Birth of Snark

The next time you’re irritated by an internet troll, remember that one of the greatest inventions of civilization was snark. For millennia of recorded history, there was no evidence of it. Then suddenly, in the measure of historical time, there it was in all its glory.

Before there was social media and online comments sections, there were letters written in cuneiform. There is something about text-based communication that brings snark out in some people, no matter the medium. But first there had to be a transformation in consciousness.

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The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes
p. 249-250

Going from Hammurabi’s letters to the state letters of Assyria of the seventh century B.C. is like leaving a thoughtless tedium of undisobeyable directives and entering a rich sensitive frightened grasping recalcitrant aware world not all that different from our own. The letters are addressed to people, not tablets, and probably were not heard, but had to be read aloud. The subjects discussed have changed in a thousand years to a far more extensive list of human activities. But they are also imbedded in a texture of deceit and divination, speaking of police investigations, complaints of lapsing ritual, paranoid fears, bribery, and pathetic appeals of imprisoned officers, all things unknown, unmentioned, and impossible in the world of Hammurabi. Even sarcasm, as in a letter from an Assyrian king to his restive acculturated deputies in conquered Babylon about 670 B.C.:

Word of the king to the pseudo-Babylonians. I am well . .  . So you, so help you heaven, have turned yourselves into Babylonians! And you keep bringing up against my servants charges— false charges,— which you and your master have concocted . .  . The document (nothing but windy words and importunities!) which you have sent me, I am returning to you, after replacing it into its seals. Of course you will say, “What is he sending back to us?” From the Babylonians, my servants and my friends are writing me: When I open and read, behold, the goodness of the shrines, birds of sin . .  . 28

And then the tablet is broken off.

A further interesting difference is their depiction of an Assyrian king. The Babylonian kings of the early second millennium were confident and fearless, and probably did not have to be too militaristic. The cruel Assyrian kings, whose palaces are virile with muscular depictions of lion hunts and grappling with clawing beasts, are in their letters indecisive frightened creatures appealing to their astrologers and diviners to contact the gods and tell them what to do and when to do it. These kings are told by their diviners that they are beggars or that their sins are making a god angry; they are told what to wear, or what to eat, or not to eat until further notice: 29 “Something is happening in the skies; have you noticed? As far as I am concerned, my eyes are fixed. I say, ‘What phenomenon have I failed to see, or failed to report to the king? Have I failed to observe something that does not pertain to his lot?’.  .  . As to that eclipse of the sun of which the king spoke, the eclipse did not take place. On the 27th I shall look again and send in a report. From whom does the lord my king fear misfortune? I have no information whatsoever.” 30

Does a comparison of these letters, a thousand years apart, demonstrate the alteration of mentality with which we are here concerned? Of course, a great deal of discussion could follow such a question. And research: content analyses, comparisons of syntax, uses of pronouns, questions, and future tenses, as well as specific words which appear to indicate subjectivity in the Assyrian letters and which are absent in the Old Babylonian. But such is our knowledge of cuneiform at present that a thorough analysis is not possible at this time. Even the translations I have used are hedged in favor of smooth English and familiar syntax and so are not to be completely trusted. Only an impressionist comparison is possible, and the result, I think, is clear: that the letters of the seventh century B.C. are far more similar to our own consciousness than those of Hammurabi a thousand years earlier.