The mythology of Mesopotamia revolves around the accouterments of civilization to a surprising degree. Maybe it’s because cities were founded so early in that region, sometime before 4,000 B.C.E. One myth even concerns itself primarily on how Inanna brought various technologies to her city of Uruk. Another myth describes how wild creatures were banished from a tree so it could be fashioned for Inanna’s throne. The most famous Mesopotamian myth, The Epic of Gilgamesh, concerns itself with the tensions between urban and rural life.
I just finished a book called Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City by Gwendolyn Leick that underscored for me the central place of the city in Mesopotamian religious life. Before the invention of cities, the gods lived in heaven, and they created dry land in the sea below with the idea of building a dwelling place for themselves. That dwelling was the temple, and the surrounding city, like humans themselves, was created to serve the needs of the gods in their home. Leike points out “Thus the Mesopotamian Eden is not a garden but a city, formed from a piece of dry land surrounded by waters.” The significance of this reason for creating earth is that “Contrary to the biblical Eden, from which man was banished for ever after the Fall, Eridu remained a real place, imbued with sacredness but always accessible.”
There have not been a lot of books about Mesopotamia in English published in the last twenty years that are directed toward a lay audience, and still fewer written by women. My interest in Mesopotamia is in religion from a feminist standpoint, and I have no interest in urban planning and still less in the dizzying history of war and conquest in this region. I trusted that my subject would be treated at least tangentially, and I was pleasantly surprised. This was a reminder yet again that you cannot understand the religion of a culture without understanding many aspects that our secularized society has designated nonreligious.
This is a book for people who have already read a bit about Mesopotamia. The material is dense, although clearly written, and there is a lot of politics that will not interest most people. The biases of the milieu Leick comes from are apparent, especially in the first few chapters where the dearth of evidence necessitates some speculation. Unlike many academic writers she does address issues of class, ethnicity, and women’s status, and she identifies places where religious texts are driven by political concerns. I recommend that novices start with Mesopotamian myth and poetry, such as that found in Gilgamesh: A New English Translation by Stephen Mitchell or Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, which also has some introductory commentary. But if you’re ready to move on to some historical context, this is a book I would check out.
One of the things I appreciate greatly about Mesopotamian mythology is the humor. It’s not just the things that sound funny to us today, from far outside the culture, that tickle me. There are some of those, to be sure, as there are with any mythology. When Ishtar issues her zombie threat at the gates of hell, declaring she will raise up the dead to devour the living unless she is allowed to pass through, Americans giggle because we think zombies are hilarious. Mesopotamians were chuckling because when Ishtar issues this blackmail she has not yet been to hell (she’s trying to get in!) and has no power there. It is an empty threat. Also, even if the scenario she describes were something she would do (it isn’t), it’s a bit of overkill.
Sometimes we understand right away what the Mesopotamians were laughing at, such as when the god Enki gives Inanna all the accoutrements of civilization while he is in a drunken expansive mood, then gets an a dudgeon when he sobers up and realizes all his stuff is missing. Other times it takes some familiarity with ancient cultures to catch the humor. In the Gilgamesh myth the hero Enkidu takes the haunch of the bull he has just killed, to Ishtar’s outrage, and he throws it at the goddess. The haunch was considered the choicest part of the animal, and when a bull was sacrificed this was the part that was ritually offered to the deity. Here, instead of offering the haunch with humble obeisance, the hero is deliberately offending the goddess by throwing it at her. No doubt there are a lot of inside jokes in these stories that we don’t have the background to catch.
Sometimes the stories don’t convey humor so much as wry irony. This is the case with the story of how the fly came to pester humankind, or how Gilgamesh lost his herb of immortality.
I will be teaching an online class in another month where we well discuss these myths, particularly the one about Inanna’s descent into the underworld. Reading materials and instructions for joining the live sessions will be available April 26, and the first live session will be Sunday, May 3. Sessions will last for about an hour and meet every other week until July 26. The class will be taught through Mago Academy, and information for signing up can be found at this website.
I am pleased to announce that I will be teaching a longer online course through Mago Academy that will meet seven times over the course of three months. The subject will be Inanna’s descent to the underworld and her subsequent return. I have long believed that this myth deserves more scrutiny than it typically receives. While it is enjoyable at the first read, it is still a complex myth that takes some time to appreciate. More information and registration can be found here.