An eye for an eye

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
29 February 2012
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Whether you know it best from the Bible, the Torah or Nick Cave's song The Mercy Seat, you might not know that the common phrase 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' has Mesopotamian origins.

prosthetic eye and teeth Left: Acrylic eye prosthesis made by Loyer Artificial Eyes, Burwood,Victoria, circa 1999. (HT 23234) | Right: Porcelain artificial teeth made by DeTrey's Diatorics, circa 1925. (HT 11829)
Source: Museum Victoria

It describes principle of retaliation – a harsh system of justice that permits someone suffering an injury at the hands of another to return like for like. The concept was first documented in the Code of Hammurabi, an upright stone pillar inscribed with 282 Babylonian laws by King Hammurabi (1792–1750 BC). It was uncovered in modern-day Iran in 1901 and is exhibited in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. 

Code of Hammurabi Code of Hammurabi on display in in the Musée du Louvre.
Image: Nick Olejniczak
Source: Used under CC BY-NC 2.0 from nicholasjon
 

Detail of the cuneiform on the Code of Hammurabi Detail of the cuneiform script on the Code of Hammurabi.
Image: Boris Doesburg
Source: Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 from batigolix
 

Museum Victoria is borrowing a cast of the code from the Australian Institue of Archaeology to display during The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition. The cast, purchased by the AIA in 1968, is an exact replica made in very limited edition by the Musée du Louvre.

Much of the code addresses contracts, payments, terms of transactions and marriage laws, but a handful of laws are paraphrased in the well-worn 'eye for an eye'. In the 1915 translation of the Code of Hammurabi by LW King, the contributing laws are stated explicitly:

196. If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.

200. If a man knock out a tooth of a man of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.

But it's not as simple as that. In Babylonian society, there were three distinct social classes: the freemen, the second-class citizens, and at the bottom of the heap, the slaves. If a slave suffered the injury, retribution was less about flesh and more about cash:

199. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price.

The Code's rules, penalties and payments are a fascinating (and often contradictory) glimpse into the lives and values of the Babylonians. For example, if you leased a field and your crops were lost to the storm god Adad, it was your own problem. Yet if you hired an ox to work your fields and it was eaten by a lion, the loss was borne by the ox's owner. If the ox's death was caused by a god, an oath to that effect absolved the hirer of any responsibility. (It sounds like ox-hiring was a tough gig in Babylon.)

King Hammurabi's legacy persists and many of the philosophies of his code still ring true today. It established concepts such as medical malpractice, penalties for negligence and the role of government in resolving family matters like inheritance and divorce. Another important idea enacted in the Code of Hammurabi was assumed innocence, whereby both parties in a legal dispute were required to provide evidence of their claims – even if the evidence was no more than an oath that a god killed your ox.

Links:

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition at Melbourne Museum

1915 translation of the Code of Hammurabi by LW King (PDF, 128 KB)

Code of Hammurabi in the Musée du Louvre

Comments (5)

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Jen 29 February, 2012 23:12
Where is Zuul in all this?
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Peter 1 March, 2012 08:50
Sounds like laws and contracts haven't changed much from those days. "Act of God" is still around in our courts and especially in our insurance contracts.
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J-Lo 1 March, 2012 10:18
On a related note, Prof John Keane's "Life and Death of Democracy" argues that the origins of democracy date back beyond Ancient Greece to Mesopotamia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_and_Death_of_Democracy
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Robin 2 March, 2012 14:24
Your essay nicely touches on a book i’ve just finished reading, “Debt, the first 5,000 years” by David Graeber (an anthropologist who amongst other things is often cited as a leading supporter of the Occupy Wall St movement). Graeber makes a strong case that money didn’t come into being through some barter-replacement fairy tale as told in economics textbooks, rather money and debt systems are the creation of the state (often to fund military adventures). The Code of Hammurabi is anthropological evidence for that. Makes a mockery of the lunatic right claim that state regulation is an anathema to free markets, in fact “free” markets would not exist without governments and government regulation. My wife and I went out of our way once to see the Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre. At the time i didn’t realise that it was all about debt. Very interesting that according to David Graeber many of the earliest written records of humanity are likewise. Thanks heaps for your article.
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Brandon 25 October, 2014 00:04
That's very interesting
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