I got over my desire to be a completist a while back. I no longer have to see all the episodes of a series if I’ve seen a few. And I don’t have to read all of Chekhov’s stories because I’ve read some, although in that case I’m tempted.
But I still have an obsession with getting back to the sources. My favorite book of Edward Said’s is Beginnings where he talks about how great works of literature commence. And anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss once said that the fundamental institutions of a civilization are founded early in its history.
Recently I satisfied my yen to see Coronation Street, the forever British soap opera, which I had heard so much about for decades. I discovered episodes on YouTube. And naturally, with my attitude, I wanted to see the earliest episodes, circa 1960, not the latest. The show is still running.
The first episode, which you can see here, begins with two girls playing a street game. They chant an old rhyme in the dark. It occurs to me that the ancient Mesopotamians, some five millennia earlier, would have understood the opening of Coronation Street perfectly.
Nothing would have seemed more appropriate to them than that an important storytelling should begin with a ritual chant. Rituals confer power and legitimacy. Storytelling, rituals and how we see our lives, all mesh together. We’ve lost that integrated feeling in our fiction, except in certain surprising resurfacings, like the opening of Coronation Street.
In my quest to find the earliest stories ever, I came across Myths from Mesopotamia translated by Stephanie Dalley, an Oxford World Classic. Now if you can find earlier stories than that, please let me know. But these are the most ancient tales I could find.
There must have been earlier folk tales circulating around. But being prehistoric, they haven’t been preserved. So there are probably millennia of lost stories and lost storytellers, many generations of them, that we will never hear about.
Of course you can assume that this oral tradition affected the first written stories. But the rise of literacy and the foundation of the earliest cities go hand-in-hand. The first recorded storytellers were urbanites and this would have affected the nature of their tales. So we can’t be sure they’d be the same kind of stories.
Coincident or close to the formation of the first cities would be the invention or accidental discovery of beer. Beer is an instrument of civilization. The citizens of the originary cities may have been the first people to feast with alcoholic beverages. The communal consumption of beer would have reinforced group solidarity and the telling of stories would have been featured at the earliest banquets. So I associate beer with the formation of literacy. You may be skeptical of my theory.
The Story of Atrahasis
Atrahasis is a foundation story of the salvation of mankind through the construction of an ark that saves us from a great deluge. There are many versions of the story in Middle Eastern cultures. This is our Noah. But the Mesopotamian version has its own spin.
The gods (plural) exist in a kind of commune with a senior management. In the beginning of this tale the gods are experiencing what I can only describe as labor unrest. They are being overworked and storm the walls. To settle this dispute, mankind is created to do the heavy lifting. So we are created in order to outsource the work. I see this as a city story. I don’t think a rural people, widely dispersed, would have this kind of a problem.
So we are created to be laborers so the gods can go on sabbatical. But the gods have made a mistake. They have created us as immortal as themselves. Our overpopulation threatens to overwhelm settlements and food supplies. So the gods elect to destroy us and start over. Mankind.2 will be mortal. Only Atrahasis and his wife survive from the original version of mankind. The only humans who are allowed to remain immortal, they retire to a remote location.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
This is the great literary work of the pre-classical ancient world. The story most worthy of Shakespeare that Shakespeare couldn’t have read. The distinct personality of Gilgamesh rises somehow out of the nothing, out of the mists of prehistory. You are so convinced he’s a real person that you feel that the character precedes the story he is in. He is so vivid I could touch him. He is three quarters immortal with a great-hearted capacity for friendship. Only one fourth of him is mortal. But that’s enough to sink him.
The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld
The goddess Ishtar is determined to visit the underworld. The appeal of the short tale is apparently to describe this extraordinary place as well as enact a ritual of decline and rebirth.
The condition of the dead is described in these remarkable lines which I didn’t mind being repeated several times:
“Where dust is their food, clay their bread.
They see no light, they dwell in darkness.
They are clothed like birds, with feathers.”
Ishtar threatens that if she is not allowed into the underworld then she will raise the dead until they outnumber and eat the living. This threat is repeated numerous times. To our contemporary ears, it sounds like she’s threatening to create zombies if she’s not let in.
The queen of the dead is Ereshkigal, Ishtar’s sister. At this point in the ancient mythology, the land of the dead was ruled over by a woman. Later on, the sovereigns of hell are a couple. These stories aren’t static. There are different versions in different ancient cities with place names that are appropriate for each location.
When Ereshkigal hears that her sister is coming “Her face grew as livid as cut tamarisk.” She demands to know what Ishtar has against her. Ereshkigal is eating clay and drinking muddy water in place of beer. She weeps for young men who have to abandon their sweethearts and for a long litany of others who have been deprived of the light.
In order for Ishtar to reach Ereshkigal she has to pass through the seven gates of hell. To pass through each gate, Ishtar has to remove something she is wearing. Ereshkigal calls upon her sister to be afflicted with sixty diseases, referring to the associated body parts that are going to be affected. These ancient stories excel in curses. Procreation ceases on earth. Young men and women stop dating.
Ea, god of freshwater, wisdom and incantations, to solve this crisis, sends down a good looking guy to placate Ereshkigal. This appears not to have worked.
Nergal and Ereshkigal
Nergal is a hero who in some story variants is the consort of Ereshkigal and lord of the underworld. This is another story in which someone from the world above visits hell and the extraordinary measures that have to be taken to pass through the seven gates and return safely. Although under exceptional circumstances, visitors can descend the stairway of heaven and visit hell, Ereshkigal herself can’t leave except at certain set times.
In this story, in several versions, the gods are feasting above (that’s what I’m thinking since they say “take from the table” and want to send a sample of the feast down to their sister below. Since we know Ereshkigal is eating clay for food and drinking muddy water for beer, these stories sound totally strange, which is part of their appeal to me and perhaps to their earliest readers.
Adapa was the first of the seven sages who existed before the Great Flood. Ea, the wise god, sent Adapa, a protecting spirit, to bring the arts of civilization to mankind. But Adapa, sage as he was, failed to win immortality for himself and this story suggests why.
Adapa offends the sky god Anu by cursing the South Wind for drowning him during a storm at sea. So Adapa is sent up to heaven to answer for his offense before Anu, the most senior god. It sort of sounds like being sent up to the front office to be bawled out by the boss.
This is another story where the challenge is passing through a gate, in this case the Gate of Heaven. But Ea has advised Adapa how to gain entry by providing him with a joke to tell the two guardians of the gate. He’ll make the guardians laugh and then they will be won over to Adapa’s side and take him to Anu.
This works, so apparently Ea’s advice is sound. The guardians also put in a good word for Adapa with Anu. Anu asks why Ea has taught the humans the ways of heaven and earth which has just made them more miserable. He wonders what he can do for Adapa.
So Anu offers Adapa the bread and water of immortality. Adapa has been warned by Ea that he would be offered these things but told Adapa not to accept them, despite that in these traditional cultures it’s considered an insult to refuse the food and drink offered by your host.
Adapa follows Ea’s advice again since it seemed to work so well the first time and refuses the sacred bread and water. But apparently Ea has tricked Adapa into losing immortality, perhaps punishing him covertly for his offense against the South Wind. Adapa has been set up by his middle management, not a very impressive performance for a man who is supposed to be so wise.
This story, Aesop-like, tells the story of a sometime alliance between an eagle who lives in a tree and a snake which lives at the base of it. The eagle proposes an alliance for their mutual benefit but the snake is wary of the eagle’s unsavory reputation. But they form a partnership with an oath taken in the name of the Shamash, the sun god, not to overstep the bounds of law. The snake and the eagle would each catch prey and let the other eat of it. Then the snake and eagle would turn away and let their offspring eat.
But the eagle plotted evil in its heart. It coveted the offspring of the snake as its food. A wise eagle fledgling advises the parent eagle not to violate its oath to Shamash. This is quirky. When the snake returns from hunting and lays its prey at the foot of the tree, it stares and stares. Its nest is missing. Can you imagine a snake crying?
The snake appeals to Shamash, who plans an elaborate eagle trap which involves the snake hiding in the intestines of a bull carcass in order to lure the eagle into a pit. I would never had thought of that solution so I like this story.
The eagle’s wings are cut off so it can’t escape from the pit. Now its the eagle who appeals to Shamash. Shamash won’t help…technically….due to the eagle’s moral depravity…but he sends Etana to help. Etana nurses the eagle back to health and is rewarded, mounted its wings, with a mile high view of the earth.
Thousands of years before it happens, human flight is imagined.
Anzu is a usurper, a trickster god, a thief. While visiting the temple of Ellil, a member of a younger generation of gods…Anzu steals the Tablet of Destinies which enables him to give orders to all the gods. The varying Mesopotamian peoples have a bewildering array of gods and monsters. They excel at monsters. It’s a theogony that’s so alien that it seems to be coming from another planet.
The dumbstruck gods are deprived of their radiance and elect to send a hero to get the Tablet of Destinies back. Several gods, when asked, refuse to go. Then Ea, the god renowned for wisdom, suggests they send for Belet-ili, the mother goddess, who is persuaded to volunteer her son Ninurta for the task.
Even scholars are not certain who all these divine personages are. But the Mesopotamian river valley cities, with their complex irrigation canal networks, were perhaps the first bureaucracies and they hold lots of meetings. I enjoyed the give-and-take at these meetings. It sounded like work to me.
The detailed battle scene between Anzu and Ninurta would be worth the illustration of a fine graphic novel.
The Epic of Creation
The Epic of Creation was recited at Babylon’s New Year’s festival. All key officials and officers of the government and the city would have attended. Dalley points out the difference between tales that were formal and schematic, meant for public occasions, and stories which focussed on entertaining people, like the Epic of Gilgamesh. The latter provided much more detail, as our novels would. The Epic of Creation, meant for a public ceremony, was sketched in broader strokes.
Apsu, begetter of the gods, complains to his lover Tiamat that their offspring are very disruptive. By day he can’t rest and by night he can’t sleep. So he informs Tiamat of his intention to disperse them.
Now the gods have been disturbing Tiamat just as much, perhaps more. But when she hears of her consort’s intention to put them down, she’s livid. What I’ve learned from these many stories of the gods is that for the most part, they’re a buttoned-down and rather square group. They certainly hold a lot of conferences where everyone is allowed to speak and they solve their problems by consensus. This Babylonian story is sending a message that this is how citizens of a civilized state are expected to behave. The unruly faction of the gods, that Tiamat will come to ally herself with, seem little better than thugs. It’s order versus chaos.
Events move swiftly as warfare threatens. Tiamat picks Qingu as her war leader and confers upon him the Tablet of Destinies, conferring great power on him. We’ve heard about the Tablet of Destinies before. So this story is starting to make sense to me which I find somewhat unsettling.
The descriptions of the monster warriors that Tiamat and Qingu enlist is a riot of perversion: giants snakes filled with venom instead of blood, dragons with fearsome rays, a horned serpent, demons, fish-man, bull-man, and my favorite, scorpion-man. As a result of the cosmic battle, from Tiamat’s body will come the creation of the world, order out of chaos, the Babylonian version of how things should be.
Theogony of Dunnu
Very obscure, short and fragmentary. Dalley includes it in part to illustrate the diversity of mythologies to be found in the region. Plough marries Earth. The Cattle God marries Earth, his mother. The Flocks God, son of the Cattle God, slays Sea, his mother. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on and neither will you. The city of Dunnu, which came up with this stuff, must have been a pretty rum place. I’d rather hang out in Babylon where they give better parties.
Erra and Ishu
Erra is a young god who wonders if he should stay in bed all day like a feeble old man or rub his weapons with poison and go out and rampage. He decides on the latter course and lays waste to the world. It seems that no one can stop him. The older gods, like Marduk, look on in grief as Erra causes the people untold suffering. The more destruction he causes, the better Erra thinks of himself. He has an ego as large as the world he is destroying. Or maybe he’s just the typical young man who’s full of himself.
Erra is described not so much as evil as unchecked. The suffering he causes is eloquently described. The practical issue is to get him to stop.
This Ishum accomplishes by diplomacy and flattery. “”It’s so cool Erra, how you can destroy everything! No one is as powerful as you are! You are one awesome dude and we will all follow you!” This approach works. Maybe Erra decides it’s pointless to destroy a world that is full of his fans.
I’ve given you the instant coffee version of the most ancient stories I could find. The tales are far more beautiful and far more thorny than I can convey. And I’ve broken the spoiler record on this blog. But you’ve had about five thousand years to read these stories. If you haven’t done so already, that’s not my fault.
You can read the full versions of these tales in Myths from Mesopotamia translated by Stephanie Dalley, from Oxford University Press. I purchased my copy. The mesh of folktales and myths is very complex with many variants and I probably haven’t gotten them exactly right. There are gaps in the cuneiform tablets on which the stories are incised. Those gaps are shown in the text.
I prefer it that way. It’s as close to an authentic read as a layman can have. I inspected a cuneiform tablet at the Metropolitan Museum recently. But it was just a receipt for some goats. But I also saw a pair of lions from the walls of Babylon. That was totally cool.