Religion has always played a vital role in human society. As our earliest stories and poems indicate, questions of gods, divinity, immortality, and creation existed in ancient cultures and pervaded many facets of daily life, including literature. In The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Leiden Hymns we see not only this literary preoccupation with questions of divinity, but also stories and attitudes that foreshadow contemporary Abrahamic religions––Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, this is not to suggest that religion is so universal that there are not meaningful differences across time and cultures.
In observing these differences, we might look particularly at the ways in which the gods are represented in Gilgamesh and The Leiden Hymns in contrast with contemporary monotheistic images of God as conceptualized in Abrahamic religions. Comparison of these texts reveals that though religion is a constant in human experience, the ways in which it manifests from culture to culture can vary profoundly. Religion, in the context of this paper, is defined very broadly as any myth or creed belonging to a unified belief system that brings a sense of order or meaning to human experience.
Religion in this context refers less to a codified set of rituals or a basis for identity than to a culturally dependent facet of human experience. Thus, religion manifests differently based on cultural circumstances, but all religious beliefs serve a single purpose: to explain that which is beyond human understanding. This definition of religion is helpful when examining the divine in works of ancient literature. In Gilgamesh, for example, the importance of the gods is indisputable.
As the titular character King Gilgamesh embarks on what is ultimately a fruitless quest to evade death, an extensive cast of gods and goddesses helps drive the plot. However, the gods of Sumer are strikingly different from the monotheistic conceptualization of God with which many readers will be most familiar. With the first account of Gilgamesh appearing around 2100 BCE (Puchner 33), Gilgamesh and society from which the epic arose predates Judaism, and instead featured a polytheistic religion with myriad gods, who bear almost no resemblance to the omnipotent God of the Hebrew Bible.
Though readers versed in any of the Abrahamic religions will recognize the story of the great flood as similar to that which appears in the Book of Genesis (or the 71st Sura, Nuh, in the Qur’an). This is, by and large, the end of any resemblance to contemporary monotheistic religions, with the most striking difference being the ways in which the gods are characterized. The Gods in Gilgamesh have decidedly human qualities. They are subject to fear, selfishness, and sexual desire, among other vices.
There flaws are such that even though they have immense supernatural power and alone enjoy immortality, the gods in Gilgamesh tend not to strike contemporary readers as being particularly divine, because they are so fundamentally different from the God of Abrahamic religions. This is perhaps best exemplified in Ishtar, goddess of love and warfare, who becomes infatuated with Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh, however, spurns her advances, and disparages her, calling her “a flimsy door that keeps out neither wind nor draught . . . a] weak stone that undermines a wall . . . [a] battering ram that destroys the wall for an enemy. ” (63) According to Gilgamesh’s accusations, his contempt for Ishtar is not without justification. Ishtar has taken many lovers, and treated them badly. It can be said, too, that Ishtar’s reaction to Gilgamesh’s insults seem to reaffirm his characterization of her as selfish, greedy, and unreliable. Devastated by Gilgamesh’s rejection, Ishtar supplicates her father, Anu, god of the heavens, to allow her to use the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh.
Even Anu is hesitant to grant the request, and instead reasons with Ishtar by saying, “Well now, did you not provoke the King Gilgamesh. ” (64) In fact, he gives Ishtar the bull only after she threatens to “raise up the dead to devour the living. ” (64) Clearly, Ishtar is, lustful, self-motivated, and vain. She acts seemingly without regard or foresight for the consequences of her actions, and does, in fact, share some portion of the blame for Enkidu’s death. The text deliberately characterizes her as a deeply flawed, even absurd character, despite her status as a goddess.
While Ishtar represents the most extreme example, all the gods seem to share in moral shortcomings, making them far more similar to the gods of Greek mythology than the god of the Bible or the Qur’an. Despite their flaws, however, the gods play an important role in resolving some of the texts deeper philosophical questions. At its core, Gilgamesh is a story that grapples with death and its inevitability. The text makes clear, time and again, that immortality is he characteristic that sets the gods apart from humanity, as Siduri tells Gilgamesh during his futile quest (76).
It stands to reason, then, that the gods draw their divinity, less from omnipotence or moral superiority, than from the fact that they represent that which is unattainable to man: immortality. The Leiden Hymns, by contrast, seem to take a very different attitude towards the gods. Like the Sumerians, the ancient Egyptians had a complex polytheistic religion, however the Leiden Hymns read more like a precursor to monotheistic thought.
Speakers in the poems address a single god with unmistakeable reverence. Jewish and Christian readers are likely to notice that the tone resembles that of the Psalms, in that they are devotional in their character and express gratitude towards a god who is regarded as both creator and protector. In God is a Master Craftsman, for instance, God is characterized as the “[a]ll powerful one (yet kindly, whose heart would lie open to men. )” (n. p. ). When compared with the portrayal of Ishtar, the contrast seems even more stark.
Ishtar is portrayed as all but “kindly,” displaying a blatant disregard for human life in favor of her own interests. By extension, Gilgamesh’s tirade against Ishtar seems the very antithesis of a devotional poem extolling the virtue and power of a god characterized as “perfection” (God is a Master Craftsman). Another feature of the Leiden Hymns that seems to align closely with monotheistic thought is the attempt to resolve the question of the origin of God. This is addressed in several different poems within the Leiden Hymns.
In God is a Master Craftsman the speaker claims that God “first came into being in the hushed dark where he mused alone” and that he “forged his own figure there/hammered his likeness out of himself. ” The sentiment is echoed and expanded upon in When Being Began Back in the Days of Genesis in which the speaker gives the history of Amun, writing, When being began back in the days of genesis, it was Amun appeared first of all, unknown his mode of inflowing; There was no god come before him, nor was other god with him there when he uttered himself into visible form;
There was no mother to him, that she might have borne him his name, there was no father to father the one who first spoke the words, “I Am! ” Readers familiar with Biblical texts will not fail to recognize how the notion that Amun “uttered himself into visible form” recalls a famous passage in John 1:1: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ” We might infer, then, that the Egyptians, like the authors of the Bible grappled with similar questions of how Creation came to be, and arrived at a similar mythos concerning a single god responsible for all of creation.
Thus, the poems serve as a version of a creation myth, attempting to answer unknowable questions abut how life came to be. Just as the gods in Gilgamesh help the text explore questions about death and immortality, the gods represented in The Leiden Hymns offer answers to profound philosophical questions. Therefore, using the definition of religion posed earlier, we can see how both representations of gods fit within the category, as both work towards resolving questions that have troubled humanity for millennia.
It is possible that contemporary readers would be reluctant to consider the gods as they are portrayed in Gilgamesh as religious imagery, perhaps favoring The Leiden Hymns, not only because they are reminiscent of monotheistic thought (as there are still many adherents to polytheistic religions) but because the tone of reverence and devotion more closely resembles that which we have come to associate with religious texts of all descriptions.
Comparison of these texts therefore underscores the importance of contextualizing works of literature such that we understand works both within the context they were created and as part of an ongoing human tradition.