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Sumerian Mythology

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Crissy Herrell
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« Reply #15 on: December 16, 2008, 10:53:01 pm »

p. 15

parts of a lamentation over the destruction of Sumer as a whole, and of another that at present may be best described as the "weeping mother" type. Finally we now have the larger part of a composition which laments a calamity that befell the city of Agade during the reign of Naram-Sin who ruled in the earlier part of the second half of the third millennium B. C.14

And so we come finally to the wisdom compositions of the Sumerians, the prototypes of the wisdom literature current all over the Near East and exemplified by the Biblical Book of Proverbs. f Sumerian wisdom literature consists of a large number of brief, pithy, and pointed proverbs and aphorisms; of various fables, such as "The Bird and the Fish," "The Tree and the Reed," "The Pickax and the Plow," "Silver and Bronze"; and finally of a group of didactic compositions, long and short, several of which are devoted to a description of the process of learning the scribal art and of the advantages which flow from it. 14

Some adequate idea of the scope and quantity of Sumerian literature may be obtained from the contents of a hitherto altogether unknown tablet in the Nippur collection of the University Museum which I had the good fortune to identify and decipher in the course of the past year. This tablet is not a literary composition; it is a literary catalogue. That is, it lists by title one group of Sumerian literary compositions. The scribe who compiled this list was one of those very scribes of approximately 2000 B. C. who wrote or copied our Sumerian literary tablets; the catalogue, therefore, is contemporaneous with the compositions which it lists. His purpose in compiling the catalogue was no doubt practical. For as is now clear, by approximately 2000 B. C. a large number of literary compositions of all types and sizes were current in Sumer, inscribed on tablets of all shapes and dimensions which had to be handled, stored, and cared for. Some of the scribes in charge of the tablets in the temple or palace "tablet house," therefore, found it convenient to note and list the names of this or that

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group of literary compositions for purposes of reference essential to the storing and filing of the respective tablets.

The catalogue tablet is in almost perfect condition. g It is quite small, 2½ inches in length and 1½ inches in width. Small as it is, the scribe, by dividing each side into two columns and by using a minute script, succeeded in cataloguing the titles of sixty-two Sumerian literary compositions. The first forty titles he divided into groups of ten by ruling a dividing line between numbers 10 and 11, 20 and 21, 30 and 31, 40 and 41. The remaining twenty-two titles he divided into two unequal groups, the first consisting of nine, and the second, of thirteen titles. And what is most interesting, at least twenty-one of the titles which this scribe listed in his catalogue are of compositions whose actual contents we can now reconstruct in large part. Needless to say, we probably have the actual texts of many more compositions whose titles are listed in our Nippur catalogue. But since the title of a

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« Reply #16 on: December 16, 2008, 10:53:28 pm »

FIG. 1. THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE SUMERIAN SYSTEM OF WRITING

The cuneiform system 17 of writing was probably originated by the Sumerians. The oldest inscriptions unearthed to date-over one thousand tablets and fragments from the latter half of the fourth millennium B. C. which were excavated in Erech in very recent years-are in all likelihood written in the Sumerian language. But whether or not it was the Sumerians who invented the script, it was certainly they who in the course of the third millennium B. C. fashioned it into an effective writing tool. Its practical value was gradually recognized by the surrounding peoples, who borrowed it from the Sumerians and adapted it to their own languages. By the second millennium B. C. it was current all over the Near East.

The cuneiform script began as pictographic writing; each sign was a picture of one or more concrete objects and represented a word whose meaning was identical with, or closely related to, the object pictured. The defects of a system of this type are obvious; the complicated form of the signs and the huge number of signs required, render it too unwieldy for practical use. The Sumerian scribes overcame the first difficulty by gradually simplifying and conventionalizing the form of the signs until their pictographic origin was no longer apparent. As for the second difficulty, they reduced the number of signs and kept it within effective limits by resorting to various helpful devices. The most significant of these consisted of Substituting phonetic for ideographic values. The table on the opposite page was prepared for the purpose of illustrating this two-fold development in the course of the centuries; a detailed description will be found in note  18.

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« Reply #17 on: December 16, 2008, 10:53:59 pm »



FIG. 1. THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE SUMERIAN SYSTEM OF WRITING
(For description, see opposite page and note 18.)


 

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« Reply #18 on: December 16, 2008, 10:54:14 pm »

p. 18

[paragraph continues] Sumerian literary composition consists usually of the first part of the first line of the composition, there is no way of knowing the titles of those whose texts we have in large part but whose first lines are broken away. It goes without saying that the sixty-two titles listed in our catalogue do not exhaust the number of literary compositions current in Sumer at the end of the third millennium B. C. There is every indication that this number runs into the hundreds. Should the ancient city of Eridu in southern Sumer, the cult center of Enki, the Sumerian god of wisdom, ever be thoroughly excavated, there is good reason to believe that our store of Sumerian literary compositions will be considerably enlarged. 16

So much for the scope and contents of Sumerian literature. Let us now turn to the problem of dating in order to see what justifies the statement made in the preceding pages that Sumerian literature represents the oldest written literature of any significant amount ever uncovered. The tablets

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« Reply #19 on: December 16, 2008, 10:55:01 pm »

PLATE III. NIPPUR ARCHAIC CYLINDER

To judge from the script, the Nippur cylinder illustrated on this plate (8383 in the Nippur collection of the University Museum) may date as early as 2500 B. C. Although copied and published by the late George Barton as early as 1918, 20 its contents, which center about the Sumerian air-god Enlil and the goddess Ninhursag, are still largely unintelligible. Nevertheless, much that was unknown or misunderstood at the time of its publication is now gradually becoming clarified, and there is good reason to hope that the not too distant future will see the better part of its contents ready for translation.

PLATE IV. GUDEA CYLINDER

This plate (from E. de Sarzec, Découvertes en Chaldée (Paris, 1889-1912), pl. 37) illustrates one of the two Gudea cylinders dating from approximately 2250 B. C. They were excavated by the French at Lagash more than half a century ago, and both cylinders are now in the Louvre. They are inscribed with long hymns to the god Ningirsu (another name for the god Ninurta--see p. 80) and his temple in Lagash. The style of the composition is highly advanced and points to a long preceding period of development, in which much literary material must have been composed and written down. The contents of the two Gudea cylinders were carefully copied and translated by the eminent French Assyriologist, Thureau-Dangin, as early as the first decade of our century. 19 The Sumerological advance of the past several decades, however, makes a new translation imperative.

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« Reply #20 on: December 16, 2008, 10:55:37 pm »



PLATE III
NIPPUR ARCHAIC CYLINDER
(For description, see opposite page.)
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« Reply #21 on: December 16, 2008, 10:56:17 pm »



PLATE IV
GUDEA CYLINDER (For description, see page 18.)


 

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« Reply #22 on: December 16, 2008, 10:56:36 pm »

p. 19

themselves, to judge from the script as well as from internal evidence, were inscribed in the Early Post-Sumerian period, the period following immediately upon the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur. Just as a rough point of reference, therefore, the actual writing of the tablets may be dated approximately 1750 B. C. a As for the composition of their contents, to judge from the large group of hymns devoted to the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur, much of it actually took place in that Neo-Sumerian period which lasted approximately from 2150 to 2050 B. C. h Moreover, an analysis of the contents of the hymns inscribed on the so-called Gudea cylinders, 19 which date from approximately 2250 B. C., and of the myth inscribed on an archaic Nippur cylinder published by George Barton, 20 which, to judge from its script, dates considerably earlier than the Gudea cylinders, clearly indicates that not a little of the hymnal and mythological material had already been composed several centuries earlier. Finally, an analysis of the religious concepts as revealed in the building and dedicatory inscriptions of the classical Sumerian period, roughly 2600-2400 B. C., leads to the same conclusion. In short we are amply justified in stating that although practically all our available Sumerian literary tablets actually date from approximately 2000 B. C., a large part of the written literature of the Sumerians was created and developed in the latter half of the third millennium B. C. The fact that so little literary material from these earlier periods has been excavated to date is in large part a matter of archaeological accident. Had it not been, for example, for the Nippur expedition, we would have very little Sumerian literary material from the early post-Sumerian period.

Now let us compare this date with that of the various ancient literatures known to us at present. In Egypt, for example, one might have expected an ancient written literature commensurate with its high cultural development. And, indeed, to judge from the pyramid inscriptions, the Egyptians in all probability did have a well developed written

p. 20

literature in the third millennium B. C. Unfortunately it must have been written largely on papyrus, a readily perishable material, and there is little hope that enough of it will ever be recovered to give a reasonably adequate cross-section of the Egyptian literature of that ancient period. Then, too, there is the hitherto unknown ancient Canaanite literature which has been found inscribed on tablets excavated in the past decade by the French at Rash-esh-Shamra in northern Syria. These tablets, relatively few in number, indicate that the Canaanites, too, had a highly developed literature at one time. They are dated approximately 1400 B. C., that is, they were inscribed over half a millennium later than our Sumerian literary tablets. 21 As for the Semitic Babylonian literature as exemplified by such works as the "Epic of Creation," the "Epic of Gilgamesh," etc., it is not only considerably later than our Sumerian literature, but also includes much that is borrowed directly from it. 22

We turn now to the ancient literatures which have exercised the most profound influence on the more spiritual aspects of our civilization. These are the Bible, which contains the literary creations of the Hebrews; the Iliad and Odyssey, which are filled with the epic and mythic lore of the Greeks; the Rig-veda, which contains the literary products of ancient India; and the Avesta, which contains those of ancient Iran. None of these literary collections were written down in their present form before the first half of the first millennium B. C. Our Sumerian literature, inscribed on tablets dating from approximately 2000 B. C., therefore antedates these literatures by more than a millennium. Moreover, there is another vital difference. The texts of the Bible, of the Iliad and Odyssey, and of the Rig-veda and Avesta, as we have them, have been modified, edited, and redacted by compilers and redactors with varied motives and diverse points of view. Not so our Sumerian literature; it has come down to us as actually inscribed by the ancient scribes of four thousand years ago, unmodified and uncodified by later compilers and commentators.

p. 21

And so we come to the crucial point. The basic value of Sumerian literature and its fundamental importance for the related humanities being obvious, why has it remained largely unknown; why has it not been made available to scholar and layman? What has hampered and impeded the decipherment of the Sumerian literary tablets? Why has so little progress been made in the reconstruction and translation of their contents? The factors responsible for this unfortunate situation are twofold: linguistic, the difficulties presented by the grammar and vocabulary of the Sumerian language; and textual, the problems arising out of the physical characteristics of our source material.

First, the linguistic difficulties. Sumerian is neither a Semitic nor an Indo-European language. It belongs to the so-called agglutinative type of languages exemplified by Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish. None of these languages, however, seems to have any closer affiliation to Sumerian, and the latter, therefore, as yet stands alone and unrelated to any known language living or dead. Its decipherment, therefore, would have been an impossible task, were it not for the fortunate fact already mentioned that the Semitic conquerors of Sumer not only adapted its script to their own Semitic tongue, but also retained it as their literary and religious language. As a consequence, the scribal schools in Babylonia and Assyria made the study of Sumerian their basic discipline. They therefore compiled what may be described as bilingual syllabaries or dictionaries in which the Sumerian words or phrases were translated into their own language, Accadian. In addition they also drew up interlinears of the Sumerian literary compositions in which each Sumerian line is followed by its Accadian translation. Accadian, being a Semitic tongue related to numerous known languages, was deciphered relatively early. And so these bilinguals became the basic material for the decipherment of Sumerian, for by comparing the known Accadian word or phrase with the corresponding Sumerian, the meaning of the latter could be deduced.

p. 22

Now while all this sounds relatively simple on paper, in actual practice the decipherment of Sumerian from the bilingual texts has resulted in many grammatical and lexical misunderstandings. For Accadian and Sumerian are as divergent in vocabulary and structure as two languages can be, and the seeming correspondences in the ancient dictionaries and interlinears frequently proved very misleading, especially since not a few of the earlier decipherers, for one reason or another, tended to draw hasty and superficial conclusions. As a consequence so many errors crept into Sumerian grammar and vocabulary that when scholars were presented with some of our unilingual literary tablets, that is with the tablets inscribed in Sumerian only, the resulting efforts proved largely unproductive. Indeed in many cases the attempted translations were almost entirely untrustworthy and dangerously misleading. It is only in the last

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« Reply #23 on: December 16, 2008, 10:57:40 pm »

PLATE V. "CHICAGO" SYLLABARY

The dictionaries and syllabaries compiled by the Babylonian scribes to aid their study of the Sumerian language, which formed their basic discipline, varied considerably in make-up and structure. One of the most useful types is the "Chicago" syllabary, a scientific edition of which was recently published by Richard Hallock, of the Oriental Institute. 23 It is illustrated on plate V, which is reproduced here by permission of the University of Chicago Press. It was inscribed in the latter part of the first millennium B. C., although the indications are that it was actually compiled sometime in the second millennium B. C. Each side of the tablet is divided into two halves, and each half is subdivided into four columns. The second column contains the cuneiform sign to be explained, while the third column gives the name by which the Babylonian scribes identified it. The first column writes out phonetically the Sumerian word which the sign represents, while the fourth column gives its Semitic translation.

PLATE VI. NIPPUR GRAMMATICAL TEXT

This plate (from Arno Poebel, Historical and Grammatical Texts (Philadelphia, 1914), pl. CXXII) illustrates another type of lexical text devised by the Semitic scribes to further their knowledge of Sumerian. It is primarily grammatical in character. The tablet originally contained 16 columns. Each column is subdivided into two halves. The left half contains a Sumerian grammatical unit, such as a substantive or verbal complex, while the right half gives its Semitic translation. This tablet is much older than the "Chicago" syllabary; it belongs to the same period as our literary material, approximately 2000 B. C. 24

 

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« Reply #24 on: December 16, 2008, 10:58:14 pm »



PLATE V
''CHICAGO'' SYLLABARY
(For description, see opposite page.)
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« Reply #25 on: December 16, 2008, 10:58:51 pm »



PLATE VI
NIPPUR GRAMMATICAL TEXT
(For description, see page 22)
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« Reply #26 on: December 16, 2008, 10:59:16 pm »

p. 23

two decades, largely as a result of Arno Poebel's Grundzüge der Sumerischen Grammatik 25 that Sumerian grammar has been put on a scientific basis. As for the lexical problems, these still remain serious and far from resolved. 26

But troublesome and distressing as the linguistic problems frequently are in the process of reconstructing and translating our literary tablets, they are not insuperable. The major impeding factor, the most serious stumbling block, is the textual problem. Tablets, and especially those inscribed with the Sumerian literary compositions which are largely unbaked, rarely come out whole from the ground. Usually they are in a fragmentary, and not infrequently in a very fragmentary condition. Offsetting this disadvantage is the happy fact that the ancient scribes made more than one copy of any given composition. The breaks in one tablet may therefore frequently be restored from duplicating pieces which may themselves be mere broken fragments. Thus in the case of "Inanna's Descent to the Nether World" (see p. 83), I utilized fourteen different fragments. In the case of the recently published "Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur," 15 the text was reconstructed from twenty-two different fragments. And in reconstructing "The Feats and Exploits of Ninurta" (see p. 80), I utilized 49 different fragments. To take full advantage of these duplications and the consequent restorations, however, it is essential to have as much as possible of the source material copied and available. But of the Nippur literary tablets excavated by the University of Pennsylvania and now located in Istanbul and Philadelphia, some two thousand in number, only about five hundred have been copied and published to date. And while all of the approximately seven hundred pieces in the British Museum, Louvre, Berlin Museum, and Ashmolean Museum have been copied and published, 12 some of the more important texts did not appear until a relatively recent date. Under these circumstances, the trustworthy and scientific reconstruction and translation of our Sumerian literary compositions on any major scale was obviously impossible.

p. 24

I first realized this situation and its implications in 1933, almost a decade ago, while working in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago as a member of its Assyrian Dictionary staff. For in that year died Edward Chiera, the scholar who copied more of the Nippur literary material than all others combined. Long a member of the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, he devoted much of his time and energy during his stay there to the copying of more than two hundred literary tablets and fragments in the University Museum. Later, when called to the rapidly expanding Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago as head of its Assyrian Dictionary project, he took his copies with him, and the Oriental Institute undertook to publish them in two volumes. Upon Chiera's untimely death, the editorial department of the Oriental Institute entrusted me with the preparation of these two posthumous volumes for publication. 27 As the significance of the contents dawned upon me, I realized that all efforts to translate and interpret the material would remain scientifically inadequate unless and until more of the uncopied and unpublished material lying in Istanbul and Philadelphia should be made available.

From that day to this I have concentrated all my efforts on the reconstruction and translation of the Sumerian literary compositions. After devoting years to a thorough study of the Sumerian idiom, I travelled to Istanbul in 1937 and spent some twenty months in the Museum of the Ancient Orient, where I copied one hundred and seventy Sumerian literary tablets and fragments from its Nippur collection; unfortunately this still leaves approximately five hundred pieces in this Museum uncopied and unavailable. Since returning to the United States in 1939, I have devoted practically all my time and energy to the Sumerian literary tablets and fragments in the Nippur collection of our University Museum. I thus succeeded in identifying approximately six hundred and seventy-five uncopied and unpublished Sumerian literary pieces in the collection, almost twice as much as all the literary material copied and published

p. 25

by numerous scholars working in the Museum in the course of the past four decades. Of these six hundred and seventy-five pieces, approximately one hundred and seventy-five are inscribed with epic and mythological material; some three hundred are hymnal in character; fifty are parts of lamentations; the remaining one hundred and fifty are inscribed with proverbs and "wisdom" compositions.

In the past two years my efforts were concentrated largely on the epics and myths. By utilizing all the available published material, together with that part of the unpublished material which I copied in the Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul and all the relevant unpublished material in the University Museum at Philadelphia, I succeeded in reconstructing the larger parts of the texts of twenty-four Sumerian epics and myths; 28 this is the basic source material for the restoration of Sumerian mythology to be sketched in the following chapters. As for the scientific edition of these epics and myths, that is, editions consisting of the reconstructed Sumerian texts with line by line translations and commentary, these are now in the process of preparation; unless the work is unexpectedly interrupted, they should be completed in the course of the coming two or three years.

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« Reply #27 on: December 16, 2008, 11:00:45 pm »

p. 26

CHAPTER I
THE SCOPE AND SIGNIFICANCE OF SUMERIAN MYTHOLOGY

The science of comparative mythology, like almost all the sciences, exact and inexact, is largely a product of the nineteenth century; its origin and development followed closely upon that of comparative philology, the science devoted to language and literature. The phenomenal growth of comparative philology itself was due primarily to the recognition that both Sanskrit, the language of the oldest sacred literature of the Hindu peoples, as well as Zend, or Old Persian, the language of the oldest sacred literature of the Iranian peoples, were Indo-European languages; that is, they belong to the same family of languages as Greek and Latin. The intense revival of Indo-European philology that followed was therefore based largely on the ancient literatures of the Greeks, Hindus, and Iranians, and this led naturally and directly to a comparative study of the myths and legends as related and revealed in them.

Moreover, toward the end of the first half of the nineteenth century, a new and unexpected field of study was opened to comparative mythology. For it was about this time that the Egyptian hieroglyphic script and the Babylonian cuneiform script were deciphered, and much new mythological material was gradually recovered. What added impetus and excitement to this field of research was the fact that it offered a more scientific approach to the study of the Old Testament. For it soon became evident that some of the Old Testament material was mythological in character, since it presented clear parallels and resemblances to the myths recovered from Egyptian and Babylonian sources. And so the study of comparative mythology, following in the footsteps of philology and linguistics, was no longer restricted to the ancient Indo-Europeans; it now included the ancient Semites and Egyptians.

p. 27

Approximately at the same time, the growth and development of an almost entirely new science, that of anthropology, proved of fundamental significance for the study of comparative mythology. In all the continents outside of Europe, new peoples and tribes, in various stages of civilization, were being discovered. Students and travellers, scientists and missionaries, studied the new languages, described the strange habits and customs, and wrote down the religious beliefs and practices. Much hitherto unknown mythological material was thus recovered from these more or less primitive peoples, and the science of comparative mythology broadened and expanded accordingly.

And so, roughly speaking, we may divide the source material utilized by comparative mythology into two categories. The first consists of the myths and legends of the ancient cultures such as those of the Hindus, Iranians, and Greeks on the one hand, and of the Hebrews, Babylonians, and Egyptians, on the other; these are revealed in, and derived from, the literatures of these peoples as written down largely in the first millennium B. C. In this group, too, we may class such mythologies as the Scandinavian or Eddie, the Chinese, Japanese, etc., which are derived from literary remains of a much later date. The second category consists of the myths and legends of the so-called primitive peoples discovered in recent centuries, as obtained by word of mouth from living members of those peoples and reported by travellers, missionaries, and anthropologists. It goes without saying that basically, and in the long run, the recent, primitive source material is every bit as important and valuable for comparative mythology and the related sciences as that of the ancient cultures. On the other hand it is quite as obvious that for the history of the progress of our civilization as we see and know it today, it is the tone and temper, the word and spirit of the ancient mythologies, those of the Greeks and Hebrews, of the Hindus and Iranians, of the Babylonians and Egyptians, which are of prime significance. It is the spiritual and religious concepts revealed

p. 28

in these ancient literatures which permeate the modern civilized world.

Still almost entirely unknown to this very moment is Sumerian mythology, the sacred stories of the non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people which in historical times, from approximately 3500 to 2000 B. C., inhabited Sumer, the relatively small land situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and stretching from the Persian Gulf northward approximately as far as modern Bagdad; a land that may be aptly described as the culture cradle of the entire Near East. Should the reader turn, for example, to Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 29 and examine the very long article on the cosmogonic or creation myths of the world, he will find a large and relatively exhaustive list of peoples, ancient and modern, cultured and primitive, whose cosmogonic concepts are described and analyzed. But he will look in vain for Sumerian cosmogony. Similarly, the collection entitled Mythology of All the Races 30 devotes thirteen volumes to an analysis of the more important mythologies in the world; here, too, however, there will be found few traces of Sumerian mythology. Whatever little is known of Sumerian mythology is largely surmised from the modified, redacted, and in a sense, garbled versions of the Babylonians who conquered the Sumerians toward the very end of the third millennium B. C., and who used the Sumerian stories and legends as a basis and nucleus for the development of their own myths.

But it is a known fact that in the long stretch of time between approximately 3500 and 2000 B. C. it was the Sumerians who represented the dominant cultural group of the entire Near East. It was the Sumerians who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of writing; who developed a well integrated pantheon together with spiritual and religious concepts which influenced profoundly all the peoples of the Near East; who, finally, created and developed a literature rich in content and effective in form. Moreover, the following significant fact must be borne in mind. By the end of the third millennium B. C. Sumer had

p. 29

already ceased to exist as a political entity and Sumerian had already become a dead language, for by that time Sumer had been overrun and conquered by the Semites, and it is the Semitic Accadian language which gradually became the living, spoken tongue of the land. Nevertheless Sumerian continued to be used as the literary and religious language of the Semitic conquerors for many centuries to come, like Greek in the Roman period and like Latin in the Middle Ages. Indeed for many centuries the study of the Sumerian language and literature remained the basic pursuit of the scribal schools and intellectual and spiritual centers not only of the Babylonians and Assyrians, but also of the many surrounding peoples such as the Elamites, Hurrians, Hittites, and Canaanites. Obviously, then, both because of their content as well as because of their age, the Sumerian mythological tales and concepts must have penetrated and permeated those of the entire Near East. A knowledge of the Sumerian myths and legends is therefore a prime and basic essential for a proper approach to a scientific study of the mythologies current in the ancient Near East, for it illuminates and clarifies to no small extent the background behind their origin and development. i

It is this practically unknown Sumerian mythology which I have the privilege of sketching briefly in the pages to follow. The sketch will begin with the myths centering about the creation and organization of the universe and the creation of man. It will continue with the myths of Kur, consisting of three versions of a dragon-slaying motif and of the poem "Inanna's Descent to the Nether World." It will conclude with an outline of three interesting miscellaneous myths. All in all, therefore, it is hoped that the reader will obtain a fairly adequate cross-section of Sumerian mythology, a cross-section which, considering the age of the culture involved, is remarkably broad in scope and surprisingly full in detail.



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« Reply #28 on: December 16, 2008, 11:03:13 pm »

CHAPTER II
MYTHS OF ORIGINS 1

The most significant myths of a given culture are usually the cosmogonic, or creation myths, the sacred stories evolved and developed in an effort to explain the origin of the universe, the presence of the gods, and the existence of man. And so we shall devote this chapter, by far the longest in our monograph, to the creation theories and concepts current in Sumer in the third millennium B. G. The subject lends itself to treatment under three heads: (1) the creation of the universe, (2) the organization of the universe, (3) the creation of man.

THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE

The major source for the Sumerian conception of the creation of the universe is the introductory passage to a Sumerian poem which I have entitled "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World." The history of its decipherment is illuminating and not uninteresting. In 1934, when I first tried to decipher the contents, I found that eight pieces belonging to the poem--seven excavated in Nippur and one in Ur--had already been copied and published, thus: Hugo Radau, once of the University Museum, published two from Philadelphia in 1910; Stephen Langdon published two from Istanbul in 1914; Edward Chiera published one from Istanbul in 1924 and two more from Philadelphia in 1934; C. J. Gadd, of the British Museum, published an excellently preserved tablet from Ur in 1930. 32 But an intelligent reconstruction


p. 31

and translation of the myth were still impossible, largely because the tablets and fragments, some of which seemed to duplicate each other without rhyme or reason and with but little variation in their wording, could not be properly arranged. In 1936, after I had sent off to the Revue d'assyriologie my first translations of the myth "Inanna's Descent to the Nether World" (see p. 83), I decided to make a serious effort to reconstruct the contents of the poem, which obviously seemed to contain a charming and significant story. And it was then that I came upon the clue which enabled me to arrange the pieces in their proper order.

This clue crystallized from an effective utilization of two stylistic features which characterize Sumerian poetry. The first is one which ranks very low in the scale of artistic technique but which from the point of view of the decipherer is truly a boon. It may be described as follows. When the poet finds it advisable to repeat a given description or incident, he makes this repeated passage coincide with the original to the very last detail. Thus when a god or hero orders his messenger to deliver a message, this message, no matter how long and detailed, is given twice in the text, first when the messenger is instructed by his master, and a second time when the message is actually delivered. The two versions are thus practically identical, and the breaks in the one passage may be restored from the other.

As for the second stylistic feature, it may be thus sketched. The Sumerian poet uses two dialects in his epic and mythic compositions, the main dialect, and another known as the Emesal dialect. The latter resembles the main dialect very closely and differs only in showing several regular and characteristic phonetic variations. What is more interesting, however, is the fact that the poet uses this Emesal dialect in rendering the direct speech of a female, not male, deity; thus the speeches of Inanna, queen of heaven, are regularly rendered in the Emesal dialect. 33 And so, on examining carefully the texts before me, I realized that what in the case of several passages had been taken

p. 32

to be a mere meaningless and unmotivated duplication, actually contained a speech of the goddess Inanna in which she repeats in the Emesal dialect all that the poet had previously described in narrative form in the main dialect. With

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PLATE VII. GODS AND THE NETHER WORLD

One of the more remarkable contributions to art made by Mesopotamia is the cylinder seal. Invented primarily for the purpose of identifying and safeguarding ownership of goods shipped or stored, it came to be used in time as a kind of signature for legal documents. The procedure consisted merely of rolling the cylinder over wet clay and thus impressing the seal's design upon it. It is the contents of these designs engraved by the seal-cutters on the stone cylinders which are of considerable value for our study of Sumerian mythology. Especially is this true of the cylinder seals current in Sumer in the latter half of the third millennium B. C., not a few of whose designs are religious and mythological in character. 31

The upper design clearly attempts to portray a more or less complicated mythological story. Three of the deities can be identified with reasonable certainty. Second from the right is the water-god Enki, with the flowing streams of water and the swimming fishes. Immediately behind him is his Janus-faced messenger Isimud, who plays an important role in several of our Enki myths. Seemingly rising out of the lower regions is Utu, the sun-god, with his saw-knife and fiery rays. The female figure standing on top of the mountain, near what seems to be a rather desolate tree, may perhaps be Inanna. If the figure to the left with bow in hand is intended to be Gilgamesh, we have in this design most of the protagonists of the tale "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World." However, it is to be noted that Enkidu is missing, and Isimud, who is pictured in the design, plays no part in the story. And so any close connection between the design and the epic tale is improbable.

In the central design none of the figures can be identified with reasonable certainty. In the left half of the picture we note a deity who seems to be rising out of the lower regions and is presenting a macelike object to a goddess. To the left is a god, perhaps Gilgamesh, who seems to be chopping down a tree whose trunk is bent to a curve. The right half of the design seems to depict a ritual scene.

The lower design may illustrate graphically the meaning of such a phrase as, "The nether world has seized him" (see p. 35). In the right half of the scene we note a god actually within a flaming mountain (in Sumerian the word meaning "mountain" is the word used regularly for "nether world"). To the right of the mountain is a god who may be putting it to flame with a torch. Behind this deity is a goddess with fiery rays and ring who may perhaps be identified as Inanna. The left half of the design portrays a god holding a bull-man by the tail; both are inside a mountain.

(Reproduced, by permission of the Macmillan Company, from Henri Frankfort, Cylinder Seals (London, 1939), plates XIXa, XXIa, and XVIIIj.)

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Crissy Herrell
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« Reply #29 on: December 16, 2008, 11:04:11 pm »



PLATE VII
GODS AND THE NETHER WORLD (For description, see opposite page.)


 

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