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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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