In the courts of the Assyrian kings, men of outstanding character, ability and wisdom were prized and honored. Dian-Nisi, whose name meant “Judge of Men,” was such a man on all counts. His name was given with definite hubris. It was one of the titles of the Assyrian deity Shamas the “Great Judge of All Heaven and Earth.”
I shall tell you a story of Dian-Nisi’s wisdom, foresight and cunning, but first, I must tell you a little about knots.
Over a millennium before chess was invented in India about the 6th century AD, the Assyrians challenged each other to the tying and untying of knots. The Bible records that Daniel, one of the children of Israel taken captive to Assyria, had a reputation for his ability to give interpretations, solve riddles and untie knots.
The ability to untie knots demonstrates the virtues of wisdom, insight and patience. It reflects the persistence and thinking ability needed to analyze and solve all manner of difficult problems. A wise teacher can be regarded as someone able to dissolve doubts. A king’s counselor must be able to undo or thwart the plans of others. Such a judge could be trusted with the authority to “unbind that which was bound” by interpreting, modifying or invalidating contracts.
Judges have often been allowed to officiate at marriage ceremonies, where a man and women pledge to be “bound together” in the “contract of marriage.” In some ceremonies, the wrists of the bride and groom are physically tied together with a knot. Sometimes a sash is draped over their wrists to symbolize that knot. Judges have also often been given the authority to grant a divorce.
In the Jewish religious tradition, scriptures are written on strips of parchment which are placed in small leather boxes (phylacteries) and tied with knots to the forehead and the back of the right hand. This is an effective public declaration of piety or “being bound to the word of God.”
Loosening a knot may not always require skill or other virtues. There is an old story that a peasant named Gordius tied a knot that could not be untied. An oracle prophesied that whoever could undo the knot would become ruler of Asia. The story ends with Alexander the Great cutting the knot with his sword. Alexander and his generals ended up conquering and ruling large swaths of Asia and the Mediterranean basin.
Now, back to our story…
Dian-Nisi understood that, in untying knots, as in all matters of life, cheating can confer dramatic advantage in the short term, but it is the honorable conduct of life, politics and diplomacy that yields enduring power. Dian-Nisi was determined to be inventive and skillful, but not stoop to cheating. He would not put his public reputation or his personal self-respect at risk.
Dian-Nisi had a notable rival, Shimshai, in the court of his King. Shimshai, whose name meant “sunny” was a dour, dark and jealous man, prone to pride, scheming, lying, and back-biting. Shimshai was no fool, but his heart did not guide him to the service of any others than himself. Dian-Nisi consistently found himself giving counsel that directly opposed that given by Shimshai.
Their rivalry was no secret in the Assyrian King’s court. They had come to the point of constantly fighting like two rams. In fact the young men in training for governorships had begun to wager on which, Dian-Nisi or Shimshai, would lose favor with the king and be stripped of privilege, if not his very life. Worse than that, they were beginning to align themselves with one or the other of their King’s Viceroys.