Exploring The Ancient Near Eastern Mythology

The ancient Near East was the site of the earliest high civilization: Mesopotamia. A rich legacy of texts, addressing all aspects of human life, has survived from this cultural center.

Quantum leaps in cultural history took place here, including the invention of writing and the wheel.

Thus, in many respects this region can be viewed as the cradle of future cultures, both Eastern and Western.

The cultures of the ancient Near East are considered to include all civilizations that used the cuneiform writing system, as well as a few other forms of writing, such as Luwian hieroglyphs and astroglyphs, or star pictographs.

The most widely used ancient Near Eastern languages, were Sumerian, Babylonian -Asyrian, also known as Akkadian, and Hittie Other language with more limited reach included Hurritic and Ugaritic.

Other languages with more limited reach included Hurritic and Ugaritic. Written sources from these cultures have been found from Turkey in the north to the Levant in the southwest and Iraq in the east.

The texts surviving from this period reflect many diverse areas of human endeavor. Documents concerned with daily affairs include administrative and economic texts, such as certificates and notices, legal documents, such as laws and treaties letters and inscriptions and scientific records, such as glossaries and medicinal potions.

Works of cultural creativity have been preserved in the form of myths, epics, hymns, lamentations, prayers, rituals, elegies, love songs, debates, satires, saying, fables, riddles, and texts from the ancient educational system, and narratives and dialogues aimed at passing on wisdom to the next generation.

Due to its natural borders, the near by Egyptian civilization was relatively stable, experienced minimal foreign influence and relatively few wars, and remained monolingual over a substantial part of its history.

On the other hand, ancient Mesopotamia was geographically more open, developing into an ethnically heterogeneous state with a multilingual culture. Although continually plagues with wars and unrest, it also repeatedly succeeded in integrating diverse external influences.

This phenomenon is also reflected in the areas of religion and muthology. The worship of a large number of different gods was typical among the diverse cultures of the ancient Near East.

By the middle of the third millennium B.C, catalogues of Mesopotamian gods contained hundreds of systematically organized names. While the main gods of different ethnic groups were often similar, the worship of other divinities, even across cultural borders, was an accepted practice. The same god could also be  depicted and experienced in quite different ways: as a human like figure, a symbol, a plant or animal, a heavenly body, or a powerful natural phenomenon.

It was also believed that the gods could appear to human beings in dreams and even carry them off to heaven or the underworld.

Early writers worked conscientiously to record their knowledge about the world in encyclopedia like collections. The first explicit theological documents arose as part of this effort. These consisted of lists and charts of the gods, which people had attempted to place in a logical order.

These texts in particular give modern observes-despite their separation from the chroniclers by up to 5,000 years – detailed impressions of the ideas held by people of those times. The sphere of the gods was considered to be organized in the same hierarchical structures as the human world.

Thus, there were high rulers among the gods, responsible for a city-state or an entire country, as well as subordinate gods, who functioned as minister, officials, or messengers. Ruling deities were supported by family members and court officials, including such  diverse personnel as barbers and sweepers.

Human rulers were seen as mere representatives of the true, divine sovereign. The gods who rules cities and states were usually conceived of a  male. There were exceptions, however, such as Inana, who was revered as the ruling goddess of several cities.

Along with the great power attributed to the gods, people believe themselves to be vulnerable to demonic beings, who were viewed as occupying an intermediate zone between humans and the gods. In addition, the dead were believed to hold power over the life and death of people on Earth.

The great themes of human existence have remained constant over the millennia:love and hate, birth, illness, and death, rulers and subjects, order and chaos, and war and peace. While some people today seek support in chatroom and self help books, the people of the ancient world looked to stories for guidance and inspiration.

Myths, such as those passed down in great details from ancient esopotamia, addressed the fundamental questions of life. The earliest myths are dated from the third millennium B.C, while others data to the second and first millennium B.C. The material they report, however, is often much older, since myths were typically handed down orally for centuries before people attempted to set them down in writing.

For example, the earliest known city tablets recording the story of King Etana, who was said to be carried into heaven by an eagle, date from the 18th century B.C. However, surviving artwork depicting motifs from this story prove that the tale was well known in the 24th century BC.

 

 

 

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Nicholas Cunningham

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