Robin Yassin-Kassab

Complex Origins

with 4 comments

Sumerians at prayer

Sumerians at prayer

From a Muslim perspective, I’m used to seeing Judaism, Christianity and Islam as episodes within the same religion (which is not to deny their differences) – a series of revelations emanating from the same cultural locus. But since so many of the Abrahamic stories are inherited from earlier civilisations, even from the very first to write down stories, it may be that my definition of one religion, or at least one civilisation, should expand to include the earliest myths. Stories so early that we can reasonably guess their roots reach deep into our pre-civilised hunter-gatherer past.

Myth doesn’t mean untruth any more than a great novel does. Myth is heightened truth. A myth is perhaps more ‘true’ than reality because reality unfiltered is unstructured and unexplained. The fact that God uses human myths to talk to humans need not perturb the religious. “wa tilka al-amthal nadribuha lil-nas la’alahum yatafakiroon,” says the Qur’an. “We rehearse these parables to people in order that they may think.” From a religious perspective, the rehearsal of myths in sacred text is proof of God’s understanding of human minds. And where do the myths arise from anyway? From unforgotten events, and from us, from our shared Godstuff.

As Genesis has Adam created in the image of God, so in the Epic of Gilgamesh Enkidu is created from clay “in the image of Anu,” who is the supreme god, the lord of the sky. The word ‘Eden’ is a Sumerian word, meaning ‘open country’. The strange detail in Genesis of Eve being created from Adam’s rib is perhaps prefigured in a Sumerian myth which sees a hero dismembered and then put back together by a group of deities, one deity for each part of the body, including “the lady of the rib.”

Although no archeological evidence has been found of a flood which destroyed all of settled Mesopotamia, smaller floods of the Tigris and Euphrates which inundated key cities were common, and it is from Mesopotamia that the flood story originates. The Noah figure is Ut-Napishtim, who is told by the water goddess Ea to take “the seed of all living creatures” into a ship built according to her specifications. After days and nights of floating, the ark lands on a mountain top, but all around is water. Ut-Napishtim sends out a dove, a swallow, and finally a raven, which finds land. Ut-Napishtim is awarded not prophethood but immortality, the only human to win this prize.

As in the Genesis account, the gods send devastating floods because they are tired of humanity. But while it is human immorality that upsets the Abrahamic God, what annoys the Sumerian pantheon is simply human noise:

… the people multiplied
The earth was bellowing like a bull
The gods were distressed with their uproar
(from “Atrahasis”)

The Sumerian flood seems like a cure for population explosion, and when the gods relent they condition their mercy with a series of contraceptive measures:

Let there be among the people bearing women and barren women
Let there be among the people a Pashittu-demon
Let it seize the baby from the mother’s lap

This myth strikes me as particularly resonant for today, when human beings number six and a half billion and environmentalists predict catastrophic flooding as a result of human-provoked global warming.

And here are the mythical origins of King Sargon of Akkad. His mother “set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me in the river which rose not over me.” The baby was found by a royal gardener, who brought him up until “the goddess Ishtar fell in love with me. Thereafter I exercised royal power.” We are of course reminded of Moses, who was also found by a royal household after his mother abandoned him to the river, and who, like Sargon, was destined to lead a nation and commune with the divine. And also, as stories ripple into each other, of the Egyptian underworld god Osiris. Set locks Osiris in a box and floats him down the river to the sea. The box is caught in the branches of a tree, allowing Osiris to be found and rescued by his wife Isis. (In the next episode Set cuts Osiris into 14 pieces and buries each piece separately. Isis gathers the pieces and puts Osiris back together. Does this echo the ‘lady of the rib’ mentioned above?)

Some of the Code of Hammurabi looks a lot like Judaic law, and some looks like Sharia.

There are endless linguistic similarities with contemporary Arabic. The Assyrian sun god was called Shamash (and ‘sun’ in Arabic is ‘shams’). Levantine months like Tishreen and Temmuz are inherited from ancient Mesopotamia. Temmuz is Dumuzi or Adonis – the shepherd god who dies in autumn and is resurrected in the spring, a source for the risen Christ figure (the mud-red flow of the Syrian Orontes – al-‘Asi – was once thought to be Dumuzi’s redemptive blood, anticipating the Christblood-wine of the Catholic mass). In Akkadian, ‘bait-il’ means house of the gods, and ‘bab-il’ (Babil – Babylon) means gate of the gods. Arabic speakers won’t need my translation.

Even the architecture of the excavated section of Ur resembles an Arab Old City, with alleyways and enclosed courtyards, woodwork and brickwork.

And between the ancient and the contemporary there are intriguing reversals – which are not entirely reversals, if you think about them.

The Akkadian ‘Saturday’ – ‘sabbatu’ – was not what we think of as a sabbath, but a day of ill omen. (Like the Muslims, the Akkadians had a lunar calendar, and their day began in the evening).

The temple prostitute brought to tame the Gilgamesh epic’s Enkidu is called ‘harimtu’. In pre-prophetic times ‘haram’ meant devoted to the gods and so taboo for secular use.

Enkidu’s taming by woman, his eating of human food, has parallels with the expulsion from Eden. Once he’s made love to a woman, he loses his wildness and connection to nature.

But the gazelles saw him and ran,
The wild beasts saw him and ran

In “Gilgamesh”, this loss is offset by a greater gain: the transition from nature to culture, to agriculture and cities and writing – all the basics of civilisation which were first achieved in southern Iraq. But by the time the book of Genesis is written, the wild, hunter-gathering past looks like Eden, the open land, and its loss is entirely negative. It has become the fall.

These parallels and echoes serve to expand my sense of awe and wonder when I face our key texts. They certainly don’t invalidate religious texts, but they should scare anyone away from simplistic or literalist readings.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 5, 2008 at 1:40 pm

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I remember going to the National Museum in Damascus, Syria, and making some interesting observations. There were small statues representing the priesthood and all, without fail, had the right hand over the left, just as we are taught when we pray today. The beards are grown but the moustache is shaved off. I don’t know if this is just a coincidence but I too have read the Epic of Gilgamesh and other ancient texts and find a lot of striking similarities as well as differences. There is a lot for us to “think” about in these lessons from our past, at least for those who know.


    August 5, 2008 at 2:59 pm

  2. I always enjoy your writing.
    This is very interesting and one of my all-time favorite discussion topics.

    I agree with your last statement:\”…They certainly don’t invalidate religious texts…\”

    However, the hesitation/reluctance/uncertainty in taking that final step, on your part and mine, and ultimately admitting that religions are too human to be divine is what intrigues me most. Am I a hostage of my own fears, the myths of human conscience or the omnipotent control of the (a) Grand Master.
    I wonder!


    August 5, 2008 at 4:21 pm

  3. Artgirl – with reference to your comment a few posts back, if you send me your email address (by writing a comment here, which I won’t publish) I will send you Diran’s email.

    Very interesting comment, Abu Fares. I could talk about that all night.

    And Wassim, I noticed exactly the same thing in the National Museum. Thanks for mentioning it.


    August 5, 2008 at 6:32 pm

  4. That was great to read. i wander how many books did it take you to write this post:P.

    i always wandered about the meaning of the months we use in syria, as it is not used in the rest of the arab world. do u have an idea of the meaning of the rest?



    August 6, 2008 at 9:38 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: