❧ in which Moe sees his foreign competition as the worm in the apple and as the snake in the garden, and in which Moe thinks of writing a longer story that could rival the tales of Gilgamesh and Shamash ❧
Apple Tarts & Klepto Snakes - The Saga of Shamash
Apple Tarts & Klepto Snakes
At the back of Shesha’s store customers could find images of gods and heavenly nymphs in complete abandon. Beneath them were the graven images of local flood-plain girls, each promising to adopt the names and postures of their Indian ‘love gurus.’ Customers paid two shekels to lift the light blue curtain at the back of the shop.
One wandering Hindu was incensed at the blatant use of his religion for commercial uses. But then he thought of the lust of the gods, and how the worldly was but a facet of the divine. He thought about how divine the worldly figures were, and how it was all an illusion anyway. Determined to penetrate the tantric mystery of the soul embedded deep within the flesh, he too lifted the blue curtain, and found himself lost behind the veil, deep in the snaky back corridors of Shesha's shop.
The situation had gone from healthy competition to whorehouse debauchery. Cartloads of apples came from the east, cartloads of Phoenician whores from the west. The city was awash in cut-rate bargains and back-room deals, shiny rosy surfaces, golden calves, and moon-shaped bite marks. Soon, no one cared about the horticultural and theological issues anymore.
Moe was desperate. He took one of the plump Kashmiri apples and threw it against the wall. It splattered open, and fell to the earth in juicy pieces. From out of the pulp crawled a grey worm. He sat there, thinking.
He got out a fresh clay slab and a sharp new stylus, and began at the beginning:
Once upon a time there lived a man and a woman in a Garden. Every day they would eat of a beautiful apple tree that belonged to the One True God. The tree was an Assyrian tree, situated only a stone's throw from the suburbs of Babylon. Its branches were a luminous green and its apples were always ripe and juicy. The apples from this tree were far tastier than the apples from the decadent valleys of the eastern demons.
The man and woman lived in perfect harmony until one day an evil serpent called Shesha slithered across the dry and burning soil of Elam. Reaching the blessed green fields and orchards on the outskirts of Babylon, the serpent slithered up the trunk of the tree…
Moe always thought he had the makings of a great story-teller. He wondered if he might even expand his little apple-tree vignette into a larger story, perhaps one day into a famous epic.
But how could he rival the ever-popular Gilgamesh, with its account of the wrath of the gods, the Flood, and the evil Serpent who stole the plant of immortality? He had always wondered, What was the snake doing down in that pool anyway? How did he smell the plant? How did he manage to snatch it away from Gilgamesh? You'd think that Gilgamesh, so renowned in battle and wisdom, would've guarded it a little more carefully! And why, once the Serpent committed his theft, did he slough off his skin? What did he do with the plant afterwards? Why wasn't he apprehended, and punished by the gods? The story was crying for a sequel.
The Saga of Shamash
And how could any story of his ever compete with the greatest story of them all, the 5000 year-old Saga of Shamash, Deity of the Sun? The Saga was the greatest piece of writing of all time. It started with the fall of the Sun God into this world — into the temples with their money-dealers and prostitutes, and into the council chambers with their vampires and their ten-headed snakes. It then described the Sun God's miracles, such as walking on water and bringing back to life the morality of a corrupt government official. It also included a moving courtroom scene where Shamash challenged the tyrant Enlil and the monster Humbaba, just as two thousand years later Shamash would challenge the decadent priests of Uruk. The Saga concluded with the Sun God's defeat of the monster Chaos and with His ascent back into the skies.
No one had to be told why Shamash was later seated at the top of the Code of Hammurabi; it was obvious from reading The Saga. And who hadn't read it?
If Moe could ground his story in references to Gilgamesh and The Great Saga, then the artistic truth of his narrative would have a pedigree that no one could doubt. It's true, he worried, history is long, and perhaps one day people wouldn't remember all the details of The Great Work itself. Yet even as he thought this, he thought, What rubbish!
Moe didn't believe for a second the bizarre prophesy made in the final (and surely apocryphal) chapter of The Great Work: that in 500 years the two great epics would enter occultation, to be hidden from the eyes of men. The prophecy also asserted that Gilgamesh would reappear in another 2,000 years (thus obeying the Law of Threes and Sixes), and that the Great Work would reappear two hundred years after that. What a bunch of baloney, Moe thought. What idiot imagines he can read the future?
Moe therefore decided to make the greatest compliment one writer can make to another. He would take elements from the Great Story, swapping Shamash for the One True God, and rewrite the ending while he was at it. Instead of Shamash rising into the skies — and leaving everyone on earth literally sinking into the mud of the Euphrates, and metaphorically sinking into the mud of their own uncertainties — his One True God would hover over the earth. He would hover long enough to tell people the answers to all those unanswered questions about the snake, the secret of immortality, and how Shamash parted the waters on his way out of Africa.
Moe could add some laws like those of Hammurabi, and also some practical information — when to take a day off, what types of animals to eat, etc., the sort of thing that would show to people that his One True God gave a damn about their lives. He wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty, to meddle like a good Father in the lives of his children. It'd also create a dramatic contrast. Just imagine the Lord of all Space and Time talking to, say, that scared young immigrant girl Ruti in her dusty corn-field, or to Braham the butcher just as he's about to bring down his sharp iron blade onto the neck of a ceremonial calf.
In his story, the One True God would raise the stakes. He would make His moral points so powerfully that humans couldn't help but pay attention. This might even save them from themselves. But how to write this story so that they would get into the habit of making abstract moral commitments, like the one his fellow merchants ought to make to keep the foreign merchants out? How to make them afraid to break a deal? How to make them understand that if they broke a deal, their tents would burn and the fire of God would incinerate their storage bins?
Next: The Holy Bin