Sunday, August 05, 2012

First Friday Lecture

Mythology in the Cradle 
of Civilization

"Many of us recognize the classical mythology of Greek and Roman civilizations, but the battling gods of Mesopotamia are less known. One reason for this “ignorance” of Mesopotamian myth is the traditional view of the Bible in Western civilization, which holds that monotheism superseded the mythology of the Ancient Near East. This lecture questions this traditional view by looking at select texts from Mesopotamia and the Bible, to see how some Biblical passages depend on the mythological worldview of Mesopotamia. In particular, this lecture will focus on the mythic battle among the gods in Mesopotamian texts and in the Bible."  -  from the Introduction to the Lecture

"'It is Gilgamesh who will venture into the Forest.'
The old men said: 'Though you are strongest of all,
do not put all your trust in your own strength.
Let Enkidu, who knows the way to the Forest,
who knows the wilderness, let him go first.
Enkidu the companion who will not forsake you."
Epic of Gilgamesh*

The Epic of Gilgamesh has long been a favorite of mine but my horizons, with regard to the myths of ancient Mesopotamia, were expanded considerably by the infectious passion of Stephen Hall in his lecture on "Mythology in the Cradle of Civilization".  The first Friday of each month the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago presents a lecture.  This past Friday Stephen Hall, Instructor in the Basic Program, was the presenter.
He began by defining the "Cradle of Civilization" as that area from the Persian Gulf surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and arcing to the west ending up in what is today Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.  Also known as "the fertile crescent", this area has been the cradle of civilization as defined by urban societies since before 3000 B.C.  It is only in the twentieth century that a renaissance in Middle Eastern studies has led to an expansion and deepening of our knowledge of the art, architecture, and above all, the texts that delineate the myths of the cultures of this region.  Even our understanding of two of the most famous texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible, has been enhanced over the last century.
Most of us are familiar with the Bible and its presentation of a monotheistic world view.  But according to Stephen Hall this represents a synthesis of earlier myths from earlier civilizations.  These Mesopotamian civilizations were multi-ethnic and polytheistic.  The Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian pantheon of gods were not unlike those in the more familiar pantheon of gods of Greece and Rome that are part of the heritage of Western Civilization.  However, they preceded the Greek gods by millenniums.  Stephen Hall continued to discuss the nature of mythology.  What are myths -- are they just stories of gods?  He presented the classical view that there was a distinction between mythos and logos:  Mythos is best represented by the "wonders" in the Histories of Herodotus who weaves tales that seem more miraculous than historical to our modern ears;  while Logos is best represented by the History of the Peloponnesian Wars of Thucydides who claimed to adhere to real events in the presentation of history.
There is also the example of the Epic of Gilgamesh that presents mythos in its earliest form.  Here we have the story of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu whose relationship seems to mirror the clash between urban civilization and Nature with the wild side of Enkidu tamed much as the urban societies tamed Nature and ruled over the surrounding agricultural groups.  All of this background in myth was shown to be incorporated in the Bible through the examples of the beginning of Genesis, and selected other passages (notably Psalms, 74, 77, and 89).  It was in these passages, when read closely (and enhanced by Stephen Hall's knowledge of the original Hebrew text), that you could begin to see how aspects of the earlier Mesopotamian myths were incorporated and subsumed into the Bible.  Among these was a battle among the gods with Yahweh of the Bible a decisive victor.  The result of this exegesis was revelatory for me regarding the meaning and importance of myths that can be identified with the "Cradle of Civilization"

* Gilgamesh : A New Rendering in English Verse by David Ferry. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992

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