“Marcella Kampman’s skillfully crafted versions of the Sumerian myths, which were written down some 4000 years ago, capture the beat of the original language and allow these exciting stories to delight new generations.”
— Dr. Gwendolyn Leick, author of Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia, and The Babylonians: An Introduction.
“Marcella Kampman's tellings of ancient Mesopotamian myths are vividly rendered and faithful to the spirit of the originals.”
— Professor Andrew R. George, author of The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Books.
“Marcella Kampman skillfully brings the ancient world of myth and legend back to life in a child’s imagination through her inspiring interpretations of favorite Sumerian texts.”— Dr. William Ryan, author of Noah's Flood: the New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History.
The first stories ever told were the myths and legends from a time before time was even measured. These are the tales from ancient Sumer, the ‘Cradle of Civilization.’ Reading and understanding these myths is a way of learning about this ancient Mesopotamian culture from the inside out. Myths have always given our lives meaning, and on an intuitive level they’ve laid the foundation for our collective sense of values and ethics.
But why are the Sumerians considered so important to us today?
The answer to this lies in the translations of thousands of clay tablets that were written several millennia ago by a people who never set out to tell us their history. They simply recorded the stories of their gods and goddesses and how man was created to be the servants to these very gods. They wrote down records of their harvests for the temple priests, they made copies of their favorite proverbs, and they put down in writing their hymns and prayers and songs in praise of their gods. It’s from translating these many tablets that we’ve come to know the people who lived in the very cradle of civilization.
To the ancient Sumerians the world, and everything in and around it, was alive and had a spirit and a will of its own. If the river didn’t rise it wasn’t because there hadn’t been enough rainfall on the distant mountains. To the Sumerians, the river didn’t rise because the Spirit of the River was angry with them and refused to rise.
These stories are much more than the basic explanation of the forces of nature. At the heart of these stories are metaphors, and these metaphors touch upon the common human condition we shared, and still share, with the ancients.
In The First Days story is a creation myth. It deals with the creation of all life, and the reason behind creation. Nammu, the Great Mother Goddess of All, is alone in the Deep Abyss. Even six thousand years ago man was asking the first question, “Where did we come from?” In this story, man is trying to answer the unanswerable.
In The First Night, the second part of this myth, Enlil forces Ninlil to sleep with him. This act results in the creation of Nanna-Sîn, the Moon God. But this story is about more than the creation of the moon. This tale teaches us the meaning of right and wrong. Enlil commits a crime and must be punished. This tale shows us that the ancient Sumerians had a strict code of conduct and that adherence to these laws is what kept their culture from sinking into chaos.
The Queen of the Dead tells the story of Ereshkigal’s abduction to the Underworld. The ancient Sumerian knew that as a mere man his days were numbered; his fate, the fate of death, had been decreed by the gods when he was first created. No one who dies can ever leave this place; that’s why it’s called the Land of No Return. Just as her fate has been fixed, Ereshkigal’s new role as its queen is to ensure that no one will not try to cheat death and alter their own ultimate fates.
The Servant of the Gods shows the spiritual awakening of mankind. The change from prehistoric man to civilized man was triggered by his ability to dream and in his dawning awareness of individual self along with the insights he gained from his belief in the cosmic others — the gods of all creation, the gods of all knowledge. Many cultures have their creation myths, and many of them depict the creation of a perfect human being from clay or mud or earth by a god to be a servant to the gods.
The Bellowing Land is the first Flood story ever written. Many cultures have a flood story. The storm has a spirit, therefore the storm has decided, for whatever reason, to punish mankind. It’s up to man to discover the reason why. In this story it’s due to noise and over-population. Enlil, Lord Storm, can’t find the peace he craves; so he decides to destroy mankind in order to find peace and quiet. Enki, the God of Wisdom, doesn’t agree with the destruction of the innocent, and so he warns Utana-pishtim to build a boat and save his family.
How Inanna Tricked the God of Wisdom is a great story of how mankind received the gifts of civilization through a goddess’ cunning and cleverness. Inanna sets out to give the Tablets of Destiny to mankind so that they can improve their lot and go on to praise and worship her. The Law Book will teach man the skills he needs to develop, skills ranging from pottery making to kingship and decision-making. This knowledge will ultimately make of man a civilized being.
The Warrior King is a tale about the importance of the river to an agricultural society. But at its heart the myth is not about the forces of nature, rather, the metaphor is about responsibility. Ninurta is the God of the Spring Flood. The Demon Asag steals the river. Ninurta sets out to right this wrong. As any good leader should do, he battles evil and wins. This tale shows that not only must a king protect his people, but he must also provide for them. Only through the acceptance of his full responsibility will a king achieve true nobility.
The Saga of Inanna explains the role of the seasons. It begins with the marriage between the Goddess of Love and the God of Spring. Their marriage signifies the rebirth and reawakening of all the creative powers of spring while their union blesses the land with fertility and abundance. But then the story moves on to explain the need for compassion. Inanna dies. Without Inanna love is gone, war stalks the land, spring fails to return, and civilization teeters on the brink of chaos. Because Inanna brought compassion to Ereshkigal in the Underworld, she is given one chance to avert disaster – she must find a substitute to take her place. Inanna’s story is one of the first myths to introduce the theme of sacrifice, death, and resurrection.
The Lord of the Underworld is a story of death and dying. Even the God of War, who was born to the Underworld, shows fear in the face of death and tries to leave his proper place in the Great Below. War is shown as a mindless, glory seeking entity. When Nergal shows disrespect to the Queen of the Underworld, she in turn shows him the full range of her powers. You can run from death, even hide from death, but you can never escape from death. Nergal’s only hope is to come to terms with death and to go willingly to the Underworld, as a true warrior, when his time comes. By doing so, Nergal is rewarded with Ereshkigal’s undying love. He’s made the Lord of the Underworld and becomes its joint ruler beside its Queen.
The Shepherd King is another story about the seasons. Dumuzi symbolizes spring while his sister, Geshtinanna, personifies autumn. Inanna, on the other hand, is the metaphor for the guiding light as shown by the brilliance of the planet Venus. In order to be reborn, Inanna must sacrifice her husband, the God of Spring, whom she sends to take her place. Dumuzi’s story is another death and resurrection tale. On a deeper level, this story shows the components of love and trust and betrayal. In the Goddess of Autumn’s willingness to share her brother’s fate, we see how highly the ancient Sumerians valued ethics such as personal sacrifice and true loyalty.
And finally, in the Gilgamesh Epic, the messages and meanings of all the previous myths come full circle. Myths were told as a means of grounding people in the reality of their time. The stories about the gods taught them values and ethics. The following legends show how man learned the lessons from the gods, how man had in turn grounded his society on these very values given him by the gods.
Inanna and the Willow Tree shows us the growing role of man in nature. Gilgamesh is able to interact with the gods. He does this by battling and defeating three monstrous creatures that had taken up residence in Inanna’s holy tree. The power he wields over these mythical creatures makes him king. His first act as king is to use this holy tree to build a temple to Inanna, the Queen of Heaven and the Goddess of Love. The drum and drumstick, which Gilgamesh receives with the goddess’ blessing, are merely symbols showing that he has earned the right to rule. When he beats this metaphorical drum, the men will follow him anytime, anywhere.
The King’s Companion shows that a king must be more than a fighter; he must also be a builder and a provider. At the start of the story, Gilgamesh is a tyrant. He oppresses his people. The people pray to the gods for salvation. The arrival of Enkidu, a man from the wilds, seems to be the gods’ answer. Enkidu is as big and strong as Gilgamesh. He objects to the way the king is ruling his people and running his kingdom into the ground. Enkidu challenges Gilgamesh. He’s unable to defeat the king, but he does win his respect. This friendship becomes a turning point.
Gilgamesh and the Monster Huwawa is at first glance a rousing tale about a man fighting a monster. This story is in reality a metaphor for going to war over resources. The Monster Huwawa represents control of the trade routes. Very few trees grew in the floodplain between the two rivers in Mesopotamia. Commerce was necessary to the economy, and material success showed that one had the gods’ favor. Gilgamesh and Enkidu set off to war. After several pitched battles they defeat the Monster Huwawa. King Gilgamesh returns victorious with all the cedar he can carry and begins to earn his peoples’ love, gratitude, and respect.
The Rampage of the Bull of Heaven is yet another nature story. Inanna wishes to marry the triumphant hero Gilgamesh, but he rejects her. She convinces the Assembly of Gods to punish Gilgamesh for his defeat of Huwawa. The gods send the Bull of Heaven down to kill Gilgamesh. In this metaphor, the bull represents famine. The bull is a killing beast that manages to destroy hundreds of Gilgamesh’s best fighters. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh is credited with the people’s salvation, triumphing over the gods and their dire punishment. Gilgamesh is once again hailed as a hero and is now even more loved and respected by his people. Through his actions, he is now on the path to becoming the ideal king.
The Fate of All Men is a tale of loss and grief and despair. The gods have had enough of Gilgamesh’s arrogance, and they decide to punish him once and for all by taking away all that he holds most dear. Gilgamesh loses not only his kingship, as shown in the metaphorical loss of his drum and drumstick, but he loses his best friend to disease. What the gods have given, the gods can take away. When Gilgamesh is at his lowest, having lost his rule, he gives up. With the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh figures there’s no purpose to living. He fears that the fate of man is only to die and become a banquet for maggots. In despair, he abandons his people and his city.
The Quest for Life Everlasting is where Gilgamesh tries to cheat death. This story shows elements of nature as it explains how the lowly snake sheds its skin and apparently gets rejuvenated. On the more complex level, this story is man’s quest for immortality. Gilgamesh abandons his people and heads out into the wilds. While he’s off wandering the countryside, Gilgamesh has many strange adventures and encounters. From these he learns that he must return to his people and reclaim what he has lost. He is given hope in the form of the Plant of Heartbeat, a plant that will restore him to his youth. Despite losing the plant to the snake, Gilgamesh returns to his people rejuvenated. In the course of his adventures, he’s learned to become a better king.
The Return of the Shepherd King shows the important link between man and nature, man and god. All the previous myths and legends lead up to this one great story. At the heart of all the ancient myths there’s an explanation for some force of nature. Inanna was the Goddess of Love and Dumuzi the God of Spring. As deities, their spirits were very much alive and their powers all important to the welfare and survival of their believers. The Sumerians believed that Dumuzi died in winter and was resurrected in the spring. In order for his return to be celebrated properly, it was necessary to hold a festival in the spring to welcome back the Shepherd King and to reunite the God of Spring with the Goddess of Love to ensure fertility and abundance for the coming year. This reunion was enacted as a marriage ceremony. Before all the faithful the king and priestess, representing Dumuzi and Inanna, would take on the identity and power of the gods. By becoming a god, man could supposedly influence the very forces of nature surrounding him and secure for his people the rebirth of spring and all its life-providing properties. In the previous tales Gilgamesh had refused to marry Inanna. He had turned away from his responsibility to his people. This is one reason for the disasters that befall him. At the very last, however, Gilgamesh accepts his role. Only through the acceptance of this responsibility will he become the ideal king, as first shown in the earlier myth about Ninurta, and be able to provide for his people. Gilgamesh, forced to endure many trials and tribulations over a long, cold winter, returns in the spring to become both Warrior King and Shepherd King in one. And in the wake of his return comes a long period of prosperity for the people of Uruk. The people sing his praises and write his name down on clay tablets to last for all eternity. In this way Gilgamesh has indeed attained immortality, for immortality comes to those who live life wisely through their deeds.
We learn from these myths and legends how the Sumerians believed the universe was designed and why man was created. We also come to understand their perspective on higher ideals such as civilization.
Just as the student in ancient Sumer had to go to school to learn to read and write, so do modern day students. The tools used may be different, from clay tablet to computer, but the value of learning is still the same. Through our very humanness, we are all connected. And because of this ancient connection, we’re able to understand the basic principles that underlie a civilized society such as good versus bad and right versus wrong.
Our need for myth today is as great as it was five thousand years ago. As Rollo May states in The Cry For Myth, “Myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world.”
Inanna, Goddess of Love: Great Myths & Legends From Sumer, is a remarkable one-size-fits-all kind of a book which can be used in any classroom in any manner of ways. Despite the engagingly simplistic writing style, the material is suitable for students from grades 5 to 12 and can be incorporated into a variety of subject areas. For more detailed information, check out the suggested Lesson Plans on the above Menu Bar.
The book, Inanna, Goddess of Love: Great Myths & Legends from Sumer, is currently unavailable through my publisher, Bayeux Arts, but I personally carry a large stock from which you can order any number of copies required. The book lists for $10.95, but I am currently selling it on a special promotion for only $7.95. Just check out my Web Store on the above Menu Bar to place your secure order. Thanks.
To check out my romance books, written under the pen name of Vanessa deHart, check out my other website by clicking here: Vanessa deHart. From there you can navigate further and find out details on all three of my Canadian romance books, Promise Me, Out of Darkness, and No More Lies. Enjoy!