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Human Suffering in Ancient Civilizations

Suffering is a facet of life that all cultures must learn to deal with. Whether it is religion or mythology, humans must find a way to explain suffering and more importantly, death. Death is the single most unifying aspect of all cultures after all, it doesnt discriminate. Ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians, Hebrews, and Greeks all had different mythology to explain the reasons behind suffering and death, but all of it is fundamentally the same. When life seems too harsh and unhappy, society will create a way to welcome death.

This is true throughout the entire history of civilization, even today. However, in ancient times, it was much easier for the people to swallow because it also provided an explanation for all the unexplainable that occurred around them all the time. The concept of divine intervention seems to pervade Mesopotamian culture when concerning suffering and death. In Lament for Ur, the God Enlil punishes the city of Ur by summoning a hurricane that ravages the town until the people lay in heaps.

This idea of divine intervention explaining the suffering brought on by a hurricane is the only way their ancient culture had of dealing with the random nature of such an event. Since there was no way of predicting a hurricane, it had to be an act of an angry and vengeful God. A view of pessimism resulted from the way Mesopotamia viewed suffering. If there was nothing that could be done to predict it, if no god can be prayed to for assistance, then how can one have an optimistic view of life? In Mesopotamian Wisdom Literature, the author conveys his frustration to the Gods.

What is good for oneself may be offense to ones God/What in ones heart seems despicable may be proper to ones God, he bemoans, his pessimism towards the gods and life in general a direct result of the suffering he has endured in life, and the futile task of rallying against divine intervention seems too much for him to take. The perception of the afterlife is also one of severe darkness and foreboding. The Epic of Gilgamesh presents a gloomy and ominous picture of death and what it brings. Gilgamesh talks of the house whose people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat.

How can one invite death if this is the afterlife they have to look forward to? The beliefs espoused in texts such as Gilgamesh shed light on the pessimism the Mesopotamians felt for death. To them, suffering is not only part of the human experience; it awaits them in death as well. These three passages seem to explain how the Mesopotamians dealt with suffering, and also maybe goes a bit into explaining why they held such a bleak outlook on life in general. When destiny has predetermined exile to the dark house depicted in Gilgamesh as the final resting place of the dead, then optimism becomes a bit of a scarce commodity.

The reason for the dreary folklore? Location may have something to do with it, as the centralized mecca of their civilization was prone to conflicts between roving tribes and neighboring civilizations. The Hebrew civilization had a markedly different view of God, death, and afterlife. The western philosophy of men and women having to measure their actions by Gods laws was born with the Hebrews. Although many of the elements in their literature are borrowed from the Babylonians, such as the Creation, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, the spin they put on these stories created the foundation for the way society looks upon God today.

The idea that one is responsible for their own behavior is a very advanced idea at the time when divine intervention in most aspects of life ruled. Suffering for the Jews began with their testament of creation, Genesis. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and ate from the tree of knowledge, they were driven from the Garden of Eden, thus beginning a cycle of human suffering and evil that has yet to end. However, with this new outlook on God came an increased awareness of ones self, and a different outlook on suffering as a cathartic experience.

Through suffering and pain one can find enlightenment from a God beyond human understanding. The Book of Job asks many questions about the nature of suffering and the role of Divine Intervention. Job expresses his anger towards Gods ways in this passage, He has kindled his wrath against me, and counts me as an adversary. Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? What did Job do to deserve this? The idea of life as a test began with the Hebrews. Presented with a dilemma, does one choose God or more worldly ways for a solution?

God wants your devotion over all else, but a life without pain, suffering and death will not cut to the soul of the person living it. Pain is required to prove to God devotion above the earthly joys of family, friends, money, etc. Eventually, Job is repaid in spades he has passed his test. The Greeks took the idea of personal responsibility even further than the Jews. The Greeks believed in the greatness of man, and so the God or Gods played a bit lesser role than in the previous two societies. The Greeks followed the Karl Marx line of thinking, using religion and the Gods as an opiate for the people.

In Antigone, Sophocles preaches of the greatness of the human being, and also sheds light on their view of suffering: Only Death, and Death alone he will find no rescue/but from desperate plagues he has plotted his escapes. The strength of the human is enough to overcome adversity and suffering, and with the assistance of God one can find happiness, or as Pindar put it in The Pursuit of Excellence, one can find God-given splendour. However, there is an underlying suspicion of the Gods in Greek culture. The tales in Greek mythology are laced with stories of Gods and Goddesses acting no better than humans.

The resulting feeling is expressed by Achilles in the Iliad, who, speaking to the father of the slain Hector, states, . . . weeping is cold comfort and does little good. We men are wretched things, and the gods, who have no cares themselves, have woven sorrow into the very fabric of our lives. A parallel can be drawn here between Gilgamesh and Achilles, but where Gilgamesh responds with anger towards the gods for their corruption, Achilles has an almost brooding resentment at the injustice of war waged because of Gods.

Whether he called it the Gods or simply fate, Homer illustrated the futility in fighting or resisting it. One must accept it. This use of Gods to justify human suffering is simply the natural progression of the human psyche. Life is simply too hard people will not accept the fact that we are alone. When times are good, it is easy to push the thoughts of religion, gods, and an afterlife to the back and concentrate on the good life.

But, when times turn to war, poverty, famine and such, it becomes much easier to accept the existence of an all-knowing being or an afterlife to escape to. Human suffering is a constant in society, and the way it is justified seems to be a constant. It is much easier to accept a omnipotent God handing down punishment to the wicked or deserving members of society than to accept either the randomness of suffering or accept personal responsibility. The Gods are a way out for these cultures and our own, a way to explain the atrocities that are part of the everyday human experience.

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