Comment on High Places

Early Bronze Akkad, prior to 2000 BCE:



When ancient cities fell, gods abandoned their temples, sanctuaries were looted, and priests fled or were killed for bungling their work, but the temples themselves often were reused.  In these circumstances, temple stories were reworked for new administrators.  That’s evidently what happened after Sargon the Great of Akkad (cir. 2271 BCE) took over at Uruk. 

Under Sargon, Uruk's ancient Sumerian mud brick tower had to be rededicated, restaffed, and recapitalized.  Sumerian cuneiform script was there amid the plunder, and the formerly illiterate newcomers used it to spin new myths in the  Akkadian language about the previously unknown founders of the old temple.  These characters, who lived once upon a time even before King Gilgamesh had built Uruk's defensive walls, included Gilgamesh’s “phantom father” Lugalbanda and Lugalbanda’s predecessor Enmerkar, the inventor of writing.  They are storybook precedents for Sargon the usurper and robber.

The Akkadian stories build on the foundation of Sumerian flood myth.  In these retellings, the flood has buried the precious metals and gems of the ancient world in enormous deposits of mud, but lodes of that wealth are recoverable from the high peaks of the Zagros Mountains between Uruk (now Iraq) on the west and Arrata (later the Persian homeland, Biblical Ararat, now Iran) on the east. Lord Enmerkar sends an expedition of Uruk’s princes to climb up there, and bring the treasure back down to Uruk’s ancient tower of mud bricks where father Anu (Sumerian An) used to host his grand assemblies of Sumerian gods.  

Enmerkar’s motivation is provided by the goddess of love, fertility and war.  Homeless Inana wants to live with Enmerkar in the tower, if he adorns her body and her sanctuary so richly that all other goddesses will envy her glory.  She will bring good crops and military success, when she is pleased, but making her happy is not an adventure for the faint of heart.  The high peaks in the east are cold and inhospitable.  People of the mountains have claims upon the mineral rights. The thunderbird that nests up there (the original eagle of Jupiter, Britannia and Uncle Sam) can shake the whole world.  But poor Inana is in distress.  Her silver image is naked.  (It has been taken from downstream Eridu, which has been destroyed after its fresh water supply has been cut off by Enki, but that is another story.)  She needs clothes to be presentable in public when she goes on holidays.

Uruk’s divinely inspired treasure hunt meets iconoclastic resistance in the east.   The Lord of Arrata understands himself to be the servant of the great mother, queen of heaven and earth, and as such he must guard all of the gold, silver and gems in the ground.  He is the prototype of the hoarding dragon of adolescent fairy tales.  He is not going to win Inana’s love, but why should he care about her?  Mother earth herself protects him.  He rebuffs Enmerkar’s demand.

Enmerkar forces the issue.  He offers to trade Uruk’s grain for Arrata’s minerals, but he also threatens that Inana will destroy Arrata if the trade deal is rejected.  This proposal forces the Lord of Arrata to reconsider.  The treasure is his by right, or it is the great mother's, but maybe his people need Uruk’s grain?  Is it in fact impious to trade?  He wants the question to be decided in trial by combat between champions from each side, presumably because Inana and the great mother then will fight it out, but the fragment Enmerkar and the Lord of Arrata ends before the story does.  Inana must have been satisfied, but how?  The Akkadian fragment known as Lugalbanda and the Anzud Bird suggests that Lugalbanda, Enmerkar’s successor, may have won the day in single combat against Arrata's champion, but that text also is incomplete.  The ending may have been destroyed, or it may remain buried in Akkad or elsewhere.

In any case, it is clear that Sargon’s purpose was served.  Enmerkar's story legitimized him (Sargon's name “the legitimate ruler” suggests his public relations needs), and his installation of his daughter Enheduana as high priestess in Uruk’s temple.  He was the darling of the gods, and they were responsible for his wars.  Inana’s temple at Eridu had been destroyed by the goddess herself in order to get what she wanted--like every woman in the world, she wanted a new house in Uruk.  She asked Enmerkar to handle the matter, even though he (like Sargon) had been born in the hills, not in Uruk.  Subsequently the goddess compelled Enheduana to serve her, too.  Further analysis of motives would be irreverent.

Enheduana’s famous hymn to Inana more clearly indicates what happened.  Sumerian Uruk had been dedicated both to the god of high heaven, An, and to An’s daughter Inana.  Coalition forces from the kingdoms of Adab and Akkad then took over and divided power.  In temple administration, Adab installed Ašimbabbar as priest of An, but the Akkad faction installed Sargon’s daughter Enheduana as priestess of the Akkadian moon god Sin (Nanna in Sumerian) in place of Inana.  To take control over the whole city, Ašimbabbar accused Enheduana of impiety—she had committed Sin.  She feared for her life.  Her famous hymn describes a religious conversion experience that she then had, or publically needed to have had, as she jumped fled on foot back to her home in the hills.  In that desperate situation she recognized the power of Inana and Anu.  She learned to address all of the involved deities with appropriate reverence.  Sargon subsequently restored her to the temple, and he expelled her rivals. The happy ending was attributed to Inana under her Akkadian name Ištar.  Greek speakers later called her Aphrodite, and in Latin she became Venus.

Akkadian control was extended across the Zagros Mountains within a few decades after Sargon’s time, during the reign of Naram-Sin (“the beloved of Sin”).  This conquest appears on Naram-Sin’s victory stele which was produced in about 2230 BCE and discovered 4,000 years later at Susa in Iran.  It suggests the context of the Lugalbanda myth.  Like Naram-Sin, who was proclaimed divine, the “little prince” Lugalbanda is transformed into a superhuman “phantom” through mystical experience in the mountains, and his fellow soldiers marvel at his powers.  Like Sargon, Naram-Sin was connected to royal blood through shedding it.  For public relations he promoted the brand of Lugalbanda, whose holiness had inspired the army to seize control of the state.  (Compare deification or sanctification of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Constantine, Muhammad and other premodern military dictators.  Compare also Jesus as King of Jews.)

Akkad’s empire set precedent for later globalizations.  Imperial trade extended as far east as the Hindu Kush, where the mountains and minerals dwarf those of the Zagros, south into Arabia and west to the Mediterranean.  This assembled the cultural bloc known in the west today as “the Middle East.”  Akkadian was the general language of administration and diplomacy in this region through the rest of the bronze age. 

Literary echoes of Akkad are heard even as late as Genesis. In the Persian temple myth of post-exilic Judaism,  Naram-Sin becomes Nimrod of Shinar, the builder of the Tower of Babel.  The destruction of Babel is the destruction of Babylonian idolatry, the exposure of Inana’s vanity, literary retaliation for destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE.  The universal language destroyed by the God of Genesis is Akkadian, dialects of which were spoken by Assyrians and Babylonians when the kingdoms of Israel and Jerusalem fell at the end of the Iron Age.  In Persia’s empire, by way of contrast to Akkad’s and Assyria’s and Babylon’s, local clients were permitted to speak their own languages, build their own temples and remain in their own lands.  This was the hallmark policy of Achaemenid kings who styled themselves as liberators of the peoples of the world who had been enslaved under western rule. This liberation enabled the Jewish return from captivity in Babylon, the use of Hebrew (the historical language of Jewish people), and the building of the so-called second temple of Jerusalem under the Persian administrators Ezra and Nehemiah. 

The institutional use of myth for the second Jerusalem temple is precedented by Uruk’s temple, and there is some evidence of direct cultural influence.  A famous inscription about Sargon says:

I never knew my father but his brothers loved the hills. My home was in the wilderness of herbs above the Euphrates.  I was a changeling.  My mother gave birth to me in secret.  She put me in a basket of reeds, and she sealed the lid with tar.  She threw the basket into the river, but it did not sink.  The river held me up and carried me to Enki, the drawer of water.  He drew me out, took me as his son, raised me, and appointed me to be his gardener.  While I was working the garden Ištar loved me and I ruled for four and (fifty?) years.

This baptismal flood reappears in the Persian infancy story of Moses (his name means “drawn out” for he is pulled from the water). The Exodus story of the drawing out of the Hebrews from the waters of captivity is a Persian idealization of liberation of Jewish slaves in Babylon and Egypt.  The pharaoh of the Exodus appears to be a literary cipher for the last of the kings of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, and the last native ruler of Egypt, the last pharaoh of Egypt’s 13th dynasty, Nectanebo II.  This is the myth of the king of kings.



Questions for reflection:

How did Sargon’s faction make use of writing? Can any distinction be made between him and the heroic images that were created for his benefit?

How do mortals serve the gods in the temple myths of Uruk? How do the gods serve the mortals?   

Do the casket stories of Ud-Zi, Sargon, Noah and Moses appear to be related?  What might account for the popularity of this floating box motif?




Suggested further readings:


The infancy story of Moses  in the Hebrew Bible, Exodus 1.


The Book of Zra and the Book of Nehemiah in the Hebrew Bible


The story of Isis and Osiris from Book 5 of Plutarch's Moralia

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