The Bitumens

9 Nov

The physician named Il came to Nippur when that city led all of Sumer in wealth and power. Since he was appointed official doctor of the Great Temple of the goddess Inanna, he had to undergo an interview with the supreme cleric of that institution, the celebrated holy man Enshag. This obligation terrified him completely.

The young medic had sailed up the Euphrates from Erech, city of the water god Enki. Il, a precocious young man, tall and willow-thin, had finished his education in his native town with an outstanding record. Why had he accepted a position so far away, in Nippur in the north? He himself could not say why, except that there was profound curiosity to see and experience the new within him.

What better location was there for an adventurous young medical healer? He foresaw himself learning many new things in Nippur.

Enshag was a sinewy figure with a gleaming bald head. His bronze eyes shone with sharp intelligence. He invited Il to take a stool opposite the one on which he himself sat.

“You have excellent references,” said the high priest. “But there is more learning than experience in you. Let me give you some advice about the client population of our temple. I speak especially of the dedicated slaves, along with the many sharecroppers who labor for us on temple lands.”

He paused, studying the face of the young physician.

“These poor people often imagine they are ill. They are clever inventors of new, unheard of sicknesses. I know them to be eternal complainers. When one of them grows tired of work, he seeks a doctor for some remedy he has learned to take pleasure from. So, it is wise to be strict and very frugal with them.

“Do not trust their declarations about pain and ailments. You must remain the one in charge and not accept their patient demands. Old customs dominate their minds and make them ask for remedies used for ages by their parents and ancestors.”

The cupreous eyes of Il focused on the face of the veteran high priest.

“I shall remember all you have told me, sir. Thank you for this advice. It will help guide me in my work of healing.”

The supreme cleric rose, dismissing the doctor new to Nippur.

Il began to see patients in a tiny brick structure a distance from the Temple of Inanna, amid the mud houses of the client population of dedicated slaves. He dealt with minor ills for a time, until he came to a patient who made a specific claim on him. This happened to be a share-farmer named Haya.

Short and stubby, this patient acted as if the doctor were some kind of servant there to satisfy a personal need or want.

“I must have a poultice of bitumen that is strong and penetrating. The temple physicians have always given me that when it was necessary. I have used these since childhood, as my parents and forefathers did. You must make me one at once, to avoid the inevitable pains that strike me if I do not receive a poultice. So, you must supply me one of them at once.”

Il gave the farmer a trenchant, inquiring look. He was amazed at the bold nerve of this social inferior.

“I have to know what you are suffering from before I can put together any remedy. What is the fundamental purpose of making you a bitumen poultice?”

Haya suddenly bolted up out of the stool he sat on.

“You must give me bitumen oil. Without it, the epicenes could overpower me one of these nights.” He stopped, as if too much had been said by him. A look at the copper eyes of Il told him that the stranger did not at all understand what he was saying.

“They come forth out of the netherworld when the day ends. These beings are on the hunt for the bitumen-sick who are too weak to resist them. Do you know their history and why they pursue those like me?”

The perplexed doctor shook his head no. But a sudden idea struck him.

“I shall make you the poultice you want, though I am ignorant of the reason you need it so badly.”

Il made a decision to see the supreme cleric and ask him questions about this confusing matter.

It was late in the evening when the physician entered the private chamber of the high priest. As Il started to describe his experience with Haya, Enshag looked increasingly alarmed. The older man invited Il to take a walk with him in the darkness about the temple grounds where they could speak in complete privacy.

Overhead, curtains of unnumbered stars shone brightly over sleeping Nippur.

As the pair strode through a long park with a variety of plants, an explanation came out of the mouth of the high temple official.

“Since you are from Erech, the city of water-god Enki, you have to be quite familiar with the story of how he created humankind.”

Il then began to tell him what he had been taught at home by his parents.

“All the gods above had great hardship in obtaining their food, drink, and clothing. So, they complained to the wise Enki. He himself was asleep in the deep sea and could not hear their plea for help. It was his mother, Nammu the sea, who brought the petition to him, that he fashion servants for the gods, to feed and cloth them. With a company of divine helpers, Enki created man from the clay over the abyss of this world. The images of the gods served as his models. Enki and his godly crew shaped human forms out of wet clay.”

Enshag now intervened.

“And you must know of the curse placed on Enki by his mother because of the six freaks that he had mistakenly molded while he was drunk. They came forth at the feast of the gods celebrating the construction of the first human servants. Sick monsters with no energy had resulted. These were sent at once by the gods to the netherworld to keep them out of sight.” The head priest stopped walking, as did his companion. “The ugliest of these monsters were the epicenes. Do you recall what they were like?” he asked with an odd grin.

Il attempted to give an answer.

“They were created neither men nor women, but neutral beings without sexual organs,” he said in a low whisper. “These freaks possessed nothing but an anus, I believe.”

“How horrible that was!” exclaimed Enshag with a hoarse gasp. “What could Enki do with such monstrous living beings? He had to exile them to the netherworld, where they were recruited to be policing guards, patrolling the boundaries to prevent escapes by those doomed to exist there.”

“There has always been great fear of these horrible epicenes,” said Il.

“Yes. Among our slaves and sharecroppers, there is a fear that these creatures come in the night to bedevil and kidnap humans. The only way they have to defend themselves is by using bitumen oil as a protective.”

“A strange tale!” muttered Il.

“Yes, it is,” said the official with a nod. “I will give you some secret temple texts about the epicenes that you can read. These will explain much about their character and nature for you.”

The two soon separated, each going his own way.

Il spent hours in the temple’s library of cuneiform rolls, reading all that he could find about the creation of the epicenes. But he went on into other subjects and areas of interest to him as well.

The story of the descent and return of the goddess Inanna from the netherworld became the focus of interest for the doctor, eager to learn how it was that this divine prisoner of the dead ones succeeded in escaping the epicene constables guarding the borders of the lower realm.

-The queen of heaven, Inanna, was the sister of Ereshkigal, ruler of the world of death and darkness. The two were eternal foes. When the husband of Ereshkigal, Lord Gugalanna, died, Inanna was obligated to go to the netherworld for the funeral. Before descending, Inanna instructed her messenger, Ninshubur, that she feared death at the hands of her own sister. If she failed to return in three days, he was to sound the alarm in heaven among all the gods. From the great above realm, Inanna traveled to the great below, the world of no return, where the dead dwelled in darkness.

-Neti, the gatekeeper, admitted the queen of heaven through the seven gates of hell. By custom, she had to remove a part of her clothing at each station, until at the end she stood naked. Her crown, rod of lapis lazuli, necklace, breast stones, gold ring, breastplate, and body garments were discarded by Inanna.

-The naked goddess was brought before the throne of Ereshkigal, her nemesis. The seven judges of the netherworld, the Anunnaki, pronounced sentence on her. She became a corpse and hung up on a stake. Eternal imprisonment in hell was to be her fate.

-After three days and three nights has passed, Ninshubur filled heaven with cries for her salvation and rescue. Rushing about in the house of the gods, he made appeals to individual gods. Enlil, the air god and king of heaven, refused help, saying that the decrees of the Anunnaki held sway in the netherworld. The moon god, Nannu, told him the same. Only Enki, god of water and wisdom, agreed to aid Inanna.

-Enki created a race of creatures out of bitumen oil to descend into the netherworld and rescue the goddess from death. These bitumen people were commanded to take the “food of life” and the “water of life” below and sprinkle the food and water on the corpse of Inanna sixty times. The bitumens did as told, causing the goddess to return to life and ascend upward out of hell.

-The epicenes, guardians of the netherworld, were unable to halt the ascension of Inanna and her servants, the bitumens. Instead, they followed and accompanied the great procession out of hell. Inanna became a wanderer in the world above. The epicenes trailed her from city to city in an eternal hunt and chase. The neuter monsters also stalked and pursued the bitumen people who had rescued the goddess, persecuting and murdering them for ages after.

Il breathed with effort, pondering what he had read in the ancient scrolls.

Did he now have the key to understanding cases like that of Haya? he wondered.

The patient listened with fascination to what Il told him in the healing chamber.

“It was the first generation of bitumens who revived and saved the goddess Inanna, bringing her back to life with the food and the water of life. These loyal, faithful servants, made of bitumen oil by Enki, became the eternal arch-enemies of the epicene constables of the netherworld.

“Where are these bitumens today? Their descendants are our slaves and share-workers. Without the original generation, the goddess would not have been revivified and liberated. The temples and priests of Inanna would not have continued without your people, Haya.”

The latter protested. “The priesthood protects us from the vengeance of the epicenes who carry out raids from below in the night. Otherwise, we could have been destroyed by now.”

A smile crossed the face of the physician. “I have come to the conclusion that the bitumens can never be free of the epicenes until they fight and defeat them in battle. And that cannot happen if dependence on the priesthood continues as in the past.”

The two stared at each other for a considerable time.

“What are you proposing, sir” asked Haya.

Il spent the rest of the afternoon telling him.

A secret meeting in the back room of an obscure tavern lasted long into the night.

Il answered many questions and doubts among the assembled temple slaves and workers. How were the epicenes to be defeated? How were the bitumens to gain their freedom from their attacks?

When the conference ended, Il accompanied Haya to his flat through the deadly quiet of the Nippur streets. It was when they came to an empty, still intersection that something unexpected happened.

Il was first to notice shadowy shapes converging on them out of the starlit murk. From out of nowhere arose dark figures that blocked the way in all directions.

Demonics from the netherworld! both men understood at the same time.

Featureless epicenes from below had silently, invisibly ambushed them. No path of escape was left. They were surrounded and cornered. Their situation appeared hopeless.

Haya was first to be attacked. A stiff, powerful blow struck him directly on the top of his head. The doctor had barely perceived this when he himself received a mighty stroke to his left kidney, leaving him shaken and breathless.

Rapid, merciless pummeling followed for both victims. the monsters were merciless.

Il could only see that the faces of the thugs seemed to be without noses of any sort. It was too dark to make out eyes, or whether any existed at all.

First Haya, then Il, fell to the ground. Both experienced horrific pain. Stomping and buffeting with feet went on and on, then ceased in an instant.

Without any sign or signal, the attackers suddenly vanished from sight in an instant.

Did they sink into the ground? wondered the doctor. He was first to rise to his feet. His breathing was slow and difficult. Full consciousness gradually came to the mind of the physician. He helped his injured companion up onto his feet.

“Come with me to my quarters,” whispered Il. “I will help you restore your strength.”

Held up by the doctor, Haya began to move forward slowly and awkwardly.

In the days that followed, only a little was said about the assaulters.

Both men understood them to be demonic epicenes from the netherworld. These were the eternal adversaries that tormented the people created out of bitumen.

“They know perfectly well what we are up to,” warned Haya, resting on a pallet that Il had provided him. “The beating was meant to be a threat of worse to come if we continue on our course. Is it not best that we give up our unrealistic, fantastic plan?”

The medic, uncertain how to reply, stalled for time.

“The matter requires a great deal of serious thought. I intend to approach the question of future activities with caution. First of all, I want to learn more about what happened to us that night on the street. The event remains a complete puzzle to me. I am still mystified.”

“How can we do that?” asked the patient, his thoughts in confusion.

“I am going to return to the scene of the attack,” said Il. “There might be some signs there that can be interpreted. We must get to the bottom of what is going on.”

Standing where two mud brick buildings came together, the medic surveyed the intersection where the incident had occurred. From time to time, a passerby would appear, then walk away. The mind of Il explored several varying possibilities.

How had the epicenes emerged out of the netherworld below? Was there some hidden passageway hereabouts somewhere? Some door or gate out of hell?

His mind seemed to grow foggy and fuzzy as evening fell and the darkness of night arrived.

All of a sudden, his eyes fastened onto a passing figure who had a cast of familiarity about him. Where have I seen that person before? the hidden observer asked himself.

A wild idea seized hold of him.

Could that individual wearing a white kilt be the attacker who had cruelly concentrated on striking at his head? Was he the leader of the gang that had battered them?

The epicene had been all in black, his face without identifiable features. But the brawny physique and the square shape of the head seemed to give him away.

Il decided to follow the suspicious figure and learn what he could about him.

The energetic stride of his walk connected somehow with a memory of the doctor. Could he be the particular monster who had done him the most physical harm?

Was this the one who had caused his painful head injuries? Il asked himself.

Almost unconsciously, the decision was made to tail the questionable person from a safe distance.

Staying as far back as practical, Il followed, intent on discovering where the foe might be coming from or heading for.

On and on the two of them walked, one far behind the other.

The human-looking individual in the white kilt upset the expectations of his pursuer.

Il felt his head swoon when the suspect approached the Temple of Inanna, going to a side entrance usually used only by the priests and the official staff.

A terrible new hypothesis arose in the mind of the puzzled prober of the riddle of the bitumens and the epicenes.

Would the high priest admit what appeared to be the truth?

There was no way to avoid a confrontation with Enshag, the supreme cleric, Il reasoned. But how was one to start questioning that formidable, dominant official? It seemed best to talk with him late in the evening, when hopefully his guard might be down. The initial approach had to be as indirect as possible. He must make no reference to the recent assault that he and Haya had suffered. The first question had to deal with the netherworld epicenes.

“Thank you for seeing me,” said the doctor after taking a stool across from the temple prelate. “I realize how busy you must be, but there are questions in my medical practice that I have to discuss with you. There is no way to avoid or ignore certain problems.”

Enshag gave him an unwavering look. “How can I be of help?” he said with an indulgent smile of sympathy.

Il struck directly, immediately at what had come to trouble him so deeply.

“How can I treat human illnesses when their main cause lies beyond this world we inhabit? I speak of the netherworld creatures called epicenes. They are powerful, invincible enemies of the health of everyone. Diseases and sickness will never be conquered or treated by men like me as long as such formidable demonic forces oppose us. We are helpless against such horrible enemies of health.

“One of my patients was attacked by a pack of these monsters while walking the streets of Nippur late at night. He now lies with serious injuries caused by the neuter beings. How can any physicians combat their evil influence? What can I do to prevent further harm to those I take care of?”

“There is nothing new in what you tell me,” calmly said the priest. “Since the time when the bitumen people accompanied Inanna in her flight from the underworld, the angry epicenes have been attacking and injuring them. That old history shall continue without end. It will go on and on. The bitumens are helpless before the fury of their age-old enemies.”

Il felt deep desperation. “Is there no way of opposing the freakish monsters?” He suddenly remembered what he had recently seen. “Why is it that an epicene is allowed to enter into this very temple?” His face reddened with angry emotion.

Enshag raised his hand in a calming gesture.

“Do not take such great alarm, my son. There are matters you know nothing of. I exercise complete control over these epicenes you have sighted.”

Il gasped for breath. “What are you saying?” he asked. His brain was rapidly spinning.

“It is best that I reveal the truth to you now,” slowly explained the cleric. “But you must promise never to speak of these secrets to anyone.”

“Yes, I will keep my tongue and lips locked,” pledged the doctor, his hands beginning to shake.

Enshag lowered his voice to an almost inaudible whisper.

“Ages ago, one of my predecessors in office succeeded in building a bridge to the epicenes. In effect, they were recruited into becoming agents of our temples. In exchange for the right to continue harassing the bitumens, they vowed their loyalty to Inanna and her priests. Ever since, they have policed our slaves and share-workers for us, producing a docile force of laborers. This has, of course, been hidden from everyone beyond the priesthood. You are the first non-cleric human being to be told the truth, Il.”

The latter, entangled in thought, was unable to say anything.

“Go home and sleep on what you have been told,” advised the high priest. “You will become accustomed to what I have revealed to you.”

The young physician rose and, lost in wonder, made a swift exit.

Epicenes as the discipliners of the bitumens! thought Il as he headed to his flat. The idea was hard to accept or understand. But it explained much that was otherwise inexplicable.

The street turned dark and empty as he neared the mud brick building he lived in.

Out of the blackness, two gigantic hands grabbed hold of him by the shoulders.

Panic and surprise focused the mind of Il on the head and body of the attacker. All at once, he realized who it was that held him with inescapable force.

Face looked into face as the cadaverous giant held the doctor in a lock hold.

Il made out the pallid, hideous skin, squamous with small reptile scales.

The top of the head was bald and the chin glabrous and bare.

There was no nose, only flat nostrils above the hueless lips.

An odious, gruesome expression never left the sexless mask.

How far is this epicene going to proceed in torture and injury? wondered the intended victim. Will I survive this in one piece? Or is it going to destroy me?

But then the unexpected happened.

A thick, heavy cudgel, coming out of nowhere, struck the hairless head of the monster. The latter, knocked unconscious, collapsed onto the street.

It was then that Il made out the identity of his rescuer.

Haya came closer, a wooden club in his right hand.

“I tried to see you earlier,” muttered the patient. “This bludgeon is my protection at night. Since we were assaulted, I thought it best to carry a weapon big and heavy.”

Il stared through the shadows at the face of the bitumen. He began then to walk forward. Haya moved to his side and accompanied him, imitating the slow pace of the doctor.

They can fight back! realized Il.

The epicenes are going to meet with more and more resistance, he predicted with conviction.

Perhaps not today or in my lifetime, but a rising of the bitumens is inevitable.

Il felt a confidence he feared he had lost. The more he saw and learned about the bitumens, the more he felt hope for their future.


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