Sumer and Akkad in Southern Mesopotamia. Credit © 2008 P L Kessler
Preview of this Post. In this post, we’ll conclude discussion of the prehistory in Iran and turn to southern Mesopotamia. There, a people group speaking Sumerian settled the lower Mesopotamian plain in the 6th millennium B.C. It is hypothesized that they previously populated the extended Mesopotamian river valley as it flowed down the floor of the Persian Gulf to the ocean. They called their ancestral home “Dilmun” which they described as a paradise. They migrated upriver over millennia as the sea level rose 500 feet from glacial melt. These people evolved in their new homeland through several distinct phases: Halaf, Ubaid, and Uruk. The Sumerian civilization they birthed and raised dominated the region from 5,500 to 2,000 B.C., formed the world’s first city states including the world’s most populous city, invented written language, and pioneered architecture, religion, and culture on a large scale. We will begin this journey by studying what these people said about themselves.
Prehistoric Iran. Last week, we wrapped up western Iran with Elam and Susa, both built as agricultural communities on the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent, living in a symbiotic relationship with the burgeoning agrarian culture to their west, which was rapidly expanding in the rich alluvial soil between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Although Elam and Susa had cultural roots in Iran’s Zagros Mountains, the juggernaut of Mesopotamian agriculture and superpower city-states made them dependent trading vassals—albeit rich ones. This relationship developed early in the Neolithic Revolution, and does not change until the 3rd millennium B.C.
Help from Linguistics. Our understanding of how Southern Mesopotamia and Susiana developed would have remained a mystery but for the acceleration of Scientific Archaeology and Linguistics in the 19th and 20th centuries. The decipherment of cuneiform script and the Sumerian Language allowed piecing together literally tons of clay tablets and other inscriptions. In addition, linguistic work with the Indo-European family of languages, including Indo-Iranian, has advanced understanding of Southern Mesopotamia’s Chalcolithic culture far ahead of much younger proto-literate cultures (e.g. Mayan) and undeciphered languages (e.g. Harappan). Speculations about Elamo-Dravidian encourage us to hope for an avenue to deciphering Harappan and gaining new insights into substrates of the Sumerian language.
Proto-Euphratean Language. Some linguists suspect that there is a Proto-Euphratean language substrata beneath Sumerian. One of these linguists posits Sumerian as an early Indo-European language which he dubs “Euphratic”—which conveniently fits my creation of a thin, declining, but still dominant elite of city-states leadership in my novels’ set in 5,203 B.C. My fictional Indo-Iranian elite dates back to a period which the people recall as “when the kings came” in my Raising Up Pharaoh epic novels. The elite “before the kings came” was restructured “when the kings came” much like the English elite were replaced by William The Conqueror’s elite following the Norman Conquest of England.
Mesopotamian Creation Myths. A creation myth is a shortcut to understanding the character of a people, for most people groups consider their creation myth to be true metaphorically. So it will be worthwhile for us to look at Mesopotamian creation myths at the dawn of literacy, where we’ll get the least embellishment (i.e. well-intended, mal-intended or unintended but apocryphal revisions and accretions), and get insight into their earlier conceptions of the gods they worshipped. Think about it for a moment: their creation myth was handed down from generation to generation by word-of-mouth before a script was adopted and literacy began (written scripts can be more easily controlled). Most people groups consider their creation myth a sacred story, so there would have been poets, priests, and acolytes who would memorize the “standard” oral version, and test each other for accuracy.
We have a good example of this oral process by studying the rigorous system of memorization of the Rig Veda among the Indo-Iranians dwelling in the Indus Valley. As for the creation myth embedded in these Vedas, does the following ring a bell? “By His utterance came the universe.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.2.4 translation A but 1.2.4 translation B is worded differently). In this primordial thought (translation A) from four millennia ago in South Asia, I see a clear principle stated: a unique Someone created the universe. To find that in an ancient Indo-Iranian creation myth makes me smile. There is a common thread between that statement (read the linked summary of that first chapter) and the words of the first chapter of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, which original text hasn’t been going through much revision for over 2,000 years, as proven by the pre-Christian Isaiah Scroll found at Qumran. Regarding this, you might read William Schniedewind’s book How the Bible Became a Book, The Textualization of Ancient Israel. This book deals with the conversion of the Hebrew’s creation story, history, and canons from oral to a written version (click our website’s tab Bibliography to get particulars). While referring you to this book, I’m not agreeing with all of the book’s’ conclusions, but do think you should understand the methodology. I prefer to let the Bible speak for itself.
The Sumerian Creation myth in the version excavated at Nippur that dates back to about 1,600 B.C., written in Sumerian cuneiform 1,400 years after the preliterate Uruk period, shows that the Uruk period’s creator god An has been demoted (in this version) to the role of sky god and the god Enlil, who was created by An, has been promoted by the other created gods to be chief of the created gods, pretty much like I told you in Post 47. The creation myth appears hijacked to record the rebellion of some created beings which have, or have been granted by their free will, the option to go their own way. Since these are not capable of creating a universe by their utterance, they don’t really deserve the title “gods”…”daimones” or demons seems more appropriate. What we don’t have is an earlier version of the myth i.e. what was the oral version in the earliest Uruk period? All we can do is look for older versions and compare them, and sift excavations for anything that might give insight into the preliterate, oral version.
The Enuma Elis is a Babylonian version of the creation myth, perhaps dating back to the time of Hammurabi (around 1,800 B.C. i.e. 1,200 years after the preliterate Uruk period). It promotes the Babylonian god Marduk to chief of those created gods. You can read the translation here. However, we are now dealing with an Amorite revision—and not the older Sumerian version—and this new version has a political element, substituting a new local favorite of Babylon to chief of the created gods. You’ll note the above linked article addresses this “my local god is better than your local god” issue in the first paragraph. I suggest you read the summary and scroll down to the actual translated text, in order to get a feel for this version. I find it chaotic (city-state politics and fractious gods) and feel sorry for the people under the oppression of such idiotic gods. I want to ask, “How did these maniacs seize control of the asylum?” The answer to that question is at the core of the fears besetting the Mesopotamians. I think you and I can agree that the clamor of these brawling city gods speaks to a clamor between the cities.
We have now begun examining the contributions of both archaeology and linguistics in our quest to understand these long-dead people of Mesopotamia. Archaeologists had to find and excavate their ruins to accumulate written specimens of their language—and they found much. Then linguists began the mammoth task of deciphering these people’s long-dead script and language before these documents could be read to reveal what we’re searching for: an understanding of these Mesopotamians, their achievements, pretensions, competitions, myths, and religions.
This will be a good point to conclude this post. In the next post, we will continue to examine Sumerian literature in its Laws, in search of further clues.
Thanks for visiting.
R. E. J. Burke