The treasures of Mesopotamian mythology, wisdom and zest for life are yet to be fully explored. The main reason for this neglect is fundamentally due to the fact that the region was constantly conquered and defeated by those who made their own many of Mesopotamian basic theological, mythical and philosophical concepts, but did not acknowledge their source, as it has always been throughout history whenever a civilization falls and another comes to the forefront. The present work is just a tiny atom of the universe of Mesopotamian religious and literary works, and it is aimed at fuelling the interest in this rich, but neglected classical culture. In what follows, we will present retellings of ancient Mesopotamian myths in an attempt to recapture the seeds of wholeness and holiness embedded in sacred stories revered and sung much before the muses and angels.These retellings, nevertheless, are not intended to be dogmatic, exclusive or final, but rather function as a map or dance floor for an ancient lyrics the reader is invited to participate, explore, expand and make it her or his own.
For most of the retellings that follow, the earliest sources available for the myths approached here were carefully researched and worked upon. To facilitate this task, information about the generations of gods is contained in many myths and literary works, as well as in ancient Mesopotamian lists of gods, set out according to their households, with consort, offspring, other relatives, minister, staff and so on. Nevertheless, because Mesopotamia was never unified into a great empire for long, the same god or goddess was sometimes worshipped in different places, each with its own traditions. A persistent feature of the history of Mesopotamia religion, however, was for local traditions to be gradually syncretised as, throughout the centuries, temple estates, the political and geographical organization of the region, grew larger and larger.
Any conclusions we have made based on our understanding of these sacred stories are not necessarily for all to accept, and naturally they do not claim to portray the vision of a Mesopotamian scribe or incantation priestess of ancient times. A genuine effort, nevertheless, was put into weaving the many threads of some wondrous mythical fragments as found in the available scholarly sources so that they could form a coherent whole. We sincerely hope that this material will be seen as a framework for more in-depth studies on Ancient Mesopotamian history and mythology.
Firstly, for the purpose of this work it is given preference to the oldest Sumerian names to identify gods and goddess. Therefore, Inanna is preferred to Ishtar, Enki is preferred to Ea, and so forth. Nevertheless, later works will follow the later god and goddess names, according to historical evolution. The glossary included in this site provides additional data on gods and goddesses names and epithets.
Secondly, myths are mostly retold in the womans/goddess voice in agreement with the the fact that women did have a voice in many ancient texts to express their longing and desire for the beloved, as well as the narrative style intended here intends to pay homage to ancient texts whose erotic content are normally addressed by scholars as love songs or royal love songs. It is known that the court at Ur actively promoted music and poetry, and that the art of the scribe was taught to kings and princesses, who probably were also trained as priests and priestesses scribes as well.
Thirdly, the myths which are object of this work can be classified into four groups in accordance with the historical and political development of Mesopotamia outlined in the preceding section.
The first group comprises the myths related to the creation and organization of the cosmos, the birth of the great gods and the powers that command the universe, as well as the relationship between the subtle and physical realities, namely the realm of the Sky gods and goddesses, the Upperworld, the physical reality, or the Middleworld and the realm of the Dead and Ancestral Memory or the Underworld. In Before all Befores creation is therefore seen as coming from the deep fertile waters of Mother Nammu, the Primeval Sea, who gave birth to the cosmic mountain Ki and An the Sky. The foundation for this world view may very well be in the fact that the first settlers of the Southern Mesopotamian region built their settlements by the river banks, taking advantage of the rich farmland nearby to grow crops to feed their communities. In "Ninhursags children it is attempted to answer the question of how unbalanced powers came into being, whereas Ereshkigals choice and Enki and Ereshkigal touch the question of the Underworld existence and the afterlife, two subjects that were a fundamental concern for ancient Mesopotamians. Thus, the first group of myths are presented in reply to the following questions ancient Mesopotamians must have asked themselves: where did life begin? Where do the gods and powers that shape the universe come from? Is there a subtle realm that animates all there was, is and will be? And what is the Underworld experience?
The second group of myths comprise the moral values which defined Ancient Mesopotamian society. In Ninlils Descent, not even the most powerful of the young gods, Enlil, Lord Air, can run away from the responsibility of becoming a father, whereas his consort Ninlil also has to learn to assert herself and win Enlils love and respect along the process. Nanna and Ningal, another moral tale for young couples in love, also shows the consolidation of Mesopotamia as independent temple estates which kept some exchange routes or co-operation ties, exemplified by the ritual exchange of goods between temple estates symbolized by Nannas annual boat journey from Ur to Nippur. Indeed, journeys and processions of the gods, represented by their cult statues, were transported about Mesopotamia by chariot and by barge. A group of Sumerian literary compositions concerns boat journeys of the gods, and there is plenty of non-literary evidence to show that regular journeys really took place in the Early Dynastic Period and under the Third Dynasty of Ur. Usually, they were to Nippur or to Eridu to obtain a blessing from Enlil, or from Eridu, to pay homage to Enki, the God of Magic, Wisdom and Sweet Waters, who also was the guardian of the Sacred Measures for Earthly and Heavenly Organization. It is possible that after the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, when Sumer was increasingly occupied with inter-state war, there was no opportunity for the splendid progresses of the gods to continue. However, transport of divine images occurred again later in the Babylonian New Year ceremonies. The third myth of this group, Enki and Ninhursag can very well be interpreted as the mythical foundation for irrigated agriculture practiced widely in ancient Mesopotamia, explained through the sacred marriage of Enki, the God of Sweet Waters, Magic, Crafts and Wisdom, with Ninhursag-Ki, the Great Mother goddess of Ancient Near East.
The third group of myths includes the retelling of an initial passage of the Epic of Gilgamesh involving the taming of Enkidu, Gilgameshs Soul Brother, by an initiate of the temple of Inanna, the Great Goddess of Love and War. These two stories can be classified as examples of royal courtly poetry, where human and divine love is celebrated. In most of the royal courtly poems, the archetypal couple for these narratives is Inanna/Ishtar and Dumuzi/Tammuz, symbolizing the goddess and her human consort the king and shepherd of the land, or Enkidu as the Divine Animal and the priestess as the woman elevated to the status of future garment of the goddess, the High Priestess. The remarkable aspect of this type of Mesopotamian literature is that the womans voice dominates the poetic discourse. She speaks spontaneously of her desire and demands the gratification of her sexual needs, while the male voice seconds her pleas. Kingship was a gift sanctioned by the gods and goddesses, and the anointing of Dumuzi by Inanna is fully described in the Courtship. It is important to point out that the anointing of kings was a well-known tradition for early Christians, and the reason why all Evangelists mentioned the anointing of Christ by the woman with the alabaster jar in all four gospels of the New Testament Bible.
The fourth group is represented by the myth Nergal and Ereshkigal , and it is a love story which takes place in the Underworld, the realm of the dead, justice and of ancestral memory. There are two versions of this story, the first dating from the fifteenth or fourteenth centuries Before Common Era, found at Tell el-Amarna, in Egypt, and the second, a longer version, dating from the seventh century BCE found in Uruk in the Late Babylonian period. Both myths share the same basic theme: that the gods hold a banquet and, since Ereshkigal as queen of the Underworld cannot come up to join them, she sends her vizier to fetch a portion from the gods table for her. Nergal behaves disrespectfully to the vizier, and must therefore be punished for insulting the great queen. Nergal descends, falls in love with Ereshkigal, fights the feeling, but in the end surrenders to her and becomes her consort and judge in the Underworld. Perhaps at a deepest level this myth foretells the fall of Near Eastern Civilization, which was left buried in the sands of the Middle East after the devastating passage of Alexander the Great, who, incidentally, died in Babylon at 33 years of age. The first millennium in Mesopotamia began badly:
The mounting tide of Aramean invasion, the desperate efforts made by the Assyrians to dam it up, the irremediable decadence of Babylon, Sumer and Akkad wide open to the Sutu and the Arameans, foreign wars, civil wars, floods, famine, such is the pitiful picture offered by Iraq during the 10th and 9th centuries (Roux, 1964:231).
The last myth, "The Hero and the Dragoness" is a tribute to the Enuma Elish. Lishtar found it very difficult to write, and will be reworking it as this year unfolds. A proposed healing for the Anzu Bird myth and theft of the Tablets of Destiny is also included.
Indeed, Babylon and the Near East fell in the beginning of our Common Era, and the remains of this great civilization only started to be rediscovered some one hundred and sixty years ago by archaeologists, historians and linguists, many of them used as sources for this book. Perhaps by locating one of the last myths of this series as a love story in the Underworld the ancient priest or priestess scribe wanted to give it an eternal place in the Land of Ancestral Memory and Judgement for the generations to come.
The rise and fall of civilizations is the matter of history, but perhaps humanity has now reached a point where it will know how to conciliate differences not as irreconcilable opposites, but as matching complements.
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