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A Comparison: Sumerian and Hebrew Views of the Afterlife

For centuries religion has been a significant and intricate part of human societies. Some would say that religion is as important to mankind as food and water. While food and water keeps us going,religion provides a reason and purpose for that life. In short, religion is mans attempt to understand the world around them and their place in it. Furthermore, religious values maintain order and a code of how mankind should behave among their peers and families. As religion is man-made, it can reveal much about a societys standards and sense of self.

So, religion is both a shaper as well as a reflection of society. The ancient Sumerian and Hebrew societies both held detailed religious beliefs which shaped their different perspectives. Each society also, under the canopy of their own religion, had a belief in and perception of the afterlife. Hense, their different beliefs in that afterlife can be seen as an explanation for the ways in which they perceived and lived life. The Sumarians pursued life with voracious thirst and believed in enjoying life to the fullest, savoring all human pleasures.

On the other hand, the Hebrew religion stressed the importance of traditions and accordance with repressive laws that pleased their God, believing that their real life was after death in heaven. The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Old Testament of the Bible provide good sources for the comparison of these different civilizations perceptions of life and death. The Epic of Gilgamesh presents a clear picture of Sumerian religious beliefs. Similar to Greek mythology, the Sumarians believed in many imperfect gods.

These gods were not flawless or nconditionally loving but could be playful, mischievous, fickle, and even unfair in their dealings with mankind. So in temperament, these gods were human-like and not always dependable. Furthermore, there was no promising afterlife for Sumarians. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkindu, upon his death, reveals a dream of the underworld to his friend Gilgamesh. Enkindu describes the world as desolate, endless darkness, and says, dust is their food and clay is their meat. 29)

This underworld, ruled by the goddess Irkalla, (29) is obviously not a fun place. It is in this belief that one glean an explanation for the Sumarians way of life. The Sumarians believed in living to the fullest. They took on life voraciously and valued those heroes, like Gilgamesh and Enkindu who did the same. Gilgamesh and Enkindu were handsome and strong and battled and fought to increase their fame. The Sumarians as a society heartily embraced all that men could enjoy: wealth, pleasure, food. They lived in the ever now, seeing this life as their greatest fulfillment.

This mentality is a direct result of their perception of the afterlife. Furthermore, after Enkindus death, Gilgamesh realizes his own mortality and is hense unable to enjoy lifes pleasure. He begins to dwell on the unfairness and inevitability of death and is greatly distraught and depressed. So, he goes out on his search for everlasting life. He travels and suffers in search of the one mortal to achieve immortality: Utnapishtim. Upon his search he encounters Siduri, the woman of the vine (33), and she tells him, When the gods created man they allotted to him death.

She then tells him to enjoy life, to eat well and cherish his wife and his children as these pleasures too are part of mans destiny. (34) Regardless of Siduris advise Gilgamesh continues his search for Utnapishtim undetered. Upon finding Utnapishtim, the immortal man recites to Gilgamesh this motto on life and the lot of mankind. In line with Sumerian belief, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh to enjoy life while he can because for all mankind, There is no permanence. So, in The Epic of Gilgamesh, through the lens of religion, the reader can greater understand Sumerian society and norms.

The Hebrews religious beliefs and perspective on life greatly contrasts to that of the Sumarians. The Hebrews believe in one God who is the creator of all things. They believe that their God is omniscient, just, all-powerful, and holy. They also believe that the world they live in is not how God intended it, but tainted by sin and hense they are able to explain death and evil. As written in the chapter of Genisis in the Bible, the Hebrews believe that shortly after creation the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and damned the rest of mankind with their sin.

Hense all their decendents would be imperfect, separated from God, and ultimately die. But death was not the end for the Hebrew people for God provided a second chance in a happy afterlife. So, the Hebrews focus is on abiding by the laws of their God, and hense being righteous and avoiding sin. Furthermore, they believe in many traditions which help to purify them of their sinfulness and redeem them in the eyes of God. The Hebrews then predict that if they keep their tradition and abide by the restrictive laws of their God that they will be allowed to join him in the afterlife.

As opposed to the Sumerian beliefs about the afterlife, the Hebrews believe there are two underworlds. One is called Heaven, a place of eternal peace and celebration, while the other, called Hell, a place of eternal pain and suffering. So, while the Sumarians try to enjoy and fulfill themselves in their human lives, the Hebrews seek to gain admittance to a better world in their afterlife. The Hebrews religion, though more repressive, is also much more promising than that of the Sumarians as there is no finality, but only a passage from one world to, hopefully, a better one.

The Hebrew and Sumerian civilizations differing views of the afterlife is a revealing explanation to the way they each approached life and duty. In Sumerian society, as evidenced in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the people sought to gain fame, wealth, and pleasure in this life, while in Hebrew society the people sought to secure a good and eternal afterlife by repressing their flesh urges and abiding by their purging traditions. Two opposite mentalities, each the product of their own religious beliefs dictating the way these civilization lived and in the end, died.

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