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Robin Yassin-Kassab: Our Shared Godstuff

November 9, 2009

By **Robin Yassin-Kassab**

From a Muslim perspective, I’m used to seeing Judaism, Christianity and Islam as episodes within the same religion (which is not to deny their differences) – a series of revelations emanating from the same cultural locus. But since so many of the Abrahamic stories are inherited from earlier civilizations, even from the very first to write down stories, it may be that my definition of one religion, or at least one civilization, should expand to include the earliest myths. Stories so early that we can reasonably guess their roots reach deep into our pre-civilized hunter-gatherer past.

Myth doesn’t mean untruth any more than a great novel does. Myth is heightened truth. A myth is perhaps more ‘true’ than reality because reality unfiltered is unstructured and unexplained. The fact that God uses human myths to talk to humans need not perturb the religious. “wa tilka al-amthal nadribuha lil-nas la’alahum yatafakiroon,” says the Qur’an. “We rehearse these parables to people in order that they may think.” From a religious perspective, the rehearsal of myths in sacred text is proof of God’s understanding of human minds. And where do the myths arise from anyway? From unforgotten events, and from us, from our shared Godstuff.

As Genesis has Adam created in the image of God, so in the Epic of Gilgamesh Enkidu is created from clay “in the image of Anu,” who is the supreme god, the lord of the sky. The word ‘Eden’ is a Sumerian word, meaning ‘open country’. The strange detail in Genesis of Eve being created from Adam’s rib is perhaps prefigured in a Sumerian myth which sees a hero dismembered and then put back together by a group of deities, one deity for each part of the body, including “the lady of the rib.”

Although no archeological evidence has been found of a flood which destroyed all of settled Mesopotamia, smaller floods of the Tigris and Euphrates which inundated key cities were common, and it is from Mesopotamia that the flood story originates. The Noah figure is Ut-Napishtim, who is told by the water goddess Ea to take “the seed of all living creatures” into a ship built according to her specifications. After days and nights of floating, the ark lands on a mountain top, but all around is water. Ut-Napishtim sends out a dove, a swallow, and finally a raven, which finds land. Ut-Napishtim is awarded not prophethood but immortality, the only human to win this prize.

Myth doesn’t mean untruth any more than a great novel does. Myth is heightened truth.

As in the Genesis account, the gods send devastating floods because they are tired of humanity. But while it is human immorality that upsets the Abrahamic God, what annoys the Sumerian pantheon is simply human noise:

… the people multiplied

The earth was bellowing like a bull

The gods were distressed with their uproar (from “Atrahasis”)

The Sumerian flood seems like a cure for population explosion, and when the gods relent they condition their mercy with a series of contraceptive measures:

Let there be among the people bearing women and barren women

Let there be among the people a Pashittu-demon

Let it seize the baby from the mother’s lap

This myth strikes me as particularly resonant for today, when human beings number six and a half billion and environmentalists predict catastrophic flooding as a result of human-provoked global warming.

And here are the mythical origins of King Sargon of Akkad. His mother “set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me in the river which rose not over me.” The baby was found by a royal gardener, who brought him up until “the goddess Ishtar fell in love with me. Thereafter I exercised royal power.” We are of course reminded of Moses, who was also found by a royal household after his mother abandoned him to the river, and who, like Sargon, was destined to lead a nation and commune with the divine. And also, as stories ripple into each other, of the Egyptian underworld god Osiris. Set locks Osiris in a box and floats him down the river to the sea. The box is caught in the branches of a tree, allowing Osiris to be found and rescued by his wife Isis. (In the next episode Set cuts Osiris into 14 pieces and buries each piece separately. Isis gathers the pieces and puts Osiris back together. Does this echo the ‘lady of the rib’ mentioned above?)

Some of the Code of Hammurabi looks a lot like Judaic law, and some looks like Sharia.

There are endless linguistic similarities with contemporary Arabic. The Assyrian sun god was called Shamash (and ‘sun’ in Arabic is ‘shams’). Levantine months like Tishreen and Temmuz are inherited from ancient Mesopotamia. Temmuz is Dumuzi or Adonis – the shepherd god who dies in autumn and is resurrected in the spring, a source for the risen Christ figure (the mud-red flow of the Syrian Orontes – al-‘Asi – was once thought to be Dumuzi’s redemptive blood, anticipating the Christblood-wine of the Catholic mass). In Akkadian, ‘bait-il’ means house of the gods, and ‘bab-il’ (Babil – Babylon) means gate of the gods. Arabic speakers won’t need my translation.

Even the architecture of the excavated section of Ur resembles an Arab Old City, with alleyways and enclosed courtyards, woodwork and brickwork.

And between the ancient and the contemporary there are intriguing reversals – which are not entirely reversals, if you think about them.

The Akkadian ‘Saturday’ – ‘sabbatu’ – was not what we think of as a sabbath, but a day of ill omen. (Like the Muslims, the Akkadians had a lunar calendar, and their day began in the evening).

The temple prostitute brought to tame the Gilgamesh epic’s Enkidu is called ‘harimtu’. In pre-prophetic times ‘haram’ meant devoted to the gods and so taboo for secular use.

Enkidu’s taming by woman, his eating of human food, has parallels with the expulsion from Eden. Once he’s made love to a woman, he loses his wildness and connection to nature.

“But the gazelles saw him and ran,

The wild beasts saw him and ran.”

In “Gilgamesh”, this loss is offset by a greater gain: the transition from nature to culture, to agriculture and cities and writing – all the basics of civilization which were first achieved in southern Iraq. But by the time the book of Genesis is written, the wild, hunter-gathering past looks like Eden, the open land, and its loss is entirely negative. It has become the fall.

These parallels and echoes serve to expand my sense of awe and wonder when I face our key texts. They certainly don’t invalidate religious texts, but they should scare anyone away from simplistic or literalist readings.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of a novel called The Road from Damascus, published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, and co-editor of www.pulsemedia.org. His personal blog is www.qunfuz.com.

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One comment for Robin Yassin-Kassab: Our Shared Godstuff

  1. Comment by Sean Rhoades on November 16, 2009 at 1:07 am

    The way I view it, is this: Noah was given information, about certain prophecies, and committed them to memory, as well as some of the history of events from before and after the flood. He taught these stories to his three sons, who re-populated the earth. As time went by these stories became corrupted, names changed, additions were added. This corruption likely occurred after the Almighty decided to divide up the population by giving them different languages. Those who could understand what others said, flocked together, and moved away from those whom they could not understand. The prophecies and history were remembered, but names were changed, and perhaps details were added, while others were forgotten. It is likely there were also laws given, that some remembered and obeyed and others forgot, or knew but disobeyed. Abram, was likely one of those who obeyed them. In fact Shem was alive during the life of Abram, so he could keep the history fresh as long as he was alive. It is very likely that Israel, taught many of these laws and prophecies to the Egyptians, as they at one time had a very powerful influence in Egypt, and that influence was mixed into the culture of Egypt. Just like today, our laws and beliefs are very much influenced by a man who is of the Tribe of Judah, a son of David, namely Jesus Christ. Although Jesus is not with us in a direct way, his influence lives on in our societies. Similarly although Joseph’s bones were all that were left in Egypt after he died, some three hundred years later Joseph was really still there, because his influence remained. When Moses entered into the picture, he was given a very accurate yet terse written record of the past events, namely Genesis, and was given new laws upon the laws they had, and kept the history during their time in the wilderness. From then on, things were kept pretty accurate up until now. So, yes the Bible is a myth(see definition part 1a, below), and a very accurate one at that. The other myths from non-Biblical cultures, although silly in some places and in parallel to the Bible in others should not scare us away from believing what the Bible has to say is true history, but should help authenticate what is written therein, even in the so called New Testament, where they make mention of some very interesting parallels to the stories of the life of Jesus Christ.

    Myth 1:a traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.

    2: an exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing

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