Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The First Recorded Ecological Collapse in History and How it Was Misunderstood.


The Goddess Inanna in her full regalia as depicted on a Sumerian cylinder seal. On the left, Ninshubur (the Queen of the East) Inanna's second in command. Inanna is sometimes called the "Goddess of Love," but she was no gentle lady. She was known to tame lions, use weapons, fight her enemies, and, sometimes, devour their corpses. Among her several feats, one is to have smashed an entire mountain with her mighty mace. It may be the first historical record of an ecological collapse



Pushing the world's temperatures over 2°C could well lead to the greatest ecological collapse ever seen in human history, but it wouldn't be the first. There is a long series of human-caused ecological collapses at various scales, often the result of deforestation and erosion of the fertile soil. Perhaps the oldest recorded collapse is one that took place at some moment during the 3rd millennium BCE and that is recorded in a mythologized form by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, the first author of texts in history whose name is known to us.

The story of how the mountain Ebih "melted into a vat of sheepfat" is interesting in itself but it is most interesting for what it teaches to us. The Sumerians, apparently, never understood the problem of erosion of the fertile soil and their land -- that we call "Iraq" today -- was gradually turned into the desert that it is today.

It seems that the Sumerians couldn't think of any better idea than faulting supernatural powers for the disaster that was befalling them. On the other hand, it may also be that the punishment that the Goddess meted to the mountain was seen as a curse that humans deserved for having mismanaged the fertile soil. In the second case, the Sumerians had at least a partial understanding of what they were doing but, in the end, they were unable to stop the overexploitation of their land.

In our case, with climate change, we don't seem to be able to do any better than the Sumerians did with erosion and we may be subjected to a much harsher punishment. But we are unable to stop what we are doing and we continue to destroy the things that make us live.


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 From "Chimeras", Aug 23, 2015


Inanna and Ebih: a report of an ancient ecological catastrophe?

Ugo Bardi
Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra – Università di Firenze
Polo Scientifico di Sesto Fiorentino,
Sesto Fiorentino (Fi) via della Lastruccia 3, 50019, Italy
ugo.bardi@unifi.it


Abstract

“Inanna and Ebih” is the modern title of a text written by the Sumerian poet Enheduanna around the second half of the third millennium BCE. It describes the conflict between the Goddess Inanna and the mountain called Ebih which ends with the destruction of the latter. I suggest that the poem may be interpreted as the result of the way the ancient perceived what we call today an “ecological catastrophe,” that is the result of overgrazing and deforestation of a fragile mountain environment.

1. Introduction

The “Inanna and Ebih” poem was composed around 2300 BCE by the Sumerian poetess Enheduanna and it was rediscovered in the 20th Century (1)⁠. The story told in the poem can be summarized in a few lines. We read first that the Goddess Inanna is preparing to do battle against the mountain "Ebih," because the mountain “showed her no respect”. Before attacking, Inanna goes to see the God An, whom she calls “father,” apparently to ask for his help. An, however, is perplexed and Inanna decides to fight alone; eventually managing to triumph over the mountain. This story must have been well known in Sumerian times; so much that several copies of it have arrived to us, written in cuneiform on clay tablets. So, its meaning must have been clear enough for the people of ancient times and they must have found the story interesting enough that they kept copying it many times, apparently also as a standard exercise for young scribes (2)⁠. 

However, for us, "Inanna and Ebih" is hard to classify as a poem, even baffling. The characters, their conflict, and the very fact of a God battling a mountain appear totally alien to our modern feelings. As a story, it is far away from all the modern canons of what we define as “literature” or “poetry.”

The present paper adds some considerations to the understanding of the story of Inanna and Ebih. It is based on the concept that the ancient faced the same physical problems as we do, for instance, soil erosion, deforestation, and the like. However, their way to see and describe these problems was much different. So, it may be that the story we are considering describes an ancient ecological catastrophe, the destruction of a forest ecosystem, told in a form that is not easy for us to recognize but that appears clear, once understood. The story also may be an echo of a conflict still existing in modern times: the need to preserve natural environments against the attempt of overexploiting them.

The author does not claim to be able to read Sumerian and the present discussion is based on the versions of the story available in modern languages; that is on the one by Betty De Shong Meador (3)⁠, the one available in the electronic corpus of Sumerian Literature (4)⁠, the version in French by Attinger (5)⁠, and the Italian one by Pettinato (6)⁠. These translations were found to differ in some details, but the overall content was the same.

2. Inanna and Ebih: interpreting the myth

There are several ways to interpret ancient myths. Perhaps the best-known one is the “comparative” method, pioneered, among others, by Claude Levi-Strauss (7)⁠. It consists in finding common elements among different myths; as they can be found in different cultures and different ages. These common elements evidence the basic structure of the myth and help understand its general meaning, framing it in its specific context.

In the case of "Inanna and Ebih", we could first look for stories involving Gods engaged in fighting mountains, but such a plot appears to be very rare. A similar plot can be found in the Sumerian text referred to as “Lugal-e,” from the first term it begins with (8)⁠. It goes back to times close to those of Enheduanna, but it is probably later. In Lugal-e, we are told of the divine hero, Ninurta, fighting a demon called “Asag” that turns out to be a “pile of stones”, perhaps to be identified as a mountain with that name. Karahashi has discussed this myth explicitly in comparison with that of Inanna and Ebih, finding several points in common, especially in the terminology used. (8)⁠

Another myth showing some structural similarities is the Greek myth of the Chimera. In this case, the hero is Bellerophon, semi-divine as the son of the God Poseidon and, as a monster, the Chimera has some Chthonic elements, especially in its fiery breath that may lead to identifying it with a mountain. Both Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History” and Maurus Servius Honoratus in his commentary to Virgil's Aeneid state that the Chimera has to be intended as a representation of a volcano. We also find a similar interpretation in Plutarch's “Moralia” (3.16.9) where we are told of how Bellerophon cut away a section of a mountain called “Chimera” which was producing a nasty reflection on the plain; which, in turn, dried up the crops. In an earlier work (9)⁠, the author of the present paper proposed that the source of the myth of the Chimera is to be found in ancient East Asian mythology. It is not impossible that one source could be the story of Inanna and Ebih.

Apart from these stories, mountainous monsters are rare in the world's lore. Some mountains were certainly important in religious terms, such as Mount Olympus for the ancient Greek and Mount Fuji in Japan, up to relatively recent times. Neither, however, were deified in the role given to Ebih in the story we are discussing here. We can find occasional stone monsters in modern fiction; for instance in The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937), we can read the description of stone monsters hurling gigantic boulders against each other. Other fantasy chthonic monsters appear in environments such as role-playing games. On the whole, however, we can say that a plot describable as “God fights mountain” is very rare both in ancient and in modern lore. Hence, it is nearly impossible to use it as a basis for the comparative method of interpretation of the myth of Inanna and Ebih.

At this point, we could attempt to classify the myth of Inanna and Ebih as an example of the generic theme of a shining hero fighting an ugly monster. There are plenty of ancient and modern myths based on this idea; however, such an interpretation misses some of the elements that make the slaying of Ebih so puzzling. Why is the monster a mountain? Why does it enrage Inanna so much? What are the reasons for Inanna's quarrel with the other Gods? Clearly, there is something more in this story than the traditional hero/monster conflict.

A different line of interpretations of the myth is reported by Delnero (2)⁠. It is based on the idea that the story is, actually, a representation of the conflict existing at the time of the author, Enheduanna, between the Akkadic and the Sumerian elements of the Mesopotamian civilization. It is known that such a conflict existed and other poems by Enheduanna may refer to it. For instance, in “nin-me-sarra” (Lady of bright virtues) Enheduanna appears to describe an insurrection that leads to her being chased away from her temple. The interpretation reported by Meador (p. 181) is that the insurgents were led by a man named Lugalanne, or Lugalanna, possibly of Sumerian ethnical origin, against the Akkadian ruler of the time, Naram-Sin, Enheduanna's nephew (3)⁠. 

There is clearly something in these interpretations and the violence that pervades Enheduanna's texts may well be a reflection of the violence that characterized her times. However, there remains the problem that “Inanna and Ebih” is so abstract in the characterization of its protagonists that, if it really describes a local conflict of Enheduanna's times, it is not clear which side should be identified with which element of the myth. Maybe this interpretation was clear to the ancient Sumerians, but that may be reasonably doubted.

Meador (3) provides a deeper interpretation of the story, seeing the poem as an early version of the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden; with Inanna as the Sumerian equivalent of Eve/Lilith. Whereas, in the Bible, Eve is punished for her action, in the Sumerian myth Inanna takes the initiative and refuses to submit to the father-God; destroying Eden in the process. Meador also sees the story as a reflection of an ancient conflict between a female-dominated pantheon, with Inanna in the role of the Mother Goddess, and an emerging male-dominated pantheon, with An as a fatherly figure, ruling the other gods. This conflict is evident in several other Sumerian and Akkadian mythological stories where, for instance, Inanna is pitted against her brother Gilgamesh. This is a very interesting interpretation as it implies that “Inanna and Ebih” is related to even more ancient myths, perhaps going back to pre-literate times. This seems to be hinted in the text when Inanna is said (in Meador's translation) to “wear the robes of the old, old Gods” (3)⁠. Attinger (5)⁠ and Pettinato (6)⁠ explicitly name these "old Gods" as “Enul and Enŝar” who may be, indeed, Gods of a more ancient age (10)⁠ (p. 53). 

However, even this way of seeing the myth does not explain the meaning of some elements; for instance, if this is the story of a conflict between a mother Goddess and a father God, what is exactly the role of the mountain Ebih?

A different way to look at this myth is the “Euhemeristic” or “rationalistic” way, consisting of explaining the myth in terms of natural phenomenaThis way of interpreting ancient myths was more popular in the past than it is today, but it never went out of fashion. However, modern scholars tend to be much more cautious in explaining (some could say, “explaining away”) the elements of complex stories into banal physical phenomena. When Servius said that the Chimera was a volcano, he may have meant that the ancient were so naïve to mistake a volcano for a lion, but that, of course, is unlikely, to say the least. Rather, the ancient were facing the same physical phenomena as we do and, for them, describing a thunderstorm in terms of actions performed by a God named Zeus was a way to make it consistent with their cultural and mental tools. We do the same in modern times when we ascribe certain events to abstract and perhaps supernatural entities whose existence can be reasonably doubted (e.g. “the free market”).

Regarding Sumerian/Akkadian myths, naturalistic explanations have been proposed by Jacobsen (11)⁠, but not specifically for the story of Inanna and Ebih. However, if we examine the story in light of a possible rationalistic interpretation, we immediately see how the destruction of the mountain hints to an ecological catastrophe caused by deforestation and overgrazing.

In the myth, the Ebih mountain is described as a luxuriant place: fruits hang in its flourishing gardens. It has magnificent trees, lions, wild bulls and deer are abundant, just as wild bulls and grass. Then, we see Inanna attacking the mountain with fire and with a rain of rocks. In another of Enheduanna's poems, translated by Meador as “Lady of Largest Heart” (3)⁠ we read some lines that may refer to Inanna's fight against Ebih:

She crushes the mountain to garbage,
scattering the trash from dawn to dark,
with mighty stones she pelts,
and the mountain,
like a clay pot
crumbles
with her might
she melts the mountain
into a vat of sheepfat.

It takes little imagination to see that the poem could well be referring here to the degradation of the soil on the slopes of a mountain, turned into mud slipping downhill. Mountain terrains are especially sensitive to soil erosion and the problem is especially severe in hot climates subjected to episodes of heavy rain interspersed with dry periods, as it is the case of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern climate.

Mesopotamia is a flat land, but its inhabitants briskly traded wood and other forest commodities. Today, most of the mountain ranges of Northern Africa and the Middle East are degraded and eroded in various degrees. But that was not the case in ancient times and it will suffice to note how the mountains of Lebanon were a source of timber for ancient Sumerians (as recorded in the myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu), whereas in modern times these regions are nearly completely deforested and eroded (12)⁠. From the available data (13)⁠, it appears clear that the mountains of the Zagros region, which are probably where the “Inanna and Ebih” refers to, were still largely forested in Sumerian times, but it is also clear that they were already being deforested; a slow process that has led to the present condition of serious environmental degradation (14)⁠.

The ancient knew about the problem of soil degradation. McNeill and Viniwarter (15) summarized several elements of the question, reporting that already in 2000 BCE, that is at a time not far from that of Enheduanna, farmers in the Middle East had already developed ways to fight soil erosion. They also report how Roman writers, such as Varro, had a keen interest in soil quality and on the need of avoiding erosion. It is also well known how Plato, in his "Critias" (4th century BCE) describes the erosion and the degradation of the mountains of Greece. An interesting pre-industrial document on this issue was written by Matteo Biffi Tolomei around the end of the 18th Century (16)⁠. It tells of the attempt to maintain the forest cover of the Appennini mountains in Tuscany, Italy, and of how the attempt failed after much debate among those who defined themselves the “modern” party (favoring the cutting of the trees) and the “old” party (favoring, instead, to keep the forest cover). This conflict of a few centuries ago is not framed in religious terms, but, in it, we may perhaps see a reflection of the much older conflict of Sumerian time that may be reflected in the story of Inanna and Ebih.
3. Conclusion: religion as a way to interpret the world

Religion in Sumerian times was certainly something very different than the way we intend it nowadays. However, certain elements of the concept of religion are common to all its forms (see e.g. Thorkild Jacobsen (11)⁠ for an exhaustive account of the characteristics and of the historical development of the Sumerian religious view of the world). A religious view of the world may see beyond the simple, short term advantage of an action (cutting trees), to note the long terms disadvantages (soil erosion). Today, we may see this kind of approach in the recent papal encyclical on climate change (17)⁠ and the Islamic declaration on global climate change (18)⁠. That may have been the point also of the history of Inanna “punishing” the mountain named Ebih, something that may be interpreted as destroying the humans who weren't been careful enough to maintain and sustain its ecosystem.





References


1. Kramer SN. Sumerian Mythology: A Study of the Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the 3rd Millennium B.C. Memoirs of. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society; 1944.
2. Delnero P. Inana and Ebih and the Scribal Tradition. A Common Cultural Heritage: Studies on Mesopotamia and the Biblical World in Honor of Barry L Eichler [Internet]. CDL Press; 2011 [cited 2015 Aug 8]. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/1908001/Inana_and_Ebih_and_the_Scribal_Tradition
3. Meador B. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna [Internet]. Austin (Tx): University of Austin Press; 2000 [cited 2015 Aug 3]. Available from: https://books.google.it/books?hl=en&lr=&id=B45PvLlj3ogC&oi=fnd&pg=PR3&dq=inanna+and+ebih&ots=PCrv4Pptzm&sig=2nUOlV-Ef5ewoPe-dNMa-pzfv_A
4. Black JA, Cunningham G, Fluckiger-Hawker E, Robson E, Zólyomi G. Inana and Ebih: translation [Internet]. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. [cited 2015 Aug 3]. Available from: http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr132.htm
5. Attinger P. Inana and Ebih. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vor Archäologie [Internet]. 1998;88:164–95. Available from: http://www.degruyter.com/dg/viewarticle/j$002fzava.1998.88.issue-2$002fzava.1998.88.2.164$002fzava.1998.88.2.164.xml
6. Pettinato G. Mitologia sumerica [Internet]. Torino: UTET; 2001 [cited 2015 Aug 9]. Available from: https://books.google.it/books/about/Mitologia_sumerica.html?id=JoMRAQAAIAAJ&pgis=1
7. Levi-Strauss C. Myth and Meaning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, U.K; 1978.
8. Karahashi F. Fighting the Mountain: Some Observations on the Sumerian Myths of Inanna and Ninurta*. J Near East Stud [Internet]. 2004 [cited 2015 Aug 3];63(2):111–8. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/422302
9. Bardi U. Il Libro della Chimera. Firenze, Italy: Polistampa; 2008.
10. Espak P. Some Early Developments in Sumerian God-Lists and Pantheon. In: Kanmerer T, editor. Identities and Societiesin the Ancient East-Mediterranean Regions [Internet]. Munster: Ugarit-Verlag; 2011 [cited 2015 Aug 23]. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/1466135/Some_Early_Developments_in_Sumerian_God-Lists_and_Pantheon
11. Jacobsen T. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion [Internet]. 1978 [cited 2015 Aug 9]. Available from: https://books.google.it/books/about/The_Treasures_of_Darkness.html?id=bZT57A8ioCkC&pgis=1
12. Mikesell MW. The Deforestation of Mount Lebanon. Geogr Rev [Internet]. 1969;59(1):1–28. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/213080
13. Rowton MB. The Woodlands of Ancient Western Asia. J Near East Stud [Internet]. 1967;26(4):261–177. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/543595
14. Pswarayi-Riddihough I. Forestry in the Middle East and North Africa: An Implementation Review, Volumes 23-521 [Internet]. World Bank Publications; 2002 [cited 2015 Aug 9]. 56 p. Available from: https://books.google.com/books?id=TqTJdyForfkC&pgis=1
15. McNeill JR, Winiwarter V. Breaking the sod: humankind, history, and soil. Science [Internet]. 2004 Jun 11 [cited 2015 Aug 18];304(5677):1627–9. Available from: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/304/5677/1627.full
16. Biffi Tolomei M, Clauser F. Una tragedia ecologica del ’700. Firenze, Italy: Libreria Editrice Fiorentina; 2004. 64 p.
17. Laudato si’ [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 11]. Available from: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
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6 comments:

  1. It seems the mountain Ebih is now called Jabal Hamrin. It is located on the border separating Iraq and Iran in the Kirkuk region.
    North-east of the city of Kirkuk is a lake called Dukan lake, further north east is the border. Mount Ebih is just south of Piranshar in Iran.
    https://www.ancient.eu/image/1352/map-of-sumer/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamrin_Mountains
    https://www.indexmundi.com/z/?lat=35.0325&lon=43.6463889&t=m&r=160&p=jabal_hamrin&cc=iz&c=iraq

    There is a study which offers an explanation in line with yours. But it seems the Sumerians where clever enough to know what they were doing.
    In the story of Ninurta and Asag a different way of dealing with a mountain is told. Inanna is pictured as an arrogant lady who destroyed Ebih. Ninurta was a caring person, who restored the ravaged mountain Asag, and it flourished again.
    If we start caring for our environment now, we may live on a flourishing planet again.
    http://www.academicroom.com/article/fighting-mountain-some-observations-sumerian-myths-inanna-and-ninurta
    Inanna’s battle with Ebih and Ninurta’s with Asag are similar at the most basic level. Both stories involve a god fighting a mountain or a mountain-symbolizing stone, and both show close similarities in the phraseology used to describe the protagonists, the antagonists, and some of their actions. Yet the stories employ these same basic elements in such a way that they create opposite effects, effects that illustrate and, at the same time, reinforce the different nature of Inanna and Ninurta. Inanna’s aggression has no legitimate cause, therefore giving the impression that she acts to satisfy her own desire, which is to be taken as one of her many capricious acts. Ninurta, on the other hand, is pictured as a serious and responsible figure who defends the proper order of the divine world and engages the noble task of controlling the flood waters. Ninurta transforms the defeated Asag and stones into a fertile mountain, while Inanna simply destroys for the sake of destruction.

    Someone pointed out that the melt water of the ice that is gushing from the poles will cool down the planet. This cooling may result in a little ice-age. The pre-historic cave dwellers in France lived during a little ice age. Maybe humans will be hunter gatherers again and a new cycle of civilisation will start.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The Sumerians did indeed understand their ecological crisis & we know this because archeologists have recovered cuneiform tablets that speak of ever worsening soil salinity from continuous river irrigation & evaporation. They knew how to mitigate it with crop rotation or leaving fields fallow, but the farmers were overruled by the overlords who wanted maximum wheat yields NOW (sound familiar?) damn the torpedo. So it worked for a bit, the king had his riches & army. When it stopped working they switched to barely which is less effected by soil salinity. The switch to barely is like fracking & tar sands - it only delayed the inevitable. It failed in the end & they weakened, declined & collapsed & it happened to other Mesopotamian city states & empires. Nothing new under the sun, yet the humans still think their inventions & technology somehow supersede their core evolved behaviors. They don't & never have or will. Same shit, different century.


    We're already living in the greatest ecological collapse in history & the fastest rate of ecological change in the history of life on this planet according to many scientists & their evidence. We are just band aiding it over with ever greater amounts of energy, chemicals & science tricks. Just reduce the energy inputs & watch it all come crashing down. Even a high single digit reduction will have massive knock on effects - commodities speculators, food price hikes, riots, revolts, iron fisted repression............

    'Current pace of environmental change is unprecedented in Earth's history'
    https://phys.org/news/2016-01-current-pace-environmental-unprecedented-earth.html

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes, I think you are right. Prepare to be wood....
    https://arctic-news.blogspot.com/2019/01/global-extinction-within-18-34-months.html

    ReplyDelete
  4. The latest recorded collapse in history and how it could be misunderstood.
    Dear Prof. Bardi, I received this book by Klaas van Egmond, Humo Universalis, morals for a new European renaissance.
    I was disappointed because there are no new ideas to be found in this book. We have this wonderful quantum theory of the Mental Universe, and the public is being kept in the dark about it. I felt like a pig in Animal Farm, destined to live in ignorance because an elite wants to keep a secret.
    In a time of collapse morals won’t keep you alive, even a pig has this understanding. At the edge of the Seneca cliff and looking down, let’s look upward for one last time and make a leap into the universe of Bernardo Kastrup, a renowned scientist and truly innovative thinker: Bernardo Kastrup's Small Theory of Everything https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDW2V-fH6SY / his website: bernardokastrup.com
    A new report by the Club of Rome to shock the world out of its lethargy?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mmmm... I don't know if I would have bought a book with that title. Everybody likes the Renaissance, but it was a disaster: an age of wars and the period when they learned how to burn witches for fun and profit. About Mr. Kastrup, well, I am a bit perplexed. I am afraid that he doesn't really understand the meaning of "emergence" -- nor he seems to understand network theory. But maybe he knows better than me

      Delete
  5. The theory of the Mental Universe encounters strong resistance in society. Could this resistance be related to a subconscious fear that our materialist worldview may collapse and our Chimeras be destroyed?

    "It's kind of like, if you think about a dinner table, some people could be talking back and forth, while another person would be sitting there, still paying attention, while still being part of the social interaction," Yartsev said. "Under that analogy, then, supposedly all of the brains would be correlated simultaneously:
    https://phys.org/news/2019-06-brains-sync-socialize.html

    If we continue to operate in terms of a Cartesian dualism of mind versus matter, we shall probably also continue to see the world in terms of God versus man; elite versus people; chosen race versus others; nation versus nation; and man versus environment. It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at its world can endure.
    https://aeon.co/essays/gregory-bateson-changed-the-way-we-think-about-changing-ourselves

    This is not just about external systems. It’s also about the internal systems of thought with which the external is co-extensive, and through which we have imprisoned ourselves. Our entire reductionist, mechanical model of what we think it means to be human needs to be re-written.
    https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/escaping-extinction-through-paradigm-shift-83e33d4cb548

    ReplyDelete

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)