September 2019

Nisaba and the Five Pillars of Wisdom


Hi there. I’m sure you know this situation: You ask someone a small favor and they jump into your face ranting that they are feeling exhausted, abused and taken advantage of, and no one ever pays attention to their needs and no, they would not do you the favor you asked for. Sounds familiar?

You probably ask yourself what this situation has to do with wisdom. That was my thought exactly, when I stumbled across the goddess Nisaba, the goddess of wisdom. My first association with wisdom were infinite knowledge, the intelligence to grasp facts quickly and draw the right conclusions based on knowledge and experience. But then thinking further and reading more about the goddess of wisdom I found that what I perceived a wisdom was a very narrow approach indeed.

As the goddess of wisdom Nisaba would never focus on her own needs so exclusively that she’d fail to see the situation her counterpart is in. She’s able to feel the tension but also the joy and initiative of the person in front of her and would approach her in the right manner. In the case above this is clearly not by taking the favor you want to ask lightly.

Another story of Nisaba tells us how she is still trying to help man by sending her prophecies down to earth. This means she translates the varying moods and tempers of the gods into solid advice as she knows that we are still connected with them through an ancient bond. Enki, however, forbade the gods to have any further contact with humanity, as he wanted to see how mankind would develop without any further interference. Here we see a classic conflict of interests between the two gods. How does Nisaba react? She feels responsibility for the creatures she had taught and advised for so long. So she ignores Enki’s order and finds a way to send her messages to earth. Yet she does not directly contact man or explain her prophesies, in all those aspects of her actions she fully respects Enki’s wishes. What we can learn from this, is that knowledge is not enough, if you don’t have values and live by them when you use your knowledge.

Throughout history Nisaba’s rank among the gods grew continuously, as people learned to appreciate the importance of writing for the development of mankind. Writing enables people to structure their knowledge, to write it down and put it aside, but to also have access to it whenever they want or need it. This aspect massively increased the complexity of facts a human could grasp. He could gather new knowledge and relate it to what he remembered and make sure he remembered correctly by consulting his written evidence. Without the invention of writing we’d have to rely on our memory or the memory of others which may be blurred for hundreds of reasons.

I think all of us associate knowledge and intelligence as obvious prerequisites for wisdom. But are they? Just think of Forrest Gump, who certainly lacks intelligence and whose knowledge is pretty much restricted to his mother’s advice. And yet the combination of his values and the empathy he is capable of makes him a wise man. On the other hand, think of Jurassic Park. Those scientists are extremely intelligent, they even worked out how to clone dinosaurs. But they got giddy with their knowledge and lacked the humility to renounce proving their insights for the greater good.

So there you have it, Nisaba’s five pillars of wisdom:

  1. Empathy
  2. Humility
  3. Know your values and live by them
  4. Intelligence
  5. Have a grasp of the complexity of things

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