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Book Review: Myths from Mesopotamia by Stephanie Dalley


Book Review: Myths from Mesopotamia by Stephanie Dalley

I asked them why they, unannounced, wished to meet with the director and they told me that they had just discovered Noah’s ark in Turkey. As I had met a few others along the way conning people with this ark stuff I asked to see the proof. He immediately pulled out a black and white photo showing what looked like a rock cliff and asked, ‘What do you see?’ I looked at it closely and replied, ‘All I can see is that someone took a ballpoint pen and drew a photo of a ship on the rock face’. They replied, in that charming Tennessee accent, ‘Well, it’s a bit hard to see so we’all took a ball point pen and highlighted it for ‘y’all.’

Myths from Mesopotamia by Stephanie Dalley
Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others
A New Translation by Stephanie Dalley
Oxford University Press, 368 pp.
CLR [rating:4.5]

Noahides All?

The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into the silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, and through the liberalizing influence of all the worthies ….

Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” WALDEN (1854)

During the last four decades, our world has witnessed a rising tide of religiosity, and with it, given the mass media and world wide instant connections, a startling increase in fundamentalist dogmatisms. Vox populi? Or the voice(s) of what was termed insightfully, Mass Man, certainly by European thinkers like Nobelist Canetti. Anyone who works or goes to a religious observance or attends the crowded sports stadiums of the world knows that a ticket lands one immediately into the school of fish formed by crowds of people, and all pointing in the same direction. And that experience may well have commenced about the time of the French Revolution, when Enlightenment brought liberation of the poorest — or so it was thought — from the class-controlled chains of the past, notwithstanding that same liberation promptly saw itself subdued and ruled by other kinds of tyranny in the great societies in Europe. As for instance, the Industrial Revolution was understood by some as the new Moloch, Blake’s Satanic Mills.

In the West, sports stadia apart, the regular massing of people for religious observance, ritual, and prayer, all built up from the wish to attribute our existence, indeed that of the whole universal shebang, to the “Fiat Lux” of a supreme Creator, has during this era become something more than an article of faith; increasingly politicized, it manifests itself around the planet as what we loosely term “Fundamentalism.” In the United States the common “theoretical” shibboleth of many sects is “Creationism,” a novelty rooted in a dogmatic insistence on the literal history of the account in Genesis 1, and unfolded into Genesis 6 and after. Though for its adherents it is not poetry but factuality conveyed metaphorically, the sciences of astronomy, geology, and biology taken together offer Evolutionary theory’s quite different script. Explicating our Earth’s past, its calendar has steadily built up a comprehensible concrete berm to hold back the fanatic outpouring of persistent ignorance. Even were Creationists to reduce their shouts to a mere murmur, still many, indeed many-too-many, pass around collection baskets, pocketing vast sums, ostensibly to support the never-ending hunt for the place where finally Noah’s Ark came to rest as the waters receded. Never mind the 3 million years-old footprints in volcanic ash of an African Australopithecus, Lucy, or yesteryear’s thick bones of some Neanderthal heavyweight from a Croatian cave; never mind the history of skepticism ever since Origen of Alexandria [d. 264. A.D] argued against critics who rationally wondered how all the beasts could have been embarked on that vessel, trying to account for its size by referring to Moses and the Egyptian measurement of the cubit, — we, Homo sapiens, we, Lords of the Earth, are all descended from Ham, Shem, Japheth and their wives after they stepped forth into sunlight from Noah’s Ark after a year of drifting over the turbulent seas that covered a submerged Ararat. For that matter, it is not too hard to suppose that the savior of the Israelites was himself found floating in a little “ark,” a basket that floated downstream until it grounded amongst the Nile’s reeds, a folktale that recapitulates the Flood of myth. For we are Noahides all.


I was perusing the newly-revised edition of Oxford University’s 1989 MYTHS OF MESOPOTAMIA [a World’s Classics book issued in 1991, revised in 2000 and reissued in 2008], when an amusing cri du coeur popped into my Inbox, sent out to his colleagues on a list of Ancient Near East scholars. It went:

For those of us living here, in the “Holy Land’, working in archaeology, one never ceases to see the cons, scams, get rich schemes from all parties in the name of religion. Lately I’ve been following the latest ark scam, which has been going on for decades and remember one of the times that I met Ron Wyatt from WAR. He came to the museum where I was curator of collections for 25 yrs with a group of men asking to see the director. As he didn’t have an appointment the secretary asked me to speak with them. I asked them why they, unannounced, wished to meet with the director and they told me that they had just discovered Noah’s ark in Turkey. As I had met a few others along the way conning people with this ark stuff I asked to see the proof. He immediately pulled out a black and white photo showing what looked like a rock cliff and asked, ‘What do you see?’ I looked at it closely and replied, ‘All I can see is that someone took a ballpoint pen and drew a photo of a ship on the rock face’. They replied, in that charming Tennessee accent, ‘Well, it’s a bit hard to see so we’all took a ball point pen and highlighted it for ‘y’all.’ I was thinking of replying, ‘I ain’t as dumb as I may look,’ but they didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor, so I just left off and told them to make an appointment—but not to bet the farm he will see you. What we are seeing is just a continuation of those get-rich-quick scams perpetuated by a handful of individuals over the recent four decades wearing mantle and robes of religion, funded by hard-working folks from Virginia, Tennessee, and from around the world, including the EU and AU. All looking for signs and wonders! which for a few are $ign$ and wonder$, including staff from Creationist universities. $$$ far better spent on the blind, the lame, and the halt.

That there is no arguing with faith is a given; that the impossibility of overturning the beliefs arising from and justifying faith is also given. That oncoming generations patch remnants of ancient tales into new robes, parading their new doctrines as original, supplanting their forefathers, is typical of successor religions. Who knows what to have lived in the past was like or can pretend to read the minds of vanished tribes, when in fact there was never a person at nightfall identical to the one who rose from sleep that morning. But the preservation in memory of the past, a responsibility even for the first of our lot of creatures, and cultivated as records and answers to fundamental questions of origins, is the poetry called myth, “memories” instantly recognizable as fiction, but believed as truth. As Humpty Dumpty well knew, truth is naturally stranger than fiction — and his term for both was “Impenetrability!”

Noahs Ark by Edward Hicks

Noah’s Ark by Edward Hicks, 1847

What is of interest here is a superlative book summarizing the finds of archæologists in the Middle East during the 20th Century and redacting the gradual increments of knowledge deciphered from thousands of baked clay tablets, the “books” comprising immense libraries of cuneiform that have been unearthed and interpreted by paleographers. At this hour it’s possible to begin to imagine the background of early Middle Eastern civilization, the various societies of this now-troubled region that rose and fell long before what has been generally valued and taught as Western Civilization’s “Classical” roots. Here are presented the founding tale of Atrahasis, the hero of Flood story, the epic of Gilgamesh, the poem of Ishtar, and other god-persons and person-gods whose vicissitudes preceded the poems of our Homer and the earliest Greek poets. Composed and written into wet mud before the Egyptian magical books knew Isis and Osiris, or the Hebrew scribes set down their oral traditions and gave us Genesis.

Briefly, most of the writings of the Akkadian myths were also told in other languages, Sumerian, Hittite, Hurrian, and Hebrew. Because “Akkadian was the language of diplomacy throughout the ancient Near East from the mid-second to mid-first millennium BC,” and scribes learned their trade as far away as Egypt, Anatolia, and Iran, there is a recognizable commonalty of names and the tales in the Old Testament, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Works and Days of Hesiod, and latterly even the Arabian Nights.

Before the Flood, there was attested a Wise One, sometimes known, as in the myth of the great hero Gilgamesh, as Atrahasis or Uta-na-ishtim, “He who found life.” Variants of that name appear later possibly as Ulysses, even down to the venerated Islamic sage, Al-Khidr, who guarded the Fountain of Life and is supposedly buried on the Golan Heights where a tributary of the Jordan river gushes from a rock. So many names are known, all flying about, whether real names or merely epithets cannot be known. The point is, there revealed here the notes to the rich libraries of texts and authors from as far back as the 3rd Millennium, or 5000 years ago.

Many are the Flood stories, and modern digs have found evidence in strata of repeated inundations at various times in widely separated ancient cities; none much different from others, and nothing in the Third Millennium as catastrophic as was once posited by Archbishop Usher, who pinpointed the Bible’s rising of the waters to 2349 BC. In other words, calculating chronology according to the highly schematic counting of the Pentateuch was a vain absurdity. However, before the Flood of Genesis 6, there is the Mesopotamian earliest “history” of the Creation and the Gods, where we find a mother goddess, Mami, who in collaboration with Ea, a wise god, made men from mud infused with the blood of a slain god, intending to relieve the nagging complaints of the other gods objecting to their life condemned to hard work, ditching and digging, planting and reaping, building waterworks and cities. Mankind was in short fashioned to toil in their stead. What its makers overlooked, or took for granted as natural, was their having neglected to include death as the human lot. Immortality turned out to be a grievous error. The problem facing the Makers was over-population. The world was becoming itself unsustainable; overrun by people, born daily, never aging and overcrowding the earth. The solution was evident: plagues were sent, famines returned regularly, and drowning floods.

The epic of Gilgamesh, though told here prosaically, as most translations of archaic texts by scholars are, ends with the tragic institution of death as the normal end of all that lives. It was also accompanied by the gods resorting to infant and child mortality. Gilgamesh himself makes a last attempt to retrieve the cure for death: the coral of life deep beneath the sea, a perilous dive into oblivion. The more or less complete narrations from Creation and after accompanying the Gilgamesh epic provide dramas of friendship, hatred, war, sacrifice and communion with the mysterious ones above, and love, the main themes of literature ever since. Strange as that ancient world’s “psychology” may appear, the doings of its people are replete with humor, pathos, and tragedy. The bas reliefs of its kings, the powerful bodies of heroes still to be seen on walls retrieved from Assyria and Babylonia, are superhuman: proud, boastful and cruel. The tales that were told of their doings were not childish, but the poetry that arises from the everyday, in which existence, birth and death and achievement and failure are recited according to meaningful patterns, and travel as familiar templates. In them we vicariously enact their experience, and through them discern faintly our own individual recognition of our self as turned through suffering and tragedy towards a sense of the innate glory of existence.

That it was so for the doings of Gilgamesh, his relation to his friend and the daemon of the Goddess Mother, Sister, and Wife, and told as such five thousand years ago and more, is a fine thing, a reminder of the authentic, immanent power of imagination. MYTHS FROM MESOPOTAMIA might appear at first to the reader as dry and low-keyed Yet even if the translator is modestly, that is prosaic in presenting the lines of cuneiform characters in a sort of factual English, her work is throughout carefully written and fully annotated, the essential matter, the nine/tenths of many decades of scholarly lucubration. It is metaphrase we read, and a skilled maker of poems could render them more vividly as poems. Nevertheless though it lies on the page as if below the surface of the stories made long ago from innumerable folk tales — it all moves one, and not only because so much effort has gone into their recovery from the dust of Mesopotamia. The reader will come away not only informed by Stefanie Dalley’s thorough notation but a fine sense that no slouches were they, those men and women, gods and demon presences who lived so vividly, the forerunners lost for millennia and now recognizably the ancestors of a personage we call Homer.

As for Noah and his Ark? Before him, even the epic of Gilgamesh incorporated and revisited the Flood story in order to set a line in time, after which the gods revoked our pristine and primordial immortality. Before the Flood the real Seven sages lived who conveyed to mankind the arts and technology of civilization known only to the gods. From that ancient conception it will be seen that we are of course all Noahides, the new people: mortal and imperfect, survivors condemned to a life of work and darkness marked and marred by death; yet at least able to remember, perhaps only in our thoughts, what lies in darkness below, and what’s hidden in blinding light above. What for that matter would be the point were there to be found the ruins of his Ark lost on a high ledge of Ararat? Especially, one wonders, as the globe warms and the seas rise, is there possibly a vessel to be built to save some DNA samples of terrestrial life? Perhaps even seeds synthesized in the Genomics labs? Myth is an interpretation of reality, or was. Today we have 3-D fantasies of Starships headed away where? Pathetic indeed. But the myths of Mesopotamia are a bracing tonic. I recommend them, if no more reason than that they may block any temptation to be conned out of our savings for that coming endless rainy day.

Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA

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