The Mythology of Ancient Mesopotamia ~ Introduction to Mesopotamian Mythology


Mesopotamia may not have had the world’s earliest myths, but it was almost certainly the first place where myths were written down. The Sumerian people invented cuneiform writing there around 3500 BC, and by 2500 the script was being used to bring tales of legend out of the oral tradition.

The stories that the Sumerians recorded, as well as their Akkadian successors in what is now Southern Iraq, told of the epic activities of a multiplicity of rival gods. Some deities may have originated as elemental forces, but others were associated with specific towns, where their statues were cared for and venerated in temples. In a world of competing city-states, the status of individual divinities rose and fell with the fortunes of the locales they represented. The myths recounted the gods’ rivalries, which sometimes set son against father in intergenerational strife, as happened in the ruling dynasties of the day.

Creation myths seem to have varied from city to city across the Mesopotamian plain. Today the best-known is the one contained in the epic poem known from opening words as the Enuma Elish, literally, “when on high…”. Dating perhaps from as early as 1900 BC, but written down in its present form around 1100, it was effectively a work of propaganda celebrating Marduk, the city god of Babylon. Even relatively unimportant centers, however, had origin stories of their own.

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Ritual life revolved around festivals in which the gods’ statues were paraded outside the temples that were their homes. Sometimes the images were carried on barges along the waterways that were the main thoroughfares of Mesopotamia. The region’s name translates as the “ Land between Rivers”, referring to its to great arteries, the Tigris and Euphrates.

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