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Why do some people from the distant past become memes?
Once upon a time, there was a real person named Kikkuli. He lived and worked around 3,400 years ago, probably in northern Syria or southeastern Turkey, and he described himself as a “master horse trainer” from “the land of Mitanni.”
Kikkuli loved horses. We can guess this because he wrote a long text in ancient Hittite detailing his regimen for training horses over a 214 day period, including three washings and feedings with barley and oats each day.
Scholars of ancient Mesopotamia know Kikkuli well.
But you, reader — assuming you aren’t an Assyriologist — might also know Kikkuli. That’s because you have Internet access, and the Internet really likes Kikkuli.
He appears in fan art. He’s in fan fiction. His Wikipedia “talk” page has drama (“I'm confident that there is a conflict of interest in the edits by Kikkuli2001”). You can buy a book called The Kikkuli Method of Horse Training which features a cover photo showing four horses tethered to a 1970s sedan in rural Australia. It has multiple rave reviews on Amazon (“This book is for everyone,” one reader proclaims, with just a bit of overstatement).
This sort of online fandom around specific figures from the deep past — their meme-ification — is a striking fact of teaching history. It seems almost random. And indeed, it sort of is. But only sort of.
The rest of this post is my speculation about why we are so drawn to certain figures from antiquity — even as general interest in premodern history continues to dwindle. I will take three people as case studies: Enheduanna, the priestess of Ur and first recorded poet; the infamous Sumerian copper merchant Ea-nāṣir; and Kikkuli the horse trainer.
The argument in brief:
I believe we are drawn to these figures because they contain a compelling mixture of familiarity and mystery.
There’s also another reason why we remember the likes of Kikkuli: they lived on a planet with only ~50 million humans. A world in which 99.9% of all humans not only could not write, but had never even seen writing. There were just way less people 4,000 years ago, in other words, and orders of magnitude fewer written records. For this reason, it was easier to achieve interesting “firsts,” like first named poet, first horse trainer, or first known customer complaint.
I. Enheduanna, the Priestess Poet
Enheduanna was the first named author, and first poet, to appear in the historical record. She was a very elite woman — the daughter of Sargon of Akkad — and she served as the high priestess of Ur in the 23rd century BCE.
There are real questions about how much of the works attributed to Enheduanna were solely authored by her. But it’s still fascinating to me that a female writer preceded even Sappho — who, herself, lived over a century before the likes of Socrates and Confucius — by over fifteen hundred years. Enheduanna’s work (which was rediscovered in the 19th century) continues to inspire new translations.
You can read her writing here thanks to the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. I find it weirdly compelling.
Here’s a typical passage:
Goddess of the fearsome divine powers, clad in terror, riding on the great divine powers, Inana, made complete by the strength of the holy ankar weapon, drenched in blood, rushing around in great battles, with shield resting on the ground, covered in storm and flood, great lady Inana, knowing well how to plan conflicts, you destroy mighty lands with arrow and strength and overpower lands.
When I took a Neolithic archaeology class in college, I once had to read through a whole book of translated Sumerian cuneiform inscriptions about the distribution of barley, green onions, bricks, and beer. Enheduanna’s writings, with their Biblical and Homeric echoes, are among the first in history that give us something more than this to latch on to.
True, to a modern ear calling on “great lady Inana” to “destroy mighty lands” sounds like something a villain in a Ghostbusters movie would whisper. But it at least makes sense.
At other times, however, Enheduanna occupies a context so foreign that you simply cannot visualize what she’s getting at.
I have given the kurĝara cult performers a dagger and prod. I have given the gala cult performers ub and lilis drums. I have transformed the pilipili cult performers.
And at other times, the original source text is so fragmentary that translators can only reconstruct a vague sense of the content:
Holy staff, teat of heaven with rain for fine barley, the pilasters of your house are a wild bull with lowered horns, your ......, foundation and wall rising of their own accord, ......, thick cloud, ...... snake, ...... moonlight, ...... Ickur, a sweeping flood, ...... a storm and seven raging winds, ......, blowing raging winds, ...... running from the ......, splits the ...... hillside, diorite, stones and .......
2 lines missing
1 line fragmentary
I assign excerpts from Enheduanna’s Hymns to Inana when I teach world history (as I am this fall — hello History 2A students!) and I find that it works well to convey both the familiarity and strangeness of the deep past. And, of course, it also works great as an introduction to historiography: we start at the beginning, with the first named author in all of recorded history.
My best guess as to why she’s an object of reoccurring interest online, then, is a mixture of those two things:
she combines the relatable (“I like poetry too!”) and the deeply unfamiliar (“Holy staff… teat of heaven…? diorite…??”) in an inherently compelling way.
People love historical “firsts.”
Now let’s move on to another resident of Ur, some five hundred years later.
II. Ea-Nāṣir, the Unreliable Copper Merchant
We don’t know much about Ea-nāṣir. But we definitely know that he had problems with customer service. Ea-nāṣir was a copper merchant who resided in Ur circa 1750 BCE. It would seem that he made business trips to the region of Dilmun, which corresponds roughly to present-day Bahrain and Kuwait, to purchase copper and resell it back in Sumeria.
Judging from the size of the house in Ur which is thought to belong to him, Ea-nāṣir was a wealthy man. You can see the site plan of the house below:
It was in that house, in Room 6 to be exact, that archaeologists recovered at least two letters from clients of Ea-nāṣir’s who were none too happy with the quality of his copper.
Here is a translation of the most famous such “complaint tablet,” sent by a customer named Nannî:
Another complaint tablet to Ea-nāṣir reads, in part, “do you not know how tired I am?”
As I wrote about here, I’ve been developing a historical simulation assignment in which students will role-play as either Ea-nāṣir himself or one of his customers. I think it’s a fascinating case study of how long-distance commerce worked in ancient Mesopotamia.
Here, too, I think that the combination of familiarity and the foreign — and the “historical first” of “first customer service complaint” — probably lies behind Ea-Nasir’s surprising contemporary popularity.
One thing I find hilarious about Ea-nāṣir fandom is that the Internet has rallied around him. I’m on Nannî’s side, personally. If you read the complaint above, it all sounds reasonable enough. (He said he would give good ingots to Gimil-Sîn, dammit!)
But the people selling shirts about the incident are Team Ea-nāṣir:
III. Kikkuli, the Master Horse Trainer…
… has already been introduced. One thing I want to highlight about him here, though, is how deeply unfamiliar — even mysterious — his cultural context is. You may have heard of Hittites, who were the perennial opponents of ancient Egypt. But Kikkuli was not a Hittite. He was a Hurrian. To be more precise, he was a native of the largest of the so-called “Hurrian kingdoms,” the Kingdom of Mitanni, which overlapped with present-day Kurdistan.
The Hurrians are one of those ancient civilizations we know vanishingly little about, a culture where a single new archaeological find could rewrite history books. They spoke a language isolate with no known descendants today. Linguists have proposed various theories linking it to contemporary languages, my favorite being a hypothetical Sino-Caucasian family, but it remains deeply obscure.
Kikkuli’s horse manual is among the only surviving remnants of this lost culture. Today, the Hurrians are basically forgotten aside from the scholarship of a handful of anrchaeologists and linguists. But Kikkuli and his message about the proper way to train horses lives on.
To put that in perspective, imagine if the only artifact from the entire history of the United States that continued to interest the people of the year 5000 CE ended up being a book about cat care.
IV. Concluding thoughts
It is likely that the number of followers of the Ea-nāṣir subreddit (31,000+) is higher than the combined enrollment of every university class on ancient Sumeria... ever. And it’s not because of untapped public fascination with epigraphy. Instead, it’s because we are drawn to people from the past whose stories are both relatable and strange. Ea-nāṣir was an over-confident entrepreneur who ignored customer service complaints. We’ve all met that guy. Enheduanna’s poetry emerges from a historical record like a breath of fresh air. Before her: thousands of inscriptions about barley distribution, irrigation ditch digging, and the lineage of kings. After her: actual poems that people still like to read.
But it’s not just about familiarity. There also needs to be mystery.
Enheduanna was a poet, and that makes her writings more approachable than, say, the Sumerian King List. Yet, as we saw, much of her poetry is mystifying to modern ears. And what about Ea-nāṣir, the copper merchant? His story ends without a resolution: we have a record of his customer complaints, but no information about his or his customers’ fate. Nannî and Ea-nāṣir live in an eternal present. Their dispute remains (from our perspective) unresolved.
As for Kikkuli? It turns out that his horse manual is one of two reasons he’s famous. The other is a mysterious link to the proto-Indo-Iranic language, which he uses on occasion to describe horse-related terminology, and which might suggest some connection to Vedic-era migrations into Iran and India.
This meme-ification of certain figures from the past is, undeniably, a distorting factor in understanding history. How many other amazing stories and memorable characters from that world have disappeared without a trace, simply because no one left a record of them?
On the other hand, figures like Enhedduana are genuinely useful for teaching and popularizing the past. We just need to remember that for every Kikkuli, there were orders of magnitude more fascinating people from the deep past whose lives can never be accessed.
A thousand potential historical memes, lost in time… like tears in rain.
But at least we have r/ReallyShittyCopper.
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