In this series of posts we are considering various patheons of belief that have impacted human culture throughout history. In the first part of this series we considered the gods of Egypt and talked a little about their creation myth. We noted how the Egyptian understanding of theology was largely impacted by the inundation of the Nile. Their gods, likewise, reflected their understanding of life and culture in their experience.
This week we will be returning to the Ancient Near East (ANE) to consider another, equally-as-old system of religion: the Sumerians. I love the study of Sumerian culture and history because it is so incredibly fascinating. We can trace the development of language, cuneiform, farming, domestication, and so much more, through the Sumerian records. Their clay tablets are in abundance and as useful as the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians. Their myths concerning religion and culture are truly wonderful expressions of human frailty, fear, and attempts at manipulating the gods. It is against the Egyptian gods and the Sumerian gods that Moses retells the Biblical account of creation and sets YHWH up in direct opposition to the personification of human ideals and concepts. For this reason alone, we who have been shaped by a Biblical worldview ought to be aware of the ANE myths. In due course I will do a series on Christian doctrines and, in considering the doctrine of creation, I will maintain that what Moses is doing in Genesis through Deuteronomy is not to give us the exact age of the earth but to demonstrate why YHWH is greater and the God of Israel is uniquely different than the gods of their neighbouring contemporaries.
The ANE myths of Mesopotamia, and Sumer in particular, are, in my opinion, much more primitive than others that we will consider. They, of course, continue with the idea of anthropomorphism (attributing human-like features etc., to the divine beings), divine-human dependence, and even develop a concept of sin and redemption. Nevertheless, from what we can tell, they don't, initially, have a very clearly laid out systematic theology, nor a canon of defined literature, nor even a unified narrative. Of course, that isn't common in most ancient religious pantheons, especially with a region as large and diverse as Mesopotamia. Further, it is important to note that the gods of Sumer tend to be more violent and sexually proclivitous than other pantheons we will consider. Incest is acceptable, or at least acknowledged; murder and violence, and the use of body parts to create, is reminiscent of druidic and shamanistic cultures.
Finally, there are striking parallels within these early myths from Sumer with those in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and even the Norse legends, suggesting either a shared consciousness or perhaps that, somewhere under the narratives, there are kernals of truth. One such example may be the idea of a global flood; Gilgamesh and Noah and other accounts all attest to such a flood, including some archaelogical evidenec today.
With that in mind, we can delve into these narratives, mythical gods, and myths with the realization that they teach us more than merely stories about what people believed; they give us an insight into those people themselves. What did they fear? How did they understand sin, redemption, their relationship with their gods and within the hierarchies? How did they view marriages and relationships? What about local politics? Government? Their religious teachings influenced their daily day-to-day lives. Just as ours influence us today. Despite the millennia, we aren't all that different.
For a very helpful articulation of the Ancient Mesopotamia, I heartily endorse The Great Courses audiobook Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization by Prof. Amanda Podany.
To be clear, although I will be prioritizing Sumerian culture, it is important to realise that Sumer is part of ancient Mesopotamia and as such fits into the larger geopolitical context of that ancient civilizational melting pot. The Mesopotamians ranged from hunter gatherers through to Empire-builders from the key cities of Eruk, Akkad, and even Babylon. They are not a single, homogenous people group, but, in a way, like ancient Greece, they lived, mingled, travelled, traded, and shared ideologies and religious views amongst themselves. The reason I am principally focusing on Sumer (and occasionally will reference other areas and divinities) is because Sumer is, so far as we know, the first literate Mesopotamian community and, as such, their influence is keenly felt in each of the developing societies. Further, their gods provide a striking window into the animistic beliefs that impacted almost all of the ancient cultures.
There are, of course, significant similarities shared by most Mesopotamian communities, the most obvious one is that religion played a deeply important role in their world. Prior to the urbanisation of Mesopotamia, the gods tended to reflect the more natural elements of creation, such as natural phenomena, rather than specific gods over specific locations. As the people began to move away from the nomadic life of hunter-gathering and settled into agriculture, the gods began to take a different role in life. They would become responsible for harvest and seasons, for example.
At the centre of every town was a the temple for the god, and this god was said to live in the temple. At the heart of the square temple resided a sanctuary, or holiest place, where a statue would reside. Each city, or town, had its own, local, present, deity who would grant protection and prosperity to their people so long as they were properly worshipped. Thus, each city had a divine protector around whose will the entire city was, literally, built. These deities were part of a larger pantheon, as will be explored below, but a key factor of Mesopotamian theology is that the god of a particular region was deemed to be, primarily, the god for that specific area; that was their domain. It was improper to enter that town and not worship the god of that town. You could bring your own idols and worship them also, but you ought to pay homage to the god whose territory you were present in and travelling through. When a city was captured, it wasn't merely a new leadership (such as Sargon the Great), but it suggested a new divine worship was to be installed, also. The original protector had failed to protect his people (or, more capriciously, had abandoned his people for whatever reason - maybe punishment for lazy worship).
Secondly, the god was believed to be present in his representation in the centre of the temple. This, usually carved, image or statue was the resting place of the divine being in the temple, in the midst of his people, yet he/she was not confined to that image. The god was simultaneously at work in whatever task he superintended, but he received worship, libations, and food at the altar of his image. This statue was not merely a representation of the god, but was in actuality the god itself. He or she was present as the statue as well as in his or her more metaphysical divine state.
This also mattered in nature; there were gods of hills, mountains, trees, forests, lakes, rivers, and they all demanded worship and respect. To worship these gods was to placate them, turn away their capriciousness and anger, and also to hopefully garner their favour and blessing. These are the basic tenets of animism. The gods can be anthropomorphic personifications of effects, objects, words, ideas, concepts, emotions, and natural phenomena, and therefore they have domain and authority over that which they represent.
It was surprisingly later than we might think before a monarchy developed in Sumer. Mesopotamian communities were, initially, governed by what appears to be a theocratic system where the priests and priestesses gave guidance from the gods to the people. These religious officials operated as administrative, religious, military, and cultural authorities, overseeing the agricultural decisions, religious worship, and communal justice of the community.
Notice, however, that in the myths retold below, the gods of Sumer do not enjoy or appreciate humanity. Human beings were created either as servants for the gods or to provide for the gods. There is no respect for humanity and not even for a specific people. Unlike the gods of Greece or Egypt who cared for their own chosen people, the Sumerian and Mesopotamian gods treated mankind as merely useful tools, animals even, who would provide food for them and thus, when needed, could be rejected and even destroyed. There was no cultural appreciation from the gods for their human creations, not even for their own people. They would only be benevolent as it benefitted them.
Finally, the Sumerians were primarily an oral culture until the creation of cuneiform. After this development, they began to record their narratives for future generations, which, in turn, gives us the insight into their worldview. The earliest recorded myth from Sumer that survives is the Epic of Gilgamesh. I highly recommend reading Gilgamesh as well as the Enuma Elish as these ancient texts give superb introductions to what these early communities believed.
At the height of the Mesopotamian religious movement, there were said to be over 3600 gods. We won't cover them all here.
The primordial gods of Sumer are not quite the same as that of Egypt but there are striking similarities to the Egyptian creation concepts.
Nammu was the primordial waters that surround the universe. The universe was considered a giant dome, surrounded by the primoridal sea. The bottom, or base, of this dome of the universe was the earth itself, under which was the underworld and another body of water, a freshwater lake called Abzu.
Nammu was the mother, the creator of all things. She birthed An and Ki, the sky and the earth, respectively.
An was the sky and mated with Ki, the earth, to produce Enlil. The sky was not a single vast place but was actually a number of domes (the number of which different depending on the myth). These domes were made of precious materials, and the largest of these domes was said to be An himself. Each of the celestial bodies (stars and planets) were said to be various other gods and goddesses, also.
Ki was the earth. After mating with An, they produced Enlil who ran away with Ki making the earth his domain.
Enlil was the leader and head of the gods. He was the fruit of An and Ki's mating. Due to his parentage, it is not surprising that Enlil was the god of winds and storms. As chief of the gods he was considered the most powerful and, in some myths, was said to be so holy that even the other gods could not look upon him for fear of death.
He was the god who made the earth habitable for human beings, due to his separating An and Ki and thus held a special position in the pantheon as a god who oversaw human endeavours. This, however, is a little difficult to fully appreciate considering that in one myth, he is responsible for the great flood because of the noise humanity was making.
Enlil had a female consort, Ninlil, and his repeated seductions of her are recorded in Enlil and Ninlil. The offspring of their repeated union were: Nanna, Nergal, Ninazu, and Enbilulu. Together, Enlil and Ninlil lived in their city of Nippur.
Ninurta was the son of Enlil and Ninlil. Ninurta was the god of war and agriculture and was worshiped in Lagash as a patron deity of the city.
In the earliest of recorded attestations of Ninurta, he was the god of war and of agriculture as well as of healing, being invoked to break the power of demonic beings who held the human being captive. Rather like Thor who had a special hammer, Ninurta had a talking mace that was used to defeat the demon Asag.
Due to his agricultural proclivities, Ninurta is said to have created the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to cultivate the land for farming. Although he was the god of war and of agriculture, he was also given prominence over the harvests and seasonal changes, as well as hunting (which may be a carry over trait from the earlier centuries of hunter gathering).
There are some who think that Ninurta may be the foundation for the legends of Nimrod the great hunter mentioned in Genesis and other ancient texts.
Enki was the god of male fertility, knowledge, and freshwater. He was the creator of humanity and as such had a special connection with the human race. Due to the Sumerian word for semen and freshwater being the same, it is suggested that there is a connection between Enki's role as god of male fertility and fertility. This may make sense in terms of life, where water is needed to bring life from the earth (and Enki's female consort is Ninhursag or Ki, goddess of the earth).
There are many myths around the sexual proclivities of Enki, including incest, seduction, guile, and deception.
He is the creator of humanity because the gods get tired with working to provide for themselves. They refuse to continue to maintain the cosmos, and as such chaos begins to descend. Abzu, the god of freshwater that resides under the earth, threatens to flood the earth but Enki sends him to sleep and binds him to lakes, canals, and irrigation ditches. He refuses to help after this intervention, despite Tiamat's anger at Abzu's imprisonment. This leads to Enlil's offer to help so long as he is, in turn, made king of the gods. After the cosmos is secured, Enki suggest that humanity should be created so as to preserve the work of the gods and maintain aspects of creation so the gods don't have too. Further, humanity can feed the gods and provide for them so that they are not forced to do such menial work themselves.
Utu is the god of the sun and is responsible for wise justice in Sumer. Just as he is responsible for justice, he sets the tone for Sumerian morality and truth. His twin sister is Inanna and there are hints (depending on how you wish to read certain texts) of an incestuous relationship between them. Regardless, however, they were exceptionally close. Due to his superintendence over justice and morality, Utu is often appreciated because of his benevolence and grace towards humanity. After all, he continues to shine even when humanity sins and fails.
His wife was Sherrida who had domain over sexual intimacy and love. She was goddess of the heavens, and perhaps her union with Utu was because light is beautiful and, together, the sun gives light and life to the creation.
Sun worship has been discovered as early as 3500BC in Mesopotamia, suggesting that Utu was one of the earliest gods to have been worshipped.
Nanna was the moon god, and father of Utu, interestingly, suggesting a kind of hierarchy whereby the sun was subordinate to the moon. Either way, he was the patron god of Ur, where Abram was called from to go to the land that YHWH would show him.
Nanna was also the god of wisdom.
Nergal is the god of death. He was also revered (or feared) as god of famine and pestilence as well as war, all of which bring about death. He was made overseer of the government of the underworld by Enlil and Ninlil. Unsurprisingly, he does not appeart to have as many worshippers as the other gods and is not worshipped for as long, nor as far, throughout the Mesopotamian regions. His consort is Laz.
Ninlil was the Lady of the Wind and consort of the king of the gods, Enlil. He impregnated her by his waters where she then gave birth to Nanna, god of the moon. For this, Enlil was exiled to the underworld and Ninlil followed him. There, he tricked her numerous times into having sex and she gave birth to Nergal (god of death) and Ninazu.
I suspect that Ninlil was also revered by those who were pregnant, or sought to become pregnant, due to her large litter of godlings and proximity to Enlil.
Ninhursag was the goddess of the earth and the consort of Enki. She was the mother goddess of the mountains and was also the goddess of fertility.
She gave birth to a daughter Ninsar (goddess of greenery) who in turn gave a daughter to Enki (her father). This daughter, Ninkurra, also gave a daughter to Enki (her grandfather), Uttu. Uttu was, likewise, pursued by Enki also, but lamented to Ninhursag that Enki did not love her.
Ninhursag told Uttu to place his semen into the ground. After doing so, eight plants developed and Enki ate them, and himself became pregnant in eight muscles. After some significant suffering, Ninhursag had pity on her incestuously adulterous husband and transferred the pregnancies to herself. She gave birth to eight deities from his seed.
Hers is not a story of joy; but she was instrumental in the creation of mankind, acting as the midwife as various types of humanity were crafted by Nammu.
Inanna was the goddess of love, sexuality, prostitution, power, and warfare. Due to her large area of domain, and going by the frequency of sexual activity amongst the gods, she is the goddess around whom most myths revolved. Many of her exploits concern her attempts to steal the domains from other gods and make them her own. She appears to have been feisty.
Inanna was also known as Inanna-Ishtar and also influenced the cult of Astoreth, and subsequently Aphrodite. Amazingly, there are reports that she was worshipped in some parts of Mesopotamia up until the 18th Century.
Her exploits are responsible for the seasons. She attempted to overthrow her sister, queen of the underworld, but was found guilty of hubris and killed. The gods sought her return from the underworld but were rejected. Enki eventually sent two beings to rescue her, but as a price, her husband was sent down in her place. In due course, he was permitted to leave the underworld for half of the year, replaced by his sister, and thus the seasons were born. This myth is startlingly similar to the Grecian myth of Persephone and Hades.
Sherrida was the bride of Utu, the sun god. Like her husband, she is one of the oldest goddesses worshipped by the Mesopotamians (under the name Aya). She held dominion over sexual and erotic love.
Ningal was wife of Nanna, the moon god, and mother of Utu, the son god.
Erishkigal was the goddess of the underworld who initially ruled the underworld in her own right, but after Enlil and Ninlil had Negal, she married him and together they ruled the netherworld. The underworld was known as Kur.
Erishkigal was the elder sister of Inanna and defeated her attempt to conquer Kur, ultimately resulting in the creation of the seasons.
The nature of the Sumerian universe is one in which the gods have absolute control over all things; mankind is created by the gods with the purpose of serving the gods. There is no true relationship between humanity and the pantheon, such as can be argued in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam (all of whom owe much of their history to Abram from the city of Ur, a Mesopotamian city known for the worship of Nanna, the moon god),
In the very beginning, the sky and the earth mated to produce Enlil, who would become king of the gods. (This patter was also prevalent in the Greek religion also.) The universe, according to the Sumerians, was a vast dome surrounded by primordial sea waters. At the base of the dome was the earth, and beneath the earth was the underworld. Beneath the underworld lay the freshwater god, Abzu. These entities created all things.
As with the Egyptian and Norse gods, water was seen as life giving; all things in some way developed from the gods who brought life out of the mists of darkness and the waters of chaos. This cosmological idea then created the gods who, in turn, would create humanity.
Primitive Creation Accounts
The creation myth of Sumer is fascinating to me. It reveals the fullness of the bloody, bloodthirsty, sexualized, society that Sumer clearly appreciated and enjoyed. The gods are almost all anthropomorphic in nature.
The Sumerian creation myth is not known in its fullness, but it is linked to the flood narrative. In the Eridu Genesis, what we have is thus: The gods decide to create humanity to provide for them. They are unhappy with having to feed themselves so they created humanity who would toil the land, kill the animals, and provide offerings and worship to the gods.
After the creation of humanity, kingship (the Me, see below) descends upon humanity and the first cities are established. Due to some noise, however, the gods decide to destroy humanity so that they can get some rest. The method of destruction is decided: they will flood the earth.
Enki, however, decides to preserve mankind and tells Atrahasis of the immanent danger. He gives him instructions to build a boat to survive the flood. This flood rages for 7 days and for 7 nights before the waters abate. When they do, the hero emerges and begins to populate the earth anew. In an apparent change of heart, they praise Atrahasis for preserving humanity and the animals and reward him with eternal life (lit., eternal breath). Thus humanity is saved and able to repopulate the earth.
Flood narratives have been recounted in many ancient sources, including the book of Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh, but also in the Matsyna Purana and Ovid's Metamorphoses.
The Enuma Elish
In the Enuma Elish, the creation narrative of Babylon is recounted. This particular recounting is especially interesting because it utilises the already-known theology of creation (mentioned above) but bends it to suit Babylonian supremacy. This narrative is written over 7 tablets and begins prior to the creation of humanity. The Babylonian account has the Babylonian names for the gods but they are the same divine entities.
It begins when only the waters existed beyond the dome of the universe. Tiamat and Abzu birthed the gods through their union and, for a while, they lived harmoniously. However, Abzu hated the noise made by the new gods and resolved to destroy them. Mammu speaks with Tiamat to get her participation in the eradication of the gods, but she was reluctant. Abzu was determined, however, with or without her help.
Before he could act, however, Enki heard about the plan of the older gods and used a spell to lull Abzu to sleep. Mammu was unable to rouse Abzu and so the gods were saved from his attempt to destroy them. Enki then killed Abzu and wore his crown. Mammu was enslaved before the gods. He then takes his consort into the heart of Abzu where they create Marduk (Enlil, in other recountings; in those narratives he is not created by Enki but is his father). Marduk is more glorious than any of the other gods and rises to rule over them all as king of the gods.
Tiamat sought to fight against the gods who had killed Abzu, but this plot was discovered. The gods sought a leader who would fight her and Marduk, the new god, said that he would go and wage war. After his demand that he be made supreme god over them all, the other gods are nervous, but, drunk they eventually accept his demands.
In the fourth tablet, he is recorded as having been given a throne and weapons of war with which to fight Tiamat. He goes to war with her and traps her with the four winds. They fought in single combat. He tried to trap her with a net; she tried to swallow him. His use of the dark wind caused her to be distended and he shot an arrow into her heart, killing her instantly. He had been victorious. He captured the other rebellious gods who had fought for her, as well as her 11 evil chimeric offspring. Her new consort was taken to the king of death himself.
He split her body in two, using the top to make the sky, the domain for the sun god and moon god. From various parts of her corpse he made the stars, night, day, clouds and rain, and the Tigris and the Euphrates. He created the constellations and the calendar that gave structure to the lifecycles.
Finally, he decides to create humanity who would come to be the servants of the gods. One of the gods had to die for his blood to be used in the creation of mankind. He chose the consort of Tiamat, Kingu, who had been sent to the Angel of Death. This happens, mankind is created, the gods feast, and, finally, Marduk demands that Babylon is built for him to reside amongst the people who will serve him. This is his city. He makes statues of the 11 monsters of Tiamat to guard the entrance to the underworld and assigns 300 gods to the heavens and 600 gods to the earth.
Marduk is given 50 names that reveal his supremacy over all the gods. This makes him uniquely powerful and he is enthroned as god over Babylon, and thus over the increasing Babylonian empire.
Although this account is primarily the Babylonian account, it is drawn from a synergistic evolution of the pantheon that was not unusual in animistic cultures such as Mesopotamia. This account reveals the violence, the anthropomorphisms, the courtly intrigue, and the cultural necessity of having your god be the king god, and changing the myth to fit your localised purposes. The Babylonians took the narrative of Enlil and Enki and made it their own to validate their ascendency to the primary city of the Mesopotamian world, and, in turn, to justify their aggressive expansion from city, to kingdom, to empire. Their origin story, therefore, is an apologetic for the rise of the new god, Marduk, as well as propaganda for the expansion of Babylonian power. As such, it was tremendously successful.
The Seven Deities
In this myth, these are the seven judges who decree the fate of the Sumerians. They sit as judges over the underworld and are the offspring of An, god of heaven, and Ki, goddess of earth. These gods are referenced in Sumer, as well as in Babylonian and Hittitie texts. It is interesting to note that there does not appear to be any worship of these divine beings and they appear, therefore, to be more useful as plot devices in major epics, such as Gilgamesh, than as actual gods who were revered or worshipped by the Sumerians. What we do know, however, is that these beings were, as were all Sumerian gods, portrayed and described as immensely powerful and aesthetically gigantic.
In Sumerian lore, they sit before the throne of Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld, and pass judgement. It is their decree that ends the attack on Kur, the underworld, by Inanna, the younger sister of Ereshkigal.
In Babylonian lore, however, they are considered the chthonic (born from the earth without copulation) gods. They were considered the gods of the underworld and distinct from the gods of the heavens.
According to the Hittite tradition, these deities were the oldest of the gods, almost like the Greek Titans. Like the Titans, the Hittites argued that these gods were overthrown by the younger generation of gods and banished to the underworld as punishment and enslavement.
In Sumerian religious ideology, the Mes (me, singular) is a conception or idea that lays the foundation for civilization and culture. The Mes also provide the means by which the Sumerians understand the relationship between mankind and the gods. The Mes are never detailed or explained in terms of what they look like or resemble. They are clearly understood as things as well as ideas or concepts, yet we don't know how that was understood or communicated to the people. Some are clearly visible, such as instruments, but others are only concepts, such as kingship and victory. There are well over 100 Mes referenced in the various literary devices, but we only have about 60 or so that we know for sure.
These Mes are the necessary requirements that make a civilization; prior to the giving of the Mes to humanity, it can be inferred that humanity did not have civilization. I suspect that the implication here is towards normalizing and even glorifying domesticity and the development of permanent dwellings rather than the nomadic life from which Sumerian life began.
According to the myth, Enlil collected all the various Mes and gave them to Enki to hand them out to the various centres of Sumerian culture. Thus, each area had distinct skills that would benefit the community as a whole. Enkin begins by praising himself and his power to deal the hand for each city. He begins with Eridu, his own city, and then moves outward toward the other cities of Sumeria.
Eventually his daughter, Inanna, is disconsolate that her city, Uruk, is not as glorious as Eridu and seeks to trick him to hand over the Mes so that she can glorify Uruk. She and Enki have a drinking competition and, when her father is drunk as a skunk, she manages to get him to gift her the Mes. After receiving them, she returns to Uruk where the powers of the Mes are put to fast work. Enki awakens and discovers that the Mes are not where they ought to be and, in his hungover state, he rails against his daughter and seeks the return of the Mes. The attempt fails and he accepts peace with Uruk which, subsequently, does become a more important city in Mesopotamian history.
In our final myth, we will consider the narrative of Gilgamesh. This narrative is well known by many who have researched the veracity of flood narratives in the ancient world. It seems indisputable that a massive flood did in fact happen in the ancient times; evidence can be found for it in so many different cultures all across the world. In light of this, then, the locals had to try to come to terms with what happened, why it had happened, and what it meant. Gilgamesh was the Mesopotamian attempt at answering those questions. There are some who suggest that the narrative below is actually plagiarized from an earlier flood myth. It is possible.
The gods, who had created humanity, had grown tired of the noise, the bustle, the warfare, and the lack of due reverence. The chief gods, therefore, decided to kill off humanity by calling down upon the world a massive flood that would wipe the race out. But Enki defied the orders of the other gods and informed the hero, Utnapishtim, of the plan that the gods had. Enki tells Utnapishtim how to survive the coming flood. No matter the cost, the difficulty, or the challenge, he must do as Enki commands or else all living things will be destroyed. He tells the elders of his city that he will leave the city to go and live in service of Enki because Enlil, the great god, has abandoned him.
He must build a boat of equal dimensions and must be covered in reeds as the Sumerian boats were, during that time. Utnapishtim creates a drawing of the boat; it will be 120 cubits in all directions, with 6 decks, divided into separate chambers. He covers the huge structure with bitumen, brings in water plugs and punting poles, as well as oil for burning, and provisions for eating. A huge feast-like event was celebrated whereupon he fed the workers who helped bring the boat from the drawing to reality.
After it's creation, they used a series of poles to bring the boat to the water. It floated, though 2/3 was beneath the water line. Utnapishtim brought all his gold and silver, his family and his livestock, on board the great boat. He also permitted the craftsmen who had helped built the ark to enter and thus saved the arts from drowning. Shamash brought the storm, and the door was sealed in preparation.
The next morning a black cloud arrived and the weather was horrendous; rain and wind beat against the boat from all directions. Waves crashed over the top of the boat spraying the decks with salty water. The rivers flooded. The seas rages. The dykes burst. The heavens poured down thunder, lightening, and heavy rainstorms all across the land. The light turned dark.
So fierce was the flood that even the gods who had wrought it were terrified and they retreated up to the heavens where they cowered like dogs at its power and chaos. They wept in fear; the gods crying out in anger at what they had done. They were hungry, parched for drink, but had no one to provide for them. They shrieked and howled in fear and anger at what they had caused. But the storm was relentless.
For six days and six nights, the storm raged, until the seventh day it began to subside. All the humans who had been killed by the flood had turned to clay. Only those who had been saved by Utnapishtim remained undefeated by the waters. The face of the earth had been flattened by the weight and ferocity of the storm. So much so that when the boat finally landed on dry land, the entire horizon was visible all around them. There was no hill or mountain in sight.
They all remained in the boat until it hit land. For seven days they waited, to see if the boat was secure. On the seventh day, he released a dove that flew away, but finding no place to rest, returned to him. He then released a swallow, but it, too, returned to him. Finally, he released a raven, and it found food and a resting place and did not return to him. Thus, Utnapishtim knew it was time to disembark. He released all the animals he had saved and scattered them across the face of the earth in all directions to mate and repopulate.
He then made a sacrifice to the gods. He sacrificed a sheep and offered incense to the gods who, smelling the sweet odour of food and libations, surrounded it like flies. The great goddess, who had been wailing in terror earlier, was now emboldened and blessed humanity for their wily survival and honest worship. She curses Enlil who had caused the flood in the first place. But, what's that? Who is that descending upon the sacrifice now? It's Enlil. And he is none too happy!
He accuses the gods of treachery! How did they permit the vile, noisy, annoying humans to live? Why would they go against him. Despite her cursing him, moments ago, she wilts under his sovereignty and suggests it was Enki who caused the humans to survive. After all, Enki is a bit of a trickster and he loves them humans.
Enlil rounds on Enki who deflects; he says he merely warned Utnapishtim in a dream, but that it was not his explicit plan to save the human race. A bit of a fib there. He continues, however, by reminding Enlil that the flood was an overreaction and not to be so angry. Show some compassion. After all, the human beings are lesser beings. Outright destruction is a bit over the top.
So, Enlil turns to Utnapishtim and his wife, and he takes them by the hand. Instead of destroying them, he blesses them and, in a once in history moment, brings them up to the heavens to be made gods. They are transported from the earth to dwell at 'The Mouth of the Rivers.' They have become gods and now reside amongst the pantheon.
Humanity is saved. Eventually, Gilgamesh himself tries to find immortality and comes to meet Utnapishtim, the man-turned-god. However, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he cannot become a god; his gift was a once in a lifetime event. But, to prove it, stay awake for six nights. Gilgamesh fails in this test. He leaves, disheartened. However, as he leaves, Utnapishtim tells him of plants at the bottom of the ocean. If he can get them, he will be able to return to his youth and live another life again. It isn't immortality, but it would stave off death.
Emboldened by this, he ties rocks to his feet so that he can walk on the ocean floor until he finds these magical plants. Holding his breath, he searches until, eventually, he finds the plants he seeks. He grabs them, then cuts himself free from his weights and rises to the surface. He sits on the shore and rests. He awakens to find that his plants have been stolen and to his side is the skin of a snake. Apparently the snake had eaten them and been reborn.
This, having failed a second time, Gilgamesh returns home to his city, dejected. But as he gets closer he sees the massive walls that surround his home and he marvels. He himself may not live forever, but in the work of his people, and the civilisation that they create, the entire world will know of his power and might. In this, then, there will be immortality for humanity. We will live on as a race and will, eventually, match the gods.
I hope that you have enjoyed this post on the gods of Sumeria. Please leave a comment with any thoughts and reflections that you might have.