That’s Ishtar, the goddess of love up there
Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mesopotamian Myths

Back in my misspent youth my father had a copy of Man and His Gods by Homer W. Smith. I’m not sure why, or what my father believed at the time. He attended Mass with my mother and I, and he converted to Catholicism, and had a second ceremony with my mother. There’s a technical term, which I’ve forgotten, but it was a Catholic wedding, as opposed to the civil one that they’d had originally. So whatever his beliefs when he bought the book, he became, and as far as I know, died a Catholic. Now Dr. Smith’s book, which is out of print, but which can be found on the internet, is a work that attempts to debunk theism. It does this by pointing out the similarities of myths X and Y to stories A and B in the Bible. So for example you have myths such as Tammuz in Mesopotamia and Adonis in Greece that feature dying/resurrected gods, and those are juxtaposed with the death and resurrection of Christ. The supposition is that this proves that Jesus never rose from the dead.

I read passages from this, and from another book, a novel by A. Merritt called The Ship of Ishtar, not because I wanted to prove or disprove the truth of Christianity but because Smith had passages from the ancient poems that were, to be as blunt as decency allows, arousing to a teenage boy. For example, in the Gilgamesh epic, there is a rather potent instance when Enkidu encounters Shamhat and spends a week in her embrace. In the story of Ishtar’s descent into the underworld there’s a bit of eroticism as her clothing is removed. The Merritt novel, The Ship of Ishtar, combined fantasy, adventure, and eroticism. (My copy, since lost or given away, had the cover shown in the Amazon link.)

Now everyone knows that teenage boys are beasts, and should be locked up until they become functioning adults, say age 75-95, but as a more or less adult with his hormones more or less in check, what is to be said about the Mesopotamian myths now?

When the literature of Sumer and Akkad was translated in the 19th century, many people looked to the myths for confirmation of the Biblical accounts of things such as the Flood, or for long lived patriarchs. Others, such as James Fraser, saw the myths as parallels to the myths of the Old Testament, and therefore saw the Hebrew myths as simply one set of myths among many. Among the questions raised was whether the myths were diffused from an older civilization, or possibly spread by contact between cultures, or were arrived at independently. This is something far outside my area of competence, but if anyone has read this far, and is still interested, they can pursue it.

I don’t want to deal with all of the stories in the volume, so I’ll concentrate on four myths, the flood, Gilgamesh, Ishtar’s journey to the underworld, and creation

The Flood, Atrahasis. This account differs from the Genesis account in a number of important ways. The gods have been created/born, and have to work. Now Genesis says that God rested on the sabbath, but it doesn’t give the impression that He was sitting on the banks of the Mississippi doing his Paul Robeson impersonation. The Mesopotamian myth implies that the gods did heavy labor, and then they went to sleep. They got tired of this pretty quickly, so man was invented to take some labor off their hands. The noise of mankind disturbed their sleep, so they decided to make him less noisy and less populous by killing off some people with plague. If you know your Bible moderately well you may recall that when Elijah has the contest on Mount Carmel with the priests of Baal, he mocks their failure call down fire upon the wood by asking if their god is asleep, or away on vacation (1 Kings 18). The gods in this epic have more in common with the Greek gods as portrayed in an old Star Trek episode, than with the Hebrew God of Genesis. The gods finally decide to destroy mankind via a flood, but one human is warned and builds an ark. The rains last seven days, not the forty of Genesis. There is no sign of the rainbow, though birds are sent out to see if the land is dry. It does end with a decision not to exterminate man.

Gilgamesh. There’s a fair amount of criticism that sees male friendship as being essentially gay. Achilles-Patroclus, and David-Jonathan are often cited as ancient examples of homosexuality. These claims are somewhat dubious at best, but Gilgamesh is another poem that centers on a male pair, Gilgamesh-Enkidu. Again though, it should be noted that this is highly dubious. Gilgamesh was a historical character, as far as we can determine, and was a king of Uruk. The epic devoted to him, since it has a fair number of mythological elements, should not be regarded as a history in any sense.

Gilgamesh exercises what would later be called droit de seigneur or, as fans of Braveheart might recall, jus primae noctis. (The “right of the lord,” and the “law of first night” are both historical myths in Western culture.) He also keeps the young men occupied in heavy labor. So the gods create Enkidu as a distraction for Gilgamesh. He’s described as a wild man. The first step in civilizing him is his seduction by the prostitute Shamhat. Their rites of pleasure are described as lasting a week. (Shamhat was evidently a sacred prostitute, a temple devotee, of Ishtar. The interested reader can research the topic further via Wikipedia and other sources.)

When Enkidu dies Gilgamesh is beside himself with grief, and seeks to find the secret of immortality. He encounters Utnapishtim, who recounts the story of the flood. When Utnapishtim tells him that he can obtain immortality, if he can stay awake for a week, he immediately blows it by falling asleep. In the end he returns home his chance at immortality lost, and his chance of eternal youth lost when the plant that grants eternal renewal is stolen by a serpent.

Descent of Ishtar. I think I came across this in the Homer W. Smith book that I mentioned earlier. In any case there are a couple of versions of the story. The one given in the current volume is relatively short, and recounts a journey that Ishtar, a fertility goddess, undertakes to the underworld. In the process she passes through seven gates, and is divested of one of her garments until she is naked. She is then imprisoned. Since life is dependent upon reproduction all food production ceases, and people begin to starve. She is returned to the gods, but Dumuzi (Tammuz) takes her place. An arrangement similar to that of the Persephone-Pluto myth is in place.

Creation. In the Bible God speaks the world into being. In the Talmud or Mishnah you’ll find Him referred to as “He who spoke the world into being,” or some similar phrase. The myth here is that the primal Tiamat, a sea goddess, mates with Abzu, a sky god, to produce younger gods. She is slain by the younger gods, and the world is created out of her being

There is a rather amusing, and somewhat incongrouous and anachronistic line in the translation of tablet IV of Erra and Ishum:

“Even Uruk, the dwelling of Anu and Ishtar, city of prostitutes, courtesans, and call-girls&hellip.”

I assume three different words were used in the original, but given that the invention of the telephone was still some 3,000-3,500 years in the future, and that the first use of the term “call-girl” apparently occurred some 70 years after that (1940 according to the OED), it does seem funny.

Next up will be some relaxation with another by Tom Kratman, Countdown: M Day.