Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 6

THE GODS OF SUMER

Whatever the real origin of the Sumerians, there is no doubt that their civilization sprang from the prehistory of Iraq itself. It reflected the mood and fulfilled the aspirations of the stable, conservative peasant society which has always formed the backbone of that country; it was ‘Mesopotamian’ in origin and in essence. For this reason, it survived the disappearance of the Sumerians as a nation in about 2000 B.C. and was adopted and carried over with but little modification by the Amorites, Kassites, Assyrians and Chaldaeans who, after them, ruled in succession over Mesopotamia. The Assyro-Babylonian civilization of the second and first millennia is therefore not fundamentally different from that of the Sumerians, and from whatever angle we approach it we are almost invariably brought back to a Sumerian model.

This is particularly true of religion. For more than three thousand years the gods of Sumer were worshipped by Sumer-ans and Semites alike; and for more than three thousand years the religious ideas promoted by the Sumerians played an extraordinary part in the public and private life of the Mesopotamians, modelling their institutions, colouring their works of art and literature, pervading every form of activity from the highest functions of the kings to the day-to-day occupations of their subjects. In no other antique society did religion occupy such a prominent position, because in no other antique society did man feel himself so utterly dependent upon the will of the gods. The fact that the Sumerian society crystallized around temples had deep and lasting consequences. In theory, for instance, the land never ceased to belong to the gods, and the mighty Assyrian monarchs whose empire extended from the Nile to the Caspian Sea were the humble servants of their god Assur, just as the governors of Lagash, who ruled over a few square miles of Sumer, were those of their god Ningirsu. This of course does not mean that economics and human passions did not play a part in the history of ancient Iraq, as they did in the history of other countries; but the religious motives should never be forgotten nor minimized. As an introduction to the historical periods which we are about to enter, a brief description of the Sumerian pantheon and religious ideas will surely not be out of place.1

The Sumerian Pantheon

Our knowledge of Mesopotamian religious and moral ideas derives from a variety of texts – epic tales and myths, rituals, hymns, prayers, incantations, lists of gods, collections of precepts, proverbs, etc. – which come, in the main, from three great sources: the sacerdotal library of Nippur (the religious centre of Sumer), and the palace and temple libraries of Assur and Nineveh. Some of these texts are written in Sumerian,2 others are usually Assyrian or Babylonian copies or adaptations of Sumerian originals, even though, in a few cases, they have no counterpart in the Sumerian religious literature discovered so far. The dates when they were actually composed vary from about 1900 B.C. to the last centuries before Christ, but we may reasonably assume that they embody verbal traditions going back to the Early Dynastic period and possibly even earlier, since a number of Sumerian deities and mythological scenes can be recognized on the cylinder-seals and sculptured objects from the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr periods. Before these, positive evidence is lacking, but the unbroken continuity of architectural traditions, the rebuilding of temple upon temple in the same sacred area suggest that some at least of the Sumerian gods were already worshipped in southern Iraq during the Ubaid period.

The formulation of religious ideas and their expression as divine families and in myths were certainly slow processes, carried out by several ‘schools’ of priests simultaneously; but somehow, in the end a general agreement on principles was reached, and while each city retained its own patron-god and its own set of legends, the whole country worshipped a common pantheon.3 The divine society was conceived as a replica of the human society of Sumer and organized accordingly. The heavens, the earth and the netherworld were populated with gods – at first in hundreds but later less numerous owing to an internal syncretism that never reached monotheism. These gods, like the Greek gods, had the appearances, qualities, defects and passions of human beings, but they were endowed with fabulous strength, supernatural powers and immortality. Moreover, they manifested themselves in a halo of dazzling light, a ‘splendour’ which filled man with fear and respect and gave him the indescribable feeling of contact with the divine, which is the essence of all religions.4

The gods of Mesopotamia were not all of equal status, but to classify them is not an easy task. At the bottom of the scale we would perhaps put the benevolent spirits and the evil demons who belonged more to magics than to religion proper, and the ‘personal god’, a kind of guardian angel attached to every person and acting as an intermediary between this person and the higher gods.5 Then would come the humble deities who were responsible for such tools as the plough, the brick-mould or the pickaxe, and for such professions as potters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths and the like, as well as the gods of Nature in the broad sense of the term (gods of rivers, mountains, minerals, plants, wild and domesticated animals, gods of fertility, birth and medicine, gods of winds and thunderstorms), originally perhaps the most numerous and important as they personified ‘élan vital, the spiritual cores in phenomena, indwelling wills and powers’,6 all concepts that are characteristic of the so-called primitive mentality. One step higher would be found the gods of the Netherworld, Nergal and Ereshkigal, side by side with warrior gods such as Ninurta. Above them the astral deities, notably the moon-god Nanna (called Sin by the Semites), who controlled time (the lunar months) and ‘knew the destinies of all’ but remained in many ways mysterious, and the sun-god Utu (Shamash), the god of justice who ‘laid bare the righteous and the wicked’ as he flooded the world with blinding light. Finally, atop of the scale would naturally stand as dominant figures in the vast Mesopotamian pantheon the three great male gods An, Enlil and Enki.

An (Anu or Anum in Akkadian) embodied ‘the overpowering personality of the sky’ of which he bore the name, and occupied first place in the Sumerian pantheon. This god, whose main temple was in Uruk, was originally the highest power in the universe, the begetter and sovereign of all gods. Like a father he arbitrated their disputes and his decisions, like those of a king, brooked no appeal. Yet An – at least in the classical Sumerian mythology – did not play an important part in earthly affairs and remained aloof in the heavens as a majestic though somewhat pale figure. At some unknown period7 and for some obscure reason the patron-god of Nippur, Enlil, was raised to what was in fact the supreme rank and became in a certain sense the national god of Sumer. Much later he himself was in turn wrested of his authority by the hitherto obscure god of Babylon, Marduk; but Enlil was certainly less of an usurper than Marduk. His name means ‘Lord Air’, which, among other things, evokes immensity, movement and life (breath), and Enlil could rightly claim to be ‘the force in heaven’ which had separated the earth from the sky and had thereby created the world. The theologians of Nippur, however, also made him the master of humanity, the king of kings. If An still retained the insignia of kingship it was Enlil who chose the rulers of Sumer and Akkad and ‘put on their heads the holy crown’. And as a good monarch by his command keeps his kingdom in order, so did the air-god uphold the world by a mere word of his mouth:

Without Enlil, the Great Mountain,

No city would be built, no settlement founded,

No stalls would be built, no sheepfolds established,

No king would be raised, no high priest born…

The rivers – their floodwaters would not bring over flow,

The fish in the sea would not lay eggs in the canebrake,

The birds of heaven would not build nests on the wild earth,

In heaven the drifting clouds would not yield their moisture,

Plants and herbs, the glory of the plain, would fail to grow,

In fields and meadows the rich grain would fail to flower,

The trees planted in the mountain-forest would not yield their fruit…8

The personality of the god Enki is better known but much more complex. Despite the appearances, it is not certain that his Sumerian name means ‘lord earth’ (en.ki), and linguists are still arguing about the exact meaning of his Semitic name Ea. However, there is no doubt that Enki/Ea was the god of the fresh waters that flow in rivers and lakes, rise in springs and wells and bring life to Mesopotamia. His main quality was his intelligence, his ‘broad ears’ as the Sumerians said, and this is why he was revered as the inventor of all techniques, sciences and arts and as patron of the magicians. Moreover, Enki was the god who held the me's, a word used, it seems, to designate the key-words of the Sumerian civilization, and which also played a part in the ‘attribution of destinies’.9 After the world was created, Enki applied his unrivalled intelligence to the laws devised by Enlil. A long, almost surrealist poem10 shows him putting the world in order; extending his blessings not only to Sumer, its cattle sheds, fields and cities, but also to Dilmun and Meluhha and to the nomads of the Syro-Mesopotamian desert; transformed into a bull and filling the Tigris with the ‘sparkling water’ of his semen; entrusting a score of minor deities with specific tasks and finally handing over the entire universe to the sun-god Utu. This master architect and engineer who said that he was ‘the ear and the mind of all the land’ was also the god who was closest and most favourable to man. It was he who had the brilliant idea to create mankind to carry out the gods’ work, but also, as we shall see, who saved mankind from the Flood.

Side by side with the male pantheon there was a female

image

Mural painting from the second millennium palace at Mari. Above, the goddess Ishtar appoints Zimri-Lim king of Mari. by giving him the sceptre and the ring of kingship. Below, two unnamed goddesses holding vases spurting out water, as a symbol of fertility.
After A. Parrot, Mission Archéologique de Mari, II, 2, 1958.

pantheon composed of goddesses of all ranks. Many of them were merely gods’ wives whilst others fulfilled specific functions. Prominent among the latter stood the mother-goddess Ninhursag (also known as Ninmah or Nintu), and Inanna (Ishtar for the Semites) who played a major role in Mesopotamian mythology.

Inanna was the goddess of carnal love and as such had neither husband nor children, but she entertained many lovers whom she regularly discarded. Beautiful and voluptuous as she undoubtedly was imagined and portrayed, she often acted perfidiously and had violent outbursts of anger which made this incarnation of pleasure a formidable goddess of war. In the course of time, this second aspect of her personality raised her to the rank of the male gods who led the armies into battle.11 Dumuzi, the only god she seems to have loved tenderly, probably resulted from the fusion of two prehistoric deities, for he was both the protector of herds and flocks and the god of the vegetation that dies in the summer and revives in the spring. The Sumerians believed that the reproduction of cattle and the renewal of edible plants and fruit could be secured only by a ceremony, on New Year's Day, in which the king, playing the role of Dumuzi, consummated a marital union with Inanna, represented by one of her priestesses. Love poems where overt erotism mixes with tender affection celebrate this ‘Sacred Marriage’,12 while the ritual itself is described in some royal hymns, the most explicit of which is a hymn to Iddin-Dagan (1974-1954 B.C.), the third king of the dynasty of Isin.13 A scented bed of rushes is set up in a special room of the palace and on it is spread a comfortable cover. The goddess has bathed and has sprinkled sweet-smelling cedar oil on the ground. Then comes the King:

The King approaches her pure lap proudly,

He approaches the lap of Inanna proudly,

Ama‘ushumgalanna* lies down beside her,

He caresses her pure lap.

When the Lady has stretched out on the bed, in his pure lap,

When the pure Inanna has stretched out on the bed, in his pure lap,

She makes love with him on her bed,

(She says) to Iddin-Dagan ‘You are surely my beloved‘.

Thereafter the people, carrying presents, are invited to enter, together with musicians, and a special meal is served:

The palace is festive, the King is joyous,

The people spend the day in plenty.

However, the rapports between Inanna and Dumuzi were not always harmonious, as shown by a famous text called ‘Inanna's descent to the Netherworld’ of which two versions have been preserved, one Sumerian, the other Assyrian.14 In the Sumerian text Inanna goes down to the ‘land of no return’, casting off a piece of clothing or a jewel at each stage, in order to snatch this lugubrious domain from the hands of her sister Ereshkigal, the Sumerian equivalent of Persephone. Unfortunately, Inanna fails; she is put to death, then resurrected by Enki, but she is not allowed to return to earth unless she finds a replacement. After a long voyage in search of a potential victim, she chooses none other than her favourite lover. Dumuzi is promptly seized by demons and taken to the Netherworld, to the sorrow of his sister Geshtin-anna, the goddess of vines. Finally, Inanna is moved by Dumuzi's lamentations: she decides that he will spend one half of the year underground, and Geshtin-anna the other half.

The Sacred Marriage rite probably originated in Uruk, but it was performed in other cities, at least until the end of the dynasty of Isin (1794). After that date, Dumuzi fell to the rank of a relatively minor deity, although a month bore his name in its Semitic form Tammuz, and still bears it in the Arab world. In the last centuries of the first millennium B.C., however, the cult of Tammuz was revived in the Levant. A god of vegetation more or less akin to Osiris, he became adon (‘the Lord’), i.e. Adonis who died each year and was mourned in Jerusalem, Byblos, Cyprus and later even in Rome. In a Greek legend, Persephone and Aphrodite were quarrelling for the favours of the handsome young god when Zeus intervened and ruled that Adonis would share the year between the two goddesses.15 Thus, the old Sumerian myth of Inanna's descent to the Netherworld had not been entirely forgotten: slightly distorted but recognizable, it had reached the Aegean Sea by some unknown channel, as did a number of Mesopotamian myths and legends.

Tales of Creation

The Mesopotamians imagined the earth as a flat disc surrounded with a rim of mountains and floating on an ocean of sweet waters, the abzu or apsû. Resting on these mountains and separated from the earth by the atmosphere (lil) was the sky vault along which revolved the astral bodies. A similar hemisphere underneath the earth formed the Netherworld where lived the spirits of the dead. Finally, the whole universe (anki: 9 sky-earth) was immersed like a gigantic bubble in a boundless, uncreated, primeval ocean of salt water. The earth itself consisted of nothing more than Mesopotamia and the immediate centre stood for the Babylonians or, probably, Nippur for the Sumerians.

How and by whom had the world been created? The answers to the question varied, no doubt because they were founded on different traditions.16 One legend stated that Anu had created the heavens and Enki the apsû, his abode. Another attributed the creation of the universe to the general assembly of all the gods and yet another to only four great gods acting collectively. The beginning of an incantation against the ‘worm’ responsible for toothaches says that Anu created the sky, which created the earth, which in turn created the rivers, the rivers the canals, the canals the marshes and the marshes the worm. But this sounds rather like the nursery rhyme ‘The house that Jack built’ and

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How the Sumerians conceived the world. The earth is a flat disc surrounded by an ocean; above and below the hemispheres of sky (heavens residences of the gods) and netherworld (hell) with special gods. The whole world floats in a primordial ocean.
From S. N. Kramer, L‘Histoire commence à Sumer, 1975.

should perhaps not be taken too seriously. More interesting is a version from the town of Sippar, according to which the great Babylonian god Marduk had ‘built a reed platform (or raft) on the surface of the waters, then created dust and poured it around the platform’, because this is actually how the marsh-Arabs of southern Iraq make the artificial islands upon which they erect their reed-huts.17 In general the Sumerians believed that the primeval ocean, personified by the goddess Nammu, had begotten alone a male sky and a female earth intimately joined together. The fruit of their union, the air-god Enlil, had separated the sky from the earth and, with the latter, had engendered all living creatures. The theory that the ocean was the primordial element from which the universe was born, that the shape of the universe had resulted from the forceful separation of heaven from earth by a third party was generally adopted in Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria, and forms the basis of the most complete and detailed story of creation that we possess: the great Babylonian epic called, from its opening sentence, Enuma elish, ‘When on high…’ But the Babylonian genesis has still wider philosophical implications; it describes the creation not as a beginning but as an end, not as the gratuitous and inexplicable act of one god but as the result of a cosmic battle, the fundamental and eternal struggle between those two aspects of nature: Good and Evil, Order and Chaos.

Enuma elish is a long poem in seven tablets originally composed during the Old Babylonian period (beginning of the second millennium), though all the copies found so far were written during the first millennium B.C. In most copies the main part is played by Marduk, the patron-god of Babylon, but an Assyrian version substitutes the name of Ashur, the national god of Assyria, for that of Marduk. On the other hand, Marduk is once called in the poem ‘the Enlil of the gods’, and as we know that Marduk had usurped the rank and prerogatives of the Sumerian god Enlil, we may confidently surmise that the hero of the epic was originally Enlil, as in the Sumerian cosmogony already mentioned.18

The Mesopotamian mythographers took their inspiration from their own country. If we stand on a misty morning near the present Iraqi sea-shore, at the mouth of the Shatt-el-‘Arab, what do we see? Low banks of clouds hang over the horizon; large pools of sweet water seeping from underground or left over from the river floods mingle freely with the salty waters of the Persian Gulf; of the low mud-flats which normally form the landscape no more than a few feet are visible; all around us sea, sky and earth are mixed in a nebulous, watery chaos. This is how the authors of the poem, who must have often witnessed such a spectacle, imagined the beginning of the world. When nothing yet had a name, that is to say when nothing had yet been created, they wrote, Apsu (the fresh waters), Tiamat (the salt waters) and Mummu (the clouds19) formed together one single confused body:

Enuma elish la nabû shamamu

When on high the heaven had not been named,

Firm ground below had not been called by name,

Naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter.

(And) Mummu (and?) Tiamat, she who bore them all,

Their waters commingling as a single body;

No reed-hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared;

When no gods whatever had been brought into being,

Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined –

Then it was that the gods were formed within them.

In the landscape described above larger patches of land emerge from the mist as the sun rises, and soon a clear-cut line separates the sky from the waters and the waters from the earth. So in the myth the first gods to emerge from the chaos were Lahmu and Lahamu, representing the silt; then came Anshar and Kishar, the twin horizons of sky and earth. Anshar and Kishar begot Anu, and Anu in turn begot Ea (Enki). At the same time, or shortly afterwards, a number of lesser deities were born from Apsu and Tiamat, but of these gods the poem says nothing except that they were turbulent and noisy. They ‘troubled Tiamat's belly’ and disturbed their parents so much that they decided to destroy them. When they heard of this plan the great gods Lahmu and Lahamu, Anshar and Kishar, Anu and Ea were shocked and amazed: ‘they remained speechless’, no doubt thinking that the exuberance of Life was preferable to the peace of a sterile Confusion. However, ‘Ea the all-wise’ soon found a means of wrecking the evil scheme. He ‘devised and set up a master design’: he cast a magic spell upon Mummu and paralysed him; in the same way Apsu was put to sleep and slain. After this double victory Ea retired to his temple, now founded on the abyss of sweet waters (apsû) and with his wife Damkina engendered a son, Marduk, who possessed outstanding qualities:

Perfect were his members beyond comprehension…

Unsuited for understanding, difficult to perceive.

Four were his eyes, four were his ears;

When he moved his lips, fire blazed forth.

Large were all four hearing organs,

And the eyes, in like number, scanned all things.

He was the loftiest of the gods, surpassing was his stature;

His members were enormous, he was exceedingly tall.

Meanwhile, Tiamat was still alive and free. Delirious with rage, she declared war on the gods. She created a number of fierce dragons and monstrous serpents ‘sharp of tooth, unsparing of fangs, with venom for blood‘, and placed one of her sons, Kingu, at the head of the gruesome army. The gods were terrified. Anshar ‘smote his loins and bit his lips’ in distress, and declared that Kingu should be put to death. But who was to do this? One after another, the gods declined to fight. Finally, Marduk accepted under one condition: that he be made their king. ‘Set up the assembly,’ said he, ‘proclaim supreme my destiny, let my word, instead of yours, determine the fates.’ The gods had no alternative but to agree. They met at a banquet and, slightly inebriated, they endowed Marduk with the royal powers and insignia. Marduk chose his weapons: the bow, the lightning, the flood-storm, the four winds, the net. He clad himself with ‘an armour of terror, a turban of fearsome halo’, and mounted on his storm-chariot went forth alone to fight the forces of Chaos. At the sight of him, the army of monsters disbanded; Kingu, their chief, was captured. As for Tiamat, she was caught in Marduk's net and, as she opened her mouth, he at once blew the four winds into her stomach. He then pierced her heart with an arrow, smashed her skull with his mace, and finally split her body open ‘like a shell-fish’. Half of her ‘he set up and ceiled it as sky’, the other half he placed beneath the earth.

After his victory Marduk put the universe in order. Having in the new sky fixed the course of the sun, the moon and the stars, he decided to create mankind:

I will establish a savage (lullu), ‘man’ shall be his name.

Verily, savage-man I will create.

He shall be charged with the service of the gods

That they might be at ease!

On Ea's advice Kingu was put to death, and from his blood Marduk and his father fashioned the first human being. Thereafter Marduk divided the gods into two groups: three hundred of them to dwell in heaven, three hundred to live on earth side by side with humanity. As a reward for his victory the gods built Marduk's great temple in Babylon, Esagila, and, assembled at another great banquet, they ‘proclaimed his fifty names’.

Childish as this story may sound, it was loaded with grave significance for the Babylonians. To their deeply religious minds it offered a non-rational but nevertheless acceptable ‘explanation’ of the universe. Among other things, it described how the world had assumed its alleged shape; it made good the fact that men must be the servants of the gods; it accounted for the natural wickedness of humanity, created from the blood of evil Kingu; it also justified the exorbitant powers of Marduk (originally Enlil) by his election and his heroic exploit. But, above all, it had, like the Sacred Marriage, a powerful magical virtue. If every year for nearly two millennia Enuma elish was recited by the priests of Babylon on the fourth day of the New Year Festival it was because the Babylonians felt that the great cosmic struggle had never really ended and that the forces of Chaos were always ready to challenge the established Order of the gods.

Life, Death and Destiny

The commerce of men with the gods, like the commerce of men between themselves, had its degrees. If the King of Babylon was directly under Marduk's orders the Babylonian peasant was in closer contact with Ashnan, the barley-god, or Shumuqan, the cattle-god, than with Anu or Enlil. Besides, there were enough deities to cater for the important events of life; whenever required, an invocation and an offering of dates would propitiate Gula, the goddess of childbirth, or Pasag, the protector of travellers. In case of dire emergency, the greater deities could be approached through the clergy or, more directly, through the offices of his ‘personal god’.

Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians looked up to their gods as servants look to their good masters: with submission and fear, but also with admiration and love. For kings and commoners alike, obedience to divine orders was the greatest of qualities, as the service of the gods was the most imperative of duties. While the celebration of the various festivals and the performance of the complicated rituals of the cult were the task of priests, it was the duty of every citizen to send offerings to the temples, to attend the main religious ceremonies, to care for the dead, to pray and make penance, and to observe the innumerable rules and taboos that marked nearly every moment of his life. A sensible man ‘feared the gods’ and scrupulously followed their prescriptions. To do otherwise was not only foolish but sinful, and sin – as everyone knew – brought on man's head the most terrible punishments. Yet it would be wrong to think of the Mesopotamian religion as a purely formal affair, when hymns and prayers disclose the most delicate feelings and burst with genuine emotion.20 The Mesopotamians put their confidence in their gods; they relied upon them as children rely upon their parents, they talked to them as to their ‘real fathers and mothers’, who could be offended and punish, but who could also be placated and forgive.

Offerings, sacrifices and the observance of religious prescriptions were not all that the Mesopotamian gods required from their worshippers. To ‘make their hearts glow with libation’, to make them ‘exultant with succulent meals’ was certainly deserving, but it was not enough. The favours of the gods went to those who led ‘a good life’, who were good parents, good sons, good neighbours, good citizens, and who practised virtues as highly esteemed then as they are now: kindness and compassion, righteousness and sincerity, justice, respect of the law and of the established order. Every day worship your god, says a Babylonian ‘Counsel of Wisdom’, but also:

To the feeble show kindness,

Do not insult the downtrodden,

Do charitable deeds, render service all your days…

Do not utter libel, speak what is of good report,

Do not say evil things, speak well of people…21

As a reward for piousness and good conduct the gods gave man help and protection in danger, comfort in distress and bereavement, good health, honourable social position, wealth, numerous children, long life, happiness. This was perhaps not a very noble ideal by Christian standards, but the Sumerians and Babylonians were contented with it, for they were practical, down-to-earth people who loved and enjoyed life above everything. To live for ever was the dearest of their dreams, and a number of their myths – in particular Adapa and the Gilgamesh cycle (see next chapter) – aimed at explaining why man had been denied the privilege of immortality.

But only the gods were immortal. For men death was ineluctable and had to be accepted:

Only the gods live for ever under the sun,

As for mankind, numbered are their days,

Whatever they achieve is but wind.22

What happened after death? Thousands of graves with their funerary equipment testify to a general belief in an after-life where the dead carried with them their most precious belongings and received food and drink from the living. But such details of the Mesopotamian eschatology as we can extract from the myth ‘Inanna's descent to the Netherworld’ or the Sumerian cycle of Gilgamesh are scanty and often contradictory. The ‘land of no return’ was a vast space somewhere underground, with a huge palace where reigned Ereshkigal and her husband Nergal, the god of war and pestilence, surrounded by a number of deities and guards. To reach this palace the spirits of the dead had to cross a river by ferry, as in the Greek Hades, and take off their clothes. Thereafter, they lived a wretched and dreary life in a place:

Where dust is their food, clay their sustenance;

Where they see no light and dwell in darkness,

Where they are clad like birds with garments of wings,

Where over door and bolt dust has spread.23

Yet we learn from other sources that the sun lit the Netherworld on its way round the earth, and that the sun-god Utu pronounced judgement on the dead, so that they were probably not all treated with the same severity. It would seem that the Sumerian idea of hell was as vague as ours, and that a great deal of this literature is just poetical embroidery on a loose theme.

Death, however, was not the Mesopotamians' sole preoccupation. They had, like us, their share of disease, poverty, frustration and sorrow, and like us they wondered: how could all this happen when the gods ruled the world? How could Evil prevail over Good? To be sure, it was often possible to put the blame on man himself. So tight was the network of rules and prohibitions that surrounded him that to sin and offend the gods was the easiest thing to do. Yet there were occasions when the irreproachable had nevertheless been punished, when the gods seemed to behave in the most incomprehensible way. A Babylonian poem called Ludlul bêl nemeqi, ‘I will praise the Lord of Wisdom’, pictures the feelings of a man, once noble, rich and healthy, now ruined, hated by all and afflicted with the most terrible diseases. As it turns out, in the end the god Marduk takes pity on him and saves him; but our Babylonian Job had had time to doubt the wisdom of Heaven. Bitterly he exclaimed:

Who knows the will of the gods in heaven?

Who understands the plan of the underworld gods?

Where have mortals learnt the way of a god?

He who was alive yesterday is dead today.

For a minute he was dejected, suddenly he is exuberant.

One moment people are singing in exaltation,

Another they groan like professional mourners…

I am appalled at these things; I do not understand their significance.24

But the so-called Babylonian ‘pessimism’ was much more than a temporary outburst of despair. It was metaphysical in essence, not ethical, and had its roots in the natural conditions which prevailed in Mesopotamia itself. The Tigris–Euphrates valley is a country of violent and unexpected changes. The same rivers that bring life can also bring disaster. The winters may be too cold or rainless, the summer winds too dry for the ripening of the dates. A cloudburst can in a moment turn a parched and dusty plain into a sea of mud, and on any fine day a sandstorm can suddenly darken the sky and blow devastation. Confronted with these manifestations of supernatural forces, the Mesopotamian felt bewildered and helpless. He was seized with frightful anxiety. Nothing, he believed, was ever sure. His own life, the life of his family, the produce of his fields and of his cattle, the rhythm and measure of the river floods, the cycle of seasons and indeed the very existence of the universe were constantly at stake. If the cosmos did not revert to confusion, if the world order was none the less maintained, if the human race survived, if life came again to the fields after the scorching heat of the summer, if the moon and the sun and the stars kept revolving in the sky, it was by an act of will of the gods. But the divine decision had not been pronounced once and for all at the origin of all things; it had to be repeated again and again, particularly at the turn of the year, just before that terrible oriental summer when nature seems to die and the future appears loaded with uncertainty. The only thing man could do in these critical circumstances was to provoke the decision of the gods and secure their goodwill by performing the age-old rites that ensured the maintenance of order, the revival of nature and the permanence of life. Each spring, therefore, a great and poignant ceremony took place in many cities and especially in Babylon: the akitu or New Year Festival, which combined the great drama of Creation and the annual reinstatement of the king, and culminated in the gathering of all the gods who solemnly ‘decreed the Destinies’ (see Chapter 24) Only then could the king go back to his throne, the shepherd to his flock, the peasant to his field. The Mesopotamian was reassured: the world would exist for another year.

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