Cylinder Seal with Griffins, Humans and a Winged Disk / Walters Art Museum, Wikimedia Commons
The religions of the ancient world in the Near East and Mediterranean regions developed according to an inner logic of questioning growing out of the historical experience of peoples who were in more or less continuous interaction.
By Dr. Eugene Webb / 07.10.2018
The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies
University of Washington
The religions of the ancient world in the Near East and Mediterranean regions developed according to an inner logic of questioning growing out of the historical experience of peoples who were in more or less continuous interaction through commerce, warfare, colonization, and so on, over a period of some three thousand years. These included the ancient Sumerians and their successors in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the Egyptians, the Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Israelites, the Persians, and the Greeks and Romans. In the course of their histories each of these peoples had to work out interpretations of the relations between human beings and the universe, between the individual and society, and between cosmic, social, and personal order. They also had to develop a self-interpretation of man as a being who combines longings for truth and ideal values with an awareness of his own tendency to violate the ideals he conceives. Out of this matrix of experience and aspiration there emerged several interrelated themes that became central issues in the development of the religions of the West:
- the problem of order – in the universe as a whole, in the human community, and within the individual soul;
- the problem of evil – its origins, its implications for our present lives, and its possible end;
- the problem of imagining what perfection of being might be and of attaining or participating in it; and
- the problem of knowing what lies beyond us – the relationship between mind and mystery, between symbolic and conceptual understanding, and between faith and doctrine.
Studying the religions of the ancient world in their historical development, one can see the gradual unfolding of these themes as human consciousness moved from comparatively inchoate and compact experience to increasingly differentiated reflection and interpretation. This was a process in which insights and their symbolic vehicles were carried forward into new contexts of questioning where they became further interpreted and symbolized. It took place in interaction with a basic experiential matrix that included awareness of lasting and passing, of participation in nature’s cycles of fertility, and experience of participation in the creation and preservation of order.
Ancient ziggurat at Ali Air Base, Iraq. The ziggurat itself is the base on which the White Temple is set. Its purpose is to get the temple closer to the heavens, and provide access from the ground to it via steps. The Mesopotamians believed that these pyramid temples connected heaven and earth. It was sacred ground, off limits to any but the hierarchy of priests. / Photo by Hardnfast, Wikimedia Commons
The observation that some things endure and some are fleeting gave rise to the idea of a hierarchy of being moving upward from the most transitory existences to the most permanent in approximately the following order: man, society, the world of nature, and the gods. Human beings live only a few years, but the life time of their society would normally continue over many generations. And in ancient Mesopotamia societies were known to rise and fall and succeed one another over the ages while the life of nature – the annual birth and death of vegetation, the sun, the rains, the life of the powerful and unpredictable rivers – continued unchanged. Societies were believed to derive their order from a heavenly order imaged in the cycles of stars and planets and commanded by the gods, but they also depended on the contributions of humans in obedient service to the powers that transcended them.
Behind the social order and religion of the people who left us our earliest written records (around 3300 BCE in Sumer in southern Mesopotamia) lay many thousands of years of prehistoric religion that can be known at least dimly from such evidence as burial sites, bones, tools, and statuary. All over the ancient world corpses were dusted with red ochre, evidently as a symbol of blood and therefore of life and possibly of life after death. Many burial sites were oriented toward the East and the rising sun, which may also indicate a hope for some sort of rebirth or afterlife in another world, as may also the presence in graves of tools and ornaments.
In the early Stone Age, hunting was the principal source of food, and evidence of religion concerned with it, going back over 100,000 years, is found in ceremonial sites, designs on animal bones, and paintings on the walls of caves. This type of religion was largely displaced eventually by new developments proceeding from the first great, prehistoric cultural revolution: the discovery of agriculture some twelve thousand years ago. This took place partially in response to climatic changes at the end of the Ice Age which drove the great reindeer herds north and encouraged vegetation in the warmer region. According to Eliade one of its results was that the earlier religious focus on relations with the animal world was supplanted by a sense of “mystical solidarity between man and vegetation.” One expression of this was a vast multitude of female figurines, many of them accentuating the breasts, womb, and genitalia, suggesting a symbolization of nature as a fertile mother. Many of these have been found in Mesopotamia dating from the fourth and fifth millennia BCE. This interest in fertility probably also expressed itself in periodic rites, such as those we find written records of from Sumer in the late fourth millennium.
The Sumerians were the first people to discover writing in the ancient Near East and, as far as we know, in the world. Sumer itself lay in the southern part of modern Iraq in the region where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come together and flow into the Persian Gulf. (The term Mesopotamia means “between the rivers.”) The Sumerians came there as colonizers in some prehistoric time and were not related either racially or linguistically to their neighbors to the north, the Akkadians. It was a flat, marshy region, and their first settlements were in huts built on the mud. Flood was a constant threat and could be devastating. Silt made the land fertile, however, and the Sumerians were able over a period of millennia to turn the swamp into a garden. They were a highly creative people. By the time they developed cuneiform writing, approximately two centuries before the Egyptians developed their hieroglyphics, they had already built great terraced, multi-storied temple-towers (the ziggurats) out of bricks and were using sailboats, wheeled vehicles, animal-drawn plows, and potter’s wheels. The country consisted of a dozen small cities, each belonging in principle to its god and centered upon his temple. These included Eridu (traditionally considered the earliest and dating from about 4000 BCE), Ur, Nippur, and Uruk or Erech. Kings served as representatives of the gods, enforcing their justice and promoting wealth to be used in their service. Cuneiform writing developed primarily as an instrument for recording contracts and accounts in the affairs of the temples, which controlled up to a third of the land and had great wealth. It was also in Sumer, toward the middle of the twenty-fourth century BCE, that the idea of imperial rule was born, when a king named Lugalzaggesi (Zaggesi the Great) conquered a large part of the valley. An inscription that Lugalzaggesi placed on a monument in Nippur tells how Enlil, the supreme god and king of all countries, gave dominion to Lugalzaggesi, who then prays that his rule may be peaceful and prosperous forever.
Map of the Akkadian Empire (brown) and the directions in which military campaigns were conducted (yellow arrows) / Wikimedia Commons
Sumerian political power never extended northward into Akkad, but Sumer had enormous cultural influence there; over the centuries the Akkadians learned writing from them and adopted much of their mythology as well as their technology. Despite Lugalzaggesi’s prayer for perpetual dominion he was later defeated in battle and taken captive by an Akkadian, Sargon I, who founded an empire of his own – also with the claimed authority of Enlil. It was short-lived, and the Sumerians regained their independence for a while, but by the time of Hammurabi in the eighteenth century BCE they were completely absorbed into the civilization that is now generally known as the Babylonian after its principal city, Babylon (Babilani or “the gateway of the gods”).
Although we have some Sumerian fragments, most of the writings now available come from the Babylonian period, so that we see the Sumerian myths in large part through Babylonian eyes and, as we shall see, with Babylonian adaptations. One reason for the fragmentariness of the evidence, in addition to its enormous antiquity, is the fact that the cuneiform tablets were not used primarily for the recording of myths, but for accounts; in many cases the tablets with myths seem to have been the exercise books of schoolboys learning to write by copying out stories. Still, we have enough to enable us to work out a fairly clear picture of the religious conceptions not only of the Babylonians, but also of the Sumerians.
To begin with the beginning, let us consider one of the earliest Sumerian creation myths, the story of Enki and Ninhursag in the land of Dilmun. Dilmun, the poem tells us, was pure, clean, and bright, free from death and disease, and evidently lifeless until the mother goddess Ninhursag was impregnated by Enki, variously interpreted as the god of earth or of water. The events take place in primordial time, the time of the ordering of the cosmos. Ninhursag and Enki produce a daughter, with whom Enki mates in turn and who gives birth to another daughter with whom Enki mates again. This culminates in the birth of Uttu, Enki’s great granddaughter. This time Ninhursag warns the girl that Enki lurks in the marsh and lusts after her and that she should not yield herself to him until he offers her the appropriate gifts for a bride. He does so, however, and she gives herself to him joyfully. At this point it seems (the text is broken here) that Ninhursag intervenes, takes Enki’s semen, and uses it to bring forth eight plants. Enki, noticing the eight new plants decides he must “know” them and decide their fate and therefore eats them. Ninhursag becomes furious at this usurpation. She curses him and says she will no longer look on him with the eye of life. Enki then languishes and the land becomes dry and dusty. Alarmed, the other gods, with Enlil as their spokesman, intercede through the help of a clever fox to get Ninhursag to restore him. She does so by placing her vulva next to the ailing parts of Enki’s body and bringing forth eight goddesses, each of which heals the part she is associated with. There are eight of them, evidently replacing in some manner the eight plants that Enki misappropriated. The poem ends with the naming of the goddesses and the assignment of their destinies. It is not clear who speaks at that point, Enki or Ninhursag, but since the ending is one of reconciliation and restoration of life, it seems that the naming takes place with Ninhursag’s approval. The last line of the surviving text is praise of Father Enki.
It is not easy to interpret a text that comes to us from a time so distant, in fragments and possibly with many layers of revision along the way, but the main outline of a meaning is not too difficult to discern. Clearly the myth depicts the beginning of the ordered world (or “cosmos”) as we know it – a world in which nature brings forth living creatures. Before natural life with its cycles of birth, fertility, and death begins, there is no death or disease, but with life comes the problem of evil in its various forms. In this case the form the story concentrates on is the evil of disorder. Exactly why Enki’s claim to preeminence (for that is what his eating of the plants seems to amount to) is a source of disorder is not altogether clear. The preeminence of the father god is taken for granted in many ancient myths, but in this case it is not. Is it possible that behind the version we now have there was an earlier version with a matriarchal emphasis, that is, with the idea that the female principle is preeminent in generation? What we see at any rate is a struggle between the male and female sources of life to define rightly their relative dignity. When Enki, the male principle, claims excessive eminence in the eyes of Ninhursag, she demonstrates her own importance by withdrawing her life-giving power. Her importance is subsequently realized by the other gods and by Enki himself, who has to ask her for healing for each part of his body that is afflicted. At the end his own stature is not denied either, but an appropriate balance seems to have been worked out. The masculine principle’s usurpation of knowledge and power seems to be represented as a sort of fall that must be purged through suffering and the establishment of proper order. Another point worth mentioning is that we have here a fairly typical mythic pattern in which disorder in creation is repaired by dissolution, and the establishment of right order through an act of new creation, the healing of Enki and the birth of the goddesses who replace the plants. Since this sequence of creation, death, and rebirth is also the pattern of the annual cycle of vegetation, the myth seems to do double duty as a story of creation and as a commentary on the cycles of nature.
Chaos Monster and Sun God from the Babylonian creatiion epic Enuma Elish. Black and white crop of full engraving plate scan – from Plate 5 of the work “A second series of the monuments of Nineveh: including bas-reliefs from the Palace of Sennacherib and bronzes from the ruins of Nimroud ; from drawings made on the spot, during a second expedition to Assyria” (WH Layard) / Wikimedia Commons
Whatever the details of the story and its ramifications, it is clear that its main emphasis is on the importance of the order that is lost when one element in the cosmos, however important, steps out of place and claims a preeminence that would upset the balance necessary to proper order. An aspect of the myth that is significant from the point of view of the comparative study of religions is that this analysis of the problem of evil interprets it in terms of the violation of a fragile balance of mutually necessary and interdependent forces, and it implies that, constituted as this balance is of an unstable tension between contrary superhuman or divine forces, existence itself amounts to a continuous struggle to maintain it. This is an explanation of evil, then, in terms of an inherent conflict within an ongoing drama of creation, a pattern of myth that was typical in Mesopotamia as well as in Egypt, Canaan, and in the ancient Near East generally. It implies further that the gods themselves are limited in power and wisdom, even if they greatly exceed human beings in both qualities, and there is a constant possibility that their conflicts will affect mankind. It also implies, as we shall see shortly in the case of the Enuma elish, the great Babylonian creation epic, that human beings have the task of assisting the gods in their efforts through their own acts of righteousness and the maintenance of the earthly world.
Creation myths as such ostensibly deal with the origins of things, but their real focus is mainly on matters of present concern to those who compose them, tell them, or listen to them. They tend to deal primarily with mankind’s specifically human, existential needs, such as sustenance, progeneration, social and political order, and problems of meaning and purpose in life, rather than with questions seeking particular information about the natural world. They do sometimes address such questions, but even when they do, the emphasis is usually on a higher level of concern. The myth we have just considered, for example, could be interpreted as explaining why crops grow at some times of the year and not others, but it clearly means much more than that as well. The sexual motif expressed there is common to most of the ancient Near Eastern creation myths; it suggests in this case an interest in understanding how such things as vegetables first came into being, but more generally considered, the sexual generation of the cosmos symbolizes not only the importance of sexuality but also the organic interrelatedness of all life on all of its levels, from gods to men to animals and vegetables.
Another widespread motif is that of battle between creative and destructive forces. In the Dilmun myth it took the form of a personal conflict between mother and father deities. In the Enuma elish it becomes a regular military campaign. In either case it can be interpreted as an image of and explanation for the seasonal renewal of nature, but it also expresses a concern with the continuing need of the creative forces in the cosmos actively to counter the threat of disorder and of return to chaos. The Enuma elish (the title means “When on high” and is from the first words of the Akkadian text) has come down to us mainly in its Babylonian form, but some fragments of a Sumerian original have also survived. In the Sumerian version everything begins with the union of sky and earth, represented by the first “thing,” a cosmic mountain whose base is earth (female) and whose summit is the sky (male). The Babylonian version begins with the pre-cosmic chaos – “When on high the heaven had not been named,/ Firm ground below had not been called by name…. No reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared….” Neither gods nor men had yet been created. There was only the primordial pair, Apsu (male, associated with fresh water) and Tiamat (female, the sea), “their waters commingling as a single body.” Time and the world begin when they give birth to the first gods (perhaps representing the accumulation of silt where the river water meets the sea). These beget other gods and goddesses who mate in turn to produce the gods of earth (Ea) and sky (Anu) and so on. (Interestingly enough, earth and sky are here both represented by male gods, evidently because the Babylonians wanted to give honor to the earth god, Ea, progenitor of their own special god, Marduk. They seem to have been more emphatically patriarchal than the Sumerians.) As the story proceeds, the younger gods annoy their original ancestors by their rude manners and presumptuousness. Apsu complains that he can gain no rest by day or by night because of their incessant noise and proposes to annihilate them. Tiamat, though she too is angry with them, urges restraint, but he ignores her. When the younger gods hear of his plans, they become virtually paralyzed with fear except for Ea, who casts a spell of sleep on Apsu and then slays him. Afterwards he builds his home on Apsu’s body and begets Marduk. (The image suggests earth, perhaps mud from the river, building up above the level of the water so that habitations may be built and the Babylonians eventually generated.) The poem proceeds with lavish praise of Marduk (the sun), who is said to be the tallest and strongest of the gods. Marduk himself creates the four winds and produces streams, both of which annoy Tiamat. She decides to put an end to all of this nuisance and to avenge Apsu. She takes a new consort, Kingu, and raises an army with which to make war on the gods. When they hear of this they are at a loss until they think of asking Marduk to lead them. Ea invites Marduk to the assembly of the gods. Marduk promises to be their champion, but asks in return that he be made supreme among them and that all their authority to “determine the fates” be given over to him. They willingly proclaim him king over all of them and confer on him throne, scepter, and royal vestments.
When Tiamat sees Marduk ride into battle against her, she goes wild, taking leave of her senses and shaking to her lowest parts – an image not only of a stormy sea, but of chaos itself. Slaying her, Marduk splits her in two like a shellfish and thrusts one half upward to make the sky and the other downward to make the sea, setting guards to ensure that her waters will not escape and threaten the world again. The dome of heaven he makes to correspond to earth as its heavenly counterpart. Then he executes Kingu and creates man from his blood so that the gods will have a servant to maintain the earth when they have withdrawn to the heavens. As their final work of creation the gods build Babylon and at its center as a temple to Marduk the great ziggurat, described as reaching as high as Apsu, as high, that is, as the primordial waters were deep.
Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal impression from the eighth century BC identified by several sources as a possible depiction of the slaying of Tiamat from the Enûma Eliš Wikimedia Commons/
One thing to notice in this myth is the fact that the gods need mankind in order that they may rest from labor. They are not unlimited in power or radically transcendent, but constitute only a part of the larger system of things that is the cosmos as a whole. They find it necessary themselves to struggle to establish and maintain creation and to keep it in proper order. Also, they do not create the world from nothing, but make it from a pre-existing reality: the world as we know it is made from the body of the subdued Tiamat, and man from the blood of Kingu. One might say that the gods do not “create” the world in the same sense as that concept is employed in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, but rather they are the world, and we are consubstantial with them. Theogony (a myth of the birth of the gods) and cosmogony (a myth of the birth of the ordered world) are here one and the same.
The plot of the Enuma elish describes both the creation of the cosmos as a whole and the evolution of the political order of Mesopotamia until that time – as seen, that is, from the perspective of Babylonians in the second millennium looking back to the origins of the order in which they have preeminence over their neighbors but are themselves under the authority of the gods and the divine justice to which they are obligated. The movement from a divine assembly of peers to a centralized monarchic system under the rule of Marduk, god of Babylon, parallels the historical movement from independent city states in Sumer and Akkad to the Babylonian empire. That the Babylonian emperors of the period interpreted their own authority as subordinate to and representative of an overarching divine order can be seen, for example, in the preamble to the Law Code of Hammurabi (approximately 1750 BCE), which opens with a description of how Anu and Enlil, lords of heaven and earth, committed lordship (“the Enlil functions over all mankind”) to Marduk and then called Hammurabi personally to enforce their justice in the land.
The underlying idea in this picture of historical development seems to have been that earthly kingship was conferred from a superhuman source and was an imitation of and participation in the ordering power of a divine original, the order established by the gods of the empire at the beginning of the world. This meant that royal rule was intended to be sacred rule in the service of true justice. It also meant that human life and its order were connected with the cosmic order and the life of the gods. If human farmers did not cultivate their crops, if reverent worshippers did not offer sacrifices, if justice among human beings was allowed to go to ruin, then the life of the gods would also suffer injury.
This interpretation of the relation between human beings, the world, and the gods is an example of cosmological symbolism: a symbolism in which human life and society are interpreted by analogy with cosmic order. This was the predominant pattern of symbolism in Ancient Mesopotamia, and we see it also in Egypt. It is not the only pattern of symbolic interpretation possible, but all over the world it seems to have been the first to develop. Anthropomorphic symbolism, such as that which developed later in classical Greece (in Plato’s Republic, for example), likens society and the cosmos to a human existence well attuned to an order of being that is specifically human in character: the inner order of a wise and virtuous person. Anthropomorphic symbolism usually develops only after cosmologically symbolized societies begin to break down and to disappoint their members deeply enough that they feel the need to turn to an entirely new way of thinking in order to discover meaning and purpose in life.
Fragment of a stone plaque from the temple of Inanna at Nippur showing a Sumerian goddess, possibly Inanna (c. 2500 BC) / Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Wikimedia Commons
This special quality of disappointment never seems to have afflicted the ancient Mesopotamians, or at least not enough of them to have caused a radically new development in their culture. Most of the myths the Mesopotamians have left us suggest that they found the presence of evil in the universe intelligible in terms of the basic model we have seen depicted: that of a precarious balance of interdependent forces. An example can be seen in the story of Innana and Dumuzi, a myth of which a substantial Sumerian portion survives but which also went through various later adaptations. The central concern of this myth has to do with the place of death in the scheme of things. Innana was a Sumerian goddess of love and fertility. (During the Babylonian period she became assimilated to the Akkadian Ishtar, who among the Canaanites was the goddess Astarte and was condemned under the name of Ashtoreth by the Hebrew prophets.) The myth begins as a love story in which Innana woos the shepherd Dumuzi (later known as Tammuz among the Akkadians), weds him, and rules with him upon earth. This, however, is only the prelude to the main action, which begins when Innana decides to descend into the underworld to unseat its ruler, her elder sister, Ereshkigal, and gain dominion over that realm as well. If she could succeed, of course, it would amount to an entirely new order of things. There would no longer be a balance between forces of life and of death, with its consequent cyclic rhythm in nature.
To reach the throne of Ereshkigal, Innana has to pass through seven gates, at each of which she is required by the gatekeepers to give up some items of clothing and adornment. When she finally reaches her sister, she has to face her naked and powerless and is paralyzed by her look of death. She is then hung on a nail as a prisoner. When she fails to return, a trusted friend, following orders she had given before she descended, appeals to the gods Enlil and Nanna-Sin to free her. They respond that Innana, in entering the land of death, was meddling with forbidden things. For Innana to remain captive in the kingdom of the dead, on the other hand, would also upset the necessary balance of forces. Enlil, therefore, sends messengers with the food and water of life to revive her. The judges of the underworld declare, however, that if she returns to the upper world she must find a replacement to send back in her stead.
Arriving again in her city, Erech, accompanied by demons from below, she discovers her husband, Dumuzi, conspicuously enjoying her wealth and the opportunity to rule alone in her place. She lashes out at him in fury and orders the demons to take him as her replacement. Dumuzi flees, but the demons catch him and drag him down to Ereshkigal.
The sequel is lost, but some scholars have speculated that Ereshkigal felt compassion for Dumuzi and decided to let him spend half of the year above ground every year (an explanation for the cycle of the seasons). With or without that embellishment, however, the story clearly implies that there is no way to escape from the rhythm of the cosmos, the inherent structure that embraces both life and death and gives both an inviolable place in the scheme of things. Innana, the goddess of fertile life, was attempting to overcome death and replace its power with her own exclusively. This was shown to be impossible, and at the end an appropriate balance and mutual respect between the two forces is established.
Ancient Sumerian depiction of the marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi / Wikimedia Commons
This, however, deals with the problem of suffering only on the universal level. The symbolized death of Dumuzi is terrifying to him, and in the Tammuz version it is described as accompanied by the wailing of women mourners, but he remains more of an archetypal symbol than a figure of individual suffering. To the extent that it is unique or unintelligible, suffering is experienced as intolerable by all of us, not just by ancient Mesopotamians. To the extent, however, that one can universalize it (as in the maxim, “Everyone dies someday”) and explain it as necessary (whether because it has a place in the cosmic scheme of things or because it serves a worthwhile goal, such as a death in battle for glory or country) the sting of suffering is mitigated.
To what extent were the Mesopotamians aware of the problem of suffering that was both unrelievedly individual and completely resistant to explanation? The ancient Israelites have left the story of Job as their own testimony to this problem, and there the uniqueness and inexplicability of at least one case of suffering are faced without flinching. Job’s comforters offer him explanations, tracing his loss of children and wealth to various possible offenses on his part, but he knows that he is innocent, and in fact at the end of that story God Himself declares the emptiness of all such explanations and makes clear that there is no way out of the mystery of this evil, but that Job must simply and faithfully acknowledge the majesty of God in spite of his suffering. To face the problem of suffering so directly as this takes a certain courage and reflects a high level of reflectiveness. It also requires a keen sense of individual existence. The evidence suggests that such self-awareness has not been present on a very large scale in every society; many cultures reflect an immersion of the individual in the archetypal so complete as to eclipse the sense of uniqueness and with it the problem of individual suffering. As Eliade has described it, “Archaic man …tends to set himself in opposition, by every means in his power, to history, regarded as a succession of events that are irreversible, unforeseeable, possessed of autonomous value.” He goes on to say that “In the Mediterranean-Mesopotamian area, man’s sufferings were early connected with those of a god. To do so was to endow them with an archetype that gave them both reality and normality.”
What, however, might we find in the way of evidence that the problem of individual suffering was recognized and wrestled with by the ancient Mesopotamians? Our best evidence can be found in two important texts. Let us consider what they might be able to tell us about this. We will consider the simpler of the two first. This is a poem sometimes referred to as “The Babylonian Job” because of its likeness (in some respects) to the Biblical story just discussed, but it is also known by its opening phrase, Ludlul bel nemequi (“I will praise the lord of wisdom”). The similarity to the Book of Job is that it presents the problem of a man who is suffering but is aware of no sin that can explain it. He is ill, weak, and suffers the hostility of his neighbors. His prayers to the gods have been fruitless. This situation goes on for some years and drives him to the point of beginning to doubt the principle that suffering is due to a violation of the cosmic order and that living in accord with that order brings good fortune. Finally, however, he has a series of three dreams sent by Marduk in which he is healed and purified with water and is given the promise that Marduk will help him. It is revealed that the sufferer unknowingly violated some cosmic norm and that this rendered him vulnerable to sorcery on the part of one of his enemies. What his exact sin was is never made clear, but finally Marduk comes and causes the wind to carry away his unnamed trespasses and breaks the curse of the sorcerer. The protagonist subsequently performs a rite of gratitude in Marduk’s temple, and all the Babylonians praise the greatness of the god when they see this manifestation of his power to deliver one from affliction.
The important difference between this poem and the Book of Job is that here the doubt that suffering has a cosmological explanation is raised only to be rejected. The basic message of the poem is a still more emphatic affirmation of the cosmological principle: gods, human beings, and the natural world are all embraced within a total system involving a balance of interdependent forces. In the Biblical case, on the other hand, the problem of suffering is considered from a point of view in which divinity has begun to be interpreted as radically transcendent; the God Who speaks to Job at the end is not contained within a cosmic system to which he is himself subject, but is absolutely sovereign and the source of all that happens within the cosmos he creates, whether good or evil from a human point of view. This is a conception of divinity that developed only gradually among the ancient Israelites, but by the time the Book of Job came to be written in the form we know it (probably in the Post-Exilic period), it was a major theme in Jewish religious thought. It was not present at all among the Mesopotamians.
Marduk and his dragon Mušḫuššu, from a Babylonian cylinder seal. / Wikimedia Commons
Basically there are four ways in which evil has been explained in the religious traditions of the western world. One is the explanation in terms of a balance of forces within an organically interrelated cosmos. In this framework evil takes the form of a byproduct of an ongoing drama of creation in which the necessary balance is being worked out, threatened, and maintained among a set of rival divinities, none of whom is unlimited in power. This conception was predominant not only in Mesopotamia but also in most other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Another explanation was the Biblical conception of an omnipotent divinity Who creates the cosmos out of nothing and Who, though present within it through his creative activity, is essentially beyond it in His being. In this framework, evil is explained not through a myth of the drama of creation but through the myth of the Fall of Man: God’s creation is finished and good, and evil entered it later through the free choice of human beings who turned away from the moral order decreed by God.
A third type of mythic explanation of evil is found in the tragic myth of the ancient Greeks, as seen for example in the story of Oedipus the king. In this framework the cosmos is composed as it was for the Mesopotamians of a necessary balance of forces, but ultimately it is not good, or at least not for human beings. Oedipus tries his best not to violate the cosmic norm that prohibits parricide and incest, but is driven to it by an overarching fate that, while not exactly hostile to human concerns, seems clearly to be indifferent to them. When the gods are appealed to, they are themselves (unlike the Mesopotamian Marduk) helpless to intervene. The result is that Oedipus is ground up in the works of what Jean Cocteau called, in his modern version of the story, an “infernal machine.”
The last of the four is a conception that has ancient roots but became widespread in the Hellenistic period and influenced a number of religious traditions. It is expressed in what can be described as a myth of the exiled soul: the souls of human beings, or perhaps of an elite among them, were originally divine, but through forgetfulness of their divinity they have become trapped in material bodies. The cosmos, in this view, is not a home for human beings, but a prison, an alien environment from which their task is to escape. In the Gnostic version of the myth, which entered into some Jewish and Christian thought in late antiquity, the means of escape lies in recovery of the secret knowledge (gnosis) of the soul’s true divinity. The problem of evil is solved at a single stroke by interpreting the whole of creation as evil and urging its rejection.
Still another explanation of evil, widely influential in the religions of the East, is the theory of karma, by which suffering is interpreted as the result of wrong action in a previous life, but this theory never really took hold in the West. Some versions of Gnosticism involve the idea of reincarnation, but there the cause of rebirth is usually considered to be a cognitive rather than a moral error.
Possible representation of Gilgamesh as Master of Animals, grasping a lion in his left arm and snake in his right hand, in an Assyrian palace relief, from Dur-Sharrukin / Photo by Jastrow, Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons
To return, however, to the question of the extent to which the Mesopotamians wrestled with the problem of suffering that is genuinely individual, not just archetypal, and that calls the cosmological principle into question, let us consider the Epic of Gilgamesh. This story is about a famous early king of Uruk in Sumer and probably dates from the late third millennium BCE It was first written down about 2000 BCE, and versions of it were widespread by 1500 BCE The most complete surviving text is in Assyrian, but there are fragments of earlier versions in Sumerian and Akkadian.
Gilgamesh, the poem tells us, was of mingled divine and human parentage, but he was a mortal all the same, and it is the problem posed for him by his mortality that gradually unfolds as the main theme of the poem. At the opening he is a vigorous and effective ruler of Uruk – in fact too vigorous: his constant demands on his people for labor and military service lead them to appeal to the gods for relief. The goddess Aruru responds by creating another energetic creature, Enkidu, to attract his interest. When Enkidu comes into the world, he is man in his most primitive state; he goes naked, is covered with hair, is enormously strong, and lives among animals in the wilderness. Befriending the animals, Enkidu protects them from hunters, who, unable to fight him themselves, appeal to Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh decides to send out a sacred prostitute, Shamhat, to try to civilize him. Shamhat goes out to the wilderness to wait for him by a waterhole. When he comes, she attracts his interest by uncovering her nakedness. There follows a week of heroic love-making, at the end of which the sated Enkidu tries to return to the company of his animals but finds they now shy away from him. Shamhat tells him that he no longer belongs among animals but has become wise and god-like. She offers to take him to see the great walls of Uruk and to meet mighty Gilgamesh. Enkidu decides to go with her and challenge Gilgamesh in order to rule in his place. He arrives in Uruk at the moment of Gilgamesh’s wedding procession and bars his path to the bride. The two powerful figures hurl themselves on each other and fight like young bulls, shaking the walls of the bride’s house. Enkidu turns out to be the stronger of the two, but his generous praise of Gilgamesh makes them fast friends forever after. Looking for adventure together (Gilgamesh seems to have forgotten all about the bride) they set out to kill a monster named Huwawa, and when they return victorious the goddess Ishtar herself falls in love with Gilgamesh and proposes to him. Recalling her treatment of Dumuzi-Tammuz, for whom she has ordained wailing year after year, he turns her down. Furious, Ishtar appeals to her father, Anu, to unleash the bull of heaven. Anu warns her that this monster will be so destructive that the famine he causes will last for seven years, but she persuades him to unloose it anyway. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, however, are a match even for the bull of heaven. Enkidu gets behind it and twists its tail, and Gilgamesh plunges his sword into its neck. Afterwards Enkidu, enraged by Ishtar’s curses, tears off the bull’s shank and throws it at the goddess.
This infringement of the proper etiquette between human beings and gods, as one might imagine, means trouble. The gods hold an assembly and sentence Enkidu to death. Enkidu is horrified and proceeds into a long lament in which he curses everything in his life that has led to this end: his departure from the animals, his love-making with Shamhat, his migration to the city, and even his friendship with Gilgamesh. The sun-god Shamash, however, intervenes and persuades him to withdraw his curses and bless his friend before dying. In a last dream Enkidu has a vision of Irkalla, the land of the dead presided over by Ereshkigal. This is a house of dust and darkness, devoid of real life, in which one is no longer any more than a shadow of oneself. It is essentially the same as the underworlds of the ancient Israelites (Sheol) and Greeks (Hades). Far from representing a form of immortality, it is simply death depicted in the most graphic terms imaginable. (The idea of a genuine afterlife was a comparatively late development, even in Israel.)
After his friend’s death Gilgamesh falls into extreme despondency – and not simply for the loss of his companion, but because death, which had always been a remote abstraction to him and therefore acceptable as a part of the universal scheme of things, has now become a concrete, vivid reality to him. What he realizes is that however long and glorious his life may be, death awaits him – his own personal death. This becomes an obsession that undermines any joy he might have been able to take in his own and his city’s glory and any equanimity he might have drawn from the contemplation of the balance of forces in the cosmos. The thought of his death haunts him day and night. Finally he decides to try to go in search of an escape from mortality. He has heard of an ancestor of his named Utnapishtim who once won perpetual life as a gift from the gods and who now dwells at the end of the earth. While he is engaged in this single-minded quest, the Sun-god, Shamash, reproaches him for his lack of moderation, but Gilgamesh is not interested in reasonableness; his heart is set on only one thing, not to die. Eventually he arrives at the shore of the great sea that encircles the earth, where he finds a tavern run by a woman named Siduri. She too offers the conventional wisdom, urging him to accept the fact of human mortality and in the meantime to enjoy food, drink, and merriment, wear beautiful clothing and bathe in fresh water, rejoice in his children and give satisfaction to his wife, for this, she says, is the task of mankind. Again he refuses to listen and persuades her to tell him how to find Utnapishtim. She directs him to the boatman, Urshanabi, who takes him to Utnapishtim’s island.
Relief of Utnapishtim and a tablet with the Babylonian flood story / British Museum
The result, however, is bitter disappointment. Utnapishtim tells him how he won immortality. It was not through deeds of valor such as Gilgamesh might hope to emulate. The way it happened was that at a time when the gods had decided to destroy mankind in a great flood, Ea, more foresighted than the others, realized that without human beings to maintain the earth they would themselves languish for lack of sacrifices. Ea told Utnapishtim to build an ark and save his family and pairs of all animals. The story is very similar in many respects (even in such details as the loosing of a dove to explore for dry land and the settling of the boat on a mountaintop as the waters recede) to the Biblical story of Noah (which, as far as written records indicate, it predates by many centuries and perhaps by more than a millennium). After the flood the gods realized their hastiness and were so grateful to Utnapishtim that they conferred perpetual life on him. Unfortunately it was something that could happen only once, since the gods would not make the same mistake again; there is no recipe Gilgamesh could follow to achieve the same results as Utnapishtim.
Utnapishtim suggests, evidently in a mocking spirit, that if Gilgamesh wishes to conquer death he might begin by trying to conquer sleep, and for starters he might attempt to remain awake for a week. No sooner does Gilgamesh take up the challenge than sleep overcomes him. Utnapishtim would happily let Gilgamesh sleep himself to death, but his wife (we are never told anything about her own mortality or lack of it) takes pity on him and persuades Utnapishtim to wake him and let him go home. She also persuades him to tell Gilgamesh the secret of a plant that will give not immortality, but at least perpetually renewed youth. This thorny plant grows in the Apsu, the sweet waters deep under the earth. (In the Mesopotamian cosmology the earth is a great floating island.) Gilgamesh sets out with Urshanabi to dive for it, which he does by tying stones to his feet to draw him down to the bottom. When he gets the plant he is overjoyed. It seems that his basic goal has been achieved. On the way back, however, Gilgamesh, feeling the heat of the day, decides to take a swim in a cool pond. He leaves the plant with his clothes, and while he is swimming a serpent comes out of its hole and eats it. Immediately it sloughs off its old skin and is renewed, shiny and young.
With that, Gilgamesh completely despairs. The mood that follows this bitterness, however, is one of resignation and composure. Essentially he accepts the wisdom of Shamash and Siduri that he had rejected earlier. At the end of the poem he takes the boatman home with him and walks with him upon the great walls of Uruk, praising the grandeur of the city and of his royal domain.
This ending poses an interesting problem for the modern reader who looks back through this text to try to discover the mind and the existential concern that originally produced it. Are we to take the poem as a lesson in the value of moderation and the acceptance of human limitations (as Siduri had recommended), or can it be taken as a radical protest against those limitations. There is no easy answer. It may be that some poet or poets behind the text we now have may have felt the full force of Gilgamesh’s problem and may even have felt the potential threat this posed for the cosmological principle upon which the Mesopotamian worldview was founded. In fact someone must once have felt this in order to show Gilgamesh’s experience of it so vividly. How far did the challenge to basic Mesopotamian assumptions proceed, however? Did anyone ever seriously doubt them, perhaps to the point of considering the possibility of another perspective? There were at least a few rare and ultimately transitory cases of this among the Egyptians, and the Israelites did break radically with the cosmologically symbolized order of their neighbors and their own earlier ancestors, but there is no evidence that any other way of looking at the system of the world was ever sketched out among the Mesopotamians. Whatever the depth of his own anguish and doubt which some poet may have expressed in the picture of Gilgamesh’s experience, the ending of the poem is designed to reassure and encourage its audience. Gilgamesh’s obsession becomes, from the perspective of the conclusion, only a temporary disorder of the spirit that must be overcome if one is to live in proper harmony with human nature, the cosmos, and the gods.
During the Akitu festivities, the creation epic of Enûma eliš was recited, while the people sang all kinds of hymns and songs / Louvre Museum, Creative Commons
The normal response in Mesopotamia to the problems of evil, suffering, and death was to exorcise them through rites of renewal. An excellent example is the Babylonian New Year Festival, or Akitu, which was celebrated each spring during the first twelve days of the lunar month Nisan. This festival had Sumerian predecessors also, which were celebrated twice annually (since there were two growing seasons) in the various cities of Sumer, but during the period of Babylonian dominance it was celebrated only once, in the capital, and it was attended by the gods of the subject cities – that is, their statues were brought to Babylon on barges that came from up and down the river.
The function of a rite of renewal is to purge away all evil through a return to the time of origins. Deviations from the archetypal, divine models of reality are corrected, according to the symbolism of this rite, by the complete dissolution of the decaying cosmos into chaos and its rebirth in pristine purity. As Eliade has described it, “Every New Year is a resumption of time from the beginning, that is, a repetition of the cosmogony. The ritual combats between two groups of actors, the presence of the dead, the Saturnalia, and the orgies are so many elements which …denote that at the end of the year and in the expectation of the New Year there is a repetition of the mythical moment of the passage from chaos to cosmos.”
Implicit in this mythic process was a conception of time radically different from our own. Shaped as our minds have been by later Jewish, Christian, and Muslim ideas of time as a historical course moving in a straight line from the past through the present toward some future culmination, it is difficult for us to step back imaginatively into a vision of cyclical time like that of the Mesopotamians and many other ancient peoples. In this vision, time does not move in a linear direction, but circles always back upon itself. One of the reasons the Babylonians developed the skill in astronomic observation for which they are still famous is that for them the course of the stars and planets through the sky during the cycle of the year meant much more than it does to us. For us astronomy may be interesting, but it remains only information. For them it had existential import; the stars and planets were the macroscopic image of reality. At the end of their annual cycle these heavenly bodies became fatigued, just as vegetation faded and died on the earth, and if the life-giving cycles were to continue, they had to have an infusion of new energy from beyond the time in which they were decaying. Otherwise neither would the crops grow nor the stars and planets continue their courses. At the New Year, it was believed, one did not merely commemorate the return of a point of time on the cycle, rather a break in the closed circle of cyclical time opened up through which new energy could flow into the world. The New Year Festival was thus the temporal equivalent of the temple, a sacred center at which a point of opening and of communication between levels of being was possible. As we shall see, the two types of center, spatial and temporal, intersected at the climax of the festival.
The first five days of the Akitu were devoted to contemplation of the need for renewal due to the sterility of the land, the draining of energy from the heavenly bodies, and the moral decay of human beings and of the state, all of which were interpreted as having fallen into a profane condition by their departure from divine models. During this time the Enuma elish was recited in Esagila, the temple of Marduk, so that the battle between Marduk and Tiamat, between order and chaos on the level of the gods, was reenacted.
Mardi Gras revelers on St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, 2007 / Photo by radiate2357, Wikimedia Commons
Really to understand what this festival meant in its own world, one must appreciate fully what is implied by this notion of reenactment; this was not simply a matter of commemoration, but of return out of this created world to that other time in which the gods struggled and the world was made. It was a reactualization of the cosmogonic drama. This reenactment through recitation was accompanied by a further level of reenactment through dramatic action as two groups of actors took the parts of the armies of Marduk and Tiamat. Still further forms of reenactment took place in the remainder of the festival. On the fifth day Marduk went through a period of imprisonment on the level of myth, while on the level of earthly society the king was ritually stripped of his emblems of power and was replaced by a lord of misrule. All social order was overturned as chaos temporarily won the upper hand in the struggle of the gods. (Vestiges of this part of the festival still survive recognizably in the modern Mardi Gras.)
This triumph of chaos was brief, however, and on the sixth day the tide of battle began to turn. A criminal was beaten as a scapegoat, paraded through the streets, and driven out of the city into the wilderness bearing the accumulated sins of the year with him. In the next days Marduk was liberated from prison and elected king of the gods. On the ninth day the statues of the visiting gods were taken to the Bit Akitu (the House of the New Year’s Feast), which was surrounded by rich gardens, and on the tenth a banquet was served.
The climax of the festival came on the night of the tenth when the king, following the banquet, went to the Temple of Marduk (at the center of the city and of the world) to celebrate the rite of hierogamy (sacred marriage) with one of the temple prostitutes, probably in a small hut at the ziggurat’s summit, thus releasing the inflow of creative energy from above by enacting the union of male and female forces of fertility at the point where the cosmic mountain touches the heavens. Imagery of rain occurred in recitations that accompanied this union, and from this fertilization of the year proceeded the renewal of stars and planets, crops and animals, human beings and society.
On the following day the gods assembled to establish the destiny of mankind during the coming twelve months. Presumably this would be favorable. On the twelfth and last day the statues were loaded on their ceremonial barges and returned to their home cities. The cycles of time could resume, the astral bodies could begin again their circuit of the heavens, and the life of the earth could proceed through its cycle of birth and growth with confidence that when it fell again into decline it could also renew itself at the same source from which its vitality always flows.
In this ceremony of mythic and dramatic reenactment of the cosmogony and in the other principal myths we have examined, we can see an illustration not only of the character of ancient Mesopotamian thought, but also of the nature of mythic thinking generally and of the cosmological symbolism which for much of ancient mankind made human life meaningful as a participation in the higher life of archetypal models and of divine energies.
For those who put their trust in them, these myths provided at least four major benefits:
- They established an ordered world-view, an interpretation of reality as a cosmos, as a balanced, multi-leveled system of interdependent forces in which human beings could feel at home.
- The cosmological pattern of myth also established a foundation for earthly order by interpreting human society as a microcosm of the greater system of the cosmos. It made it possible for men and women to see their social world as a hierarchy in which each actor played a necessary role: the rulers in maintaining the order of society, the producers in providing sustenance and the material resources for an enjoyable life, and the priests in making possible contact with the divine sources of life and order.
- It established and gave spiritual support to the value system of society by interpreting that system and the laws in which it was expressed as deriving from decrees of the gods and guiding mankind in the fulfillment of the divine will.
- It relieved human beings of the burden of uniqueness and delivered them from the threat of individual and possibly meaningless suffering by interpreting each person’s life as an instance of an archetypal pattern, its joys a participation in the joys of the gods, men, and nature, and its sufferings a participation in the struggle of divine forces to establish and preserve the proper order of the cosmos.
Impression of the cylinder seal of Ḫašḫamer, patesi (High Priest) of Sin at Iškun-Sin, c. 2400 BCE / Wikimedia Commons
Myth makes it possible to contemplate through its analogies a possible higher level of reality that could not be objectified effectively in any other way, at least for these people. When the cultural movement known as “philosophy” developed many centuries later among the classical Greeks, another way of considering questions of cosmic meaning became available, but the Mesopotamians and their neighbors in the ancient Near East did not have that resource.
And even if they had, it could hardly have taken the place of mythic thinking altogether. Whatever the virtues of abstract speculative thought, its appeal has never been felt with much force by the great mass of mankind in any age, and myth has continued in every society to play an essential role in the interpretation of human life. As Eric Voegelin has said,