Continuing with our discussion of possible differences between the mindset of ancient peoples and the mindset of people today, I'd like to look at a letter found at Tell El-Amarna, an Egyptian site dating to the second millennium BC.
The letter was sent by Tushratta, King of Mittani, a northern, rather primitive kingdom, to the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III. The English translation in its original form can be read here. I've modernized the translator's pseudo-Biblical language ("thee" becomes "you," "thy" becomes "your," etc.), and, for clarity, I've italicized the words of the goddess. Incidentally, these tablets did not include any punctuation, so exclamation marks, colons, etc. are the translator's interpretation.
Here's the text in full:
To Nimmuria, King of Egypt, my brother, my son-in-law whom I love, and who loves me, thus has spoken Tushratta, King of Mitanni, who loves you, your father-in-law: With me it is well. With you may it be well! With my house; with Tahupeha, my daughter, your wife whom you love, may it be well! With your wives, your children, your nobles, your chariots, your horses, your warriors, your lands, and with everything that is yours, may it be very, very, very well!
Thus says Ishtar of Nineveh, the Lady of countries, all of them: To Egypt, the land which I love, will I go, and I will wander! Behold, now I have sent her, and she is gone … Behold, in the time of my father did the Lady go to the land, and as, when she formerly dwelt there, men honored her, so may my brother now honor her ten times more than in the former days! May my brother honor her, and send her away in joy that she may return!
Ishtar, the Lady of Heaven, may she protect my brother and me! One hundred thousand years and much joy may this Lady give us both! And as is good, so will we do. Ishtar is for me, my god; but for my brother, she is not his god.
The letter has several interesting features. First, notice that the letter announces that Tushratta has spoken, and proceeds to report his speech. This is equivalent to a modern letter reading something like this:
To Gary Granger, head of the Skylark Hills Condominium Association, here are the words spoken by Michael Prescott, resident of Skylark Hills: I am well. I hope you also are well ...
The oddness of this formulation may be dismissed as a quirk of diplomatic protocol, but in fact ancient letters of all kinds from Babylon and Sumer routinely follow this formula, suggesting (in Julian Jaynes's view) that the letter was seen as a kind of messenger that would "speak" to the recipient and report what it had been told. This is very different from the way we approach texts today.
The next point of interest is that Ishtar, a goddess, is reported to speak via the same formula used for the king. "Thus has spoken Tushratta, King of Mitanni ..." is followed by "Thus says Ishtar of Nineveh ..." No distinction is drawn between the words of the man and the words of the goddess.
Ishtar's quoted words end with "... and I will wander!" In this single laconic sentence, the goddess has announced her intention to travel throughout Egypt in a kind of good-will tour. Tushratta then resumes speaking, and says he has put the goddess's plan into action by sending her to Egypt. He also notes that in his father's day she conducted a similar tour of that country and was much honored. He expresses hope that Ishtar, although a goddess foreign to the Egyptians, will be even more fervently honored this time, and he looks forward to her safe return in order to enjoy her continued beneficence.
What exactly is going on here? It seems obvious that the goddess is, in fact, an idol, which Tushratta has been persuaded to send on this journey by some sort of mystical experience. Either he heard the idol express her desire to visit Egypt, or one of the priests heard her say as much and relayed the message to the king.
Notice that the idol does not merely represent Ishtar; the idol is Ishtar. To say that Ishtar is a symbolic representation of the goddess is to read a modern mentality into this script. There is not the slightest indication of any symbolism or metaphorical thinking. The message is quite straightforward: the divine Lady said she wanted to go to Egypt, so her faithful servant the king has sent her, with hopes for a successful trip and a safe return.
Similar excursions were undertaken by other gods and goddesses throughout the ancient world. Jaynes recounts one or two of them in his book.
All of this strikes me as very alien to modern sensibilities. I'm not denying that there are echoes of such practices in some present-day religious rituals, such as the ceremonial exhibition of sacred relics, but (as per Jaynes) I would argue that these practices are archaic holdovers of the earlier, more robust rites indicated in these ancient texts.
Some might object that Ishtar's trip is really no different from the French goverment's gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States. After all, the Statue of Liberty represents a goddess, Libertas, and was sent to America as a gesture of good will. But the differences outweigh any similarities. No one in France or the US ever thought the statue actually was a goddess, or that there was any such entity as Libertas, except as a poetic image. No one thought Libertas had proposed the trip herself. No one heard Libertas say anything, and no one imagined that Libertas (the statue) was alive. Neither did the French worry about whether Libertas would be offended if she were not appropriately honored by the Americans; nor did they fret about the statue's safe return, fearing the loss of her divine protection. The form of the ritual was somewhat similar, but the meaning was utterly different.
In something of the same way, I'd suggest that the form of ancient societies was sometimes similar to our own, but the interior life of the individual was probably quite alien to our experience.