Illustration of the animals boarding the ark.

Mythological Stories from Ancient Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization

Mythology is a genre of both oral and written literature. They are a collection of traditional stories belonging to a certain culture, often featuring stories of supernatural creatures, gods, kings, heroes, and more. They were developed by societies to explain the origins of their existence, the origins of the world, and other phenomena that cannot be explained rationally.
All cultures in the world have their own collection of myths. The most fascinating of all, however, have to be those that came from the world’s oldest civilization, otherwise known as the Mesopotamian civilization. Mesopotamia is where humans first began forming complex societies, developing important activities such as agriculture, irrigation, domestication of animals, writing, etc. This is also where the oldest literary work comes from, and it is believed to be the oldest myth to ever exist.

These factors give all the reasons to further explore this topic. So, in today’s post, we’ll be looking at what mythological stories were like in the world’s oldest civilization. We’ll look at a few myths from this ancient civilization, and see how these stories shaped or rationalized beliefs in the various Mesopotamian cultures.

What do Myths Tell Us?

depiction of various mesopotamian mythical characters
Image Credit: Brewminate

Before we begin, let us first understand why mythological stories are important, what purpose they serve and what message they try to convey.

Some myths are based on reality while others are entirely fictional. But, even if they are based on true events, there is no evidence proving that the event ever occurred. The origins of these stories are, therefore, almost always unknown.

The purpose of many of these stories is symbolic and intended to inspire people. It is common to see stories of hope and motivation to do the ‘right thing’. They also instruct social norms determining what is accepted and what isn’t.

Additionally, the characters in these stories work as role models and communicate their duties and responsibilities as members of society. For instance, the main character is often depicted as an ideal person with agreeable qualities and traits. Showing that they always fulfil their responsibilities and is always victorious in all their endeavours. Many stories do not always end on a positive note, teaching certain morals or lessons to their audience.

These stories also address human concerns such as death, birth, afterlife, origins, good and evil, etc. And, they even attempt to explain why things are the way they are. This provided a certain clarity, satisfying mankind’s general curiosity about the unknown.

Moreover, myths are a culture’s way of transmitting and rationalizing their traditions and beliefs. Putting faith in these stories was a way for like-minded people to stick together, and identify as one community.

Most importantly, they also tell us how people in the past lived their lives and what they believed, albeit this information cannot always be historically confirmed.

Many even believe that what we consider mythology today, may have been a religion followed by civilization in the past.

A Brief Introduction to Mesopotamia and Mesopotamian Myths

location of the mesopotamian civilization on map
Mesopotamia indicated on the map. Image Credit: Mas alla de Pangea

Mesopotamia is a Greek word that translates to ‘the land between the rivers’, referring to the strip of land between the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris. The civilization is known as the cradle of civilization, as that is where major human developments happened.

Mesopotamia is the oldest known civilization that spanned across the present-day regions of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Kuwait, developing roughly between 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. It was here that mankind first began settling down, engaging in agricultural activities and establishing communities.

Over time, these communities developed their own cultures and subsequently, their own stories to answer the inexplicable and to transmit their values and beliefs.

Mesopotamian mythology is a collection of traditional stories from the various cultures that once existed in Ancient Mesopotamia. Many notable cultures existed in ancient Mesopotamia, such as the Sumerian, Assyrian, Akkadian, and Babylonian cultures. While they all had their own stories to tell, they all shared common themes and the stories seemed to be inspired by each other.

Mesopotamian mythology also includes all sorts of other literary works, such as epics, hymns, poems, books of rituals, etc. from ancient Mesopotamia.

How do we know about Mesopotamian Myths?

Compared to other ancient civilizations, information about Mesopotamian mythology is limited. This is largely due to the sheer age of the Mesopotamian civilization. It only left limited items or fragments of these items for future generations to discover and decode.

Mesopotamia was the first civilization to develop a writing system. Civilizations used wedge-shaped symbols to make impressions on clay or stone tablets to write in their languages. This was the cuneiform script, one of the earliest forms of writing. Most of these texts are written in the Sumerian and Akkadian languages. In those times, the task of writing on tablets was assigned to scribes who used to work at palaces and temples. It is thanks to those tablets that Mesopotamian literature has managed to survive.

clay tablets with cuneiform script
Cuneiform clay tablets from Mesopotamia. Image Credit: Live Science

As discussed earlier, Mesopotamian myths include all types of literary works. Some of these surviving tablets contain large texts interpreting the omens.
Ancient Mesopotamians believed that the gods communicated their will through omens or signs. So, people would note these omens and the event pertaining to them. If one could notice a pattern or decipher what these omens meant, they could foresee misfortune and prevent them from occurring by performing certain rituals. The most notable of these texts is the omen series, known as the shumma izbu.

Other tablets contain ritualistic texts, which also use stories to explain the need for these rituals. Some tablets simply contain ancient wisdom that attempts to answer existential queries like “What is the meaning of life?” “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “What is my purpose in life?” “What is my fate?” etc.

Inconsistencies

Like the myths we know today, myths from that period also had variations of the same story. The stories would get more and more inconsistent with geographical differences and as the physical distance grew.

Additionally, some stories would get lost in translation as literary works were translated from Sumerian and Akkadian to other languages, such as Assyrian, Babylonian, Amorite, etc.

Types of Mesopotamian Myths

Most myths in all cultures can be categorized into three main types. The first type is the etiological myths. These stories explain why something is the way it is. Origin or creation stories or stories narrating the duties of a character are just some examples of etiological myths.

The second type is historical myths. These narrate an event from the past in a theatrical manner to add value and depth to the story. The events or characters from these stories can be relatable to the events, characters and their characteristics from today.

Finally, there are psychological myths. They describe a journey to the unknown or narrate a story where the physical world connects or balances with the inner self and consciousness.

Myths from Mesopotamia

An, Enlil, Enki depicted on stone
Major deities in Mesopotamia, An, Enlil and Enki. Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Mesopotamian cultures practised polytheistic religions, worshipping deities with anthropomorphic features. These gods and goddesses represented the elements of nature, the world, and activities in it, similar to Greek mythology.

The stories heavily feature mythical heroes, gods and goddesses. Here is a list of some of the main deities that are frequently part of many myths:

Note: Across the different Mesopotamian cultures, the deities are perceived based on their culture. The same god or goddess can therefore be known by different names and may have slightly different characteristics and responsibilities to their cultural counterparts. The names of the deities are written in parentheses, whereas the corresponding culture that identifies with the god or goddess is indicated within parentheses.

An (Sumerian) / Anu (Akkadian): God of the heavens, initially the supreme God.

Enlil (Sumerian) / Ellil (Babylonian): God of the atmosphere and sky

Enki (Sumerian) / Ea (Babylonian): God of wisdom and earth

Marduk (Babylonian): King of the Gods, Son of Enki

Ashur or Assur (Assyria): King of the Gods

Inanna (Sumerian) / Ishtar (Akkadian): Goddess of love, war, beauty.

It is important to note that different gods act as the king of the gods in different cultures. It is usually the patron god of a city that is considered the supreme god. For instance, Marduk is considered the king of the gods in Babylon, while An was the supreme god of Sumer and Ashur was considered the most powerful in Assyria.

1. The Song of the Hoe

the hoe in the story is closer to a pickaxe or mattock
Image Credit: BBC

Myths in the Sumerian civilization did not have any creation myths that explain the creation of the universe or the gods. They believed that the gods and the universe just happened to always exist. This theme remains consistent throughout all the remaining written texts found from 3000 BC to 1000 BC However, there are stories that describe the creation of the earth, the heavens, the underworld, and humankind.

The Song of the Hoe is a Sumerian creation myth written between 3,000 and 2,000 BC.  It narrates how Enlil separates the heavens from the earth and created humankind.

Enlil first separated the heavens from the earth using a hoe, a tool that he invented. He makes sure that both realms remain connected, so he links the heavens and earth through the Duranki, a mountain house located in Nippur, in present-day Iraq.

The hoe referred to in this myth, resembled a pickaxe more than a garden hoe.

After separating the two realms, Enlil then created humankind using clay. Clay was the primary raw material used to create beings and items in most Mesopotamian myths. Once again, he uses the hoe for the process and gives rise to the first humans, so that they can serve the gods. Humans then take this hoe to cultivate crops, build temples, use it as weapons and bury the dead.

2. Enuma Elish

The Enuma Elish is a 7-tablet long Babylonian creation myth written in 2000 BC. It is written in Akkadian in the form of a poem. It tells the story of how the universe, the gods and humans were created.

Before that, there was only darkness, an ocean full of chaos. From this body of water, emerged Apsu, the god of freshwater, and Tiamat, the goddess of salty water. Together they gave birth to several other gods. The oldest was Enki/Ea.

Ea and his siblings were noisy and disturbed Apsu. So, he decides to destroy his children. Tiamat quickly alerts Ea, who manages to put Apsu to sleep, then kills him. Taking Apsu’s corpse, he builds his home.

Tiamat is enraged by Apsu’s death and declares war on her children. She creates an army of monsters and proceeds to fight the young gods.

marduk killing his grandmother tiamat
Marduk slaying Tiamat with an arrow. Image Credit: Matrix Disclosure

Meanwhile, Ea and his wife give birth to their son Marduk, who then kills Tiamat by shooting her with an arrow. She is split into two. Her eyes create the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris and her body is further split to create the heavens and the earth. Marduk then assigns each of the gods a responsibility to take.

He then takes the remains of Tiamat’s champions and, with their blood, he creates Lullu, the first man. He is given the responsibility of helping the gods to maintain order and avoid chaos.

Marduk then established the city of Babylon and became its patron god.

In Babylon, it was tradition to recite this poem at the Akitu festival, which was the Babylonian New Year.

3. The Epic of Atra-Hasis

Atra-Hasis is an Akkadian epic that has many versions, but its most complete version was written in 1700 BC. The epic contains stories of creation and a flood-related myth.

The story begins at a time after the earth was created, but before humans were created. Anu, the king of the gods, and the god of the sun and heavens, Enlil, the god of the land, and Enki, the god of the seas and the underworld, were overseeing the earth. Meanwhile, other minor gods were responsible for maintaining the earth. They were assigned to do menial tasks like desilting the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. These gods did not like the task and finally decided to protest. As a result, the main gods decided to create humans, so they could take care of the land for them, and provide offerings to the gods through worship and sacrifices.

The burden of work had been taken off from the gods and initially they enjoyed it. However, as humans began populating, they started to create a lot of noise and chaos. Enlil, in particular, was very disturbed by this cacophony. So, he decided to eliminate humans – the source of the noise.

…Destroying Humanity

Illustration of the animals boarding the ark.
Illustration of the animals boarding the ark. Image Credit: Owlcation

Enlil sends various plagues on earth but fails to succeed because of Atrahasis, the wisest man on earth. He tells others that by sacrificing to the gods in charge of spreading the plague, they could defeat it. And they did. Enki, impressed by this, supports Atrahasis.

After many failed attempts at destroying humanity, Enlil decides to drown all humans by flooding the world. He manages to bring all the other gods along in his plan and makes them take an oath to not alert Atrahasis and not to be wooed by their sacrifices. However, Enki indirectly informs Atrahasis, speaking to him through the reed walls of his home. He warns Atrahasis of the flood and instructs him to build an ark and to take two of every kind of animal within that ark.

When the world starts flooding, Atrahasis is prepared. The storm lasts seven days, after which the waters subdue. Seeing humanity destroyed, Enlil and the other gods resent their actions. That is when Atrahasis presents himself and makes a sacrifice.

Enlil is then furious with Enki for sharing his plans, but he defends himself, saying he did what was needed to preserve life. Finally, the gods gather to discuss different ways to control the population, to reduce the disturbing noise. Then, they decide to create women who cannot bear children, to create demons that miscarriages and infertility, and made it obligatory for women devoted to god to remain virgins.

Meanwhile, Atrahasis is taken to paradise away from the new generation of humans.

4. The Epic of Gilgamesh: The world’s oldest literature from Mesopotamia

clay tablet with the text of the epic of Gilgamesh
One of the clay tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Image Credit: Live Science

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known literary work in the world. It is also the oldest mythological story in the world that was written between 2150 and 1400 BC. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Sumerian literature recording in 12 tablets  It is a series of poems that narrate the adventures of Gilgamesh, the hero and later king of Uruk, one of the early Sumerian cities.

There are multiple versions of this myth and the following section retells one of the versions.

Gilgamesh is a capable but arrogant king. Fed up with his behaviour, his subjects request the gods to take action. The gods hear their cries and decide to teach Gilgamesh a lesson about humility. Aruru, the goddess of the earth and fertility, creates Enkidu, a wild man. He is given the same physical qualities as Gilgamesh.  Enkidu is transformed into a civilized man with the help of Shamhat, the sacred prostitute. Once a civilized man, he is introduced to civilization and presented to Gilgamesh. Enkidu then challenges Gilgamesh’s position as king, and they both start duelling.

Gilgamesh realizes Enkidu is a worthy opponent and soon, they both realize that they can’t defeat each other. So, they stop fighting and become best friends.

Quest for Immortality

illustration depicting gilgamesh crying for his dead best friend enkidu
Gilgamesh mourning for Enkidu. Image Credit: Adam H.C. Myrie

Some time passes when Enkidu is sentenced to death by the gods for his hostility towards them. Deeply shaken by his best friend’s death, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to search for immortality. On his journey, he is advised by different characters not to seek immortality and simply enjoy his time as a mortal. He still tries to chase immortality but ultimately fails. Finally, he gives up his quest for immortality, takes the advice given to him and embraces the fact that life has its limits. He returns to his kingdom as a wiser person and a better king.

Read more ab0ut the Epic of Gilgamesh here 

How did these Myths Shape Ancient Mesopotamia?

Mythology and religion were used as incredible political and administrative tools. Laws in ancient Mesopotamia were believed to be a decree of the gods. Stories about deities and their powers were used to discuss and enforce various agreements between political figures in Mesopotamia.

Leaders who were victorious in wars would give credit for their victory to the gods. Additionally, the rulers of Mesopotamian cities would convince their subjects that they possessed certain powers because the gods willed them. This is how many believe early politicians used mythology and religion for their propaganda in those times.

Cities and nations had their own patron gods. Myths were brought to life as it motivated the construction of many buildings and the creation of artworks. For instance, sculpting figures of the gods and building centres of worship, known as ziggurats. Mythology was also used as a way of explaining their existence, the way that the world functions while simultaneously transmitting their history and culture. Just like a lot of myths in the world.

ziggurat, a temple built for the gods
Ziggurat from Ancient Mesopotamia. Image Credit: Pinterest

Lastly, these myths instilled values of responsibility and discipline. The Ancient Mesopotamian people believed that they worked with the gods, not under them. In many of the creation stories, the gods created humans so that they could do the work that the gods were doing and take the burden off them. Many interpreted this as working together with the gods, as they did their part in keeping the world balanced, while simultaneously keeping the gods happy through prayers, habits and rituals.

 

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One thought on “Mythological Stories from Ancient Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization

  1. An excellent article. Recently I too have been visiting various sites to check on the mythological aspects in ancient aryan world in India.
    Your post is brilliant.

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