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, Achilles 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 Achilles, 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, according to Jaynes, 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 moment I realized this, I tried to figure out when did coups d’état started occurring: if I found that they began during the time Jaynes claims to be Bicameral, this would be a strong evidence either against his timing or against his whole theory.

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 assassinated 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 (p. 250) and calls Hammurabi, who lived in 18th century BC, “bicameral Hammurabi” (p. 214).

With timings this off, it’s doubtful we can seriously consider Jaynes' disquisitions on consciousness of ancients seriously: he writes with complete conviction about bicamirality of people living prior 1300 BC, while presenting abundant evidence for his theory dating 1800 - 1300 BC specifically.

Although, I’m not being totally fair here: the facts I presented come from Mari, a civilization Jaynes mentions twice in the entire book. So, let’s make a little diversion to Babylon, where Hammurabi ruled; or to be more precise, to

Crime in Babylon

Some kinds of crime can certainly be carried out by the bicameral mind: robbery, murder, DUI—these are the infractions that are light on one’s mind; but a lot of crime hinges on planned deception. For example, breach of contract.

Curiously enough, Hammurabi’s Code, written 1750 BC, contains the following paragraph:

106. If the agent accept money from the merchant, but have a quarrel with the merchant (denying the receipt), then shall the merchant swear before God and witnesses that he has given this money to the agent, and the agent shall pay him three times the sum.

Jaynes acknowledges the fact that Hammurabi’s Code is unnecessarily sophisticated for the bicameral mind, but offers, what seems to me, an exceptionally unconvincing defense (pp. 200-201):

It is very difficult to imagine doing the things that these laws say men did in the eighteenth century B.C. without having a subjective consciousness in which to plan and devise, deceive and hope. […] The word that is incorrectly translated as “money” or even as “loan” is simply kaspu, meaning silver. It cannot mean money in our sense since no coins have ever been found. […] Wine was not so much purchased as exchanged, one measure of wine for one measure of grain. And the use of some modern banking terms in some translations is downright inaccurate. […] there is the constant attempt on the part of scholars to impose modern categories of thought on these ancient cultures in order to make them more familiar and therefore supposedly more interesting to modern readers.

Some more situations that definitely do not feature deception and/or got into Hammurabi’s Code by a total accident

9. If any one lose an article, and it in the possession of another: if the person in whose possession the thing is found say "A merchant sold it to me, I paid for it before witnesses," and if the owner of the thing say, "I will bring witnesses who know my property," then shall the purchaser bring the merchant who sold it to him, and the witnesses before whom he bought it, and the owner shall bring witnesses who can identify his property. The judge shall examine their testimony--both of the witnesses before whom the price was paid, and of the witnesses who identify the lost article on oath. The merchant is then proved to be a thief and shall be put to death. The owner of the lost article receives his property, and he who bought it receives the money he paid from the estate of the merchant.

10. If the purchaser does not bring the merchant and the witnesses before whom he bought the article, but its owner bring witnesses who identify it, then the buyer is the thief and shall be put to death, and the owner receives the lost article.

11. If the owner do not bring witnesses to identify the lost article, he is an evil-doer, he has traduced, and shall be put to death.

12. If the witnesses be not at hand, then shall the judge set a limit, at the expiration of six months. If his witnesses have not appeared within the six months, he is an evildoer, and shall bear the fine of the pending case.

But enough of Hammurabi. With the correctness of Bicameral Mind now out of the way, we can make a yet another diversion: this time to the

Ancient Tablets

A curious fact about the ancient Middle East is the preponderance of clay tablets from the first writing civilizations that were saved through the millennia for us to read. Jaynes uses clay tablets freely to bolster his argument and 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.

It is mighty curious how Jaynes, so meticulously collecting the evidence and even citing Oppenheim’s other publications (!) missed these letters, which, by their beauty and complexity of thought would have probably alarmed him of the possible deficiency in his theory, even when Hammurabi failed to.

Or maybe it’s for the best: there are some people who are just wrong. There are other people who are wrong in interesting ways and who in their wrongness educate and direct us, and there’s no question to which category Jaynes belongs.

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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