Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Epic of Gilgamesh:  Religion in Sumerian Life

Steve Muhlberger

Even though politics and economics are very important to understand the past,  such things have their limits. It is hard to work up enthusiasm for an endless tale of wars and changing dynasties. How can we get closer to the Sumerians and their Mesopotamians successors as people?

I think the answer is, by examining their religion. The Sumerians, the Akkadians, and all of the peoples they influenced had a religious interpretation of life. That means they believed that there were a variety of supernatural forces, most of which they visualized as gods with human-like characteristics, that were responsible for creation, for the existence of humanity, for major events effecting their communities and more intimate events of their own personal well-being.

This view of the universe was so basic that Sumerian, Akkadian and later literature from this area is entirely permeated with the supernatural. The Sumerians' stories are myths and legends, not realistic stories of life in the big, gritty city. For them the meaning of life emerged in the confrontation between mundane reality and the sphere of the gods.   (It could be argued that this is a result of our dependence on documents produced by priests, a fair point, but I still stand by the statement.)

Like very many societies throughout history, the Sumerians attributed what is called numinal power to various things that affected them: especially the earth, the waters, plants and animals, and the heavenly bodies. By the time there religion was recorded, these powers were visualized as gods and goddesses, many with names, personalities, and life histories.

The most important Sumerian deities included a triad of gods, An, Enlil, and Enki.

An was the father of the gods, the god of the heavenly firmament.

Enlil was the god of the air, who played a far more active role than the rather colorless An. He was often angry, and human beings had reason to fear crossing him: he had in the past tried to destroy the human race.

Enki, "Lord Earth," the most approachable of the major triad. He represented the power of the living waters of Mesopotamia, one of the creators of humanity, the one most interested in its welfare. In the time of the Great Flood, Enki had saved humanity when the rest of the gods were willing to destroy it. He was also a patron of wisdom and the arts.

Other important divinities included Ishtar, (earlier known as Inanna): she was all at once the goddess of love, war, and fertility, and as you would expect, a rather formidable figure, one not to be lightly ignored. Her brother and husband, Shamash (in the original Sumerian Utu), combined the role of judge, law-giver, and to later Akkadians, war-god, with a rather sunny personality: he was the all-important sun.

The Sumerian and Akkadian divinities were very much like human beings, or the gods of Greek and Roman mythology.  The stories told about them have a bit of the soap-opera to them:  there are a lot of feuds and a lot of sex.  The Sumerians feared and respected their gods for their powers, but did not hold them up as perfect moral beings. The gods were too inconsistent and rash for such idealization.

Religion is by no means only mythology, and we cannot understand the role of religion unless we look at its practice, too. Much of our evidence comes from the highest social levels, from the major temples and the inscriptions of kings. The civic and royal religion described by such sources is not necessarily what touched people closest to home. More people today worry about whether Elvis is alive or how Marilyn Monroe died than about the Procession of the Holy Spirit or the Immaculate Conception.

We've seen before that official religion was the state ideology of Mesopotamian civilization. Political and social order depended on the approval of the gods, on divine sanction. The most visible parts of Mesopotamian religion was devoted to shoring up that order. The god who patronized the city, gods and goddesses who had major temples, were the recipients of royal treatment -- it seems in fact that the chief statues of the gods, which were considered to hold the spirit of the divinities they depicted, were treated very much like the human kings.

Goods and services were devoted to satisfying the gods' human-like needs. On a daily basis they were fed -- real food in large amounts was trucked in and offered to the statues. A very late text, dating from around 300 B.C., when Macedonian monarchs still honored the gods of Uruk, shows that those gods ate 500 kg of bread, 40 sheep, 2 bulls, 1 bullock, 8 lambs, 70 birds and ducks, 4 wild boars, 3 ostrich egss, 54 containers of beer and wine, and dates, figs and raisins every day (Oates). Food was actually set before the god, who was set apart by a curtain during the meal. When he or she was done, the uneaten food was sent to the king's table; other excess food went to the temple staff. These kinds of offerings certainly kept the priests from being out of pocket. The whole process had its mythological justification: the whole purpose of humanity was to feed the gods in a ritual manner devised by the immortals themselves

The gods also had their festivals, which included processions and public rituals, including the parading of the gods through the streets. We have the record of the major spring and New Years' festival of Babylon in about 600 B.C. Though the Sumerian language and people had long been forgotten,the religious style they founded survived. The 6th century festival was eleven days long, and included many elements. There was a public recitation of the Epic of Creation, which may have been acted out like a medieval mystrery play; there was the arrival of the god Nabu from the nearby town of Borsippu, to honor Marduk, Babylon's civic god. There was a ritual humiliation of the king, who had his regalia removed by the high priest, and then was slapped and pinched and made to crouch down before Marduk and assure the god that he, the king, had not neglected the god or temple or committed any sins during the preceding year. The king was then restored to his state, and later the same day participated in the sacrifice of a white bull. Towards the end of the festival, the king led Marduk out to another temple in a great ceremony. There was also a Sacred Marriage, in which Marduk was provided with a wife, a real human woman who spent the night alone in a chamber at the top of the ziggurat. At least, that is how Herodotus, a much later Greek historian, says it worked {Oates, 175-176; Herodotus, 1.181, p. 114}.   (Sacred sex between humans representing the gods and godesses was a common part of Mesopotamian and Middle Eastern religion from the earliest times.  Many temples supported sacred prostitutes, whom male worshippers consorted with, to encourage fertility.)

Such festivals as the New Year's festival -- and there were others -- fulfilled a multitude of purposes. It symbolized the divine sanction given the status quo; it increased the wealth of the temple; it gave the citizens a chance to blow off steam.

But these and other showy examples of civic religion were only a small part of the religious life of the individual. Ordinary people obviously related in some way to the official rites, they no doubt made sacrifices and offerings at the major temples at various times and in various circumstances.

Much happened in the smaller chapels and the homes of the people that was as important for them as the big stuff. People in Mesopotamia had their own individual and household gods to which they were devoted.  Each house had its own idols, which were passed down from generation to generation, and spiritual guardians, for instance statues in the form of dogs, inscribed with names like "Don't stop to think, bite," and "Loud of bark," and buried under the threshold. There was a lot of this magical thinking in ancient Mesopotamia.

As in most of antiquity, this daily level of religion was something of a free market, as long as the privileged position of the major gods was not threatened. It was more like early 20th century U.S.A. or Canada, where the predominance of Christianity was upheld, but one was reasonably free to follow spiritualism or theosophy, than like the Middle Ages or the Early Modern Period, where a strict monopoly was exercised by one church or another. In the ancient Middle East, people did what seemed appropriate without much obvious interference.

The Mesopotamians were not devoid of ethics.  There is also a Mesopotamian wisdom literature which sought to instill ideas of right and prudent conduct. There was not, however, one single official body of sacred law: no Ten Commandments, no Levitical legislation, no canon law.

The foregoing material is really just background to what I really want to get across today, which is the flavor of Sumerian thought. To do this, we must turn to literature. As I have said, the stories, whether they are particularly moral or not, are myths and legends placed against a religious background.

Perhaps the most well-known of these stories is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh  was a legendary king of Uruk. There may have been a real king of that name around 2700 B.C., at the dawn of kingship in Sumeria. In Sumerian times a number of poems clustered around his name. These stories were among the most popular pieces of Mesopotamian literature, and they were revised, embellished and translated into the Akkadian and other Semitic languages, the Hittite language, and others, over a two-thousand year period.

One advantage of looking at the Epic of Gilgamesh is that we know it had a wide and continuing appeal to Mesopotamians and their neighbors. There are disadvantages.

First, its preservation and spread shows it to be a piece of high culture. How familiar the average Mesopotamian was with the story of Gilgamesh is hard to guess. But this is a problem historians in any era face.

Second, there is no single Epic of Gilgamesh, just a variety of incomplete versions in different languages, sometimes separated by more than a thousand years. There is a traceable plot, but any telling of it is to some degree a modern reconstruction.

Nevertheless, the Epic is our best entré to the reflective thought of the people of Sumer and their various Mesopotamian cultural descendents.

(The epic will be discussed in detail in class).

Points of interest:

First, it is an epic, not a realistic novel of urban life in the third millenium B.C. The city-folk of Sumer were fascinated by the figure of a heroic warrior, and idealized leader. They were looking for something larger than life to amuse them, just as 1980s urbanites were amused by Rambo. The urban atmosphere of is evoked here and there, yet a romantic appreciation of nature and the natural landscape plays a central role in the poem.

Second, Gilgamesh is made bigger than life for a literary and philosophical reason. He was not created by the poet just to be big and strong and amazing, though that is part of the fun. He is great to emphasize the unsurmountable nature of the problem he faces. That he is two-thirds god does not allow him to escape from the common limitations of humanity. He will die. The only immortality he can hope for is in his accomplishments and his story.

When I first taught this course, I included the Epic of Gilgamesh in my outline as a matter of principle. I thought it was something we should discuss. When I read the epic, which I had not looked at for years and years, I was surprised how good it was. Part of this is due to the excellent work of N.K. Sandars, who translated and compiled the Penguin edition. But much of the quality lies in the story itself, a story that allows us to see the Sumerians and other Mesopotamians as people much like ourselves, facing the same ultimate problems and questions. I recommend it to you.


William E. Dunstan, The Ancient Near East (Toronto, 1998)

Joan Oates, Babylon (London, 1979)

Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (Harmondsworth:  Penguin Books, 1980)

The epic of Gilgamesh : an English version with an introd. by N. K. Sandars.
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1960).

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.