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.
Dian-Nisi was no fool. He realized that the young potential governors, by splitting their loyalties between himself and his rival were not only being divisive, but serving to diminish the honor that was due exclusively to their King. Dian-Nisi observed that Shimshai cultivated these divisions and rewarded loyalty given to himself. Shimshai, by too-obviously and too-clumsily acquiring allegiance and power for himself, was becoming a threat to the King and a target for sanction.
Likewise, the King was no fool. He did not discuss or intervene overtly in this rivalry, but listened to both men; taking the advice of sometimes one and sometimes the other; balancing the power and authority that he delegated to them. Dian-Nisi wondered if his King took satisfaction from the fight, like setting two mastiffs against each other for sport. It was a dangerous game, but likely, not without purpose.
Dian-Nisi realized that this situation was unsustainable. He and Shimshai both served as Seconds in the kingdom. Both held and exercised limited but real authority to command in the name of the King. Also, both stood to be the preeminent power behind the throne of their King’s heir. Or, perhaps, one of them could actually become King if that heir was found to be unsuitable or dead.
No, Dian-Nisi decided, there could not continue to be two prime viceroys. A cart pulled in opposite directions by two oxen must break apart. Their rivalry must inevitably rupture like boils on the face of the Kingdom. And, the sooner Shimshai, that puss-filled cankerous corruption, was excised, the better.
Dian-Nisi’s wife waited for him at the small palace that was their home. Dian-Nisi had been bound to her by their respective parents when he was a young man and she had been but a small girl-child. Dian-Nisi had eventually “tied the knot,” a little later than age and circumstances actually permitted. Her name was Tihamtu, which means “chaos.”
Tihamtu was beautiful and vain. She adorned herself with jewels and bright silks — strutting and fanning like a peacock — presuming to usurp the primacy of her husbandly lord and master. She was tyrannical to the household staff, proprietary about the appointment of her mansion and even imperious and querulous with Dian-Nisi himself. Perhaps she aspired to become Queen — if not soon, than sooner.
Tihamtu was a shrew. She had begun nagging Dian-Nisi for control of the household accounts. She also reminded him that it was unbecoming for a man of his stature to not be attended by a personal manservant. She insisted that his favorite carpet, the one he preferred to sit on while he smoked and meditated, be replaced and burned. In fact, Tihamtu also objected to his using his pipe in the house and insisted that he only smoke it on the roof. And so, as soon as his evening meal and her audience with him concluded, he took his leave… and his carpet.
Dian-Nisi sat on his roof this night, smoking his favorite pipe on his favorite carpet in his favorite corner. He contemplated the stars above and their omens. He contemplated the neighbors below and their petty squabbles. He contemplated the burdens of his King, the machinations of his rival and the grievousness of his wife.
No, Dian-Nisi decided, he could not continue to be opposed in his own home. That, too, was unsustainable. He reflected, with guarded amusement, that his marriage to Tihamtu was like a knot. But, it would not be honorable to cut this knot, as with a knife. It would be necessary to untie it properly, with understanding, finesse and patience.
And, having made his decision, Dian-Nisi called for a scribe and dictated that (1) Tihamtu be given responsibility for the household accounts, (2) an excavation be made under a tile in her chamber to safely conceal the funds at her disposal, (3) a new carpet be commissioned for the guest hall and (4) personal manservants be vetted and brought for him to interview until such time as he approved and appointed one.
At about this point, waxing philosophical about the nature of knotty problems, Dian-Nisi had the profound realization that untying was only the tail of the beast. It was the tying that empowered the jaws to bite and the teeth to hold. He began setting aside time to think about new kinds of knots.
In the King’s court, an important issue came to a head. It involved several core differences in the way the King’s empire was to be administered. It was the day after a full moon and considered a propitious time to address major issues.
Shimshai told his King that all Territorial Administrators and Magistrates must bow down to their God Marduk or suffer death. Dian-Nisi advised his King that these functionaries need only be required to perform with loyalty to their King and that, should they find favor in the eyes of the foreign gods of their youth, this could only improve the quality of their service.
Shimshai told his King that, in the future, all the able-bodied males of newly-conquered territories should be castrated and consigned as slaves. Dian-Nisi advised his King that deprived of their men, conquered women would certainly fill the hearts of their children with hatred for the King, which would slowly undermine the Kingdom. And so it went.
The King retired to his chambers immediately after that confrontation with no comment—except to command that both men withdraw from his face, and each other, until the morning after the next full moon when they were to attend him in a private audience.
Very little changed for Dian-Nisi during that month. He still served at the palace, as before, except not before the King himself. Dian-Nisi spent a large part of his time instructing his young men in the higher arts of discrimination, judgment, political strategy, and ethics. He did not speak to Shimshai or to the young men that attended Shimshai. Likewise, Shimshai absented himself from the inner court and spent his time conspiring with his acolytes.
Dian-Nisi came home regularly each night. He still took supper and, when the weather permitted, he retired to his roof to smoke, meditate and practice a new kind of knot. He changed his mind about waiting for a commissioned carpet and directed that Tihamtu select an already-completed one such as she might desire.
He also delegated to his wife the selection of his new manservant. She chose a younger man who radiated the strength and confidence of virility. The household whispered their suspicions, but Dian-Nisi approved her choice without hesitation. In fact, Dian-Nisi confided to his wife that he had been indulging her concern for the appearance of his status but that he really had little use for the fellow’s personal service. She should therefore consider putting him to tasks within the household as she saw fit.
The critical day after the next full moon arrived. Dian-Nisi and Shimshai waited together silently in one of the King’s antechambers. Shimshai eyed Dian-Nisi with hostility but was rewarded with only closed eyes and a comfortable smile in return. At last, they were summoned to attend their King together.
The King advised them both that their contrary opinions were a tribulation and affliction to him. He commanded that first Shimshai and then Dian-Nisi advise him on how their differences might best be resolved.
Shimshai spoke from his heart. “This inadequate man, Dian-Nishi, is worthless to you. He is weak and so is his advice. His commitment to our God Marduk is incomplete and impure. He coddles our enemies and hesitates to act in strength. He promotes a promiscuous drain on our treasury by encouraging the poor to become dependent on your open hand. You must annihilate this traitor, his family and the young men who have gathered to him. You must purge them from your face, your Kingdom, and this earth.”
Dian-Nisi spoke from his head. “This selfish and ambitious man has set himself as a rival for Your throne. Nonetheless, You will deal with us both as You see fit — perhaps with mercy — perhaps with justice. If you so will it, put us before the eyes of your entire court and have the young men divide themselves between those loyal to Shimshai, those loyal to myself and those who prefer to not declare a loyalty. Let us both be given a three-cubit length of cord and a quarter part of the day in which to knot it as we will. Let us exchange our cords and attempt to untie the other’s knot. In this way, You may then see that which You wish to know and act in the manner You wish to act. At the conclusion, all eyes will see that You act in wisdom and govern in uprightness and power.”
The King spoke from necessity and political expediency. “As you both have spoken, I shall do. Let the cords and the times be given. Let the tying and the separating of the young men occur in private antechambers under the eyes of my guards. Let the untying occur under the eyes of all. However, just as Shimshai has spoken, the loser will not be looked upon with favor. Beyond this, I shall decide as I will and it shall be done as I command.”
And so, the inquisition by trial was decreed. Both men, with their supporters, were placed in separate rooms to tie and then presented before the assembly to untie — with the future of themselves, their families, their acolytes, and the Kingdom, in the balance.
Dian-Nisi did not begin tying a conventional knot but prepared his cord in a way that had never been seen before. He tied a series of simple overhand knots at seemingly-irregular intervals down its length. Then, he summoned a brass basin and piled the cord loosely inside. He directed his young men to form a circle and spit into the bowl until the cord was thoroughly wetted. He looped the cord once around the central pillar of the room, tied the ends together temporarily and pulled the string of knots tightly until the cord thought that it must burst and the knots wept tears of grief.
Dian-Nisi began weaving a tight ball. He did not bury the ends inside, but left them free to tease and torment. The series of small knots became knuckles that interlaced with each other, prohibiting any possible slack from making room to pull a loose end through. Occasionally, he twisted the cord to take up some slight extra distance between knuckles.
Finishing his masterpiece of invention, Dian-Nisi strained to roll the last section of knuckles tightly into the holes waiting in the layer beneath. At the last, he held the ball by the protruding ends and rotated it above the coals of the brazier that warmed the room. As the spittle slowly evaporated, the fibers of the cord tightened even more and the mucus bound its strands together.
At the appointed time, the men presented their knots to their King who inspected and returned them, each man’s to the other. He directed his scribes to attend and he spoke:
“Shimshai, your work is tight and well-made; it is a thing of beauty. But, it is a pattern that was known to my father’s father. Your mind is bound to the past.
“Dian-Nisi, your work is tight and well-made. In fact, it is a thing of wonder. Your mind is bound to the future and able to solve problems where others fail to even take notice. If I were to indulge myself, I would keep both knots, intact, and display them in a place of honor.
“Shimshai, your service is of no further use to me. Yet, I give you three options. If you concede now, you must remove yourself and your family to a far land. I must never again see your face, hear your name or be troubled by your memory. If you attempt and succeed, you must be exiled in your own house, but able to enjoy the possessions that you have accumulated until this time. If you attempt and fail, you shall be opened up, your entrails spilled upon the ground, your head placed in shame upon a pole in the public market and the males of your family taken to a departing caravan and sold into slavery.” Shimshai conceded.
The King called for his scribes to begin a new record. “Dian-Nisi, I trust that you would withhold nothing that I ask. Yet, I require your continuing devoted service.” The King removed his seal ring, beckoned Dian-Nisi forward and placed it on his finger. “I grow tired of intervening in the affairs of fools. Dian-Nisi, for as long as I may continue in this choice, I authorize you to bind in my name and to judge in my name. Only my household and my throne do I reserve from your hand.” With that, the King rose up, took the two knots for himself and left the room with his personal attendants.
That very evening, upon returning home, Dian-Nisi found that his entire household staff was in an uproar. The house’s head servant reported that Tihamtu had departed in a hired cart and had not returned. Also, there was an empty hole in the floor of her bed chamber. And, to make matters worse, his manservant had left to purchase the expensive new carpet for the guest hall and had also never returned.
Although the rest of the household was upset, Dian-Nisi simply called for his pipe, sat on his accustomed carpet and smoked contentedly as he reflected on his victory over Shimshai and on how little his wife and manservant would be missed. Dian-Nisi congratulated himself on untying two difficult knots on the same day. Only then did it occur to him that he would be expected to select his own counselors, find a new wife and begin accepting concubines as gifts.