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Episode 0052 How To Pt 13
In the Mesopotamian flood story Atrahasis, the necessity of divine clue-giving (as opposed to outright revelation) is explained as the result of an oath made by one of the gods. Early in the story, the hero and his god communicate directly:
Now there was one Atrahasis
Whose ear was open (to) his god Enki.
He would speak with his god
And his god would speak with him.
(Atrahasis I, vii. In Stephanie Dalley, trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.)
Enki is “the talking god” in Mesopotamian narratives. The rest of the divine assembly can barely tolerate humans. In fact, the other two of the top three gods (the top three being Anu, Enlil, and Enki) soon develop a hatred toward humans, who are too numerous and make too much racket. They try to destroy the human race by spreading a disease among them. For a time they appear to succeed, until the human Atrahasis complains to Enki, and Enki tells Atrahasis how to stop the plague (Atrahasis, I, vii-viii).
Enlil and Anu try again to wipe out the human race, this time by drought. But once again their plans are foiled by Enki, who reveals to Atrahasis how he and his fellow humans can end the drought (Ibid., II, i-ii).
Enlil and Anu have had enough. They make Enki swear an oath that he himself will destroy the human race by flood, and this time he must not divulge their plans to any human being.
Enki is bound by his oath not to communicate with Atrahasis directly, but that does not stop him from trying to communicate indirectly. Atrahasis weeps and says:
Enki [would speak to me], but he is under oath,
So he will give [instructions] in dreams (Ibid., II, iii)
This, however, is harder work for Atrahasis. “Indicate to me the meaning of the dream,” he pleads (Ibid., III, i). Even though his name means “overly-clever,” Atrahasis doesn’t get the point. (John Gardner and John Maier (with Richard A. Henshaw), Gilgamesh: Translated from the Sin-leqi-unninni Version (New York: First Vintage Books/Random House, 1984), 65, note 40.)
Finally, Enki comes up with an ingenious solution. He speaks to the wall of Atrahasis’s house, telling the wall what it is that he cannot tell Atrahasis. “Wall, listen constantly to me!” Enki commands. “Reed hut, make sure you attend to all my words!” (Atrahasis, III, i). Of course, Atrahasis is on the other side of the wall, but since Enki is not addressing him, the terms of his oath are satisfied. Or perhaps the wall passes the message on to Atrahasis like the whistling of the wind. This interpretation agrees with the god Anu’s suspicion that Enki “made sure that the [reed hut] disclosed the order.” (W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 11-12. The quotation is from Atrahasis, III, vi.) At any rate, the hero finally gets the message, builds an ark, and is saved from the impending flood.
In the Norse epic The Saga of the Volsungs, the god Odin keeps popping up unexpectedly as an old man who gives counsel. Although Odin is the ruler of this world, his interventions are subtle and, in most cases, anonymous. Sometimes he does not even make a personal appearance but communicates his advice through intermediaries (through animals, for example). But whether in person or secondhand, Odin does little more than give advice. He does not do for the heroes what they must do for themselves, even though, as the greatest of gods, he is capable of helping them.
On the one occasion in which he does intervene directly in a battle, it is not to help but to hinder. Just when Sigmund (one of his favorites) appears victorious in battle, Odin breaks Sigmund’s sword in half. (Jesse L. Byock, trans., The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), chapter 11). After receiving mortal wounds from his enemies, Sigmund dies knowing that Odin himself has decreed his death. He is cheered, however, by the knowledge that his unborn son Sigurd will repair the sword and avenge him (Ibid., chapter 12).
Odin is not so much interested in helping his favorites as in giving them opportunities to achieve greatness. Even in death, Sigmund shows himself to be a true hero in the Norse tradition, and that is what matters.
In most of the world’s religious narratives, however, the advancement of the plot toward the final objective does not depend primarily on divine visitations even if these do occur from time to time. Rather, divine beings play a much more fundamental, albeit more subtle, role within the story itself.
The narrators of these stories recognize a quiet force at work in human affairs. This force acts like a kind of cosmic Author, masterfully weaving peoples’ thoughts and actions into a story—a story that none of the participants totally understand or control. In some narrative traditions the Author may be one or more gods, while in others it is an impersonal influence that overrides the actions of the gods themselves. But whatever attribution is given to it, these narratives reveal an implicit faith that the course of human events is fundamentally right and that, for people of faith at least, things work out the way they are supposed to.
This is what Oedipus realizes just before his death. He has wandered for many years with no place to call home, carrying with him no other hope than Apollo’s promise that he will at last find a resting place. Now he has made his way to the sacred grove of the Furies at Colonus, and he is sure that this is the place. Apollo long ago told him that he would be given signs when he had found his destination, and that promise is about to be fulfilled. But Oedipus no longer needs signs. Praying to the Furies, he says:
I am sure of it now, sure that you guided me
With feathery influence upon this road,
And led me here into your hallowed wood.
(Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. In David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, eds., The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles I (New York: Washington Square Press, 1972), Scene 1, lines 96-98.)
Oedipus is not alone in this respect. It is by a “feathery influence” that the heroes of these stories are guided toward their destinies. Few roadmarks exist, and those which do are hard to read. The heroes are not pushed along with heavy hand. They are influenced—quietly, almost imperceptibly, yet powerfully. Even when no miracles occur, these stories reflect the vast power of the gods (or at least the essential correctness of the structure of the universe) because, simply through the playing out of events, right wins out over wrong.
And this does not occur in spite of the plans and schemes of evil people. It is precisely by means of such obstacles that things turn out the way they are supposed to. Far more powerful than any isolated miracle is this “feathery influence” that makes adversity ultimately useful rather than destructive.