Monday, March 26, 2007

The Flood

The great Mesopotamian epic about Gilgamesh contains an account of the Flood that strongly resembles the biblical account in Genesis, although divine caprice, not human wickedness, brings on the disaster. Here, Utnapashtim, the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah, tells his story to the hero Gilgamesh.

In those days the world teemed, the people multi­plied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamor. Enlil heard the clamor and said to the gods in council, “the up­roar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind. A Cuneiform Tablet. This fragment of the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh from Ashurbanipal’s great library at Nineveh is a superb example of cuneiform text.Enlil did this, but Ea [the god of the waters] because of his oath warned me in a dream . . . “tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive . . . then take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures . . .” [After Utnapashtim did this] for six days and six nights the winds blew, torrent and tempest and flood overwhelmed the world, tempest and flood raged together like warring hosts. When the sev­enth day dawned the storm from the south sub­sided, the sea grew calm, the flood was stilled; I looked at the face of the world and there was si­lence, all mankind was turned to clay. The surface of the sea stretched as flat as a rooftop; I opened a hatch and the light fell on my face.. . . I looked forland in vain, but fourteen leagues distant there ap­peared a mountain, and there the boat grounded; on the mountain of Nisir the boat held fast. .. . When the seventh day dawned I loosed a dove and let her go. She flew away, but finding no rest­ing place she returned. Then I loosed a swallow, and she flew away but finding no resting place she returned. I loosed a raven, she saw that the waters had retreated, she ate, she flew around, she cawed, and she did not come back. Then I threw every­thing open to the four winds, I made a sacrifice and poured out a libation on the mountain top. The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. N.K. Sandars. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth, England. Penguin Classics, 1964. An organized priesthood served in the great raised temple or ziggurat that dominated the town. The zig­gurat was a stepped pyramidal tower dedicated to the god or goddess who was the patron of the city. The earliest examples were built of packed earth. After about 2000 B.C. most were constructed on a foundation of imported stone and decorated with glazed tiles. The temple and its priests were supported by extensive landholdings. Other large tracts were owned by the royal family and its retainers. Sumerian kings were likely at first war chiefs whose powers became heredi­tary as their responsibilities for the distribution of goods and labor grew. Like chiefs in other societies, they stood at the center of a system of clientage that involved their families and their servants as well as offi­cials, commoners, and probably priests. Clientage is best defined as a system of mutual de­pendency in which a powerful individual protects the interests of others in return for their political or eco­nomic support. With or without legal sanction, client­age is the basic form of social organization in many cultures and was destined to become a powerful force in the history of the West. In Sumer, clients formed a separate class of free individuals who were given the use of small parcels of land in return for labor and a share of their produce. Their patrons—kings, noble of­ficials, or temple priests—retained title to the land and a compelling hold on their client’s political loyalties. The cities were therefore ruled by a relatively small group. Clients had full rights as citizens, but they could not be expected to vote against those who controlled their economic lives. The rest of the land was owned by private families that were apparently extended, multigenerational, and organized on patriarchal lines. Though rarely rich, these freeholders enjoyed full civil rights and partici­pated in the city’s representative assembly. The greatest threat to their independence was debt, which could lead to enslavement. Other slaves were sometimes ac­quired for the temple or palace through war, but Sumer was not a slave-based economy. The organization of trade, like that of agriculture, reflected this social struc­ture. For centuries Sumerian business was based on the extended family or what would today be called family corporations. Some firms ran caravans to every part of the Middle East or shipped goods by sea via the Persian Gulf. They exported textiles, copper implements, and other products of Mesopotamian craftsmanship and im­ported wood, stone, copper ingots, and precious met­als. Iron and steel were as yet unknown. Later, in the time of Hammurabi, Babylonian rulers attempted to bring some of these trading concerns under govern­ment regulation.

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