CotM: The Religion of the Mesopotamians

Enûma Eliš – The creation of the world.

When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being.

Marduk and Tiamat
Marduk fighting Tiamat

The Mesopotamian religion is the oldest religion in written history. Some claim it was the first religion but we really have no way of knowing that. The Mesopotamians were henotheists meaning they believed in and acknowledged thousands of gods, but they tended to have a patron deity that they worshiped over all others. These patron deities were usually worshiped by city or state. For example, Marduk, one of the chief gods, was the patron deity of Babylon. He plays an important role in the Babylonian creation myth, the Enûma Eliš.

In the beginning, there existed two primeval gods named Apsû and Tiamat. At that time the earth was formless and void and made of water (sound familiar?). Apsû resided over the fresh water and Tiamat was a huge dragon representing and residing over the chaotic sea. Apsû and Tiamat’s waters mingled (meaning they mated) and the younger gods were created within Tiamat; she was the mother of the gods. At some point, the gods within her were making so much noise that Apsû and Tiamat couldn’t sleep so Apsû decided to kill them. Tiamat didn’t agree so she warned Ea, the most powerful of the gods inside of her about Apsû’s plan.

Ea cast a spell on Apsû to put him into a coma and then killed him. He became the chief god but that would soon change with the birth of his son Marduk who was stronger than his father. Marduk, who had power over the winds, wreaked so much chaos with his storms and tornadoes that some of the gods convinced Tiamat to avenge her dead husband, Apsû. The gods were divided by this and formed sides with some joining Tiamat and her new husband Kingu, and some standing with Ea and Marduk. At first it looks like Tiamat and Kingu are going to win as she creates eleven monsters to fight on her side. But Marduk, who has grown very strong, offers to challenge Tiamat if the gods agree to make him their king. They accept his offer. In the epic battle that ensues, Marduk is able to overpower the dragon, Tiamat. He kills her and rips her body in half. He uses the first half to create the earth and the second half to create the sky. He also created the stars and moon so that they could keep track of the seasons. Those among the gods who chose to fight on Tiamat’s side were forced into slavery in service of the gods loyal to Marduk. But the war was not over. Kingu, Tiamat’s second husband, was still alive. Marduk was eventually able to kill Kingu as well and with his blood, he created mankind to serve the gods. The men were made to build a city called Babylon after the noisy gods who babeled and created so much trouble for Tiamat.

In a number of ways, the Enûma Eliš and the creation story of Genesis are similar. In both stories, the earth is formless and void and nothing exists but the waters of the deep. In both stories, creation is a spoken act. And in both stories, the god Marduk and God separate the waters and create things in a similar order. In the Bible, God creates the angels before man and a portion of them rebel and are cast out of heaven in the battle than ensues. In the Enûma Eliš, some of the gods join with the dragon Tiamat and attempt to overthrow the gods who are loyal to the chief god, Marduk, only to be cast down and forced into servitude.

Epics and Legends

Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh

There is another story from Mesopotamia that parallels some of the stories in the Bible. It is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, literary pieces known to man; The Epic of Gilgamesh. It follows the story of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk who is two-thirds god and one-third human. He is an oppressive king who requires his subjects to bring their newly-wedded maidens to him so he can sleep with them first. The people cry out to the gods for help so the gods create a wild, primitive man named Enkidu. Hearing of Gilgamesh’s oppression, he becomes angry and decides to act. He goes to a wedding and tries to block King Gilgamesh’s way into the bridal chamber. A fight ensues in which Gilgamesh overpowers Enkidu. Acknowledging his superior strength, the two become friends and brothers. They embark on quest for glory, slaying the monster Humbaba.

Later, Gilgamesh refuses the advances of the goddess Ishtar. Enraged, she asks he father, Anu, to send the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. Anu refuses but Ishtar threatens to raise the dead to devour the living. Terrified, anu agrees to her request. The Bull of Heaven terrorizes Gilgamesh’s city of Uruk, killing his people and causing their rivers to dry up. Gilgamesh and Enkidu rush to the rescue and kill the bull. But for this, the gods decide that one of the heroes must die and Enkidu is marked for death. He becomes angry and curses the gods for ever creating him. The god Shamash reminds him of the times that he fed Enkidu and provided for his needs. Over the next twelve days Enkidu falls ill and he has terrifying visions of the afterlife: a place of dust and darkness where all people go when they die regardless of their actions or status on earth, and where there is nothing to eat but clay. In his last hour he regrets not dying in battle, and then he passes away. Gilgamesh is devastated and all of Uruk goes into mourning for Enkidu.

Gilgamesh takes to roaming the wilds alone in mourning. He becomes fearful and obsessed with his own mortality. He decides to go on a journey to discover the secret of eternal life from the immortal Utnapishtim, a survivor of the great flood. After a long and very exciting jounery (seriously, read it for yourself) he find Utnapishtim and asks him about the secret to his immortality. Utnapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights but Gilgamesh immediately falls asleep. Utnapishtim mocks him for wanting to conquer death when he can’t even conquer sleep. Immortality for Utnapishtim was a gift from the gods and Gilgamesh will never have it for himself. He lectures Gilgamesh, explaining that to try to avoid death only makes life less worth living. But, as a gift, Utnapishtim tells him of a special plant that will make him young again. Gilgamesh finds this plant but it is stolen by a serpent. He grieves at the ultimate futility of his journey. With nothing to show for all his searching, he returns to Uruk. As he sees the great walls of his city, they look more beautiful to him than they ever have and he praises their craftsmanship. He resigns himself to the fact that that he will die someday and will try to make the best of his life

Homework for this week: Read The Epic of Gilgamesh or The Enuma Elish and then report back here in the comments about what you thought. Neither of them are very long.

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One response

  1. Loved reading this! Good to see another mythology blog here on wordpress!

    March 17, 2011 at 10:12 pm

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