Social, Economic, Political, and Religious Differences
between Ancient Greece and Mesopotamia
(A Reference to Ancient Literature)
The favorable trade climate in the eastern portion of the Mediterranean Sea resulted primarily to the development of early civilizations.
These early civilizations had complex socio-political systems which were derived from early forms of religious substructures. The worship of “petty gods” (gods which assumed the various characters of nature) was considered a complement of social order and tranquility. To appease the gods was tantamount (equal) to reinforcing (maintaining) laws and customs enacted by the king-priests.
These laws and customs reflected the values and aspirations (dreams) of a group of people. Although the early civilizations had more or less the same origin, the impact of invasions, intercultural exchanges, and generally trade resulted to different cultural configurations (systems). These configurations were generally expressed in ancient literature. The propensity of literary revelation (the message of ancient forms of literatures) was derived from different historical experiences of early civilizations. In this paper, we shall examine the major differences of ancient Mesopotamia and Greece by analyzing early literary works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, and the Hesiods Theogony.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient epic poem from Mesopotamia. It is considered among the earliest known literary works (which survived to the 21st century). Generally, the epic is about the mythological hero-king Gilgamesh (who ruled a significant portion of Mesopotamia around 2700 B.C.) who was essentially disheartened and distracted by his rule. The epic is about the adventure and friendship of king Gilgamesh and Enkidu (half man and half animal). The latter usually lived with the animals in the forests (believed to be situated in the Zagros Mountains). One day, a hunter discovered him and sent a temple prostitute to tame him in the forests. During that time, women and sex were considered “taming” instruments (which is essentially the same interpretation today). Enkidu slept with the woman and entered the civilized world. When Enkidu heard the excesses (bad habits) of king Gilgamesh, the former challenged him to a fight. The latter, however, was victorious in ensued the battle. After which, they became true friends and set about looking for adventure in the dangerous world of the gods.
The two decided to procure some trees from the holy cedar forest guarded by the demon named Humbaba (George 30). Humbaba was the devoted servant of Enlil, the god of earth and wind. The two fought with the monster, and with the help from the Sun God, they were able to kill him. Then, they decided to return to Uruk (an ancient city). When they returned, the goddess of love fell in love with Gilgamesh. The latter, however, ignored her love. Thus, the goddess asked her father, Anu (the god of the sky) to send the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh wrestled with the bull. They were able to kill the monster. The council of gods agreed that one of the two mortals should be punished for their blunder. The gods decided that Enkidu should die. Enkidu took the punishment and suffered from the actions of the gods. Gilgamesh became heartbroken and mourned for the loss of Enkidu (George 55).
Gilgamesh decided to find Utnapishtim (some historians refer to him as the “Mesopotamian Noah”). The gods decreed a worldwide flood (some historians hypothesized that the flood occurred only in Mesopotamia, due to the overflow of the Tigris-Euphrates River). Gilgamesh wanted to know the secrets of immortality. Utnapishtim decided to take him to Mashu, the place where the sun sets into one side of the mountain at night and rises out of the other side in the morning. The monsters guarding the mountain entrance refused to allow Gilgamesh passage, although in the end, the monsters conceded to the appeal of Gilgamesh. The god Ea told Utnapishtim to build a giant boat where the animals and his family could establish shelter for the upcoming flood. The god also told him that the gods would regret their action against humanity and would promise never again to destroy humanity. Utnapishtim was given immortality. Gilgamesh demanded the same, but eventually failed in the test given by the former (George 88). Utnapishtim’s wife, however, told Gilgamesh to procure a plant found in the northern mountains. This plant had the capacity to restore youth and beauty. One night however the serpent stole the plant while Gilgamesh was camping. Thus, the serpent, from time immemorial, is able to shed its skin: the sign of restoration.
From the tale itself, we can establish five significant conditions of early Mesopotamia. Here are as follows:
1) The ‘historic’ flood occurred in an area where different civilizations mingled (mixed). Ancient Mesopotamia was not politically or culturally in unity (not politically and culturally united). It was comprised of different and usually antagonistic (conflicting) cultural structures (systems). Thus, it can be said that the “destruction of humanity” (as noted by the effects of the flood) was really a destruction of only one portion of the civilized world. The “historic” flood in the epic was really a regional flood. This interpretation of the flood was absent in Greek mythology primarily because Greece was situated in a geographical area immune to periodic floods (periodic floods are usually absent in ancient Greece);
2) Note that the Epic of Gilgamesh became the foundational literary work of succeeding pieces of literature (in ancient Mesopotamia). Unlike the Hesiods Theogony, the Epic of Gilgamesh emphasized the power of the gods to shape nature. In Greek mythology, the gods were the offsprings of the universe (the gods did not create the world in its entirety). The gods in Mesopotamian religions (assuming different names) were the progenitors (creators) of nature. For example, Ea was not only the god of wisdom; he was the source and originator of wisdom;
3) And, unlike in ancient Greece, Mesopotamian gods were considered political symbols. Their seals were used as designations of officials, primarily by the nobility and the priest-kings. In ancient Greece, the gods were used only for divine consultation and reference for public festivities.
Analyzing the Babylonian creation story (Enuma Elish), we can also find differences on social values. Enuma Elish describes the creation of heaven and earth by the Marduk, the supreme deity. Marduk created heaven for the gods (he designated the stars as the symbols of specific gods) and the earth for men (The Enuma Elish 41). Ea, the god of wisdom, did much of the work relating to the creation of man. In the last scene of the story, the gods assembled in a heavenly mansion and solemnly affirmed the supremacy of Marduk (The Enuma Elish 41).
There are generally two social values that can be derived from the creation story. One was the position of man in the cosmos. In ancient Mesopotamia, man was the center of the cosmos. The will of the heavenly gods were directed to the benefit of man. Thus, although Mesopotamia was ravaged by the cruelties of war and famine (which significantly degraded man’s dignity), many ancient states like Babylon (during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar) and Persia respected social and religious autonomy (semi political independence) of many cultural groups in their respective territories. For example, the first king of Persia allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple of Solomon as a sign of restoration of dignity. The Persian king was believed to be an avid follower of Marduk, the chief Babylonian god. In ancient Greece, man was created by the gods to be used as instrument of sexual gratification and other excesses of the divine nature. For example, Zeus in the Iliad was heard to be shouting from heaven that women were created to satisfy his sexual needs. Such lack of modesty and morality of Greek gods were seldom found in the gods of ancient Mesopotamia.
Second, the populations of ancient Mesopotamia were highly specialized in worshipping (and most especially recognizing) their supreme gods. For some cities found in the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, the Sea god was the supreme deity. All other gods follow. The same was true for cities situated in high places (considered Enlil to be the supreme god). In ancient Greece, however, even though many cities had a special “patron” god (the based on the geographical location of the city), Zeus was recognized as the supreme deity (Homer, Book XII: URL cited).
We shall turn our analysis to the implications of ancient religious beliefs to the political structures of both ancient Mesopotamia and Greece. Ancient Greece was comprised of city-states, each having its own political structures. Athens, for example, reflected the early form of democracy. Sparta, on the other hand, was a military autocracy. The establishment of a government was primarily derived from present economic, social, and political conditions of a city-state. Religion, initially, played a little part in this political construction (the formation of political institutions like the government) primarily due to the indifference (no sense of duty to know) of ancient Greeks to the nature of the universe and the divine will.
Governments of city-states in ancient Mesopotamia were primarily the result of religious reflections of priest-kings. These reflections were generally an appeal of a people/community to the gods through their representatives on earth. Corollary (complementary) to the establishment of a common worldview was the creation of an autocratic government ruled by the priests (note that in ancient Greece, governments ruled by the priests were usually rare). Thus, it was religion that manifested itself on political structures of ancient Mesopotamia.
George, Andrew. The Epic of Gilgamesh (based from ancient tablets of the story). England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1999.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Samuel Butler. 16 November 2007 from http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.html [accessed].
The Enuma Elish (The Epic of Creation). Translated by L.W. King. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1902.
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