The ancient Sumerian word ama-gi and its cuneiform script is a popular iconography within the modern libertarian movement. Indeed, I have one that I cherish in the form of a tattoo on my right forearm. When mentioned in conversation, most libertarians translate the Sumerian word as the equivalent of English liberty or freedom.

But apart from this pop culture version of ama-gi’s meaning, a critical linguistic perspective allows us to learn much more from Sumerian culture about the lived experiences of freedom than merely translating our conceptions in reverse and placing them on the Sumerians. So if ama-gi doesn’t mean liberty, then what does it mean?First, the meaning of the word meaning needs to be clarified. Meaning is not a static transcendental, it’s not a hand-me-down sweater conception from older humans to younger ones, but meaning is something created fresh and new each time it occurs. Meanings are constituted in moments, in contexts, and as a result are contingent upon the variability of their environments. Semiotics is the study of meaning, in large part articulated by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 20th century (I’ve already addressed semiotics once on this blog here). And while Saussure’s semiotic model has been tweaked and nuanced through the years (this could get really nerdy really fast), for the purposes of this blog we can use it to excavate the deeper meaning of ama-gi as understood by the Sumerians whose lips spoke that word for the first time in human history.  Saussure explained that words are signs, and they signal to some signified concept that stands behind them. For example, the word-signifier tree (Saussure used the Latin arbor for his example) and its phonetic sound when spoken signify the objects in the natural world that we recognize as a tree, though they may be as diverse as a palm is to an oak is to a weeping willow.

Emerging into human history and onto clay pots around Lagash before 2300 B.C., the word signifier ama-gi directly translates into English as “return to your mother.” So what exactly did ama-gi point to conceptually for Sumerian slaves who, upon their liberation, were told to go back home? Like the botanical object behind the word tree, who is this mother behind ama-gi? Sumerologists have shown that Ancient Sumer was a matriarchal society, meaning that mothers, and not fathers, formed the head of the households and the reference points for lineage and descent. The matriarchal footing of Sumer is further revealed in its goddess-centered cosmology and creation myths, such as the story of brothers Enki and Enlil that established Sumerian royal authority upon who had the older mother (Enki and Enlil shared the same father).  In the Sumerian Dictionary of the University of Pennsylvania, ama-gi (also spelled amargi or ama-ar-gi) is translated as “reversion to a previous state” and it is believed that this previous state of nonslavery semantically meant the same thing as being reunited with your mother’s lineage.

In his post “Community as a Libertarian Virtue” from last week, SFL Vice President Clark Ruper reminded us that “individualism is not an end in itself, but a necessary condition for a society based on cooperation and mutual benefit.” The historical context of ama-gi demonstrates this plainly. In his sociological study of all slave systems known to history, Orlando Patterson identified several constitutive elements that were always present (in varying degrees) within slavery societies regardless of the particularities of their time and place. These included natal alienation and social death. To be natally alienated is to be removed from any communal bonds one inherits at birth, and to be rendered socially dead is to have no place within the web of relationships that make up one’s society where your humanity is recognized. To be a slave, then, is truly to be an untethered individual – an individual with no family, kinship, religious, or other institutional mechanisms or support that could shield you and safeguard your freedom. In Sumer, the atomized individual that roamed Earth unbound to any other human relationship, the person unrecognized as someone’s son, brother, father, or friend, was ripe for enslavement, as there were no voices of authority or sympathy that could speak on his behalf. In this context, to be left alone to oneself was often to be left lonely.

When libertarians appropriate ama-gi as liberty, we substitute our word signifier for theirs. Placing individualism as the sole conception behind the word, we erase the maternal bonds that ama-gi pointed to in context. Furthermore, the English word signifier liberty has its own slippery, unstable context, and while this too could get really nerdy really fast, those who wish can read my extended essay excavating this semantic history here. Substituting the modern day liberty for ama-gi actually proves the contextual importance of ama-gi further. Because while the sentiments and passions associated with both words may seem similar, the particular significance of “go home to your mom” was NEVER lost upon the Sumerian slave who heard those words spoken to him before he joyously set off on his journey to reunite with his long-lost family.

This February 14-16th, the SFamiLy will celebrate our own homecoming in the form of the International Students For Liberty Conference, as students from the 5 continents throughout our global network will make their pilgrimage and reunite with the family, friends, kin, and new SFLers that will descend upon Washington, D.C. May the bonds of our community of freedom, like those of the Sumerian ama-gi, never be discounted for semantics.