Sumerians Writing and Religion

Writing and Religion

By 7000 BCE, in what is called the Fertile Crescent, in West Asia where hunter-gatherers had roamed, planting had grown into the major source of food. There true farming had begun, and farming required permanent settlement. By 4500 BCE people archaeologists would call Ubaidians were living in towns in West Asia, in Mesopotamia (Greek for “between two rivers”) near where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers emptied into the Persian Gulf. The Ubaidians drained marshes. They grew wheat and barley and irrigated their crops by digging ditches to river waters. They kept farm animals. Some of them manufactured pottery. They did weaving, leather or metal work, and some were involved in trade with other societies.

By 4000 BCE to the south in Syria a society existed that had regional centers and a complex government. Here, as with the Ubaidians, people baked bread in huge ovens and manufactured fine pottery. In the year 2000 of modern times, at Tell Hamoukar, archaeologists discovered a protective city wall, and they described the place of their digging as more than a town. They described it as a city. And they found primitive hieroglyphics: markings for recording trade transactions.

It was around 4000 BCE that a people called Sumerians moved into Mesopotamia, perhaps from around the Caspian Sea. By 3800 BCE the Sumerians had supplanted the Ubaidians and Semites in southern Mesopotamia. They built better canals for irrigating crops and for transporting crops by boat to village centers. They improved their roads, over which their donkeys trod, some of their donkeys pulling wheeled carts. And the Sumerians grew in number, the increase in population the key element in creating what we call civilization — a word derived from an ancient word for city.

At least twelve cities arose among the Sumerians. Among them were Ur, Uruk, Kish and Lagash — Ur, for example, becoming a city of about 24,000 people. In the center of each city was a temple that housed the city’s gods, and around each city were fields of grain, orchards of date palms, and land for herding. Besides planting and harvesting crops, some Sumerians hunted, fished, or raised livestock. In addition to an increase in population, civilization was also about variety, and enough food was produced to support people who worked at other occupations — such as the priesthood, pottery making, weaving, carpentry and smithing. There were also traders, and the Sumerians developed an extensive commerce by land and sea. They built seaworthy ships, and they imported from afar items made from the wood, stone, tin and copper not found nearby.

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Sample Sumerian characters
circa 3200 BCE

Writing

Sumerian writing is the oldest full-fledged writing that archaeologists have discovered. The Ubaidians may have introduced the Sumerians to the rudiments of writing and recorded numerical calculation, which the Sumerians used with the rise in trade and to calculate and to keep records of supplies and goods exchanged. The Sumerians wrote arithmetic based on units of ten — the number of fingers on both hands. Concerned about their star-gods, they mapped the stars and divided a circle into units of sixty, from which our own system of numbers, and seconds and minutes, are derived.

The Sumerians wrote poetically, describing events as the work of their gods, and they wrote to please their gods. The Sumerians wrote by pressing picture representations into wet clay with a pen, and they dried the clay to form tablets. Instead of developing their writing all at once, as one might expect with divine revelation, they developed their writing across centuries. They streamlined their pictures into symbols called ideograms, and they added symbols for spoken sounds — phonetic letters — forming what is called cuneiform.

A Belief in Spirits

Like people who were not yet civilized, the Sumerians saw movement around them as the magic of spirits, magic being the only explanation they had for how things worked. These spirits were their gods, and with many spirits around, the Sumerians believed in many gods — gods that had humanlike emotions. The Sumerians believed that the sun, moon and stars were gods. They believed in a goddess of the reeds that grew around them and in a goddess of the beer that they distilled.

The Sumerians believed that crops grew because of a male god mating with his goddess wife. They saw the hot and dry months of summer, when their meadows and fields turned brown, as a time of death of these gods. When their fields bloomed again in the autumn, they believed their gods were resurrected. They marked this as the beginning of their year, which they celebrated at their temples with music and singing.

The Sumerians could dig into the earth and within a few feet find water. They believed that the earth was a great disk floating on the sea. They called the sea Nammu, and they believed that Nammu was without a beginning in time. They believed that Nammu had created the fish they saw and the birds, wild pigs and other creatures that appeared on the marshy wet lands — a story of creation around two millennia before the Hebrews would put their own story of the creation into writing.

The Sumerians believed that Nammu had created heaven and earth, heaven splitting from earth as being the male god, An, and the earth being a goddess called Ki. They believed that Ki and An had produced a son called Enlil, who was atmosphere, wind and storm. The Sumerians believed that Enlil separated the day from night and that he had opened an invisible shell and let waters fall from the sky. They believed that with his mother, Ki, Enlil set the stage for the creation of plants, humans and other creatures, that he made seeds grow, that he shaped humanity from clay and imbued it, as it states in Genesis 2:7, with “the breath of life.”

The Sumerians believed they had been created to serve their gods, and they served their gods with sacrificial offerings and supplications. They believed that the gods controlled the past and the future, that the gods had revealed to them the skills that they possessed, including writing, and that the gods had provided them with all they needed to know. They had no vision of their civilization having developed by their own efforts. They had no vision of technological or social progress.

They did not believe in social change, but Sumerian priests altered the stories that they told, creating a new twist to old tales — without acknowledging this as a human induced change or wondering why they had failed to get it right the first time. New ideas were simply revelations from the gods.

The Sumerians did not recognize interpretation. They saw no need for rules of reason. No evidence remains in their writings of their respecting doubt or their seeing any benefit from suspended judgment. They worked their stories about their gods into axioms. Sometime around 2500 BCE, Enlil became the greatest of the gods and the god who punished people and watched over their safety and well-being. Like the gods of other ancient peoples, Enlil was a god who dwelled somewhere. He was a god of place, and that place was the city was Nippur, a sacred city believed to have been inhabited at first only by divine beings.

By around 2500 BCE, the Sumerians had become individualistic enough to believe in personal gods — gods with whom individuals had a covenant. Individuals no longer prayed just for the community. Sumerian society was dominated by males, and the male head of every family had his personal god. Men hoped that their god would intercede for them in the assembly of gods and provide them with a long life and good health. In exchange, they glorified their god with prayers, supplications and sacrifices while continuing to worship the other gods in the Sumerian pantheon of gods.

A Belief in Sin

Believing that the gods had given them all they had, the Sumerians saw the intentions of their gods as good. Believing that their gods had great powers and controlled their world, they needed an explanation for their hardships and misfortunes. They concluded that their hardships and misfortunes were the result of human deeds that displeased the gods — in a word, sin. They believed that when someone displeased their gods, these gods let demons punish the offender with sickness, disease or environmental disasters.

The Sumerians experienced infrequent rains that sometimes created disastrous floods, and they believed that these floods were punishments created by a demon god that lived in the depths of the Gulf of Persia. And to explain the misfortunes and suffering of infants, the Sumerians believed that sin was inborn, that never was a child born without sin. Therefore, wrote a Sumerian, when one suffered it was best not to curse the gods but to glorify them, to appeal to them, and to wait patiently for their deliverance.

Conflicts Among the Gods

In giving their gods human characteristics, the Sumerians projected onto their gods the conflicts they found among themselves. Sumerian priests wrote of a dispute between the god of cattle, Lahar, and his sister Ashnan, the goddess of grain. Like some other gods, these gods were vain and wished to be praised. Each of the two sibling gods extolled his and her own achievements and belittled the achievements of the other.

The Sumerians saw another dispute between the minor gods Emesh (summer) and his brother Enten (winter). Each of these brothers had specific duties in creation — like Cain the farmer and Able the herdsmen. The god Enlil put Emesh in charge of producing trees, building houses, temples, cities and other tasks. Enlil put Enten in charge of causing ewes to give birth to lambs, goats to give birth to kids, birds to build nests, fish to lay their eggs and trees to bear fruit. And the brothers quarreled violently as Emesh challenged Enten’s claim to be the farmer god.

A dispute existed also between the god Enki and a mother goddess, Ninhursag — perhaps originally the earth goddess Ki. Ninhursag made eight plants sprout in a divine garden, plants created from three generations of goddesses fathered by Enki. These goddesses were described as having been born “without pain or travail.” Then trouble came as Enki ate the plants that Ninhursag had grown. Ninhursag responded with rage. She pronounced a curse of death on Enki, and Enki’s health began to fail. Eight parts of Enki’s body — one for each of the eight plants that he ate — became diseased, one of which was his rib. The goddess Ninhursag then disappeared so as not to

let sympathy for Enki change her mind about her sentence of death upon him. But she finally relented and returned to heal Enki. She created eight healing deities — eight more goddesses — one for each of Enki’s ailing body parts. And the goddess who healed Enki’s rib was Nin-ti, a name that in Sumerian meant “lady of the rib,” which describes a character who was to appear in a different role in Hebrew writings centuries later, a character to be called Eve.

Power and Politics

Early in Sumerian civilization, eighty to ninety percent of those who farmed did so on land they considered theirs rather than communal property. Here too the Sumerians were expressing a trend that was common among others. Another individual effort was commerce, and with a growth in commerce the Sumerians had begun using money, which made individual wealth more easily measured and stored. Commerce required initiative, imagination, an ability to get along with people and luck, and, of course, some merchants were more successful than were others.

Farmers also benefited from luck, and they needed stamina, good organization and good health, and some were more successful than others. Those who failed to harvest enough to keep themselves in food and seed borrowed from those who had wealth in surplus. Those who borrowed hoped that their next harvest would give them the surplus they needed to repay their loan. But if the next harvest were also inadequate, to meet their obligations they might be forced to surrender their lands to the lender or to work for him. When Sumerians lost their land, they or their descendants might become sharecroppers: working the lands of successful landowners in exchange for giving the landowners a good portion of the crops they grew.

Accompanying divisions in wealth was a division in power, and power among the Sumerians passed to an elite. Sumerian priests had once worked the fields alongside others, but now they were separated from commoners. A corporation run by priests became the greatest landowners among the Sumerians. The priests hired the poor to work their land and claimed that land was really owned by the gods. Priests had become skilled as scribes, and in some cities they sat with the city’s council of elders. These councils wielded great influence, sometimes in conflict with a city’s king.

Common Sumerians remained illiterate and without power, while kings, once elected by common people, became monarchs. The monarchs were viewed as agents of and responsible to the gods. It was the religious duty of his subjects to accept his rule as a part of the plan of the gods. Governments drafted common people to work on community projects, and common people were obliged to pay taxes to the government in the form of a percentage of their crops, which the city could either sell or use to feed its soldiers and others it supported. And priests told commoners that their drudgery was necessary to allow the gods their just leisure.

Men Dominate Women

Physically stronger than women, men could rule women by brute force, and in societies where men were the warriors it was they who got together and made decisions for their entire society. Presumably before the time of the Sumerians, kings were chosen by the warriors, with the king as the leading warrior.

The Sumerians put the domination of men over women into law. If a husband died, the widow came under the control of her former husband’s father or brother, or if she had a grown son she was put under his control. A woman in Sumer had no recourse or protection under the law. A woman’s power, if she had any, was the influence of her personality within her family.

Education

Early in Sumerian civilization, schooling was associated with the priesthood  and took place in temples. But this changed, and an education apart from the temples arose for the children of affluent families, who paid for this education — and with men dominating women, most if not all students were males. The students were obliged to work hard at their studies, from sun up to sun down. Not believing in change, there was no probing into the potentials of humankind or study of the humanities. Their study was “practical” — rote learning of complex grammar and practice at writing. Students were encouraged with praise while their inadequacies and failures were punished with lashes from a stick or cane.

War and Slavery

Sumerian kings sent men out to plunder people in hill country, and they acquired slaves. The Sumerian name for a female slave was mountain girl, and a male slave was called mountain man. The Sumerians used their slaves mainly as domestics and concubines. And they justified their slavery as would others: that their gods had given them victory over an inferior people.

As Sumerian cities grew in population and expanded, the swamps that insulated city from city disappeared. Sumerians from different cities were unable or unwilling to resolve their conflicts over land and the availability of water, and wars between cities erupted — wars the Sumerians saw as between their gods. And the Sumerians made slaves of other Sumerians they had captured.

It was a new kind of warfare. In herding and hunter-gatherer societies — mobile societies — the entire community might enter the field of battle. In settled agricultural communities such as those of the Sumerians, the younger and stronger, maybe fourth or fifth of society, went to war. The others remained at home, working at farming or other chores.

Wars with distant people were fueled by the greed and ambitions of kings. The Sumerians described this in a poetic tale of conflict between the king of Uruk [note] and the distant town of Arrata, a tale written by a Sumerian some five hundred years after the event, a tale of which only fragments remain. Here was reporting as it would be for more than 3,000 years, as it would be with Homer and his Iliad, the sacred writings of Hindus and with the Old Testament, with gods in command and not disapproving of war.

Among the Sumerian cities was an impulse to be supreme, and, around 2800 BCE, Kish had become the first of the cities to dominate the whole of Sumer. Then Kish’s supremacy was challenged by the city of Lagash, which launched a bloody conquest against its Sumerian neighbors and extended its power beyond Sumerian lands. A bas-relief sculpture uncovered by archaeologists depicts a king of Lagash celebrating his victory over the city of Umma, the king’s soldiers, with helmets, shields and pikes, standing shoulder to shoulder and line behind line over the corpses of their defeated enemy.

Dissent

The variety of populous, civilized life produced differing opinions, and dissent — something authoritarians would never be able to extinguish. Sumerians complained. One wrote that he was a “thoroughbred steed” but drawing a cart carrying “reeds and stubble.” Another complained in writing of the stupidity in one city taking enemy lands and then the enemy coming and taking its lands. Rather than docility, people in the city of Lagash instigated history’s first recorded revolt. This came after Lagash’s rulers had increased local taxes and restricted personal freedoms. Lagash’s bureaucrats had grown in wealth. The people of Lagash resented this enough that they overthrew their king — probably believing that they were acting in accordance with the wishes of the gods. They brought to power a god-fearing ruler named Urukagina, who eliminated excessive taxation and rid the city of usurers, thieves and murderers — the first known reforms.

Paradise and a Great Flood

Clinging to their belief in the goodness and power of their gods and wondering about their sin and the toil and strife with which they lived, the Sumerians imagined a past in which people lived in a god-created paradise. This was expressed in the same poetic tale that described the conflict between the king of Uruk and the distant town of Arrata — the earliest known description in writing of a paradise and the fall of humankind. The poem describes a period when there were no creatures that threatened people — no snakes, scorpions, hyenas, or lions — a period in which humans knew no terror. There was no confusion among various peoples speaking different languages, with everyone praising the god Enlil in one language. Then, according to the poem, something happened that enraged the god Enki (the god of wisdom and water who had organized the earth in accordance with a general plan laid down by Enlil). The clay tablet on which the poem was written is damaged at this point, but the tablet indicates that Enki found some sort of inappropriate behavior among humans. Enki decided to put an end to the golden age, and in the place of the golden age came conflict, wars and a confusion of languages.

On another clay tablet, surviving fragments of a poem describe the gods as having decided that humans were evil and the gods as having created a flood “to destroy the seed of humanity,” a flood that raged for seven days and seven nights. The tablet describes a huge boat commanded by a king named Ziusudra, who was preserving vegetation and the seed of humankind. His boat was “tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters.” When the storm subsided, the god Utu — the sun — came forward and shed light on heaven and earth. The good king Ziusudra opened a window on the boat and let in light from Utu. Then Ziusudra prostrated himself before Utu and sacrificed an ox and a sheep for the god.

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