By Alan D Griffin
Sumerian’s Mythology was very important to the development of western countries religions and western culture. To illustrate how important Sumerian mythology was to the development of the western world I will first describe who the Sumerian people were. Next, I will show significant influences of Sumerian mythology on Hellenistic mythology. Finally I will illustrate significant influences of Sumerian mythology on Semitic Mythology.
The Sumerians are the oldest known true civilization in the world. Sumer was located in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq. The Sumerian Civilization began to develop around 4900BCE and lasted until 2000BCE when it began to collapse due to various invasions by the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and finally the Hittites. These kingdoms adopted Sumerian technology and more importantly Sumerian mythology into their cultures. The Sumerians were a very sophisticated people which brought to the world significant contributions such as the invention of the wheel, the invention of the plough, the invention of the pottery wheel, and most importantly the invention of written language. They even invented the world’s first printing press in the form of copper cylinder seals which had raised symbols that could be rolled over a clay tablet to make multiple copies of important text quickly. As the first civilization to have written language they also have the earliest known religious texts. The Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians adopted Sumerian mythology and only changed the names of the gods and minor cultural influences. The Hittites and similar cultures such as the Amorites and the Hebrews incorporated only certain concepts and stories of the Sumerian mythology. Hellenistic cultures such as the Greeks came about through contact between Mesopotamian and Indo-European peoples. Aspects of Greek and Hebrew creation myths are rooted in the earlier Sumerian creation myths.
The connection between Greek and Sumerian creation myths are that they both begin with the creation of the planets in the solar system. The Sumerian creation myth begins with three primeval gods. First, Apsu which represents the Sun and whose name means “one who existed from the beginning”. Next, Mummu which represents Mercury and name means “ counselor and emissary of Apsu” and Tiamat which represents a primordial planet in which the Earth and asteroid belt are created out of whose name means “ maiden who gave life”. All of the other gods referring to the other planets of the solar system are born from the father Apsu and mother Tiamat. Tiamat grows resentful of her offspring and seeks to destroy them but Aspu conspires with Mummu to destroy Tiamat . Tiamat over hears their plan goes crazy with rage and lashes out at all the gods and none can confront her then a new god comes, not created from Apsu and Tiamat called Marduk the youngest of the gods. The other gods convince him to battle and defeat Tiamat so he agrees steals the creative power to set destiny from Apsu and defeats Tiamat in two battles in the same location in the second Marduk removes tiamat’s head which represents Earth and it is called Ki and means “Tiamat’s head” but he is destined to return to the scene of the battle over and over again for eternity( Sitchen 205-207) In the Greek creation myth it begins with chaos and out of chaos love is born and Gaea is born out of love. Gaea represents Earth and Gaea the gives birth to and marries Uranus which represents Heaven and covers her on all sides. Gaea then gives birth to six pair of twins called the Titans that represent the planets of the solar system. Uranus grew resentful of the Titans and forced them back into the womb of Gaea except Cronus the youngest who Gaea begs to overthrow Uranus and free the Titans. Cronus agrees and castrates Uranus and out of the phallus of Uranus the goddess Aphrodite was born (Campbell 27). The themes in these two stories have striking similarities such as they are both based on the creation of the planets. In the Sumerian myth the gods rebel against Tiamat their mother and in the Greek myth the gods rebel against their father Uranus. In the Sumerian myth the youngest god Marduk steals the creative power of Apsu and kills Tiamat at the request of his fellow gods and in the Greek myth the youngest god Cronus castrates Uranus at the request of Gaea. Not only are the creation myths similar so are their hero myths. The Greek myths of Hercules owe much gratitude to the Sumerian myth The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written between 2750BCE and 2500BCE. It was the story of king Gilgamesh who was 2/3’s god and 1/3 human. He was called the mightiest of all men. Gilgamesh embarked on a series of quests for glory at first and then immortality caused by the scorn of the goddess Ishtar whom he refused to marry. The twelve labors of Hercules was written in 600BCE was the story of a man who was ½ god and ½ man. He was called the mightiest of all men ( Nigosian 46). Hercules embarks on a series of quests for redemption and gains immortality as the result of the scorn of the goddess Hera who despised Hercules because he is the offspring of her husband Zeus and a mortal woman. These are two main examples of how Sumerian mythology influenced the development of Hellenistic culture.
There is significant influence of Sumerian mythology found in Semitic mythologies such as the Jewish Torah. The story of Noah and the flood in the bible is dated at 2348BCE and Noah lived from 2902BCE-1952 BCE and was written by Moses between 1576BCE-1406BC according to the biblical timeline which is most used, developed by Archbishop Ussher in the 17thcentury.The Sumerian Flood story took place in 3500BCE and was written between 3200BCE and 2800BCE. In the Sumerian flood story The lord Enki told Ziusundra(Noah) to build a boat an gave him the dimensions and told him a flood was coming and to gather 2 of every animal he could and put them in the boat it rains for seven days and seven nights and he sets out a raven to check for dry land who returns without sign of land he waits and then sends the raven out again and he returns with an olive branch in its mouth as a sign that the waters had receded. In the Biblical account of the flood God tells Noah that he is going to send a great flood. He tells Noah the dimensions of the ark and instructs him to fill it with 2 of every animal in the world. It rains for forty days and forty nights and Noah sends out a raven and it returns without sign of dry land so Noah waits and then he sends out a dove who returns with an olive branch as a sign of dry land. Similarities in aspects of Sumerian mythology and the story of Moses is also incredibly striking. The mythical birth story of Sargon The Great who lived from 2270BCE-2218BCE begins with his mother a priestess giving birth to him in secret placing him in a basket of rushes and sealing it with bitumen and then placing it in the Euphrates river where it is found by the royal gardener and raised to be the royal cupbearer before becoming king of Sumer (Campbell 57). The birth story of Moses written between 1576-1406BCE begins with his mother giving birth to him in secret and placed him in a basket of rushes and sealed it tight with pitch and placed him in the Nile river where it was found by the priestess the daughter of Pharaoh and raised as prince. The similarities go on and on. Father Abraham lived between 2166BCE- 1991BCE the Sumerian civilization began to break apart by 2000BCE the same time God called Abraham out of Ur the capital of Sumer. There is no doubt that the Abraham of the bible would be very familiar with these Sumerian myths and took them with him on his journey to the Promised Land.
The Sumerians were the first true civilization who gave us many ideas and inventions that still influence life in the western world today. Several aspects of Sumerian mythology found its way into later Hellenistic cultures such as the Greeks and Romans. Several aspects of Sumerian mythology are found in later Semitic religions such as the mythologies of the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hebrews. The Sumerians and their mythology are the basis of western culture.
Campbell, Joseph. Inner Reaches of Outer Space. New World Library, CA ;1986.
Campbell, Joseph. Transformations of Myth Through Time .Harper, New York; 1999.
Nigosian, S.A. World Religions, Bedford/St. Martin ,Boston;2008.
Sitchen, Zecharia. The 12th Planet. HarperCollins,New York;
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