Sumerians A Background of the People of Gilgamesh
Current Knowledge Knowledge of the Sumerians (Gilgamesh’s people) is fairly recent. Both Gilgamesh and the people of Sumer were lost for 2,000 years. Yet there is much to them.
Broadly Speaking—Land Sumerians come from an area roughly equal to modern Iraq from the north of Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. The land is hot and dry and devoid of minerals. It seems an unpromising land doomed to poverty.
Broadly Speaking—Creative Intelligence But the Sumerians were creative, intelligent and resourceful. And they turned the land into a “Garden of Eden.” In doing so they developed the first high civilization in history.
Broadly Speaking—Technologically Gifted The people were technologically gifted and developed irrigation. Baked river clay and mud into sickles, pots, plates and jars. Later they developed bricks. They devised the potter’s wheel, the wagon wheel, the plow, sailboat, arch, vault, casting in copper and bronze and sculpture. Originated a system of writing on clay tablets via cuneiform script. System borrowed and used over the Mid East for 2,000 years.
Broadly Speaking—Ideals They had a pragmatic view of life. Sumerian sages evolved a faith and creed that “gave unto the gods what was the gods”; recognized and accepted mortal limitations, esp. helplessness in the face of death and divine wrath. They prized wealth and possessions, rich harvests, cattle, successful hunting. Spiritually and psychologically they stressed ambition, success, pre-eminence, prestige, honor and recognition
Broadly Speaking—Govt. Development Deeply concerned with personal rights and resented encroachment on them (even by their superiors, kings, etc.) First to compile laws and law codes to avoid misinterpretation, etc. But because of their total dependence on irrigation (which required communal efforts and organization) the water had to be divided equally. This led to the advent of governmental institutions.
Broadly Speaking—Modern Man So, broadly speaking, modern man can find his prototype and counterpart in the ancient Sumerian.
Theology and Rite Sumerians developed religious ideas and spiritual concepts that have had a great impact on the modern world theologies of Judaism, Christianity and Mohammadism.
Cosmology and Theology—What They Had to Work With They believed the universe was composed of heaven and earth (An-ki = universe=heaven-earth). The name dingir is translated as “god”. Operating this universe was a pantheon consisting of a group of living beings, manlike in form but superhuman and immortal who controlled the cosmos in accordance with plans and laws.
Cosmology and Theology—What Things Were Made Of All of these were deemed to be under the charge of one or another anthropomorphic beings: The great realms of heaven: earth, sea and air major astronomical bodies of sun, moon and planets atmosphere forces such as wind, storm, tempest earthly entities such as mountains, rivers, plains cultural elements such as cities, states and ditches
Cosmology and Theology—The Pantheon Analogous to human institutions, Sumerians viewed the Pantheon hierarchically, with minor deities that weren’t on the same level as other gods.
Cosmology and Theology—Pantheon Organization Pantheon functioned as an assembly with a king at its head. The most important beings consisted of seven gods who decreed the fates and the 50 deities known as “the great gods.”
Cosmology and Theology—Divine Word This creates one important dogmatic doctrine—the doctrine of creative power of the Divine Word. All that a deity had to do was lay his plans, utter the word, and pronounce the names.
Cosmology and Theology: “Me” The concept of “me” sought to explain the set of rules assigned to each cosmic entity to keep it operating without conflict and confusion. Included in the elements are godship, the exalted and enduring crown, the throne of kingship, the exalted scepter, and more than one hundred others.
Cosmology and Theology—Anthropomorphic Gods The Sumerian gods were entirely anthropomorphic, with even the most powerful conceived as human in form, thought and deed. Like man, they plan and act, eat and drink, marry and are addicted to human passions and weaknesses. They prefer truth to falsehood, but motives are by no means clear.
Cosmology and Theology: Location of the Gods Sumerian gods were thought to live on “the mountains of heaven and earth, the place where the sun rises.”
Cosmology and Theology—The Important Gods By the middle of the third millennium B.C., there were hundreds of deities, but the four most important were: An-heaven god Enlil-air god Enki-water god Ninhursag-great mother-goddess
Cosmology and Theology—Important Gods At one time An seems to have been the supreme ruler, but by 2500 BC, the air god Enlil who is the leader of the pantheon. Enlil plays a dominant role throughout Sumer in rite, myth and prayer. Enlil pronounces the king’s name and gives him his scepter and look upon him with a favorable eye. He was responsible for the planning and creation of most productive features of the cosmos
Cosmology and Theology—Important Gods Enki was in charge of the abyss, the god of wisdom Details and execution were left to Enki, the resourceful, skillful, handy and wise. Ninhursag was the exalted lady; name may have originally been “Ki” (mother Earth) She was a consort of An, and they may have been parents of all the gods. Early Sumerian rulers described themselves as “constantly nourished by Ninhursag with milk.”
Cosmology and Theology—Other Important Gods Other important gods Nanna – moon god (Sin) Utu – sun god (son of Nanna) Inananna – Ishtar (daughter of Nanna)
From God to Man—Composition of Man Sumerians were convinced man was made of clay.
From God to Man—Role of Man Created to serve the gods by supplying them with food, drink and shelter. Man’s life was beset with uncertainty/insecurity Death brought emasculated spirit to the dark, dreary nether world where life was but a dismal and wretched reflection of earthly counterparts.
From God to Man—Free Will Sumerians did not believe in Free Will.
From God to Man--Values As people, they cherished goodness, truth, law and order, justice and freedom, mercy, compassion, and naturally abhorred their opposites. Kings and rulers boasted constantly about establishing law and order, protecting the weak, the poor, etc. Similarly, the gods prefer the ethical and moral to the unethical and immoral. The sun god Utu supervised moral order.
From God to Man—Evil and the Personal Deity But the gods also planned evil and falsehood, violence and oppression—all the bad stuff. The folks who would have asked why could only come up with this answer: The will of the gods and their motives is inscrutable.
From God to Man—Sumerian Job So what was the suffering Sumerian to do? Gods were too busy, so Sumerians contrived the notion of personal deities who acted as intermediaries to the gods; this is how Sumerians found salvation.
From God to Man—The Nether World Sun went there after the day on earth Moon spent off days there. Judgment upon death by the Sun god, Utu and Moon-god, Nanna They decree the fate of the dead. The dead could be prayed to, even by invoking personal gods.
From God to Man—The Nether World Gilgamesh euphemistically calls the Nether World the “great dwelling.” Visiting the underworld – as epics afterward do—made one conscious of taboos. He must not wear clean clothes, anoint himself with good oil, carry a weapon or staff, wear sandals, make a noise or behave normally toward members of his family. To do so was to be seized by an outcry, which makes return to earth impossible unless another god intervenes.
From God to Man—Devotion vs. Temple Worship Personal devotion was helpful, but it would seem that rite and ritual was paramount. Man was, after all, created to serve the gods, and his major duty was to serve them in a pleasing and satisfactory manner (keep up the temple, make offerings, etc.)
From God to Man—Temple Construction During the Sumerian history, temples grew in size from 12 feet x 15 feet to 400 yards by 200 yards.
From God to Man—Day-to-Day Worship Day to day rites consisted of daily sacrifices of animal and vegetable foods, libations of wine, beer and water and the burning of incense.
From God to Man--Ceremonies The ceremonies were spectacular—some feasts lasted for days. Most important holiday was the New Year, of which the most important rite was the hieros-gamos, or holy marriage, between the king and one of the priestesses, to ensure the prosperity of the Sumerian people.
From God to Man—Temple Destruction We know little of the priests in charge of the temples, but destruction of the temple was the most disastrous calamity that could befall a city and its people.
Sumerians to Gilgamesh So how does background about the Sumerian people relate to the Epic of Gilgamesh? Let’s investigate now . . .