Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

The historical context of Kipling’s most troubling work (DeDisnification, Part 8)

In 1899, Rudyard Kipling seemingly unsuspectingly placed himself at the center of a firestorm of controversy when he sent his poem, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands”, to his friend Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York. He also included the admonishment:¹

Now, go in and put all the weight of your influence into hanging on, permanently, to the whole Philippines.

The poem was actually originally penned for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, but another of his works, “Recessional”, was chosen instead. I say Kipling didn’t expect controversy as the work made a case for Eurocentric racism and imperialism that was quite a familiar one at the time. It was passed from Roosevelt passed it to another pro-imperialist who approved of it, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. But oddly, following the poem’s publication in the February 1899 issue of McClure’s Magazine, a politician of a different stripe, renowned white supremacist Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, who read portions of it as a central exhibit in a speech to his colleagues in the Senate in that same month.

The speech—essentially a rant against the newly ratified Treaty of Paris, which ended hostilities between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain, and established American imperial jurisdiction over the Philippine Islands—grafts the poem onto its stance, thus:²

[W]ith five exceptions every man in this Chamber who has had to do with the colored race in this country voted against the ratification of the treaty. It was not because we are Democrats, but because we understand and realize what it is to have two races side by side that can not mix or mingle without deterioration and injury to both and the ultimate destruction of the civilization of the higher. We of the South have borne this white man’s burden of a colored race in our midst since their emancipation and before.

It was a burden upon our manhood and our ideas of liberty before they were emancipated. It is still a burden, although they have been granted the franchise. It clings to us like the shirt of Nessus, and we are not responsible, because we inherited it, and your fathers as well as ours are responsible for the presence amongst us of that people. Why do we as a people want to incorporate into our citizenship ten millions more of different or of differing races, three or four of them?

So instead of imperialism, Tillman is promoting isolationist white nationalism. It is necessary to note that this is before the major political parties essentially swapped places during the liberal Democratic administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the party’s subsequent embrace of the postwar Civil Rights movement. Put bluntly, those who call the GOP “the party of Lincoln” are either wilfully ignorant or simply lying.

As to the classical reference on the Senate floor—ah, the good old days—it refers to the garment (χιτών— of course it was a chiton rather than a “shirt”) poisoned with Nessus (Νέσσος) the kentouros’ (κένταυρος) blood after his slaying by Herakles (Ἡρακλῆς) with arrows which were soaked in the Lernaean Hydra’s (Λερναῖα Ὕδρα) blood for attempting to rape his wife. Said wife, Deianeira (Δηϊάνειρα), was tricked into giving the chiton to Herakles, and the unbearable pain of contact with the poisonous blood made him hurl himself into a funeral pyre.

The deplorability of Tillman’s stance in no way excuses Kipling’s nor does the tired excuse that he was “a man of his time”. Indeed as the parodies, satires, citations, and criticisms that quickly began to appear attest, the writer’s point of view was far from broadly accepted. These began with Henry Labouchère’s “The Brown Man’s Burden” in 1899, followed by “The Black Man’s Burden: A Response to Kipling” by H. T. Johnson, Take up the Black Man’s Burden by J. Dallas Bowser (both also in 1899), and “The Real White Man’s Burden” by Ernest Crosby in 1902, along with many others. A Black Man’s Burden Association was also created to link the colonial mistreatment of brown people in the Philippine Islands to the Jim Crow system in the US.

Mark Twain, who Kipling had dropped in on during an earlier trip across North America, had been pleased to spend a few hours on his Elmira veranda discussing literature with him, quipping in quintessentially Twainian fashion:

Between us, we cover all knowledge; he covers all that can be known and I cover the rest.

But, unsurprisingly, he was no fan of Kipling’s poem, and in a poem of his own, “The Stupendous Procession”, wrote sadly and simply:

The White Man’s Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man’s?

Still, none of these critiques seem to have landed with any particular weight on Kipling, who became the first English-language recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907, additionally declining several offers of the British Poet Laureateship as well as a knighthood.

Flashing forward 68 years, Walt Disney had been a bit hands off on The Sword in the Stone, dividing his attention during the diversification of the company among theme parks, television series, and live-action films. The film was a moderate financial success, but received only lukewarm critical response, so Disney was determined to be more involved in the next one, The Jungle Book.

Bill Peet had pitched the title based on the animation department’s ability to “do more interesting animal characters”, but according to Disney historian Brian Sibley, when the boss came in for a script meeting,³

[W]hat he found was that the team […] had come up with quite a sombre, dark, serious story—much more serious than any films they’d done in animation since the days of Pinocchio.

In short, Peet was out—he had also been the lead on The Sword in the Stone, so this was his second strike and Walt wasn’t waiting for a third. A new team headed by Larry Clemmons was brought in, and, as Sibley relates, each was handed a copy of Kipling’s book:⁴

Disney said, “the first thing I want you to do is not to read it!” And they started working with the characters that Peet had created in his original treatment, but creating a much more upbeat, lively, freer, light-in-mood film.

One of the most baffling elements of Disney’s decision to create a mediocre adaptation of Tarzan with its troubling worldview is that their catalog already contained this quite similar tale of a human who lives in the wilderness. The Jungle Book is generally acknowledged as the prototype of Tarzan, with one of the former work’s central, redeeming tenets being that nature’s laws are superior to man’s, and not in the Burroughsian/ social-Darwinism sense. It’s also a much better-written one—even though Kipling doffed his hat to Edgar Rice Burroughs thus:⁵

[Burroughs] had ‘jazzed’ the motif of the Jungle Books and, I imagine, had thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was reported to have said that he wanted to find out how bad a book he could write and ‘get away with’, which is a legitimate ambition.

The animation studio seemed completely unconcerned with the swirl of problematic themes in both cases: race, man versus nature, and imperialism. And even in spite of their deliberate disregard of Kipling’s work, some troubling elements crept through.

For example, Disney, especially in the old days, nearly always makes all their humans white, or if not white, of one race as is the case in Jungle Book. Insidiously, however, some of their animals are white while others are clearly intended as POC. Such is the case with King Louie and the monkeys, whom white animators and voice actors portrayed with over-the-top mockery of black people.

Nonetheless, the movie was a tremendous success: it was the fourth-highest grossing movie of the year, with an Oscar nomination for “Bear Necessities”, and Academy president, Gregory Peck, lobbied extensively, if unsuccessfully, for a Best Picture nod as well. Nostalgia for Walt Disney, who had died prior to the film’s release was another of the elements that factored into the film’s excellent reception.

There is a lot of debate as to the symbolism of the original The Jungle Book. Some say that Mowgli’s behavior toward the beasts of the jungle parallels that of the British, enforcing his “imperial” education and rule upon them, and defeating those that threaten his livelihood. Another view is that the human villagers are the imperialists imposing their will on the animals, who represent the native population in rebellion. This second interpretation traps Mowgli between two worlds, which makes much more sense to me.

Indeed, in the end, the author seems to have created a somewhat autobiographical protagonist. A sense of not belonging is central to Kipling, from the otherness of his birth as an Anglo-Indian, seen by the Indians as a Britisher, to his ending up as an American, seen in his adoptive land as an Indian. The cycle ends with Mowgli’s line:

The jungle shut to me and the village gates shut… my heart is heavy with the things that I do not understand.

George Orwell thoughtfully weighed Kipling’s work, summarizing it thus:⁶

Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.

Even still, Kipling is not always so clear in his sympathies; take the poem “A Pict Song”:

Rome never looks where she treads
Always her heavy hooves fall,
On our stomachs, our hearts or our heads;
And Rome never heeds when we bawl.
Her sentries pass on—that is all,
And we gather behind them in hordes,
And plot to reconquer the Wall,
With only our tongues for our swords.

We are the Little Folk—we!
Too little to love or to hate.
Leave us alone and you’ll see
How we can drag down the Great!
We are the worm in the wood!
We are the rot in the root!
We are the germ in the blood!
We are the thorn in the foot!

Mistletoe killing an oak—
Rats gnawing cables in two—
Moths making holes in a cloak—
How they must love what they do!
Yes—and we Little Folk too,
We are as busy as they—
Working our works out of view—
Watch, and you’ll see it some day!

No indeed! We are not strong,
But we know Peoples that are.
Yes, and we’ll guide them along,
To smash and destroy you in War!
We shall be slaves just the same?
Yes, we have always been slaves,
But you—you will die of the shame,
And then we shall dance on your graves!

I must confess to learning of this poem from Billy Bragg’s 1996 album William Bloke. His version changed a few of the words, including “drag down the Great” to “drag down the State”, for extra subversive goodness. Bragg says he is reclaiming both nationalism and the poet from the Right. In any case, here Rome clearly stands in for the British Empire, and the Picts for the peoples being colonized, and Kipling’s sympathy with the colonized and against imperialism is apparent.

Turning back to our racist friend Tillman, setting aside some of the derogatory language he uses to describe the Filipinos (some of whom he calls “naked savages”), he actually has some good points:⁷

Those peoples are not suited to our institutions. They are not ready for liberty as we understand it. They do not want it. Why are we bent on forcing upon them a civilization not suited to them and which only means in their view degradation and a loss of self-respect, which is worse than the loss of life itself?

To clarify, the ideology that we are subjugating people as some kind of necessary evil involved with our “real goal” of spreading the blessings of freedom and democracy to benighted peoples, which in those days bore the now-abandoned branding of “Manifest Destiny”, is, and always has been, nothing but a thin coat of justification whitewashing imperialist ambitions.

This has gained new currency with our recent endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Dick Cheney’s all-too-familiar claim:⁸

[M]y belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.

This brand of “philanthropic imperialism” has nearly always been the rule: we are conquering them for their own good, whether to bring them civilization, democracy, the Word of God, social justice—name a thing.

And indeed, empire is a curious thing: even in spite of Indian deaths totalling a (highly disputed) three million to 30 million under British occupation—either directly, in conflicts, or indirectly, by policies that caused catastrophic famines—nonetheless English is an important language in India, acting as a lingua franca (with some 125M speaking it, about 10% of the population) for speakers of their 22 different native languages. Tea, which the British brought with them to the subcontinent is drunk everywhere. And cricket, a 17th century sport from the island nation is now the national sport—some would say national religion—of India.

I’ll go out on what’s perhaps a benefit-of-the-doubt limb here: we should remember that Kipling was a writer and poet, not a politician. My interpretation of what he’s saying—rather badly—in “The White Man’s Burden” is simply this: go win the peace. Even Roosevelt, when he forwarded it to Cabot Lodge, remarked it was “rather poor poetry […]”. I take this from the note Kipling sent to Roosevelt:⁹

America has gone and stuck a pick-axe into the foundations of a rotten house, and she is morally bound to build the house over, again, from the foundations.

Winning the peace, something we still haven’t learned to do successfully, one notable exception being post WWII under the Marshall Plan, has exactly what Kipling says, reconstruction, at its core, with specific elements including security, stable governance, economic and social well-being, justice and reconciliation. Despite a great deal of lip service, lobbing missiles is a much simpler approach that remains greatly favored. Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman who was instrumental in aiding the Mujahedeen resistance during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, said of the US’ failure to deal with the aftermath:¹⁰

These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the endgame.

Even if winning the peace were not his message, “The White Man’s Burden” also contains many references to the arduousness and thanklessness of the task rather than presenting an unambivalent hymn to imperialism. And, moreover, all his warnings went unheeded.

Rather than being a quick and tidy conquest, the “Tagalog insurrection”, as Roosevelt called it, and in 1902 claimed to have won—shades of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” declaration—the warfare didn’t end. Instead it settled into a perpetual insurgency for roughly another decade. Indeed, the separatist splinter groups from The Moro National Liberation Front that exist even today can ultimately be thought of as only the latest incarnation of this struggle.

Though record keeping at the time was far from exact Filipino casualties on the main island of Luzon alone are estimated at a million. There were also notorious atrocities and tortures committed by the invading troops, including “collateral damage” against innocent civilian women and children. On the US side, 4,234 never returned from the archipelago. As President William McKinley said of the growing quagmire:¹¹

If old [Admiral George] Dewey had just sailed away when he smashed that Spanish fleet, what a lot of trouble he would have saved us.

One can only imagine many Filipinos would heartily agree.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: The Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War


  1. Rudyard Kipling, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Pinney, Ed., 1990.
  2. Benjamin Tillman, “Address to the U.S. Senate, 7 February 1899”.
  3. Craig McLean, “The Jungle Book: the making of Disney’s most troubled film”, The Telegraph, 2013.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Rudyard Kipling, “8: Working Tools”, Something of Myself, 1937.
  6. George Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling”, Horizon, 1942.
  7. Tillman, 1899.
  8. “Meet the Press”, NBC, 2003.
  9. Kipling, 1990.
  10. Charlie Wilson’s War, 2007— this film is the only source I could find for this quote, unfortunately, though it claims to be quoting the congressman.
  11. H.H. Kohlsaat, From McKinley to Harding, 1923.

It’s Fascinating What One Can Deduce about a Man Just by Knowing his Name

When ideology takes on greater value than science, things get messy

I’ve been watching the National Geographic show Genius. The first season, about Albert Einstein, only three episodes in right now, has been mainly focused on his time as a university student. But the antisemitism he faced as a Jew in Germany early in the last century has already become a major theme.

The show portrays Philipp Lenard, who is just beginning to turn against the Jews of the scientific community in Germany. He runs across a paper by the protagonist and says:

Einstein. It’s fascinating what one can deduce about a man just by knowing his name.

This portrayal of him as a bigot can hardly be called unfair as Lenard was a vocal opponent what he said were the misleading lies of “Jewish physics”, which was how he referred especially to the theories of Einstein, and “the Jewish fraud” of relativity. Lenard espoused “Deutsche Physik” as a counter to this insidious influence, becoming an advisor to Adolf Hitler and Chief of Aryan Physics under the Nazis.

And this reminded me of something I had read in Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands (Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari):

[O]ccultism, hostility towards any form of modern scientific theory (thought to be of Jewish origin) and the frantic research for a pure and original German wisdom—all these were elements that circulated in the Nazi community.

And again later:

[W]hat even modern Nazis call the knowledge of tradition was […] set against the false knowledge of liberal and Jewish science.

First, let me say that despite its light-hearted title, Eco’s book is quite serious: it documents non-existent places, the search for which has cost countless lives (and mainly those of the innocent, rather than those pursuing these fantasies) and money, but these are ultimately based on lies, forgeries, fictions, misinformation, misinterpretation, over-credulity, and many other categories of human failing.

It is not the point of the book to tie these things to antisemitism, but it is a thread that runs through them, repeatedly appearing in seemingly unrelated contexts. And it seems that a lot of the anti-science movement stems from antisemitism: the “theories” of Atlantis, the hollow earth, Hyperboreans, Aryans, and many other crackpot ideas, all circle around the general feeling that the Jews are behind a universal conspiracy theory.

Eco has noted that he first learned of the universal conspiracy theory because he was schooled in it under the fascists who were in power in the Italy of his youth. He said he was taught that the British and the Americans were conspiring to keep his country poor and weak.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Протоколы сионских мудрецов), one of the most pernicious forgeries of the 20th century, takes the point of view of the invented Jewish conspirators attempting to undermine society, spelling out the case thus:

Moreover, the art of diflecting [sic] masses and individuals by means of cleverly manipulated theory and verbiage, by regulations of life in common and all sorts of other quirks, in all which the goyim understand nothing, belongs likewise to the specialists of our administrative brain. Reared on analysis, observation, on delicacies of fine calculation, in this species of skill we have no rivals, any more than we have either in the drawing up of plans of political actions and solidarity.

This work was originally published in Russia in 1903 and rapidly spread across the globe in many translations with Henry Ford notably funding the printing and dissemination of half a million copies in the US in 1920. The work is still widely available today despite being discredited as both a forgery and heavily plagiarized from fictional sources.

Let me also be clear that this is not to say that everyone who is a science denier is perforce an antisemite—indeed, Marin county, whose population is quite liberal, is now infamous as a bastion of anti-vaxxers. The link is really irrationality and a willingness to believe in conspiracies.

Returning to Eco’s work, the contexts in which antisemitism appears alongside outlandish pseudoscience, include the confluence of notions about Atlantis, the origin of the Hyperborean/ Aryan race, and an icy origin of the world:

A pseudo Elmar Brugg [i.e. the author himself does not exist.] (1938) had published a book honoring (Hanns) Hörbiger as the Copernicus of the twentieth century, maintaining that the theory of eternal ice explained the deep bonds that unite earthly events with cosmic forces and concluding that the silence of democratic-Judaic science regarding Hörbiger was a typical case of a conspiracy among the mediocre.

Another context that came up repeatedly was that of the hollow earth:

The idea was propounded by Cyrus Reed Teed (1899), who asserted that what we believe to be the sky (according to “the ignorant Copernicus’ gigantic and grotesque fallacy” and Anglo-Jewish pseudoscience) is a gaseous mass that fills the interior of the planet with zones of brilliant light. The sun, moon and stars are not heavenly bodies but visual effects caused by a variety of phenomena.

This same theory was then taken up again:

After the First World War, the hollow-earth theory (Hohlweltlehre) gained acceptance in Germany through the agency of Peter Bender and Karl Neupert, and was taken very seriously by high-ranking members of the German navy and air force, who were evidently sensitive to some extent to the occultist atmosphere that has been established among some representatives of the regime.

With some specific applications such as:

Bender had suggested that the German navy make an expedition to the island of Rügen (in the Baltic) to try to identify British ships with powerful telescopes aimed upwards, along the presumed terrestrial concavity, using infrared rays.

And in spite of Bender ending up in a concentration camp for wasting the navy’s time and money in such a way, the ideas still didn’t go away, resurfacing in the Reich’s missile program:

[S]ome V-1 rocket launches went wrong precisely because the trajectory had been calculated on the basis of a concave and not convex surface.

Many of Eco’s (and the believers’) sources were admitted works of fiction, rather than forgeries, including such noted authors as Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, Victor Hugo, and Jonathan Swift. One work in particular, Vril, the Coming Race, a 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, spawned one of the key societies that prefigured Nazism—the Vril Society (Vril Gesellschaft). Iron Sky: The Coming Race, a comic-action SF film, and sequel to the original Iron Sky which featured Moon Nazis, takes both its title and theme from the book and the society it inspired. Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier authored a work titled The Morning of the Magicians (Le Matin des magiciens) in 1960, discussing a variety of paranormal, occult, and conspiracy themes, and in particular how the philosophies of the Vril Society and the Thule Society essentially paved the way for that of Nazism.

We also encounter Edgar Rice Burroughs, who draws from many of these ideas for works like his Opar cycle (Opar is a city deep in the jungle and an ancient colony of Atlantis, which Tarzan discovers and has various adventures in), and Pellucidar, a hollow-earth where an entire adventure series takes place, including a Tarzan crossover. As I detailed previously, Borroughs’ fiction and beliefs are closely interrelated, and the fact that his essay on eugenics, “I See a New Race” echoes the title of Bulwer-Lytton’s book is unlikely to be a coincidence.

Other writers satirized the conspiracy, as Jorge Luis Borges did in his short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. Eco describes the farfetched plot thus:

[T]he author says that the origin of that disturbing and occult place is due to “a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, moralists, painters and geometricians, under the direction of an obscure man of genius.”

A host of important thinkers from Aristotle to Nietzsche also appear in Eco’s book, as both witting and unwitting abettors of these flights of fancy, alongside mystics like Helena Blavatsky and William Blake.

In the end the universal conspiracy theory is comforting—it is due to others plotting against you and keeping you down that your life is hard, rather than it being random, or worse yet, your own fault.

The Nail of Babylon

The tale an unassuming artifact tells about the city-state of Lagash

In the basement of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor (LoH), in an unassuming glass case mounted on the wall between the Gift Shop and an elevator alcove, across from the entrance to the Café, an odd object, frequently passed and seldom examined, sits on display. It is small—only around six inches long and one-and-a-half inches across, a conical piece of terracotta resembling a large, stubby nail, as its broader end features a raised lip like a nail’s head. Its ageworn surface is inscribed with cuneiform. Close beside it is a small tablet I also find fascinating; it is an ancient receipt for the delivery of sheep—perhaps a tale for another day.

Even though I have visited the museum many times, I’ll still often stop and peer at the conical object, one reason being it is one of the oldest items in the museum, dating from roughly 2250 BC. The small plaque beside it gives the date, as well as its place of origin—“Babylon”—together with the following information:

Foundation Nail from the Temple of Nin-Girsu Built by Ur-Baba, Governor of Lagash

Now this is a beef I have with a lot of museums. This information is both partial and misleading. I can imagine a layperson wondering how a nail made of terracotta could be used to construct a temple’s (or any building’s) foundation, and if it was some bizarre custom of the ancient Babylonians to inscribe all their fasteners, and what those inscriptions were about—“Hecho en México”? And of course one can’t expect the museum to provide several paragraphs of information for every item in their collection; it would be burdensome to produce as well as to read.

At these moments I am thankful that I already know what this object is, and I can explain it to anyone who has accompanied me and would like to hear more. I’m not sure why they even came to the museum with me if they didn’t want me to explain things.

This is actually a relatively common object from Mesopotamia mainly from the 3rd millennium BC used to dedicate buildings—typically temples—to a particular god. Called by various names, including clay nails, dedication pegs, foundation pegs, foundation cones, foundation nails, and foundation deposits, they were baked and stuck into the still-wet mud walls of these buildings during their construction.

Uninscribed multicolored cones were sometimes used in this way to create mosaic patterns, and as they were baked, they actually made the surfaces so decorated much more durable as well—a sort of proto-hex-tile.

The particular “foundation nail” at the LoH relates that the ensi (a ruler of a city-state) of Lagash named Ur-Baba has dedicated a temple to the god Nin’ngirsu.

Although I was not able to find the specific inscription on LoH’s example online, I was able to find a different one from the same temple, and these inscriptions tended to be formulaic rather than unique, so it’s a good bet they are identical; even though the LoH image is not great, I can see some glyphs that clearly match. This one is in the collection of the Museums of the Far East (Musea van het Verre Oosten) in Laken, Belgium, and according to the Museum’s bulletin reads:

[Column 1]
[Column 2]
nig.du.e pa mu./na.e

[Column 1]
(For) Ningirsu,
the mighty warrior
of Enlil,
the ruler
of Lagaš,
the son born
of Ninagala
[Column 2]
he made appear the everlasting (thing):
his Eninnu temple with the White Anzû-bird(s),
he built for him
and restored for him.

I should note that I’ve simplified the rendering of this inscription: there are a great many super- and subscripted and other special characters that are not supported by this site and which are also not of any importance to non-Sumerian scholars. Another quick note on the characters ĝ and š: their phonetic values are ŋ and ʃ, which would typically be rendered as “ng” and “sh” in English, as I will do.

For a rather short inscription, a lot of information is encoded, which I’ll attempt to unpack here.

Let’s start with the dedicator of this temple:

the ruler
of Lagaš,
the son born
of Ninagala

Ur-Bau is given as the name of this ruler, but I’d actually differ with the translation on this point, and agree with LoH’s. The inscription’s ba-u is more properly rendered as Baba (𒀭𒁀𒌑 better known as Nintinugga), meaning “beautiful woman” and refers to a protective goddess who is also the consort of Nin’ngirsu, the god to whom this temple is dedicated, and so Ur-Baba, meaning “servant of Baba” makes sense as the name of a ruler given this religious context.

And Ur-Baba does indeed appear historically as a ruler of the Second Dynasty of Lagash (Lagash II, c. 2260–2110 BC). Ensi, whose etymology is apparently from “lord of the plowland”, given in the translation simply as “ruler”, and which the LoH plaque glosses as “governor”, is a more specific title, indicating the ruler of a city-state, as opposed to lugal, generally translated as “king”, but indicating the of ruler of several city-states and even all of Sumer, and to which an ensi is therefore subordinate. Incidentlly, the gal in lugal means “great” and is cognate with Semitic galit (Hebrew גָּלְיָת), which we know better spelled Goliath.

Lagash was an important city of Sumer, located near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the coast of the Persian Gulf, near the modern city of Ash Shatrah, Iraq. It came to prominence in the late 3rd millennium BC, when it was ruled by independent kings, but was conquered by the Akkadians under Sargon (c. 2340–2284 BC) becoming a vassal state. Nonetheless, Lagash continued its prominence, particularly as an artistic center of the region. When Sargon’s state collapsed, Lagash became independent again with trade stretching across a vast area creating an influx of wealth under its new rulers.

As for Ninagala, this appears to be the name of a goddess that is not well attested. Given Ur-Baba’s association with Nintinugga, I’d expect this to be an alternate name of the same deity. Such polyonymy is quite common in Sumerian religion, as indeed it is in many others in the ancient world. Ninagala is described in another of Ur-Baba’s inscriptions as “his goddess”, where it also reports that he built a temple to her. His claim here of being “the son born of” her is important to understand as being used to legitimize a claim to the ensi title that is not inherited though kinship, but granted by divine providence.

Taken together, I think Ur-Baba, Ensi Lagash, Dumu-tuda Ninagala-kake can be thought of as a tripartite name, similar to those used broadly across the ancient world. The general formula is idionym + cognomen + patronym, but here patronym is overridden by the divine association with Ninagala.

Next, let’s look at the temple itself:

he made appear the everlasting (thing):
his Eninnu temple with the White Anzû-bird(s),
he built for him
and restored for him.

This is fairly straightforward language attributing the temple to Ur-Baba, with “everlasting” being clear boast (or at least wish) regarding the quality of the construction. Both “built” and “restored” are used because there was an older temple at this site that this one replaced. The translation I’m quoting is a bit redundant with “Eninnu temple” as E-Ninnu is literally “house of 50” and means “temple”. E (“house”) alone is often used to mean “temple”, particularly in formations like E-[deity name]. And more specifically, E-Ninnu is the name of this very temple.

Indeed, the subsequent phrase, “with the White Anzû-bird[s]” is likely the extended name of the temple, in similar fashion to Ur-Baba’s name, above. Thus, E-Ninnu Imdugud Babbar-rani: “House of 50 with the White Imdugud[s]”. I’ll get to Anzû-bird/ Imdugud shortly.

Then we come to the deity to whom the temple is being dedicated:

the mighty warrior
of Enlil,

Nin’ngirsu is one of the names by which Ninurta is known. The first element, [d]nin is a common one among Sumerian gods as it means “lord” or “lady”. The first name then means “the lord of Ngirsu”, which is somewhat circular as Ngirsu was the religious center of Lagash—it’s a way of referring to Ninurta as the patron deity of the city-state. The more common name of the deity means “the lord of barley”, reflecting his role as a god of farming, though he was also god of law, scribes, and hunting, as well as the consort of Baba. In his aspect as hunter, this god is related both mythically and etymologically to נִמְרוֹדֿ (nimrud), better known spelled Nimrod, famous for building (or attempting to build) a certain tower in the region.

“Of Enlil”, simply refers to Ninurta’s parentage: His father is Enlil, the chief deity of the Sumerians and god of wind, earth, and storms. Ninurta’s mother is Ninlil, also a wind goddess. Taken together with the sobriquet, “The mighty warrior”, this section is likely a tria nomina pattern similar to that of Ur-Baba, (Nin’ngirsu, Ursang Kalga, Enlil-lara). This is also done to deliberately echo the form of the god’s name with the form of the ruler’s, again reinforcing the earthly ensi’s divine right to his throne.

“The mighty warrior”, epithet seems to also fit into the extended name of Ninurta, having been earned through his deeds relating to the recovery of the Tablet of Destinies (dub namtarak). This tablet is a pretty important legal document, as it establishes Enlil’s dominion over the universe, so when it was stolen, Ninurta stepped up. Along the way to its retrieval, he slew seven fantastic monsters (sometimes also called heroes), draping his chariot with their corpses and despoiling them of their treasures.

None of the remaining corpus describes them in any detail (with one exception), which is a shame because their names are quite intriguing:

  • Ushum: simply meaning “snake” but typically called Dragon Warrior
  • Lugal Ngishimmar: King Date-Palm
  • En Samanana: which means “lord high-vessel”, but is generally rendered as Lord Samanana
  • Gudalim: “bison-bull” who appears to have had a human head, arms, and torso, and bovine hindquarters, walking upright—a kind of reverse minotaur—best known as Bison-Beast
  • Kulianna: “fish-woman”, generally glossed as The Mermaid
  • Mush’sangimin: Seven-Headed Serpent
  • Shegsangash: Six-Headed Wild Ram

The second line of column two also relates to this theme when it describes the temple as having:

White Anzû-bird(s)

The inscription reads im-dugud[mušen], which is typically normalized as Imdugud and for whom the Akkadian equivalent is indeed Anzû. And Imdugud is the thief of the Tablet of Destinies, seemingly appearing on Ninurta’s temple as a reminder of the god’s deed of besting the beast. It seems perverse to me for the translation to have used the Akkadian name for this being when there is a perfectly good Sumerian one.

And unlike the seven henchmen, we do know a fair amount about Imdugud, who is also known as Anzud, Pazuzu, and Zû. The last two names are Akkadian, and as Pazuzu, this being appeared in The Exorcist and thereby a host of other demonic-possession-related modern productions. The Ziz (זיז) that makes up a trio of giant monsters in Jewish mythology along with Leviathan (לִוְיָתָן) and Behemoth (בהמות)—ruling over air, sea, and land respectively—is also thought to originate from Imdugud. The Sumerian being is the god of wind who brings disease to man, king of the demons of the wind, with the body of a man, the head of a lion or dog, eagle-like taloned feet, two pairs of wings, and a scorpion’s tail.

Just to put it all back together, here’s my amended translation of the text:

Column 1
[For] Nin’ngirsu,
mighty warrior,
Enlil’s [son];
of Lagash,
son born
of Ninagala

Column 2
he made appear the everlasting [thing]:
his House of 50 with the White Imdugud[s],
he built for him
and restored for him.

The restoration of the E-Ninnu in Ngirsu was a grand gesture by Ur-Baba, symbolic of his city-state of Lagash’s reacquired independence after the subjugation of the Akkadians. He likely overthrew Akkad’s puppet ensi (his predecessor, named as one Kaku) in order to settle himself upon the throne, and established, at least for a while, his own familial lineage within the dynasty of Lagash II: his daughter, Ninalla was married to Gudea, to whom rule passed, and who in turn passed it to his own son, Ur-Nin’ngirsu, who also passed the throne to his son. Kaku’s grandson, however, reclaimed the throne and Ur-Namma of Ur had to intervene and defeat him, also putting an end to Lagash II.

My hope is that this article serves to whet your curiosity. Small and mundane-seeming items displayed without prominence can be gateways to our understanding of times long gone with a bit of digging.


The side of Mozart most people would prefer to forget

I’ve been a fan of Mozart for some time, and in particular his Requiem in D minor, a piece that gets used quite frequently in soundtracks, with the best and worst uses of the “Dies Irae” section of the “Sequentia”, for example, being respectively during Nightcrawler’s attempted assassination of the POTUS in X2, and a Macy’s One Day Sale television ad. I laughed out loud every time I saw the early ’90s commercial—I’ve always wondered if the ad guys were pranking the suits or didn’t understand the ominous overtones this commercial would hold for the cognoscenti—actually, it’s pretty ominous even if you don’t understand the words. If the irony is deliberate, it might actually be the best use. As soon as films had music, Mozart was in them, and the trend shows no signs of slowing.

Opera snobs disdain the Austrian composer as overly facile with his music’s repeated film appearances providing additional damning proofs, but it’s difficult to express the depths of my uncaring. I find him thoroughly masterful: “Lacrymosa” sounds like lamentation, “Dies Irae” sounds apocalyptic, and “Confutatis” sounds like damnation. My associations with the work run so deep, I have only to hear a word like salvage to set me off singing “Rex Tremendae Majestatis”. The line “qui salvandos salvas gratis” being the tie in. You can imagine how it went when I worked with a guy named Rex; it was never “hey Rex” it was “Reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeex!” The music is soaring, majestic, transcendent.

Furthermore, I’m in good company—Soren Kierkegaard said of the composer:

Immortal Mozart, I owe you everything; I owe to you that I lost my sanity, that my soul was amazed, that I was terrified in the core of my being; I owe to you that I did not live without anything that could shake me; I owe to you that I did not die without having loved […].

And more succinct, but not lesser praise was given by Albert Einstein:

Mozart’s [music] was so pure that it seems to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.

Given all this, imagine my surprise when I recently learned of Mozart’s work “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber”, K. 233. The title translates to “Lick my Ass Nice and Clean”.

While it seems quite rude to our ears, leck mich im arsch is a standard vulgarism in German; a closer English equivalent of would be “kiss my ass”. Nonetheless it seems in glaring contrast to his masses and operas.

Still, the work was far from singular, as his catalogue also includes:

  • “Leck mich im Arsch”, K. 231: the same idea as the one above.
  • “Bei der Hitz im Sommer eß ich”, K. 234: contains references to farting.
  • “Gehn wir im Prater, gehn wir in d’ Hetz”, K. 558: wherein the Prater, a public park in Vienna, is “full of shit”.
  • “Difficile lectu”, K. 559: nonsense Latin disguising another ass-licking lyric.
  • “O du eselhafter Peierl”, K. 560a: “Oh you asinine Peyerl” is the translated title.
  • “Bona nox!”, K. 561: The extended title translates as “Good Night, You Are a Real Ox” and it only gets worse from there.

As its chronological Köchelverzeichnis number indicates, “Leck mich im Arsch” actually predates the first-mentioned one. Also note that a pair of these, “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber” and “Bei der Hitz im Sommer eß ich”, have been reclassified as not being Mozart’s original compositions but merely his words set to works by Wenzel Trnka. Also “O du eselhafter Peierl” refers to Johann Nepomuk Peyerl, a tenor-baritone with whom Mozart worked frequently, and whose strong Bavarian accent made the puns in “Difficile lectu” work. The two pieces were intended to be sung together with this second one making fun of Peyerl who would have just sung the other one.

And then there are his letters. Benjamin Simkins compiled the following list of 40 items of scatological correspondence:¹

  • Leopold Mozart (father): 20 letters
  • Constanze Mozart (wife): 6 letters
  • Maria Anna Thekla Mozart (cousin): 6 letters
  • Nannerl Mozart (sister): 4 letters
  • Maria Anna Mozart (mother): 1 letter
  • Mother and sister jointly: 1 letter
  • Abbé Bullinger (friend): 1 letter
  • Kapellmeister Stoll (friend): 1 letter

The central falsification of the film Amadeus is well known, that of Salieri destroying his fellow composer, which was taken from a vague rumor, and then made definitive in Alexander Pushkin’s play, Mozart and Salieri («Моцарт и Сальери»); The two were generally on good terms; Salieri was a fan and had Mozart give his son music lessons. Still based on his letters it’s easy to picture the composer as Tom Hulce portrays him, of whom F. Murray Abraham’s Antonio Salieri says:

That was Mozart. That! That giggling, dirty-minded creature I had just seen[…]!

I’ll note here that I intend neither to bowdlerize Mozart’s words nor to catalogue his every off-color remark (there are those who have done both already). The point here is to understand the context of such materials.

I have not seen the play Amadeus but Peter Shaffer penned both versions, so I imagine it bears a strong similarity to the film. When Margaret Thatcher went to see it, dining afterwards with director Peter Hall, the following is recorded of her reaction:²

She did not look happy.

“I think it is disgraceful that the National Theater shows Mozart uttering such obscenities, […] a composer of such elegant and wonderful music.”

“But Prime Minister,” he protested, “it is actual fact that he did talk like that. He used four-letter words.”

“It is not possible,” she responded, “not from someone who could create works of such beauty.”

“But Prime Minister, I can assure you that this was the case. Mozart’s own letters confirm it.”

Well, what did Maggie know? In the same article, she also is quoted as talking of “van Gogh’s Chrysanthemums”. It does tell us that the group involved with the play was quite well informed by thorough research, and the play and film reflect this knowledge.

While I was surprised to find this out about Mozart, unlike Thatcher, I didn’t find it incompatible with his other works; rather it serves to humanize him and make me like and appreciate him still more. And in fact, if you listen to them—many are available through the wonders of the internet—these are lovely songs. Mainly, they are choral canons (regarded in Mozart’s day as a highly refined technique, which seems to be why he enjoyed putting base lyrics into the form) and build to impressively layered crescendi.

Of course I am far from the first to become aware of this side of the composer and there have been a variety of theories advanced as to what’s behind it. These begin, as far as I can determine, with Austrian author Stefan Zweig, who raised an idea that Mozart suffered from mental illness. Zweig was a huge collector of memorabilia relating to his fellow Viennese, as well as being buddies with Sigmund Freud, whom he presented with the materials he had amassed and asked for a diagnosis:³

These nine letters […] throw a psychologically very remarkable light on his erotic nature, which, more so than any other important man, has elements of infantilism and coprophilia.

However, Freud apparently had no interest in pursuing the case.

This, of course, did nothing to slow the flood of theories: Simkins, an endocrinologist, compiled his list of letters attempting to make a case for Tourette’s Syndrome. Others suggested OCD. None of these diagnoses make the remotest bit of sense, as apart from his use of “dirty” language no other symptoms of these disorders are present. Mozart’s “sudden” death is often also brought in to support diagnoses as well. Very little was known in the 18th century about the prevention and treatment of disease; things like this happened all the time.

The problem with both Thatcher and Zweig (among others) is that they are applying their own cultural norms to the composer. The repressive prudery of the Victorian Era is to blame in the former case, and judging by the portrayal of Vienna in The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European (Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers) the trend was hardly confined to Great Britain. Zweig and his wife committed suicide immediately following the completion of this autobiographical work, making him either an excellent judge of mental illness or a terrible one, I’m not sure which. And the problem with Simkins and his ilk is a more modern one of wanting to apply a label to a phenomenon they see as “abnormal”.

However, as I’ve already noted, they’re peering through an inappropriate cultural lens. Many of the correspondents in the letters cited earlier respond in kind, and use similar language in conversing with Wolfgang, as well as amongst each other. Mozart’s mother, Anna Maria, in particular seems to have had very similar sensibilities to her son’s, signing off in a 1777 letter to Leopold once:

Adio ben mio, leb gesund
Reck’ den arsch zum mund.
Ich winsch ein guete nacht
Scheiss ins beth das Kracht.

Farewell love, on you God’s grace,
Reach your ass up to your face.
I wish you a lovely night,
Shit your bed with all your might.

Indeed, it shares some of the lyrics of “Bona nox!” (1788), though It’s unclear where it originated, as Wolfgang also used another similar rhyme in a 1770 letter to his sister.

And it also seems this wasn’t just a familial phenomenon as scatological texts have also been found for other “important men” from this time and place, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Thomas Mann once said Goethe’s Faust might well have been a musician instead of a magician since “music is calculated order and chaos breeding irrationality at once”), Heinrich Heine, and even Martin Luther, key figure of the Protestant Reformation. And finally Michael Haydn, a fellow Salzburger and close colleague of Mozart’s wrote his own rude canon, “Scheiß nieder, armer Sünder”, which in English is “Shit Quick, Poor Sinner”. This is particularly telling as, per the suggestion in Amadeus, Salzburg was a more provincial and proper town, compared to the giddy carnival atmosphere of Vienna, the wealthy seat of the Imperial court.

Contemporary accounts found nothing rude, off-putting or “dirty-minded” about Mozart at all, with celebrated composer and court Kapellmeister, Johann Adolph Hasse, saying of him:⁴

[T]he boy is moreover, handsome, vivacious, gracious, and full of good manners; and knowing him it is difficult to avoid loving him.

Still, the letters seem to have been seen as at least somewhat inappropriate. His widow, Constanze sent some to a biographer, saying they were “in bad taste” but she still thought they contained some of his personality and cleverness. And Leopold too seems to have wanted to use Wolfgang’s letters to write his own biography, admonishing him not only to carefully preserve and inventory them, but to keep them clean and proper for the purpose as well.

A disappointed Leopold wrote to chastise his seemingly wayward son, thus:

[I]t now depends on you alone to raise yourself by degrees to a position of consequence, the greatest ever yet obtained by a musician. You owe that to the extraordinary talents bestowed upon you by Providence; and it now depends solely on your judgement and way of life whether you die a common musician utterly forgotten by the world, or a famous Kapellmeister, of whom posterity will read.

Wolfgang was wounded by his father’s seeming willingness to believe the worst of him, despite his pal Haydn defending him to Leopold, saying:

I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute.

Amadeus puts a quite similar speech into Salieri’s mouth, but in any case, it was to no avail. The arguments between Leopold and Wolfgang were not a singular event, but continued on and off for years. Wolfgang responded himself:

[N]ow that you attribute my course of action to negligence, thoughtlessness and idleness, I have only myself to thank for your good opinion of me, though I must deplore from my heart that you know me—your son—so little.

But apart from the scatology, Emily Anderson, author of 1937’s The Letters of Mozart and His Family, says he revealed himself in this second medium as no other composer has done:

Mozart’s letters bear comparison with those of the great letter writers of the world.

Here’s an example that showcases his quick mind and sense of play:

Ich habe dero mir so werthes schreiben richtig erhalten falten, und daraus ersehen drehen, daß der H: vetter retter, die fr: baaß has, und sie wie, recht wohl auf sind hind; wir sind auch gott lob und danck recht gesund hund. […] sie schreiben noch ferners, ja, sie lassen sich heraus, sie geben sich blos, sie lassen sich verlauten, sie machen mir zu wissen, sie erklären sich, sie deüten mir an, sie benachrichtigen mir, sie machen mir kund, sie geben deütlich am tage, sie verlangen, sie begehren, sie wünschen, sie wollen, sie mögen, sie befehlen, daß ich ihnen auch mein Portrait schicken soll schroll. Eh bien, ich werde es ihnen gewis schicken schlicken.

I now rightly hold fold your most worthy writing, and from it have learned turned that uncle gruntle, aunt flaunt, and you view, are far quite well; we too, praise and thank God, are in most sound hound health. […] You write further, yes, you let it out, you send forth, you let it be announced, you make me understand, you explain yourself, you imply to me, you notify me, you make it known to me, you make it clear as day, you demand, you desire, you wish, you want, you would like, you command that I, too, will mill send you my Portrait. Eh bien, I shall certainly mail scale it.

I’ve presented the original as well as my translation here so the German (and partly French) wordplay can be seen. This exuberant rhyming, punning, and burst of synonymy is far from irrelevant to Mozart’s work as a composer: his works would often establish a basic key whence a series of chromatic fireworks would then spring, besieging and seizing the ear with a rising tumult of harmonies, variations, and clashing tonalities.

In the the 18th century, musicians needed to have the ability to engage in complex musical games; reversed themes, mirrored fugues, and musical palindromes among them. The sense of play, scatology, and musical composition are all present when Mozart describes a fugue he improvised and then played “arschling” (“ass-wise”—we might say “bass-ackwards”). In order for this type of rarely attempted composition to work, the harmonies have to be entirely perfect.

Even (or perhaps especially) in his non-choral works, his abilities shine through. Musical scholar Jeremy Siepmann says of him:⁵

His great concertos are in many ways like operas without words, alive with sparkling dialogues, dramatic confrontations, psychological insights and unforgettable characterizations.

In the end, the stark contrast of the flights of intellect and scatology in Mozart’s letters represents an act of rebellion against his father and “posterity”. He knows his letters are being carefully monitored and collected as material for his biography, yet gleefully includes material he knows is viewed as inappropriate, with his father being far and away the largest recipient of such letters—as many as all the others combined—when he knows Leopold does not approve.

He’s not forgetting himself, it’s a deliberate strategy to avoid the creation of a falsely stately public persona. Mozart thinks his excellence in his “day job” should be enough, even though his letters at times display his mastery in this other form. To borrow again from Amadeus, he does not want to present himself among a group of inaccessible luminaries, who are:

[P]eople so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!


  1. In “Mozart’s scatological disorder”, published in the British Medical Journal.
  2. Lister, “She may not have known it, but even Thatcher was not immune to art’s capacity to challenge”, The Independent, 2013.
  3. In Schroeder, Mozart in Revolt: Strategies of Resistance, Mischief, and Deception, 1999.
  4. From Deutsch, Mozart: A Documentary Biography, 1966.
  5. Apologies, reader: I have lost this citation.