22 March 2012

This Mess of Civilization That Emerged from the Mesopotamia

The Sumerians invented civilization. Among other things, it was in Sumeria that humanity had the first pottery wheel, first school, first map of the world, first writing, and first thought of dividing time and space into multiples of 60. Eden comes from the Mesopotamian word for plains, where this first civilization emerged in Iraq between the Tigres and Euphrates.Many of their inventions have continued to define us to this day; alcohol, for instance, is a Mesopotamian word. 

Michael Wood, in his brilliant video, Iraq: Cradle of Civilization, tells the story of how the Sumerians got civilization.

“One of the great Sumerian myths tells how the goddess Inanna brought the arts of civilization from the god of wisdom, Enki of Eridu, like Pandora’s box. Here were the delights of society, exquisite craftsmanship, beautiful clothes, the arts of sex and music. But civilization has a darker side, said Enki, which has to be accepted along with the good. There was the art of being mighty, the art of being kind, the art of straightforwardness, the art of deceit, the art of kingship, justice, and the enduring crown, the resounding note of a musical instrument, rejoicing of the heart, the kindling of strife, the plundering of cities, the setting up of lamentations, fear, pity, terror, all this is civilization, said the god of wisdom. All this I give you, and you must take it all with no argument, and once taken you cannot give it back.” 

So what was the answer for this? Because even though this was written about 2,500 to 3,000 years ago, it still seems an apt description. Well, it seems that the Sumerians anticipated that question as well, an answer we can find in the Epic of Gilgamesh from their civilization's (which is to say humanity's) first literature. Gilgamesh built the walls of the city Uruk and his adventure included the story of the flood and the ark, a story adopted into later traditions. And his story ended in his failed quest for eternal life. The narrator of his epic advises him on how to deal with this failure and - it seems - deal with the complicated mess that is civilization.

“Gilgamesh. What you seek you will never find, for when the gods created man they let death be his lot. Eternal life they withheld. Let your everyday be full of joy. Love the child that holds your hand. Let your wife delight in your embrace. For these alone are the concerns of humanity.”

1 comment:

Weatherly Smith said...

Ah! I know the documentary you write about here! :) Michael Wood is awesome.

I like this one especially. It's very thought provoking. I find it fascinating that people in ancient times were telling stories about the same issues we discuss today (with much more depth, no doubt). We could learn so much from history if we paid attention.