×
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Devdutt Pattanaik | Legacy of those denied success by heartless gods

Devdutt Pattanaik | Legacy of those denied success by heartless gods

It appears as if Sumerian myths are talking about contemporary issues of how the elites deny opportunity to those who they exploit, thus maintaining the status quo

Follow Us :

Last Updated : 10 July 2024, 06:36 IST
Comments

This is a story from Sumerian mythology. Sumer is a region in southern Iraq where the world's first cities were established around 3500 BC. At one time, the eagle and serpents were friends until the serpent saw the eagle eating its baby. Furious, it attacked and poisoned the eagle. A king called Etana rescued the eagle. In exchange, the eagle promised to carry Etana to the paradise of the gods above the skies, where Etana could get the herb of life. With this herb, he could father a son as great as the gods. However, as the eagle flew towards the sky, Etana looked downwards at the Earth, and saw it getting smaller and smaller. This made him dizzy, and he fell to the ground. As a result, Etana did not get the magical herb, and did not produce the great son who would be as great as the gods.

In the famous great epic of Gilgamesh, the hero is told he can have the herb of immortality if he can stay awake for seven days. He tries but falls asleep almost instantly. Then there is the story of Adapa, a king who breaks the wing of the south wind, which stops the wind from blowing. Adapa is summoned by Anu, the god of sky, to answer for his crime. On his way, Adapa encounters his city-god Enki who warns Adapa not to drink ‘the waters of death’ Anu will offer him. Impressed by Adapa, Anu offers a sip of ‘the waters of immortality.’ But Adapa refuses the drink. He returns to Earth, unaware he lost a chance to be like the gods.

Sumerian myths constantly speak of heroes trying to be like the gods, or travelling to the realms of the gods, but then failing in the enterprise. They never become gods. They stay human. Gods want humans to be fragile and insecure so that they remain loyal and obedient. Gods create humans to labour so that they can live in luxury. It seems almost as if Sumerian myths are talking about contemporary issues of how the elites deny opportunity to those who they exploit, thus maintaining the status quo.

In 500 BC, the tribes of Israel were exiled to Babylon where they encountered Sumerian stories for the first time. These eventually made it into Jewish mythology. While Sumerian myths were polytheistic, Jewish myths were monotheistic. Despite this major difference, many motifs and ideas prevailed. The one true god, Yahweh, warns Adam and Eve, the first humans, not to eat the Forbidden Fruit, but they do so anyway, encouraged by the serpent, the Devil. Here Enki is replaced by the Devil. While Adapa refuses the drink, Adam and Eve eat what is forbidden to them. Human choice, and free will, are established as the reason for human mortality.

Jewish mythology also tells the story of how King Nimrod tries to build the Tower of Babel to reach the realm of the gods in the sky, but Yahweh prevents its rise by making humans speak in different tongues. Thus, human aspiration is thwarted. Like Etana they will not be able to rise. They will fall. Humans must live their life obeying, not aspiring. So, it was in Sumer. So, it would be later cultures of the Middle East. Submission to a higher authority, that represents a supernatural force.

Like Sumerians, Jewish lore exhorts that humans should submit to authority, follow laws, and be rewarded for loyalty. The story of Noah's ark can be traced to the Sumerian story of Ut-Napishtim, who survived with his family on a reed boat while the world was consumed by a flood. The Sumerian gods had caused the flooding as they were irritated by the noise created by chattering humans.

In Persian and Arabic versions of this tale, cities like Ad and Thamud were destroyed by sandstorms and earthquakes, because the people did not respect Allah’s commandments. Destruction of cities like Sodom and Gomorrah happens because god punishes those who disobey. Middle Eastern mythology has deep violent roots. Does that explain its contemporary politics? Contemporary Iranian cinema relishes the idea of the tragic hero. Are they carrying forward the legacy of poets who mourn for Etana and Adapa and Gilgamesh, those who were denied success by the heartless obedience-demanding gods?

As per Islamic lore, Prophet Muhammad flew on a steed to the highest heaven where he encountered prophets who came before, and angels, and finally God. He flew in one night from Mecca to Jerusalem to heaven. For believers, this is a historical event which justifies the Muslim claim over Jerusalem. But can we argue that this story is based on ancient stories of Sumerian kings who flew towards the realm of the gods, a journey that taught them about human frailty, and the dangers of excessive ambition?

(Devdutt Pattanaik is the author of more than 50 books on mythology. X: @devduttmyth.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

ADVERTISEMENT

Follow us on :

Follow Us

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT