The Babylonian World
I have spent some time this weekend pondering the nature of story. Part of this arises, I think, from my 2019 reading project and my current exploration of ancient Babylonian wisdom literature. And part of this comes from working through the revisions on a story that I need to fix before I submit.
Procrastination being one of my strengths, I paused in my revision to ponder the question, why do we tell stories, and why did we start? I want to be able to assume that of course, we humans have always told each stories, sitting around our fires as we distracted each other from the beast in the night.
I think this is a safe assumption to make, if only because we have been telling each other stories every since. And like cooking, which allowed for the improved release of energy from food, I think it’s safe to assume that composing and telling each other stories are amongst those aspects of being that make us human.
Epic of Gilgamesh
Ancient Babylonian wisdom literature is interesting, because these pieces are among the oldest written record we have. The pieces are not traditional stories; rather, they are, as the name suggests, records of admonition of how to behave in the eyes of the gods.
I’ve been reflecting on this, and it occurred to me. We had not long been living in cities; these stories come to us from a time when we have only (relatively) recently established our earliest cities and perhaps part of what we were doing was teaching ourselves the skills we would need to live together, in larger and larger groups.
Today, the stories I read and that I (try to) write have their primary purposes to entertain, but also to educate. There is a circle here, because we are still, in a different sense, learning to live with one another. We are still learning how to behave as individuals so that we don’t disadvantage others, and however much we have learned to date, we have much still to learn.
And so, a project. Read the ancient Babylonian wisdom literature and ask the question, what are we trying to teach each other through these stories? And what are the parts of this education that are still relevant, and how do I build this into my own stories?
And there is always more to do.
Babylonian Wisdom Literature
Jim Anderson (on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com) is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.