The code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi standing infront of Shamash

The Code of Hammurabi refers to a set of rules or laws enacted by the Babylonian King Hammurabi (reign 1792-1750 B.C.). The code governed the people living in his fast-growing empire. By the time of Hammurabi’s death, his empire included much of modern-day Iraq, extending up from the Persian Gulf along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

There are as many as 300 lows that discuss a wide range of subjects, including homicide, assault, divorce, debt, adoption, tradesman’s fees, agricultural practices, and even disputes regarding the brewing of beer.

The code is best known from a stele made of black diorite, more than seven feet (2.25 meters) tall, that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The stele was found at the site of Susa, in modern-day Iran, by excavators who were led by Jacques de Morgan at the beginning of the 20th century. Scholars believe that it was brought to Susa in the 12th century B.C. by an Elamite ruler who subsequently erased a portion of it in preparation for creating an inscription of his own.

Originally, Hammurabi would have displayed the stele at the site of Sippar, in modern-day Iraq, likely in a prominent temple. In ancient times, Sippar was the home of the sun god Shamash, and the top of the stele shows an image of Hammurabi before this god, with rays coming from Shamash’s shoulders. Scholars widely believe that other, now lost, steles would have existed in other cities in Babylon that were controlled by Hammurabi.

After Hammurabi’s death, his system of laws became something of a classic in the ancient world, and scholars have found examples of them written on tablets, which were copied as late as the 5th century B.C., more than a millennium after Hammurabi’s death.

The term “Code” of Hammurabi is a modern one, so named after the 19th-century “Code Napoleon.” Scholars today debate the meaning behind the stele that is now in the Louvre and whether the rules Hammurabi enacted truly represent a full law code.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, Hammurabi himself states in the prologue to his laws that his right to make them was one given by the gods themselves.

“Anu and Enlil ordained Hammurabi, a devout prince who fears the gods, to demonstrate justice within the land, to destroy evil and wickedness, to stop the mighty exploiting the weak, to rise like Shamash over the mass of humanity, illuminating the land …” (Translation from “The New Complete Code of Hammurabi,” by H. Dieter Viel, University Press of America, 2012)

Each law consists of a potential case followed by a prescribed verdict. The verdicts could be very harsh indeed, and Columbia University professor Marc van de Mieroop notes in his book “King Hammurabi of Babylon” (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) that the death penalty is listed as punishment no fewer than 30 times. It was the punishment given even for “the theft of temple or palace property or when a runaway slave is given refuge,” van de Mieroop writes.

Furthermore, the punishments ordered were by no means uniform but rather depended on the social status of the accused and the accuser. The punishments were only “eye for an eye” if the two individuals involved were socially equal.

For instance, van de Mieroop notes that if a member of the elite blinded a commoner or broke the commoner’s bone, that elite person had to pay one pound of silver as penalty. On the other hand, if a person struck someone who was of a higher social status, then that person can expect severe punishment:

“If a member of the elite strike the cheek of a member of the elite who is of a higher social status than him, he shall be flogged in public with 60 strikes of an ox-whip,” reads one law (translation from van de Mieroop’s book).

Women could not necessarily expect equal treatment either. One law reads, “if a finger has been pointed at a man’s wife because of some male but she has not been caught copulating with another male, she shall leap into the River for the sake of her husband,” (translation by H. Dieter Viel).

On the other hand a woman could, depending on the circumstances, get an inheritance. There were laws protecting a woman in the event that her husband was taken captive in war and had to live with another man when her food ran out. There were also laws that governed the support a temple-woman should receive from her brothers after her father had died.

In the laws, it is clear that not only is there a burden on the accused but also on the accuser should they be unable to prove their case.

For instance, the penalty for homicide states that “if a man has made allegations against another man, and he has laid a charge of homicide against him but is unable to substantiate his guilt, the one who made the allegations against him shall be killed.” (Translation by H. Dieter Viel)

Judges were also held to a certain standard in the laws. Hammurabi ruled a vast empire and would not have been able to rule on every case himself. Van de Mieroop notes that in the king’s absence, a committee of men from the communities involved could act as a judge in Hammurabi’s place.

The penalties for a judge trying to change a sealed verdict was severe, “he shall pay 12 times the amount of the loss which had occasioned the trial,” reads the law in question.

Hammurabi was not the first ruler in the Middle East to write down laws. Dominique Charpin, a professor at École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, writes in his book “Writing, Law and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia” (University of Chicago Press, 2010) that scholars know of the existence of three law codes, set down by kings, that preceded Hammurabi.

The oldest was written by Ur-Nammu, a king of Ur, who reigned 2111-2094 B.C., about three centuries before Hammurabi. “These older codes obviously inspired that of Hammurabi,” Charpin writes.

In addition, Hammurabi would probably have drawn on his own personal experiences in putting together his laws, basing them in part on past cases that he had ruled on.

Scholars have noted problems in reading Hammurabi’s laws as a full law code in the modern sense. For instance, van de Mieroop notes that the code does not cover every dispute that could have arisen and contains inconsistencies.

“One law demands the death penalty when something is accepted for safekeeping without a proper document, because the recipient is a thief,” van de Mieroop writes. On the other hand, a related law simply states that “if a man gives goods for safekeeping without witnesses or a contract and they deny that he gave it, that case has no basis for a claim.”

Van de Mieroop also notes that “in the extensive documentation of court cases judged in Hammurabi’s reign and afterwards there is no reference to a collection of laws that was the basis for a decision.”

Another problem that researchers face is what was the purpose of the stele, now in the Louvre, that originally would have been displayed at Sippar? Charpin notes that, even if one could read, the stele would be difficult to use as a reference to look up a law.

Van de Mieroop writes that the answer to this mystery appears to lie in the stele’s epilogue, a section of writing after the laws were given. In it Hammurabi makes two main points, one is that anyone in his kingdom could come to the statue, see (or hear) the words on it and “understand his problem, and may he be content in his heart.” In other words it was a monument to the king’s sense of justice and a way to make his subjects feel better when they felt they had been wronged.

The second point the epilogue makes is that the kings who succeed Hammurabi should not change or disregard these laws or try to alter the identity of the person who made them.

If any future ruler does try this Hammurabi puts a lengthy curse on them. “Anu, the father of the gods, the one who designated me to rule, will surely remove from him the splendour of sovereignty, whether that man is a king or a lord or a governor or a person appointed to some other function, and he will smash his staff and curse his destiny…” part of Hammurabi’s curse reads (translation by H. Dieter Viel). In other words the stele was also a monument stating that Hammurabi’s sense of justice should rule over the land forever.

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The drinking God

God/Ilu seated on his throne, as depicted on a Ugaritic stele. Note the horns on his head. (Museum of Aleppo)

 

The following text is from ancient Ugarit (located in modern Syria), a city whose textual archives from the 15th-13th centuries BCE have provided a huge trove of literary epics, mythic lore, and linguistic data.

Ever wonder where the phrases “hair of the dog” and “he looks like hell” first appeared?  Look no further.  This is the epic saga of how God (Ilu/El, the father god in Levantine religion) got so drunk that his sons had to carry him to bed, while their lady friends cooked up a hangover cure.  Really.


I. The Gods Feast

God slaughtered venison in his home, [1]
       livestock within his palace,
       and welcomed the gods to the feast.
The gods ate and drank;
       they grew tipsy on wine,
       drunk on beer.

Moon-God Yarihu prepared his goblet;
       like a dog, he clambered [2]
       underneath the table.
Each god who recognized him
       prepared him scraps of meat —
but each god who did not recognized him
       hit him with a stick, [3]
       underneath the table.

When Astarte and Anat arrived,
       Astarte offered him a rump steak,
       and Anat a shoulder cut. [4]
The gatekeeper of God’s house scolded them:
       “Hey! Why are you offering a dog rump steak,
       offering a shoulder cut to a mongrel?
He scolded God, his father: “He is sitting (there)!” [5]

II. God Over-Indulges

God invited in the drinkers;
       God sat down in his saloon.
He grew tipsy on wine,
       drunk on beer.
God headed back to his house
       and entered his chambers.
They loaded him onto Thukamunu and Shunamu, his sons,
       and the two chastized the groaning man, [6]
       he who had horns and a tail.
He soiled himself with shit and piss,
       and God fell down as if dead;
       God (looked) like someone descending to Hades.

Anat and Astarte began to hunt.

[The next several lines are nearly unreadable; the only legible phrases are “holy,” “Astarte and Anat,” and “and with them, she brought back.”  Most scholars assume that the women are hunting down the ingredients for their cure.]

As soon as she treated (him), he was suddenly revived.

III. The Medical Treatment

The following should be placed:
on his forehead, the hairs of a dog, [7]
and (on) the head, colocynth, and (on) his navel. [8]
At the same time, he should drink green olive juice. [9]

Source: The Marzeah in the Prophetic Literature: References and Allusions in Light, by John L. MacLaughlin (2001). pp.24–6. ISBN 9004099956. Quoted as fair use.


[1] “Venison” is used in the archaic sense of “any animal hunted for meat.”  The exact species of animal being eaten is unclear.

[2] Scholars are divided here; this verb may mean one of several dog-like activities: crawling, digging, or even swishing a tail.

[3] Alternately, Yarihu could be the subject: “if a god doesn’t notice him, [Yarihu] hits [the other god] with a stick.”  That alternative makes a bit more narrative sense, to be honest.  However, this version works better with my theory about the dog hair (cf. note 7): for whatever reason, the gods give a painful hangover to drinkers whom they don’t recognize.

[4] Again, the meat identifications are a bit tentative.  But if they are accurate, they may be allusions to the goddess’s associations; Astarte’s domain included sexuality, connected to the thigh (cf. Enkidu throwing the Bull of Heaven’s thigh at Ishtar [=Astarte]), while Anat was associated with warfare and the strength of arm and shoulder.

[5] Most translations include “He is sitting” with the next stanza; either this line continues the direct speech (“Scold God, his father!”) or adds an addendum (“He [also] scolds God, his father.”).  The problem with that line division is that it creates an odd redundancy: Ilu is sitting, then calls for his fellow drinkers, then sits again.

[6] Here I follow Noegel, who reads the Ugaritic ḥabayu as an epithet for Ilu, mumbling and groaning like a mooing cow in his intoxication.  Since Ilu is frequently described as a bull, the horns and tail are not surprising attributes; they may emphasize that while drunk, he resembles a strong but unthinking animal.  (Fun fact: Ilu’s title is specifically ṯôru Ilu, “Bull God.”  Ṯôru is probably one of the rare words so ancient that it’s shared by Semitic and Indo-European languages — so it’s ultimately related to “taurus” and “steer.”)  The other alternative, which was the mainstream translation for many years, translates Habayu as a demonic figure who appears on the scene, frightening Ilu until he soils himself.  (If this reading is accurate, an allusion to the horned Habayu may also appear in the Hebrew Bible in Habakkuk 3:4.)

[7] Placing dog hairs on the forehead clearly has no modern medical value; while the motives behind ancient magico-medical treatments are not always straightforward, the fact that a dog is mentioned twice earlier in the story is likely no coincidence.  (A dog may have appeared a third time in the textual gap if it was the women’s prey; their verb does normally refer to animal hunting, not vegetable harvesting.)  There’s no scholarly consensus about the purpose of the ingredient.  My very tentative guess is that the dog hairs ritually place the patient in the role of Yarihu, who acted “like a dog” in the first section of the story.  Despite the chastising of Ilu’s gatekeeper, the gods feed Yarihu scraps of meat and allow him to enjoy his drink — unless they don’t recognize him, in which they beat him, perhaps causing the headache of a hangover.  In contrast, Ilu’s attempt at maintaining dignity leaves him unconscious in his own excrement.  By humbling himself to the role of a dog, the patient will receive divine pity.

[8] There is some dispute over the meaning of this line, although “head” and “his navel” are pretty straightforward.  The term in between (PQQ) could be two words — “mouth (and) throat” — or a single name, perhaps for a plant.  In Akkadian, peqqūtu/peqû is a name for the colocynth, a bitter melon that’s widespread in the Middle East.  The colocynth was used extensively in medical concoctions in the ancient world, and its notoriously bitter flavor might further have shocked an unconscious patient into wakefulness, so I have gone with this translation.  If the term means “mouth (and) throat,” it could refer either to applying the dog hairs to those locations on the patient, or to sacrificing a dog and literally placing its head, mouth, and throat on the patient.

[9] “Green olive juice” is, more literally, “the blood/juice of an olive of autumn.”  Since ripe olives are harvested in November/December, an “autumn olive” may have been a green (i.e. unripe) olive, as contrasted to a ripe “winter olive.”  The oil from unripe olives is especially bitter and grassy, so it could have assisted the colocynth in waking the patient.  However (contra most translations), I don’t think that this necessarily refers to oil, since Ugaritic has another perfectly good word for oil.  Amurca, the liquid byproduct of olive oil production, is bitter-tasting and dark-colored, and it inhibits food-borne pathogens.  The dark color would explain the term “blood” (not the normal term for juice, let alone oil), and the bitter flavor and antibiotic properties would explain its medical use.

 

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