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World Poetry Project: A Curse and Creation

Updated on April 25, 2011

"The Seven": an Exorcism

World Poetry opens its selections with an Exorcism charm, "The Seven", from Mesopotamia written in Akkadian around 2000 BCE as translated by Jerome Rothenberg. I suppose it is good to ensure the security of the precinct from evil spirits before beginning a great endeavor.

"They are 7 in number, just 7

In the terrible depths they are 7

Bow down, in the sky they are 7"

These 7 are 7 utukku, evil powers from the lower world, who bring disease, criminal inspiration, disunion in families, and the death of the flocks1. Ancient Mesopotamia was the site of the West's earliest civilizations, but these were civilizations excruciatingly aware of their provisional nature. Order was continuously under threat: gods fought gods, natural disaster tore the earth, and both the divine and the natural undermined human endeavor and existence.

The utukku threaten all. They lack natural ties and desires.

"They are neither female nor male

They are a silence heavy with seastorms

They bear off no women their loins are empty of children

They are strangers to pity, compassion is far from them

They are deaf to men's prayers, entreaties can't reach them"

Without the fertile division of gender, a notable monstrosity in a culture that gave sexual union a cosmological role and meaning, without social ties, kin, or affection, the seven are only destructive.

"They are the faces of evil they are the faces of evil".

Like the barbarians who often came down into Mesopotamia, destroying fragile settlements, cities, fields, and roads in their wake, the seven destroy. Unlike those barbarians, they do not admire the wealth and the achievements they cast down. The Akkadians, and other peoples who came under the influence of the civilization first constructed by the Sumerians, like the Kassites, adopted the ways of Sumerians; they adopted and adapted and expanded their achievements.

"They are 7 they are 7 they are 7 times 7"

7, and 7 x 7. These numbers in close association also appear in the Old Testament. This is no surprise, for many stories of the Old Testament were forged in the cultural matrix of Mesopotamia, and thus made use of some of the same base material worked in other societies in the area. Gilgamesh, for example, includes a story of the Deluge, but its Utnapashtum is not Noah; he is different in character and his relationship to the divine different. The covenant between God and Abram is concluded in a ritual that Assyrians and Babylonians, among others, would have recognized and comprehended without difficulty.

7 and 7x7, though, call to my mind one of those Biblical passages of which I could never make any sense: Genesis 4:23-24.

"And Lamech said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt.

If Cain shall be avenged seven-fold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold."

I still can't make much sense of it, but the connection between the two points beyond the Bible as a holy book and to the Bible as a storehouse of enigmas whose solutions lie in vanished cultures and long dead people. With 7 x 7 we are in the desert, keeping the demons at bay.

  1. New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Prometheus Press, 1968. p. 65.

Recommended Reading

Civilizations of Ancient Iraq
Civilizations of Ancient Iraq

A good introduction to ancient Mesopotamia to 637 AD, with an epilogue about archaeology in the area. Firm scholarship without being pedantic.

 

The Courtship of Inanna and Dumazi

Many of the gods of Mesopotamia were remote, and you wanted them to be. Storm gods and war gods mean you no good when they visit. However, Inanna (or Ishtar) was not a remote goddess, According to one myth, Inanna was given the responsibility of contradiction by the god of wisdom, Enki: "You are to twist the straight thread, you are the straighten the twisted thread". Inanna was the goddess of both love and war, a goddess who brought change from one station to another, from happiness to misery or from depression to ecstasy (Foster, 17-18).

The young Inanna loved Dumazi (or Tammuz), god of the harvest, and descended into the underworld after his passing to bring him back from the realm of Ereshkigal. She appeared naked before Queen Ereshkigal, who had her locked in the palace and let the sixty maladies loose upon her. On Earth, desolation followed the departure of Inanna and death of Tammuz, for without her the generation of new life ceased and the Lord of Vegetation was also gone. Ea engineered Inanna's escape and Tammuz's return to the abode of the gods. (The parallels with the Greek legend of Persephone is obvious, and the two myths covered much of the same ground, explaining the seasonal cycle in terms of birth-death-return.)

From The Cycle of Inanna , composed around 2000 BC in Mesopotamia, the editors of World Poetry chose The Courtship of Inanna and Dumazi , a frankly sexual account of the union between god and goddess, and the connection between this divine union and the fertility of the earth, of fields, of flocks.

He shaped my loins with his fair hands,

The shepherd Dumazi filled my lap with cream and milk

The Old Testament retained the Mesopotamian cultural matrix in which many of its earliest tales were forged, but it dispensed with the feminine divine, with Inanna and all her complexities, so that creation was no longer an oft repeated sexual act, but a single moment at the beginning of time which would end at another single moment later. It was creation without gender, because it was creation by (and for) one gender, the male. The distance between the ancient Jews and the other ancient Mesopotamian cultures may be captured in the eroticism of Inanna with Dumazi. With a male creator acting alone, reenactment of the cosmological creation on the mortal plane was impossible, and a prudishness descended over sexuality, now seen only in human terms by which it guaranteed the continuance of the species, but was not specifically in itself holy or to be celebrated.

O my Queen of Heaven and Earth,

Queen of all the universe,

May he enjoy long days in the sweetness of your loins.


1. Foster, p. 17-18

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