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Babylonian Myths of Creation and a Great Flood

Creation Story

God creates Adam, by Michelangelo

God creates Adam, by Michelangelo. Throughout ancient times, in various if not all societies, imaginative stories were considered literally true.

The Babylonians compiled separate Sumerian descriptions of the creation of the universe, and this became their creation story, known as the Enuma Elish.

The Enuma Elish begins by describing heaven and earth as already existing but without meaning because the gods had not yet given names to these places. 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.

Gilgamesh and the Flood

Story of the great flood.

The oldest surviving story of a Great Flood enlargement of stone with the story of a great flood

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 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 addresses the mystery of why men must die while gods live forever, and it's 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 sends a temple prostitute to seduce Enkidu, and Enkidu loses his innocence – vaguely similar to Eve giving Adam the apple of knowledge. The prostitute gives Enkidu bread fit for a god and wine fit for royalty, and she introduces him to Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh become friends and attempt 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 – thinks that in killing the bull, Gilgamesh and his friend have exercised too much willfulness and that as punishment either the barbarian or Gilgamesh must die. As the story goes, it is Enkidu who dies, and following his death Gilgamesh is heartbroken and loses himself by wandering from town to town.

Gilgamesh wonders why people must die, and he decides to seek the answer from the keepers of such mysteries: the gods. He crosses the waters of death to the end of the world in search of a man who had been made into a god: Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells him there is no permanence. He tells Gilgamesh about the god Enlil, a god of air, storms and floods, a god who wished to destroy all of humankind in a great flood. He tells Gilgamesh of other, kinder gods who 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 tells Gilgamesh of a terrible rain that came, so terrible that the gods fled. He tells about his floating in his ship upon the waters and seeing in the distance a mountain called Nizir. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh 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 tells Gilgamesh that he sent forth a dove, and, having found no place to rest, the dove returned. He tells 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 tells Gilgamesh that he was thankful for his deliverance, that on his ship he poured tea as a libation and that the gods gathered around. He said that among these gods was Enlil. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that Enlil was enraged at finding that humankind had survived his flood. He tells 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 tells Gilgamesh the secret of eternal life: the story about a plant that when eaten in old age gives one youth. Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh such a plant, and Gilgamesh begins his return to Uruk. During his journey, Gilgamesh stops to bathe in a pool of cool water, and he puts his plant aside. While he is bathing, a serpent catches the scent of the plant, grabs it and races away, shedding its skin in rejuvenation as it goes. Gilgamesh feels shattered by the loss of the plant. He returns to Uruk and there, like other people, he must face old age and eventual death.

Sources

Sources

Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization: the Evolution of an Urban Landscape, by Guillermo Algaze, 2008

History Begins at Sumer, by Samuel Noah Kramer, 3rd Edition, 1989

The Sumerians – Their History, Culture and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, 1971

Sumer and Sumerians, by Harriet Crawford, 1991

Babylonians, by H W F Saggs, 1999 (Includes Ubaid period and the Sumerians to 500 BCE)

Civilization before Greece and Rome, by H W F Saggs, 1989

Ancient Near Eastern Texts, editor James B Pritchard, Princeton University Press, 1955

A History of the Ancient World, by Chester G Starr, (a timid work), 1965

A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, Chapter 1, "Science in the Ancient World," by Sir William Dampier, 1948

The Origins of History, by Sir Herbert Butterfield, 1981

The Quest for Food: Its Role in Human Evolution & Migration, by Ivan Crowe, 2000

The Ancient Near East, by Charles Burney, 1977

Secret of the Hittites: the Discovery of an Ancient Empire, CW Ceram, 1973

The Coming Age of Iron by Theodore A. Wertime and James D. Muhry, 1980

Anunnaki, Wikipedia.

Additional Reading

Topsoil and Civilization, Chapter 3, "Mesopotamia," by Tom Dale and Vernon G Carter, 1955

Ancient Turkey: a Traveller's Guide of Anatolia, by Steten Lloyd, 1989

Copyright © 1998-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.