(CIVILIZATION in MESOPOTAMIA – continued)
God creates Adam, by Michelangelo. Throughout ancient times, in various if not all societies, imaginative stories were considered literally true.
The Sumerians had vanished as an identifiable people, but they left behind their myths. The Assyrians adopted and altered Sumerian stories, and they preserved the Sumerian language much as Christians were to preserve Latin. The Babylonians translated Sumerian religious writings, and these Babylonian translations influenced the Hurrians and Hittites. And after the Kassites conquered Babylon they came to accept Babylon's literature as sacred.
The Babylonians compiled separate Sumerian descriptions of the creation of the universe into a new version that was to become known as the Enuma Elish . The Enuma Elish begins by describing heaven and earth as already existing but with these places not yet having meaning because the gods had not yet given them names. According to the Enuma Elish, the world began with the salt waters and the fresh waters not yet separated, and with the fertile marshlands not yet having appeared. The Enuma Elish describes creation as birth: a godly male in the form of fresh waters, called Apsu, mated with a goddess in the form of salt waters, called Tiamat, and the goddess Tiamat gave birth to a variety of gods and to the earth and all things upon it. The gods born of Tiamat grew and multiplied and became rivals of one another. Eventually the gods born of Tiamat chose one of their number as king of the universe. This was Marduk, the god of light, who could perform miracles. According to the Enuma Elish the other gods called out to Marduk, declaring: "Say but to destroy or create and it shall be."
Marduk, as king among the gods, did what kings did on earth: he went forth and battled his enemies – demon gods. According to the Enuma Elish, in pursuing these demon gods, Marduk created the winds from the north, south, east and west so that his enemy might not escape him. Then in victory he surveyed the heavens and added to Tiamat's creations. He created the firmament and stars. He designated the zones of constellations of stars and thereby created the year. He made the moon shine, and he created vegetation. Then, seeing wars among other gods, and knowing that the defeated served the victorious, Marduk decided to create humankind. No god, he decided, should be a servant. Instead, it would be the place of humans to serve the gods.
The Gilgamesh epic poem originated with stories that Sumerians had written as separate tales. During the centuries around the year 2000 these tales were put together as one poem. The tale survived among the peoples of Mesopotamia, and, after Hammurabi, new versions were written, most notably by the Assyrians.
Centuries after the fall of the Sumerians, a Mesopotamian scribe listed a Gilgamesh as the fifth king of Uruk, as a king who ruled after a great flood had inundated the region around Uruk. It was common among ancients to view kings who had died as gods, and Gilgamesh was described as part god, but mostly man.
The story of Gilgamesh addressed the mystery of why men had to die while gods lived forever, and it was a story about human audacity and willfulness against the wills of the gods. The story begins with a barbarian named Enkidu coming out of the wilderness. Enkidu was Gilgamesh's opposite: Enkidu had been living in the untamed wilds and was happy living with the animals he had befriended; Gilgamesh lived among people in the sophisticated city and because of his willfulness was estranged from the people he ruled.
From Uruk, Gilgamesh sent a temple prostitute to seduce Enkidu, and Enkidu lost his innocence – vaguely similar to Eve giving Adam the apple of knowledge, which in this instance was explicitly carnal. The prostitute gave Enkidu bread fit for a god and wine fit for royalty, and she introduced him to Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh became friends and attempted great feats together, including the killing of a god in the form of a bull, a god who was the bringer of droughts to their valley. The great mother goddess, Ishtar – a goddess seen in the heavens as the planet Venus – thought that in killing the bull, Gilgamesh and his friend had exercised too much willfulness and that as punishment either the barbarian or Gilgamesh had to die. It was Enkidu who died, and following his death Gilgamesh was heartbroken and lost himself by wandering from town to town.
Gilgamesh wondered why people had to die, and he decided to seek the answer from the keepers of such mysteries: the gods. He crossed the waters of death to the end of the world in search of a man who had been made into a god: Utnapishtim. He found Utnapishtim, and Utnapishtim told him there was no permanence. He told Gilgamesh about the god Enlil, a god of air, storms and floods, a god who had wished to destroy all of humankind in a great flood. He told Gilgamesh of other, kinder gods who had told him to tear down his house and to build a ship, to abandon his possessions, to save his life and to take into his ship his family and the seed of all living things.
Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh of a terrible rain that came, so terrible that the gods fled. He told about his floating in his ship upon the waters and seeing in the distance a mountain called Nizir. Utnapishtim said that when the waters subsided he found silence and mud, that people outside his ship had turned to clay, and he said that his ship became stuck against Mount Nizir. He told Gilgamesh that he sent forth a dove, and that having found no place to rest, the dove returned. He told Gilgamesh that he then sent forth a swallow and then a raven. And he said that when the raven saw that the waters had abated, it ate and cawed and flew away.
Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that on his ship he poured tea as a libation for the gods and as thanks for his deliverance, and that in smelling the tea's sweet aroma the gods gathered around. He said that among these gods was Enlil and that Enlil was enraged at finding that humankind had survived his flood. Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the other gods scolded Enlil for attempting to destroy humankind without the help of the great god Ea, the god of earth and water, who alone understood all things. The god Enlil, according to Utnapishtim, then became repentant and went aboard Utnapishtim's ship. Enlil took Utnapishtim and his wife by their hands and made gods of them, and he brought them to dwell where Gilgamesh now found them.
Utnapishtim then told Gilgamesh the secret of eternal life: the story about a plant that when eaten in old age gives one youth. Utnapishtim gave Gilgamesh such a plant, and Gilgamesh began his return to Uruk. During his journey, Gilgamesh stopped to bathe in a pool of cool water, and he put his plant aside. And while he was bathing a serpent caught the scent of his plant, found it, grabbed it and raced away, shedding its skin in rejuvenation as it went. Gilgamesh felt shattered by the loss of the plant. He returned to Uruk and there, like other people, he had to face old age and eventual death.
Copyright © 1998-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.