The Greatest Book Ever Written
On Oct 19th I appeared at the Havant Literature Festival as the judge of the Festival Poetry Competition, and as a panel member on the evening’s Book Barney. Six panellists each proposed their choice for title of ‘The Best Book Ever Written’, to be voted on by the audience. YA author Miriam Halahmy nominated A Town Called Alice by Nevill Shute; arts manager Lynne Dick presented The Man Who Planted Trees by John Giono; artist Sarah Butterfield chose The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson; while Butterfield’s husband, the Conservative Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts argued for A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume and local journalist Mark Waldron fought the corner of Biggles Takes It Rough by W.E. Johns. The winner was The Sea Around Us, surely a worthy choice, though the political temperature of the room may also be assessed by the fact that Biggles Takes It Rough ran a close second. (To be fair, Mark Waldron chose the title to represent all those books that get children addicted to reading, and when queried by a member of the audience about the racist stereotypes in the Biggles series, immediately agreed that these would not be acceptable today. He also agreed with another questioner that without a local public library, he would not have been able to devour as many of the Biggles books as he did.) This was a Tory stronghold, and frankly, appearing on stage with the man responsible for overseeing devastating cuts to Higher Education was not a comfortable experience for me. Nevertheless, I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak passionately about my own contender, and present my case here, expanded to include arguments I wish I had made on the night!
I found this a fascinating task. While obviously my own values have influenced my choice, it was not strictly a personal decision. I was not asked to choose ‘my favourite book’, or the book that has most influenced me. Greatness must involve some kind of positive significance for humanity at large, some ability to inspire and inform us, perhaps to change us for the better in some way. Those of us who love books will not argue that they have this ability.
I have chosen Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer.
Now I am cheating slightly, as the core texts of this title were not originally published as a book, but as stories and hymns written in cuneiform on clay tablets by Sumerian scribes. The particular tablets translated for the book are nearly four thousand years old. They have been dated to 1750BC, and were discovered in 1899 by American archaeologists excavating the ruins of the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur, which are located in the central Iraqi province of Qadisiyyah. Sumer, which flourished from approximately 3000BCE to 1750BCE, was situated in the alluvial valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates, more-or-less between the Persian Gulf and what is now Baghdad. The region was originally settled by farmers of an unknown culture, and waves of Semitic nomads, but with the arrival of the Sumerians, whose language has roots in south-central Asia, there occurred a cultural fusion that provoked what Samuel Kramer calls a major creative spurt for the history of civilization.
The ancient texts chosen for the book, seven hymns and a myth cycle of four stories, have been beautifully, simply and stirringly translated by Diane Wolkstein. The four stories in the myth cycle have been chosen to form an over-riding narrative arc: the life story of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of the morning and evening star. She is, of course, Venus, and her coming of age stories celebrate her sexuality and her powerful love for her husband, the shepherd Dumuzi; but she is also the Sumerian goddess of war, and the final myth in the cycle explores the epic conflict that arises when Inanna descends to the underworld for an initiation into the mystery of death, and in her absence Dumuzi attempts to usurp her authority on earth. Inanna is a complex figure, and thoughtful essays by Wolkstein, and her scholarly mentor Samuel Noah Kramer place her in her historical and literary context and elucidate her archetypal significance. Taken as a whole, the book offers historical, political and psychological revelations that I believe have the potential to transform the way our culture views religious differences, gender and leadership. For these three reasons, when I first read this book, in 2009, I felt so convinced of its importance that I wanted to buy copies to give to strangers on the street. But of equal significance to my argument today is the fact that the book is fundamentally a collection of powerful poems and stories: full of passion, incident and dramas that we can still recognise in our own lives today.
Purely on a cultural level, I think many readers will surprised when they come to these ancient stories by how familiar they seem. That is because both stories and hymns are part of the root-ball from which the myths of at least three major world religions have sprouted. In ‘Inanna and the Huluppu Tree’ we see the seeds of the story of Eden, including thefigure of Lilith, in the Jewish tradition Adam’s first wife, who refused to lie beneath him, and was banished to the desert to give birth to demons. In Inanna’s story Lilith appears as a wild woman in the branches of Inanna’s sacred date palm, along with a serpent and the fearsome Anzu bird. Inanna must call on the help of her brother, Gilgamesh, to uproot the tree and chase away these shadowy figures. But unlike Adam and Eve in the story of Genesis, Inanna and Gilgamesh are not punished for claiming ownership of the tree and its secrets. Instead, its trunk becomes Inanna’s bed and throne, and from its roots and crown she crafts two sacred ornaments for her brother as his reward.
The celebration of human sensuality is a golden thread running through the four stories. Worship of the body and its knowledge was rejected by the early patriarchs who institutionalised the Abrahamic religions, but shreds of an earlier conception of sacred sexuality survived in the Judeo-Christian tradition in the cadences and images of the great ‘Song of Solomon’. Anyone who loves those verses will revel in the third story in this myth cycle, ‘The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi’. There are some very frank scenes here, couched in lush imagery of sheep’s milk, honey and fertile soil. Here, in some of the coyer verses, Inanna sings of her desire for her shepherd:
He has sprouted, he has burgeoned;
He is lettuce planted by the water.
He is the one my womb loves best.
My well-stocked garden of the plain,
My barley growing high in its furrow,
My apple tree which grows fruit up to its crown,
He is lettuce planted by the water.
My honey-man, my honey man sweetens me always.
My lord, my honey-man of the gods,
He is the one my womb loves best.
His hand is honey, his foot is honey,
He sweetens me always.
My eager impetuous caresser of the navel,
My caresser of the soft thighs,
He is the one my womb loves best,
He is lettuce planted by the water.
I hope you enjoyed that glimpse of Inanna’s personal life. It is from the honeymoon period of her romance, and her relationship with Dumuzi proves to be as complex and difficult at times as any modern marriage. Indeed, the last myth in the sequence, The Descent of Inanna is in fact the story of their divorce. It is also the womb-tomb that birthed the later myths of Osiris, Persephone, and Christ’s resurrection, and as in those great stories, the sacrifices all the characters make are ultimately undergone for the sake of their wider societies.
Only the second story in the sequence, ‘Inanna and the God of Wisdom’ will probably seem unusual to Western readers. In the myth Inanna visits her father, the water god, Enki. They drink beer together and in a merry mood he gives her many me – the laws and powers of Sumerian leadership. Inanna stacks the me in the Boat of Heaven and begins to sail back to the city of Uruk with her warrior woman Ninshubar. But when Enki awakes, he is furious to realise what he’s done, and sends a fleet of demons after his daughter to wrestle the me back. Inanna and Ninshuba successfully defend the boat, and when they arrive in Uruk with the me, Inanna assumes leadership of the city. Even Enki is impressed, and sends further me in recognition of her worthiness to rule.
Myths of punky, battling women working together to establish an independent female ruler are not common in the Western canon.But one can find evidence for warrior women in pre-Islamic societies in the Middle East, in particular Zenobia of third century Roman Syria, and the Sarmatian Amazons. And though I am by no means well-versed in the Koran, it seems to me that in ‘Inanna and the God of Wisdom’ we might hear echoes of the relationship between the prophet Mohammed and his second wife Aisha. Aisha, as we all know now thanks to the scurrilous video so deeply implicated in the carnage in Benghazi, was a child bride; what is less known is that she was also a warrior and a scholar in the oral tradition: she memorised all the prophet’s teachings, and after his death was a primary source for the texts of the Koran, eventually leading an army riding on a camel to defend the rights of women that Mohammed had endorsed. Though her relationship with Mohammed was not a rebellious one, like Inanna, she possessed youthful bravado, physical courage and a powerful sense of her own ability to marshal the laws of the land.
Comparative mythology is a rich field, and Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth may also reveal connections to Hindu and Celtic and other mythologies. But this is a hugely significant book if only because it reveals to us the shared heritage of the three Abrahamic faiths. These faiths, so cynically set against each other by fundamentalists and ruthless ideologues, are in fact all deeply related. You don’t need to be a believer to accept that if we were encouraged to seek the similarities, rather than the differences, between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the world might be a more peaceful place.
In these ancient texts from Sumer, however, we also see the branches that have been hewn away from this shared heritage. Inanna’s combination of frank and glorious sensuality and assertive use of political power is rare in literature. She represents an archetype of female leadership that patriarchal religions and cultures have worked hard to dismember, to the detriment of both men and women. Patriarchy posits fundamental differences between men and women, which supposedly make men fit for public office, and – women if they are allowed any power at all – best suited to reign in the domestic sphere. Lest you think that I am blatantly making a claim for the sympathies of the women in the audience, I have to say that in my view this is a stick with two short ends. Men, locked into rigid roles of work robots, suffer physically from high stress levels and psychologically from the lack of a language in which to explore their emotional needs. In recent memoirs, and current cultural shifts, we see men now mourning the lack of connection with their fathers, and seeking closer relationship with their own children. And of course race and class are also powerful factors in social inequality. But it cannot be denied that throughout history, women have been severely deprived of basic democratic rights, not least the opportunity to lead. While women have made huge advances in the last century, as we saw in Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s recent denunciation of the misogyny she deals with everyday, sexism is alive and well in our political institutions. I might well here mention the gender balance of the current cabinet; but frankly all three major political parties have a long way to go to establish gender parity in Westminster and the UK at large. Government could start by reforming maternity and paternity leave so that women are not forced to be the parent who must choose between having a family and developing their careers.
But that was a political aside . . . to take the long-view, and return to ancient Sumer, I want to argue that Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth is a great text not least because it helps us to counter the constant misuse of the past by apologists for sexism. Everywhere evolutionary psychology is used to justify myths of innate male aggression or female subordination. In fact human beings are as closely related to the hedonistic bonobo as the gangland chimpanzee, and when we look carefully at ancient cultures, in particular we see practices and mythologies that are remarkably egalitarian. I am not claiming that Ancient Sumer was a feminist paradise. It depended on slavery, and the rule of kings, and eventually declined due to over-exploitation of resources. But Sumerian women could attain positions of cultural and religious prestige: there was at least one Sumerian Queen, and the world’s first known poet was a Sumerian priestess, Enheduanna, whose lyric hymns to Inanna explore her personal relationship with the tempestuous goddess. And Inanna’s stories do not depict a world in which men rule women, or vice versa. They reveal dynamic relationships between male and female deities, father and daughter, brother and sister, from which society as a whole always benefits.
Unlike the virgin goddesses Mother Mary, Athena, and Diana, Innana never has to choose between her sexuality and her public authority. These sometimes create tension and conflicts for her, in a very real and human way, but the only time she is ever stripped of power is when she chooses to relinquish it, in her descent into the underworld. She also never has to set herself up as a Queen Bee, dispensing with female rivals. Rather, with the help of her faithful warrior Ninshibar she protects her authority, and liaises with the other gods. And it is with the help of her father, brother, sons and husband in particular that she sustains her authority and deepens her journey to psychological maturity.
In accordance with their portrayal of powerful male and female deities, the stories depict true leadership as a combination of masculine and feminine virtues. The list of me begins with images of might and status, and develops to include all of human experience: death and suffering, sexuality, domesticity, crafts, warfare, and crucially, the ability to listen and to empathise. Only when all of these have been mastered, is the ability to make judgements bestowed:
He gave me the high priesthood.
He gave me godship.
He gave me the noble enduring crown.
He gave me the throne of kingship.
He gave me truth.
He gave me descent into the underworld.
He gave me ascent from the underworld.
He gave me the art of lovemaking.
He gave me the kissing of the phallus.
He gave me the art of prostitution.
He gave me the art of speeding.
He gave me the art of the hero.
He gave me the art of power.
He gave me the art of treachery.
He gave me the perceptive ear.
He gave me the power of attention.
He gave me fear.
He gave me consternation.
He gave me dismay.
He gave me counselling.
He gave me heart-soothing.
He gave me the giving of judgements.
He gave me the making of decisions.
To illustrate this art of leadership in action, I want to conclude with a scene from the last myth in the cycle, ‘Inanna and the Descent to the Underworld.’ Inanna has freely chosen to enter the underworld to meet its terrifying Queen, her sister Ereshikigal. Ereshkigal is mourning the death of her husband, and is in no mood to be confronted with her beautiful, successful sister. She kills Inanna and slings her body on a hook. When Inanna fails to return, Ninshubar runs to the father gods. The first two refuse to help, but Enki cannot let his daughter die. But this time he does not send the demons in. Instead, he fashions two sexless creatures from dirt – the kurgarra and the galatur. He gives these little imps the food of life and the water of life, and tells them to go into the underworld and mimic Ereshkigal’s grieving cries of distress. This they do – and these echoes of her pain comfort Ereshkigal. As thanks, she gives the kurgurra and the galatur Inanna’s body, and with the food and water of life they resurrect her.
There is so much to say about these myths, but I must end my talk here. For me, true greatness resides in the ability to consider other people’s destinies as important as one’s own. We live in a world of competing agendas, and difficult histories, but in this image from the dawn of written literature –of two sexless secret agents of empathy –we see that our ancestors understood that might is not right: that empathy and respect for the humanity of our antagonistsis fundamental to any negotiation process. For the great religious books and stories it generated, for its riveting portrayal of the fiery goddess of love and war, and for the vision of wise, compassionate, gender-balanced leadership it offers us today, I nominate Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth, as the world’s greatest book.