By Lishtar



The analysis that follows is intended as a tribute to Professor Jean Bottéro, the Emeritus Director of Assyriology at the at the École Practique des Hautes Études, Paris, and his article interpreting a classical Mesopotamian text called "The Dialogue of Pessimism". Professor Bottéro´s original essay is called "The Dialogue of Pessimism and Transcendence (Source: Bottéro, Jean Mesopotamia: writing, reasoning and the Gods, 1992 The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London) (1), and the focus of the present article is to reinforce Professor Bottéro´s case for the transcendence component embedded as subtext in this controversial composition.

Why is this text so important for those with a keen interest in the evolution of religious ideas in Mesopotamia? Fundamentally, the original Dialogue of Pessimism has the reputation of being a literary enigma, because it raises issues involving our actions (or lack thereof) in the world, questioning the meaning of life and existence. This argument is, nevertheless, ingenuously presented in the negative way, demanding therefore a discerning eye, mind, body, heart and soul to apprehend its full depth. Thus, in agreement with Professor Bottero´s views, we affirm that within the Dialogue of Pessimism there is a strong transcendent character, which is in perfect attunement with Mesopotamian religious thought since its beginning. To ground this assumption, we will examine The Dialogue of Pessimism in the light of Mesopotamian mythology and religion as available to us. We hope to be able to prove that when he Dialogue of Pessimism is read with a discerning mind, heart, body and soul in the Mesopotamian context, it surfaces as a manifesto of love for existence, life as action and deeds in a world that humankind is called upon to build up for the Gods and with the Gods since the beginning of times.


Dating the composition is also difficult. Taking into account the language, the ideology and the content of the Dialogue, it most unlikely that the work had been composed before the end of the second millennium, or more likely the beginning of the first millennium Before Common Era. For instance, one striking piece of evidence is that we find in it a mention of an iron dagger (stanza VII, On Love) when work with that metal did not spread in the Middle East before the 12th century approximately.


In terms of preservation of the original clay tablets, the Dialogue has pulled through without much damage. In fact, we have available pieces of five different manuscripts, one of which is almost complete. With them, scholars were able to reconstruct more than 5/6 of the entire text: of the 86 lines that it contained, and only some 15 remain fragmentary and unintelligible. Fortunately, the context of the missing parts is almost always clear enough for us to imagine at least the broad sense of what was contained in the lacunae.

The entire work is divided into eleven stanzas of unequal length. But all of them - except the last one which clearly has the function of a conclusion - are constructed on the same pattern. It involves the dialogue between a master, or a gentleman and his salve, something like his valet or his footman. In each stanza the master starts by calling his servant, and the latter is at his disposal at once. The master then informs the slave that he has the intention of devoting himself to a some particular activity. The valet not only agrees but also gives him some excellent reasons to encourage him in his intentions. But then, suddenly, the master tells the slave that he has abandoned the project! The valet approves immediately, with strong conviction, and presents his master with reasons to abstain that are as good as those he had offered to make him act.

Except for the conclusion, each of the 10 stanzas is devoted to a particular activity. The order in which they are presented is not very clear in itself, and it is obscured even more by the uncertainties of the manuscript tradition. For instance, the only manuscript that contains the continuous text of the 4th stanza mixes together two entirely different activities: the setting up of a home (IV) and litigation, and lines 32 and 34 are damaged! In the textual tradition represented by this copy, the scribe must thus have skipped from one stanza to another by mistake. If we accept his hypothesis the damage is not great. But there are worse problems: it seems that there were at least two recensions of the text: one represented by the Assyrian manuscripts, the other by only one Babylonian manuscript. Each recension seems to have followed an order that is partly different in the distribution of stanzas, which does not make matters clearer. Professor Bottéro adopted the order of the Assyrian recension, which is best attested: drive to the palace, banquet, hunt, setting up a home, litigation, revolution, love, sacrifice, business, philanthropy. To justify this order, Professor Bottéro assumed with great propriety that the author alternated activities according to certain opposites that he noticed in them: thus, the first four make up an exchange between activities done outside the home (drive to the palace and hunt) and those done at home (banquet and setting up a home); philanthropy represents an unselfish activity as opposed to that of business.

In writing this essay, we agree essentially with Professor Bottéro´s ordering because they seem to follow the hierarchy of gods´ spheres as presented in a work called The Phoenician Letters, by Wilfred Davies and G. Zur, which comprises a series of 10 letters from master initiate to acolyte, the acolyte being the crown prince who is training to succeed his father, the priest-king (Mowat Publishing, 1979, Manchester, UK). Each of the 10 letters refers to a major deity of the Mesopotamian pantheon. The choice of this specific work to ground our analysis is based on the fact that genuine material of religious and initiatory nature is very rare as far as extant Mesopotamian sources are concerned, so The Phoenician Letters provides at least some food for our thoughts. Mistakes, of course, are my own.


Here is a complete translation of the piece based on the Akkadian text, reconstructed especially through the efforts of W.G. LAMBERT (2)

[Slave, listen to me!] - Here I am, master, here I am!
- [Quickly! Fetch me the chari]iot and hitch it up. I want to drive to the palace.
- Drive, master, drive! It will be to your advantage. When he will see you, the king will give you honors.
- [O well, slave] I will not drive to the palace!
Do not drive, master, do not drive!
When he will see you, the king may send you God knows where,
He may make you take a route that you do not know,
He will make you suffer agony day and night.
Slave, listen to me! - Here I am, master, here I am!
- Quickly! Fetch me water for my hands, I want to dine!
- Dine, master, dine! A good meal relaxes the mind!
[ ] the meal of his god. To wash one´s hand passes the time!
- O well, slave, I will not dine!
- Do not dine, master, do not dine!
To eat only when one is hungry, to drink only when one is thirsty is best for man!
Slave, listen to me! - Here I am, master, here I am!
Quickly! Fetch me my chariot. I am going to hunt!
Drive, master, drive! A hunter gets his belly filled!
The hunting dog will break the bones of the prey!
The raven that scours the country can feed its nest!
The fleeting onager finds rich pastures!
O well, slave, I will not hunt!
Do not go, master, do not go!
- The hunter´s luck changes!
The hunting dog´s teeth will get broken!
The raven that scours the country has a hole in the wall as a home.
The fleeting onager has the desert as his stable?
Slave, listen to me! - Here I am, master, here I am!
I want to set up a home, I want to have a son!
Have them, master, have them! The man who sets up a home [...] (3)
How could I set up a home!
Do not set up a home; otherwise you will break up your father´s home!


V - LITIGATION - Only fragments of this stanza remain. They allow us to see that the master wants to go to Court. For that purpose he decides first to let his opponent act, without saying a word. Then, changing his mind as usual, he does not want to remain silent anymore.
Do not remain silent, master, do not remain silent!
If you do not open your mouth, your opponent will have a free hand!
Your prosecutors will be savage to you, if you speak!
Slave, listen to me! - Here I am, master, here I am!
- I want to lead a revolution! - So lead, master, lead!
If you do not lead a revolution, where will your clothes come from?
And who will enable you to fill your belly?
O well, slave, I do not want to lead a revolution!
Do not lead, master, do not lead a revolution! (4)
The man who leads a revolution is either killed or flayed,
Or has his eyes put out, or is arrested and thrown to jail!
Slave, listen to me! - Here I am, master, here I am!
I want to make love to a woman! - Make love, master, make love!
The man who makes love to a woman forgets sorrow and fear!
O well, slave, I do not want to make love to a woman!
50- - Do not make love, master, do not make love!
Woman is a real pitfall, a hole, a ditch,
Woman is a sharp iron dagger that cuts a man´s throat!
Slave, listen to me! - Here I am, master, here I am!
Quick! Fetch me water for my hands and give it to me;
55- I want to sacrifice to my god! - Sacrifice, master, sacrifice!
The man who sacrifices to his god is satisfied at heart. He accumulates benefit after benefit.
O well, slave, I do not want to sacrifice to my god!
Do not sacrifice, master, do not sacrifice!
You will teach your god to run after you like a dog.
Whether he asks of you "Rites" or "Do you not consult your god?" or anything else!
Slave, listen to me! - Here I am, master, here I am!
I want to invest silver. - Invest, master, invest.
The man who invests keeps his capital while his interest is enormous!
- O well, slave, I do not want to invest silver!
Do not invest, master, do not invest!
Making loans is as sweet as making love, but getting them back is like having children!
They will take away your capital, cursing you without cease.
They will make you lose the interest on the capital!
Slave, listen to me! - Here I am, master, here I am!
I want to perform a public benefit (5) for my country!
So do it, master, do it!
The man who performs a public benefit for his country
His actions are exposed to the circle (6) of Marduk!
O well, slave, I do not want to perform a public benefit for my country!
Do not perform, master, do not perform!
Go up the ancient tells and walk about (7)
See the mixed skulls of plebeians and nobles.
Which is the malefactor and which is the benefactor?
Slave, listen to me! - Here I am, master, here I am!
- What then is good? To have my neck and yours broken,
Or to be thrown into the river, is that good?
- Who is so tall as to ascend to heaven?
Who is so broad as to encompass the entire world?
- O well, slave, I will kill you and send you first!
Yes, but my master would certainly not survive me for three days!...



For almost 50 years now Assyriologists have not ceased discussing what our ancient author wanted to say with this composition. Professor Bottéro says that fundamentally there are two diametrically opposite views of this text. The first is a very negative view of existence that can even lead to a philosophical suicide, basically assuming that action is counteracted by non-action, leaving no hopeful horizon to look forwards to, and described by Professor Thorkild Jacobsen as " the negation of all values" (3). The second group, on the other hand, proposes that the text is a satire, that the author in actual fact intends to criticize the worldview of the time, and our scholars ground their assumptions by pointing out that the choice of characters to start with is very meaningful. The master is a rich, spoilt idler, who in fact does not do anything really constructive with his life that makes a contribution to society and the world at large, depending totally on his slave in all matters and spheres.

Bottéro says:

"This first element is a fundamental indication for us to go beyond the text itself. The master does not know how to kill time: he finds nothing to his liking, he is a victim of his indecision and of those constant changes in mood that are often found among the well fed and leisurely. Moreover, he can do nothing without the advice of his valet. When we think about that, it is indeed also ridiculous. And his servant, isn´t he also a character? When he is analyzed, he is comical: with answers always ready to support the smallest caprice of his master; with his ingenuity in finding reasons for and against without difficulty; with the composure that he maintains in the face of the most contradictory views of his master, half-servile, half-mocking, half-robot by his status and his functions, half-disdainful because of his intelligence and his psychological finesse with bursts out in the final statement that he shoots off at his persecutor." It is impossible to take the last verses seriously as an apology for a philosophical suicide. What the valet answers to his master, who has decided to kill him and send him of before himself, is not: "It would take you only three days to be also attracted by the supreme good (or the least of evils!) of death!", but: " If I disappear, I am so indispensable to you that you will die without delay, because you cannot do without me!" '

Interpreting the text this way, our Dialogue of Pessimism shows a deeper character that our author was very critical about the established powers and the upper classes, including the clergy. The text thus resurfaces not as a type of philosophical parable but a satire. First of all a social satire: the choice of characters is significant. Some poignant elements here and there, like the way in which the valet justifies Revolution (stanza VI: one cannot escape misery without revolting against the established powers) show that the author was very critical in the social area.

Professor Bottéro then goes beyond the two opposing views of seeing the text to propose the transcendent aspect of the composition, justifying his assumption with a passage known in the Old Testament Bible as The Book of Ecclesiastes, a part also considered disenchanted and somber, which basically says that "For everything there is a season, and a time for everything under the heaven..." , and that man´s actions regarding the same object follow each other and cancel each other out to such an extent that nothing remains in the end and all actions seem to be futile. It is true that this is one of the ways of seeing of our Dialogue of Pessimism, but Professor Bottéro goes further proposing that both the Ecclesiastes and the Dialogue also require an understanding that reaches a higher level that goes beyond and above the textual apparent contradictions. In the section that follows, I will proceed to prove that it is possible to prove the transcendent aspect without resorting to the Bible, and base my reasoning on purely Mesopotamian sources. For now, let´s proceed to examine Professor Bottero´s views.

Among the six verses that end The Dialogue, the pessimists defenders place a lot of emphasis on the first two verses - especially when they are taken literally:

To have my neck and yours broken,
Or to be thrown into the river, is that good?

However, what the master is really asking the slave could be spelled the following way: " If one absolutely does not know what to choose in life, isn´t death all that remains to be chosen?"

But then, the slave, with subtlety, intellectual finesse and depth of feeling replies with the Ineffable, with the experience of the miraculous only those who live to the fullest can apprehend:

Who is so tall as to ascend to heaven?
Who is so broad as to encompass the entire world?

Thus, taking the text to the letter, the slave in the Dialogue of Pessimism starts fulfilling his role in life, serving his master in replying promptly to all questions he was asked about living and acting in the world. Or not to, as the master favored. Then, when asked on the value of existence, the valet rises up in sensibility, intelligence and depth of feeling, for he embraces the entire universe, once in ancient Mesopotamia, heaven above and earth below is a common figure of speech to indicate the all there is.

Now, who is the link between the Heavens Above and the Depths Below? Humankind, beings who according to the Sumerians were created to carry on for the Gods the workings and makings of Existence. Marduk in the Enuma Elish much later creates humans to fulfil the same task. Thus, here we have the foundation to understand such great work, a foundation that was overlooked by Professor Bottéro in his brilliant analysis of the Dialogue of Pessimism. We will return to this argument in the next section.

Professor Bottéro concludes magistrally saying that there was no need to mention the transcendent, i.e. the Gods, because of the concise style and brevity of the composition. Certain truths must have been so evident to our Soul Ancestors that there was no need to spell them out, especially for our ears in this century.


In the light of myth and religion, we proceed now to reaffirm the transcendent character of The Dialogue of Pessimism as interpreted by Professor Jean Bottéro.

First and foremost, we need to go back to the basis of myth and religion in Mesopotamia to attempt to grasp the depth of this text, to scrape truths that were crystal clear for our soul ancestors, but need still to be spelled out for our ears. Professor Bottéro overlooked the fact that humans in Mesopotamia were not created by the Great Gods to be idle. On the contrary, when we examine Sumerian myths involving the Creation of Humankind, humans were created by the Gods to continue for Them and with Them the labors of creation, as we can see in the Myth of Creation of Humankind (see, for example, Stephanie Dalley´s Myths from Mesopotamia, Atrahasis, tablet I), so life for our Soul Ancestors was very much seen as action in the world, and Marduk in the Enuma Elish also created human beings to fulfil this end. This is the first clue to understand the deep meaning of this great composition, the inner teaching that was probably common knowledge in Mesopotamia, but whose depth and intensity is difficult to grasp for those who admire Mesopotamia, but somehow fail to fully apprehend the foundation of it as a Living Tradition. The master in this poem is idle, indecisive, therefore from the start breaking the bond he had with the Gods. Interestingly enough, the slave at least fulfilled his function in life, if one considers that he was always willing to serve his master.

Thus, service to the gods and to existence is the embedded teaching of the text, in other words, by the Duranki, or bond of Heaven and Earth, it is work in the world that links humankind to the gods in the makings of existence and evolution, so somehow by not working, the master is relapse in his religious observances to the gods and society at large.

Secondly, we proceed to analyze the 10 stanzas that make up the Dialogue of Pessimism be based on the ten divine spheres of the Phoenician Letters (5), by Zur and Smith. This is an attempt to understand each of the actions and non-actions followed by the master within a more mystical context.

a) Drive to the palace - movement (Rimon-Adad) and refusal to move forwards. I see the desire to drive to the palace as the desire to move forwards to the place that is the secular foundation of the state and community. The slave says clearly " Drive, master, drive! It will be to your advantage. When he will see you, the king will give you honors", but honors also require service and deeds, and the master refuses to mover forwards. Interestingly enough, the first vice of the Caballa is exactly Inertia, the first Virtue, Discrimination. The master did not know where to go or what to choose. The Caballa is the esoteric system that is at the root of many of the Western Mystery Traditions, whose roots can certainly be traced back to Mesopotamia. The Phoenician Letters, incidentally, can be seen as a retro-Caballa with its 10 Divine Spheres and 22 paths, each named after a letter of the Phoenician alphabet. Exactly like our modern day Tree of Knowledge, with the Sephira and paths with correspondences in the Jewish alphabet.

b) Banquet - feed the body (Nabu in the Phoenician Letters), and here I find the passage must be understood that it is the integrity of the body that enables the soul to fly. Through learning the soul flies, and learning is the sphere of the Divine Scribe, Nabu. The body that is inserted in the world and should reflect the soul, the heartbeat of the gods within in all worlds without. Thus, by refusing to feed his own body, the master refused himself the fuel to act. Remember the wise words of the slave: to eat when one is hungry, to drink when one is thirsty is best for man.

c) Hunt - or the sphere of Ishtar in the Phoenician Letters, and here She perhaps must be seen as the Divine Huntress and Law Giver. When the slave gives the reasons for the master to hunt, these reasons are very much related to the function of hunting as the means to find food for humankind and birds of prey. The hunt was also a royal sport and duty to rid the country from lions and wolves who would endanger agriculture and farming. There are references to the Rites of Tammuz in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and in it, Enkidu is taken to a farmer´s state and spends the night in the open before he meets Gilgamesh. I see this as the Rites of the Divine Shepherd, who knows how to protect the herds and the shepherds of the land, a test of courage and endurance to protect the community. Thus, the master also fails his duty as the Wise Shepherd of the Land.

d) Marriage - or the sphere of Nergal in the Phoenician Letters. Not much is said about this sphere and I will leave the text as it is. But in the Phoenician Letters is also about reincarnation and eternal life. So by not marrying the master is denying immortality for his bloodline. Very much like Gilgamesh, who had to suffer so much to understand the meaning of life.

d) Litigation - sphere of Marduk in the Phoenician Letters. Clear enough. One has to speak up Truth. Always.

e) Revolution - sphere of Enki in the Phoenician Letters. Ea/Enki very much means what Bottéro says so well "intelligence as the measure of power". He is the Artificer of the World, the Magician, and Cunning Organizer. Revolution is the denial of all Enki´s powers to keep the world organized and running smoothly. I find very amusing that the slave virtually says to the master:" your clothes come from leading chaos, or revolution, otherwise you won´t have them or food to eat!" In other words, the slave says the master is virtually naked spiritually and physically! Outer trappings only the master wore or fed himself with.

f) Love - sphere of Enlil, called in the Phoenician Letters as the Lord of Forces. We know from the Myth of Enlil and Ninlil how hard it was for Enlil to learn about True Love. Isn´t it brilliant that the slave says to his master that " The man who makes love to a woman forgets sorrow and fear!" ? And if you don´t know how to love a woman (and the Goddess most certainly) "Woman is a real pitfall, a hole, a ditch, Woman is a sharp iron dagger that cuts a man´s throat!"

g) Sacrifice - Sphere of Anu, the elder god in the Phoenician Letters. I find this is one of the most religious passages of this passage. The slave mocks with great propriety the outer trappings of established priesthood and opposes it to genuiness of religious feeling and intention. Have you ever been to a magical group when people start discussing how many bows to the Quarters and circumambulations? I find that it is very likely that the Mesopotamian author is referring to the outer endless ceremonies that are not carried out with intention and genuine religious feeling. I mean the outer trappings that do not convey the depth of feeling that is implied in living a Tradition with intention.

h) Business - sphere of Utu/Shamash, or acting in the world for material wealth to share. The Sun is the Bringer of Physical Life, the Outer Light that enables Life to grow.

i) Philanthropy - sphere of Nanna/Sin, the Prince of the Gods, Lord of World Cycles in the Phoenician Letters. Again, life as a gift that should be shared with the people of the country. And the master refuses to do it.

3) Conclusion: I interpret the slave´s beautiful quote as "master, you do not have a clue of what life is all about, so how can you then ask yourself about the Eternal?" Or, quoting Blake, who knew of these priceless things so well, the master did not know how to hold Eternity in a grain of sand and the Infinite in an hour.

Again, the conclusion leads us firstly to Anu, the Skyfather and foremost of all the Anunnaki, the Great Gods of Mesopotamia, who is described in the Phoenician Letters the following way:

"When we praise Anu, we praise Him by saying what He is not, for how can we say something about the cause of all? If we could, then we would know the cause of all and we should be Anu. When, therefore, we seek to know the divine, we first declare realms of the gods, and those qualities of the divine which is proper to declare, and then we proceed to strip away those qualities, and so by negation we describe, as a circle a centre, where the divine Anu rests" page 79.

Secondly, the conclusion takes us to the modern Caballa, of which the Phoenician Letters is a clear prototype, to Kether, the Crown, which is The Void, the Unmanifest, the Formless that is All and contains Everything that Was, Is and Will Ever Be. Remember your Caballa or Dion Fortune? I quote from The Cosmic Doctrine (6):

"The Unmanifest is pure existence. We cannot say of it that IT is NOT. Although it is not manifest, it IS. IT is the source from which all arises. IT is the only 'Reality'. "

Thus, the conclusion is a clear allusion to the UnManifest that all contains, Was and Will Be, and shows us clearly once again that high scholarship always touches the Mysteries with its own jargon. Professor Bottéro reached the same conclusion: I just expressed it more mystically.

As a modern mystic in the Mesopotamian tradition, I would like to bring together the timeless vision of our very religious and witty scribe and a favorite quote by Simone de Beauvoir, the great French philosopher and feminist:

"Life is always busy making itself and recreating itself. When all that life does is to preserve itself, then living is only not dying."

Professor Bottéro and our ancient Mesopotamian scribe would ceretainly find this quote totally Mesopotamian in spirit, mind, body and soul.

I do.



1. Bottéro, Jean Mesopotamia: writing, reasoning and the gods, 1992 The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

2. Edition of the text by W.G. Lambert in 1960 in his masterly work Babylonian Wisdom Literature, pp. 139-140

3. Jacobsen, Thorkild (1946). The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, In: Before Philosophy, by H. Frankfort et all.

4. Dalley, Stephanie (ed.) (1989). Myths from Mesopotamia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

5. Zur, G. and Davies, Wilfred (1979) The Phoenician Letters, Mowat Publishing, Manchester, UK.

6. Fortune, Dion (1987) The Cosmic Doctrine, The Aquarian Press, London, UK


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