I was playing Scrabble the other night with my wife. I never have been comfortable with a game wherein she can score a tidy sum by adding an “S” to an existing word or by the strategic placement of the word “zit”, while I could make a word like, “ytterbium” and score far less. Against all logic, one cannot resort to Polish when in possession of too many consonants, nor can one make words in Hawaiian when holding a fistful of vowels. Because of the rules, you understand.
Three months out of Egypt, Moses brought his people the ten commandments. Hammurabi gave two hundred and eighty-two laws to his subjects at an earlier date. Before that was the code of Ur-Nammu. This was put in cuneiform during the “Sumerian Renaissance” over four thousand years ago. It had a mere fifty-seven rules. Urukagina was codifying reforms to existing rules in Lagash at an even earlier date. He took strong measures against usury, hunger, theft and murder. He had just taken over from another fellow, the son of a high priest, who was none too popular.
After the dust settled, polyandry was made illegal and widows and orphans were exempted from taxes. The city even paid for the beer at funerals! Urukagina then increased the population of the harem from fifty women to fifteen hundred women and gave them lots of real estate confiscated from the former priesthood. He changed the sign over the door from “Royal Household of Women” to “House of Bau” and put the whole institution under the supervision of Shagshag, his wife.
Many of the laws dealt with the interaction between slaves and elite people. Rules. They are always for your own good and always handed down by someone with the power to crush you like a bug. Mostly, the givers of rules claim to be messengers of a deity. Thus was born the phrase in Akkadian, “What can you do?” Or that Babylonian chestnut, “Who knew?” In the case of Ur-Nammu, perhaps the people of Lagash were asked, “Where can you get that?”
Rules have been written by the finger of God on stone then destroyed and rewritten. They have been dictated by the messengers of deities and written down later from memory. They have also been written down by helpers while the receiver is channeling. Over time, there accumulated many sets of rules and laws. Too many to ever count. Written by ordinary mortal men and forced upon other ordinary mortal men, who needed to be reminded of that fact. Priests, kings and barons all demanded fair play. Those who grew the food, hauled the water and chopped the wood heard the usual three phrases.
The rules may be called a code, a codex, a charter, a manifesto, the commandments, the proclamations, the regulations, the statutes or the law. They may be inscribed on clay tablets, etched on metal plates, chiseled in stone, written on sheepskin or on paper. Between authoring, administering, enforcing, codifying, reforming, interpreting, announcing and amending the rules, administrations become unusually large and need more peons. If these become unhappy they can be tricked into accepting a worse set of rules by paid actors sent among them.
All games have rules. We are to understand that it is the very constraints on us that call forth our creative spirits in order to triumph. The argument is that the limits placed upon actions call for greater ingenuity and give rise to more beautiful works. When we look back over time and see the actions of individuals who had no restraints placed upon them, we must tend to agree. This begs the question of why it is that the rules are made by such individuals and imposed on the rest of us?
When I was a child, I abandoned basketball within moments of learning the ridiculous rules. I later stood in Tikal, Guatemala in the Mayan Ball Court. There were stone rings set vertically on stonewalls. A hard rubber ball was to be sent through these goals. Rules governed which parts of the body a player could use to this end. A plaque said that the rules dictated that the entire losing team was then executed. Hard rules, which I am convinced the players had no say in amending at the pregame meeting. They were however, given a calendar with which to keep track of the ball season. Most likely swapping jerseys was frowned upon. What can you do?
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.