As I read to her last night The Chook (6) asked me who my hero was and I was without an answer. Initially my thoughts flew to cricketers and the sight of D.K Lillee in the big leap of his delivery stride, left arm fully extended and teeth bared below moustache but he’s more of an image I aspired to as kid than a hero for a middle aged bloke. I also thought of Reinhold Messner and his lifelong pursuit of mountains but actually Messner is a fairly awkward character in terms of his ability to actually engage with other people, not too much could be said to be endearing about Messner. Plus he’s been so rude about Peter Habeler who walked so many miles beside him, and I can’t help but feel that Habeler is more heroic simply because he put up with Messner for so long and with such fortitude. So the question remains, who is my hero?
Dr Sternlove is, without doubt, my shining light whose practice of being calls for emulation and whose qualities I regard as the highest of benchmarks for graceful living. That’s not quite heroism, though Dr Sternlove is heroic, especially her conduct in the tower of Sauron. Peter Mathiessen gets pretty close to being my hero, as I’ve mentioned before in a previous post. There are quite a few other candidates, I feel asleep listing them: Joe Strummer; Tom Morello; Frida Kahlo; Alexander von Humboldt; Aung San Suu Kyi; Alexandra Kollontai; Nguyen Giap; Edgar Snow; Bill Tilman; Zoe Goss; Che Guevara; Michel Foucault; Steve Earle; Tori Amos; Robert Conquest; Helen Clark; Sacajawea; David Marr; Deb Conway; Don Walker; and so on.
There are so many candidates and in the darkness I thought about how my hero changes day-to-day and that everyday requires new kinds of heroism and new models for heroism. This morning my hero is George Smith (1840-1876).
George Smith, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention to recent developments in nineteenth century Assyriology, is the man who proved that Noah and his Ark wasn’t just a bible story.
As a fellow in his twenties Smith was obsessed by cuneiform (resulting from his career as a banknote engraver) and taught himself a vast number of obsolete Middle Eastern languages. By the 1870s he was a quality translator of ancient texts. The texts were mainly on clay tablets and most of those were broken, and required an awfully long time just to find and put together before the translations even began. In 1872 Smith translated what became known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, a series of poetic tales told by, and to, and of, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Compiled by Babylonians (around, say, 1000-1300 BC) the Epic of Gilgamesh is a great repository of already ancient myths retold and re-orientated for a Babylonian audience.
It was the retelling and re-orientation that really counted when Smith made his translation because what he found on the tablets, dating back more than a thousand years before the birth of Christ and anything that might be called a testament, were bible stories. And if the bible stories existed before the bible, without the Christian or Jewish or Islamic God being in the story at all, then the literal truth of the bible was bollocks. The story of the Noah and the Ark was the key, finding the fable of the deluge congruent with the bible story except for Noah and God meant that the story wasn’t new, it had been done up for the Bible. And if stories got recycled for the Bible then God didn’t hand it down, and the stories weren’t holy, they were just stories.
Smith presented his findings regarding the Epic of Gilgamesh before a Society of Biblical Archaeology, meeting which was attended by then British Prime Minister Gladstone, and the dominoes fell. The flow through of those findings is still being managed today. All those conversations about intelligent design are attempts to overcome the voices of the ancients and the stories they told, and the implication that, like us, the ancients were without God. All of this happened during the same period when the theory of evolution was being most ardently discussed and examined and provides the central accompaniment to Darwin’s theories: not only is there an alternative to God’s creation but the texts of God’s creation are plagiarised, ripped off from godless Sumerians and Babylonians.
Smith went to the Middle East three or four times, mostly to Nineveh, and found more and more clay tablets letting loose more of those antediluvian tales. Sadly Smith died aged thirty six, of dysentery, near Aleppo looking for more tablets. His wife and children received an annuity of one hundred and fifty pounds from Queen Victoria.
Today George Smith is my hero.