The Web site of aleph · Index
The lethal text
Writing under erasure
Mesopotamian myth
The Gilgamesh legend
The nam-shub of Enki
The Tower of Babel story
The song of the Sirens
Plato's metaphor of the cave
"man's insanity is heaven's sense"
The Ultimate Melody
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Snow Crash

Once upon a time The Web site of aleph by Michael Chorost existed, but has since ceased. These texts represent a small measure of its content. Image from the short story ARI-L by Caza.

deoxy > philosophos


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,

Uri, 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.

This is the nam-shub of Enki, translated from Sumerian cuneiform. It is two things: it is a story of linguistic disintegration, and it is an incantation which supposedly causes linguistic disintegration. To hear the tale is to lose the power of understanding speech. It tells of Enki, who "changed the speech" of the population to "put contention into it." This, of course, is similar in content to the Babel legend, where God disrupted the linguistic unity of the people in order to stop the Tower from being built.

I have quoted this from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (216-7). Stephenson obtained it from Samuel Noah Kramer and John R. Maier's Myths of Enki, the Crafty God (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.) In Snow Crash, a sinister industrialist has obtained and translated ancient nam-shubs and is using them to wreak linguistic havoc in the modern world.

The nam-shubs suggest a magical theory of language, in which the only kind of utterance that can cause the breakdown of language is one which also happens to talk about the breakdown of language. In other words, the surface meaning of the incantation is crucial to its deep effect.

Why? Some indication can be found in Hofstader's discussion of the USE-MENTION dichotomy in information theory.

I find it curious that many stories about lethal texts and/or linguistic viruses invoke ancient mythology, as if the ancients knew things about language which have been forgotten in the modern world. Snow Crash posits that Sumerian nam-shubs are being used to wreak linguistic havoc in the modern world. Macroscope has a character who has the "gift of tongues," and takes its protagonist, Ivo Archer, back to Mesopotamian times. Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, posits that new kind of "unicameral" consciousness swept like a virus through the ancient world, destroying what had been a kind of Edenic innocence, and cites, as evidence, Sumerian inscriptions which sound much like nam-shubs.