Strike action and the creation of cheap labour

Until very recently, I believed that the strike of Egyptian artisans at Deir El-Medina in the twelfth century B. C., as recorded in a famous papyrus now in the possession of the Museo Egizio at Turin, was the oldest actual strike ever recorded.

And it may well be that.

There is, however, an even older record of a strike, mentioned in the so-called Epic of Atrahasis, dated to seventeenth century B. C. Mesopotamia (and an important source for the epic of Gilgamesh), which, among other things, records an ancient deluge narrative akin to the biblical story of Noah.

Cuneiform tablet preserving the epic of Atrahasis (image source:

More pertinent to the recent theme of this blog, though, is the Atrahasis epic’s version of the creation of humankind: the result of a heavenly strike no less, when the lower gods began to comprehend their predicament (all translations from this wonderful web resource):

[1] When the gods were man
they did forced labor, they bore drudgery.
Great indeed was the drudgery of the gods,
the forced labor was heavy, the misery too much:

[5] the seven great Anunna-gods were burdening
the Igigi-gods with forced labor.


[21] The gods were digging watercourses,
canals they opened, the life of the land.
The Igigi-gods were digging watercourses
canals they opened, the life of the land.

[25] The Igigi-gods dug the Tigris river
and the Euphrates thereafter.
Springs they opened from the depths,
wells … they established.

They heaped up all the mountains.

[Several lines missing]

[34]  … years of drudgery.

[35] … the vast marsh.
They counted years of drudgery,
… and forty years, too much!
… forced labor they bore night and day.
They were complaining, denouncing,

[40] muttering down in the ditch:
“Let us face up to our foreman the prefect,
he must take off our heavy burden upon us!
Enlil, counsellor of the gods, the warrior,
come, let us remove him from his dwelling;

[45] Enlil, counsellor of the gods, the warrior,
come, let us remove him from his dwelling!”

[Several lines missing]

[61] “Now them, call for battle,
battle let us join, warfare!”
The gods heard his words:
they set fire to their tools,

[65] they put fire to their spaces,
and flame to their workbaskets.
Off they went, one and all,
to the gate of the warrior Enlil’s abode.

When the lower gods thus resorted to insurrection, the higher gods were quick to respond: first and foremost, they wanted to know who was the ringleader.

But the lower gods stand united:

“Everyone of us gods has declared war;

We have set … in the excavation,
excessive drudgery has killed us,

[150] our forced labor was heavy, the misery too much!
Now, everyone of us gods
has resolved on a reckoning with Enlil.”

A meeting of the higher gods then ponders possible responses:

[a1] Ea made ready to speak,
and said to the gods, his brothers:
“What calumny do we lay to their charge?
Their forced labor was heavy, their misery too much!

[a5] Every day …
the outcry was loud, we could hear the clamor.

There is …
Belet-ili, the midwife, is present.
Let her create, then, a human, a man,

[a10] Let him bear the yoke!
Let him bear the yoke!
Let man assume the drudgery of the god.”
Belet-ili, the midwife, is present.

[190] Let the midwife create a human being!
Let man assume the drudgery of the god.”

Following some consultation, the higher gods soon began to realise that one way around the strike and the riots of the lower gods would be the employment of weak, vulnerable, dependent serfs – beings that resembled the lesser gods (and were in fact created in their likeness and made from the remains of one of the lesser god, with some added clay), that are forced to live up to the original ethos, but left without the gods’ original powers or entitlements:

[215] From the flesh of the god let a spirit remain,
let it make the living know its sign,
lest he be allowed to be forgotten, let the spirit remain.”

(Most of those on precarious, temporary, part-time contracts will have a clear idea of what that means, I am tempted to add.)

And thus it happened. One of the lesser gods is sacrificed, and cheap labour takes his place:

You ordered me the task and I have completed it!
You have slaughtered the god, along with his inspiration.

[240] I have done away with your heavy forced labor,
I have imposed your drudgery on man.
You have bestowed clamor upon mankind.
I have released the yoke, I have made restoration.”

Human population quickly grows, and their clamour begins to annoy Enlil, disrupting his heavenly sleep – eventually to such a degree that the decision is taken to wipe out most of their creation by means of a deluge (and subsequently imposed restrictions to life-span and the ability to procreate).

The gods appear to have celebrated this as a success.

A more realistic way of looking at it would be that they sacrificed one of theirs in vain, that they promoted slavery of those who once formed part of them, and failed to protect those who made their lives better and easier.

As a result of that, they brought great misery over the world, because they failed to do the obvious: to challenge the questionable privilege of those at the top who, though seemingly superior, were once recruited from the same stock.

The fact that, when standing united, they could challenge even the supreme gods, without retribution, should have told them something about their actual might to change something for the better.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
This entry was posted in Labour disputes, Poetry and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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