Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Secret Origin Story Of Secret Origin Stories

A high priestess sworn to celibacy bears a child.   She puts the baby in a basket of rushes sealed with tar, then puts the basket in the river, trusting the waters to deliver her child to his safety--or his fate.  But the child is beloved of the gods.  He will not be forgotten or drowned.  He is discovered in a strange land and raised by parents who are not his own, demonstrating his strength of will and arms.  Only later does he learn his birthright, which delivers him into great power.

Sargon of Akkad demonstrates the power of Mesopotamian beardage
This is the story of the first great king of Mesopotamia, Sargon the Great.  Sargon lived in the 22nd Century BC, and was the first person to unite the warring city states of the fertile crescent under one government.  But this is how it started:
My high priestess mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love, and for four and ... years I exercised kingship.
The story sounds familiar, right?  In Exodus, Moses is put into a basket of rushes sealed with pitch and put on the Nile, only to be rescued by the Pharaoh's family.  Only later does he realize his true identity, and the power of his birthright.
And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi.  And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.  And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink.  And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.  And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river's side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it.  And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews' children.
Moses in the Nile
While Sargon is born to a high-status family and raised by a low-status water-drawer, Moses is born to a commoner and raised to be a king.  But besides that, the stories are incredibly similar, even down to the material of the basket, and the method in which the basket was sealed.

This is also one of the origin stories of Romulus and Remus.  According to Plutarch, a young princess is forced to become a Vestal Virgin so that her uncle can secure his grip on local power.
She was, contrary to the established laws of the Vestals, discovered to be with child, and should have suffered the most cruel punishment, had not Antho, the king's daughter, mediated with her father for her; nevertheless, she was confined, and debarred all company, that she might not be delivered without the king's knowledge. In time she brought forth two boys, of more than human size and beauty, whom Amulius, becoming yet more alarmed, commanded a servant to take and cast away; this man some call Faustulus, others say Faustulus was the man who brought them up. He put the children, however, in a small trough, and went towards the river with a design to cast them in; but, seeing the waters much swollen and coming violently down, was afraid to go nearer, and, dropping the children near the bank, went away. The river overflowing, the flood at last bore up the trough, and, gently wafting it, landed them on a smooth piece of ground, which they now call Cermanes, formerly Germanus, perhaps from Germani, which signifies brothers.
Later, after becoming super awesome and renowned, they are reunited with their grandfather, and the truth is revealed.
"Formerly, then, we (for we are twins) thought ourselves the sons of Faustulus and Larentia, the king's servants; but since we have been accused and aspersed with calumnies, and brought in peril of our lives here before you, we hear great things of ourselves, the truth of which my present danger is likely to bring to the test. Our birth is said to have been secret, our fostering and nurture in our infancy still more strange; by birds and beasts, to whom we were cast out, we were fed, by the milk of a wolf, and the morsels of a woodpecker, as we lay in a little trough by the side of the river. The trough is still in being, and is preserved, with brass plates round it, and an inscription in letters almost effaced; which may prove hereafter unavailing tokens to our parents when we are dead and gone." Numitor, upon these words, and computing the dates by the young man's looks, slighted not the hope that flattered him, but considered how to come at his daughter privately (for she was still kept under restraint), to talk with her concerning these matters.
After this, the two boys go on to found Rome.

The discovery of Romulus and Remus

This is also the story of a baby named Kal-El from the planet Krypton.  His planet doomed, Kal-El's father puts him into a space age basket of rushes--a rocket--and sends him to a strange land to face his fate.  He is found, renamed Clark Kent, and grows up to be Superman.

With only minor variations in the future occupation of the child (conqueror extraordinaire; defender of truth, justice and the American Way) this could be a modern reboot of the story of Sargon the Great.

Sargon's story was pressed into clay tablets over four thousand years ago, and ever since we have been re-telling it in countless new ways.  It is the origin-story version of  a jazz standard: a recognized heroic riff which generations of enterprising myth-makers use as a comfortable base for their individual genius.  But what about the origin story of Sargon has touched us so much that we have been repeating it to each other for four millennia or more, with variations both major and minor?  Perhaps it's that a hidden parentage explains the greatness of some men so well.  Why are these people marked out from the mass of history, while most are not?  Well they're not from around here.  They are special.

But I suspect that the popularity of this story has a deeper resonance.  When we become adults, we are all a little bit like Sargon.  We set out on the world, lost and alone, without the familiar marks of our family to distinguish us.  We face trials and challenges, all in hopes that someone will recognize our birthright, and we find some place that we truly belong.

I was inspired by this post by the Ancient World Podcast, episode 3.  Listen to it if you are curious about the whole story of Sargon the Great.