Religion and Humanity in Mesopotamian Myth and Epic - Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion
Kids learn about the religion, gods, and goddesses of Ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerian gods often had human characteristics in that they were sometimes . The relationship shown in Gilgamesh between humans and their gods is a fairly many things about how people related to their gods in ancient Mesopotamia. Gods, being immortal and generally of superior status to humans, did not Sexual relationships between Mesopotamian deities provided.
For heroes of epic literature, the divine connection can be perilous, but also rewarding. The success of heroes in accessing divine support is frequently but not exclusively linked to the morality of their actions.
It is clear from Mesopotamian literature that close, positive relationships with the divine were important for survival and success during the human lifespan and even beyondyet at the same time, the answer to questions of finding meaning in mortal existence is at times presented in very human terms. Love, alongside shared human achievements and experiences, is presented in several literary sources as essential for giving meaning to the human condition.
MesopotamialiteraturemythepicEnkiInannaheroeslegendsancientreligionAdapahumanitydeitiescreationlove Religion was a central and dynamic aspect of ancient Mesopotamian life, culture, and identity. Religious ideas, imagery, and meaning permeated every aspect of daily life, and so it is not surprising to find that religion and religious figures are a common feature of narrative literature.
While deities and supernatural creatures often have a prominent role in literature, Mesopotamian narrative is not only concerned with theistic matters, but also with what it means to be human. The human condition in Mesopotamian myths and epics is measured against the supernatural, but also against animals.
Theistic and human figures in literature share many qualities, yet they are also presented as inhabiting a clearly defined hierarchy, with the deities always on the top tier of the universal societal order. Deities and humans are compared and associated with nonhuman inhabitants of the natural world, yet often in ways that enhance rather than decrease the hierarchical distance between humans and the divine.
Heroes of epic literature, along with Mesopotamian kings, inhabit a kind of in-between space that touches upon the divine world while coinciding with the human sphere. Generally, the relations between humans and the divine in literature show reciprocity. The quality of the relationship between humans and deities is of critical importance for the survival of the mortals and also for the contentment and happiness of divine beings. While the Akkadian and Sumerian texts both utilize the cuneiform script, they are linguistically, and most likely chronologically, distinct, owing to the decline of spoken Sumerian as Akkadian became the common idiom.
The two main dialects of Akkadian were Assyrian from northern Mesopotamia and Babylonian from southern Mesopotamiabut literary texts were written in an artificial literary dialect, which differs from that found in everyday texts such as letters, and presumably from spoken dialects.
This means there is virtually no possibility of dating Akkadian literature on linguistic grounds. Modern knowledge of Sumerian is insufficient for certain dating on the basis of language used, and most Sumerian literature that has survived to the present day is in the form of copies from the Old Babylonian period. Sumerian influences are present in the style, content, format, and vocabulary of Akkadian literature, and Sumerian literature composed after the end of the third millennium bce was likely written by authors from an Akkadian-speaking background.
Religious and literary texts survive in great abundance, with myth and epic comprising just a small percentage estimates are often around 1 percent of the extant written material from Mesopotamia. Although the evidence is plentiful, it is often fragmented, which has created difficulties for its study in the modern day.
The importance of story in the religions of the ancient world is a developing area of study. In both oral and written transmission, storytelling is a powerful medium for exploring ancient theology, although it is the written sources that will be considered here.
This is not to say, however, that historical records, inscriptions, and other documents are of lesser value to the study of ancient religion; temple inventories and economic records, for example, can transmit much significant information about religious activities and values, and omen texts illuminate how some natural phenomena were interpreted as divine messages. While outside of the scope of this study, wisdom literature, lamentations, incantations, and divination and ritual texts, as well as funerary inscriptions, also provide abundant information about the conception of human and divine relations in ancient Mesopotamia.
Overview Religion and humanity intersect in a variety of ways in Mesopotamian myth and epic. They do not go beyond this into a description of inner religious feelings, and attempts to infer feelings from the evidence risk the anachronistic imposition of modern notions.
The study of religion in the ancient world is a rich and rapidly developing field. Religion in literature, as in broader Mesopotamian culture, can be public or private, personal or communal. Two elements of humanity and religion will be considered here: The broad scope of the subject means that a complete survey of the topic is beyond reach here, and there are many aspects that would benefit from consideration at greater length.
Instead, a foundation is provided for considering the extremely intricate nature of the human condition, and its relationship to the divine, found in Mesopotamian narrative, so as to provide a basis for further study and cross-cultural comparison. Humans and deities The frequent observation in modern scholarship of the creation of humans to serve divine overlords—often contrasted negatively against biblical creation accounts—gives a sense of a one-sided and fairly exploitative relationship between humans and Mesopotamian deities.
Even within the narrative of Atrahasis, individual deities interact with humans in different ways: Relations between the divine and human worlds can be dangerous and destructive, and capable of jeopardizing the survival of humankind, animals, and the natural world.
While there are limits to the permeability of the conceptual boundaries separating the human and divine worlds, in literature there are numerous ways for humans and deities to interact. Communication takes many forms, including sacrifice, attendance of festivals, dedicatory offerings and building works, prayer, song, direct and indirect dialogue, omens, prophecy, and divinely inspired dreams.
Animal imagery used in figurative language is found throughout Mesopotamian literature, and humans and deities can be ascribed positive or negative traits associated with particular animals. In myth and epic, animals are recognized for their commercial and intrinsic values; they provide a source of food, transport, and material goods, 16 but are often presented in a sensitive manner that acknowledges their capacities as sentient creatures, holding several qualities in common with humans such as mortality and dependence on the natural environment for survival.
Like animals, hybrid creatures and monsters in literary sources also provide insight into cultural perceptions of humanity, and the complexity of human and divine relations.
Figures such as the Scorpion People can be seen to span the divide between the natural and supernatural spheres in terms of both their form and function. As well as inhabiting a space between human and animal, their role in the narrative is to guard the tunnel linking the sun, earth, and sky.
Religion and Humanity in Mesopotamian Myth and Epic
The liminality of the forest guardian Humbaba, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, allows for the consideration of the humanity of the heroes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
These comments reflect the biological reality of reptiles as egg-laying animals, contrasted with the nursing habits of mammals, including humans. Myth Mesopotamian myths form a particularly nebulous category of literature. Mythic themes and narratives are referenced in hymns, royal praise poetry, lamentations, ritual and magical texts, incantations, wisdom literature, and psalms.
Drawing these diverse sources together is the focus on divine protagonists in myth. Indeed, humans occur infrequently in mythical narratives, and the divinities also interact with one another, various supernatural beings, animals, and the natural world. While humans are not often protagonists in myth, humanity and the human condition are reflected in these texts through the anthropomorphic qualities of the deities and the microcosm of their social world, as well as through explicit reflections on the nature of humanity and human life.
They experience common human emotions such as anger, lust, sadness, envy, and joy. As well as having anthropomorphic forms, deities were also associated with elements of the natural world, and conceived as incorporated in some sense in astral bodies. Although Mesopotamian deities at times experience elements of life that would seem to define the human condition, such as birth, death, and illness, they experience these events in uniquely supernatural ways.
We will consider how humanity and divinity combine in myth to illuminate the religious aspects of Mesopotamian life and death. While several literary texts center on the divine creation of humanity, along with the natural world, the destructive potential of deities was also the subject of Mesopotamian myth. The Babylonian Flood story Atrahasis contains both creative and destructive relations between humans and deities. The narrative of Atrahasis presents a complicated relationship between humans and deities, with an interesting contrast between the individual and the collective.
Relations are shown to vary among deities and individual humans, and humanity as a whole, as well as between humanity and individual deities and groups of deities. The myth begins with the greater deities imposing on lesser deities the menial work of food production and the building of canals. The arduous nature of the work leads to a rebellion by the lesser deities; they go on strike and challenge the primary deity, Enlil. The senior deities agree that the situation requires redress, but also that the rebellion will be punished.
The leader of the rebellion is killed and his body and blood are mixed with clay to create a human. Belet-ili next establishes sexuality, birth, and marriage in her human creations, so that they may reproduce themselves, and she is praised greatly for her work. Yet the spread of humanity creates problems for Enlil, who finds he cannot sleep because of human noise.
He sends a variety of afflictions against humanity: Each time, Ea advises the humans to stop making offerings to their favorite deities, but to devote all of their offerings to the deity who could stop the presiding affliction.
Later in the narrative, Enlil sends a great storm against humanity. Atrahasis, warned by Enki, builds a boat to escape, but the rest of humanity is destroyed. The destruction of humanity horrifies the gods, who are hungry and thirsty owing to a lack of the offerings usually made to them.
Ancient Mesopotamia: Religion and Gods
The hunger of the deities shows their dependence on humans for offerings, 25 a theme that is evident earlier in the composition when the humans bribe certain deities with food offerings to avert the plagues. The theme of divine hunger illustrates the more general interdependence of human and divine relations, as this theme is paralleled, somewhat ironically, with the earlier attempt to destroy humanity through a terrible famine; both humankind and the gods are shown to cause starvation for one another in Atrahasis.
Sexual relationships between Mesopotamian deities provided inspiration for a rich variety of narratives. These include Sumerian myths such as Enlil and Ninlil and Enki and Ninhursagwhere the complicated sexual interactions between deities was shown to involve trickery, deception and disguise. The provision of a false identity in these myths is used to circumnavigate societal expectations of sex and fidelity.
Sexual betrayal could spell doom not only for errant lovers but for the whole of society. When the Queen of the Underworld, Ereshkigal, is abandoned by her lover, Nergal, she threatens to raise the dead unless he is returned to her, alluding to her right to sexual satiety. The goddess Ishtar makes the same threat in the face of a romantic rejection from the king of Uruk in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
It is interesting to note that both Ishtar and Ereshkigal, who are sisters, use one of the most potent threats at their disposal to address matters of the heart.
The less-than-smooth course of love in these myths, and their complex use of literary imagery, have drawn scholarly comparisons with the works of Shakespeare. Love poetry Ancient authors of Sumerian love poetry, depicting the exploits of divine couples, show a wealth of practical knowledge on the stages of female sexual arousal.
Several texts write of the courtship of a divine couple, Inanna the Semitic equivalent of Ishtar and her lover, the shepherd deity Dumuzi. Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal impression showing Dumuzid being tortured in the Underworld by the galla demons.
These fantasies are part of the preparations of the goddess for her union, and perhaps contribute to her sexual satisfaction. The representation of genitals may also have served a religious function: Votive offerings in the shape of vulvae have been found in the city of Assur from before BC. Happy goddess, happy kingdom Divine sex was not the sole preserve of the gods, but could also involve the human king.
Few topics from Mesopotamia have captured the imagination as much as the concept of sacred marriage. In this tradition, the historical Mesopotamian king would be married to the goddess of love, Ishtar.