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ANCIENT FICTIONALITY: RELIGION AND CREATIVITY

MESOPOTAMIAN RELIGION I

written by: Stanley Wilkin

@catalhuyuk

 

ANCIENT FICTIONALITY: RELIGION AND CREATIVITY - MESOPOTAMIAN RELIGION I by Stanley Wilkin at Spillwords.com

…religions are the greatest of all humanity’s collectively created works of art.’
Kriwaczek, Paul. ‘Babylon. Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization.’ 2010. Atlantic Books Ltd. London.
Page 29.

 

1.      Abstract: Ancient Fictionality

2.      Introduction

3.      Sumerian Creation Myths

4.     PART ONE: Scribes, Scholars and Culture

5.      The Beginnings of the Universe

6.      PART TWO: Gods and heroes: the greater reality

7.      Literature as falsification

8.      Enlil and Ninlil: connections of place

9.      PART THREE: Secular Literature

10.    Gilgamesh and King David

11.    Gilgamesh

12.    Conclusion

 

Abstract: Ancient Fictionality

This paper holds that religious texts were initially a product of fictionality, producing myths and stories that thereby were not literally true, nor were intended to be, but were an essential part of exploring, developing and understanding the varying facets of the world in much the same way as modern fiction and film/cinema production. Ancient Sumerians for example were eager to impose order on the world, resembling the order of their urban societies, and explain how the world functioned. These two ideological approaches to existence met it seems within a ‘powerful imagination and a poetic sensibility of the highest order’ (Kriwaczek: 2010: 29) creating relationships between natural phenomena within an elaborate discourse that included humankind. The idea of distant powerful sensibilities invested with natural force, the destructive whirl of storms, or reflected human qualities remains with us still in the various Abrahamic cults. That the structuring and authenticity of religion is achieved through literary devices, personification, repetition, rhetoric, hyperbole, professional story-telling, is often ignored.

As with serious plays or less demanding television productions the content’s association with reality, that is the times and integral relationships between characters, is subject to form, audience, and cultural context. Through all such mechanisms human thoughts and feelings are framed, described and elaborated within a limited if culturally accepted set of intensely articulated paradigms. The ancient world had few methods of analysing and critiquing their environment, therefore an alternative reality populated by gods and other supernatural beings served that purpose. Often through religion the world is set before us in a fashion that competes with the immediacy of our everyday existences in apparent greater actuality.

This paper holds therefore that the dynamics of Mesopotamian and Ancient Egyptian urban cultures demanded the construction of order, and that scribes, priests, politicians, various entertainers met that need through the creation of an alternative dimension in which cultural anxieties were both dramatized and resolved. In this fashion, religious belief based upon discursive or narrative literature can be viewed as absorption in the act, processes and outcome of human creativity-our imaginative need to realign day to day phenomena. Religion consists of metaphors, many several millennium old, which have constructed and construct human reality. The construction of archetypes and metaphors by the first state religions and accompanying literature, religious and secular, remain and influence us today.

This work will also involve the development of ideas such as a universal god and universal religion, a consideration of martial gods, the validity of Biblical and Islamic history, concepts of suffering, salvation and resurrection-the latter important themes in many art or writing based religions of the Middle East and Africa. It will also look at the conjunction formed by Islam, its paradigms of conquest, and its roots in ancient Mesopotamian cultures, Christianity, Roman and Persian state development.

Crucial to the completion of this book’s overall argument is the part played by words and writing, see above, in the construction of belief, and that without the former accomplishments belief as it is experienced in the present would not be possible.

Each religion has evolved through the acquisition of knowledge (Mesopotamian and Egyptian), in the face of overwhelming conflict and political oppression (Judaism and Christianity), or through paradigms of social development, competition and conquest (Islam).

 

Introduction

Initially, the development of cuneiform will be considered, along with the scribal institution in an endeavour to assert the centrality of the scribal imagination to Sumerian culture, and how that imagination, while at first at the behest of temples and kings, developed an archival and intellectual substrate involving both the transmission of knowledge/ideas and classifying attributes that encouraged the construction of fictional accounts of the world expressed through gods, space and time. This paper will explore the development of scribal culture, leading to an intellectual class that was intent on exploring and researching the ‘representational potential’ of cuneiform writing as well as responding to instructions from temple and court. Cuneiform signs are polyvalent, subject to more than one reading, representing either a syllable (syllabogram) or word (logogram) and thereby subject to textual complexity (Veldhuis: 2011: page 69).

Secondly, the nature of the literature on deities will be analysed. Such literature covers a wide spectrum, more concerned with the activities of supernatural beings than the later Abrahamic stories in which god, similar but not the same in all variations, has no clear inner life but voyeuristically lives through his/its creation. The later god, alone and without enjoyment, appears to live a sterile existence.

 

Sumerian Creation Myths:

The Sumerian narratives provide specific details of urban celebration and invention through the interaction of the gods/goddesses. There is a fun element to many of these narratives, a sense of play. Early religions, comprising sustained narrative, worship of a single entity, varied according to circumstances, belief free of contingency, discrete, marked characteristics of the entity and prayer, involved conscious role play (Kriwaczek: 2010: 43-44), setting religious worship within a drama full of words, music and occasion. The Roman Catholic Church does the same, creating theatre for the mass of the population, while Islam has created alteration of reality within behaviour and thought. The suspension of disbelief is crucial here as, see above, when attending a play or watching CGI in a particularly rococo Sci-Fi film. Holiness, formed by neo-Sumerian times, c2200 BCE, when daily prayer became an expectation and religious experience private, was constructed upon separateness, with the god’s house, the temple, situated high above the city on ziggurats, the temple often exclusive to priests and kings, or royalty, with public and private space adroitly defined, and communication with gods/goddesses done via particular gestures, hands clasped like celestial telephones.

The Sumerians would have found the intellectual edifice of their world plausible, as we do ours, accepting that urban civilisation was fashioned from the sexual activity of the gods, principally Enlil, and that professional skills were connected to changes in heaven, a Sumerian invention, or the birth of new gods created for particular purposes. They would have seen that the amalgam of nature and urban civilisation underlying their grasp of reality justifiable. But otherwise, in their instructive poetry/chants/songs the Sumerians were wonderfully playful, mainly without the doom and violence of Ist Millennium BCE narratives. The creation of human beings, for example, is free of the impeccable gravity of Abrahamic religions, and their all-too-frequent hatreds and genocides.

Samuel Noah Kramer writes of an introductory creation passage in a dispute, or disputation, between Cattle and Grain, often alternated with Sheep and Grain. Here, the gods, the Anunna (ki), have just been born on a mountain side, and are without food or clothing as Ashnan, the grain-goddess, and Lahar, her sister the cattle-goddess, have not yet been created. Humans, already on earth, are naked, hopeless, and without intelligence. In the creation chamber of the gods, the Duku, the two goddess’s were promptly created and subsequently human beings given their humanity. In this creation myth, it appears that the chief gods and human beings (in form if not potential) already exist, thereby the focus of the myth are the Anunna (ki). For whatever reason, the making of the new gods Ashnan and Lahar is mechanical. Human beings are no longer lullu, but made cognisant, and Ashnan and Lahar create abundance and prosperity (Kramer: 1979: page 42):

 

Lahar and Ashnan wrought wonderously,

Brought abundance to the assembly,

Brought the breath of life to the land,

Carried out the me of the gods.

In the storehouse of the land goods multiplied,

In the warehouses of the land stocks were heavy,

In the indigent homes pressing close to the dust,

Stooping low they bring abundance,

The two of them wherever they set foot,

Bring heavy increase to the home,

Are meet for wherever people stand, are fitting for wherever people sit,

They delight the heart of An and Enlil.

 

Unfortunately, after drinking large amounts of alcohol Lahar and Ashnan quarrel over who is more important, and, after what can be assumed a noisy dispute, Enki and Enlil judge the matter and decide on Ashnan. Alcohol was often a device for dispute and change. Grain was valued for more than sustenance in Sumeria, but served also as currency. Also, although interpreters[6] see grain’s triumph due to its importance for basic sustenance, its importance in creating alcohol for warriors and others was of perhaps of near-equal importance.

The myth thereby involves the creation of the Anunna (ki), of rational human beings from more primitive forms (lullu), agriculture and husbandry. It is a very sophisticated piece of writing that skilfully posits a home for the gods, the mountain, representing one focus for heaven, a pure place of creation, the Duku, and the invention of writing, the mention of a measuring rod, as the goods produced by the two gods had to be recorded. The disputations between Cattle and Grain/Sheep and Grain can perhaps be seen in the Bible story of Abel and Cain, where agriculture here is not preferred. Genesis often views pre-agricultural societies as a kind of Eden, the Neolithic world of hard, consuming work hell itself. In Paradise nobody works! In Genesis, the murderer Cain, disapproved of by god, establishes the first city-probably in Mesopotamia. The Cattle and Grain dispute covers nearly all the necessities for civilisation. It is fun and pleasurable to read.

Many Sumerian stories concern fruitfulness and fertility, unavoidable in agricultural societies, in a world in which humankind was created in order to tend to the gods. In another similar myth, Enki and Ninmah: The Creation of Man, the gods married and reared families but, called upon to labour on canals and farms, created only a subsistence culture.  Enki, asleep in his watery shrine, the Abzu, is awakened to come to the aid of the gods, and he created the sigen-sigdu, (obscure reference that has evaded understanding), endowing them with a measure of his own wisdom. Instructing his mother Nammu to mix clay from on top of the Abzu, a fresh water lake surrounded by marsh, he ordered the sigen-sigdu to nip off the top of the mixed clay. While Nammu shaped the clay, Ninmah, the goddess of childbirth, with the help of seven other deities, fashioned perfect human beings, selected as the gods’ servants, their labourers and domestics.

The chief gods, proud of their originality, then grew drunk on beer at a banquet, Enki and Ninmah fighting each other in their inebriated states. Ninmah promptly, as the result of this disagreement, created six defective humans, crippled and blind, challenging Enki to find a place for them amongst the human servants. Enki responded to the challenge and found work for each, thereby aligning roles for the handicapped. According to Kramer (1979: 43), for the blind man he gave ‘the art of song’ and for the barren woman he made the harem. Enki promptly created another vulnerable human being, either an old man or child, and challenged  Ninmah in turn to find it a place in society.

In these versions, the world/universe is made up of several associated species: the seven chief gods, all part of a single family group comprising an, who originally represented heaven/sky-in this version ki, the earth goddess, is missing-, Enkil (the chief god after an), who was probably Semitic in origin and represented storms, Enki, the god of intelligence/cunning, closest in nature and ideals to human beings. Often the gods are itemised with celestial partners. Although the other gods were mainly, but not entirely, visualised within human forms, they owe their abilities largely to nature and not to human traits. Inanna follows this group, at times deemed Enki’s daughter, but in fact she may have preceded them all. Next comes the Anunna(ki), a race of gods, and the igigi/igigu a lesser, subservient race of gods according to Atrahasis concerning the period before humankind: ‘The Seven great Anunnaki were making the Igigu suffer the work’ (lines 5-6) . Such groupings are evident in Jewish, Christian and Islamic concepts of heaven with cherubim filling the role, for example, of the igigi.

In Enuma Elish, the Babylonian Creation Epic probably written simply to install Marduk, the Babylonian chief god, as Mesopotamian chief god, Marduk reorganises the gods in Tablet VI:

 

King Marduk divided the gods,

All the Anunaki into upper and lower groups.

He assigned 300 in the heavens to guard the decrees of Anu

And appointed them as a guard.

Next he arranged the organisation of the netherworld.

In heaven and netherworld he stationed 600 gods.

 

Humans were created to labour for the gods as the Anunna (ki) found work too hard or more likely beneath them. In many narratives, see above, original humans are presented as little more than beasts, perhaps hunter-gatherers. Sumerians often referred to non-city dwellers as animals. Neo-Sumerian texts painted Amorites, an immigrant group who later founded Babylon, as ‘a tent dweller of the mountain, unfamiliar with grain or cooked meat, with life in the city, or worse yet with death and burial in a proper grave.’ As we will see, Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s other persona, is of a similar type. The world is constructed gradually through the creation of specialised gods via the employment of managerial and artisanal skills within the contexts of labouring and production. Human beings are provided with small quantities of Enki, the qualities necessary to run cities, to enable them to serve gods.

Here, there is no clear beginning and Time starts when the gods are born, or just prior to that, conceived of as a generational process, and actuate the separate acts of creation, setting civilisation in order, although one myth shows an, representing the sky, and ki, the earth, being separated by their offspring Enlil, thereby setting into existence the dynamics, the big bang if you like, of creation. Nevertheless Andrew George refers to Amatud-anki as the Mother-who-bore-Earth-and-Sky. Mesopotamian cosmogony went backward, establishing earlier Mothers.

Sex is usually presented as the mainspring of creation, as it is with human beings. The Abrahamic religions bypassed this crucial connection by early eliminating YHWH’s wife-also the wife of El-and creating a lonely god. There is a completion to Enki’s work, when the world is set in order and all the gods are created. Human beings play no part in creation, but are merely passive, objects for the gods to use, their cultural and technical development ordered by the gods in a perceived relationship similar to Islam and their almost solitary/removed revered power or force.

This construction of reality was produced through literary composition, dancing, chants, and possibly theatre, see above, culminating in both the Ur 111 period and in the later Old Babylonian period. It provided a view of human beings as subordinate and subservient with the gods (aristocracy and royal family) above.

In Sumeria goddesses played a substantial role in the creation of civilisation, and it may be only over time that gods dominated (Kramer: 1979). There does seem to be a connection between Inanna and the Mother-Goddess, found, but not exclusively as gods can also be seen in the Palestine/Lebanon area, from at least 8000 BCE in  Catalhuyuk, Syria and Palestine. The Bull of Heaven (Gilgamesh legend) may have originated in auruchs, giant, extinct cattle, found in association with the Mother-Goddess. Changes were wrought by scribes in response to a greater focus on warfare and masculinity, described by Kristiansen and Larsson[11] as contained within the divine aspects of kingship ideology. Ur111: ‘You (in) your judgement, you are the son of Anu. Your commands, like the word of a god, cannot be reversed.’(Falkenstein 1936). ……In the royal hymns, the king possesses many qualities such as physical strength and beauty. He is often a soldier, a military commander, expert in handling weapons and brave, and he is also a great hunter of dangerous animals (Hallo 1963). His great wisdom and ability to speak all languages and his knowledge of music and hymns also contributed to giving the king more or less superhuman qualities.’ During Ur111 Enkil appears to have become the most important of the gods, succeeded temporarily by Marduk. Both were aggressive, even at times destructive. Enki or Ea, the god of intelligence and creation, became increasingly subordinate as scribes’ reconstructed his role-banished to apsu by his mother Nammu, another version of the Mother-Goddess

The role of literature in the construction of alternate, heavenly realities reflecting earth-bound desires and concerns is clearly evident in all the later Abrahamic religions, and although we never dispute the role of imagination and creativity in early religions, we often deny the same role in the manufacture of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many need an uncritical belief in the outputs of literature in order to function well in the society that created them, or is the beneficiary (sic) of them. The bicameral reality expressed by Sumerian religion, whereby gods think for and manipulate human servants, not forgetting the introduction of various demons dangerous to gods and humans, is consequential in all of the above religions and may also be common to many even earlier cultures, such as the Palaeolithic societies of Europe with a belief in sky/heaven, earth/reality/ or time circumscribed, under the earth hell/or the land of spirits and the dead. Sumerian literature produced a narrative thereby around core ideas.

Alongside literature, statues, sacred places, animate and inanimate properties serve to identify religion in the process of sanctifying space. In the ancient world, Mary Helms concludes that space is never neutral, containing ideological significance. Horizontal space was conceived within sacred and supernatural paradigms-seen in Gilgamesh’s wanderings-while vertical space always contained the same elements but with elements of awe-mountains and temples for example. Such space is filled with gods, heroes and monsters.

This process can be found in a number of areas, not only religion. The construction of a specific narrative, purporting to reflect reality, can be found in Communist and Fascist literature of the previous two centuries, professional specialisations such as psychiatry and psychology in which reality is assessed by a controlling elite, and, in a burst of originality and creativity, by Sigmund Freud. Well-written text can be convincing. The written word establishes reality in a way that the spoken word does not, creating interconnecting properties.

 

1: Scribes, Scholars and Culture.

While ancient Mesopotamian literature described the early city states within the context of godly lives, thoughts, relationships and the now often obscure symbolism by which these matters were both formed and revealed, they equally explored the existences of city-states within these factors. The city-states were theocratic, although not as Krishna Chaitanya appears to believe ruled mainly by priests, or kings under priestly guidance. The reverse, in which kings controlled the temples, by the 3rd millennium BCE was probably the case. The administration of each city was conducted in the name of one or, at times, two gods. The kings, an institution that probably arose at the beginning of the 3rd millennium, were considered god’s regents, ruling on the god’s behalf. Kingship was thought to have come down from heaven, but not perhaps in an archetypal form as can be seen in the Gilgamesh legend-there a good king is a nurturing one.

Royal scribes, from the early 3rd millennium, may have been instrumental in forming the hierarchical system of related supernatural dynasties, reflecting the early city states of the time[18] or predicting their hoped-for development, while other scribes may have put forward alternative or adjusted political systems. There appears to have been clear alteration of text by senior scribes throughout Mesopotamian history adding to myths and stories. A partial list of the virtues, beginning with supreme lordship, and including sexual intercourse, shepherdship, prostitution, art, musical instruments and music testify to the intellectual focus of scribes constructing the world through concrete nouns and abstracts-combining into one. Philosophically proposed, these lexical lists provide both certainty and relationships between social roles.

The earliest literary tablets at present known date to around 2600 BCE, although Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat confidently suggests 2400 BCE at Ebla, Abu  Salabikh, and Fara, which seems late as scribes signed their names much earlier. Before then, writing had, it seems, been only used for administration purposes. The first known texts were written in a defective fashion, making reading it difficult for anyone not familiar with the text. The sound of the words was prioritised. According to Vogelzang and Vanstiphout (page 25), from its very beginning cuneiform writing provided scribes with orthographical conventions that added substances to the text that had no basis in spoken language. The writers demonstrate this with references to the UD.GAL.NUN texts, stylised hymns from Fara and Abu Salabikh written in a special cryptographic orthography. This the authors claim was for the scribes’ intellectual enjoyment.

As a consequence of the above, it has been suggested that Sumerian was an artificial, written language created by scribes as a consequence of the different languages spoken within Sumeria. This allowed it to be utilised for Akkadian and Hittite.

 

Cuneiform literacy

Through literacy, intellectualism emerged that employed words to shape the present and past, at the same time positing an alternative reality that replicated and reflected their own. Bettero (1992: page 291) describes a group of scribes he references as scholars, marked out from mere copyists. These created new works and ideas.

Veldhuis (2011: pages 70-80) references three types of cuneiform literacy leading to insights in the levels of literacy. There is at present a growing conviction that literacy may have been more widespread than previously imagined, although according to Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zolyomi (2004), only a very few people knew how to read and write. They hold that only large public institutions and wealthy families required writing. It was a tool for managing wealth and proving ownership. There were also different degrees of literacy according to the functions involved. They raise thereby the question as to why literature evolved as it appears to have had no economic value or function (page xli). Probably it developed from scribal tradition, the teaching of young scribes but also the increased intellectual curiosity that writing creates in many minds, as well as within the entertainment provisions of court and market place. The authors also assert the existence of a long tradition of oral composition before the use of scribal writing to establish literary forms, and the continuance of oral composition alongside written texts, limited to a small elite of scribes and possibly the occasional curious aristocrat.

Cracks have appeared in this long held position. During the Old Babylonian period at the beginning of the 2nd millennium new genres emerged, acting as a testimony to greater literacy, including omen compendia and mathematical problem text. Of interest is the introduction of tabular accounts in place of the linear accounts previously employed, as this can be compared to the improvements in data presentation and usage of the computer age in which we now live.  Veldhuis (2011: page 72), referencing Eleanor Robson (2011: pages 557-576), suggests that intellectual development demonstrated by the introduction of tabular accounts and genre innovation was the consequence of the greater independence of scribes. Previously they were in the service of central authorities and although writing remained to some extent an arm of institutional power it was also considerably freed from this. Cursive scripts were developed for increased fluency allowing for writing to become familiar to and widely used by ordinary citizens.

In the matter of greater literacy than considered previously, it is possible that political events changed the political and social position of scribes, as Sumeria was subject to invasion from Iran, the north and from the west resulting in population change and the introduction of new cultures, such as the Amorites. Often new kings, such as Hammurabi, used changes in policy as a means of claiming legitimacy.

The success or continued existence of Sumerian cities was linked to specific gods/goddesses and their activities often reflected or were ascribed to specific gods/goddesses. Citizens’ main duty was to care for their chosen god/goddess.  It is likely that all Sumerian deities were supernatural beings of place. Leick (2001: 146) refers to Enki’s association with the Apsu, a large place of water connected to Eridu. Later the Apsu became symbolised by any form of water, allowing Enki to be claimed by any city. In Uruk, kings were identified by their ritual relationship to Inanna, routinely wooed and seduced. The role each city played in Sumerian society often determined the nature of their god/goddess. Before the late 3rd millennium, Inanna, Enki, and Ningirsu were the principal gods, Enlil coming into prominence with the rise of Lagash. By the time of Hammurabi Enlil-ship had come to mean kingship.

Much of the composition on the gods/goddesses came during the Ur III period when according to Leick (2001: 149) scribes ‘adjusted theological and historiolographical notions to suit a centralized state system.’ But not necessarily inventing, building instead on existing beliefs.

Enlil’s name has long been taken to be the Sumerian for en-king-and the component lil-wind, ghost (Leick: 151), therefore Lord Wind. More recent scholarship has stressed his possible Semitic origins, and that Enlil is a transcription of the Semitic word for god, that is ‘il’, the root form of El and Allah. This work will later consider the implications for the development of Hebrew religions and Islam, suggesting Mesopotamian roots or associations.

 

Kinds of literacy:

Veldhuis (2011: page 73) highlights technical literacy as a consequence of orthographic peculiarities. For example, it is within omen compendia that the ‘if----then’ expression appears, replicated in other scholarly or scientific texts, demonstrating protasis, an observation interpreted as a sign, and apodosis ‘an associated prediction, or meaning of sign.’ Veldhuis asserts that such texts are more likely to employ logograms, making them more accessible to the specialist than the layman. This approach lent itself also to law codes, and can be found in one guise or another in later religious texts.

Lastly, Veldhuis (2011: pages 74-80) distinguishes Scholarly Literacy as consisting of a full knowledge of cuneiform writing in contrast to the two above that required only a partial knowledge to transmit their specialised data of technical and functionary matters. In our modern world, the users of Scholarly Literacy represent our academics, poets and fiction writers, those exhibiting a desire for knowledge and love and curiosity of words. Within these texts can be discovered a concern with the archaeology of both knowledge and writing.

Scholarly writing, according to Veldhuis (page 74) can initially be found in lexical texts. For example, the list of professions Lu A extends backwards into the 4th millennium presenting both historical interest and also an elite imposition of order and reality. Palaeographic sign lists from the end of the 2nd millennium show a focus upon earlier sign forms in pursuit of scholarly curiosity and record. The list of the professions was composed in the 4th millennium, around the time writing was first developed, providing, apart from its philosophical intentions (e.g. individuals are merely fully identified cogs in a greater community), standardised texts, demonstrating the signs to be used. This is one of the first recognised instance of preserved knowledge, although earlier protoliterate lexical lists can also be found with dozens of ideographs for reeds, reed products, waterfowl and fish. Lu A continued to be employed until cuneiform writing stopped being used in favour of alphabetical texts.

 

Scribal Education

Scribal education involved the learning of literacy skills but also the transmission of knowledge through copying texts. These included sign elements, Sumerian and Akkadian names, nouns and nominal phrases that provided an early scientific approach through Naming, acrographic lists, metrological lists and tables, mathematical tables, Sumerian proverbs, contract templates, Sumerian literature, hymns to gods and kings, narrative texts and more light hearted texts.

Clearly, scribes, in their many forms, played a crucial role in describing and defining reality. Words after all have that purpose. According to Veldhuis (2011: page 83), scribal education concerned itself with not merely acquiring writing and reading skills, but with constructing a scribal identity that transcended time and space. While involved with the day to day intricacies of society, recording contracts, laws, etc, it involved itself also with the construction of an alternative if interdependent reality formed of heroes, gods, etymology, and the pursuit of complex ideas. According to Veldhuis (page 86), scribes were conscious guardians of Sumerian heritage. The poem Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, dealing as it does with the invention of writing, demonstrating the superiority of Uruk/Sumerian technology to other cultures, may represent scribal belief in their centrality to Sumerian culture.

When much Sumerian/Akkadian literature was composed is open to conjecture as there remains little unassailable evidence. Nicole Brisch (2011: page 707) provides the accepted view that it was written in the Ur 111 period of political and cultural dominance at the end of the 3rd millennium, but equally it may have come into being in the following Old Babylonian period from which many of the tablets have been found. Actually, there is no reason they were subject to single composition as many, such as the Gilgamesh epic, demonstrate signs of development suggesting a much longer gestation.

 

Inclusive or exclusive?

The social environments for which texts were composed or used probably involved the elite, but it remains uncertain which if any were employed as entertainment and which remained vehicles for scribes and the immediate employers-such as the temple. Vogelzang and Vanstiphout appear to believe that debates, where arguments are employed by usually two people with a consequent resolution were used as comedies (1992: pages 32-33). Another form Instructions, a father handing down his wisdom to a son, they claim is an extremely old literary form, evident in the Early Dynastic Period, also seen in Egyptian and later Hebrew literature. The wisdom displayed tends to be practical, dealing with day to day events, such as the buying of slaves or how to travel. Here, proverbs are employed-an early and popular literary form in the Middle East. The use of dialogue to convey a narrative can be found in Schooldays and The Father and his Disobedient Son.

Although a number of Sumerian epics are considered attempts to glorify the third dynasty of Ur, the intellectual conundrums dealt with in many, such as Gilgamesh and Akka, Inanna’s Descent suggest the existence of an intelligentsia discovering the world through composition. The Sumerian King List legitimates the line of ruling dynasties, perhaps allowing for identification of statures of dead kings (Vogelzang/Vanstiphout: page 39). While other long pieces such as the Ur Lament, may have been employed to fix and glorify the beginnings of cults, often merely an alliance between states. Many of the pieces appear to have been written for performance.  It seems clear that many were sung in public displays.

Vogelzang and Vanstiphout (1992: 43) have identified 4 groups of poets:

1.      Temple singers
2.      Scribes
3.      Court poets
4.      Illiterate, non-professional people able to tell stories and compose poetry.

Each would come from a particular angle, probably with very different perceptions of the world they lived in. As oral composition remained a constant, ideas were transferred between temple singers, court poets, scribes and the illiterate poets, singers. The results were products of the imagination, often with heroes or gods/goddesses as the main characters. Added to these are the use of hymns and other religious literary forms to celebrate and fix in time-concepts different to ours religious ceremonies or events, such as the building of a temple. The world of the supernatural always enjoyed sharper detail than the human world that existed alongside it.

With the reign of Shulgi at Ur, during the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (c2050-1950 BCE) came a literary and musical flowering. He established Sumerian schools at Nippur and Ur. These preserved much earlier Sumerian literature in the Sumerian language, which was already a written language only, like Latin in medieval Europe. It was the language of an intelligentsia. During this period writers flourished although the majority of cuneiform recovered celebrate kings and commemorate events of the 23rd to 19th centuries BCE (Black, Cunningham, Robson, and Zolyomi: 2004: xlvii), due, all the above believe, to the oral transmission of the works in the scribal schools (xlvii).

During the Old Babylonian period Sumerian, again like Latin in Medieval times, was taught to Akkadian-speaking students. Accustomed to debate, according to Nemet-Nejat (2002:71) the students created contests between two characters, such as Summer and Winter, which the scribes fixed with a special ideogram-Man-Man with the second Man written upside down. This kind of contest literature, often demonstrating immense analytical ability, was usually for court entertainment, see above. It certainly provides the lie to Plato’s originality.

Nemet-Nejat (71-72) also mentions later philosophical works, including the Mesopotamian Job in ‘The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer’ who follows his religious precepts of honouring the gods in the prescribed ways but still seems unable to please the gods. As with Job, prayer and sacrifice seem insufficient for material reward, peace of mind and simple luck. Although this philosophy seems closer to Islam, the Christian belief in providing love and forgiveness, although admirable, achieves the same or similar results. The belief both share in an afterlife blinds each to the present one, not seeing that all share the same fate.

 

Reality Construction

As already observed, writing constructed or participated in the construction of Sumerian reality-which in many ways is also ours, reshaped according to place and time. We have preserved much the same notions of religion and worship, with anthropomorphic gods, the same hand-based modes of worship, the same separate space with shared, if contingent, Time, the same or similar kinds of subjection-especially Islam. The communication methods used by Abrahamic gods were developed in Mesopotamian religion.

Jean Bottero has presented an extensive understanding of the intellectual and sociological aspects of Sumerian script, which provides insight into the effects of religion.  Bottero (page 88) shows that Sumerian words began as pictures, as with many other early scripts, becoming for efficiency stylised and simplified representations. In time they possessed symbolic purpose, moving from signifying one object to aspects of that object, creating objects and what that object does, that is run, eat, sleep and in addition with other objects. Bottero emphasises the extended use the language could be put to In addition he considers the bilingualism, two very different and distinctive languages, Sumerian and Akkadian, that was early involved in its construction,

The ancients, according to Bottero (page 97), saw the written word not as an epiphenomenon, contingent and subject to phonemes-signification accidental processes, with their source in the object named. To receive a name and to exist were exactly the same, making Naming (Kripke: 1980) and reality important functions in reality creation. The Sumerian lists were not reflections of reality but were fundamental attributes of reality in the same way that a chair or mountain are. Although this may be akin to magic, which is created by words, it stands apart providing the building blocks of perception, seeing, feeling, and knowing.

The naming and characterising of a god gave that god/goddess (permanent) substance greater than pictorial rendition, filling the greater world with its actual physical presence. The same processes can be seen in the Bible and the later Qur’an-what is imagined becomes real. Bottero (97) itemises:

When, on high, the heaven had not (yet) been named (and), below,

The earth had not been called by name

Indicating the original non-being of heaven and earth until called into existence by naming. Describing YHWH and his behavioural traits establishes YHWH as a god. The construction of gods/goddesses remains with the word.

The permanent presence and features of a god/goddess are consistent with the consistency of the word. This can be seen most clearly in Islam where the material permanence of Allah is contained by the constant recourse to the Qur’an, Hadith, and Salah. In Islam the words are usually analysed, not the meaning. So powerful is this tendency, introduced into followers from a very early age, that the sound of the words is sufficient to affix the substance of the god. Christianity, in which art plays a substantial part but plays a more limited part in Islam, retains its influence without constant recourse to the word.

When an object becomes representational and imbued with meaning, the basic visual areas are connected to both the language system and the conceptual system in the temporal and parietal lobes and also to visual and auditory specialisation areas called association areas. This by itself is likely to cause the illusory effects referenced above, the feeling of god’s reality. For many, the appearance and symbolic nature of the Qur’an is enough, for others the Cross, initiating thereby a thousand religious discourses, observances and programmes.

In Sumerian the metaphor, for example ‘as the storm’, ‘as the grain’, bestowed the forces of nature onto the representational form of a god thereby over time separating abstract properties from daily life. In Christianity for example the metaphors are self-representational, creating paradigms outside of experience thereby requiring believers to enter a different actuality that is not based upon known-experience.

 

Lexical Lists

Even in the present day, our construction of reality is often based upon the process of both naming and listing. Lists of words appear very early in Sumerian culture not only to provide scribal exercises but to form perceptions. The lists are concerned with enumerations, often in a hierarchical form, and classification of natural and cultural, city-based, entities.

Prominent amongst these lists are divine names, known from the Fara period at the beginning of the 3rd millennium. These lists became canonical in the 2nd half of the 2nd millennium. Jacobsen in 1946 referred to the Sumerian religious reality as one built upon social relationships, within intentionality based upon the directives of a state, with each god/goddess having its natural bent and powers, its administrative section in effect, subject to change and secretion. Added to this is the notion that supernatural power permeates all things and events, with the human world embedded in a mythical field of force, which focusses occasionally on particular events and figures. All this is subject to identification and characterisation through writing, which structured the world of the gods in the manner of the human state-not contingent, as in animism, but intentional. According to van Dijk the god lists represent a source of ideas on cosmic history.

The intentional nature of gods, their activities outside of and beyond the human world, sharing nodules of time but often not the same space, remains with us in the modern religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It is in Sumerian religion that these religions have most of their roots-a thinking god for example in a hierarchical system absorbed within its own will.

The god list places an, similar in a number of characteristics to Allah, at the top alongside Enlil. These are followed by the some of the major deities and a succession of names containing nin or lamma. These also form a lexical arrangement within the main god list. Within the nin lexical group are other smaller groups. Lisman (page 83) notes that Namma (the primaeval waters) is isolated. Another Fara list omits an but begins with en-ki, the god of Eridu, considered the first city. Sumerian religion was after all pluralistic, with gods/goddesses considered important according to each city-state. The Abu Salabih list, described by Lisman with reference to P. Mander as ‘acrographic, acrophonic, and thematic’ represent gods of important Sumerian cities of the period, Uruk, Nippur, Eridu, Ur, and perhaps also Zabalam, Lagas and Adab. In the later, Old Babylonian god list Antum and Uras, newly seen as an’s wives, appear, perhaps demonstrating a connection with Western (Syria and Canaan) ideas on the cosmos. Elsewhere, an and Uras (a role elsewhere assumed by ki) are described as Enki’s parents.

Claiming original essence for a city god gained greater prominence for the city in a competitive religious dance, altering a deities’ power and importance, with Marduk ruling the cosmos for Babylonia, or Enlil for Nippur.

The importance of a deity reflected or shaped the thinking in which their prominence occurred. This also reflected cultural shifts and population movement. According to Lisman (2013: 151), an was representative in Uruk from ‘time immemorial’, while Enlil was introduced into North Sumer before Early Dynastic time, perhaps at first representing il, the head of the West Semitic pantheon and probably the god of Abraham. The universe nevertheless began with the primaeval unit an-ki, a unit of an. This unit developed into an, but also the chthonic gods en-ki and nin-ki. Although strangely Lisman makes no mention of Inanna/ Ishtar, who may have preceded an at Uruk, and later been demoted. More literature considers Inanna, her exploits and game-playing, than any other Sumerian deity. Although in Old Babylonian Sumerian literature (Lisman: 173), Namma is revealed the mother of an-ki, all creation devolved upon family connections, she is therefore revealed as the primaeval beginning, the procreator of the gods-revealing thereby once again the earliest importance of goddesses.

As the god’s names represented the self-same property, the essence became fixed. Heaven meanwhile, or rather the space occupied by gods and goddesses, was not it seems fixed. While they appear to have resided, probably through their statues, in the cities they patronised they also met in council and later acquired an abode in the sky, expressed as Dilmun, modern day Bahrein, achieving this long before the Abrahamic religions and probably providing its priests with this cloudy location. Mesopotamian gods seem to have existed in the same geographic vicinity as humans but in a different space or plane, revealing themselves by stepping from one space into another.

 

The Beginnings of the Universe

Lisman (page 176), in his extensive research, could find no evidence for human creation in the Early Dynastic period, and the first reference to human beings he discovers comes from Ninurta’s exploits, in which the gods’ plans are described. Here, as in later narratives and polemics, human beings are presented as potential workers, with no other specific qualities. At first, it is the gods who farm, producing bread, the most important food source and economic product in Sumeria. In ‘The Debate Between Grain and Sheep’, farming and sheep-herding, human beings are presented as Lullu, primitive without civilisation, unable to eat bread, moving on all fours, eating grass. They were simply animals! Requiring servants and workers, the gods inspirit them with higher traits. Thereby the gods become gods, establishing a hierarchy, and assuming powers. Without a strata of human servants, clearly they had nothing to be godlike over and to. The gods are simply a closely aligned but separate species existing in a separate temporal plane within the same overall reality-system. They enjoy a history and lifestyle related to humans, as their actions permeate into the human plane.

The human beings in turn assist their godly creation through worship, and preserving rituals. Human beings have assumed godly characteristics while remaining subordinate.

Of probably relatively late composition or a rewrite of an earlier composition, the Epic of Atrahasis-the Sumerian Noah-involves the creation of humankind with the blood or essence of a rebellious god, Aw-ilu, suggesting Satan and his involvement with human fate and development. Acquiring such rebelliousness, human beings gain the seed of autonomy. Enlil seeks human extermination because of their over-population of the earth and all the consequent noise they made. Although human original sin, as the result of Aw-ilu’s blood, is cleansed by the flood it remains through Atrahasis. Humankind from then on was doomed to self-destruction.

The Mesopotamian and Egyptian narratives of creation are much closer to ‘Creation’ in Genesis than imagined. The accepted Biblical translation,

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’,

should be,

When God began to create the heaven and the earth-the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water-God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Rather than creation from nothing, there is instead a process with the material of the earth already existent and only the separation of heaven and earth perhaps required. Enuma Elish cites Tiamat, which in Babylonian was the feminine form of ‘sea’, as Mother-Goddess and Apsu, seen as a fresh water sea, as her mate. The waters engage in sexual mingling from which the gods are created. The Sumerian pantheon gradually appears and the newly formed younger gods, hearing that Tiamat has decided to kill the newly created offspring, rebel and Ea kills Apsu. From Apsu, Marduk, the future chief god, was born possessing four eyes and four ears-more demon-like then human. Tiamat gathers together an army of monsters to fight the younger gods. Ea and Anu are asked to fight Tiamat’s army but cringe from the prospect. Marduk takes up the challenge with immense success and defeats Tiamat in single combat.

The author, as no doubt there was only one for this, the final version, mingled different myths making an original whole, the flood-story was included for instance with gods as the victims instead of humankind and without the earlier denouement, although seas in the form of Apsu and Tiamat are involved. The failure of Ea and Anu when faced with immense responsibility demonstrates their demotion as senior forces in heaven and the new reign of Marduk. The killing of Apsu refers perhaps to the rejection of the ancient roots of Sumerian Theogony. The destruction of Tiamat represents the destruction of the old celestial order, and, also, the overcoming of the feminine in the ancient Middle-East. The poem’s core may initially have involved Enlil as chief god, although the final result suggests a single creative mind at work.

With Tiamat dead, Marduk creates material reality from her considerable corpse:

 

Tablet IV:

He split her into two like a dried fish:
138   One half of her he set up and stretched out as the heavens.
139   He stretched the skin and appointed a watch
140   With the instruction not to let her waters escape.
141   He crossed over the heavens, surveyed the celestial parts,
142   And adjusted them to match the Apsû, Nudimmud's abode.
143   Be-l measured the shape of the Apsû
144   And set up Ešarra, a replica of Ešgalla.
145   In Ešgalla, Ešarra which he had built, and the heavens,
146   He settled in their shrines Anu, Enlil, and Ea.

 

Tablet V

1   He fashioned heavenly stations for the great gods,
2   And set up constellations, the patterns of the stars.
3   He appointed the year, marked off divisions,
4   And set up three stars each for the twelve months.
5   After he had organized the year,
6   He established the heavenly station of Ne-beru to fix the stars' intervals.
7   That none should transgress or be slothful
8   He fixed the heavenly stations of Enlil and Ea with it.
9   Gates he opened on both sides,
10   And put strong bolts at the left and the right.
11   He placed the heights (of heaven) in her (Tia-mat's) belly,
12   He created Nannar, entrusting to him the night.
13   He appointed him as the jewel of the night to fix the days,

The foam which Tia-mat [ . . .
48   Marduk fashioned [ . . .
49   He gathered it together and made it into clouds.
50   The raging of the winds, violent rainstorms,
51   The billowing of mist—the accumulation of her spittle—
52   He appointed for himself and took them in his hand.
53   He put her head in position and poured out . . [ . . ] .
54   He opened the abyss and it was sated with water.
55   From her two eyes he let the Euphrates and Tigris flow,
56   He blocked her nostrils, but left . .
57   He heaped up the distant [mountains] on her breasts,
58   He bored wells to channel the springs.
59   He twisted her tail and wove it into the Durmah(u,
60   [ . . . ] . . the Apsû beneath his feet.
61   [He set up] her crotch—it wedged up the heavens—
62   [(Thus) the half of her] he stretched out and made it firm as the earth.
63   [After] he had finished his work inside Tia-mat,
64   [He spread] his net and let it right out.

 

Marduk, or the ambitious Babylonians, purloined the act of creation, separating thereby from the Mesopotamian Sumerian and Akkadian past and its ancient connection to female deities, which were obliterated in a blast of a particularly narrow masculinity as defined by a fire-exhaling man-monster. Although it was not so clearly defined, and ea, with his emphasis on intelligence and intellectual skills, remained influential and effectively re-emerged through figures like Jesus (see below), martial and patriarchal qualities dominated.

Of note: the Mesopotamian versions of creation were/are imbued with personality, each element subject to anthropomorphism, but in the Biblical account only god has intentionality. This god interacts with objects or properties which already exist. He is not the creator, merely moulder of what is already there.

 

Nippur

Eleanor Robson warns of the preponderance of literary samples coming from the site of Nippur, thereby perhaps giving a certain slant to our perceptions of Sumerian literature. She asserts that the 28 curricular compositions known as the Tedad, Decad and Fourteen include the most widely known examples of Sumerian literature, with 40 % coming from a single Nippur scribal school known as House F. The majority of the works that have survived were, according to Robson, written by trainee scribes busy learning and memorising Sumerian literature.

Exploring the focus of early Sumerian literature, Robson notes that it is mainly anonymous humans and goddesses who were able to write and count, after which came gods, kings and named humans. Heroes hardly at all. These make up the audience for literary compositions. The origins of writing (its literary form at least) were assigned to Nisaba, patron goddess of scribes, who is noted for passing her skills onto Lipit-Estar (r.1934-1924 BCE), to Enmerkar the Lord of Kulaba, Uruk, who invented writing it appears to enable complex diplomatic messages to be faithfully transmitted, or given to goddesses by grateful gods, as in Enlil and Sud. Whatever writing’s origins, it was considered a divine gift bestowed upon human beings providing or connected to wisdom, truth and organisation. As a divine gift, it represented a greater reality-seen later in the composition of and defence of the Qur’an. Women, it seems, may have been deeply involved in the development and use of writing, but such a conjecture is based upon the number of goddesses connected to the invention and preservation of writing skills.

Leick (2001) examines Nippur scribes connected to temples. Nippur was the religious authority, recognised throughout Sumeria, its scribes therefore were important in the reconstitution of religious narratives. Reaching its greatest size during the Ur III period, it was in demand for the study of oracles, legal decisions, cultic songs, hymns and incantations. There was also (page 160) ’a demand for specially commissioned literary works to commemorate the dedications of statues or the restoration of buildings by potentates.’ So far, 30,000 cuneiform texts have been discovered at its ancient site.

Nippur enjoyed a scribal quarter, an administrative district where important officials lived in large houses. Leick suggests (page 161) that doing a period of increased prosperity when literacy expanded there was a greater concern with scribal training. Added to this was the need to conserve the Sumerian language, which was no longer commonly used throughout Sumeria. Leick asserts that the scribal houses or schools (Edubba) actively continued until the end of the Old Babylonian period, enjoying a revival under the Achaemenid regime over a 1000 years later.

Stanley Wilkin

Stanley Wilkin

Stanley Wilkin is a freelance lecturer and education consultant working in London
Stanley Wilkin

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