The Code of Hammurabi, ca. 1771 B.C.. Photo: Louvre Museum (CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)), via Wikimedia Commons.
I am sitting in the room in my house where I’ve put the television in a big wicker cabinet so that I don’t ever have to see the television. I enjoy watching the TV, but also I think that it is an ugly object. I cringe when I see the TV loitering like a dumbass, incorrect in its placement next to my books and tender hanging plants and thoughtfully chosen textiles. But here I am, sitting in front of it. I am watching a documentary that anyone can find and watch. I have not dug deep into a subculture to find it. It was right here when I turned on the thing and clicked on the other thing.
And the world is certainly scary because suddenly everything is computer and computers and internet stuff, but there is still some good to extract from it, like this documentary I am watching.
I have Thai food that is so spicy that I start to sweat and breathe in and out like how ladies do Lamaze breathing while having a baby in a movie in the 1980s. I ordered it with the vague notion that it might be really nice to just blow my colon out once and for all. It might be nice to live life as a big empty whistling network of inner caves. But now I see that I am just bloating myself with salt and fusing my insides together with oils that I am not genetically inclined to process.
I think, If my ancient dog gets even a lick of this curry, his hair-fur will fall off of his body like when you blow on a dandelion. And then he will throw up a small trickle of yellow. And then he will die. And then I will have nobody at all including the many different men who have held this dog to whom I have said, This is amazing. He really likes you! When what I really mean is
You are holding my dog. I can’t tell if you are nice or gross yet. We’ll see.
This is what I think as my insides burn to bits, as my guts curl up into cracklins for a goblin to chomp in hell.
Every morning I call my best friend and we have coffee on separate sides of the city and we talk about how Patriarchy is killing us. She told me that this documentary was one to watch, and so here I am, watching this documentary on my TV that I basically keep in a big giant basket. The narrator is a British woman who seems borderline horny to tell me what she is about to tell me, and her documentary series is called The Ascent of Woman, which actually makes me “emotionally horny” as well.
The woman is a smarty and she is very earnest. She also wears lipstick.
This is what the British woman tells me in her documentary TV show, or at least this is what I can summarize:
Patriarchy is not something that was inevitable. It is not what a God wants or ever wanted, even though that has been said by many men. It is also not what Nature intended (and now that must be clearer than ever, because look at what Patriarchy has done to our Planet Earth). Nature does not want to be tortured and raped and murdered. Nature does not want to be wholly exploited. Patriarchy is not ever going to be for Nature’s own good. Nature belongs to Nature, first and foremost. Nature wants to give to us, but that does not mean we should take more than we need. Nature wants to engage, but not fully submit.
The British woman says: Patriarchy is not a human-biological inevitability. Patriarchy is not here because it “just makes sense” or is the product of a thoughtful rationale.
There was a time before Patriarchy.
We have a better origin story and it is not widely spoken about but it is the truth.
This lady on my TV tells me that Patriarchy was constructed and implemented, and explains that humans originally lived as a community, in a group, and everyone used the tools and everyone took care of each other’s babies, and shared their foods and prayed to gods and goddesses that were equally powerful and holy.
As the communities got larger and created more people, these people were able to accomplish more, to store food and make better shelters from the wildness out there, to live longer and have more children. And they did this for a very long time. It was natural. And it became bigger and bigger and there was especially one good spot, between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, and this was called the Fertile Crescent. It was called the “cradle of civilization” and you might have learned about it in the fourth grade and you might have become obsessed with it, like I did.
You might have overfocused on the cosmic significance of this one spot that sort of seems like it is the Earth’s Vagina. And the civilization of people, in that spot between the two rivers, broke the banks and led the water out into the land. The people led the water far out and they created irrigation. They trained water to come farther and to new places. This allowed the people to have more crops. Then there was a surplus of crops.
I did learn about this, in fourth grade, from the best teacher I have ever had, Mrs. Damp, who never shamed me and was teeny tiny and had a necklace that said her name in hieroglyphics.
I would love to have a beer, and so I do get up and get one and my mind wanders into spots where these questions are shimmying: Would Teddy Roosevelt be a feminist? Would he like me or think I am a wimp? Were the Kennedys just really gross, like, with women? Yes, they were. It’s not great, when you think about it, what they were like with all the actresses. It’s gross. Why are so many men so gross but still we say that they are heroes? And if we try to even talk about it with these men, they get incredibly upset and defensive and call us cruel or insecure, but really, you can’t have it both ways.
You can’t do the thing but then not want to ever discuss it. If you want to hide it, maybe it’s not just because “it is private” but because you know, you really do know, that it is gross.
This is what I think about as I crack a Miller High Life and vaguely decide that I should not continue to have cyclical relationships with gross men, and that I will be sort of an “aunt to the world” and begin to collect sex toys made by other feminists.
Or maybe I will meet and fall in love with an actually good man, I think, as my stomach lurches with curry-fire and my nipples are randomly hard from the amount of spice in my body.
In the room with the TV, the dog is sniffing for curry, but it is only a memory. I have removed the bowls. The TV goes right back on because I press the buttons and I’m the boss, and here’s my British gal, now wearing a headscarf while touring an archaeological dig. Her mouth has a daytime lipstick on it and she wants me to know this:
Civilizations (Sumer, Mesopotamia, et cetera) flourished in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Some people must have ended up with more than other people, because of the surplus of crops after they invented irrigation, and so then there was not only a class system but also greed, a new, toothy, fast-breathing, slick-thinking, not-sorry greed.
This woman reminds me of this sequence of events that for some reason I have always been fascinated by ever since Mrs. Damp told us about it—that there was a surplus and the world changed.
Where there should have simply been an equal distribution of goods and general dedication toward community satisfaction and safety, instead greed came in and took a hold of a few key players. And these key players who were cold enough to look past questions of whether or not what they were doing was humane were Men.
“Men with penises and ball sacks,” I think, while looking down to see that I have somehow splattered my pajamas with curry and have only noticed it right now.
Men did it. And they saw the Women having babies out of their bodies. And they saw the babies growing up into what could be a workforce, and they decided to take a crucial and revolting step, which was to make Women and children into property, and to condemn their own spirits and identities to be mostly defined by what happens to their property.
I start to understand that before the “greed event,” lots of bad things had already occurred, killings and rapes and theft and abominations of all kinds, but these bad things were never harnessed into a system. And then, says this British woman, they were. It was made into a system. Somebody did it. He is not a mystery person—his name was Hammurabi and he was a real man and he did it. He said that he did it. It wasn’t an admission; it was a declaration. He was proud.
My colon is now apparently filled with lava?
What this man created is this: the Code of Hammurabi. It was etched onto an obsidian phallus. It is physically scratched into a big hard ancient dick. And to be fair (although why must I, after all of this, be fair?!), the Code of Hammurabi has many different laws etched into its dark knob. Some are laws that are meant to keep the peace, but they are all spoken in a deeply misogynist voice, and so, in my opinion, they are unjust and they are void.
The Code of Hammurabi is one of the first examples of legalized patriarchy, and it instilled these violent and demented ideals: A woman is the property of a man. A woman does not deserve to have as much as a man and she should not ever have as much as a man ever again.
It says that in order for the men to thrive, women must be kept in line and controlled. It says, This starts now. It says women are worth something great to us, and because of that we must say that they are less than us, and we must never let them know what it is about them that we are trying to take for ourselves. It says, Women can’t. They must not. It says, Women are property. Men decide what women can do with their bodies. Men own women. We are all separate and must stay divided. Women are beneath, less than, but also, watch out for them, really do watch out! But act like you are not “watching out” or scared—act like a good guy who is protecting the holy object.
It says, Act like you are innocent. It suggests, Tell them they are crazy.
It seems that I can’t finish the second beer. Suddenly I am exhausted, angry, and near faint. I am thinking of ancient men and ancient stones and granaries and bird-gods.
After I walk the geriatric dog, who is my old friend, and after I wash my dear little face, I get into my bed, which could fit four of me. I lie in the bed and scratch my legs with my feet and feel morose and incredibly young. I get ready to sleep fitfully.
I think about the Tigris and Euphrates and what they whisper to each other now when they meet, constantly, at their problematic delta. “Holy fucking shit, man,” says the Tigris. “This is not our fault,” says the Euphrates, reading the other river’s mind.
It seems to me, as I lie here with my dog, who may very well have been born in Mesopotamia because he is so very old, that once you make it permissible to look away, that is when you irrigate your spiritual landscape with something foul.
The Code of Hammurabi is the first evidence of legalized patriarchy. Does that send a shiver through your bones? Does that make you feel like we are currently ruled by fucking mummies who hate our mommies? Because that is what it is.
Does it not seem unnatural that the basis of the interactions between genders in our species is something that was created by a psycho who took too much from an already generous river, thousands of years ago? Does it make you sick to know that the same men benefiting from this code are also the duds who are adjusting their popped collars, fixing their necklaces, wearing a ton of deodorant, and confidently saying, Okay, babe, but … to play the devil’s advocate … like … think about hunter-gatherer stuff. Like, isn’t it just the way that nature works?
Nature does not work that way. Nature does not give a shit about low thinking like that. Nature invited us to be more than apes, more than cave people. Nature pushed us to change. Instinct is real but so are the facts that we lived communally and that human remains have been found buried with tools, both genders buried with tools, buried with babies from the other humans who dwelled next door. We lived in groups, we acted in a friendly way toward each other. We partied together. That is what we were inclined to do.
Me, too, even though I currently live alone and do not want to really use tools and I don’t know how to change a diaper and I’m afraid of that thing that happens when sometimes a baby poops and the poop goes all the way up their little back like a bad backward shit-dickey.
The Code of Hammurabi’s Penis was put in the Louvre, where Mona Lisa is about to fully smile and most likely totally crack up any day now. Because this code thrust Patriarchy into that ancient world, it influenced the creation of every other piece of art in that museum. Every piece of art that was created after the Code was somehow affected, and also all our clothes and food and politics and religion and marketplace and how we have sex and who we do it with and how we talk to each other and what colors we think we are allowed to connect to and wear and use in our work and put on our signs and see in our minds.
I don’t care if it is ancient or has some good points. I don’t care anymore about tradition that represents many things but certainly the oppression of more than half of humanity.
Call me a vandal but I am lying in my bed and I say, I think maybe we should throw it in the trash. Can something that is important enough to be in a museum go right to the trash now?
Of course, I am just a woman lying in the dark, listening to my stomach squeal and counting the seconds before my midnight curry diarrhea extravaganza, but should we just throw this ancient statue of a choad into a French dumpster?
Or sure, sure. Okay. The trash doesn’t feel exactly right, so, okay.
What about: Keep it in the museum but say what it really is and what it has done, and make the museum visitors scream NOOOOOO at it, so that people on other floors of the museum are drawn to the spot of the shouting. People from Indiana and India and Iran—on vacation in France—say, What’s that exhibit where you get to scream at something?
They look at their museum maps but they can’t find any information. So they just do what animals do and they follow the sound. They form a crowd around a glass case that holds a random old stone boner and they find themselves screaming NOOOOOO as well. It is refreshing and out of the ordinary to do this, and they like it because it feels good to make big noises as a group.
And the sound waves are so forceful that they wash away the etching of the old, evil laws.
And then when the etching is erased, let the sound waves of that universal NO bounce off that dusty dick-statue and into the bodies of the people screaming NOOOOOO. Let the sound waves wash the inside of the people, too, washing out the misogyny, washing out the ingrained laws that cause all of us, of any gender identity, to have anxiety and rage and sadness because of where we have been sent and kept. Blast away the deep ridges inside that create a feeling of unnameable dirtiness and shame.
Let it wash the obsidian phallus until it feels naked without its code and it just shrinks down, puffs into black dust. Then, place what is left into a little vial. Put that vial in a boring part of the museum. And the label on the vial should read, “These are the crumbs of the code that choked humans for thousands of years. This used to live in our minds and hearts. Now it is here and it is nothing but dust. If I were you, I would check out the Mona Lisa, which is surprisingly small for such a famous painting, but still thrilling. Take in her mystery! What is she thinking?”
Focus on this old painting of this woman who doesn’t care about serving you, who keeps her story to herself because you are not her boss and she is smiling first and foremost for herself and she’ll grin when she fucking feels like it.
I finish the documentary eventually. I learn about ancient female warriors and poets, and quite a bit of new information about foot binding in China, and about Saint Hildegard of Bingen, who was a mystic and a genius and who also really turns me on, intellectually speaking.
But the Code of Hammurabi really sticks with me. When I encounter a proud misogynist or an unconscious one, or I see misogyny flare up in myself, I imagine this Code sitting in the museum, or sitting on a block, being created far back in the past, and I say to myself that this can all go another way.
I lie in my bed and I say, There was a start and so there can be an end.
Jenny Slate is an actress and stand-up comedian and the New York Times best-selling author of the children’s book Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. She has been in many movies and TV shows and also plays many cartoon animals. Slate is a graduate of Columbia University and has a young heart and an antique soul. She lives in a hundred-year-old house in the bizarre and fun city of Los Angeles, where nobody ever gets old at all.
Excerpted from the book Little Weirds, by Jenny Slate. Copyright © 2019 by Jenny Slate. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.
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