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Monday, August 31, 2009

Shape of Ancient Thought 4: Ningishzida, Lord of the Underworld

Ningishzida: The god itself is the two (copulating) snakes entwined around an axial rod.

                I'm half-way through Thomas McEvilley's(wiki) half amazing/half crazy book about the ancient world called "The Shape of Ancient Thought."  McEvilley is making the case that 1) ALL civilization draws influence from the ancient Sumerian's, because they were "first" as they say in the blogosphere.  2)  Greek & Indian civilization basically bore the same fruit of this influence, and then swapped it back and forth through the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Empires for about a thousand years till you ended up with Western civilization, Buddhist civilization and Indian civilization.  This is a discussion that is fraught with colonialist issues (Western civilization is superior to Eastern civilization) and post-colonial issues (Indian civilization didn't need ANY HELP from ANYONE to create it's religions etc.)  So you have to read books like this with a jaundiced eye, even when they claim to be cognizant of the debate, because we are talking about stuff people feel passionately about i.e. which came first, western civilization or eastern civilization? It's important to a lot of people, even if it isn't to me.  I think I probably agree that Sumerian math and religion inspired both India and Greece, but I'm less sure about the "continuing dialogue" part of the argument.  He still has 300+ pages to win me over.

        Probably the best illustration of this hypothesis is the graphic above, which is of Ningishzida, an ancient Mesopotamian god of the underworld AND, as it would turn out the god of MEDICINE. Here is the symbol we in the west equate with medicine:

That is from Greece, and it is derived from the representation of Ningishzida. There are also similar symbols in the form of fertility statues in the Indus Valley area. Anyway- that's pretty uncanny. I don't see any other way to explain the coincidence (intertwined snakes meaning the same thing in ancient Sumerian and ancient greek civilization.

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