What Do We Lose When We Sack Libraries?

The Cult of Efficiency Demands Sacrifices

Myth is a tear in the fabric of reality, and immense energies pour through these holy fissures. Our stories, our poems, are rips in this fabric as well, however slight.

What follows are memories of a variety of readings, the facts may be imprecise, but they've begun their entwinement within my brain. Alas, I failed to capture the sources and citations, but these all rattle around in my brain.

In Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth, she tells of the priests pressing for more output, such that the irrigation methods lead to salinization, which reduced crop yields, which in turn contributed to structural collapse. From that failing of the priests and future refinement of agriculture, came the emergence of a Sun god. Yahweh is a sun god and Sin a moon god.

And as these Ur cultures developed in the fertile crescent, they began expressing dominion over the earth. And Armstrong’s conjecture is that this is when cultures worshipping the Sun god(s) adopted misogyny; after all women are inextricably bound to the lunar cycle—and affiliated with Sin—and the cycle of life. Does Sin provide insight into framing Eve as the original sinner?

In another book—My faulty notes lead me to think it’s Paul Kriwaczek’s Bablyon: Mesoptamia and the Birth of Civilization— I learned that Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, had a library comprising tens of thousands of clay tablets. Ashurbanipal, by his own accounts, was a brutal ruler.

A rebellion against the Assyrians sought to erase Nineveh and Ashurbanipal from memory. They set fire to Nineveh, and succeeded, for a time, in expunging the Assyrians…except these fires baked the wet clay tablets, setting them for future discovery. Amongst these tablets of the Akkadian library was the Epic of Gilgamesh I seem to recall an early Greek or Roman author remarking about their squadron camping alongside massive ruins; themselves ancient in that time now ancient to us.

In Howard Reid and Justin Pollard’s The Rise and Fall of Alexandria : Birthplace of the Modern World, I learned a few interesting anecdotes; what follows are just a few.

Ptolemy, one of the generals of Alexander, absconded with Alexander’s body; using that body as a marker for staking claim to the Egyptian region—at the time a region producing massive amounts of rice and papyrus. Ptolemy created Alexandria and sought to create a great repository of knowledge. Ptolemy was 300 years after Ashurbanipal.

At it’s height, the authorities of Alexandria forced arriving ships to surrender any and all books. The scribes of Alexandria would copy the books and the return them (or the copy) to the ships. In this way, Alexandria systematically replicated (and consumed) knowledge of the Mediterranean world. This avarice sounds perfect for a dragon; in fact one Role Playing Game (RPG 🔍) campaign I was contemplating had a dragon, named Ashurbanipal, imposing this very concept.

I learned of a book—with a name that escapes me—that the systematically and effectively refuted the early Catholic church. And the early Catholic church responded by citing some 90% of that book in their counter-refutation. Then expunged from the world that book. Gone. Though maybe there’s hope that there exists a copy in the dark archive of Papal Rome.

I also learned that the first sacking of Alexandria came at the hands of Christians. I don’t recall that the sacking of Alexandria was tied to the expungement of that singular book, but instead in part because Alexandria housed different ways of thinking, different myths, and stories that came from the same lands from which Christianity heralded. Christianity was the first religion that required proselytization, that is to go out and tell people the good news.

But it’s the Muslim’s sacking of Alexandria that we’re told destroyed the great library. That, and some earthquakes finally devastated the wondrous Lighthouse of Alexandria, itself mortared with lead. The Muslim sacking happened several hundred years after Christian’s took a first crack at the knowledge piñata that was the library of Alexandria.

And then I think to Norse Mythology. The happenstance of a scholar—in 16th or 17th century Copenhagen, if memory serves, but I’m struggling to remember the citation—stumbling upon some documents written in old Norwegian, that were Icelandic writings of centuries past. The scholar went to Iceland and found that the now resource impoverished Icelanders had begun re-purposing their vellum books for things like shoes.

Here he found the Norse tales, and they are—again if memory serves—much of what we have regarding Odin, Loki, Thor, Freya, et al. But, within these tales Christian themes permeate. Snorri Sturluson wrote much of what we have, and he himself was part of Christendom. Christianity as it pressed northward and the Norwegian kings adopted the administrative advantages of Christianity, those myths began to change. Ragnarok was no longer worlds end, but more of a Book of Revelations death and rebirth. I recommend reading A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. The narrator, during the World War 2 aerial blitz on England, receives a copy of old Norse tales. It reads as part memoir and part telling of the Norse Myths. A personal favorite.

How many other myths have we lost through neglect, genocide, or assimilation? What are we losing in our ongoing genocides and assimilation?

, I finished reading Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene 🔍, a meditation on death and the fragile conditions by which humanity arrived. Also a bit of low-key militarized propaganda.

As our hive mind idiocy continues actions that make the planet uninhabitable for humans (and many others), and as we fumble finding the levers of direct action to halt this idiocy, I found the following a comforting and useful benediction:

If being human is to mean anything at all in the Anthropocene, if we are going to refuse to let ourselves sink into the futility of life without memory, and we must not lose our few thousand years of hard won knowledge, accumulated at great cost and against great odds. We must not abandon the memory of the dead.
, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (p 109)

The world I know is collapsing, as are the illusions. And while Scranton’s benediction perhaps implicitly orients towards dead white guys, I see it as more. I’m aware that there are a plethora of memories this world holds or has forgotten but still knows in it’s bones.

We’re sacking our own library of Alexandria; digital rot plagues our unseen web of knowledge. We transitioned from the ephemeral spoken word, carefully stewarded for eons, into a written analogue world. But now we drift into the invisible digital world, itself analogue to the spoken word, but with no cultural impetuous to remember and steward those efforts.

And we’re sacking other libraries, the repositories of knowledge and wisdom that diverse ecosystems and habitats can tell us. The stories told by diverse voices and cultures, under attack for being different from the homogeneity that capitalism demands.

Monocultures invariably collapse. We’re seeing different stages of those collapses. Truth will shine through regardless of our denial.