Sumerian Mythology – Chapters 4-5

The Creation of Various Animals and the Arguments They Shortly Had

It’s clear from the text that complaints about birds have not changed much in substance since the time of the Sumerians. These debates between metonymically named gods of nature and sustenance first reminded me of the Native American animal origin myths I have heard — though these were all told to me in the classroom as a child, undoubtedly with many errors and losses of nuance. In opposed to those stories, though, there is no ‘trick’ or great game which is played upon one natural force by the other so as to create the status quo. Instead, the arguing forces launch into extended rants for paragraphs at a time, barraging each other with insults like structured rounds of a rap battle while the other one grits her teeth and plans a rebuttal.

As structured as these discourses might be in form, they’re certainly not built on a foundation of logical principles. They’re petty, rude, and fully human in the way that any small weakness is exploited and put on display for the sake of gaining the emotional upper hand. Wit is certainly in play, but it’s a boxer-like brute force of endurance that seems to be key as the bouts drag on. Of course, the arguments come to both good and bad ends, each one a lesson in and of itself. For Sheep and Grain, a drunken quarrel is put to rest but perspective regained, and the two sisters agree from then on to be happily equal. For Fish and Bird, the argument escalates into a murderous blood feud, becoming so bitter that even Enki’s intervention only hastens the demise of both at the hands of the gods.

The exploration of the powers of the gods is also very interesting to watch. They clearly lack omnipotence, as there are things which they do not know and are forced to discover or invent. Their physical powers must also be limited, as Enlil is forced to ‘borrow’ days from winter so as to create the growing season of summer. This stands in some ways in contrast to the idea that all laws of nature were created by the gods at the start of time, though perhaps these laws have simply become more rigid as the universe has matured — much like the laws of physics in our own society’s origin story.

In the end of the story of the seasons, Summer’s maturity and humility stands in contrast to Bird and Fish’s, and highlights the Sumerian of the ‘good outcome’ as being brought about by the ability of those involved to be both humble losers and magnanimous winners.

The Challenge between Enki and Nammu

Here again, we see the laws of the world being created by the gods, along with rationale for why they ought to be. It’s laws of society, not physics, however, that are addressed at the start of this tale. The narrator explains a world without gender and class roles, as humans were before the start of their society, and characterizes such a world as not necessarily ‘evil’ but most certainly ‘difficult’ and ‘needlessly confusing.’ Of course, those very same striated class roles are the cause of the discontent between the upper and lower gods, as the unfair distribution of labor can be a chief source of conflict in even the most cooperative society. Humans lessened the pressure of the lower gods’ revolt, but now their needs have again reached a tipping point and more action must be taken.

Of course, the creation of humans previously required the sacrifice of poor Gestu-e in order to generate sapient life, and no other god is as eager as he (possibly) was to take on that burden. So, Enki thinks on this, and as often happens when one must solve an unsolvable problem he decides to cut some corners. He devises a way to build humans without needing to sacrifice a life — focused research to limit the number of lives that must be spent in the pursuit of progress. As ‘disruptive’ products so often do, these discount humans come at a cost — every one of them is born with varying degrees of handicap and disability.

It’s also around this time that the narrator mentions ‘ancient grains,’ then notes that they were of course at that time just called ‘grains’ — which I’m pretty sure is the first joke present in the text so far. This and other elements, such as side-by-side running storylines or dramatic irony, are indicative of the increasing complexity of the storytelling which develops quite elegantly with each successive tale.

I was also somewhat shocked to see that at the banquet Nammu declines to drink, stating explicitly that it is because she is with child. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard it said more than once in my life that fetal alcohol syndrome was first diagnosed in the 1960s, which just serves to show how criminally we underestimate the knowledge and understanding of the ancient peoples.

As the tale goes on, its purpose becomes clear — to explain the existence of disabled people, and impress quite seriously upon Sumerian society that they are to be given special and honored roles according to the limits of their abilities. The man with twisted legs, for example, serves as a musician, while the woman who is infertile may serve as handmaiden in the palace. What’s also incredibly surprising to me is the presentation of the ‘eunuch’ as a catch-all term for those who are intersex, or otherwise not traditionally identifiable as male or female. This is a far cry from the contemporary idea of the Game of Thrones eunuch, deliberately gelded to serve as guard to a princess or a queen.

The storyteller takes great pains to make sure that this message on the strength of human diversity is not misunderstood, having the gods explicitly refer to these disabled humans as a “wondrous good” who must be cared for by the people if they cannot care for themselves. Of course, there is sorrow for them, especially on the part of Nammu when she sees that the last born human is a complete invalid.

In reading this, I’m reminded of something I heard from an anthropologist years ago, when she told me that the earliest signs of human society were indications of healing on broken pre-hominid leg bones — something that could not have happened unless others had cared for the creature while it recovered from its injury. In this way, she defined society as the process of caring for those who need care. Reading this portion of the text, I’m sure the Sumerians might agree.