Silence of the Ancients

I’d found a Narnian door for adults…

assyrian-sectionIt led from a ordered, public gallery in the British Museum to a sprawling and private unseen back-world of crates, dust and straw. Here, history peeped out one corner at a time and raging mummies rampaged freely. Well, maybe not the mummies. As I crossed the threshold, I felt as if I was encountering real history. These were not explicated exhibits safe for consumption, but representatives of a fragmented, unclassified and perhaps unclassifiable past. I walked meters but travelled millennia, back to Sumer, Babylon and Assyria.


Dr Irving Finkel

Dr Irving Finkel was my guide, the British Museum’s Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures. Finkel is a cross between Harry Potter and Professor Dumbledore. His huge, tumbling white beard spews tirelessly downwards, a boyish twinkle lurks in his bespectacled eyes, and a PhD in Ancient Mesopotamian Exorcistic Magic sits in his back pocket. I felt like Ron.

mammothI had come to visit Dr Finkel to find out if voice-hearing was present in the earliest written records we possess. Although spoken language is thought to have begun around 50,000 years ago, no-one got around to writing anything down for the next 45,000 years.

Whilst this could have been due to arguments over how words like ‘cognac’ should be spelt, the consensus is that there was a mammoth stationary problem (a lack of materials to write on, not mammoths eating all the pens).

It was only around 3,000BCE that the Sumerians discovered writing on clay and then baking it produced texts which stood the test of time, despite (or perhaps due to) being largely inedible.

Theirs was a world where ghosts (spirits of the dead) and demons were real. A person’s spirit (Sumerian = “gidim”, Akkadian = “etemmu”) was believed to separate from their body at death, being potentially visible and audible. There are accounts of these spirits returning to persecute the living, entering through their ears. Nevertheless, after talking with Dr Finkel, and later with other Mesopotamian scholars around the world, specific examples of voice-hearing remained elusive. Only whispers reach us, and the telephone line from the past crackles with distortion.

In 1965 Kinnier Wilson claimed to have identified a voice-hearing experience in the Maqlu series of tablets, which discuss witchcraft. In a discussion of witches’ persecutors, Kinnier Wilson argues that one of them, a bel egirri was “probably not seen at all, being doubtless that “voice” which may issue short commands or comments, sometimes feared, sometimes respected, in auditory hallucinations”. Yet the noun ‘bel’ literally means owner of a certain characteristic or property, and the compound bel egirri can be translated broadly as a slanderer who gives you a negative reputation. A bel-egirri is a Lord of Slander, if you will. Yet it is unclear whether this refers to a hallucinated voice or a real person who is acting in a persecutory manner. Dr Finkel suggests to me that it is likely that these are not auditory hallucinations.

We could claim a potential account of voice-hearing in a story involving a Babylonian demon called “the croucher”, who had the face or form of a goat. However, any sentence starting “Babylonian goat demons teach us…” is going to be a hard sell, not helped by images coming to mind of Dan Ackroyd and Tom Hanks doing the goat dance in the film Dragnet.

Another possibility is that what ancient physicians referred to as “confusion of self”, in which a patient “can see the illness that afflicts him, he talks with it and continually changes his self” may refer to voice-hearing. But we are stretching here. Instead of voices being the means of contacting the divine, in Ancient Mesopotamian civilisations dreams were the primary method of contact with the gods.

Egyptologists have not uncovered clear evidence of voice-hearing in Ancient Egyptian papyri either. This is strange, as Ancient Egyptian cosmology was perfectly configured to allow such experiences. As the Egyptologist Kasia Szpakowska (2009), who leads a fascinating Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project, describes, in Ancient Egypt the afterlife was populated by anonymous hordes of demons and deputised demons of darkness, the unjustified dead and the damned, hostile transfigured spirits, passers-by and messengers, as well as the gods. All were thought able to step through the permeable membrane between our two worlds and attack, causing both physical disease and emotional problems. Egyptians could fight back using spells, ritual actions, as well as substances such as garlic, beer, and spit. If garlic beer spit didn’t work, and one trembles to think what entity could withstand that combination, then Egyptians could resort to using the gall-bladder of a tortoise.

Not all inter-world communication was negative. Contact with the dead, achieved through dreams, which sleeping in certain temples was thought to facilitate, was used to help restore mental balance. The closest we get to voice-hearing is in a medical papyrus (Ebers Papyrus, ~1,550BC) that addresses ‘mental illness’ in a section on disease of the heart, an organ which the Egyptians viewed as doing the things which today we ascribe to the brain. A passage here refers to an experience in which a person’s “mind raves through something entering from above”. Again though, this is hardly convincing as an illustration of voice-hearing. As in Ancient Mesopotamia, dreams were the main way in which the divine was communicated with in Ancient Egypt.

ezekielIt is unclear why we can’t find voice-hearing at this early time. Was this experience genuinely not occurring at this time? Or is it just that we can’t find records? What is strange is that in the Hebrew Scriptures we have records of Ezekiel living in Babylon and hearing voices, and Moses hearing voices in the context of Ancient Egypt. Why are these experiences reported by early Jewish prophets living in these societies, but not in the writings of the societies themselves?

At present the answer is not at all clear. Such is history. There is an elephant in this ancient uncertainty though, and his name is Julian Jaynes.

jaynesIf Philip K. Dick thinks your work is stunning, you can take that to your headstone. One recipient of such praise was Julian Jaynes, whom Dick wrote to. In 1976 Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a book which Richard Dawkins (2007) has argued to be one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between.


Jaynes argued that in the bicameral period, a term which he uses to refer to the period between 9,000–1,000BC, all humans automatically heard voices when they were faced by any tricky decision. This was because, claimed Jaynes, the brain is bicameral (literally ‘two-chambered’), with the left hemisphere involved in normal human speech production “the language of man” (sic) and the right hemisphere producing “the language of the gods”. Jaynes proposed that, in the bicameral period, speech was generated in the right hemisphere of the brain, and then passed across to the auditory areas of the left hemisphere and that, experientially, this resulted in people hearing the voice of ‘a god’ telling them what to do. He then claimed that in around 1400BCE in Ancient Mesopotamia, this bicameral mind broke down, for reasons such as writing replacing the oral/auditory mode of command giving. Self-consciousness then arose and the voices of the gods were replaced by the inner speech we all have today.

Some people who hear voices have found this interpretation of their experiences helpful and liberating; they are having an experience that was once entirely normal and have a link with a noble historical lineage. Utility is not my primary concern here though, and back in 2012, in my book Hearing Voices, I tried to establish if there is any truth in Jaynes’ theory.

One of Jaynes’ arguments is that characters in the Iliad (~1230 BCE) such as Agamemnon and Achilles, do not have conscious thoughts and that there is no word used in this text for consciousness. Instead characters’ actions begin “not in conscious plans, reasons, and motives… [but in] the actions and speeches of gods”. He goes on to argue that “voices whose speech and directions could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard by certain epileptic and schizophrenic [sic] patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices”. One of the snappiest arguments against this comes from Richard Bentall who tells the story of a trip to a country where a philosopher informed him that in the local language they had no words for ‘he’ and ‘she’. The people of the country though, the philosopher noted, certainly knew the difference.

Another poetry-based argument of Jaynes’ is derived from the lines of the Mesopotamian poem Ludlul Bel Nemeqi (Poem of the Righteous Sufferer) which run, “My god has forsaken me and disappeared, My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance, The good angel who walked beside me has departed”. Jaynes argues this supports his thesis that the gods vanished, leaving people with just their own inner speech. For me though, this is like someone from the year 3,000 (click on the link at your peril) claiming the lines “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as evidence for their theory that the first jetpack was invented back in 1804 by Wordsworth.

alterIf poetry doesn’t convince you, perhaps sculpture will. Jaynes shows us a carving of a stone alter made about 1230BC made for the king of Assyria, Tukulti-Ninurta I. In this, Jaynes claims that the king is kneeling before an empty throne, where normally in previous carvings a god would have been shown. As Jaynes puts it “No scene before in history ever indicates an absent god. The bicameral mind had broken down”. However, as I have been informed, it appears that this throne is in fact an altar. And the altar isn’t empty. It has on it what is either a clay tablet with a stylus, or a hinged writing board; likely a symbol of Nabu, the god of writing. As I have discussed elsewhere, other arguments-from-sculpture of Jaynes similarly fail to hold water. Indeed, it is a simple matter to ask experts on Ancient Mesopotamia their opinion, and when you do, you hear back that there is no evidence that people routinely heard the voices of the gods.

We are hence left with an ancient uncertainty. Was there voice-hearing in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, outside of the Hebrew Prophets? If not, why not?

Today we can understand many experiences of voice-hearing as being reactions following traumatic life events. We already know that the form that post-traumatic reactions take is affected by culture. For example, as Watters (2010) has noted, shell shock after WWI typically took the form of bodily symptoms (tics, body movements), whereas after the American Civil War it took the form of an aching in the left side of the chest and a feeling of a week heart-beat. Maybe there genuinely wasn’t much voice-hearing in Mesopotamia, and this was because reactions to trauma took different forms. Such arguments are built on sand though, which is probably appropriate enough.


Lone, albeit not level, sands stretch far away


My new book Can’t You Hear Them? The Science and Significance of Hearing Voices will be available in April 2017.





Thanks to Irving Finkel and Jo Ann Scurlock for helping me understand the Ancient Mesopotamian period. This material is discussed in more depth in my previous book, Hearing Voices. McCarthy-Jones, S. (2012). Hearing voices: The Histories, Causes and Meanings of Auditory Verbal Hallucinations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Dawkins, R. (2007). The God Delusion. London: Transworld.

Jaynes, J. (2000). The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. New York, NY: Mariner Books.

Kinnier Wilson, J. V. (1965). An introduction to Babylonian Psychiatry. In Studies in honor of Benno Landsberger on his seventy-fifth birthday. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press (pp. 289–298).

Szpakowska, K. (2009). Demons in ancient Egypt. Religion Compass3(5), 799-805.

Watters, E. (2010). Crazy like us: The globalization of the American psyche. New York, NY: Free Press

3 thoughts on “Silence of the Ancients

  1. I’m familiar with some of what you bring up. I’ve seen various criticisms of Jaynes’ theory. But it can be argued that the explanatory power remains for so much other evidence. Anthropology, in particular, has brought forth some compelling observations about cultures that involve voice-hearing and dissociation. Judith Weissman is one scholar who has brought up some anthropological examples, such as the Ugandan Ik and South American Saramaka.

    Have you looked at some more recent related work? There were two collections of various scholarship edited by Marcel Kuijsten: “Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness” and “Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind”. He also edited the “The Julian Jaynes Collection”, which has other work by Jaynes maybe dealing with some of the criticisms. And there is a new book that Brian McVeigh put out, “Discussions With Julian Jaynes”.

    Some of the thinkers found in those collections have written their own books as well. There is McVeigh’s other books along with a book by Rabbi James Cohn. There are also those like Iain McGilchrist and Tor Norretranders. Plus, there is T.M. Luhrmann, another scholar directly inspired by Jaynes’ ideas, and she has written books on voice-hearing and schizophrenia, but I don’t think she discusses his book directly. Another interesting author is John Geiger, as he writes about the third man factor.

    There has been a lot of research and theorizing in a number of fields over the decades since Jaynes wrote his book. I’m not sure where it will leave his theory, specifically voice-hearing. Consciousness studies, in particular, has really taken off. Susan Blackmore among others has touched upon Jaynes’ work, specifically in terms of consciousness. I could add the work of many others such as Daniel D. Hutto that seem to be covering this same territory, with some resonance with Daniel Everett.

    It’s hard to keep track of all the work being done and the new directions being taken. And it’s even harder to know what it all adds up to. But obviously it goes far beyond just the issue of voice-hearing. I’ve been trying to disentangle the threads of thought, although maybe I’m better at tangling them up in new ways.

    By the way, it should be noted that the bicameral mind was only ever considered a hypothesis by Jaynes. As I recall, he presented the strongest case to be as straightforward as possible. He seemed to consider it a thought experiment. But he acknowledged that the evidence could be interpreted in different ways. He also made clear that this was only one hypothesis among several others he presented and that each was separable from the others. The bicameral mind hypothesis wasn’t the framework for his entire book, as it was only one part of his larger argument about consciousness and society.

    I’ve discussed all of this and much else in numerous posts. Some of the names and issues mentioned above can be found quoted in some of the below posts:

    • Really interesting and helpful comments. Thanks for taking the time to write this Benjamin, and for the links to your blog posts.

      • I came across your name when looking at books on voice-hearing. I started looking at an earlier book by you. And because of this post, I got a copy of your recent book.

        I’m fond of Jayne’s approach, but I’m not attached to any particular theory. I just see a lot of interesting evidence that is quite challenging. It’s great that there are so many scholars looking into these issues and going off in different directions.

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