Ancient Practices: Code of Urukagina

In the 3rd Millennium BCE, we find a trace to the conceptualization of purifying the (then) contemporary practices by returning to the ‘original state of affairs’. This is remarkable in a sense that a) the text in question, Code of Urukagina, predates all other recorded rules, laws and philosophies including all the Abrahamic religions as well as Greek (such as pre–Socratics), Indian (such as Vedic), Chinese (such as Tao te ching), Zoroastrian and Buddhist traditions and b) it originates with a yearning to go back to the original practices.

The code is only found partially with supported evidence from other ancient sources, such as prose poems written in favor of Urukagina. The code, nonetheless, is of revolutionary value beside its often cited attribution with beer as the “central unit of payment and penance.” In a critical study, Kramer (1971) points that Urukagina restored the original practices, or “divine laws,” that were “abandoned and neglected by his predecessors.” This includes charging payments as well as seizing property, animal and livestock from citizens for state use. Restoring both power structures, that is to save the less fortunate (including widows and orphans) from the exploits of “big men,” and going back to the ‘old family values’, abolishing polyandry and forced slavery. It boils down to this:

“Urukagina banned both civil and ecclesiastical authorities from seizing land and goods for payment, eliminated most of the state tax collectors, and ended state involvement in matters such as divorce proceedings and perfume making. He even returned land and other property his predecessors had seized from the temple. He saw that reforms were enacted to eliminate the abuse of the judicial process to extract money from citizens and took great pains to ensure the public nature of legal proceedings.”

These reforms are seen as the first legal rights for the citizens in the history of civilization, however I am interested in a different aspect: the subtle return to the ‘original’ practices. This is remarkable in a sense that code of Urukagina is the first known step of establishing ‘law’ yet it embodies a ‘return’ to the former practices. In terms of hermeneutics, a futural projection that is intricately linked with the historicity of the practices.


So, what is at the core of first recorded regulations of practices? The answer, arguably, lies in the concept of Amagi or Amargi (see the cuneform above) which is recently interpreted in terms of freedom and/or liberty (amagi or amargi, literally, “return to the mother”), which is then incorporated in the reforming processes. The exact nature of this term is unclear (see, Kramer, 1971), but freedom in terms of returning to the original (read: natural or divine) order could easily be mapped to this interpretation.

The first practices of civilization, then, it seem to be rooted in historicity of practices themselves: a hermeneutic circle of understanding which circles back, repeatedly.

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