Tag Archives: mesopotamia

The Bull of Heaven

There are so many fun visual elements in the Gilgamesh story. I think it would make a terrific graphic novel, like 300.

One lively part is when Ishtar, the Goddess of Love, wants Gilgamesh for her boyfriend. Gilgamesh says no, Ishtar gets steamed and asks the other gods to send the Bull of Heaven down to Earth to destroy him (am I the only one who thinks it really funny that the gods worry about the Bull leaving giant-sized cow-flops all over the landscape? I am? Oh). Gilgamesh and Enkidu have to fight for their lives against the Bull. For the ancient Sumerians, the Bull of Heaven was/is a constellation—a group of stars. Thousands of years later we still call that constellation ‘Taurus’—Latin for ‘Bull.’

http://www.seasky.org/constellations/constellation-taurus.html
http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/gods/explore/bullheav.html
http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr1812.htm
Hey, look at Douglas De La Hoz’ interpretation of the Gilgamesh story!
https://hozart.artstation.com/projects/nQOq1K
Lynnie McIlvain shows us some parallels between Gilgamesh and Homer’s epics and the Bible—
https://www.thecollector.com/epic-of-gilgamesh/

I realize now I should have put horns on my Enkidu character design.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

The birth of Western Lit

Literature, that is.

Because of the cuneiform writing system and the scribes who could write in it, the Sumerians left us a beautiful gift: the first ever epic poem, Gilgamesh.

We have this treasure because of a disaster—the library at Nineveh burned to the ground. But here’s the good news: the cuneiform books and records were written on clay tablets and so they were fired in the blaze. They became as hard as pottery and lasted though the ages.

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is the hero of this story. He’s semi-divine—both god and human. Gilgamesh has been translated into modern English. You can likely find a copy at your library. Parts of Gilgamesh are rated R so you probably shouldn’t read it until you’re at least 30. But, because I’m a prince of a fellow, I will tell you the entire (cleaned-up) epic poem in one sentence—

The gods create Enkidu

Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man he’s the super strong handsome king of Uruk a Sumerian city he built towers and walls and orchards well he didn’t he made everybody else do all the back-breaking work because Gilgamesh is a cruel king who goes around kissing other people’s wives of course nobody is happy about this so the people pray to the gods and the gods create a man-beast Enkidu who is strong enough to teach Gilgamesh a lesson Enkidu is a hairy wild savage he lives in the forest with the animals a hunter finds Enkidu and brings him to a temple where a priestess gives Enkidu a kiss and all his hair falls off and all the animals reject him because now he’s civilized Enkidu goes to Uruk and has an almighty wrestling match with Gilgamesh afterwards Gilgamesh and Enkidu are best buds they go to the forbidden cedar forest and fight and kill the terrible monster Humbaba who was guarding it when they get back to Uruk the goddess Ishtar chooses Gilgamesh to be her boyfriend but Gilgamesh says no thank you ma’am your boyfriends tend to die unpleasantly so Ishtar is pretty steamed and sends the Bull of Heaven to punish him Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the Bull and kill him the gods say this is a problem and decide Enkidu must die Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh is heartbroken so he sets off to find the meaning of life and achieve immortality he needs to meet Utnapishtim who is immortal Gilgamesh travels to the mountain Mashu and convinces 2 gigantic scorpions to let him through the tunnel under the mountain on the other side is a beautiful garden Gilgamesh meets Siduri who owns a restaurant she tells him to give up looking for immortality and just enjoy his life but Gilgamesh isn’t convinced so Urshanabi the ferryman takes Gilgamesh on a boat across the Sea of Death to Utnapishtim who tells Gilgamesh all about the Flood and how the gods decided to destroy humankind but Ea the god of wisdom warned Utnapishtim and told him to build a really big boat Utnapishtim built it and loaded his family and every kind of animal into the boat after the flood was over the gods said okay that was a bad idea sorry dude we’ll never do that again and they gave Utnapishtim immortality Gilgamesh says I want to live forever too so Utnapishtim says okay hotshot you can be immortal if you can stay awake for a week but Gilgamesh can’t do it so Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh back home Utnapishtim’s wife tells Gilgamesh about a plant of Eternal Life Gilgamesh finds the plant and means to take it with him but a snake eats it so Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with nothing bupkis nada but he’s older and wiser and he realizes that Kansas isn’t so bad after all.

Enkidu runs with the animals

Gilgamesh isn’t merely the first epic story. It’s a blueprint for all the stories that followed. Every great story has an arc—a character moves from Point A to Point Z and undergoes a transformation. His character is fundamentally changed. Gilgamesh starts out a selfish bully and ends humbled by his experiences, and wiser. The same kind of arc happens to Lightning McQueen in the Pixar movie Cars. Lightning is a selfish and self-centered user; an accident resulting from his selfishness forces him to spend time with characters in a place way outside his narrow world; in the end Lightning values and cherishes his new friends and his life is richer for them. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale is unhappy with her dull life on a Kansas farm; when her dog’s life is threatened she and Toto run away from home; she has a whirlwind adventure in Oz; when Dorothy returns she realizes how blessed her life is—and maybe now has the moral strength to stand up to Miss Gulch and protect her little dog.

The temple priestess gives Enkidu a kiss

Gilgamesh is about a hero who refuses to accept life without meaning. That theme is universal, which means we all feel that way. Everybody wants to leave something behind. Gilgamesh left behind towers and walls and orchards, but the story he left behind is the most enduring.

Enkidu loses his hair and becomes civilized

Side note: You alert readers will have noticed one or two details that can be found in the Hebrew Bible: a beautiful garden, a global flood and the man who preserves creation by putting a pair of every species in a big boat, a Tree of Life (and a treacherous serpent nearby). It’s no secret. The Bible uses themes from ancient Middle Eastern story-telling. The big difference is that—unlike Gilgamesh—the heroes of the Bible are all regular schmoes. No immortals, no demigods. The God of Abraham linked His destiny with ordinary people like you and me.

https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gilgamesh/summary/
https://www.ancient.eu/gilgamesh/

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Stylin’ with the stylus

You hold it like a pencil.

The Sumerians didn’t have pencils to write with. Instead, they took a dry reed, stiff as a stick, and cut the end off at a 90° angle. Using a knife or by sanding it, they made the end of the reed rectangular. The corners needed to be sharp! They used the corners and the edges of the stylus to press triangles and lines into a soft clay tablet. This style of writing is called cuneiform (koo-NAY-i-form), from Latin words that mean triangle (cune-) and shape (form). The writing tool is called a stylus (STY-loos), plural styli (STY-lee).

http://writingcuneiform.blogspot.com/2012/10/2-making-stylus.html
http://writingcuneiform.blogspot.com/2012/10/5-making-basic-wedges.html

By the way, up until I researched this post I thought that the reed’s cross-section was triangular. Can you see how red my face is? Research, gang. You’re never too old to learn!

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Putting the pot in Mesopotamia

Sumerian pots 4,500 bc

“Clay is a form of soil made up of very small particles of aluminum silicate created by the chemical weathering of rock.”

In the mountains of Turkey, melting snow turned to water that coursed over granite rocks and wore away at them. Teeny-tiny mineral particles were carried by the water down, down from the mountains and eventually into river- and stream-beds in the Tigris-Euphates valley. Over a long time, those particles became clay. You can dig clay out of the ground and make stuff from it, like pots. Clay is what they call plastic: you can form it into different shapes. Clay can be fired—heated at a really high temperature—to become hard and impervious to water. When they dig up ancient sites where people lived, archæologists find pieces of pottery that is thousands of years old.

https://sciencing.com/how-is-clay-soil-formed-13406937.htmlhttp://www.pottery-on-the-wheel.com/what-is-clay.htmlhttps://www.infoplease.com/culture-entertainment/art-architecture/clay-and-pottery

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Base Sixty

Today we count using Base Ten (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, then 11-12-13-14-15-16-17-18-19-20, 21 to 30, 31 to 40, 41 to 50 and so on). Here’s something really interesting about the Sumerians. They counted numbers using Base Sixty! Fractions hadn’t been invented yet, so 60 was actually a handy base for counting. Sixty can be divided by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. Try it!

Base Sixty is natural, it occurs in the world around us. By watching the sky, the Sumerians saw the Moon make a complete cycle 12 times a year. Each cycle (month) takes about 30 days (one day = the time it takes Earth to completely revolve around her axis). That’s about 360 days per year (one year = the time it takes Earth to travel around the Sun). These numbers fit neatly into the Base Sixty way of counting.

Do we still use Base Sixty? You betcha! A ruler is 12 inches long—12 x 5 = 60. We buy eggs and doughnuts by the dozen. Can you think of any other examples?

How about a clock? There are 12 hours on the face of an analogue clock—12 x 5 = 60. Sixty minutes in an hour; sixty seconds in a minute. What about 24 hours in the day—does that work? Nope, sixty doesn’t evenly divide by 24. But a protractor uses Base Sixty—a circle is divided into 360 degrees. If you were to mark 24 hours around a protractor, each hour would use 15 degrees (hang onto that thought—it will become important later on in the show).

I bought this one at Protractor Supply.

I can hear you saying, “Hold on, Manders. Years aren’t 360 days long. They’re 365 days and six hours!” Okay, I have to admit, that’s a good point. Sumerian astronomers were fantastic at math and did mostly everything right—but they got one really important piece of information wrong. They thought the Earth was the center of the universe with the Sun, Moon and planets revolving around her. It’s impossible to make the lunar year (12 cycles of the Moon) agree exactly with the solar year (Earth’s trip around the Sun), so we had to add 5 extra days, plus one day every fourth year, to make it work on a calendar. That’s not really the best solution, as we will see.

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh subduing a lion who was probably minding its own business.

I decided Gilgamesh deserves his own post. It helps to get a handle on a culture by looking at its heroes and stories. Gilgamesh the king was an actual historical figure. Gilgamesh the hero of the epic was two-thirds divine and one-third mortal.

The story begins in Uruk, a city in Ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia) where Gilgamesh rules as king. Though Gilgamesh is known to be stronger than any other man, the people of Uruk complain that he abuses his power. The gods hear these complaints, and the god Aruru creates Enkidu, a man as strong as Gilgamesh. Aruru forms Enkidu out of water and clay, out in the wilderness. Enkidu lives in nature, in harmony with the wild animals.”

So Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet, wrestle, become best buds. They defeat the awful giant Humbaba. The goddess Ishtar proposes marriage to Gilgamesh—when he turns her down she sics the Bull of Heaven on him and Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat him, too. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh works out his grief by searching for the meaning of life and the source of immortality.

I taught a unit on Gilgamesh to high-schoolers in Sunday school, just because there are so many echoes of Bible stories in Gilgamesh, particularly in Genesis. There’s a Great Flood; a guy who survives the flood by loading his family and animals into a big boat; a plant that holds the essence of Life (with a treacherous serpent hanging around nearby); Enkidu is a hairy strongman who is tamed by a seductress and loses his hair. My point in teaching Gilgamesh wasn’t to diminish the Bible stories, but to show how the Bible stories grew from a tradition of ancient MidEast literature into a narrative that tells the story of all us mortals, not just divine, semi-divine and immortal characters. The Bible is a radical departure from that tradition.

We get Gilgamesh from pieces of clay tablets that have survived through the ages. A library fire, which would mean a disastrous loss of literature today, actually preserved many ancient books by firing the clay they were written on. Gilgamesh is a fun read, although there are adults themes in there, so be warned.

Sumerians!

Okay, now we know what Western Civ is, so let’s get started. We’re going all the way back to 4,000-2,000 bc. That’s 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. Sumer is considered to be the world’s first civilization. The Sumerians lived between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers—today it’s the southern part of Iraq.

irrigation

‘The land between the rivers’ (Mesopotamia) was fertile—the Sumerians could grow crops there because they figured out how to divert water from the rivers into the dry desert—so there was food for everybody. Sumeria had a government, a religion, and a writing system called cuneiform.

cuneiform

Cuneiform means ‘wedge-shaped.’ You use a wedge-shaped tool to press wedge-shapes into soft clay. I don’t know what it says; I made it up.

There was a big city called Ur; today we still describe city things as ‘urban.’ Sunday school students will remember that Ur was the city Abram moved away from so he could become Abraham.

abram

I’m not positive luggage had been invented at this time.

The epic hero, Gilgamesh, lived in Ur. The Epic of Gilgamesh has been translated from pieced-together fragments of clay tablets, so you can still read it today. I have a paperback copy. The story has themes that can be found in the Biblical book of Genesis—a Tree of Life, a Tree of Knowledge, a great flood. Gilgamesh and his pal, Enkidu, gad about the ancient MidEast searching for the meaning of life and a way to become immortal.

gilgamesh

Where In The World Is Western Civilization?

mapWhen I talk about the part of the globe that is Western Civilization, I mean from the Tigris/Euphrates valley to the Mediterranean to Europe to the Americas. Western Civ was born in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the southern part of Iraq. Civilization spread westward from there to lands around the Mediterranean Sea: Egypt, Israel and Phoenicia to the city-states of Europe and northward to the British Isles. From there it extended to the New World—the Americas and Australia.

So, Western Civ is made up of many people and cultures. It grew from the first civilization—the Sumerians in Mesopotamia—to the Egyptians; the Jews; the Greeks; the Romans, whose empire split into east and west; the western half of the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire which reorganized itself into separate European countries. Some of those countries in turn created empires mainly by colonizing the New World. The British Empire includes Canada and Australia. The United States of America declared its independence from Britain in ad 1776.

Of course there are other non-western civilizations around the world today and throughout history. This history is simply about Western Civilization. Most important to me are the ideas. How did ancient people develop an alphabet? Whose idea was it to smelt copper and tin together to make bronze? How did they come up with literature that we still read today? How did they figure out how to measure time, or the circumference of the Earth?