Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
34. Facing the Past

34. Facing the Past

On dismantling inequality by facing the past—especially an ancient law code from 2000 BCE and its rules about class and gender hierarchy

We take a cue from the Aymara people of the Andes, who experience the past as in front of us, not behind us.

So today we face the past: first the recent past, in June, of devastating Supreme Court decisions and horrifying Congressional testimonies about the former president’s attempted coup.

The events are related, and we dip into the deep past to understand their connections. We explore the first law code written down that survives today, the Code of Ur-Nammu in 2100 BCE, and how it protected status, wealth, and the power of men over women. Through routes both direct and indirect, it became the “cradle” of modern law. So those who are trying to keep white men at the apex of power are inspired by a vision of society going back, not just fifty years, but five thousand.

We explore how to make social inequality strange—how to challenge lingering ideas in our own minds that wealth should bring status, that owners get to decide, and that authority "naturally" looks white or male.

A different social order IS possible, and we look to the Aymara again for an example of a society that rejects hierarchies. To the Aymara, hierarchy is the opposite of affection. They choose affection because they say it's the only way that people can thrive and the Earth can regenerate.



So I’d like to take a lesson today from the Aymara people. The Aymara are an Indigenous group from the Andes who have lived and farmed on the high plains for centuries. They experience the past and future differently than most other people do.

For us English speakers—and for people in most of the world—the past lies behind us and the future lies ahead. But for the Aymara it’s just the opposite: the past lies in front of us—for the simple reason that it’s the part of time that we can see. We know what’s already happened. The future is opaque—as invisible to us as everything behind our backs. So the Aymara, in talking about what happened yesterday, or last year, or centuries ago, might motion with their arm and hand ahead of the body. And the future? It’s like pointing a thumb backward over your shoulder.

I’m thinking about this because—to learn from the Aymara—we need to do some serious facing the past. This most recent month, the month of June—the one right in front of us—showed us some devastating pictures of this country.

There were the Supreme Court decisions. The Court gutted Roe v. Wade and gave states the rights to make decisions about women’s health and bodies and families. The Court eroded the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to do a good job of protecting climate. And the Court relaxed gun restrictions, making it likely that more people will die. And all these decisions were based on sloppy arguments; the historian Heather Cox Richardson, who is usually so measured, says they built their arguments on “stunningly bad history.” She says the Court was “clearly just working to get the modern-day position it wanted.”

Also in June, the month right in front of us, we watched hearings from the January 6 Committee showing that the former president attempted a coup. That he told lies upon lies about the election and then solicited armed supporters and white nationalists to force Congress to keep him in power. And that enough powerful Republicans went along with him that the coup almost succeeded. It is a stunning set of events like no other in American history—a president trying to burn down American institutions to install himself as an autocrat for life.

The events of June are related. Just on the face of it, they’re related by the huge sums of money that it took to make each of them happen. It’s well known that conservative nominees to the Supreme Court are backed by organizations spending hundreds of millions of dollars in promotional campaigns. Dark money funded the nomination processes of all three of the recent conservative nominees. And with respect to the attempted coup, millions of dollars were raised fraudulently from donors and paid to the people who plotted it.

But, in addition to the money, there are even deeper levels of interconnection between these sets of events. And to probe them we need to go deeper into history. We need to face the past. Because a vision from the past is guiding the extremists who are trying to reshape society today. The majority of Americans hold a different vision, of a society that is truly plural and democratic, free of authoritarianism. But to get there we’ll need to free ourselves from the death grip of the past.

So I’ve been immersing myself for a while in the deep past, especially a code of law that took shape more than four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, now part of Iraq. That law code is the first one ever written down that survives to this day. It’s the Code of King Ur-Nammu, from around 2100 BCE, and it was stamped into wet clay in the Sumerian language using cuneiform. We have only a copy of this code, not the original, and we know it’s a copy because clay was the medium used in schools to teach students learning to become scribes. They learned their lessons by copying lists of things onto their slab of clay—lists of words and lists of laws. So this particular copy of the law code was likely stamped into clay by a young person learning to write—and learning as well the right order of things by stamping the laws into their own mind and heart.

An upright slab of orange-colored clay imprinted with rows of tiny hatch marks. Slab is under glass in a museum, and the exhibit sign reads "Ur Nammu Yasasi," or Ur Nammu Law Code.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons,

So what does this law code say about justice in the city of Ur under King Ur-Nammu?

It opens with a prologue that lavishes praise on the king for establishing justice. Mesopotamian kings had the job of setting up justice because they received it from the God of Justice himself, Utu the Sun God. So the prologue says that the king “banished malediction, violence and strife”; he “establish[ed] equity in the land.” It says that he protected weaker members of society, so that “the orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel [only] was not delivered up to the man of one mina [of silver].”

You might think, from all this language of equity and fairness, that the society of Ur was rather egalitarian. But the opposite was actually true. It was a rigidly class-based society, where those who owned more land and wealth were socially superior to those who owned less. The poor had to be protected because the rich were in the habit of exploiting them. And at the very bottom of the social hierarchy were slaves, the class of people who by law could not own property at all because they themselves were property.

We can see how the law shored up this social order in its very first lines.

The Code of Ur-Nammu opens with one simple sentence: “If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.” And the second sentence: “If a man commits robbery, he will be killed.”

Just two simple lines, but side by side here at the outset, they are stunning. Together they become the pillars of the legal system—two equal pillars. In the eyes of the law, murder and stealing are the same. The penalty for both is death.

It tells us that the society of King Ur-Nammu was built on ownership. It was a society that held property so dear that to rob a man was tantamount to murdering him. Taking his possessions equaled taking his life.

We know from other sources that people even used the idea of property to think about themselves. People who were lower in status might call themselves “slaves” of their superiors, even if they, the subordinates, were free citizens. They imagined themselves as being owned by the people higher up. The king, at the top of the hierarchy, symbolically owned the whole kingdom and all its people.

So ownership organized people’s day-to-day lives, but it also organized their thinking about their lives. It shaped their imaginations.

And ownership defined family relations as well. The city-states of Mesopotamia were rigidly patriarchal, and the father, as head of household, largely owned all the members of the family. Senior wives, junior wives, children, servants, slaves—they were all legally bound by his decisions. In times of famine, parents could legally sell their children into slavery. A daughter was subject first to her father, and when she grew up and married she became subject instead to her husband.

Being married did give a woman certain rights. For example, a married woman could own some kinds of property and pass it down to her daughters and sons as she pleased. But for the most part her husband was also her master; he owned her life and her body, including her sexuality. So the Code of Ur-Nammu stipulates that a wife who commits adultery will be put to death. Her offense is to steal the property of her husband, namely, her own body, and stealing, of course, was a capital crime.

A man who owned slaves also owned the right to the first sexual experience of his female slaves, and another line in the code says that any man who rapes another man’s virgin slave must be punished. The harm—to be clear—was thought of as being committed against the male owner and his property rights, not against the assaulted and enslaved woman.

The Code of Ur-Nammu, in other words, was written from the perspective of people who own things, namely, men, and especially men who were rich enough to own fields and slaves. And each of the offenses named in the code imagines that offense as a loss of property, whether bodily injury or damage to fields. It’s a code that was written to enforce social status. It may have established a certain kind of fairness by limiting punishments and equalizing the laws across the land. But its main concern was to protect what a man owned from being taken away from him. It was a law designed to protect property.

Most of the offenses named in the code were punished by paying a certain fine. So one line says that if a man knocks out the eye of another, he is to pay a certain weight of silver. Cutting off a foot required a smaller amount, and knocking out a tooth even less. But all these punishments in shekels and silver show that this was a society that thought in terms of price. Money could compensate for loss.

In other words, people could translate justice into numbers. They used money to heal breaches of trust. It’s a strange idea if you think about it—that money can make things right. That justice is restored through paying a sum of money rather than in some other way—for example, through reconciling people who are hurting. I’m struck by how familiar that system of money punishments feels, as well as how chilling.

The social order laid out in the Code of Ur-Nammu persisted for a very long time. The code itself sounds mature, as if it had been operating already for hundreds of years. And it turns out this was true. By the time the young scribe stamped the code of the king into that slab of wet clay in 2100 BCE, owning things, including owning people, had been the organizing pattern of their society for at least a thousand years. We know this because it is documented in writing—and writing, in Mesopotamia, developed to keep track of property.

It’s a fascinating story—and I’ll only go into it briefly—how writing arose at the time, around 3000 BCE, when the farmers and shepherds who lived in the countryside of Mesopotamia thinned out and populations grew instead inside a few large walled cities. In those cities the people became members of huge institutional households—maybe hundreds of members to a household, if the owner was wealthy or powerful enough. People may have cooked and slept in rooms with their own families, but during the days they worked in communal rooms for the head of the household. Women wove and spun cloth in what we can see from carvings of the time look for all the world like assembly lines. Men were conscripted for fighting wars and tending orchards and building huge public works. King Ur-Nammu himself ordered the building of the enormous ziggurat of Ur, with a platform that survives today—200 feet long, 150 feet wide, and 100 feet high. And that was just the foundation for the buildings that rose on top of it.

In those large institutional households, workers got paid in rations—small bowls of grain and oil, pieces of meat, swatches of cloth. It was a huge, factory-like bureaucratic system. Overseers kept all the provisions in large communal storage rooms that held many jars of grain and oil. So they needed to keep track of a lot of details, and they developed writing. Which means that in Mesopotamia, writing developed for accounting. To keep track of property.

So by the time the Code of Ur-Nammu was written down, a thousand years later, that system of owning and distributing food was very, very old. But since King Ur-Nammu’s law focused on protecting owners from loss of property, that law was able to see and punish only certain kinds of stealing and was completely blind to other kinds. Remember those rations of food and cloth paid to workers? Modern economists have calculated the value of those rations and found that they did not equal the value of the people’s labor. So the heads of those institutional households were skimming from their workers, committing wage theft already four thousand years ago. The city-states of Mesopotamia were built on exploitation.

That hierarchy in wealth and status and power remained stable for thousands of years in part because of laws of inheritance. By law, a family could pass its possessions down to the next generation of family members only. So wealth remained centralized in the hands of the same families, and the system continued intact.

It was a system that was stable not only over time but also over an enormous area of land. Similar laws of property and inheritance and the owning of women and slaves stretched from Mesopotamia in the east to Egypt in the west, a curving length of land called the Fertile Crescent that covers twenty-five hundred miles end to end. Though people in local communities along that stretch spoke different languages and wrote different myths and prayed to different gods, they shared the broad outlines of a legal universe, what one ancient Near East scholar calls a “legal ontology.” It was a legal universe that looked remarkably the same across a vast region for several thousand years.

And this is the legal universe that still sits in front of us. For we—all the people in Westernized societies, and white people in particular—have inherited it both directly and indirectly. We received it directly through the texts of the Hebrew Bible, for the ancient Hebrews belonged to that universe. Abraham and his family originated in Mesopotamia, and the ancient Near Eastern template for law and society shows up in the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis, and in the law codes of Deuteronomy.

And we received that universe indirectly as well, for the laws about who gets to own things and make decisions for others passed eventually to the Greeks, who handed it on to the Romans, and through the Roman Empire it spread to Europe and Britain, and in England modern law developed and then got shipped around the world through colonialism. Those ancient laws are the “cradle” of modern law, as one scholar says.

They may be the cradle, but I think of them more like a lead weight dragging down our imagination of what could be. Five thousand years of hierarchy and inequality stretch in front of us to the horizon, and we can’t see around this hulking pattern. All of the societies between us and Mesopotamia arranged themselves along the same general pattern of hierarchy and inequality; they gathered authority and power at the top of society in the hands of wealthy men. Think emperors and subjects, feudal lords and serfs, the divine right of kings, the patriarchal family.

None of the societies linking us to Mesopotamia challenged those vertical lines of power or untangled the knot of authority at the top. None of them ever separated status from wealth or wealth from authority or authority from gender. To all of them, inequality felt normal. Hierarchies of class and gender were just “natural.”

And in one big way we Americans added another strand to that tangled knot of wealth, authority, and gender: we added race. In this country we invested power and authority not just in wealthy men but in wealthy white men. We stamped the ancient order, like cuneiform, not just into our hearts and minds but onto our very bodies. Ideas about who owns and who is owned, of who the law protects and who it prosecutes, are always enmeshed with the color of people’s skin.

We think of ourselves as so far removed from those ancient peoples, but we started to challenge the hierarchies of power only in the very recent past. Europeans began questioning the divine right of kings only about four hundred years ago. In this country we outlawed slavery less than two hundred years ago. And until fifty years ago it was legal in every state for a man to rape his wife and illegal in most states to terminate a pregnancy. Which is why it’s been said often in recent weeks that those who are pushing to outlaw abortion are trying to turn the clock back fifty years.

But I think the vision that guides them today comes not from fifty years ago but from five thousand. We’re staring at a hierarchical social order that we’ve lugged for five millennia down to the present time. That’s a tremendous amount of inertia, and a very heavy load.

Which is why in many ways we’re only at the start of creating something new. This is not the time for giving up; it’s a time for refocusing and gathering energy for the next steps.

The good news is that every bit helps. And we can start anywhere, because all of the unfreedoms are related. So anything a person does to untangle the knot of power helps to extend freedom in every other area. Whether you work for abortion care or to end dark money in politics or to increase the rights of disabled people; whether you raise climate awareness or support rights of nature or raise awareness for racial equality; whether you work to end incarceration or you support the rights of LGBTQ people, there is something for everyone to do.

And the one thing each of us can do is to work within our own minds to dismantle this picture of power that we’ve inherited from the past. To uncover in ourselves any lingering belief that wealthy people deserve a higher status or that owners get to make the decisions or that authority naturally looks white or male. We have steeped in inequality for thousands of years, and there is always more each of us can do to make inequality feel strange instead of normal. To free our own minds of the baggage of the past so we can help make room for something better.

Because a different world is possible. The Aymara people themselves, who see the past in front of us, have modeled a different social order for many hundreds of years. I’ve long been inspired by how they refuse to arrange themselves in hierarchies because they say it gets in the way of thriving; it actually hampers people or plants or the Earth from regenerating. They see hierarchy as the opposite of affection. So they practice extending love and nurturing to all the members of a community—animals, plants, spirits, people—because they know that love and affection are the only sure ways to promote life.

So I was not surprised to find their way of life mentioned in the same article where I read about their unique way of imagining time. The article reports that a white anthropologist, an American woman who lived among the Aymara beginning in the 1950s, found it quite a surprise to arrive in the Andes and discover that the Aymara did not hold a hierarchy of gender. “I was suddenly treated as a full person,” she says. And now, all these decades later, she feels that her own culture is the one out of step with reality, because we’re the ones not facing the past. “We pretend it’s not there,” she says, “yet we’re lugging it with us as we go.”

So here’s to facing the past fully so we can let go of the baggage we’ve been dragging for thousands of years. Here’s to lightening the load and making room for love. In light of five thousand years of history, we’ve only begun to taste freedom. We’re only getting started.


For digging deeper

The article that reports on the Aymara concept of the past as in front of us is by Laura Spinney, “How Time Flies,” Guardian, Feb. 23, 2005. She quotes Marta Hardman, the anthropologist from the University of Florida who lived among the Aymara beginning in the fifties and experienced their social system as freeing because they do not practice a hierarchy of gender.

Heather Cox Richardson analyzes the news of the day and places it in context of American history in her free daily newsletter, “Letters from an American,” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Her comments on the Dobbs decision that overturns Roe come from her letter of June 24. And for a succinct explanation of West Virgina vs. EPA, see her newsletter of June 30.

In 2019 the Washington Post published an exposé of dark money in Supreme Court nomination processes with a focus on Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, who openly called for turning Supreme Court nominations into a political process. Leo said, “We’re going to have to understand that judicial confirmations these days are more like political campaigns.” See Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg, “A Conservative’s Behind-the-Scenes Campaign to Remake the Nation’s Courts,” Washington Post, May 21, 2019.

For more on lists and lexical texts in early Mesopotamian schools for scribes, see William Brown, “Cuneiform Lexical Lists,” World History Encyclopedia. Clay tablets were similar to primers used in early modern Europe and the colonies right up through the nineteenth century to teach children their letters. Compare “19th Century Primers,” CSUN University Library.

My summary of Mesopotamian laws on king, family, and class comes partly from Raymond Westbrook’s introductory chapter, “The Character of Ancient Near East Law,” in A History of Near Eastern Law (Brill, 2003), 1:1–92. Westbrook shows how a consistent legal universe followed the Fertile Crescent and remained stable for thousands of years to become the “cradle” of modern law. He also named the “direct” and “indirect” ways that ancient legal system got handed down to the modern world. Glimpses into the Mesopotamian city-state and the beginning of writing come from archaeologist Susan Pollock, Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden That Never Was (Cambridge University Press, 1999), and Mario Liverani, Uruk: The First City (Equinox, 2006). Liverani says that spinners and weavers of wool, which included women and children, were mostly slave laborers, and their value of their rations was far less than the value they added to the wool by transforming it into thread and cloth (p. 38).

I wrote about the Aymara in Kissed by a Fox, chapter 5, “Stories We Live By.” I was inspired to write about them after discovering the chapters written by native Aymara anthropologists in Spirit of Regeneration: Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development, ed. Frédérique Apffel-Marglin with PRATEC (London: Zed Books, 1998).  Grimaldo Rengifo Vasquez writes of equivalency and affection toward people and Earth in his chapter, “The Ayllu,” 89–123.


Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
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