The Epic of Gilgamesh and Religions of Ancient Iraq

The Epic of Gilgamesh

One of the most remarkable stories that has come down to us from Sumerian tradition is the much-discussed Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of the one-quarter mortal, three-quarters divine Gilgamesh. The central character in the story, Gilgamesh, is the powerful and arrogant king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. A man with little respect for the inhabitants of the city he rules, nor for their wives or daughters, he is confronted with his earthly opposite, Enkidu, whom the gods create to teach Gilgamesh about life, death, and the meaning of it all.

After becoming boon companions, they embark on various adventures. Enkidu dies, bringing sorrow to his friend and teaching Gilgamesh about the inevitability of death. In a quest for everlasting life, Gilgamesh braces himself for a harrowing journey through the Underworld. There, he confronts his own mortality and realizes that life is not a perennial adventure but a journey with a beginning and an end.

And because there is no permanence to life on earth, its sole meaning emerges from the way that it is lived. After this transformative experience, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk a much wiser, if sadder, man and contemplates the story of humanity high on the walls of his city, to which he adds an engraved brick detailing his epic journey. Exhibiting a fl uent and gripping style, the Epic of Gilgamesh is an amazing document that is as fresh as if it were written yesterday. A joy to read, it tackles with remarkable depth the existential questions that perplex humans in any age.

Religions of Ancient Iraq

A deeply religious people, the Mesopotamians derived their ideas of God and the universe from the land in which they lived. Mesopotamian religions were not attached to a particular dynasty or ruling family; rather, notions of the divine developed out of ancient Iraq’s natural surroundings—the changing seasons, the pull of the ocean tides, the abundance of the harvests, the radiance of the Moon, and the heat of the Sun.

The Mesopotamians held their gods in very high esteem, building large temples and shrines for them that were administered by a class of priests and bureaucrats whose functions at fi rst were to make offerings to the gods and, later on, to regulate the affairs of the city and the countryside.

The pantheon of Mesopotamian gods ranged from the three superior male gods, Anu, Enlil, and Enki, to the lowest deities, evil spirits and demons. There was also a group of goddesses, the most famous of which was Inanna, who personifi ed carnality and temptation. There were close to 3,000 names of gods and goddesses in the Sumerian-Akkadian world, depicting young gods and older ones. Marduk, the god of Babylon; Nabu, the deity attached to Borsippa (and Marduk’s son); and Samas, the sun god, were especially revered.

Several creation epics, most notably that of Gilgamesh, attest to the fact that gods were the prime instruments in the making of the world. It is unclear, however, what role religion played in everyday life. One of the most respected scholars in the fi eld, Oppenheim, queried the standard by which archaeologists and art historians of ancient Iraq built up the notion of a Mesopotamian religion.

According to him, the material available to construct a valid theory of Mesopotamian religion is too meager, and most of what we refer to as religion is really myth, created by a literary and artistic class of Mesopotamian scribes.

He concluded that religion in ancient Iraq was an elite practice, confi ned to kings and priests, and only superfi cially affected the masses. His assumption that religion was more of a literary paradigm than a social ritual is still controversial today.