Ancient Mesopotamian history is shrouded in myth and legend. Some of the most famous stories to date were written 5000 years ago. Some are so similar to stories of modern religions that it is hard to deny a connection. But one thing is certain. Religion and mythology was at the very center of every single life in the Ancient Near East. There were countless gods, cities built around the elaborate worship temples, and sacrificial rituals meant to appease the gods. Whether you were a peasant, wealthy merchant or king, you would worship one or more of the gods, believed in these myths, and believed in the divine ordination of kings and temple rulers. These beliefs were much different than those of modern religions today. They were not merely a part of life, but the purpose of life itself.
There were many creation myths that came out of Ancient Mesopotamia. The Epic of Creation seems to be the best known. This myth begins with two gods: Apsu and Tiamet. Together they created four generations of gods but quickly became angry because the new gods were very noisy. The two devised a plot against the gods, joined by another Mammu. This plot was foiled by Ea (Who later became Enki) because he was believed to be all knowing. Enki put Apsu and Mammu into a deep sleep and then slayed them. He took the throne as head god and had a perfect son Marduk. Tiamet became restless and decided she would avenge the death of her friend Apsu with a troop of fearsome monsters that she created. Marduk agreed to fight this army under one condition: He wanted to be crowned supreme god if he won. His father Enki agreed to the terms. In what ancient tablets describe as an epic battle, (they all were at that time) Marduk was finally able to slay Tiamet slicing her in half “like a fish for drying”. (McCall)
Marduk proceeded to organize the rest of the universe naming the months of the year and assigning stars to them, and placing the moon up in the sky. From Tiamet’s eyes he fashioned the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. He set up cult centers for the other gods and finally decided to fashion man out of blood and bone (but not his own). Man was created to do the laboring so that the gods could live leisurely lives. In this version the god An was of the third generation of the gods. In another version An was the first and only god who created the other gods to do the labor. The gods got fed up with this and created man to do it for them. In both versions, though, the gods tired of the humans and sent the great flood to destroy them.
The myth of Atrahasis is more closely related to the latter of the two creation myth. Atrahasis was believed to be the father of Up-napishtim or the Babylonian Noah. In this epic Ellil was the highest god and forced all of the other gods to labor day and night which they did for 3600 years. Fed up, the gods confronted Ellil and he agreed to allow the womb goddess Belet-ili to produce mortals to do the laboring. She bore 7 males and 7 females. 600 years later when the Earth was overrun with humans the gods were once again fed up. They thought the humans were too noisy. Ellil instructed Atrahasis to build a large boat (or ark) and told him that a great flood would soon cover the Earth. He said that the flood would last for 7 days and 7 nights, differing from the Christian flood story only slightly. It is unknown if Up-napishtim
helped his father build the ark or not, but later, in the epic of Gilgamesh, he will be granted immortality by the gods.
Thanks to the Sumerian Kings list historians have been able to place Gilgamesh as a real historical character although he was widely regarded as part god. To me though, being able to place him in a real historical context makes the stories about him more viable.
The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the few Ancient Mesopotamian myths whose authorship is known. The storey is credited to master scribe Sin-Leqe-Unnini and is thought to have been written down after the oral version had been passed down for hundreds of years. Next to the story of Noah’s Ark it is the most famous flood myth that exists today. It was believed that Gilgamesh was 2/3 god and 1/3 man. Historically he was king of Uruk and lived a life of luxury and excess. Enkida was a man who lived among the animals as one of them, and was turned into a fully thinking feeling man after he had sex with a prostitute. Enkida got news of Gilgamesh’s indiscretions and was appalled. He went to Uruk to confront the king and a fight ensued. King Gilgamesh of course was the victor but gained a deep respect for Enkidi and they quickly became great friends. They went on all sorts of quests together, the most important of which was to cut down the trees in the forbidden forest. They fought many monsters and overcame many obstacles to accomplish this feat but in the end they were successful, at a great cost. The gods, led by An, decided that the two must pay and one of them would have to die. He struck Enkidi with a horrible illness and he suffered until his death. Gilgamesh was beside himself. He went on a mission seeking immortality. Along the way he met Up-Napishtim, who had been granted immortality by the gods after the flood. Up-Napishtim told Gilgamesh to stop seeking
immortality and enjoy his life. Just as he was about to leave Up-Napishtim’s wife told Gilgamesh about a plant that granted everlasting life. Gilgamesh went and found the plant but just as he did a serpent appeared from out of nowhere and stole it. He became younger as he slithered away. Gilgamesh finally succumbed to his fate and realized that he was in fact a mortal, but could enjoy immortality through the never failing line of the human race.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is interesting for so many reasons. First there are so many parallels to the Christian or Hebrew Bible, from the forbidden forest to the serpent, and of course the necessity of punishment for ones actions. Second, this story appears to be the only Mesopotamian myth whose purpose is to validate the importance of human life as opposed to the importance of the gods. And finally, the Mesopotamian culture did not believe in an afterlife so the epic tells of the importance of immortality, and if one cannot find immortality, then the importance of accepting one’s personal fate.
Historians and archaeologists have discovered hundreds if not thousands more myths and legends recorded on either clay or stone tablets, cylinder seals and steles and probably hundreds more which have not yet been discovered. The myth of Etana is the only myth that has so far been proven to have a cylinder seal which definitely depicts the written story. There were also many symbols used over and over to depict the power of the gods or divinity of particular kings or other men. The most interesting of these symbols to me is the Akkadian tree of life because of its repeat appearance over thousands of years in many different cultural and religious texts. This tree can be found in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the Quran, Egyptian cave paintings, the Kabala, and Hindu texts as well. The fascination that ancient peoples had with this tree is mysterious and fascinating.
Beyond creation myth and flood stories the gods played a significant role in the everyday lives of the Mesopotamian citizens. During the Early Dynastic period the cities were built around a temple each with its own respective city god. The temples would have had a leader who was thought to be the earthly representative of the god. He was personally chosen by the god. The high priests duties varied from city to city. In Uruk for example the en (high priest) usually lived in the temple. Each city also had a king who according to the Sumerian King’s List was divinely ordained by the god of the city. Before the great flood these divine kings were recorded as reigning for hundreds of years.
When the structure of the government shifted during the Ur III period and into the Neo-Assyrian period so did the personas of the kings. They were no longer placed as high as the gods and this was reflected in the length and important events of their reigns that were recorded on the King’s List. For the first time, historians were able to account for the reign of these ancient kings in accurate chronological time. During the Ur III period King Sulgi began the tradition of deifying himself although this didn’t go over very well at first. Later though, there were festivals put on in honor of past kings and dead kings even had individual priests assigned to them. The people worshipped these kings like they were gods.
The ancient Mesopotamian people thought that every event was a direct result of the gods will. If there was prosperity then the gods were happy. If there was famine and suffering then they must have angered the gods in some way so they would offer sacrifices to try to appease the
angry god. Nearby city-states would steal statues built in the likeness of the enemy’s god and the people believed that the god had abandoned them and expected suffering thereafter. The local gods were also thought of as a liaison between the citizens and the more powerful higher ranking gods.
The wonderful thing about Ancient Mesopotamian myths and legends is that they give us a glimpse into the lives of people, some who lived up to 5,000 years ago. These stories also give us entertainment and remind historians why we chose the field in the first place. We now know that religion was at the very center of Sumerian and Akkadian life. No matter what your status in society was, how much money you had, or if you were part man and part god, these stories held truth and importance to all. We are very lucky that they have been preserved for us to learn from and enjoy thousands of years later.
Collon, Dominique. "First Impressions-Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East." British Museum - Welcome to the British Museum. Brittish Museum Press. Web. 2 Oct. 2011. .
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford [England: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.
Klein, Jacob. "Sumerian Kingship and the Gods." Program in Judaic Studies (2006): 115-31. Print.
McCall, Henrietta. Mesopotamian Myths. Austin: University of Texas, 1990. Print.