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Mesopotamian eschatology


Ancient Mesopotamians, who are responsible for everything from our way of telling time to the Epic of Gilgamesh, were uniquely lacking in one way: the scanty evidence available suggests that ancient Mesopotamians did not develop any eschatology at all until late in their civilization.  In fact, according to Benjamin R. Foster, ancient Mesopotamians could very well have considered the apocalyptic dreams of later religions to be “absurd… and possibly blasphemous, as human beings were scarcely in a position to redesign the world” (Foster 31).

Even imagining that a human deed could provoke the gods into action one way or another was patently absurd to them; humans were just too far beneath the gods’ notice.  One possibly logical—but wrong—conclusion would be that civilization hadn’t developed to the point where the concept of Ending would arise, because Mesopotamians did believe in an End; they just believed that it had already come, when the world fell to a deluge in the remote past.

Unlike most other flood myths, the waters came not as a justified punishment for human offenders, but because life was too long and too productive: the bustling activity of human beings raised such a ruckus the gods could not sleep (Hathaway 35-37).  Now that the problem had been rectified, no apocalypse would come again.  Progress in general would be limited, and the world would continue on, much as it had been, into eternity.

Life, the Mesopotamians complained, was too hurried in the present.  In the times before the flood, all of life’s stages progressed at a stately pace, with no conflict or dangerous beasts that disturbed their rhythm.  Those living on this side of the flood had missed their chance at being one of the blissful elect.  Their future did not look particularly bright, either.  Civilization would take no leaps forward, as the gods had already provided everything the human race could reasonably expect to need.

Even worse, life after death was nothing short of miserable.  The Epic of Gilgamesh describes the underworld as “the land of no return/…the house in which he who enters is bereft of light;/ Where dust is their food [and] clay their sustenance” (Heidel 121).  Because nothing better would come, there was no basis for imaginings of a different, better world.  The universe existed at the gods’ pleasure; humans were permitted to exist, but not rock the boat.

Narratives in an apocalyptic style did develop later in Mesopotamian civilization, though they only really become recognizable as such when set up against Jewish apocalyptic texts, which suggests that the Jewish apocalyptic had Mesopotamian roots.


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