Oct 27, 2014
The nam-shub of Enki

(From Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson)

"What can you tell me about speaking in tongues?" Hiro says.

"The technical term is 'glossolalia,'" the Librarian says.

"Technical term? Why bother to have a technical term for a religious ritual?"

The Librarian raises his eyebrows. "Oh, there's a great deal of technical literature on the subject. It is a neurological phenomenon that is merely exploited in religious rituals."

"It's a Christian thing, right?"

"Pentecostal Christians think so, but they are deluding themselves. Pagan Greeks did it -- Plato called it theornania. The Oriental cults of the Roman Empire did it. Hudson Bay Eskimos, Chukchi shamans, Lapps, Yakuts, Semang pygmies, the North Borneo cults, the Trhi-speaking priests of Ghana. The Zulu Amandiki cult and the Chinese religious sect of Shang-ti-hui. Spirit mediums of Tonga and the Brazilian Umbanda cult. The Tungus tribesmen of Siberia say that when the shaman goes into his trance and raves incoherent syllables, he learns the entire language of Nature."

"The language of Nature."

"Yes, sir. The Sukuma people of Africa say that the language is kinatuns, the tongue of the ancestors of all magicians, who are thought to have descended from one particular tribe."

"What causes it?"

"If mystical explanations are ruled out, then it seems that glossolalia comes from structures buried deep within the brain, common to all people."

"What does it look like? How do these people act?"

"C. W. Shumway observed the Los Angeles revival of 1906 and noted six basic symptoms: complete loss of rational control; dominance of emotion that leads to hysteria; absence of thought or will; automatic functioning of the speech organs; amnesia; and occasional sporadic physical manifestations such as jerking or twitching. Eusebius observed similar phenomena around the year 300, saying that the false prophet begins by a deliberate suppression of conscious thought, and ends in a delirium over which he has no control."

"What's the Christian justification for this? Is there anything in the Bible that backs this up?"


"You mentioned that word earlier -- what is it?"

"From the Greek pentekostos, meaning fiftieth. It refers to the fiftieth day after the Crucifixion."

"Juanita just told me that Christianity was hijacked by viral influences when it was only fifty days old. She must have been talking about this. What is it?"

"’And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"' Acts 2:4-12."

"Damned if I know," Hiro says. "Sounds like Babel in reverse."

"Yes, sir. Many Pentecostal Christians believe that the gift of tongues was given to them so that they could spread their religion to other peoples without having to actually learn their language. The word for that is 'xenoglossy'."

"That's what Rife was claiming in that piece of videotape, on top of the Enterprise. He said he could understand what those Bangladeshis were saying."

"Yes, sir."

"Does that really work?"

"In the sixteenth century, Saint Louis Bertrand allegedly used the gift of tongues to convert somewhere between thirty thousand and three hundred thousand South American Indians to Christianity," the Librarian says.

"Wow. Spread through that population even faster than smallpox."

"What did the Jews think of this Pentecost thing?" Hiro says. "They were still running the country, right?"

"The Romans were running the country," the Librarian says, "but there were a number of Jewish religious authorities. At this time, there were three groups of Jews: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes."

"I remember the Pharisees from Jesus Christ, Superstar. They were the ones with the deep voices who were always hassling Christ."

"They were hassling him," the Librarian says, "because they were religiously very strict. They adhered to a strong legalistic version of the religion; to them, the Law was everything. Clearly, Jesus was a threat to them because he was proposing, in effect, to do away with the Law."

"He wanted a contract renegotiation with God."

"This sounds like an analogy, which I am not very good at -- but even if it is taken literally, it is true."

"Who were the other two groups?"

"The Sadducees were materialists."

"Meaning what? They drove BMWs?"

"No. Materialists in the philosophical sense. All philosophies are either monist or dualist. Monists believe that the material world is the only world -- hence, materialists. Dualists believe in a binary universe, that there is a spiritual world in addition to the material world."

"Well, as a computer geek, I have to believe in the binary universe."

The Librarian raises his eyebrows. "How does that follow?"

"Sorry. It's a joke. A bad pun. See, computers use binary code to represent information. So I was joking that I have to believe in the binary universe, that I have to be a dualist."

"How droll," the Librarian says, not sounding very amused. "Your joke may not be without genuine merit, however."

"How's that? I was just kidding, really."

"Computers rely on the one and the zero to represent all things. This distinction between something and nothing -- this pivotal separation between being and nonbeing -- is quite fundamental and underlies many Creation myths."

Hiro feels his face getting slightly warm, feels himself getting annoyed. He suspects that the Librarian may be pulling his leg, playing him for a fool. But he knows that the Librarian, however convincingly rendered he may be, is just a piece of software and cannot actually do such things.

"Even the word 'science' comes from an Indo-European root meaning 'to cut' or 'to separate.' The same root led to the word 'shit,' which of course means to separate living flesh from nonliving waste. The same root gave us 'scythe' and 'scissors' and 'schism,' which have obvious connections to the concept of separation."

"How about 'sword'?"

"From a root with several meanings. One of those meanings is 'to cut or pierce.' One of them is 'post' or 'rod.' And the other is, simply, 'to speak.'"

"Let's stay on track," Hiro says.

"Fine. I can return to this potential conversation fork at a later time, if you desire."

"I don't want to get all forked up at this point. Tell me about the third group -- the Essenes."

"They lived communally and believed that physical and spiritual cleanliness were intimately connected. They were constantly bathing themselves, lying naked under the sun, purging themselves with enemas, and going to extreme lengths to make sure that their food was pure and uncontaminated. They even had their own version of the Gospels in which Jesus healed possessed people, not with miracles, but by driving parasites, such as tapeworm, out of their body. These parasites are considered to be synonymous with demons."

"They sound kind of like hippies."

"The connection has been made before, but it is faulty in many ways. The Essenes were strictly religious and would never have taken drugs."

"So to them there was no difference between infection with a parasite, like tapeworm, and demonic possession."


"Interesting. I wonder what they would have thought about computer viruses?"

"Speculation is not in my programming."

"Speaking of which -- Lagos was babbling to me about viruses and infection and something called a nam-shub. What does that mean?"

"Nam-shub is a word from Sumerian."


"Yes, sir. Used in Mesopotamia until roughly 2000 B.C. The oldest of all written languages."

"Oh. So all the other languages are descended from it?" For a moment, the Librarian's eyes glance upward, as if he's thinking about something. This is a visual cue to inform Hiro that he's making a momentary raid on the Library.

"Actually, no," the Librarian says. "No languages whatsoever are descended from Sumerian. It is an agglutinative tongue, meaning that it is a collection of morphemes or syllables that are grouped into words -- very unusual."

"You are saying," Hiro says, remembering Da5id in the hospital, "that if I could hear someone speaking Sumerian, it would sound like a long stream of short syllables strung together."

"Yes, sir."

"Would it sound anything like glossolalia?"

"Judgment call. Ask someone real," the Librarian says.

"Does it sound like any modern tongue?"

"There is no provable genetic relationship between Sumerian and any tongue that came afterward."

"That's odd. My Mesopotamian history is rusty," Hiro says. "What happened to the Sumerians? Genocide?"

"No, sir. They were conquered, but there's no evidence of genocide per se."

"Everyone gets conquered sooner or later," Hiro says. "But their languages don't die out. Why did Sumerian disappear?"

"Since I am just a piece of code, I would be on very thin ice to speculate," the Librarian says.

"Okay. Does anyone understand Sumerian?"

"Yes, at any given time, it appears that there are roughly ten people in the world who can read it."

"Where do they work?"

"One in Israel. One at the British Museum. One in Iraq. One at the University of Chicago. One at the University of Pennsylvania. And five at Rife Bible College in Houston, Texas."

"Nice distribution. And have any of these people figured out what the word 'nam-shub' means in Sumerian?"

"Yes. A nam-shub is a speech with magical force. The closest English equivalent would be 'incantation,' but this has a number of incorrect connotations."

"Did the Sumerians believe in magic?"

The Librarian shakes his head minutely. "This is the kind of seemingly precise question that is in fact very profound, and that pieces of software, such as myself, are notoriously clumsy at. Allow me to quote from Kramer, Samuel Noah, and Maier, John R. Myths of Enki, the Crafty God. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989: 'Religion, magic, and medicine are so completely intertwined in Mesopotamia that separating them is frustrating and perhaps futile work. [Sumerian incantations] demonstrate an intimate connection between the religious, the magical, and the esthetic so complete that any attempt to pull one away from the other will distort the whole.' There is more material in here that might help explain the subject."

"In where?"

"In the next room," the Librarian says, gesturing at the wall. He walks over and slides the rice-paper partition out of the way.

A speech with magical force. Nowadays, people don't believe in these kinds of things. Except in the Metaverse, that is, where magic is possible. The Metaverse is a fictional structure made out of code. And code is just a form of speech -- the form that computers understand. The Metaverse in its entirety could be considered a single vast nam-shub, enacting itself on L. Bob Rife's fiber-optic network.

Hiro walks into the new room. The Librarian follows.

It is about fifty feet on a side. The center of the space is occupied by three large artifacts, or rather three-dimensional renderings of artifacts. In the center is a thick slab of baked clay, hanging in space, about the size of a coffee table, and about a foot thick. Hiro suspects that it is a magnified rendering of a smaller object. The broad surfaces of the slab are entirely covered with angular writing that Hiro recognizes as cuneiform. Around the edges are rounded, parallel depressions that appear to have been made by fingers as they shaped the slab.

To the right of the slab is a wooden pole with branches on top, sort of a stylized tree. To the left of the slab is an eight-foot-high obelisk, also covered with cuneiform, with a bas-relief figure chiseled into the top. The room is filled with a three-dimensional constellation of hypercards, hanging weightlessly in the air. It looks like a highspeed photograph of a blizzard in progress. In some places, the hypercards are placed in precise geometric patterns, like atoms in a crystal. In other places, whole stacks of them are clumped together. Drifts of them have accumulated in the corners, as though Lagos tossed them away when he was finished. Hiro finds that his avatar can walk right through the hypercards without disturbing the arrangement. It is, in fact, the three-dimensional counterpart of a messy desktop, all the trash still remaining wherever Lagos left it. The cloud of hypercards extends to every corner of the 50-by-50-foot space, and from floor level all the way up to about eight feet, which is about as high as Lagos's avatar could reach.

"How old is this stuff?" Hiro says, gesturing to the three artifacts.

"The clay envelope is Sumerian. It is from the third millennium B.C. It was dug up from the city of Eridu in southern Iraq. The black stele or obelisk is the Code of Hammurabi, which dates from about 1750 B.C. The treelike structure is a Yahwistic cult totem from Palestine. It's called an asherah. It's from about 900 B.C."

"Did you call that slab an envelope?"

"Yes. It has a smaller clay slab wrapped up inside of it. This was how the Sumerians made tamper-proof documents."

"How are these things related to each other?"

The Librarian raises his eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"

"Well, let's try process of elimination. Do you know why Lagos found Sumerian writings interesting as opposed to, say, Greek or Egyptian?"

"Egypt was a civilization of stone. They made their art and architecture of stone, so it lasts forever. But you can't write on stone. So they invented papyrus and wrote on that. But papyrus is perishable. So even though their art and architecture have survived, their written records -- their data -- have largely disappeared."

"What about all those hieroglyphic inscriptions?"

"Bumper stickers, Lagos called them. Corrupt political speech. They had an unfortunate tendency to write inscriptions praising their own military victories before the battles had actually taken place?'

"And Sumer is different?"

"Sumer was a civilization of clay. They made their buildings of it and wrote on it, too. Their statues were of gypsum, which dissolves in water. So the buildings and statues have since fallen apart under the elements. But the clay tablets were either baked or else buried in jars. So all the data of the Sumerians have survived. Egypt left a legacy of art and architecture; Sumer's legacy is its megabytes."

"How many megabytes?"

"As many as archaeologists bother to dig up. The Sumerians wrote on everything. When they built a building, they would write in cuneiform on every brick. When the buildings fell down, these bricks would remain, scattered across the desert. In the Koran, the angels who are sent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah say, We are sent forth to a wicked nation, so that we may bring down on them a shower of clay -- stones marked by your Lord for the destruction of the sinful.' Lagos found this interesting -- this promiscuous dispersal of information, written on a medium that lasts forever. He spoke of pollen blowing in the wind -- I gather that this was some kind of analogy."

"It was. Tell me -- has the inscription on this clay envelope been translated?"

"Yes. It is a warning. It says, 'This envelope contains the nam-shub of Enki’"

"I know what a nam-shub is. What is the nam-shub of Enki?" The Librarian stares off into the distance and clears his throat dramatically.

"Once upon a time, there was no snake, there was no scorpion, There was no hyena, there was no lion, There was no wild dog, no wolf, There was no fear, no terror, Man had no rival. In those days, the land Shubur-Hamazi, Harmony-tongued Sumer, the great land of the me of princeship, Un, the land having all that is appropriate, The land Martu, resting in security, The whole universe, the people well cared for, To Enlil in one tongue gave speech. Then the lord defiant, the prince defiant, the king defiant, Enki, the lord of abundance, whose commands are trustworthy, The lord of wisdom, who scans the land, The leader of the gods, The lord of Eridu, endowed with wisdom, Changed the speech in their mouths, put contention into it, Into the speech of man that had been one.

That is Kramer's translation."

"That's a story," Hiro says. "I thought a nam-shub was an incantation."

"The nam-shub of Enki is both a story and an incantation," the Librarian says. "A self-fulfilling fiction. Lagos believed that in its original form, which this translation only hints at, it actually did what it describes."

"You mean, changed the speech in men's mouths."

"Yes," the Librarian says.

"This is a Babel story, isn't it?" Hiro says. "Everyone was speaking the same language, and then Enki changed their speech so that they could no longer understand each other. This must be the basis for the Tower of Babel stuff in the Bible."

"This room contains a number of cards tracing that connection," the Librarian says.

"You mentioned before that at one point, everyone spoke Sumerian. Then, nobody did. It just vanished, like the dinosaurs. And there's no genocide to explain how that happened. Which is consistent with the Tower of Babel story, and the nam-shub of Enki. Did Lagos think that Babel really happened?"

"He was sure of it. He was quite concerned about the vast number of human languages. He felt there were simply too many of them."

"How many?"

"Tens of thousands. In many parts of the world, you will find people of the same ethnic group, living a few miles apart in similar valleys under similar conditions, speaking languages that have absolutely nothing in common with each other. This sort of thing is not an oddity -- it is ubiquitous. Many linguists have tried to understand Babel, the question of why human language tends to fragment, rather than converging on a common tongue?"

"Has anyone come up with an answer yet?"

"The question is difficult and profound," the Librarian says. "Lagos had a theory."


"He believed that Babel was an actual historical event. That it happened in a particular time and place, coinciding with the disappearance of the Sumerian language. That prior to Babel Infopocalypse, languages tended to converge. And that afterward, languages have always had an innate tendency to diverge and become mutually incomprehensible -- that this tendency is, as he put it, coiled like a serpent around the human brainstem."

"The only thing that could explain that is --" Hiro stops, not wanting to say it.

"Yes?" the Librarian says.

"If there was some phenomenon that moved through the population, altering their minds in such a way that they couldn't process the Sumerian language anymore. Kind of in the same way that a virus moves from one computer to another, damaging each computer in the same way. Coiling around the brainstem."

"Lagos devoted much time and effort to this idea," the Librarian says. "He felt that the nam-shub of Enki was a neurolinguistic virus."

"And that this Enki character was a real personage?"


"And that Enki invented this virus and spread it throughout Sumer, using tablets like this one?"

"A tablet has been discovered containing a letter to Enki, in which the writer complains about it."

"A letter to a god?"

"Yes. It is from Sin-samuh, the Scribe. He begins by praising Enki and emphasizing his devotion to him. Then he complains:

‘Like a young . . . (line broken) I am paralyzed at the wrist. Like a wagon on the road when its yoke has split, I stand immobile on the road. I lay on a bed called "01 and 0 No!" I let out a wail. My graceful figure is stretched neck to ground, I am paralyzed of foot. My . . . has been carried off into the earth. My frame has changed. At night I cannot sleep, my strength has been struck down, my life is ebbing away. The bright day is made a dark day for me. I have slipped into my own grave. I, a writer who knows many things, am made a fool. My hand has stopped writing There is no talk in my mouth.'

"After more description of his woes, the scribe ends with,

'My god, it is you I fear. I have written you a letter. Take pity on me. The heart of my god: have it given back to me.'"


"What about this thing? The thing that looks like a tree?" Hiro says, gesturing to one of the artifacts.

"A totem of the goddess Asherah," the Librarian says crisply.

"Now we're getting somewhere," Hiro says. "Lagos said that the Brandy in The Black Sun was a cult prostitute of Asherah. So who is Asherah?"

"She was the consort of El, who is also known as Yahweh," the Librarian says. "She also was known by other names: Elat, her most common epithet. The Greeks knew her as Dione or Rhea. The Canaanites knew her as Tannit or Hawwa, which is the same thing as Eve."


"The etymology of 'Tannit' proposed by Cross is: feminine of 'tannin,' which would mean 'the one of the serpent.' Furthermore, Asherah carried a second epithet in the Bronze Age, 'dat batni,' also 'the one of the serpent.' The Sumerians knew her as Ninth or Ninhursag. Her symbol is a serpent coiling about a tree or staff -- the caduceus."

"Who worshipped Asherah? A lot of people, I gather."

"Everyone who lived between India and Spain, from the second millennium B.C. up into the Christian era. With the exception of the Hebrews, who only worshipped her until the religious reforms of Hezekiah and, later, Josiah."

"I thought the Hebrews were monotheists. How could they worship Asherah?"

"Monolatrists. They did not deny the existence of other gods. But they were only supposed to worship Yahweh. Asherah was venerated as the consort of Yahweh."

"I don't remember anything about God having a wife in the Bible."

"The Bible didn't exist at that point. Judaism was just a loose collection of Yahwistic cults, each with different shrines and practices. The stories about the Exodus hadn't been formalized into scripture yet. And the later parts of the Bible had not yet happened."

"Who decided to purge Asherah from Judaism?"

"The deuteronomic school -- defined, by convention, as the people who wrote the book of Deuteronomy as well as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings."

"And what kind of people were they?"

"Nationalists. Monarchists. Centralists. The forerunners of the Pharisees. At this time, the Assyrian king Sargon II had recently conquered Samana -- northern Israel -- forcing a migration of Hebrews southward into Jerusalem. Jerusalem expanded greatly and the Hebrews began to conquer territory to the west, east, and south. It was a time of intense nationalism and patriotic fervor. The deuteronomic school embodied those attitudes in scripture by rewriting and reorganizing the old tales."

"Rewriting them how?"

"Moses and others believed that the River Jordan was the border of Israel, but the deuteronomists believed that Israel included Trans-Jordan, which justified aggression to the east. There are many other examples: the predeuteronomic law said nothing about a monarch. The Law as laid down by the deuteronomic school reflected a monarchist system. The predeuteronomic law was largely concerned with sacred matters, while the deuteronomic law's main concern is the education of the king and his people -- secular matters in other words. The deuteronomists insisted on centralizing the religion in the Temple in Jerusalem, destroying the outlying cult centers. And there is another feature that Lagos found significant"

"And that is?"

"Deuteronomy is the only book of the Pentateuch that refers to a written Torah as comprising the divine will: 'And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, from that which is in charge of the Levitical priests; and it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them; that his heart may not be lifted up above his brethren, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left; so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.' Deuteronomy 17:18- 20."

"So the deuteronomists codified the religion. Made it into an organized, self-propagating entity," Hiro says. "I don't want to say virus. But according to what you just quoted me, the Torah is like a virus. It uses the human brain as a host. The host -- the human -- makes copies of it. And more humans come to synagogue and read it."

"I cannot process an analogy. But what you say is correct insofar as this: After the deuteronomists had reformed Judaism, instead of making sacrifices, the Jews went to synagogue and read the Book. If not for the deuteronomists, the world's monotheists would still be sacrificing animals and propagating their beliefs through the oral tradition."

"Sharing needles," Hiro says. "When you were going over this stuff with Lagos, did he ever say anything about the Bible being a virus?"

"He said it had certain things in common with a virus, but that it was different. He considered it a benign virus. Like that used for vaccinations. He considered the Asherah virus to be more malignant, capable of being spread through exchange of bodily fluids."

"So the strict, book-based religion of the deuteronomists inoculated the Hebrews against the Asherah virus."

"In combination with strict monogamy and other kosher practices, yes," the Librarian says. "The previous religions, from Sumer up to Deuteronomy, are known as prerational. Judaism was the first of the rational religions. As such, in Lagos's view, it was much less susceptible to viral infection because it was based on fixed, written records. This was the reason for the veneration of the Torah and the exacting care used when making new copies of it -- informational hygiene."

"What are we living in nowadays? The postrational era?"

"Juanita made comments to that effect."

"It seems that Asherah was a carrier of a viral infection. The deuteronomists somehow realized this and exterminated her by blocking all the vectors by which she infected new victims."

"With reference to viral infections," the Librarian says, "if I may make a fairly blunt spontaneous cross-reference -- something I am coded to do at opportune moments -- you may wish to examine herpes simplex, a virus that takes up residence in the nervous system and never leaves. It is capable of carrying new genes into existing neurons and genetically reengineering them. Modern gene therapists use it for this purpose. Lagos thought that herpes simplex might be a modern, benign descendant of Asherah."

"Not always benign," Hiro says, remembering a friend of his who died of AIDS-related complications; in the last days, he had herpes lesions from his lips all the way down his throat. "It's only benign because we have immunities."

"Yes, sir."

"So did Lagos think that the Asherah virus actually altered the DNA of brain cells?"

"Yes. This was the backbone of his hypothesis that the virus was able to transmute itself from a biologically transmitted string of DNA into a set of behaviors."

"What behaviors? What was Asherah worship like? Did they do sacrifices?"

"No. But there is evidence of cult prostitutes, both male and female."

"Does that mean what I think it does? Religious figures who would hang around the temple and fuck people?"

"More or less."

"Bingo. Great way to spread a virus. Now, I want to jump back to an earlier fork in the conversation."

"As you wish. I can handle nested forkings to a virtually infinite depth."

"You made a connection between Asherah and Eve."

"Eve -- whose Biblical name is Hawwa -- is clearly the Hebrew interpretation of an older myth. Hawwa is an ophidian mother goddess."


"Associated with serpents. Asherah is also an ophidian mother goddess. And both are associated with trees as well."

"Eve, as I recall, is considered responsible for getting Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Which is to say, it's not just fruit -- it's data."

"If you say so, sir."

"I wonder if viruses have always been with us, or not. There's sort of an implicit assumption that they have been around forever. But maybe that's not true. Maybe there was a period of history when they were nonexistent or at least unusual. And at a certain point, when the metavirus showed up, the number of different viruses exploded, and people started getting sick a whole lot. That would explain the fact that all cultures seem to have a myth about Paradise, and the Fall from Paradise."


"You told me that the Essenes thought that tapeworms were demons. If they'd known what a virus was, they probably would have thought the same thing. And Lagos told me the other night that, according to the Sumerians, there was no concept of good and evil per se."

"Correct. According to Kramer and Maier, there are good demons and bad demons. 'Good ones bring physical and emotional health. Evil ones bring disorientation and a variety of physical and emotional ills. But these demons can hardly be distinguished from the diseases they personify -- and many of the diseases sound, to modern ears, as though they must be psychosomatic.'"

"It's as though 'good' and 'evil' were invented by the writer of the Adam and Eve legend to explain why people get sick -- why they have physical and mental viruses. So when Eve -- or Asherah -- got Adam to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she was introducing the concept of good and evil into the world -- introducing the metavirus, which creates viruses."

"Could be."

"So my next question is: Who wrote the Adam and Eve legend?"

"This is a source of much scholarly argument."

"What did Lagos think? More to the point, what does Juanita think?"

"Nicolas Wyatt's radical interpretation of the Adam and Eve story supposes that it was, in fact, written as a political allegory by the deuteronomists."

"I thought they wrote the later books, not Genesis."

"True. But they were involved in compiling and editing the earlier books as well. For many years, it was assumed that Genesis was written sometime around 900 B.C. -- or even earlier -- long before the advent of the deuteronomists. But more recent analysis of the vocabulary and content suggests that a great deal of editorial work -- possibly even authorial work -- took place around the time of the Exile, when the deuteronomists held sway."

"So they may have rewritten an earlier Adam and Eve myth."

"They appear to have had ample opportunity. According to the interpretation of Heidberg and, later, Wyatt, Adam in his garden is a parable for the king in his sanctuary, specifically King Hosea, who ruled the northern kingdom until it was conquered by Sargon II in 722 B.C."

"That's the conquest you mentioned earlier -- the one that drove the deuteronomists southward toward Jerusalem?"

"Exactly. Now 'Eden,' which can be understood simply as the Hebrew word for 'delight,' stands for the happy state in which the king existed prior to the conquest. The expulsion from Eden to the bitter lands to the east is a parable for the massive deportation of Israelites to Assyria following Sargon II's victory. According to this interpretation, the king was enticed away from the path of righteousness by the cult of El, with its associated worship of Asherah -- who is commonly associated with serpents, and whose symbol is a tree."

"And his association with Asherah somehow caused him to be conquered -- so when the deuteronomists reached Jerusalem, they recast the Adam and Eve story as a warning to the leaders of the southern kingdom."


"And perhaps, because no one was listening to them, perhaps they invented the concept of good and evil in the process, as a hook."


"Industry term. Then what happened? Did Sargon II try to conquer the southern kingdom also?"

"His successor, Sennacherib, did. King Hezekiah, who ruled the southern kingdom, prepared for the attack feverishly, making great improvements in the fortifications of Jerusalem, improving its supply of drinking water. He was also responsible for a far-reaching series of religious reforms, which he undertook under the direction of the deuteronomists."

"How did it work out?"

"The forces of Sennacheb surrounded Jerusalem. 'And that night the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed.' 2 Kings 19:35-36."

"I'll bet he did. So let me get this straight: the deuteronomists, through Hezekiah, impose a policy of informational hygiene on Jerusalem and do some civil-engineering work -- you said they worked on the water supply?"

"They stopped all the springs and the brook that flowed through the land, saying, ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?’ 2 Chronicles 32:4. Then the Hebrews carved a tunnel seventeen hundred feet through solid rock to carry that water inside city walls."

"And then as soon as Sennacherib's soldiers came on the scene, they all dropped dead of what can only be understood as an extremely virulent disease, to which the people of Jerusalem were apparently immune. Hmm, interesting -- I wonder what got into their water?"


"Where did Asherah come from?"

"Originally from Sumerian mythology. Hence, she is also important in Babylonian, Assyrian, Canaanite, Hebrew, and Ugaritic myths, which are all descended from the Sumerian."

"Interesting. So the Sumerian language died out, but the Sumerian myths were somehow passed on in the new languages."

"Correct. Sumerian was used as the language of religion and scholarship by later civilizations, much as Latin was used in Europe during the Middle Ages. No one spoke it as their native language, but educated people could read it. In this way, Sumerian religion was passed on."

"And what did Asherah do in Sumerian myths?"

"The accounts are fragmentary. Few tablets have been discovered, and these are broken and scattered. It is thought that L. Bob Rife has excavated many intact tablets, but he refuses to release them. The surviving Sumerian myths exist in fragments and have a bizarre quality. Lagos compared them to the imaginings of a febrile two-year-old. Entire sections of them simply cannot be translated -- the characters are legible and well-known, but when put together they do not say anything that leaves an imprint on the modern mind."

"Like instructions for programming a VCR."

"There is a great deal of monotonous repetition. There is also a fair amount of what Lagos described as 'Rotary Club Boosterism' -- scribes extolling the superior virtue of their city over some other city."

"What makes one Sumerian city better than another one? A bigger ziggurat? A better football team?"

"Better me."

"What are me?"

"Rules or principles that control the operation of society, like a code of laws, but on a more fundamental level."

"I don't get it."

"That is the point. Sumerian myths are not 'readable' or 'enjoyable' in the same sense that Greek and Hebrew myths are. They reflect a fundamentally different consciousness from ours."

"I suppose if our culture was based on Sumer, we would find them more interesting," Hiro says.

"Akkadian myths came after the Sumerian and are clearly based on Sumerian myths to a large extent. It is clear that Akkadian redactors went through the Sumerian myths, edited out the (to us) bizarre and incomprehensible parts, and strung them together into longer works, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Akkadians were Semites -- cousins of the Hebrews."

"What do the Akkadians have to say about her?"

"She is a goddess of the erotic and of fertility. She also has a destructive, vindictive side. In one myth, Kirta, a human king, is made grievously ill by Asherah. Only El, king of the gods, can heal him. El gives certain persons the privilege of nursing at Asherah's breasts. El and Asherah often adopt human babies and let them nurse on Asherah -- in one text, she is wet nurse to seventy divine sons."

"Spreading that virus," Hiro says. "Mothers with AIDS can spread the disease to their babies by breast-feeding them. But this is the Akkadian version, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"I want to hear some Sumerian stuff, even if it is untranslatable."

"Would you like to hear how Asherah made Enki sick?"


"How this story is translated depends on how it is interpreted. Some see it as a Fall from Paradise story. Some see it as a battle between male and female or water and earth. Some see it as a fertility allegory. This reading is based on the interpretation of Bendt Aister."

"Duly noted."

"To summarize: Enki and Ninhursag -- who is Asherah, although in this story she also bears other epithets -- live in a place called Dilmun. Dilmun is pure, clean and bright, there is no sickness, people do not grow old, predatory animals do not hunt.

"But there is no water. So Ninhursag pleads with Enki, who is a sort of water-god, to bring water to Dilmun. He does so by masturbating among the reeds of the ditches and letting flow his life-giving semen -- the 'water of the heart,' as it is called. At the same time, he pronounces a nam-shub forbidding anyone to enter this area -- he does not want anyone to come near his semen."

"Why not?"

"The myth does not say."

"Then," Hiro says, "he must have thought it was valuable, or dangerous, or both."

"Dilmun is now better than it was before. The fields produce abundant crops and so on."

"Excuse me, but how did Sumerian agriculture work? Did they use a lot of irrigation?"

"They were entirely dependent upon it."

"So Enki was responsible, according to this myth, for irrigating the fields with his 'water of the heart.'"

"Enki was the water-god, yes."

"Okay, go on."

"But Ninhursag-Asherah violates his decree and takes Enki's semen and impregnates herself. After nine days of pregnancy she gives birth, painlessly, to a daughter, Ninmu. Ninmu walks on the riverbank. Enki sees her, becomes inflamed, goes across the river, and has sex with her."

"With his own daughter."

"Yes. She has another daughter nine days later, named Ninkurra, and the pattern is repeated."

"Enki has sex with Ninkurra, too?"

"Yes, and she has a daughter named Uttu. Now, by this time, Ninhursag has apparently recognized a pattern in Enki's behavior, and so she advises Uttu to stay in her house, predicting that Enki will then approach her bearing gifts, and try to seduce her."

"Does he?"

"Enki once again fills the ditches with the 'water of the heart,' which makes things grow. The gardener rejoices and embraces Enki."

"Who's the gardener?"

"Just some character in the story," the Librarian says. "He provides Enki with grapes and other gifts. Enki disguises himself as the gardener and goes to Uttu and seduces her. But this time, Ninhursag manages to obtain a sample of Enki's semen from Uttu's thighs."

"My God. Talk about your mother-in-law from hell."

"Ninhursag spreads the semen on the ground, and it causes eight plants to sprout up."

"Does Enki have sex with the plants, then?"

"No, he eats them -- in some sense, he learns their secrets by doing so."

"So here we have our Adam and Eve motif."

"Ninhursag curses Enki, saying 'Until thou art dead, I shall not look upon thee with the "eye of life."' Then she disappears, and Enki becomes very ill. Eight of his organs become sick, one for each of the plants. Finally, Ninhursag is persuaded to come back. She gives birth to eight deities, one for each part of Enki's body that is sick, and Enki is healed. These deities are the pantheon of Dilmun; i.e., this act breaks the cycle of incest and creates a new race of male and female gods that can reproduce normally."

"I'm beginning to see what Lagos meant about the febrile two-year-old."

"Aister interprets the myth as 'an exposition of a logical problem: Supposing that originally there was nothing but one creator, how could ordinary binary sexual relations come into being?'"

"Ah, there's that word 'binary' again."

"You may remember an unexplored fork earlier in our conversation that would have brought us to this same place by another route. This myth can be compared to the Sumerian creation myth, in which heaven and earth are united to begin with, but the world is not really created until the two are separated. Most Creation myths begin with a 'paradoxical unity of everything, evaluated either as chaos or as Paradise,' and the world as we know it does not really come into being until this is changed. I should point out here that Enki's original name was En-Kur, Lord of Kur. Kur was a primeval ocean -- Chaos -- that Enki conquered."

"Every hacker can identify with that."

"But Asherah has similar connotations. Her name in Ugaritic, 'atiratu yammi' means 'she who treads on (the) sea (dragon)’."

"Okay, so both Enki and Asherah were figures who had in some sense defeated chaos. And your point is that this defeat of chaos, the separation of the static, unified world into a binary system, is identified with creation."


"What else can you tell me about Enki?"

"He was the en of the city of Eridu."

"What's an en? Is that like a king?"

"A priest-king of sorts. The en was the custodian of the local temple, where the me -- the rules of the society -- were stored on clay tablets."

"Okay. Where's Eridu?"

"Southern Iraq. It has only been excavated within the past few years."

"By Rife's people?"

"Yes. As Kramer has it, Enki is the god of wisdom -- but this is a bad translation. His wisdom is not the wisdom of an old man, but rather a knowledge of how to do things, especially occult things. 'He astonishes even the other gods with shocking solutions to apparently impossible problems. He is a sympathetic god for the most part, who assists humankind."


"Yes. The most important Sumerian myths center on him. As I mentioned, he is associated with water. He fills the rivers, and the extensive Sumerian canal system, with his life-giving semen. He is said to have created the Tigris in a single epochal act of masturbation. He describes himself as follows: 'I am lord. I am the one whose word endures. I am eternal.' Others describe him: 'a word from you-and heaps and piles stack high with grain.' 'You bring down the stars of heaven, you have computed their number.' He pronounces the name of everything created . . ."

"'Pronounces the name of everything created?'"

"In many Creation myths, to name a thing is to create it. He is referred to, in various myths, as 'expert who instituted incantations,' 'word-rich,' 'Enki, master of all the right commands,' as Kramer and Maier have it, 'His word can bring order where there had been only chaos and introduce disorder where there had been harmony.' He devotes a great deal of effort to imparting his knowledge to his son, the god Marduk, chief deity of the Babylonians."

"So the Sumerians worshipped Enki, and the Babylonians, who came after the Sumerians, worshipped Marduk, his son."

"Yes, sir. And whenever Marduk got stuck, he would ask his father Enki for help. There is a representation of Marduk here on this stele -- the Code of Hammurabi. According to Hammurabi, the Code was given to him personally by Marduk."

Hiro wanders over to the Code of Hammurabi and has a gander. The cuneiform means nothing to him, but the illustration on top is easy enough to understand. Especially the part in the middle:

"Why, exactly, is Marduk handing Hammurabi a one and a zero in this picture?" Hiro asks.

"They were emblems of royal power," the Librarian says. "Their origin is obscure."

"Enki must have been responsible for that one," Hiro says.

"Enki's most important role is as the creator and guardian of the me and the gis-hur, the 'key words' and 'patterns' that rule the universe."

"Tell me more about the me."

"To quote Kramer and Maier again, '[They believed in] the existence from time primordial of a fundamental, unalterable, comprehensive assortment of powers and duties, norms and standards, rules and regulations, known as me, relating to the cosmos and its components, to gods and humans, to cities and countries, and to the varied aspects of civilized life.'"

"Kind of like the Torah."

"Yes, but they have a kind of mystical or magical force. And they often deal with banal subjects -- not just religion."


"In one myth, the goddess Inanna goes to Eridu and tricks Enki into giving her ninety-four me and brings them back to her home town of Uruk, where they are greeted with much commotion and rejoicing."

"Inanna is the person that Juanita's obsessed with."

"Yes, sir. She is hailed as a savior because 'she brought the perfect execution of the me.'"

"Execution? Like executing a computer program?"

"Yes. Apparently, they are like algorithms for carrying out certain activities essential to the society. Some of them have to do with the workings of priesthood and kingship. Some explain how to carry out religious ceremonies. Some relate to the arts of war and diplomacy. Many of them are about the arts and crafts: music, carpentry, smithing, tanning, building, farming, even such simple tasks as lighting fires."

"The operating system of society."

"I'm sorry?"

"When you first turn on a computer, it is an inert collection of circuits that can't really do anything. To start up the machine, you have to infuse those circuits with a collection of rules that tell it how to function. How to be a computer. It sounds as though these me served as the operating system of the society, organizing an inert collection of people into a functioning system."

"As you wish. In any case, Enki was the guardian of the me."

"So he was a good guy, really."

"He was the most beloved of the gods."

"He sounds like kind of a hacker. Which makes his nam-shub very difficult to understand. If he was such a nice guy, why did he do the Babel thing?"

"This is considered to be one of the mysteries of Enki. As you have noticed, his behavior was not always consistent with modern norms."

"I don't buy that. I don't think he actually fucked his sister, daughter, and so on. That story has to be a metaphor for something else. I think it is a metaphor for some kind of recursive informational process. This whole myth stinks of it. To these people, water equals semen. Makes sense, because they probably had no concept of pure water -- it was all brown and muddy and full of viruses anyway. But from a modern standpoint, semen is just a carrier of information -- both benevolent sperm and malevolent viruses. Enki's water -- his semen, his data, his me -- flow throughout the country of Sumer and cause it to flourish."

"As you may be aware, Sumer existed on the floodplain between two major rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. This is where all the clay came from -- they took it directly from the riverbeds."

"So Enki even provided them with their medium for conveying information -- clay. They wrote on wet clay and then they dried it out -- got rid of the water. If water got to it later, the information was destroyed. But if they baked it and drove out all the water, sterilized Enki's semen with heat, then the tablet lasted forever, immutable, like the words of the Torah. Do I sound like a maniac?"

"I don't know," the Librarian says, "but you do sound a little like Lagos."

"I'm thrilled. Next thing you know, I'll turn myself into a gargoyle."


"Who were these gods anyway? Did Lagos have an opinion on that?"

"Lagos believed that they might have been magicians -- that is, normal human beings with special powers -- or they might have been aliens."

"Whoa, whoa, hold on. Let's take these one at a time. What did Lagos mean when he talked about 'normal human beings with special powers'?"

"Assume that the nam-shub of Enki really functioned as a virus. Assume that someone named Enki invented it. Then Enki must have had some kind of linguistic power that goes beyond our concept of normal."

"And how would this power work? What's the mechanism?"

"I can only give you forward references drawn by Lagos."

"Okay. Give me some."

"The belief in the magical power of language is not unusual, both in mystical and academic literature. The Kabbalists -- Jewish mystics of Spain and Palestine -- believed that super-normal insight and power could be derived from properly combining the letters of the Divine Name. For example, Abu Aharon, an early Kabbalist who emigrated from Baghdad to Italy, was said to perform miracles through the power of the Sacred Names."

"What kind of power are we talking about here?"

"Most Kabbalists were theorists who were interested only in pure meditation. But there were so-called 'practical Kabbalists' who tried to apply the power of the Kabbalah in everyday life."

"In other words, sorcerers."

"Yes. These practical Kabbalists used a so-called 'archangelic alphabet,' derived from first-century Greek and Aramaic theurgic alphabets, which resembled cuneiform. The Kabbalists referred to this alphabet as 'eye writing,' because the letters were composed of lines and small circles, which resembled eyes."

"Ones and zeroes."

"Some Kabbalists divided up the letters of the alphabet according to where they were produced inside the mouth."

"Okay. So as we would think of it, they were drawing a connection between the printed letter on the page and the neural connections that had to be invoked in order to pronounce it."

"Yes. By analyzing the spelling of various words, they were able to draw what they thought were profound conclusions about their true, inner meaning and significance."

"Okay. If you say so."

"In the academic realm, the literature is naturally not as fanciful. But a great deal of effort has been devoted to explaining Babel. Not the Babel event -- which most people consider to be a myth -- but the fact that languages tend to diverge. A number of linguistic theories have been developed in an effort to tie all languages together."

"Theories Lagos tried to apply to his virus hypothesis."

"Yes. There are two schools: relativists and universalists. As George Steiner summarizes it, relativists tend to believe that language is not the vehicle of thought but its determining medium. It is the framework of cognition. Our perceptions of everything are organized by the flux of sensations passing over that framework. Hence, the study of the evolution of language is the study of the evolution of the human mind itself."

"Okay, I can see the significance of that. What about the universalists?"

"In contrast with the relativists, who believe that languages need not have anything in common with each other, the universalists believe that if you can analyze languages enough, you can find that all of them have certain traits in common. So they analyze languages, looking for such traits."

"Have they found any?"

"No. There seems to be an exception to every rule."

"Which blows universalism out of the water."

"Not necessarily. They explain this problem by saying that the shared traits are too deeply buried to be analyzable."

"Which is a cop out."

"Their point is that at some level, language has to happen inside the human brain. Since all human brains are more or less the same --"

"The hardware's the same. Not the software."

"You are using some kind of metaphor that I cannot understand."

"Well, a French-speaker's brain starts out the same as an English-speaker's brain. As they grow up, they get programmed with different software -- they learn different languages."

"Yes. Therefore, according to the universalists, French and English -- or any other languages -- must share certain traits that have their roots in the 'deep structures' of the human brain. According to Chomskyan theory, the deep structures are innate components of the brain that enable it to carry out certain formal kinds of operations on strings of symbols. Or, as Steiner paraphrases Emmon Bach: These deep structures eventually lead to the actual patterning of the cortex with its immensely ramified yet, at the same time, 'programmed' network of electrochemical and neurophysiological channels."

"But these deep structures are so deep we can't even see them?"

"The universalists place the active nodes of linguistic life -- the deep structures -- so deep as to defy observation and description. Or to use Steiner's analogy: Try to draw up the creature from the depths of the sea, and it will disintegrate or change form grotesquely."

"There's that serpent again. So which theory did Lagos believe in? The relativist or the universalist?"

"He did not seem to think there was much of a difference. In the end, they are both somewhat mystical. Lagos believed that both schools of thought had essentially arrived at the same place by different lines of reasoning."

"But it seems to me there is a key difference," Hiro says. "The universalists think that we are determined by the prepatterned structure of our brains -- the pathways in the cortex. The relativists don't believe that we have any limits."

"Lagos modified the strict Chomskyan theory by supposing that learning a language is like blowing code into PROMs -- an analogy that I cannot interpret."

"The analogy is clear. PROMs are Programmable Read-Only Memory chips," Hiro says. "When they come from the factory, they have no content. Once and only once, you can place information into those chips and then freeze it -- the information, the software, becomes frozen into the chip -- it transmutes into hardware. After you have blown the code into the PROMs, you can read it out, but you can't write to them anymore. So Lagos was trying to say that the newborn human brain has no structure -- as the relativists would have it -- and that as the child learns a language, the developing brain structures itself accordingly, the language gets 'blown into the hardware and becomes a permanent part of the brain's deep structure -- as the universalists would have it."

"Yes. This was his interpretation."

"Okay. So when he talked about Enki being a real person with magical powers, what he meant was that Enki somehow understood the connection between language and the brain, knew how to manipulate it. The same way that a hacker, knowing the secrets of a computer system, can write code to control it -- digital nam-shubs?"

"Lagos said that Enki had the ability to ascend into the universe of language and see it before his eyes. Much as humans go into the Metaverse. That gave him power to create nam-shubs. And nam-shubs had the power to alter the functioning of the brain and of the body."

"Why isn't anyone doing this kind of thing nowadays? Why aren't there any nam-shubs in English?"

"Not all languages are the same, as Steiner points out. Some languages are better at metaphor than others. Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Chinese lend themselves to word play and have achieved a lasting grip on reality: Palestine had Qiryat Sefer, the 'City of the Letter,' and Syria had Byblos, the 'Town of the Book.' By contrast other civilizations seem 'speechless' or at least, as may have been the case in Egypt, not entirely cognizant of the creative and transformational powers of language. Lagos believed that Sumerian was an extraordinarily powerful language -- at least it was in Sumer five thousand years ago."

"A language that lent itself to Enki's neurolinguistic hacking."

"Early linguists, as well as the Kabbalists, believed in a fictional language called the tongue of Eden, the language of Adam. It enabled all men to understand each other, to communicate without misunderstanding. It was the language of the Logos, the moment when God created the world by speaking a word. In the tongue of Eden, naming a thing was the same as creating it. To quote Steiner again, 'Our speech interposes itself between apprehension and truth like a dusty pane or warped mirror. The tongue of Eden was like a flawless glass; a light of total understanding streamed through it. Thus Babel was a second Fall.' And Isaac the Blind, an early Kabbalist, said that, to quote Gershom Scholem's translation, 'The speech of men is connected with divine speech and all language whether heavenly or human derives from one source: the Divine Name.' The practical Kabbalists, the sorcerers, bore the title Ba'al Shem, meaning 'master of the divine name.'"

"The machine language of the world," Hiro says.

"Is this another analogy?"

"Computers speak machine language," Hiro says. "It's written in ones and zeroes -- binary code. At the lowest level, all computers are programmed with strings of ones and zeroes. When you program in machine language, you are controlling the computer at its brainstem, the root of its existence. It's the tongue of Eden. But it's very difficult to work in machine language because you go crazy after a while, working at such a minute level. So a whole Babel of computer languages has been created for programmers: FORTRAN, BASIC, COBOL, LISP, Pascal, C, PROLOG, FORTH. You talk to the computer in one of these languages, and a piece of software called a compiler converts it into machine language. But you never can tell exactly what the compiler is doing. It doesn't always come out the way you want. Like a dusty pane or warped mirror. A really advanced hacker comes to understand the true inner workings of the machine -- he sees through the language he's working in and glimpses the secret functioning of the binary code -- becomes a Ba'al Shem of sorts."

"Lagos believed that the legends about the tongue of Eden were exaggerated versions of true events," the Librarian says. "These legends reflected nostalgia for a time when people spoke Sumerian, a tongue that was superior to anything that came afterward."

"Is Sumerian really that good?"

"Not as far as modern-day linguists can tell," the Librarian says. "As I mentioned, it is largely impossible for us to grasp. Lagos suspected that words worked differently in those days. If one's native tongue influences the physical structure of the developing brain, then it is fair to say that the Sumerians -- who spoke a language radically different from anything in existence today -- had fundamentally different brains from yours. Lagos believed that for this reason, Sumerian was a language ideally suited to the creation and propagation of viruses. That a virus, once released into Sumer, would spread rapidly and virulently, until it had infected everyone."

"Maybe Enki knew that also," Hiro says. "Maybe the nam-shub of Enki wasn't such a bad thing. Maybe Babel was the best thing that ever happened to us."


"Snow Crash. What is it?"

"It's not a drug," Juanita says. "They make it look like a drug and feel like a drug so that people will want to take it. It's laced with cocaine and some other stuff."

"If it's not a drug, what is it?"

"It's chemically processed blood serum taken from people who are infected with the metavirus," Juanita says. "That is, it's just another way of spreading the infection."

"Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing -- is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?"

Juanita shrugs. "What's the difference?"

Comments gratefully appreciated. Please send them to me by any method of your choice and I'll include them here.

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