Marcella Kampman

Author of Inanna, Goddess of Love: Great Myths and Legends from Sumer

Ancient History – Who Were The Sumerians?

Description: Literature uses symbolism as a means of making the unfamiliar familiar. Myths and legends from Sumer, written approximately 5000 years ago, are filled with metaphors, allegory, and symbolism. Not only are these stories the oldest known stories in recorded history, but they are stories that share with us historical information on how the ancient Sumerians lived, what they believed, but more importantly, what was their enduring legacy. In studying the stories left us by the ancient Sumerians, who lived in the region known as Mesopotamia, we will not only learn about these far distant peoples, but we will also discover much about ourselves – how we became the people we are today.

Goals: The overall goal of these lesson plans is for students to gain an appreciation and interest in history, in ancient history in particular, through the medium of myth as well as to develop an enjoyment for literature from cultures different from their own.

Objectives: in general, benefits realized from this set of lessons will be:

  1. To broaden students’ reading horizons along with their vocabulary skills.
  1. To allow students to become familiar with devices such as metaphors, similes, allegory, and personification.
  2. To give students a greater understanding of moral issues and central themes.
  3. To allow students to better understand mythology; to explore a myth’s deeper purpose as well as its meaning in the context of a given culture.
  4. To gain knowledge of other cultures. Not only will they learn about the differences between cultures, but in the course of their reading they will also discover that there are very basic yet important similarities that we share with people everywhere.
  5. To permit students to explore their own creativity by letting them express their own ideas in writing.
  6. And ultimately to encourage students to engage in critical thinking.

Materials:

  1. Inanna, Goddess of Love: Great Myths & Legends from Sumer by Marcella Kampman is the main resource to be used throughout. To purchase a copy of this book, please check out my Web Store on the above menu.
  1. A map of current-day Middle East from the Persian Gulf up to the Black Sea, as well as a map showing the original borders of Ancient Mesopotamia.  
  2. Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History by William Ryan and Walter C. Pitman would be useful for its scientific analysis.
Procedure:
  1. Overheads of a current map of the Middle East from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea as well as a map of Ancient Mesopotamia, along with images used throughout the book, Inanna, Goddess of Love, may be useful to have on hand.
  2. Begin with a general description of Ancient Mesopotamia by reading the first chapter from Inanna, Goddess of Love titled “The Land Between the Rivers”, from pages 1 -11.
  3. Discuss what life must have been like during those ancient times. Ask the students what was different from what our lives are like now and what would have been the same. Were these people, who lived so long ago, really all that different from who we are today? Point out that the Sumerians just wanted to live their lives comfortably, providing their families with enough food and shelter to allow them to have free time to indulge in arts and crafts and inventions and to provide education and schooling for their young so that they in turn could have an even better life – not much different from us at all.
  4. Discuss the inventions the Sumerians are credited with creating, from the wheel to irrigation. Where would we be today without those inventions? Not only did they invent writing, but they also invented mathematics. Discuss the importance of all these inventions combined, which resulted in what we call ‘civilization.’
  5. Mesopotamia is considered to be the ‘cradle of civilization.’ What does this mean? How did their knowledge and early forms of technology spread to other ancient cultures? How did they influence their neighbours? Why is interaction with other peoples and cultures, through trade, and even war, so important for a society to grow?
  6. Read the introduction from Inanna, Goddess of Love titled “The Gods and Their Myths” on page 12 out loud.
  7. Discuss what a myth is and how is it different from a legend. Myths are stories about the gods, while legends are stories about mankind, and yet both are rich with symbolism. In Inanna, Goddess of Love, the myths are filled with a pantheon of gods who, for the most part, are personifications of nature or natural phenomenon. For example, to the early Mesopotamians sunlight meant more than simple light and warmth. Darkness fled before the rising of the sun. To the ancients, it would logically follow that the sun would shed its all-knowing, all-seeing light on the world below to uncover wrongdoing and administer justice. Therefore Utu, the Sun God, was also known as the God of Justice. He became the personification of a force of nature, the sun’s light, and the shedding of light on dark deeds became the metaphor for administering justice. While a legend, on the other hand, is a story about a man usually going on a journey, usually of self-discovery. For example, although the character of Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh, seems to be about one man’s quest for immortality, it is more of a story about growing up, maturing, accepting responsibility, and ultimately in leaving behind an enduring legacy. Even though there are gods featured in these stories, it is not so much a myth about the gods, but rather, it is a collection of legends about what it is to be a man living in a man’s world.

  8. Read some of the myths from Inanna, Goddess of Love, in particular “The Queen of the Dead”, pages 27-34, and “The Lord of the Underworld”, pages 106-118. Discuss the commentaries after each story. How do these myths explain the Sumerians’ concept of life and death? These stories also show how the Sumerians actually lived, within a hierarchy and class system. They even tell how the gods (personified as people) ate and dressed and interacted with one another. Note how the hierarchy of the gods mirrored that of the people, as if one were the model for the other.

Assessment:

These assessments will all be age dependant. The teacher will know best how to grade the class. Class assignments will be evaluated in the following areas:
  1. For younger students, the teacher can read a story a day and follow each reading with a discussion to encourage an understanding of the meaning of the story. After each story there is a brief explanation of the myth’s meaning and purpose, which the teacher can use to facilitate discussion and understanding. Have the students find five words in each story about which they are unsure and look up their meanings. Write the definitions down. Then, using these words, have them creatively write their own sentences using these new words.
  2. For older students, the teacher may assign certain myths from Inanna, Goddess of Love, such as “In The First Days” pages 14-26, and “The Warrior King”, pages 77-89. From such myths we can learn more about the Sumerian culture, for we can read here what the Sumerians felt was important, like justice, as shown in the first story when Enlil is banished for forcing Ninlil; and responsibility, as shown in the second story when Ninurta stops being a show-off and goes to the rescue of the starving people and thereby being declared their rightful king. Stress the importance of symbolism in these myths and legends. Virtually everything in the stories has more than one meaning as the stories of the ancients were meant to work on many different levels. For instance, the fact that people (as personified by the gods) were starving might suggest the fragility of the economy or the environment in those early times in Mesopotamia.

9.  For an even more in-depth study of the factual information from the book Inanna, Goddess of Love presented in the introduction “The Land Between the Rivers” the teacher may use this section to introduce the subject of geography. This section shows where the Sumerians originally lived, from page 1 it states “…an area situated south of the Black Sea in the southern half of modern day Iraq. …and reached from modern day Baghdad to the Persian Gulf.” Discuss with the students the significance of what is happening today in Iraq. Why is this land such a contested area? For thousands of years this land has been fought over. Is it so very rich in resources? Or perhaps its strategic location for trade plays an important role in its history? What is so important about Iraq (and Mesopotamia) today? How can we learn from the past to understand the present and possibly even anticipate what may happen in that region in the future?

10. To give the students an understanding of how geology works to uncover the facts behind an event such as a flood, read pages 1-2 from the introduction of Inanna, Goddess of Love titled “The Land Between the Rivers” especially the part about the Black Sea flood. For further information, listen to Reading Two, which are passages taken from pages 143-151 from Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History, and which tell of the scientific information behind the possibility of such a flood occurring. Discuss the science used to piece together the facts of such a tremendous flood. Discuss how the fascinating research from a variety of sources, from archaeology to anthropology and geology to Assyriology, have combined to bring us an understanding of such an ancient culture.