Humbaba’s Axiomata

Humbaba’s Axiomata

The master of the universe
That is the title they gave
That’s what they say
when they pray, but
They’ve got it all wrong
It isn’t the master at all
It’s the mystery
Of the universe which
Demands your fear, and care,
And respect,
Attention, said Humbaba
Guard of the Great Cedar Forest
Hacked to death by Gilgamesh
And Enkidu, with the aid of Utu/Shamash
This is your civilization, he says,
Your myth, your law,
For Utu also gave the law to Hammurabi
The Code, from codex, from caudex
A tree trunk, in your sacred Latin —
But there are two trees, two tablets,
That of Hammurabi
And Sophocles’ Antigone’s
Unwritten code
The unwritten law and the written
Order and the just
The two trees, they also symbolize these
Tree of life, living, flowing — Physis
And Nomos, the law of tradition,
Order, authority, force
The positive, written law, from nemein:
To seize, to take, and allot, and exploit

Taking, extracting, depriving
The common, the community
Is what makes private property
Concentrating value, valere,
Taking the health out and leaving the sick
The Great Cedar Forest
The Great Bull of Marduk
The bull of the market
Bulldozers of progress
Leave wreckage, and profit
The latter for only a few
None for you

From nemein comes the nomeus,
The shepherd
Who raises the flocks and docks
Their tails and devours their organs
And chomps their chops
The shepherd who rules
By the unrestrained rod
Snapped from the Tree of Dogma, yet
The Tree of Life, Physis,
Produces the physician
Who attends
Provides care, brings health
Health known as Yos in Vedic
The root of the Latin word ius
Which means justice

Two trees, two laws,
Order and justice
Shepherd and Physician
And what did Saint Augustine say,
Your bishop,
Your Saint, by the way, not mine,
Says Humbaba
What did he call
The “Invisible doctor”

Two trees, two laws
One true, one false
One just, one unjust
Of interest, perhaps,
Is the fact that your Jesus —
Your Jesus, not mine —
Is dressed in both costumes
Isn’t that right?

Jesus the healer, restorer of sight
Provider of ease, and food, and wine,
Conditions of health
Material justice, care, the serpent
The symbol of healers
His symbol as well
The Ophites — and yet,
he’s not the true healer.
Because he’s half shepherd
He isn’t quite kosher —
Asclepius, however,
We’ll get to him later

The tree of knowledge is power,
says Bacon, to torture, he says
Let’s fashion some rods
From its branches, for weapons
But what does the mystery tell us instead?

The mystery, the mystery’s
A negative theology
We only can know it
As that which is unknown,
As doubt
Which compels us to move with care

No, we can’t access
the true divine word
But we can dismiss what is truly absurd
From further contemplation

Which do you value
The Great Cedar Forest alive?
The conditions of health?
Healthy air?
Or the great cedars dead
Value as power?
Or value, valere, as justice as care?


Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber