Legacy and labour – 25 Apr 2023
THE struggle for workers` rights didn`t begin with May 1. In fact, the first mention of organised labour protests isn`t in the history books, but in the creation myths of the ancient Akkadian religion. The 17thcentury BC epic of Atra-Hasis, which tells us about the creation of the world and of humanity, talks of how the Elder god Enlil created a race of `lesser` gods to do the hard work of making the newly created world liveable. The epic records that the worker gods `dug the Tigris river and the Euphrates … Springs they opened from the depths, wells … they established …
they heaped up all the mountains`.
While these junior deities initially took to their work with gusto, after 40 years they decided that never-ending toil wasn`t what they had signed up for: `Forced labour they bore night and day.
They were complaining, denouncing, 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.
The gods went on strike, going so far as to set their tools and workstations on fire and picketing outside the house of the `boss` god, Enlil.
And, much like bosses throughout history, the first instinct of the Elder gods was to bust the strike by singling out and punishing the `troublemaker` causing resentment among the revolting workers. The protesters were having none of it, and told their exploiters that they stood united and that “Everyone of us gods has declared war`. In modern terms, this is known as collective bargaining and class solidarity.
Suddenly lacking a pliant labour force to do the hard work while they sat and presumably sipped ambrosia (or whatever the drink of choice for ancient Akkadian deities is) the Elder gods had to find a solution: `Let [us] create, then, a human, a man … Let him bear the yoke! Let man assume the drudgery of the god.
So, humanity was created as a passive and powerless workforce and the younger gods, pleased that they were no longer part of the proletariat, went back to doing whatever gods do, hence proving that solidarity with the working class vanishes when you`re no longer part of the working class. It also explains why we never seem to catch a break; after all, we were created to be slaves! As for `real` history, the first record of a workers` strike is found in Egypt around 1159 BC, when Ramses III decided to hold a splendid celebration for his upcoming 30-year jubilee. As part of the festivities, orders were given to refurbish the many temples that had fallen into disrepair butdue to bad harvests and official corruption, artisans tasked with constructing the pharaohs` mausoleum had their pay (a ration of grain) delayed again and again.
One day, they decided to down tools and walk off the job.
The overseers, having never faced such a situation before given that Egyptian society prized harmony and obedience to social structures and authority, had no idea what to do and tried to appease protesting workers by offering them lunch and pastries. And here we see the birth of the long-standing management tradition of trying to distract workers from legitimate demands by offering trinkets, a practice as unsuccessful today as it was in ancient Egypt.
Now even more incensed, the artisans took over part of the temple granary and threatened the priests who promptly called the police who also met with no success.
Finally, the workers got their overdue grain and went back to their villages with theoverseers no doubt breathing a sigh of relief. But it didn`t last, because when the workers realised that their next payments would also be delayed, they went on strike again and this time took over the entire Valley of the Kings, denying entry to priests andmourners who wanted to perform the necessary rituals for the dead.
When the military was sent in to crush the strikers, the workers went so far as to threaten to destroy the royal tombs, an escalation unheard of in all the millennia of Egyptian history. This situation carried on for some three years, and there is evidence that the terrified bosses went to great lengths to conceal the matter from the pharaoh for fear of losing their own heads. The issue did get resolved eventually, but the social contract that had enduredfor centuries had been shattered.
Today, we can look back at this and be amazed that, even in the distant past, the relation between worker and boss was not so different from what it is now, nor have the tools and techniques used by both sides changed all that much. It is also a lesson that no movement truly has a beginning or an end, and that the story of mankind is the story of constant struggle. The wnter is a joumalist.