Ancient History & Civilisation

6. The Principal Gods of the Epic

The cities of Mesopotamia shared a common pantheon, but the gods were not worshipped everywhere under the same names. The Semites when they invaded Mesopotamia inherited most of the Sumerian gods, but they altered their names, their mutual relations, and many of their attributes. It is not possible to say today if any were native to Mesopotamia, and belonged to the still older stratum of the population which may have been in occupation of the land before the arrival of the Sumerians, but throughout it is the known Sumerian gods who play the chief role in the Epic; and this is an additional argument, if any were needed, in favour of the great antiquity of all the episodes. Later gods such as Marduk of Babylon are never mentioned.

Each city had its own particular protector who looked after its fortunes and had his house within its walls. Anu (Sumerian An) was a father of gods, not so much Zeus as Uranus, the sky-god who to the Greeks was little more than an ancestral link in the chain of creation; from whose union with Earth, according to some of the genealogies, came Ocean, the rivers, the seas, the Titans and last of all, Cronos the father of Zeus. A reconstruction of the Sumerian theogony has been made by Professor Kramer, according to which An was the first-born of the primeval sea. He was the upper heavens, the firmament, not the air that blows over the earth. Like Uranus he was united to earth (Sumerian Ki) and begot Enlil, the god of the air. At this time the world was still in darkness and Enlil, the air, was imprisoned between the dark ceiling of heaven, a night sky without stars, and the earth’s surface. So Enlil begot the moon Nanna (Semitic Sin), who travelled in a boat bringing light to the lapis lazuli heavens; and Nanna in turn begot the sun Utu (Semitic Shamash), and Inanna (Semitic Ishtar) goddess of love and war. The texts are still very obscure; one of them forms the introduction to the Sumerian poem of the descent of Enkidu to the underworld. Anu is not yet so detached as the Greek Uranus, but neither is he any more the active creator of gods. This supreme position was gradually usurped by Enlil, and in our poem it is Enlil who pronounces destinies in sign of authority. But he in turn was to fall before the newcomer, Babylonian Marduk.

Enlil, whose city was Nippur, was the storm and wind, breath and ‘the word’ of Anu; for according to the hymns in his praise, ‘The spirit of the word is Enlil, the spirit of the heart of Anu.’ This Enlil is power in action, where Anu is power in being. He is ‘the word which stilleth the heaven above’, but he is also ‘a rushing deluge that troubles the faces of men, a torrent which destroys the bulwarks’. In the Gilgamesh Epic he appears oftenest in his destructive aspect; and beside him Anu is a remote being who lives far away in the firmament, beyond the gate of heaven. In one text he seems to encourage the journey to the Cedar Mountain, but it is also he who rebukes Gilgamesh and Enkidu for killing its guardian.

Equally important in the Epic are the kindly and just Sun God Shamash, whom the Sumerians called Utu, and Ishtar the beautiful but also terrible goddess of love. The sun is still ‘shams’ in Arabic, and in those days Shamash was the omniscient all-seeing one, the great judge to whom anxious mortals could make their appeal against injustice, and know that they were heard. The hymns from Nineveh describe his many attributes: ‘All mankind rejoice in you, O Shamash, all the world longs for your light ... in a hollow voice feeble man calls out to you ... when his family is far away and his city far-off, the shepherd boy fearful of the open field comes before you, the shepherd in confusion among his enemies ... the caravan which marches in dread, the trader, the pedlar with his bag of weights.’ Nothing escapes the sun’s eye, ‘Guide and beacon who constantly passes over the infinite seas, whose depths the great gods of heaven do not know; your gleaming rays go down into the Pit, and the monsters of the deep see your light ... you make it to burn over unknown stretches of distance for countless hours ... by your terrible brilliance the land is overwhelmed.’ The two aspects of the god as omniscience and justice are united in the figure of the net: ‘Spread out is your net to catch the man who covets‘, and ‘Thrown down like a net over the land are your rays.’ He is also the god of oracles: ‘By the cup of the diviner, by the bundle of cedar-wood, you teach the priest of the oracle, the interpreter of dreams, the sorcerer...’; and in another hymn he is the judge, ‘Daily you determine the decisions of heaven and earth; at your coming in a flame and fire all the stars of heaven are covered over.’ It was he also who gave to Hammurabi his system of laws.

Ishtar (Sumerian Inanna) was worshipped in the great temple in Uruk, together with Anu. She is the queen of heaven, and as goddess of love and of war an equivocal character; ‘an awful and lovely goddess’ like Aphrodite. Most of the gods had both a benign and a dangerous aspect, even Shamash could be terrible; but in this poem, except for a single moment, we see Ishtar only in her darker character. That she could be gracious is shown by a hymn of about 1600 B.C. ‘Reverence the queen of women, the greatest of all the gods; she is clothed with delight and with love, she is full of ardour, enchantment, and voluptuous joy, in her lips she is sweet, in her mouth is Life, when she is present felicity is greatest; how glorious she looks, the veils thrown over her head, her lovely form, her brilliant eyes.’ This is the radiant goddess of love as she first appeared to Gilgamesh, but her aspect very soon altered to become that of the familiar ‘lady of sorrows and of battles’. In this character she is addressed in a hymn from Babylon: ‘Oh, star of lamentation, brothers at peace together you cause to fight one another, and yet you give constant friendship. Mighty one, lady of battles who overturns mountains.’

The only remaining god to play an important part in the poem is Ea (Sumerian Enki), the god of wisdom, whose particular element was the sweet waters bringing life to the land, and whose house was at Eridu, which was then on the Persian Gulf. He appears as a benign being, a peace-maker, but not always a reliable friend, for, like so many exponents of primitive wisdom, he enjoyed tricks and subterfuges and on occasion was not devoid of malice. But here he acts as the great ‘lord of wisdom who lives in the deep’. His origins are obscure, but he is sometimes called the son of Anu, ‘Begotten in his own image ... of broad understanding and mighty strength.’ He was also in a particular degree the creator and benefactor of mankind.

Over against heaven and its gods lies the underworld with its sombre deities. In the old Sumerian myth of creation, already referred to, after An had carried off the heavens and taken possession of the firmament and after Enlil had carried off the earth, then Ereshkigal was borne away by the Underworld for its prize (or perhaps was given the underworld for her prize). The meaning of the myth is obscure, but this part of it seems to describe another rape of Persephone. Ereshkigal was sometimes called the elder sister of Ishtar, and possibly herself once a sky-goddess who became the queen of the underworld; but for her there was no spring-time return to earth.

The Sumerian name for the underworld, ‘Kur’, also meant mountain and foreign land, and there is often considerable ambiguity in its use. The underworld was beneath the earth’s surface but above the nether waters, the great abyss. The way to it was ‘into the mountain’, but there were many circumlocutions for the place itself and for the way down. It was ‘the road of the chariot’ and ‘the road of no-return’; nor are we ourselves so unlike the Sumerians in this respect, as can be proved by comparing the relative length of the entries under ‘Life’ and ‘Death’ in the English Thesaurus.

Later on, the old story of the rape (if such it was) seems to have been forgotten or to have lost its importance, and with it was lost the personality of ‘Kur’; for, as with Hades, the grim god became little more than a dark place, while Ereshkigal is given other husbands. The Queen of the Underworld is an altogether terrifying being who is never more than obliquely described: ‘She who rests, she who rests, the mother of Ninazu, her holy shoulders are not covered with garments, her breast is not covered with linen.’ There are several poems, both Sumerian and Semitic, that describe the underworld. Sometimes it is the scene of a journey taken by a goddess or a mortal. A certain Assyrian prince, under the pseudonym of ‘Kummu’, has left a horrifying vision of death and the hereafter. It is a dark apocalypse in which the angels are all demons; where we recognize the sphinx, the lion and the eagle-griffin, the cherub with human hands and feet, along with many monsters of the imagination which haunted men’s minds then and long after. They reappear continually on sealstones and ivories and carved rock-faces; and they have survived through the medium of medieval religious iconography and in heraldry into the modern world. If they have lost their power as symbols, the mysteries they represented are still the same as puzzle us today.

Throughout the narrative of the adventures of Gilgamesh the presence of the underworld can be felt. It is the foreseen end of his journey however much he struggles to escape it, for ‘only the gods live for ever’. It appears to Enkidu in a dream before his death, and in a separate poem the same Enkidu goes alive down the ‘road of no-return’ to bring back a lost treasure. But unlike the journey of the Greek heroes Heracles and Theseus when sent on similar errands, this journey was fatal; only a brief return was permitted, perhaps as a ghost with no more substance than a puff of wind which, when questioned by Gilgamesh, answered, ‘Sit down and weep, my body which once you used to touch and made your heart’s delight, vermin devour like an old coat.’

It would be an over-simplification to say that where the Egyptians give us the vision of heaven, the Babylonians give the vision of hell; yet there is some truth in it. The gods alone inhabit heaven in the Sumerian and Babylonian universe. Among mortals only one was translated to live for ever ‘in the distance at the mouth of the rivers’, and he, like Enoch who ‘walked with God, and he was not, for God took him’, lived in the dim past before the flood. Ordinary mortals must go to

‘The house where they sit in darkness, where dust is their food and clay their meat, they are clothed like birds with wings for garments, over bolt and door lie dust and silence.’ It is a depressing vision of heavy moping voiceless birds with draggled feathers crouching in the dirt. In this underworld there also lived the Anunnaki, the nameless ‘Great Ones’ who once, like Ereshkigal, lived above with the host of heaven, but who through some misdeed were banished to be judges of the underworld, much as Zeus banished the Titans, or like the fallen Lucifer. In Babylonia the soul of a dead man was exorcized with the incantation: ‘Let him go to the setting sun, let him be entrusted to Nedu, the chief gatekeeper of the underworld, that Nedu may keep strong watch over him, may his key close the lock.’

The scene may not always have been so dark. There is one Sumerian fragment which says that a righteous soul shall not die and hints at a judge whom the virtuous need not fear: but for the purposes of the Gilgamesh poems the underworld is that place of wailing which Enkidu or his spirit describes in the twelfth tablet. The journey there recalls the last book of the Odyssey, when Penelope’s suitors are led away, ‘gibbering like bats that squeak and flutter in the depths of some mysterious cave when one of them has fallen from the rocky roof, losing his hold on his clustered friends. With such shrill discord the company set out in Hermes’ charge, following the Deliverer down the dark paths of decay. Past Ocean Stream, past the White Rock, past the Gates of the Sun and the region of dreams they went, and before long they reached the meadow of asphodel, which is the dwelling-place of souls, the disembodied wraiths of men.’ Except for the ‘Deliverer’ Hermes, who takes the place of the frightful being with talons and a sombre countenance who led Enkidu away to the palace of Ereshkigal, this is recognizably akin to the Babylonian vision of last things, while even the simile of the bats was used by the writer of a poem in honour of Inanna. It seems that the conception of such a region of the dead was also familiar to the author of Psalm XLIX when he wrote, ‘They are appointed as a flock for Sheol: Death shall be their shepherd: and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning: and their beauty shall be for Sheol to consume, that there be no habitation for it.’

The dying Egyptian, on the other hand, had a reasonable hope of paradise to comfort and encourage him at the end. After judgement and weighing of souls the righteous man could expect, through a form of rebirth, to enter the fields of paradise, ‘I know the field of reeds of Re ... the height of its barley ... the dwellers of the horizon reap it beside the Eastern Souls.’ This rebirth was not for some single exceptional man alone, nor the king alone, but for ‘millions of millions ... there is not one who fails to reach that place ... as for the duration of life upon earth, it is a sort of dream; they say “Welcome, safe and sound” to him who reaches the West’.

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