this occurred only after some time when the person so addressed could no longer be ‘heard’ in hallucinations. A man writes his dead mother asking her to arbitrate between himself and his dead brother. How is this possible unless the living brother had been hearing his dead brother in hallucination? Or a dead man is begged to awaken his ancestors to help his widow and child. These letters are private documents dealing with everyday matters, and are free of official doctrine or makebelieve.

A New Theory of the Ka

If we could say that ancient Egypt had a psychology, we would then have to say that its fundamental notion is the ka, and the problem becomes what the ka is. Scholars struggling with the meaning of this particularly disturbing concept, which we find constantly in Egyptian inscriptions, have translated it in a litter of ways, as spirit, ghost, double, vital force, nature, luck, destiny, and what have you. It has been compared to the life-spirit of the Semites and Greeks, as well as to the genius of the Romans. But obviously, these later concepts are the hand-me-downs of the bicameral mind. Nor can this slippery diversity of meanings be explained by positing an Egyptian mentality in which words were used in several ways as approaches to the same mysterious entity, or by assuming “the peculiar quality of Egyptian thought which allows an object to be understood not by a single and consistent definition, but by various and unrelated approaches.”15 None of this is satisfactory.

The evidence from hieratic texts is confusing. Each person has his ka and speaks of it as we might of our will power. Yet when one dies, one goes to one’s ka. In the famous Pyramid Texts around 2200 B.C., the dead are called “masters of their ka’s.” The symbol in hieroglyphics for the ka is one of admonishing: two arms uplifted with flat outspread hands, the whole placed upon a stand which in hieroglyphics is only used to support the symbols of divinities.

It is obvious from the preceding chapters that the ka requires a reinterpretation as a bicameral voice. It is, I believe, what the ili or personal god was in Mesopotamia. A man’s ka was his articulate directing voice which he heard inwardly, perhaps in parental or authoritative accents, but which when heard by his friends or relatives even after his own death, was, of course, hallucinated as his own voice.

If we can here relax our insistence upon the unconsciousness of these people, and, for a moment, imagine that they were something like ourselves, we could imagine a worker out in the fields suddenly hearing the ka or hallucinated voice of the vizier over him admonishing him in some way. If, after he returned to his city, he told the vizier that he had heard the vizier’s ka (which in actuality there would be no reason for his doing), the vizier, were he conscious as are we, would assume that it was the same voice that he himself heard and which directed his life. Whereas in actuality, to the worker in the fields, the vizier’s ka sounded like the vizier’s own voice. While to the vizier himself, his ka would speak in the voices of authorities over him, or some amalgamation of them. And, of course, the discrepancy could never be discovered.Consistent with this interpretation are several other aspects of the ka. The Egyptians’ attitude toward the ka is entirely passive. Just as in the case of the Greek gods, hearing it is tantamount to obeying it. It empowers what it commands. Courtiers in some of their inscriptions referring to the king say, “I did what his ka loved” or “I did that which his ka approved,”16 which may be interpreted as the courtier hearing the hallucinated voice of his king approving his work.

In some texts it is said that the king makes a man’s ka, and some scholars translate ka in this sense as fortune.17 Again, this is a modern imposition. A concept such as fortune or success is impossible in the bicameral culture of Egypt. What is meant here according to my reading is that the man acquires an admonitory hallucinated voice which then can direct him in his work. Frequently the ka crops up in names of Egyptian officials as did the ili with Mesopotamian officials. Kaininesut, “my ka belongs to the king,” or Kainesut, “the king is my ka.”18 In the Cairo Museum, stela number 20538 says, “the king gives his servants Ka’s and feeds those who are faithful.”

The ka of the god-king is of particular interest. It was heard, I suggest, by the king in the accents of his own father. But it was heard in the hallucinations of his courtiers as the king’s own voice, which is the really important thing. Texts state that when a king sat at a meal and ate, his ka sat and ate with him. The pyramids are full of false doors, sometimes simply painted on the limestone walls, through which the deceased god-king’s ka could pass out into the world and be heard. It is only the king’s ka which is pictured on monuments, sometimes as a standard bearer holding the staff of the king’s head and the feather, or as a bird perched behind the king’s head. But most significant are the representations of the king’s ka as his twin in birth scenes. In one such scene, the god Khnum is shown forming the king and his ka on his potter’s wheel. They are identical small figures except that the ka has his left , hand pointing to his mouth, obviously suggesting that he is what we might describe as a persona of speech.19

Perhaps evidence for a growing complexity in all this are several texts from the eighteenth dynasty or 1500 B.C. onward, which casually say that the king has fourteen ka’s! This very perplexing statement may indicate that the structure of the government had become so complicated that the king’s hallucinated voice was heard as fourteen different voices, these being the voices of intermediaries between the king and those who were carrying out his orders directly. The notion of the king having fourteen ka’s is inexplicable by any other notion of what a ka is.

Each king then is Horus, his father dead becoming Osiris, and has his ka, or in later ages, his several ka’s, which could best be translated now as voice-persona. An understanding of this is essential for the understanding of the entire Egyptian culture since the relation of king, god, and people is defined by means of the ka. The king’s ka is, of course, the ka of a god, operates as his messenger, to himself is the voice of his ancestors, and to his underlings is the voice they hear telling them what to do. And when a subject in some of the texts says, “my ka derives from the king” or “the king makes my ka” or “the king is my ka,” this should be interpreted as an assimilation of the person’s inner directing voice, derived perhaps from his parents, with the voice or supposed voice of the king.

Another related concept in ancient Egyptian mentality is the ba. But at least in the Old Kingdom, the ba is not really on the same level as the ka. It is more like our common ghost, a visual manifestation of what auditorily is the ka. In funerary scenes, the ba is usually depicted as a small humanoid bird, probably because visual hallucinations often have flitting and birdlike movements. It is usually drawn attendant on or in relationship to the actual corpse or to statues of the person. That after the fall of the more king-dominated Old Kingdom, the ba takes on some of the bicameral functions of the ka is indicated by a change in its hieroglyph from a small bird to one beside a lamp (to lead the way), and by its auditory hallucinatory role in the famous Papyrus Berlin 3024, which dates about 1900 B.C. All translations of this astounding text are full of modern mental impositions, including the most recent,20 otherwise a fascinating chore of scholarship. And no commentator has dared to take this “Dispute of a man with his Ba” at face value, as a dialogue with an auditory hallucination, much like that of a contemporary schizophrenic.


In the previous chapter, I stressed the uniformities among bicameral kingdoms, the large central worshiping places, treatment of the dead as if they were still living, and the presence of idols. But over and beyond these grosser aspects of ancient civilizations are many subtleties which space has not permitted me to mention. For just as we know that cultures and civilizations can be strikingly different, so we must not assume that the bicameral mind resulted in precisely the same thing everywhere it occurred. Differences in populations, ecologies, priests, hierarchies, idols, industries, all would, I think, result in profound differences in the authority, frequency, ubiquity, and affect of hallucinatory control.

In this chapter, on the other hand, I have been making my emphasis the differences between the two greatest of such civilizations. But I have been speaking of them as if unchanging over time. And this is untrue. To give the impression of a static stability through time and space of bicameral theocracies is entirely mistaken. And I would like to redress the balance in this last section of this chapter by mentioning the changes and differences in the structure of bicameral kingdoms.

The Complexities

The most obvious fact of theocracies is their success in a biological sense. Populations were continually increasing. As they did so, problems of social control by hallucinations called gods became more and more complex. The structuring of such control in a village of a few hundred back at Eynan in the ninth millennium B.C. is obviously enormously different from what it was in the civilizations we have just discussed with their hierarchical layer of gods, priests, and officers.

Indeed, I suggest that there is a built-in periodicity to bicameral theocracies, that the complexities of hallucinatory control with their very success increase until the civil state and civilized relations can no longer be sustained, and the bicameral society collapses. As I noted in the previous chapter, this occurred many times in the pre-Columbian civilizations of America, whole populations suddenly deserting their cities, with no external cause, and anarchically melting back into tribal living in surrounding terrain, but returning to their cities and their gods a century or so later.

In the millennia we have been looking at in this chapter, the complexities were apparently mounting. Many of the ceremonies and practices I have described were initiated as ways of reducing this complexity. Even in writing, the first pictographs were to label and list and sort out. And some of the first syntactical writing speaks of the overpopulation. The Sumerian epic known to us as Atrahasis bursts open with the problem:

The people became numerous . . .
Th e god was depressed by their uproar
Enlil heard their noise,
He exclaimed to the great gods
The noise of mankind has become burdensome . . . 21 

as if the voices were having difficulty. The epic goes on to describe how the great gods send plagues, famines, and finally a great flood (the origin of the story of the Biblical flood) to get rid of some of the “black headed ones” as the Mesopotamian gods disparagingly referred to their human slaves.

The apparatus of divinity was becoming strained. In the early millennia of the bicameral age, life had been simpler, confined to a small area, with a simpler political organization, and the needed gods were then few. But as we approach and continue through to the end of the third millennium B.C., the tempo and complexity of social organization demand a far greater number of decisions in a far greater number of contexts in any week or month. And hence, the enormous proliferation of deities which could be invoked in whatever situation a man might find himself. From the great god-houses of the Sumerian and Babylonian cities of the major gods, to the personal gods enchapeled in each household, the world must have literally swarmed with sources of hallucination, and hence the increasing need for priests to order them into strict hierarchies. There were gods for everything one might do. One finds, for example, the coming into existence of obviously popular wayside shrines, such as the Pa-Sag Chapel where the statue-god Pa-Sag helped in making decisions about journeys through the desert.22

The response of these Near Eastern theocracies to this increasing complexity is both different and extremely illuminating. In Egypt, the older god-king form of government is less resilient, less developing of human potential, less allowing of innovation, of individuality among subordinate domains. Yet it stretched out for huge distances along the Nile. Regardless of what theory of civil cohesion one may hold, there is no doubt that in the last century of the third millennium B.C., all authority in Egypt broke down. There may have been a triggering cause in some geological catastrophe: some ancient texts referring back to the period of 2100 B.C. seem to speak of the Nile becoming dry, of men crossing it on foot, of the sun being hidden, of crops being diminished. Whatever the immediate cause, the pyramid of authority headed by the god-king at Memphis simply collapsed at about that time. Literary sources describe people fleeing towns, noblemen grubbing for food in the fields, brothers fighting, men killing their parents, pyramids and tombs ransacked. Scholars are insistent that this total disappearance of authority was due to no outside force but to some unfathomable internal weakness. And I suggest that this is indeed the weakness of the bicameral mind, its fragility in the face of increasing complexity, and that the collapse of authority in so absolute a manner can only be so understood. Egypt at the time had extremely important separated districts stretching from the delta to the upper Nile that could have been self-sustaining. But the very fact that in the midst of this anarchy there was no rebellion, no striving of these sections for independence is, I think, indicative of a very different mentality from our own.

This breakdown of the bicameral mind in what is called the Intermediate Period is reminiscent at least of those periodic breakdowns of Mayan civilizations when all authority suddenly collapsed, and the population melted back into tribal living in the jungles. And just as the Maya cities became inhabited again or new ones formed after a period of breakdown, so Egypt after less then a century of breakdown has unified itself at the beginning of the second millennium under a new god-king, beginning what is called the Middle Kingdom. The same breakdown occurred elsewhere in the Near East from time to time, as in Assur about 1700 B.C., as we shall see in the next chapter.

The Idea of Law 

But nothing of this extent ever happens in southern Mesopotamia. Of course there are wars. City-states fought each other over whose god and therefore which steward was to rule over which fields. But there was never any total collapse of authority as occurred in Mesoamerica and in Egypt at the end of the Old Kingdom.

One of the reasons, I think, was the greater resiliency of the steward-king type of theocracy. And another, not unconnected reason was the use to which writing was put. Unlike in Egypt, writing in Mesopotamia was early put to civil use. By 2100 B.C. in Ur, the judgments of gods through their steward mediums began to be recorded. This is the beginning of the idea of law. Such written judgments could be in several places and be continuous through time, thus allowing the cohesiveness of a larger society. We know of nothing similar in Egypt until almost a millennium later.

In 1792 B.C., the civil use of writing in this way breaks open an almost new kind of government in that commanding figure of Mesopotamian history, the greatest of all steward kings, Hammurabi, steward of Marduk, the city god of Babylon. His long stewardship, lasting to 1750 B.C., is a pulling together of most of the city-states of Mesopotamia into an hegemony under his god Marduk in Babylon. This process of conquest and influence is made possible by letters and tablets and stelae in an abundance that had never been known before. It is even thought that he was the first literate king who did not need a scribe, since all his cuneiform letters are apparently incised in wet clay by the same hand. Writing was a new method of civil direction, indeed the model that begins our own memo-communicating government. Without it such a unification of Mesopotamia could not have been accomplished. It is a method of social control which by hindsight we know will soon supplant the bicameral mind.

His most famous remains are the somewhat overinterpreted and perhaps misnamed Code of Hammurabi.23 Originally, it was an eight-foot-high black basalt stele erected at the end of his reign beside a statue or possibly idol of himself. So far as we can make out, someone seeking redress from another would come to the steward’s statue, to “hear my words” (as the stele says at the bottom), and then move over to the stele itself, where the previous judgments of the steward’s god are recorded. His god, as I have said, was Marduk, and the top of the stele is sculptured to depict the scene of judgment-giving. The god is seated on a raised mound which in Mesopotamian graphics symbolizes a mountain. An aura of flames flashes up from his shoulders as he speaks (which has made some scholars think it is Shamash, the sun-god). Hammurabi listens intently as he stands just below him (“under-stands”). The god holds in his right hand the attributes of power, the rod and circle very common to such divine depictions. With these symbols, the god is just touching the left elbow of his steward, Hammurabi. One of the magnificent things about this scene is the hypnotic assurance with which both god and steward-king intently stare at each other, impassively majestic, the steward-king’s right hand held up between us, the observers, and the plane of communication. Here is no humility, no begging before a god, as occurs just a few centuries later. Hammurabi has no subjective-self to narratize into such a relationship. There is only obedience. And what is being dictated by Marduk are judgments on a series of very specific cases.

As written on the stele beneath this sculptured relief, the judgments of Marduk are sandwiched in between an introduction and an epilogue by Hammurabi himself. Here with pomp and fury he boasts of his deeds, his power, his intimacy with Marduk, describes the conquests he has made for Marduk, the reason for the setting up of this stele, and ends with dire implications as to the evil that will befall anyone who scratches out his name. In vainglory and naivete both prologue and epilogue remind us of the Iliad.

But in between are the 282 quiet pronouncements of the god. They are serenely reasoned decisions about the apportioning of commodities among different occupations, how house slaves or thieves or unruly sons were punished, the eye-for-an-eye-andtooth-for-a-tooth kind of recompensing, judgments about gifts and deaths and adopting children (which seems to have been a considerable practice), and of marriage and servants and slaves ? all in a cold economy of words in contrast to the bellicose blustering of the prologue and epilogue. Indeed they sound like two very different ‘men’ and in the bicameral sense I think they were. They were two separately integrated organizations of Hammurabi’s nervous system, one of them in the left hemisphere writing the prologue and epilogue and standing in effigy at the side of the stele, and the other in the right hemisphere composing judgments. And neither of them was conscious in our sense.

While the stele itself is clearly evidence for the bicameral mind in some form, the problems to which the god’s words are addressed are indeed complex. It is very difficult to imagine doing the things that these laws say men did in the eighteenth century B.C. without having a subjective consciousness in which to plan and devise, deceive and hope. But it should be remembered how rudimentary all this was and how misleading our modern words can be. The word that is incorrectly translated as “money” or even as “loan” is simply kaspu, meaning silver. It cannot mean money in our sense since no coins have ever been found. Similarly, what has been translated as rents is really tithing, an agreement marked on a clay tablet to return a portion of the produce of a field to its owner. Wine was not so much purchased as exchanged, one measure of wine for one measure of grain. And the use of some modern banking terms in some translations is downright inaccurate. As I have mentioned before, in many translations of cuneiform material, there is the constant attempt on the part of scholars to impose modern categories of thought on these ancient cultures in order to make them more familiar and therefore supposedly more interesting to modern readers.

These rules of the stele should not be thought of in the modern terms of laws which are enforced by police, something unknown at that time. Rather they are lists of practices in Babylon itself, the statements of Marduk, which needed no more enforcement than their authenticity on the stele itself.

The fact that they were written down and, more generally, the wide use of visual writing for communication indicate, I think, a reduction in the auditory hallucinatory control of the bicameral mind. Together, they put into motion cultural determinants which, coming together with other forces a few centuries later, resulted in a change in the very structure of the mind itself.

Let me summarize.

I have endeavored in these two chapters to examine the record of a huge time span to reveal the plausibility that man and his early civilizations had a profoundly different mentality from our own, that in fact men and women were not conscious as are we, were not responsible for their actions, and therefore cannot be given the credit or blame for anything that was done over these vast millennia of time; that instead each person had a part of his nervous system which was divine, by which he was ordered about like any slave, a voice or voices which indeed were what we call volition and empowered what they commanded and were related to the hallucinated voices of others in a carefully established hierarchy.

The total pattern, I suggest, is in agreement with such a view. It is, of course, not conclusive. However, the astonishing consistency from Egypt to Peru, from Ur to Yucatan, wherever civilizations arose, of death practices and idolatry, of divine government and hallucinated voices, all are witness to the idea of a different mentality from our own.

But it would be an error, as I have tried to show, to regard the bicameral mind as a static thing. True, it developed from the ninth millennium B.C. to the second millennium B.C. with the slowness that makes any single century seem as static as its ziggurats and temples. Millennia are its units of time. But the tempo of development at least in the Near East picks up as we reach the second millennium B.C. The gods of Akkad, like the ka’s of Egypt, have multiplied in complexity. And as this complexity develops, there is the first unsureness, the first need for personal gods to intercede with the higher gods, who seem to be receding into the heavens where in one brief millennium they will have disappeared.

From the royal corpse propped up on its stones under its red parapet in Eynan, still ruling its Natufian village in the hallucinations of its subjects, to the mighty beings that cause thunder and create worlds and finally disappear into heavens, the gods were at the same time a mere side effect of language evolution and the most remarkable feature of the evolution of life since the development of Homo sapiens himself. I do not mean this simply as poetry. The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination’ of anyone. They were man’s volition. They occupied his nervous system, probably his right hemisphere, and from stores of admonitory and preceptive experience, transmuted this experience into articulated speech which then ‘told’ the man what to do. That such internally heard speech often needed to be primed with the props of the dead corpse of a chieftain or the gilded body of a jewel-eyed statue in its holy house, of that I have really said nothing. It too requires an explanation. I have by no means dared the bottom of the matter, and it is only to be hoped that complete and more correct translations of existing texts and the increasing tempo of archaeological excavation will give us a truer understanding of these long long millennia which civilized mankind.