The study of the cultures of Nin before this critical era belongs properly to archaeology and not to history. The much inflated "Pre-Mercian controversy" is alive and well in the corridors of academe, though it is not apparent to me what all the fuss is about. The ways of barbarians are charming and colorful, that much is granted, even as circus acts are colorful; yet in the long run, what do they have to teach us? I share the opinion of many historians that the chronicles of Nin really begin with the discovery of medical means for extending the human lifespan to 400 or more years, an event which occurred nowhere else on this planet, about 2000 years ago. ( For a dissenting opinion, consult the "Journal of Antiquity" vol. IV , pgs. 18-25 )
This prolongation of life was not measured in years only: unimpaired youthfulness as well persisted for more than a century. After that, with a swiftness that is known to have been quite terrifying to those who experienced it, old age set in. Protracted over centuries it found no relief save in death, which was all the more intensely feared to the degree that it had been so long in coming.
The alleged discoverer of this elixir was a doctor by the name of Mercius. The evidence suggests that he was only the director of a medical research institute, staffed by a dozen co-workers and their students. Much in the same way that it is done today, Mercius put his name at the head of all research communications emanating from his institute. There are coins cast 1,600 years ago which portray a Mercius as a very dignified doctor, surrounded by his five assistants, lifting a vial of the fabled BpNA@2Stiz, ( Banamas'tia ) the magical potion , in his right hand.
Biographical memoirs from this period , riddled though they may be with contradictions both historical and internal, concur in many essentials. Clearly Mercius was a brilliant scientist. Were he not credited with the invention of the elixir his fame would still be assured. The entire modern pharmacopoeia traces its direct descent from the researches of his institute. Antiseptic surgery, the use of opiates and other anaesthetics, advanced diagnostic procedures, and the high-minded Mercian code of medical ethics, acknowledged the world over, are all attributed to him - along with, it must be admitted, the invention of the algorithms of arithmetic, the art of weaving, the discovery of Jupiter and Mars, and much else besides! Mythology greatly simplifies the complexity of history. For all, that is, save the historian.
A man of simple ways, dedicated to medical science and utterly without guile , Mercius inevitably fell victim to politics. The outer limits of its effectiveness being as of yet unknown, ( it is now known that no use of it can enhance survival beyond half a millennium ) , Mercius and his colleagues committed the arrogant and incredibly naive blunder of strolling through the marketplaces of Bellek claiming that they would all live to be a thousand. Such claims inspired ridicule among both ignorant and thoughtful alike. The employment of the elixir did not however preclude death from natural causes, and within the decade two of its promoters had perished, one in a fire, the other from the plague.
It did however come to the attention of certain people that all the others were living well into their prime, passing their first century without any of the normal signs of physical deterioration. As confirmation of the merits of their research this was of course gratifying to them. It was the ideal moment for them to seize the opportunity to exploit their invention for gain; yet it passed them by . Either they were genuinely uninterested in wealth and power, or merely too inept in the ways of the world to realize that the moment for action was irrevocably lost .
With, as is so often the case, one exception: the devious and treacherous doctor, Volmonus. He is alleged to have been the equal of Mercius, yet without his integrity, rotten with greed and corruption down to the very marrow. With patient persistence Volmonus was able to convince an influential group among the nobility surrounding the throne, as well as some among the mercantile upper class, that the claims advanced for their invention were indisputable. He further insinuated that it would be a simple matter to exploit the inexhaustible credulousness of the masses by inculcating the belief that the longevity guaranteed by the banamas'tia were actually evidence for a God-like immortality.
It is not known by what subtle means Volmonus sent Mercius to the next world; the reputation of the doctors of Nin as poisoners was unrivaled throughout the world. His body was hacked to bits and fed to the crocodiles in Lake Pactotis to the north of the capital city of Bellek. Domon, the only other survivor of the original group of five, a weak though not a malevolent man, was induced to throw in his lot with the conspirators. Chief among these were, in addition to himself and Volmonus, Sykira the dowager sister of the king, the dukes of Ūri'qa ( Erichthea ) and VxdarZc', ( Vyzdarch ) and the royal treasurer, Malnuck .
The regicide that followed was planned with the utmost meticulousness. More than a decade passed before taking action; with the promise of so many years extension of their existence, they were not in a hurry. During the interlude a power base was assembled. Among it were aristocrats, rich merchants, priests, doctors and other notables. Domon and Volmonus embalmed the corpse of the poisoned king with a skill that astonishes one even today: for two years it lay undetected within the palace walls , not decomposing as much as an atom.
When the time was ripe an assembly of elderly men and women was gathered up and brought to a public ceremony. There they were made to swear on piles of holy scriptures and reliquaries, that neither they nor their fathers and mothers had witnessed the birth of Volmonus and Domon, neither had their grandparents, and that even their great-grandfathers had known them. Not all of these testimonials were fabricated, given that the two doctors were already older than the oldest of them. All the same, one can be certain that a lot of money changed hands at the time.
Two years, almost to the day, after the assassination of the king a proclamation was promulgated from the royal palace. It explained that the king had not died, at least not in the ordinary sense of the word. The casting off of his body had been followed by transfiguration into a divine being. For his first act as a living god, the king had bestowed the blessings of immortality on a select group of blood relatives, giving them at the same time the authority to dispense or withhold that gift from others. The ensuing purge, immersing the entire nation in chaos, was accompanied by a genocidal violence such as had never been seen before in the history of the kingdom. It is estimated that 40% of the entire population of Nin perished. The nobility was decimated in roughly equal proportions to the citizenry; those who survived were permitted to share in the new dispensation, although remaining under suspicion for as long as they lived.
The long civil war, ( it lasted for about thirty years) , ended in a total victory for the new ruling class. Their ascendancy was the first stage in the systematic destruction of all those basic rights and protections which the people of Nin had come to take for granted during centuries of rule by a succession of blessed and benevolent monarchs.
From its very beginnings the priesthood was co-extensive with the medical profession. It was they who were in possession of the scientific knowledge needed for the production of the life-prolonging banamas'tia . They were the ones who manufactured it for the exclusive use of the nobility. It may appear strange to us that this was possible, although we have witnessed abundant manifestations in our own time, of brutal dictatorships built on a foundation of scientific and technological expertise. It is a sad truth, apparent throughout all of human history, that the intelligentsia, for all their protestations, have neither the ability nor the sustained interest to assume the tasks of government and administration. This indeed makes them ever a contributing party to their own enslavement.
When one endeavors to understand how it was that the priesthood could be responsible for the manufacture of a medicine that kept their overseers alive for half a millennium, while they themselves rarely lived beyond 80, one comes away with a number of seemingly plausible explanations, none of them satisfactory alone yet which, in combination, appear just sufficient to dispel the aura of mystery surrounding this counter-intuitive phenomenon.
The most formidable obstacle to any contemplated takeover of the government by the priesthood appears to have been that they could in nowise budge the masses from their obstinate belief in the divinity of their overlords. No coup-d'tat could hope to succeed without the cooperation of the army, which drew its recruits from the masses and could not afford to ignore the voice of popular opinion. And that they never had. What was most peculiar about this situation was the fact that the indoctrination of the people had been the first and most lasting accomplishment of the priesthood itself! Having so quickly and so thoroughly attained to absolute power over the minds of their subjects, they discovered all too late that they had become the victims of their own connivance.
Another important factor was this: for a great many persons in the priesthood, 80 years of a productive life, surrounding by comfort, wealth and esteem, was actually preferable to 400 years of spiritual suffering and physical misery. They may well have hated and, whenever possible, exploited the members of the aristocracy: they pitied them more. One observes frequently that those who have had the opportunity of seeing the rich and powerful close at hand , may not want to change places with them. These factors, in combination with the legal barriers erected by the state against any political ascendancy by the priesthood, may explain their impotence in wresting control from the aristocracy. One should also not forget that their numbers were always relatively small in comparison with the other classes.
The priesthood never numbered more than 15% of the total population of Nin, yet its functions were manifold. Priests officiated at all ceremonies connected with births, marriages and deaths , at feast days and holidays, and at the performance of ritual worship and services. They charged themselves with pastoral care and religious instruction. Some had police powers to enforce church attendance and the payment of tithes, and were constantly engaged in rooting out heresy.
Science and letters were entirely in their hands. Under their ministrations the medical arts reached a pinnacle of excellence which, to this day, has not been surpassed. Medicine in particular was developed to a degree that modern science has not been able to equal. Most of their fabled wealth came from their skill as doctors. They found further employment as poisoners in the merry-go-rounds of palace intrigue. They are reputed to have been able to induce madness, blindness, paralysis, and sudden or lingering death. They had perfected drugs to promote childbirth or cause abortion, provoke hallucinations, force out confessions , create the cruelest suffering without causing bodily injury, and induce comas lasting hours, days or even months.
As preachers to the common people, they were responsible for inculcating the dogmas on which the security of the state was based. The populace clung as fanatically to these beliefs as ever all men have in similar conditions of abjection. Primary among these was the assertion that all of the members of the aristocracy were immortal gods. The priests taught that rebellion against their overlords was useless, retaliation swift and horrible. They were led to understand that a life of meekness and obedience would be rewarded by an eternity of bliss in the heaven which they named Vanarosa.
Owing to the bottomless pit of ignorance in which the masses were steeped, the priests easily invented ways to confound them with miracles. They predicted solar and lunar eclipses, and claimed to have caused them. They made fire spring forth spontaneously from the heads of sticks of wood, turned water any color merely by breathing on it, interpreted dreams and foretold the future, induced trances and cataleptic states, and staged miraculous revivals of the dead.
The priests shaved their heads and were celibate. Indulgence in the life of the flesh having been denied them, they sublimated the normal animal instincts in the accumulation of property and great wealth , and in a virtually obscene gluttony. The image of a priest in popular folklore was generally that of someone both corpulent and bald, dressed up in satin robes, of sleek jowls, cynical, vain and fastidious.
For a certainty they were gourmets : they ate peacock's tongues and snakes rattles, alligators eyes and force-fed grubs, lichen-encrusted snails and rhinoceros steak . There were some excellent cooks among them, who on occasion worked as caterers for royal banquets.
How were the candidates for the priesthood chosen? The method that evolved was admirable in its simplicity and provided one of the strongest forces for social cohesion. The priests, without exception, were selected from the illegitimate male offspring of the union of a nobleman with a woman of the people . If so motivated, perhaps by some feeling of affection for its mother, the child's father might opt to deliver it into the custody of the priesthood.
We are in possession of court records describing lawsuits submitted by mothers claiming that their children were of royal blood, thereby giving them a right to enter the priesthood. We know of only a few instances when such an appeal to the law was successful. As a general rule, the fathers of these children considered themselves sufficiently benevolent for having spared them death by exposure in the mountains. Once a child was handed over to the priests , it was no longer in any danger , the priesthood being highly protective of its own kind
. The young novice was taught letters, music and science, drilled by rote memory in the thousands of pages of the sacred books, and given training in recitation, exposition and oratory. No attempt was ever made to gloss over the fact that these books were filled largely with superstition , foolishness and lies. To our best information , any candidate for the priesthood past the age of 10 who believed anything else was deemed mentally retarded and conveniently done away with.
Their indoctrination included rote memorization of a severe ethical code to be exercised in dealing with the members of their own caste, combined with ruthlessness towards all others. Hypocrisy is indeed too mild a word with which to describe the twisted psychology which enabled to priesthood to thrive for so many centuries. At the age of 16, the novice received the tonsure, took his vows of chastity and obedience and swore, upon pain of torture and death, never to reveal the secrets of the priesthood. Following another 4 years of study the Mercian medical oath was administered to him and he entered the fraternity of doctors. This entitled him to use the title of domon , or lay brother. After an internship of 2 more years he earned the volmoni , that is to say, the entitlement of a fully ordained priest.
Given that failure entailed serious consequences for the future , students for the ministry were coached and tutored from dawn into the late hours of the night. Examinations might be postponed, leaves of absence granted for good cause. A failing mark on an examination did not mean dismissal. It could be taken over and over again, up to the age of thirty, at which time it was no longer permitted to remain in scholastic limbo. Candidates who had not completed all their requirements by that age were given lay status within the church. They could function as janitors and grounds-keepers of the temples, or serve as bookkeepers, or perform other menial tasks. None were ever totally cast out, although the disgrace of failure was known to be the cause of many suicides.
A priest who was temperate in his habits, prudent and conformist, all tendencies to rebellion well in hand , could expect to live a relatively long, productive and secure life. Little exertion and no real initiative were expected from him beyond obedience to the rules of his order, a training which quickly became habitual.
As a class they were abstemious. Sexual adventures did not interest them very much. Provided they kept their personal lives private, the small number of violators of the vows of chastity were not punished. For most of them, greed and hypocrisy were gratification enough for their sensual appetites
. The priests were responsible for the production of the elixir of longevity. On certain occasions someone might get away with applying it to himself of it for a few years. However, once it was perceived by his rulers that his life had extended itself too far beyond a comfortable eight decades, he was quickly singled out and done away with. Over the centuries one does read of rebellions instigated by conspiracies of priests who imagined that a takeover could succeed through sheer boldness . In the 2000 year tyranny which has been called the Reign of the Immortals ( R.I. ) , there was not a single priestly rebellion that was not snuffed out in its initial stages. The would-be rebels forfeited their lives in the following manner: their limbs were hacked from them, one by one, and their heads crushed under the foot of an elephant.
If I may be permitted a brief philosophical digression: I am not alone in the opinion that power is never retained for very long in the hands of the intellectuals. Had there been some improbable circumstance by which the priesthood had been granted its day in the sun, the experiment would have been over almost as quickly as it began. They had all the fractiousness, addiction to individuality , and incurable impatience with the drudgery of administration that characterizes all cerebral dispositions. Most of them were far better off just as they were: 80 years of a productive life are worth more than four centuries of physical and psychological misery. I am well aware that this assertion goes contrary to received opinion, which vaunts longevity as an absolute good. In a moment there will be more to say on this topic; one may even consider it the theme of this entire memoir.