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Category Archives: Mythology

How Sumerians made sense of the universe

First there was ______, then there was ______, and the universe was created.

It’s a pretty standard and simplified formula of how humans have been trying to explain the elusive origins of our universe and its inhabitants, since the beginning of time.

The most well known of such explanations to come out of our favorite place here at All Mesopotamia is Enûma Eliš (Enuma Elish), a Babylonian creation myth. Its composition date is believed to either be as early as the 18th century BCE, or as late as the 11th century BCE, depending on who you ask, but it is definitely one of the oldest comprehensive written creation myths.

As is common knowledge, before Babylon was even a thought, Sumerians had the run of Mesopotamia, and did a lot of organizing while they did. This required making sense of the chaos that was the universe to the people who had to figure out even how to produce their own food.

Who am I? Where am I?

To people vulnerable to every little speck of dust the universe threw their way, our ancestors needed to make sense of what must have been a terrifying existence. Hence, the titular questions of this section that we all might ask if we woke up with pizza stuck to our face, in a strange place.

For Sumerians, the universe was that strange place. It was vast and harsh, and especially where they were standing, a hot and flood-plagued spot. They needed a way to explain their surroundings, and their existence within those surroundings.

There is always something there…

Illustration of the Sumerian Creation Myth by Hanna Agosta.

 

Ira Spar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes in his piece Epic of Creation (Mesopotamia): “…no single myth addressed issues of initial creation. It was simply assumed that the gods existed before the world was formed.”

Though not all Mesopotamian creation myths tell the same story, they all have one thing in common: They all begin with a universal element already in existence, like water or earth or sky, represented by corresponding primeval gods.

The Sumerian Myth webpage says: “Often, the Sumerians wrote as if their civilization (agricultural techniques, cities, classes of people) came first, and people later.”

The introduction of a Sumerian story called “The Huluppu Tree,” gives a great example of this:

In the first days when everything needed was brought into being,
In the first days when everything needed was properly nourished… (Source)

In another Sumerian text, it is Nammu, the sea, that is the starting point. “[Nammu is] the mother, who gave birth to heaven and earth.” (Source)

But why and how did I end up here?

All Mesopotamian creation myths share one purpose for the creation of humankind, and it’s pretty cut and dry (not to mention depressing): Humans were created by the gods to do the menial jobs they didn’t want to do themselves. And if you didn’t feel lucky enough as a general peon, you could take delight in knowing you were also created to keep the temples stocked with food and spirits for, you guessed it, the gods.

One can understand (albeit grudgingly by yours truly) why scholars often label the Mesopotamian civilization “pessimistic.”

The purpose is the same, but the how is where Mesopotamian creation myths differ when it comes to the creation of humankind.

Sumerians believed they were fashioned out of clay by Enki, the god of wisdom, and Ninmah, the goddess of birth. (Source) While in Enuma Elish, humans are created from the blood of a defeated god, Kingu, the second husband of Tiamat (salt water goddess).

Regardless of how they came to exist, their existence sounds like a bleak existence, doesn’t it? I believe inventing beer was one way for these poor people to cope with their lot in life, for sure, but as smart as that invention was, there was something even smarter still.

Waxing philosophical

Top bird explains your place in the universe. (Source)

Philosophy is usually associated with the Greeks, but Sumerians also spent time philosophizing. In fact, around the 3rd millennium BC, Sumerians put their philosophical thoughts about humanity’s place in the universe into writing.

The Sumerian Disputations is a series of seven debate topics, or dialogues, between various opposite entities. Though the entities are not always intellectual, their arguments reflect intellectual views of the universe.

In Debate Between Bird and Fish, for example, the bird and fish try to more or less one-up each other by pointing out their strengths and, ultimately, their importance in/to the universe, all the while using human standards for measurement, in this case, which of the two pleases Culgi, the son of the chief god Enlil, the most. In this debate, the bird comes out the winner for its sweet song. Another debate is between Winter and Summer, in which Winter wins for being the provider of water, pointed out as an important element for agriculture.

What matters

Sumerians, Babylonians, and every people who questioned their existence since, after, or even before them, have explained the universe in one way or other. Today, we have TV shows and the actual Big Bang theory for those of us who want a scientific explanation for the universe, but even science doesn’t have all the answers. We might forever wonder about our ever present universe, our home, in which we have built and continue to build our purpose and destiny, and maybe that is the point of it all.

 

Sources and further reading:

http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/225/

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/epic/hd_epic.htm

http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/SumerianMyth.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_disputations

http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/myths/texts/disputations/birdfish.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debate_between_Summer_and_Winter

 

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Part IV: Gilgamesh!

A statue of Gilgamesh overpowering a lion. It was found in Khorsabad, Iraq, at the palace of Sargon II. Now housed at the Louvre. (Source)

He’s the other guitarist with The Mesopotamians band, wearing a pointy helmet. He can’t seem to be able to keep himself together- he plays his guitar and his arm falls off, he joins Hammurabi at the microphone and his teeth start flying out of his mouth, his jaw falls off, and at one point he ends up a heap on the floor.

He is Gilgamesh! (And our last king in The Mesopotamians series of kings!)

Gilgamesh is a name steeped in myth, but there are some things sprinkled here and there that support the idea that Gilgamesh, or Izdubar as his name was erroneously translated in 1872, was an actual historical figure we can discuss, albeit briefly when not talking about the oldest story the world has ever known…

An Epic King

Most people know Gilgamesh through the Epic of Gilgamesh, which holds great importance to humanity today as the world’s oldest piece of literature. It appears to have been just as important to humanity in ancient times, too. For one thing it was written down centuries after the death of the enigma that is its hero, and was circulated in the ancient world so much, that aside from various sites across Mesopotamia (most notably in the Library of Ashurbanipal), fragments of it were also found written in non-Mesopotamian languages, in non-Mesopotamian regions.

This means that Gilgamesh was a figure known across the Ancient Near East for centuries, which leads us to asking: why was Gilgamesh so important?

Before we delve into the Epic, it’s important to know that Gilgamesh’s name appears in material other than the Epic, like the Sumerian King List, which identifies him as the fifth king of Uruk. According to the List, his reign took place between 2500 and 2800 BC (a date I have been unable to pinpoint exactly because of differing dates from different sources), and lasted for 126 years. Bilgames, as he is known in the earliest Sumerian texts, also appears on tablets that list deities, like this one. Gilgamesh also appears in Mesopotamian mythology as a demigod, and a judge of the dead. Although Gilgamesh’s parents had cult followings and temples built for their worship, nothing other than a god’s epitaph in texts has been found to prove that Gilgamesh himself was an actively worshiped deity.

Going back to the The Epic, which paints the clearest picture of this mysterious man, we are presented with Gilgamesh as the king of Uruk, the builder of its great walls and its all-powerful ruler. The Epic begins with a prologue that introduces us to Gilgamesh, part of which is:

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,

from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision

into the great mystery, the secret places,

the primeval days before the Flood. (Mitchell, 69)


“Gilgamesh between two Bull-Men with Sun-Disc (Wikimedia Commons)” (Source)

The Epic’s Gilgamesh possesses incredible physical strength, thanks to his parentage and demigod status, with two-thirds god and one-third human DNA. He needs no sleep and can complete a six weeks’ journey in three days. He need only eat after covering 400 miles, and pitch a camp after 1,000.

But he is also described as an arrogant ruler, and does what he wants to those he rules, including bedding all brides on their wedding night, even before their husbands do.

The people of Uruk cry out to the heavens from such tyranny, and the gods respond by sending down Enkidu, a wild man who lives with the animals in the wilderness. He is Gilgamesh’s equal in strength and ability, he is sent down to balance Gilagamesh. After a series of fantastical and sexually explicit events involving one of the most enigmatic women represented in literature, Enkidu is tamed and brought to Uruk, where he and Gilgamesh face off and become the best of friends. Together, they take on challenges that defy vengeful gods and end with a tragic loss that sends Gilgamesh on a journey in search of immortality. Gilgamesh’s journey to the Great Deep in search of immortality brings him face to face with Utnapishtim, a figure whose description of the biblical Flood marks him as a non-biblical representation of Noah.

“This, the eleventh tablet of the Epic, describes the meeting of The Gilgamesh with Utnapishtim. Like Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Utnapishtim had been forewarned of a plan by the gods to send a great flood.” Source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_flood_tablet.aspx

In his article titled “The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh,” for the Institute for Creation Research website, the archaeologist Frank Lorey, M.A. writes of Gilgamesh’s deeds, which are also listed in the Epic: “He was one who had great knowledge and wisdom, and preserved information of the days before the flood. Gilgamesh wrote on tablets of stone all that he had done, including building the city walls of Uruk and its temple for Eanna,” Lorey writes.

The Eternal Significance of Gilgamesh to Humanity

It is safe to say that Gilgamesh represents a most human hero, despite his supernatural credentials. What could be more human than arrogance, or love, or fear of death?

In his essay, “Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh,” Arthur A. Brown writes, “We read stories — and reading is a kind of re-telling — not to learn what is known but to know what cannot be known, for it is ongoing and we are in the middle of it.”

To this day, Gilgamesh’s story resonates with us, not with its fantastical and ancient details, but with its profound reflection on the human condition that seems to have changed little over the centuries.

Gilgamesh’s surviving legacy, beyond the Epic or the walls he built around the city he ruled is his humanity.

Sources and further reading:

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2006. (Version used for the Prologue except.)

http://homeschoolcourses.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/gilgamesh_louvre.jpg (First picture)

http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/hero-overpowering-lion (Louvre description of Gilgamesh statue)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh (Wikipedia)

http://novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/eng251/gilgameshstudy.htm (Study guide that talks about Epic)

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_flood_tablet.aspx (The Flood Tablet at the British Museum website)

http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/ (Translated text of the Epic of Gilgamesh tablets)

http://eawc.evansville.edu/essays/brown.htm (Storytelling, the Meaning of Life,
and The Epic of Gilgamesh
essay by Arthur A. Brown)

http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/gilgamesh.html (Brief biography on Encyclopedia Mythica)

http://www.icr.org/article/noah-flood-gilgamesh/ (The Noah Flood and the Epic of Gilgamesh, by Frank Lorey, M.A., who is believes the Genesis was preserved as an oral tradition before it was handed down to Moses, who finally wrote it down, making the Genesis the influence for the Epic of Gilgamesh, and not the other way around.)

http://www.jasoncolavito.com/epic-of-gilgamesh.html (Translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh with an introduction that includes a bit of the history behind the historical aspects of the story and the tablets and translations.)

http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/geography/story/sto_set.html (Gilgamesh and the Cedar Forest interactive story.)

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/233644/Gilgamesh (Encyclopaedia Britannica entry that talks about the Epic of Gilgamesh and its hero. Gives titles of each poem in the Epic.)

http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/csgeg/background-gilgamesh-epic (Background of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has footnotes and sources.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_King_List (Wikipedia entry about Sumerian King List.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uruk (Wikipedia entry about Uruk.)

http://www.magyarsag.org/uruk13.jpg (Picture of Walls of Uruk.)

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2012 in Kings, Mythology, Tablets

 

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Aliens in Mesopotamia!

And now, for a little something completely different (and a bit crazy).

I came across a documentary series called “Ancient Aliens” on Netflix Instant, which consists of two seasons and 16 episodes, total. I’ve only watched two episodes from season one so far, and I’m very intrigued.

Netflix.com

This investigative series, from 2010, asserts that ancient civilizations, including that of Mesopotamia, had help from extraterrestrial beings, who possessed advanced technologies, including flying saucers and space suits. It sounds crazy, but there are some compelling arguments from scholars, and even non-scholars, who bring their knowledge to the table.

Each episode is a little over an hour and a half long, and although Mesopotamian art is depicted from the beginning, Mesopotamia is not mentioned until about 48 minutes into the second episode, The Visitors.

Mesopotamia’s connection with extraterrestrials is deduced from an ancient Babylonian text found in the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, in 1849, by British Archaeologist, Sir Austen Henry Layard. Enuma Elish, which dates back to the 7th Century BC, is the Babylonian myth of creation, and tells how the first humans were created by an extraterrestrial race, the Anunnaki.

According to one of the featured scholars in the series, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, publisher of Legendary Times Magazine, as well as consulting producer of the “Ancient Aliens” series, the Anunnaki are described in the text as beings who descended from the sky by way of flying vehicles, and are depicted in Mesopotamian statues and carvings.

An image of an Anunnaki depicted in the second episode of “Ancient Aliens” that accompanied the segment on Mesopotamia’s connection with extraterrestrials. (http://www.freedomtek.org/en/invisibles/fallen_angels.php)

“[The Anunnaki] looked like modern-day space travelers with weird suits. Some of them wore wristwatches, they had boots on, and helmets, and above all, wings…” Tsoukalos said.

I’ve long since wondered whether ancient civilizations were aliens, and I have expressed that in this blog, albeit jokingly, but the arguments presented in this series are, to a certain degree, convincing.

Sure, some aspects of these theories left me rolling my eyes, and some actually made perfect sense, so I plan to watch the whole thing over time.

I think we owe it to those who set us up in this world to hear all the possibilities of how they might have done it, and whether it was alone or with the help of “ancient astronauts,” it was an amazing feat.

Are you intrigued? Are you going to watch? What do you think of these theories? Let us know in the comments!

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in Mythology, Science, Video

 

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Pine Cones in Ancient Mesopotamia

With the holiday season coming up and those bags of cinnamon-scented pine cones hitting store shelves soon, I think it would make a great topic of conversation at your next holiday party to explore the significance of pine cones in Mesopotamian mythology and art.

Pine cones are symbolic in that they are where the life cycle of a pine tree begins, and conversely, where new life begins.

Many reliefs excavated at Mesopotamian sites depict gods or super beings holding a bucket in one hand and a pine cone in the other. It is clear that the pine cone was dipped into the bucket and used to sprinkle a substance, sometimes blood, as in this depiction of Tammuz, a winged Babylonian deity associated with regeneration:

Source: https://i2.wp.com/www.crystalinks.com/dilmuntoearth.jpg

Pine cones are representative of continuing life, and Tammuz represents regeneration.

Source: http://www.crystalinks.com/dilmuntoearth.jpg

The pine cone and bucket depiction was not reserved to deities. Super beings, genii, which are like gargoyles in that they ward off evil spirits with people as well as buildings are also depicted holding pine cones in Mesopotamian art. This Blessing Genius stood guard at the gate of the city of Khorsabad, providing protection and blessings to those who walked through the city’s gates:

Source: http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_notice.jsp?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673225255&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673225255&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=9852723696500800&bmLocale=en

The pine cone is used by the genii to sprinkle water on passersby, to bless them.

Source: http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_notice.jsp?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673225255&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673225255&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=9852723696500800&bmLocale=en

For further information on pine cones and their significance, here are the amazing links we used to prepare this piece:

http://www.markbeast.org/mark-beast-paganism.html

http://www.crystalinks.com/sumergods.html

http://www.ehow.com/list_7628863_life-cycle-pine-trees.html

http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_notice.jsp?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673225255&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673225255&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=9852723696500800&bmLocale=en

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2011 in Assyrian, Mythology

 

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