On the nature of hard zero-sum: Pre-Islamic Poetry

I’m reading a wonderful (if very learned) book on pre-Islamic poetry for my honor-shame class, and I just ran across a poem that expresses the essential nature of a hard zero-sum mentality:

Then we, no doubt, are meat for the sword and, doubtless, sometimes we feed it meat.
By a foe bent on vengeance, we are attacked, our fall his cure; or we, vengeance-bent, attack the foe.
Thus have we divided time in two, between us and our foe, till not a day goes by but we’re in one half or the other.

The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual, by Suzanne P. Stetkyevich (Cornell U. Press, 1993), p. 63.

My gain, your loss, your gain, my loss. I cannot win unless you lose; if you win, I lose. We cannot share, we can only take from each other. As Georges Duby put it, describing the mentality of the Frankish warrior aristocracy: Plunder or be plundered.

The point of the chapter: you’re not a man until you’ve killed another man, avenging those who have died avenged for having slaughtered their enemies. There may be nobility in that, but I can think of other forms of honor I respect more.

6 Responses to On the nature of hard zero-sum: Pre-Islamic Poetry

  1. Kip Watson says:

    Poetry is open to interpretation, but to me the juxtaposition of the gruesome image of meat for a sword and the rather detached philosophical image of having divided time work together quite beautifully.

    He’s sad and resigned to a futile out-of-control vendetta. He knows it’s meaningless but he’s trapped. Reminds me a little of some of the WWI poets.

  2. Mazin says:

    Thats just one example of pre-islamic poetry. Obviously in a tribalistic society, where tribal loyalties and the honour of the tribe reign supreme, its not strange that such values are celebrated or put into poetry. However, poetry in more urban and settled areas such as pre-islamic Mecca, reflect additional world views. Hell, they recited poetry on romping with beautiful boys, honouring the Gods, getting drunk, and a pretty much live and let live attitude.

  3. Mazin says:

    pre-islamic poetry is extensive and diverse and can’t be reduced to zero-sum mentality

  4. RL says:

    let me clarify. i didn’t say that islamic poetry is zero-sum, but that this poem presents the zero-sum mentality quite powerfully.
    as for the romp-with-the-sexual-partner-of-your-choice and get-drunk-and-feast-till-you-pop approach to life, that’s hardly proof of non-zero sum behavior. the whole point of the plunder-and-distribute approach to life is first you raid and plunder the other guy, then you celebrate with your own guys. i’m not sure that qualifies as “live and let live…” but i’m open to evidence to the contrary.

  5. […] rrior honor-shame. For a poetic expression from pre-Islamic Arab culture (Jahaliyya), see here. This logic is long-run, not temporary; this […]

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