Essay Question #1:
Evolutions of civilizations can occur because of differences in people’s religion, culture, or geographic setting of the settlement. The relationship between the world of the gods and that of men was perceived differently by the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Hebrew ancient civilizations. This is demonstrated by the way each group viewed the process of creation. They had different thoughts on the creation of their gods, the universe and of man. This essay will discuss the relationship between humans and their gods in three different ancient civilizations: Sumerian, Egyptian and Hebrew.
The Sumerians lived in a harsh climate. They were located between two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris. The fertile crescent, as it was called, between the two rivers was prone to unpredictable flooding. This often resulted in the ruination of crops causing the people of Mesopotamia to move around in search of food. Due to these harsh conditions they perceived their gods as powerful and merciless. They believed their gods created man for the sole purpose of serving them so that the gods could rest.
The Sumerians would build large temples called Ziggurats for their gods to live in. They appointed high priests to run the community and converse with the gods. The Sumerians believed in a hierarchy of the gods which is discussed in the Akkadian Creation Myth,. The Akkadian Creation Myth would be similar to the present day Christian bible to the Sumerians. It tells about the first gods Aspu (the primordial waters under the earth) and Tiamat (the personification of the sea) and their succession by their own offspring. Their offspring were younger and stronger than the older gods. An example of this is shown in Marduk’s succession.
The Sumerians believed that the abilities they had to accomplish the things they did were given to them by their gods, things such as building the Ziggurats. However, there was pessimism in their view of their own living conditions. They felt that the condition of their civilization was not improving and would not improve in the future because of the harshness of their gods.
Another example of how the Sumerians felt about their gods came from The Epic of Gilgamesh. The gods brutally punished Enkidu, causing him death, because he aided Gilgamesh in killing the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba. This is portrayed in a quote by Anu, a Sumerian god, “Because they have killed the Bull of Heaven, and because they have killed Humbaba who guarded the cedar mountain one of the two must die”. Since Gilgamesh was part god, the gods chose to kill Enkidu, the full human. This demonstrates how merciless the Sumerians portrayed their gods.
Egyptian geography was more promising than that of the Sumerians. The land on both sides of the Nile was very fertile, due to annual flooding. The flooding was very predictable which helped the Egyptians see the universe as a well ordered system. This resulted in an early sense of nationalism among the Egyptians, which was very different from that of the Sumerian civilization.
Due to the expansive geography of Egypt, the people were very spread out. Some tribes settled into Upper Egypt and others closer to the Mediterranean Sea in Lower Egypt. Each individual tribe worshipped it’s own gods. These gods were often portrayed as animals. This suggests a close relationship between gods and nature in Egyptian life. For example, the god Thoth is portrayed as an ibis and Amon a ram with curled horns. This often resulted in the people seeing their god in every individual of the species.
Although the Egyptians had man different tribes believing in many gods they did have four main theories of creation (cosmogonies). The four main cosmogonies were: the Heliopolitan cosmogony, Memphite cosmogony, Hermopolitan cosmogony, and the Theban cosmogony. The people of the different regions of Egypt believed these. Each theory had distinct characteristics but all were somewhat similar in their basic idea of creation.
The Egyptians felt that they must keep the gods content to keep the order of the universe. They based their religious beliefs and their focus on maintaining and preserving stability. The Egyptians built huge statues of their gods and also preserved stories of them by engraving them into stone walls on pyramids of Egypt to honor them.
They had pharaohs, who were the high priests and king or ruler of the communities of Egypt. These pharaohs would be the intermediary between the gods and men. They were treated like a god on earth and given divine power over the people. It was important for the pharaohs to show they could maintain order in the universe. This was guaranteed by the pharaoh if the people did as he said. Since the pharaohs were so close to the gods the Egyptians felt they should be honored in death. Large pyramids were built to house the dead bodies of the pharaohs. Great sacrifices were made by the Egyptians to please their gods, both food offerings and the hard work of building the pyramids.
The Hebrews lived in a harsh climate of barren deserts. The land was not very fertile and so they became nomadic people similar to the Sumerians. There are many differences and many similarities in the relationships between gods and men among the Hebrews compared to Sumerian and Egyptian mythologies.
One major difference is that the Hebrews believed in one god, Yahweh. This is compared with the many gods of both the Sumerians and Egyptians. The fact that the Hebrews had two beliefs about creations is similar to the Egyptians with their four theories. This is different from the Sumerians, they only have one theory of creation (the Akkadian Creation Myth).
Both creation myths of the Hebrews start off with a god already present. This is different from the Sumerians and Egyptians telling of the creation of gods and the fact that there is more than one. The first story tells about Yahweh’s creation of the physical world, the animal world and then the creation of man. The second version of the story tells of a kind of wilderness in the beginning that comes to life when Yahweh causes it to rain. It then goes into a detailed account of the creation of man. The Hebrew’s myths differed from the Sumerians and Egyptians in that they were more time structured and followed a more cyclical process. Yahweh was not a nature god like the many gods of the Sumerians and Egyptians. He creates man to have domination over all the creatures of the earth. This is unlike the myths of the Sumerians and Egyptians. Man was not put on Earth for the sole purpose of serving gods but to be the rulers of the Earth.
The Hebrew were very devoted to their god Yahweh. They made food offerings and tried to follow the laws Yahweh set forth to live by (Ten Commandments). However, they realized that their sole purpose of existence was not to serve him. They understood that there were consequences when the rules Yahweh set forth were broken but realized Yahweh was a forgiving god. He was different from the hot tempered, merciless gods of the Sumerians and the Egyptians.
As discussed, the Sumerians had strong relationships with their gods. They perceived the gods as powerful and merciless, however they honored and respected them. They lived solely to please their gods and looked at their situation with pessimism because they were like slaves to their gods. The Egyptians saw their gods as a bit more merciful. This was concluded by them because their gods gave the universe order and did not act from impulse, as was the case with the Sumerian gods. The Hebrews had the closest relationship with their god, seeing him as forgiving and understanding. It is interesting to observe how geography, religion, and culture can affect the relationship a civilization has with their god/gods. The resulting evolution of the relationship between man and god further shaped the future of these peoples.
Henrietta McCall, Mesopotamian Myths, Texas, University of Texas Press, 1996