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Sumerian Origins

Posted By: vonMonke
Date: Saturday, 30-Sep-2000 22:08:11

In Response To: Mr. Yakub's Genetics Lab (vonMonke)

I wasn't able to find able to find the translation I wanted, but have reproduced here the first half of a chapter from one of Kramer's books. The chapter is entitled, "Man's First Cosmogony and Cosmology." It is the thirteenth chapter in the book and is listed under the heading, "Philosophy."

I must say that the TextBridge Pro 8.5 Macintosh software seem to be much more trouble than it is worth. It would have been quicker and less frustrating had I simply keyed in the entire selection into this Message Box for posting. Possibly my twain driver software fails to prep the scan properly for OCR.

Anyway, what follows is the result of several tiresome hours with the aforementioned software and a really delightful book.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959. Pp 76-84.

The Sumerians failed to develop a systematic philosophy in the accepted sense of the word It never occurred to them to raise any questions concerning the fundamental nature of reality and knowledge and they therefore evolved practically nothing corresponding to the philosophical subdivision which is commonly known today as epistemology. They did, however, speculate on the nature and, more particularly, the origin of the universe, and on its method of operation. There is good reason to infer that in the third millennium B.C. there emerged a group of Sumerian thinkers and teachers who, in their quest for satisfactory answers to some of the problems raised by their cosmic speculations, evolved a cosmology and theology carrying such high intellectual conviction that their doctrines became the basic creed and dogma of much of the ancient Near East.

These cosmological ideas and theological speculations are nowhere explicitly formulated in philosophical terms and systematic statements. Sumerian philosophers failed to discover that all-important intellectual tool we take for granted: the scientific method of definition and generalization, without which our present-day science would never have reached its prominence. To take even so relatively simple a principle as cause and effect, the Sumerian thinker, while fully aware of the innumerable concrete examples of its operation, never came upon the idea of formulating it as a general, all-pervading law. Almost all our information concerning Sumerian philosophy, the theology, cosmology and cosmogony, has to be ferreted out and pieced together from Sumerian literary works, particularly myths, epic tales, and hymns.

What were some of the “scientific” data at their disposal, which underpinned their assumptions and led to the narrowing down of their philosophical speculations to theological— certainties? In the eyes of the Sumerian teachers and sages, the major components of the universe were heaven and earth; indeed, their term for universe was an-ki, a compound word meaning “heaven—earth.” The earth, they thought, was a flat disk; heaven, a hollow space enclosed at top and bottom by a solid surface in the shape of a vault. a Just what this heavenly solid was thought to be is still uncertain. To judge from the fact that the Sumerian term for a tin is metal of heaven, it may have been tin. Between heaven and earth they recognized a substance which they called lil, a word whose approximate meaning is “wind” (air, breath, spirit); its most significant characteristics seem to be movement and expansion, and it therefore corresponds roughly to our atmosphere. The sun, moon, planets, and stars were taken to be made of the same stuff as the atmosphere, but endowed, in addition, with the quality of luminosity. Surrounding the “heaven-earth” on all sides and at top and bottom was the boundless sea, in which the universe Sweeney remained fixed and immovable.

From these basic assumptions concerning the structure of the universe, which seemed to the Sumerian thinkers obvious and indisputable facts, they evolved a cosmogony to fit. First, they concluded, was the primeval sea: the indications are that they looked upon the sea as a kind of "first cause” and "prime mover," and that they never asked themselves just what was prior to the sea in time and space. In this primeval sea was somehow engendered the universe the “heaven-earth," consisting of a vaulted heaven superimposed over a flat earth and united with it. In between, separating heaven from earth was the moving and expanding “atmosphere." Out of this atmosphere were fashioned the luminous bodies - the moon, sun, planets, and stars. Following the separation of heaven and earth — and the creation of the light giving astral bodies — plant, animal and human life came into existence.

Who created this universe and kept it operating day in, day out, year in, year out throughout the ages? From as far back as our written records go, the Sumerian theologian assumed as axiomatic the existence of pantheon consisting of a group of living beings, manlike in form but superhuman and immortal, who though invisible to mortal eye, guide and control the cosmos in accordance with well-laid plans and duly prescribed laws. Each of these anthropomorphic but superhuman beings was deemed to be in charge of a particular component of the universe and to guide its activities in accordance the established rules and regulations. One or another of these beings had the great realms of heaven and earth, sea and air; the major astral bodies, sun, moon and planet; atmospheric forces such as wind, storm, and tempest; and, in the realm of the earth, natural entities such as river, mountain, and plain; cultural entities such as city and state, dike and ditch, field and farm; even implements such as the pickax brickmold and plow.

Behind this axiomatic assumption of the Sumerian theologians, no doubt, lay a logical inference, since they could hardly have seen any of these humanlike beings with their own eyes. They took their cue from human society as they knew it and reasoned, of course, from the known to the unknown. They noted that lands and cities, palaces and temples, fields and farms - in short, all imaginable institutions and enterprises — are tended and supervised, guided and controlled, by living human beings, without whom lands and cities become desolate, temples and palaces, fields and farms, turn to desert and wilderness. Surely therefore, the cosmos and all its manifold phenomena also be tended and supervised, guided and controlled, by living beings in human form. But the cosmos being far larger than the sum total of human habitations, and its organization being far more complex, these living beings must obviously be far stronger and much more effective than ordinary humans. Above all they must be immortal. Otherwise the cosmos would turn to chaos upon their death and the world would come to an end — alternatives which, for obvious reasons, did not recommend themselves to the Sumerian metaphysician. It was each of these invisible, anthropomorphic yet superhuman and immortal beings that the Sumerian designated by his word dingir, which we translate by the word “god."

How did this divine pantheon function? In the first place, it seemed reasonable to the Sumerians to assume that the gods constituting the pantheon were not all of the same importance or rank. The god in charge of the pickax or brickmold could hardly be expected to compare with the god in charge of the sun. Nor could the god in charge of dikes and ditches be expected to equal in rank the god in charge of the earth as a whole. And, on analogy with
the political organization of the human state, it was natural to assume that at the head of the pantheon was a god recognized by all the others as king and ruler. The Sumerian pantheon was therefore conceived as functioning as an assembly with a king at its head, its most important groups consisting of seven gods who "decree the fates” and fifty known as ”great gods.” But a more significant division set up by the Sumerian theologians within their pantheon was that between creative and noncreative gods, a notion arrived at as a result of their cosmological views. According to these views, the basic components of the cosmos were heaven and earth, sea and atmosphere, every other cosmic phenomenon could exist only within one or another of these realms. Hence it seemed reasonable to infer that the four gods in control of heaven, earth, sea, and air were the creating gods, and that one or another of these four created every other cosmic entity in accordance with plans originating with them.

As for the creating technique attributed to these deities, Sumerian philosophers developed a doctrine which became dogma throughout the Near East- the doctrine of the creative power of the divine word. All that the creating deity had to do, according to this doctrine was to lay his plans, utter the word, and pronounce the name. Probably this notion of the creative power of the divine word was of an analogical inference based on observation of society. If a human king could achieve almost all he wanted by command - by no more than the words of his mouth - the immortal and superhuman deities in charge of realms of the universe could achieve much more. But perhaps this "easy” solution of the cosmological problems, in which thought and word alone are so important, is a reflection of the drive to escape into wish fulfillment characteristic of practically all humans in times of stress.

Similarly, the Sumerian theologians arrived at what was for them a satisfying metaphysical inference to explain keeps the cosmic entities and cultural phenomena, once created, operating continuously and harmoniously without conflict and confusion. This is the concept designated by the Sumerian word me whose exact meaning is uncertain. In general it would seem to denote a set of rules and regulations assigned to each cosmic entity and phenomenon for the purpose of keeping it operating forever in accordance with the plans laid down by the deities creating it. Here was another superficial, but evidently not altogether ineffective, answer to an insoluble cosmological problem, which merely hid the fundamental difficulties from view with a layer of largely meaningless words.

The Sumerian men of letters developed no literary genre comparable in any way to a systematic treatise of their philosophical, cosmological, and theological concepts. The modern scholar is compelled to "dig” out these concepts from the numerous myths recovered to date, wholly or in part. And this is no simple task, since the myth myth-writers must not be confused with the metaphysician and theologian. Psychologically and temperamentally they are poles apart, although often, no doubt, they were combined in one and the same person.

The mythographers were scribes and poets whose main concern was the glorification and exaltation of the gods and their deeds. Unlike philosophers, they were not interested in discovering cosmological and theological truths. They accepted the current theological notions and practices without worrying about their origin and development. The aim of the myth makers was to compose a narrative poem that would explain one or another of these notions and practices in a manner that would be appealing, inspiring, and entertaining. They were not concerned with proofs and arguments directed to the intellect. Their first interest was in telling a story at would appeal to the emotions. Their main literary tools, therefore, were not logic and reason, but imagination and fantasy In telling their story, these poets did not hesitate to invent motives and incidents patterned on human action which could not possibly have any basis in reasonable and speculative thought. Nor did they hesitate to adopt legendary and folkloristic motifs that had nothing to do with rational cosmological inquiry and inference.

The failure to distinguish between the Sumerian mythographer and philosopher has confused some of the modern students of ancient Oriental thought, particularly those strongly affected by the current demands for “salvation” rather than “truth,” and has led them into both underestimating and overestimating the minds of the ancients. On the one hand they argued, the ancients were mentally incapable of thinking logically and intelligently on cosmic problems. On the other hand they argued the ancients were blessed with an "intellectually unspoiled” mythopoeic mind, which was naturally profound and intuitive and could therefore penetrate cosmic truths far more perceptively than the modern mind with its analytic and intellectual approach. For the most part, this is just stuff and nonsense. The more mature and reflective Sumerian thinker had the mental capacity of thinking logically and coherently on any problems, including those concerned with the origin and operation of the universe. His stumbling block was the lack of scientific data at his disposal. Furthermore, he lacked such fundamental intellectual tools as definition and generalization, and had practically no insight into the processes of growth and development, since the principle of evolution, which seems so obvious now, was entirely unknown to him.

No doubt, in some future day, with the continued accumulation of new data and the discovery of undreamed—of intellectual tools and perspectives, the limitations and shortcomings of the philosophers and scientists of our own day will become apparent. There is, however, this significant difference: modern thinking man is prepared to admit the relative character of his conclusions and is skeptical of all absolute answers. Not so the Sumerian thinker, he was convinced that his thoughts on the matter were absolutely correct and that he knew exactly how universe was created and operated.

What evidence do we have of the Sumerian concept of the creation of the universe? Our major source is the introductory passage to a poem I have entitled, 'Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World.' The plot of this poem is described in chapter 23. What is of interest here is not poem as a whole but its introduction, for the Sumerian poets usually began their myths or epic poems with a cosmological statement that had no direct bearing on the composition as a whole. Part of this introduction to "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World" consists of the following five lines:

After heaven had been moved away from earth,
After earth had been separated from heaven,
After the name of man had been fixed,
After (the heaven-god) An carried off the heaven,
After (the air god) Enlil carried off the earth. ....

Upon having prepared the translation of these lines, I analyzed them and deduced that they contained the following cosmogonic concepts:
1. At one time heaven and earth were united.
2. Some of the gods existed before the separation of heaven and earth.
3. Upon the separation of heaven and earth, it was the heaven-god An who carried off heaven, but it was the air-god Enlil who carried off the earth.

Among the crucial points not stated or implied in this passage are the following:

1. Were heaven and earth conceived as created and if so by whom?

2. What was the shape of heaven and earth as conceived by the Sumerians?

3. Who separated heaven from earth?

I hunted around among the available Sumerian texts and found the following answers to these three questions:

1. In a tablet, which gives a list of the Sumerian gods, the goddess Nammu, written with the pictograph for primeval "sea," is described as the mother who gave birth to heaven and earth. Heaven and earth were therefore conceived by the Sumerians as the created product of the primeval sea.

2. The myth "Cattle and Grain," which describes which describes the birth in heaven of the gods of cattle and grain, who were sent down to earth to bring prosperity to

mankind (see Chapter 14), begins with the following two lines:

On the mountain of heaven and earth

An begot the Annunaki
3. A poem which describes the fashioning and dedication of the pickax, the valuable
agricultural implement is introduced with the following passage:

The lord in order to bring forth what was useful,
The lord whose decisions are unalterable,
Enlil, who brings up the seed of the “land” from the earth,

Planned to move away heaven from earth,

Planned to move away earth from heaven,

From the first line of ”Cattle and Grain,” it is not unreasonable to assume that heaven and earth united were conceived as a mountain whose base was the bottom of the earth and whose peak was the top of the heaven. And the poem about the pickax answers the question, Who separated heaven from earth? It was the air-god Enlil.

After my bunt among available Sumerian texts had led to these conclusions, it was possible to sum up the cosmogonic or creation concepts evolved by the Sumerians. Their concepts explained the origin of the universe as follows:

1. First was the primeval sea. Nothing is said of it origin or birth, and it is not unlikely that the Sumerians conceived it as having existed eternally.
2. The primeval sea engendered the cosmic mountain consisting of heaven and earth united.
3. Conceived as gods in human form, An (i.e.heaven) was the male and Ki (i.e., earth) was the female. From their union was begotten the air-god Enlil.
4 Enlil, the air-god, separated heaven from earth, and while his father An carried off heaven, Enlil carried off the earth, his mother. The union of Enlil and his mother earth set the stage for the organization of the universe — the creation of man, animals, plants, and the establishment of civilization.

For the origin and nature of the luminous bodies - sun, planets, and stars — practically no direct explanation is given. But from the fact that as far back as our sources go. the Sumerians considered the moon-god, known by the two names Sin and Nanna, to be the son of the air-god Enlil, it is not unreasonable to infer that they thought of the moon as a bright, airlike body that was fashioned in some way from the atmosphere. And since the sun-god Utu and the Venus goddess Inanna are always referred to in the texts as children of the moon-god, the probability is that these two luminous bodies were conceived has having been created from the moon after the latter had been fashioned from the atmosphere. This is also true of the remaining planets and the stars, which are described poetically as "the big ones who walk about (the moon) like wild oxen," and “the little ones who are scattered about (the moon) like grain.”

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Articles In This Thread

agent777 -- Thursday, 28-Sep-2000 21:33:39
agent777 -- Thursday, 28-Sep-2000 21:50:30
Robinhood -- Friday, 29-Sep-2000 00:43:07
agent777 -- Friday, 29-Sep-2000 02:07:00
Mr. Yakub's Genetics Lab
vonMonke -- Friday, 29-Sep-2000 06:30:09
Sumerian Origins
vonMonke -- Saturday, 30-Sep-2000 22:08:11
The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature
vonMonke -- Sunday, 1-Oct-2000 07:57:09
Robinhood -- Friday, 29-Sep-2000 19:06:46

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