The Human Journey
Pre-Axial Thought Introduction

Pre-Axial Thought


Mesopotamia

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tall stone walls
The partially reconstructed walls of Nineveh. (From Livius.Org, used with permission.)

In 669 BCE, Ashurbanipal became ruler of the Assyrian Empire. His library is the largest so far uncovered in Mesopotamia. During his reign he added more to the library at Nineveh than any of his ancestors had done over the previous two centuries. Much of our knowledge of ancient Babylonian myths and early history comes from his effort. Among the books archeologists have recovered from the palace library were the Babylonian creation myth, spread out over 7 tablets, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, spread out over 12 tablets. The tablets survived into modern times because when the Chaldeans and Medes (Ancient Persians) destroyed Nineveh in 612 BCE, they were content to push in the palace walls with battering rams, so the walls collapsed, burying and preserving the tablets for the benefit of modern scholars and archeologists.

drawing of clay tablet scripts
Fragment of a clay tablet, bilingual (Sumerian and Assyrian) synonym list, 17 lines of inscription, Neo-Assyrian. (British Museum reference K. 4375.)

Clay tablet with lists of scripts
Tablet of synonyms. Library of Ashurbanipal, Neo-Assyrian. (British Museum reference K. 4375.)

The inscribed tablets at Nineveh were kept on shelves in earthenware jars with identifying tags. Subjects were sometimes arranged by room: one room might be devoted to history and government, another to geography, and so on. One of the most important rooms in the palace library was devoted to myths, lists of gods, prayers, and incantations. Near the door to each room was a tablet with that room’s subject catalog. Each entry listed the title of a given work, the number of tablets in the work, the number of lines in the work, its opening words, and a location or classification symbol.

Fragments discovered at the site confirm that Assyrian scribes were tasked to copy Babylonian original tablets inscribed as early as 1,500 years before their own time.


MESOPOTAMIAN BELIEFS

In the Mesopotamian worldview, illnesses and strife were caused by evil demons or by divine displeasure. The ancient Mesopotamians believed that the world depended entirely upon the superhuman forces that created it, and these formidable forces did so entirely for their own advantage. For example, Ea is the creator and protector of humanity in the Babylonian flood myth Atrahasis (Atra-hasīs) and the Epic of Gilgamesh (Gilgameš). It was he (Ea) who came up with the plan to create humans out of clay so that they could perform work for the gods. But the supreme god Enlil attempted to destroy Ea’s newly created humans with a devastating flood, because their never-ending noise prevented him from sleeping. But clever Ea foresaw Enlil’s plan and instructed a sage named Atrahasis, whose name means “Extra Wise”, to build an ark so that humanity could survive.

“Like the gods of prehistory, these gods expected goods and services from humans, and dished out rewards or punishment accordingly. So everywhere people made sacrifices to the gods, flattered – that is, worshipped – them, and tended to their needs in other ways. (A Mesopotamian tablet of ritual instruction begins, ‘When you wash the mouth of a god...’). Everywhere the upshot was a symbiotic relationship between people and gods, with each having something the other needed. And everywhere – as in chiefdoms – the political leaders took the lead in mediating that relationship, and indeed defining the relationship; everywhere, religion was used by the powerful to stay powerful. Hence the similarity in the way scholars describe civilizations separated by an ocean. Mayan kings were ‘conduits through which supernatural forces were channeled into the human realm.’ The Egyptian king was ‘the sole intermediary who could serve the gods and hence maintain the flows of energy’ into the world.” (Wright, Robert, 2009-05-20, The Evolution of God, p. 75.)

The supernatural world and the way it worked was modeled on the Mesopotamian’s earthly world where the monarch reigned at the top of a pyramid of subordinate authorities whose power emanated from his. “Just as their king governed the country, directly or through ‘vicars,’ by expressing his wishes, by making decisions, and by communicating them, the gods also made the world function according to their designs, by deciding the destinies of all beings, as individuals or collectively.” (Bottéro, Jean, Mesopotamia.)

Mesopotamian culture survived over 4,000 years, with myths, poetry, legends and artifacts reinterpreted again and again, their older versions enduring side by side with the newer which were subject to repeated reinterpretations. So, it is difficult for scholars to establish definitively a coherent timeline of the evolution of the thinking of these ancient peoples. According to Thorkild Jacobsen in his book The Treasures of Darkness, three major aspects or phases of Mesopotamian religion occurred: Initially, worship focused on survival – the power of fertility and plenty – what we have previously called “cosmic maintenance”; later the concept of the ruler was added along with issues of security from enemies and expansion of territory; and lastly at the end of the third millennium BCE, “once the fortunes of the individual increased in importance until they rivaled those of the communal economy and security,” then the personal god is added.

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