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Julian Jaynes and the Ancient Tablets


Achilles is furious at Agamemnon for threatening to take from him the fruits of war that Achilles justly earned with his sword. He is so furious, in fact, that before he knows it, his hand is already on the hilt of his sword and he is ready to kill the King. Then, something very special happens: Athena herself comes down from Olympus and, seen only by Achilles, tells him (Homer, 1974):

Here is my promise, and it will be kept:
winnings three times as rich, in due season,
you shall have in requital for his arrogance.
But hold your hand. Obey.”

Thus, Achiless begins a tirade denouncing Agamemnon in the strongest possible words, although returning the sword into the scabbard—however angry he may be, he can’t disobey the Godess.

We could interpret this scene as a sort of a poetic instrument, where the need for Athena signifies the scale of emotions felt by Achilles; in his classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Julian Jaynes rejects this trivial explanation and offers an another hypothesis: Athena was, in a sense, present there, seen, indeed, only by Achiless, by the virtue of being hallucinated by him. Without her voice, commanding him not to act on the impulse, he would have killed Agamemnon with no remorse.

This sequence offers us an insight into the working of the mind of people of ancient civilizations, for according to Jaynes they experienced reality in an extremely different fashion than we do—well, or didn’t experience it: he tells us that they “did not have subjectivity as do we; [they] had no awareness of [their] awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon”: their mind—the Bicameral Mind—was split between the automaton part—incapable of adequately engaging in any novel or complex situation, and the “god” part—auditory and visual hallucinations that were obeyed immediately and did allow people to engage in novel and complex situations. In the scene above it was of course Athena taking the role of the god part.

At first, this theory seems downright outrageous and you may wonder why on Earth did I call this book “classic”. But it does have more than three thousand citations; and reading on, seeing the evidence not only from ancient Greece, but also from ancient Egypt, Babylon, and even the Inca, one starts to vacillate.

I will be honest with you: by the end of the seventh chapter I was utterly convinced that Jaynes was basically right.

I love n+1's profile of Jaynes and his theory: There Is Only Awe [2k words].


Thinking a bit more about this, though, the Bicameral Mind theory is almost trivially, comically false. For example, while even some animals can engage in short-term deception, based on the immediate behavioral reward, the bicameral mind fundamentally lacks the faculty for long-term deception (Jaynes, 2000, p. 219):

[Treachery] is impossible for an animal or for a bicameral man. Long-term deceit requires the invention of an analog self [i.e. a model of self] that can ‘do’ or ‘be’ something quite different from what the person actually does or is, as seen by his associates.

In light of this, coups d’état seem to be strongly incompatible with the bicameral mind, since they usually require gaining the trust of the ruler before conspiring against him and trying to overthrow him. This intuition is explicitly confirmed by Jaynes just a few pages later (pp. 227-228).

The earliest coup d’état I could find was that against Yahdun-Lim—king of Mari (an ancient Mesopotamian city), who was killed around 1796 BC, apparently, by his own son, who succeeded him and was himself assasinated two years later (Pitard, 2001, p. 39; Liverani, 2013, p. 226).

But Jaynes writes that the first evidence of modern consciousness dates around 1300 BC and calls Hammurabi, who lived in 18th century BC, “bicameral Hammurabi”. With timings this off, most of the evidence presented by Jaynes comes crashing down.

But we’re not finished yet.


A curious fact about the ancient Middle East is the preponderance of clay tablets from the first writing civilizations that were saved through the millenia for us to read. Jaynes uses clay tablets freely to bolster his argument and, even though the correctness of his Bicameral Mind theory is now out of the way, he prompted me to read the number of ancient letters much larger than I’m willing to admit; some of them were rather fun (Heimpel, 2003, p. 251):

[In the quotation below, curly braces enclose damaged sections and all emphasis is mine]

To My Star speak! Inibšina (says), “Some time ago, the pederast Šelebum gave me a directive, and I wrote you. Now one shock-head of {Dagan} of Terqa {came} and spoke to me {as} follows: She (said), ‘The peace offers of the {Ešnunakean} are deceit. Water runs below chaff. And I will collect him (the Ešnunakean) in the net that I knot. I will erase his city. And his wealth, which is from old, I will cause to be utterly defiled.’ This she said to me. Now guard yourself! Do not enter inside the city without extispicy! I heard the following: ‘He scintillates all by himself.’ Do not scintillate all by yourself!”

That tablet was addressed to Zimri-Lim—another king of Mari, who ruled from about 1775 to 1761 BC, and who was the grandson of Yahdun-Lim we are already familiar with, by his sister.

Or take this letter (Oppenheim, 1967, p. 92):

Tell the Lady Zinû: Iddin-Sin sends the following message:

May the gods Šamaš, Marduk, and Ilabrat keep you forever in good health for my sake.

From year to year, the clothes of the (young) gentlemen here become better, but you let my clothes get worse from year to year. Indeed, you persisted(?) in making my clothes poorer and more scanty. At a time when in our house wool is used up like bread, you have made me poor clothes. The son of Adad-iddinam, whose father is only an assistant of my father, (has) two new sets of clothes [break] while you fuss even about a single set of clothes for me. In spite of the fact that you bore me and his mother only adopted him, his mother loves him, while you, you do not love me!

I love these two tablets in particular for the metaphors used. The first one reads:

Water runs below chaff. And I will collect him (the Ešnunakean) in the net that I knot.

and the second one:

in our house wool is used up like bread.

Jaynes is captivated by metaphors (p. 48):

Let us speak of metaphor. The most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors. But what an understatement! For metaphor is not a mere extra trick of language, as it is so often slighted in the old schoolbooks on composition; it is the very constitutive ground of language.

and by the ways metaphors operate at every level of our description of consciousness (p. 55):

Subjective conscious mind is an analog [i.e. a map] of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.

Consider the language we use to describe conscious processes. The most prominent group of words used to describe mental events are visual. We ‘see’ solutions to problems, the best of which may be ‘brilliant’, and the person ‘brighter’ and ’clearheaded’ as opposed to ‘dull’, ‘fuzzy-minded’, or ‘obscure’ solutions. These words are all metaphors and the mind-space to which they apply is a metaphor of actual space. In it we can ‘approach’ a problem, perhaps from some ‘viewpoint’, and ‘grapple’ with its difficulties, or seize together or ‘com-prehend’ parts of a problem, and so on, using metaphors of behavior to invent things to do in this metaphored mind-space.


In conclusion, even though Jaynes’ main bicameralism claim does not hold up to scrutiny (but it could probably be reformulated as a claim about the proportion of people who had hallucinations being large in the past and small today), the book is worth reading just for the chapter on the interrelation between metaphor and consciousness, for the original reading of Iliad, and for the narrative that Jaynes maintains throughout. The Breakdown may be wrong, but it’s definitely good aesthetic: 7 clay tablets out of 10.

Thanks to Ann Taranina and Chris Beiser for reading early drafts of this post.


Heimpel, Wolfgang. Letters to the King of Mari: A New Translation, with Historical Introduction, Notes, and Commentary. Eisenbrauns, 2003.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Anchor Press, 1974.

Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Liverani, Mario. The Ancient Near East: History, Society and Economy. Routledge, 2013.

Oppenheim, A. Leo. Letters from Mesopotamia: Official, Business, and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millennia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Pitard, Wayne T. “Before Israel: Syria-Palestine in the Bronze Age”. In Coogan, Michael David. The Oxford History of the Biblical World (revised ed.). Oxford University Press, 2001.

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