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How I used Sumerian art and ritual to tap into a limitless well of creativity
In the spring of 2007, I had a nervous breakdown and stormed out of my job in advertising. I spent most of the next six months locked in my apartment, swinging wildly between shrieking panic and wordless lethargy.
I’d fallen from one labyrinthine bureaucracy into another. When I wasn’t navigating the corridors of government offices (working through the process of applying for unemployment income), I was trying to act somewhat normal in the presence of my long-time girlfriend, who patiently stuck with me for a while; or wandering the concrete maze of West Los Angeles, avoiding eye contact with eerily cheerful Californians.
I hungered to create something new: a start-from-scratch world.
In pursuit of that goal, I painstakingly crafted elaborate ecosystems in garden planters on the balcony – tiny bonsai trees, grassy hills, lakes, mountains and caves – and attempted to populate them with small frogs and fish, who all hopped away, or died overnight, to my horrified dismay.
Since my apartment had no yard or terrace, I strung up fluorescent lights in the attic, and made a valiant effort to grow tomatoes and soybeans indoors; resulting in a forest of dead leaves and vines, into which I frantically pumped nutrients in the vain hope of resuscitation.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, I happened to stumble into Sam Johnson’s Bookshop on Venice Blvd.
There among those shelves, I discovered Seton Lloyd’s classic “The Archaeology of Mesopotamia.”
It’s hard for me to say exactly why I pulled this particular book off the shelf. Ever since my childhood, I’d always felt drawn to Middle Eastern aesthetics – at the age of seven, I told my guitar teacher I wanted “to learn an Egyptian song,” knowing no other way to express the strange frisson I felt when I heard the Phrygian scale.
And it’d be misleading to discount my rebellion against the “Young Earth” creationist Christianity in which I was raised, which had driven me to teach myself Greek and Hebrew in order to drop knowledge bombs on my poor family (“‘Bereshit bara Elohim’ doesn’t mean ‘In the beginning, God created,’ Mom! It literally means ‘The gods started by creating,’ which means Genesis is clearly the continuation of an earlier polytheistic text!”), and also drove me to compile thick sheaves of research notes on the entire history of the human species, from our migrations out of Africa all the way through the last Ice Age to the dawn of agriculture and the first cities.
Lately, in particular, I’d become especially fixated on the proto-historic Near East.
I felt driven, in equal part, by my yearning for hard facts about the birth of civilization and my fascination with the apparent scarcity of them. This same love of numinous mystery had sparked my earlier obsessions with the deep sea and outer space, and would later fuel my mania for neuroscientific research on consciousness (leading me to launch a news agency called The Connectome). It’s the enigma that lies at the core of every true love of my life.
For all these reasons, perhaps, I pulled Lloyd’s bright orange book from the shelf, flipped through it, and became entranced by the black-and-white illustrations reconstructing ziggurats and palaces from primordial cities like Uruk, Ur and Eridu.
The caption for one picture, in particular, made the hairs on my neck stand up: “This temple, circa 2000 BC, was built atop several layers of much older ruins.”
I couldn’t afford the book, but I bought it anyway.
As I pored over the book’s pages, a strange feeling welled up from those ancient cities – a feeling distinctly different from what I felt when I read about the stiff, precise culture of ancient Egypt.
In the earliest Sumerian cities like Uruk and Eridu, I felt a sense of improvisation and invention – not only of technologies like writing and the wheel (though those were certainly fruits of the same tree) but of the simple, direct manifestation of individual ideas into physical realities.
Sumer felt like a place that was constantly becoming something new.
The first Sumerians, whoever they were – to this day, researchers have found only scant hints of evidence about their origins, or their genetic or linguistic ties – lived in the marshes, and on the banks of rivers and lakes, in what’s now southern Iraq; weaving reed houses almost identical to those of the modern “marsh Arabs,” rowing from village to village in a type of wood boat still used in that region.
Herman Melville was right to call it one of “those insulated, immemorial, unalterable countries, which even in these modern days still preserve much of the ghostly aboriginalness of earth’s primal generations.”
And yet! Throughout uncounted ages of cultural consistency, certain groups of Sumerian people tapped into some primal source of originality, and unleashed a kaleidoscopic new world: the first aqueducts, paved roads, planned cities, ziggurats, wheels, marketplaces, writing, schools – all within a historical eye-blink.
Watching this process unfold, it is very hard to escape the feeling that these people were playing.
Years later – around the time I began writing my novel The Cradle and the Sword – I discovered Paul Kriwaczek’s Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, a book best described as a “time-travelogue” through the ancient Near East.
In his chapter on Eridu, the first Sumerian city, Kriwaczek writes that the people who gathered on the banks of the Apsu – a great freshwater lake identified with the primeval Abyss from which the world sprang – would have been drawn not only by the fresh fish and mussels, but by “what the Greeks called numen – a Nod from God.”
The upwelling of cool, sweet, fresh water seems to have spoken of something deeper to these people: a limitless potentiality; a permission to play with the world and reinterpret it; to import new realities from the world of Mind.
Because it’s clear – as the philosopher Thomas Yaeger’s book The Sacred History of Being explains in depth – that certain ancient Mesopotamians understood the concepts of Being, Becoming, Matter and Mind every bit as clearly as the Greek philosophers did.
But where the Greeks defined and explored these concepts explicitly, in writing and debate, the Mesopotamians explored them experientially, through symbol and ritual: The Ceremony of the Tree. The Opening of the Mouth of a God. (When Mesopotamian texts say, “This is how to make a god,” Yaeger argues, they mean it literally!) The intercessory deities who hold cups overflowing with endless streams of fresh water.
These are all gateways between the world of Mind and the world of material reality.
The Sumerians consciously recognized that they stood on a great threshold – and across thousands of years, they perfected the techniques of stepping back and forth across it; carrying material facts one way, and new inventions the other.
And what lived on the other side of that doorway? The god Enki – lord of intelligence and knowledge, keeper of the arts and crafts; also called Nudimmud, “the Shaper,” who “opens the doors of understanding” (emphasis mine) and teaches humans how to construct canals, plan temples, write letters and compose music.
Enki is often said to live in the depths of the sea – which, as every Jungian knows, means he dwells in the Mind.
From his hidden “House in the Waters,” Enki monitors the flow of all information in the world, and guards new ideas until they’re ready to be born. He’s not exactly a trickster, but he’s definitely playful, and he inspires playfulness.
Still more crucially, Enki is the custodian of the mé – an untranslatable (plural) Sumerian word, which the great Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer explained as the “fundamental, unalterable, comprehensive assortment of powers and duties, norms and standards, rules and regulations, relating to… civilized life.”
The Sumerians have left us lists of more than 100 mé, including “kingship,” “truth,” “law,” “sexual intercourse,” “weapons,” “scribeship,” “sacred prostitution,” “leatherwork,” “judgment,” and “the troubled heart.”
As Kriwaczek says, the mé “show how self-consciously aware the ancient Mesopotamians were of the difference between civilization and other ways of living… that they expressed it with an entirely new cognitive concept, for which we have no equivalent.”
But beneath that playfulness lurked a deeper understanding of the nature of creativity and creation.
As Yaeger explains in his Sacred History, the mé are far more than just abstract concepts. In the poem known as Inanna and Enki, the goddess Inanna gets Enki drunk, steals the mé, and loads them onto her “boat of heaven.” Braving seven attacks by sea monsters, Inanna manages to transport the mé to the cities of Eridu and Uruk, where the people unload them amidst great jubilation and feasting.
This would be a very strange way to talk about the mé if they were simply abstractions. But a clue is offered by the fact that the Sumerians treated many seemingly abstract concepts in similar ways.
Ceremonies for “opening the mouth of a god” refer to “putting on the melammu,” the divine splendor, as if it were a sort of cloak. Kingship, too, is often described as something that “descended from Heaven,” and can be “carried” from one city to another.
In light of all this, it seems very likely that – just as the term mé is untranslatable into our frame of reality – our discrete categories of “symbol,” “referent,” “abstract” and “concrete” would have been equally baffling to a Sumerian.
This framing is so different from ours that it can be difficult to comprehend: a scepter does not symbolize kingship; it is kingship. The statue does not symbolize Enki; once its “mouth is opened,” the statue is Enki – even as the god Enki is not limited by this one statue, and dwells in the eternal ocean.
To ask whether the Sumerians thought of the mé as abstractions or physical objects is to pose a wrong question. The mé sat at the border between reality and Mind – and once the Sumerians had stumbled on that doorway, they took great pains to keep it open, and to facilitate passage across it.
I knew none of this, of course, as I sat in my apartment paging through images of Mesopotamian archaeology. I only knew that I’d stumbled on some primordial wellspring of originality; a mystery I wanted not so much to solve as to experience for myself.
I wanted to feel that sense of newness; of potential. I wanted to learn to create as the Sumerians had created.
I bought bolts of wool from the fabric store, and took to dressing like a Sumerian (much to the dismay of my then-girlfriend). I began to learn the cuneiform style of writing, and to pore over ancient texts. I experimented with wood sticks and modeling clay, trying to imagine how the Sumerians might have gone about constructing a steam-powered engine, or a jacquard loom, or a difference engine – all of which, in mechanical principle at least, they had the tools and industries to build.
This was no longer historical research: I was trying to tune into something, or someone, whose playful voice I dimly heard beneath Sumer, calling out to me across sixty centuries.
The great historian Thorkild Jacobsen describes the god Enki as “the numinous inner will-to-form in the Deep.” This is not the dead god of a vanished civilization – this is the Ocean where “2+2=4” and “the steam engine” and “scribeship” and “the troubled heart” have always lived, along with all things unimagined and yet to be.
To bring new things across the doorway, we must re-learn the trick of standing on its threshold.
And that is, in large part, simply the trick of remembering how to play.
By electronically stimulating specific areas of volunteers’ brains, Vervaeke and his collaborators have found ways to trigger the activation of specific neural circuits associated with intuitive problem-solving — boosting scores on classic tests like the “Nine-Dot Puzzle” by as much as 40 percent.
Just as cognitive technologies like the mé facilitated access to the ocean of ideas, modern neurotechnologies may vastly expand the bandwidth between us and Enki.
Whenever the great mathematician Paul Erdős completed a beautiful proof, he’d exclaim, “This one’s from The Book!”
Imagine if, instead of backing into certain pages by groping in the dark, we could directly call up and navigate “The Book” in high definition, any time we wanted.
The world on the other side, I think, will be all but unrecognizable.
And for more on the ancient Mesopotamian approach to information theory, check out: