One of the ancient cultures and their literature that our class discussed was the Mesopotamians. The earliest piece of literature that we know of is from this time period, The Epic of Gilgamesh. From this work, we get an insight into the characteristics of this culture.
One cultural trait that we see in the Epic of Gilgamesh is their religious beliefs. The Mesopotamians we polytheistic, they believed in many Gods. This is evident in many occasions in the story. The main character, Gilgamesh, is himself two thirds God. While describing how he was made they tell us some of the different gods they believed in. “â€¦The Great Goddess Aruru designed him, planned his body, prepared his form, a perfect body the gods for the creation of Gilgamesh, Shamash the Sun gave beauty, Adad the Storm gave courageâ€¦” When the people of Uruk are enraged at the behavior of Gilgamesh they turn to their Gods to help them, showing us that the people of the Mesopotamian culture also turned to their gods when they were in despair. We also see how the people viewed their gods. In one part of the story Gilgamesh is approached by the Goddess of Love and War, Inanna. She wants Gilgamesh to be her lover and he rejects her. While doing so her names many of her past flaws. “But what advantage would it be to me to take you in marriage? In the cold season you would surely fail me! You are but a back door which does not stay shut but flies open in the raging windâ€¦What lover did you ever love forever? â€¦Come, I will tell you the tales of you lovers: For Tammuz, you young husband for him we wail year after year! He who dies each autumn and comes back each spring! The spotted shepherd-bird you loved, that bird which rolls and tumbles in its flight, and you struck him, broke his wingâ€¦Then you loved the lion, perfect in its strength, but you dug him seven pits and again seven, they you loved the stallion, great in battle but you made for him the whip and thong and spurâ€¦If you loved me you would treat me the same as them.” This encounter shows us how the Mesopotamians viewed their Gods. They did not think they were all-knowing and never made mistakes. Most of their gods were not perfect and had at least one bad flaw but were extremely bad in that flaw. Gilgamesh himself is example. His arrogance makes the people angry and they go against him. Once Gilgamesh rejects Inanna she becomes very angry. She goes to her father An, the Sky God, wanting him to punish Gilgamesh. She asks for the Bull of Heaven and she sends it to attack Gilgamesh and Enkidu. They kill the bull and the Gods get together in council to decide what must be done to punish the two. They decide to kill Enkidu as punishment, although they were defending themselves from the bull the Inanna sent upon them. The people knew the gods were not always right and fair but also knew not to upset them because they were powerful and could discipline them just as they did Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
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Another aspect of their culture we are shown in The Epic of Gilgamesh is that of women. When Enkidu is still wild and living with the animals a trapper tells his son to “ask for a temple hierodule from the Temple of Love, such a child of pleasure, bring her and let her power of woman subdue this wild man. When he goes to the wells, he will embrace the priestess and the wild beast will reject him”. After Enkidu sees the priestess and has relations with her, he tries to go back to the wild beasts and they run from him. He returns to her and she holds his hand and leads him like a child out of the wilderness. She also instructs him on how to eat and drink the civilized people do. This shows that perhaps at one point in their civilization the women were dominant over the men, however this seems to change. Once Enkidu become a “man” after eating bread and drinking the strong drink he decides to go to Uruk and face Gilgamesh. But instead of the woman leading the man Enkidu is leading her, “Enkidu set out for Uruk. Enkidu walked in front, the girl walked behind.” Now it seems the culture is dominated by the male which is also how our society is today. We have a patriarchal society where the male is usually head of the household. Once Enkidu has fallen ill and is dying as punishment for killing the Bull of Heaven, he curses the priestess who tamed his wild ways. “O you, priestess, I pronounce you fate- A fate which shall be yours for all eternity! Hearken, for I curse you now with a great curse and may my curses attack you now on the instant: You shall not build a house in which to offer your charms. You shall never enter the tavern where the young girls are. Your lovely breastsâ€¦May the drunkard defile you trysting place with vomit, May you be violated by all the troopsâ€¦.The desert shall be you bed. The shadow of the wall is where you shall linger, your feet torn by thorns and bramblesâ€¦Because you have..â€¦me and because you have brought death upon me.” Enkidu blames the woman for his death but as Shamash the Sun points out the woman introduced him to good food and drink, clothed him, and gave him such a good friend as Gilgamesh. It seems that women were sometimes objects for men to blame for their downfalls. This belief is true is some religions today where women are to blame for the first sins. We also see that the women were also sometimes seen as wise figures. Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun, is called the “Custodian of Knowledge.” When Gilgamesh would have dreams he would turn to his mother for interpretation and guidance.
The Mesopotamians seem to have heavily relied on word of mouth to keep their stories passing between generations in the ancient times. You see this throughout the Epic of Gilgamesh. A lot of the words and parts of the story seem to repeat the same words and meanings. “Father, what a man! No other like him! He come from the hills, strongest alive! A star in heaven his strength, of the star essence of An, the Sky Father, over the hills with the beasts eating grass, ranges across all your land, goes to the wells. I fear him, stay far away. He fill in my pits, tears up my game traps, helps the beast escape; now all the fame slips away- through my fingers.” The trapper tells this story to his father. He later tells almost the exact story to Gilgamesh, “Like no other, wild, roaming the pastures, a star in heaven his strength of the star essence of An, the Sky Father. I am afraid, stay far away; he helps the beasts escape, fills in my pits, tears up my game traps.” In these lines from the story, we see that that a lot of the same words are repeated. Instead of just saying that the trapper told Gilgamesh about the man he saw he tells the story again. This is an example of how the Mesopotamians would repeat the same words and meanings in a smooth, rhythmic way to help memorize the stories.
From the work The Epic of Gilgamesh we see cultural traits of the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia. We observe some of their religious beliefs, the view of women in their society, and how they told stories so that they were able to be remembered and shared with others.
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