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August 10, 2007

Death is a mystery. I was talking to an elderly patient in the ER once and he said, 'I'm going to die.' Watching the heart monitor, I said, 'No . . . .' And his heart stopped. We immediately tried to resuscitate him. He was dead.

Being a member of a resuscitation team for 40 years, I've seen thousands of people die. I knew some of them quite well, and a few were friends. It always mystified me. Where did the person go?

Homo Sapiens is not the only animal puzzled by death, but until elephants and chimpanzees can tell us their impressions, we are the only animal to rationalize it. The earliest attempt to do so that comes down to us is from the ancient Sumerians 6,000 years ago, known to us as the Tales of Gilgamesh. We would recognize most of these stories, because they appear in the Old Testament and the Koran. How did that happen?

This subject is taboo in Western Civilization and in the Middle East . Most of the literature is written by partisans of the prevailing mythology. But here goes. Nebuchadnezzar was the Chaldean king in Babylon from 604 BC to 562 BC. He was at war with Egypt . Judea lay between Mesopotamia and Egypt , and the tribes living there could not be trusted, so Nebuchadnezzar enslaved them and marched them to Babylon in 597 BC, where they lived for 70 years. Who were those people?

As anyone may imagine, the answer to that question is hotly contested. After reading and thinking about it for many years, I've come to the conclusion that they were scattered tribes of pastoral nomads who wouldn't mind pilfering what they could from passing caravans and/or armies. Once taken into captivity, they had to learn to get along, learn to read and write, and they surely learned how political government worked in Babylon . So they began to write their own history as a political entity, based on the choice bits of mythology they picked up. This tactic secured their freedom as a state among states. Nomadic tribes living on the Arab peninsula repeated the process a thousand years later.

This hypothesis is nothing new, it was first proposed by 19th Century scholars. More recently the idea was renewed by the Israeli archeologist, Ze'ev Herzog ' his explosive 1999 essay, Deconstructing the walls of Jericho, was online at the Cornell University archives, but is now gone. (A summary is here.) In brief, after a 150 years of searching, archeologists haven't found much of anything to support the Old Testament story.

When I look at the archeological record of the first community in ancient Sumeria, Uruk, I see the origin of the coercive state grounded in mythology. The legends of Gilgamesh included a pantheon of gods, and households scattered across the delta each had a shrine to their favorite. As the population flourished, a crossroad trading center grew up and people started moving there. Bread and beer were the staple diet and the central brewery and bakery made life easier. They centralized the shrine to a local god also and people brought their offerings of bread and beer to this shrine. A priestly class took over the shrine to manage (consume) the offerings. After a while, the offerings were no longer voluntary, but mandatory, and the coercive state was born.

As we see in Iraq , such is the power of myth that people will endlessly murder each other to defend their version of it. This serves the purposes of political rulers well, but it hardly serves the purposes of our species, if we are to survive in a hostile universe. Personally, I never found any comfort in the death and resurrection myth, the last judgment myth, the heaven and hell myth, the rapture myth, or the political myth. When people die, they are dead, but the myths live on.

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Robert Klassen's picture
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Robert Klassen retired from a career in respiratory therapy, and is the author five books, two of which describe a solution to political government.  Please visit his website.