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Monday, November 17, 2014

The Myth of Telipinu, The Vanishing God

This is an artist's interpretation of a female priest for the Hittite god of magic, Kamrusepa. Kamrusepa appears in the myth of Telipinu, The Vanishing God.

The Myth of Telipinu, The Vanishing God

Book Review
Life and Society in the Hittite World
by Tevor Bryce
Oxford University Press
p. 2002

  The idea of "real" Indo European folklore is confused.  This is largely because it is hard to tell where any particular Indo European myth is authentic vs. being imported from a near by culture with an independent mythological tradition.  This is best attested in the classical era of Greece and Rome when Greek and then Roman mythology carried a heavy "Eastern" influence, including such "classical" Greek Gods like Aphrodite and Dionysus, both of whom were said to have come "from the East."  Most independent Indo European myths come either late in the day- Celtic and Viking myths are two examples, or are poorly or not attested to in writing.  The oldest written Indo European mythos come the Eastern wing of the family, with the early Vedic writings in Indian and the Iranian Avesta long considered to be the "purest" Indo European mythology.

  The Hittite corpus of mythos face both the problem of being heavily influenced by the pre-existing myths of Mesopotamia AND being poorly attested.  However, they hold great interest for the reader, because the Hittite/Anatolian Indo European language is typically deemed to be from a whole earlier off shoot of "Proto Indo European" than ALL the other languages, making a third, earlier branch than either the Western languages or the Indo-Iranian Eastern branch of languages.

  The most interesting of the "native" Hittite myths is that of Telipinu, the vanishing God.  Here is how the myth appears in the text of Life and Society in the Hittite World by Trevor Bryce:

  The god Telipinu has flown into a rage.  He puts on his shoes and departs the land. Crops wither and die, sheep and cattle reject their young and become barren, men and gods starve.  In great alarm the Storm God, father of Telipinu, dispatches and eagle to search for his wayward son.  The search is in vain.  The Storm God himself attempts to seek him out.  Again to no avail.  No god, great or small, can determine his whereabouts. In desperation the Storm God sends a bee to look for him.  The bee searches on high mountains, in deep valleys, in the blue deep.  Finally in a meadow it discovers Telipinu.  It strings his hands and feet, bringing him smartly upright, and then soothes the pain of his stings by smearing wax on the affected parts.  But the god's anger remains unabated.  Indeed his fury is increased by his rude and painful awakening.  In an orgy of destruction, he unleashes thunder and lighting and great floods, knocking down houses and wreaking havoc on human beings, livestock an crops.  Then Kamrusepa, goddess of magic, is sent to pacify him and bring him back.  She conducts a ritual for this purpose.  By the process of ritual analogy Telipinu's body is cleansed of anger.  The god's way home is made smooth by spreading oil and honey upon it. Telipinu returns and once more cares for his land.  All is restored to normal.

   There is precious little discussion of this myth in English.  Both sources that Bryce cites in his recounting of the actual text of the myth are German academic journals. This idea of a God leaving and returning is not something you get out of the Judeo-Christian ethic.  Quite the opposite, there, despite all the questioning that goes on in the Old Testament (which is the oldest text of the Judeo-Christian corpus.)  The idea of an important god simply leaving (Telipinu was the Hittite god of agriculture) also echoes the later quasi-Judeo-Christian religion of Manichaeism.  His departure reflects a world where survival was very much in doubt, and people had to live with the distinct possibility that they would die, be enslaved or lose everything more or less in the blink of the eye.

  Perhaps some of the genius in the Judeo-Christian era comes from the idea of not just one god, but one god who was ALWAYS there, even if unresponsive.   A vanished god is just that- absent- and it is this disappearance that may very well be the most Indo European thing about him.

  Aside from the myth of Telipinu, Life and Society in the Hittite World is very much THE single book you would want to read on the Hittites, an Anatolian based bronze age empire that lasted in various forms for close to a thousand years before petering out in the face of the neo-Assyrian conquests during the 8th century. The reader will learn that the Hittites were not a fantastically innovative Empire and that their domain constituted the Northern fringe of the pre-Classical Bronze Age world.

   The Hittites were constantly pushing south into the wealthier regions of Mesopotamia and Syria, with a great interest in Egypt as an equal/superior culture.  They were active in Western Anatolia, where pre-classical Greek sites like Troy were active at the same time. They never really figured out their northern border, and although their eventual extinction was at the hands of the "Great Power" of Assyria, they lost momentum several times at the hands of northern barbarians, who raided without maintaining a central authority that could be conquered.
These game purposed depictions of Hittite warriors very much give them a Conan the Barbarian vibe.
     In this regard, the Hittite empire should have some interest to historians concerned with the interactions between Empires and barbarians, but I don't believe this is presently the case.  The details of day-to-day life are largely familiar to anyone who has a larger understanding of day-to-day existence in the near East during the bronze age: mixed agriculture, some luxuries, trading.  Elite Hittites had an obsession with ritual cleanliness which is often observed in both Indo European and Semitic civilizations from the Near East in the same period- see Judaism, for example.  An obsession with elite cleanliness links these two civilizations.

   Bryce is strong on the ritual cleanliness material, and I think that is an area of special interest to comparative historians of religion. 

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