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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.

It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who founded dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.

And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!

The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tablet features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.

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The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V, the heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.

The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.

Shamash was the Mesopotamian deity of the sun.  To the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians he was synonymous with justice, generosity, and salvation.  However there was a second solar deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, Nergal, who was not associated with such positive aspects of existence.  Nergal was the child of Enlil, god of the wind, who was exiled from earth for raping Ninlin, the goddess of the open fields. Ninlin followed Enlil into exile and gave birth to their son Nergal in the underworld (Sumerian myth-makers should be ashamed of the sexism of this story).  Nergal’s dark origins foreshadowed his nature. Unlike Shamash, who represented the life giving power of the sun and divine justice, Nergal was only associated with certain phases of the sun. To quote Wikipedia “Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.”

Akkadian Seal of Nergal with a sickle-sword and a mace with two feline heads (c. 2360–2180 BCE, carved from soapstone)

As a god of plague, drought, fire, and insufferable heat, Nergal quickly came to be associated with death and the underworld. He was portrayed either as a powerful man bearing a sickle-sword and a mace, or as a lion with a man’s head.

Although he was a terrible god of destruction, the main myth we have about Nergal is romantic in nature. Mesopotamian scholars have discovered and translated a poetic epic recounting Nergal’s tempestuous courtship of the dark goddess Ereshkigal (the queen of the underworld, who once gave Ishtar such a wretched time).   After a passionate tryst, Nergal left Ereshkigal, who thereafter was overwhelmed by passionate longing for further intimacy.  Hearing of her unhappiness and realizing how much he in turn missed her, Nergal abandoned his place in the heavens and traveled down through the seven gates of hell to rejoin Ereshkigal.  The two death gods then shared a bed for seven days and seven nights before marrying and jointly sharing rule of the underworld (it’s a happy story!).

A modern painting of Nergal

Despite the felicity of his connubial circumstances, to the people of Mesopotamia, Nergal represented the unpredictability of mortal life and early unnatural death.  He was worshiped, particularly at his chief temple located at Cuthah (a smaller city just northeast of Babylon) but his cult was far from the most popular. Unlike many other Babylonian deities, Nergal was mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:30) and his name has therefore found a place among the demons and boogeymen of Christianity. If you search for “Nergal” on the internet you are likely to find the picture of a heavy metal singer from Poland dressed up in gothic makeup!

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