An Archaeologically Correct Sumerian Origin Myth
Alfred D. Byrd
Once, thousands of years ago, there were two valleys where civilization was about to arise. The first valley, in northern Africa, held a wonderful river that flowed from mountains in the south through a desert in the north. Every year, just before time for planting, the river flooded its banks in the desert with rain that it had carried from the mountains; then, subsiding, the river left on its banks a fresh layer of soil on which the valley's people could raise two or even three crops a year. The valley's inhabitants were so fond of their wonderful river, which gave them life in the desert, that they built the entrances of all of their houses facing the river so that it would be the first thing that they saw when they rose each morning. In fact, it isn't too much to say that the inhabitants thought of their river as their boyfriend or husband, for, at certain times each year, they'd dance beside it and sing songs of love to it. We might think of this river's valley Happy Valley, or we might think of it as Hapi Valley, for Hapi was the people's name for the river, which we call the Nile. The Nile's people, the Egyptians, are fascinating, well worth our study, but we'll leave them now, for they weren't the first to found a civilization.
The first civilization arose in the second valley, to the north and east of the Nile, in a land that we now call Iraq. In contrast to the Egyptians' Happy Valley, we have to call the second valley Sad Valley. Here, two rivers flowed from mountains in the north through a desert in the south. The Ancient Greeks, who made many of the names that we still use, called the valley of these two rivers Mesopotamia, The Land Between the Rivers. This name isn't quite correct, because important events took place on both banks of both rivers, not just between the rivers. The Greeks really should have called the valley Bipotamia, The Land of the Two Rivers, but it's too late to correct their mistake now. The rivers carried rain from the mountains to the desert, but did so too late in the year to help crops planted in the spring and too early to help crops planted in the fall.
The bad timing of the rivers' flooding was not their only shortcoming. The river in the east, the Tigris, flowed straight south from the mountains and at first ran like a well-behaved stream through a rainy country where a people called the Assyrians would someday arise and terrify the world. When the Tigris reached the desert, however, where its water was actually needed, the river spread out over the desert, which was as nearly perfectly flat as land can be, in huge marshes where nothing grew but reeds, and where humans could live only by fishing from tiny reed boats. Despite its marshes, the Tigris was no trouble at all beside the river in the west, the Euphrates. This rose in the northern mountains only a few miles from the Tigris' source, but wandered all over northern Mesopotamia before it finally turned south to run beside the Tigris. The Euphrates picked up massive amounts of soil in the lands through which it ran, and deposited this soil as huge mud flats in the desert, west of the marshes beside the Tigris. Like all other rivers that run over mud flats, the Euphrates built up its banks with mud until it actually flowed above the level of the surrounding plain, and then burst it banks in a flood, covered the plain with muddy water from horizon to horizon, and built up a whole new set of banks, miles from the first, when the flood was over.
In the mud beside the Euphrates, the first civilization arose. This was an unlikely place for civilization's rise, for, besides being in a rainless desert, the mud by the Euphrates held no stone or metal, and grew only a few willows and palms for timber. To make things worse, the desert was hot; in the summer, it's not uncommon for the temperature to reach one hundred and twenty degrees there. If someone suggested to you, "Let's build our house on mud flats where it's unbearably hot, there's no rain, stone, or metal, and a flood is going to destroy everything every few years," you'd likely tell that person, "No, thanks, I can do better." In our way of thinking, no intelligent people would choose to live on the mud flats by the Euphrates. Since the ancestors of the heroes of our story, the Sumerians, were just as intelligent as we are, they probably didn't choose to live where they did. Likely, they lived there simply because all of the other land in Mesopotamia was taken by other peoples. Still, on the mud flats, the ancestors of the Sumerians settled, and, on the mud flats, the Sumerians built the first civilization.
Life on the mud flats was hard for those who settled there. Making hoes from reeds and baked clay, and sickles from baked clay, the people tried to raise barley and wheat by the Euphrates. Because its mud was fertile, the people of the mud flats could, by working from sunrise to sunset eight months out of the year, raise one good crop in a good year. Every few years, however, the rain in the northern mountains would be especially heavy, and the Euphrates, carrying the rain into the desert, burst its banks in a flood and covered the land with muddy water from horizon to horizon. The flood destroyed in a day all that the people of the mud flats had built for years, but the people had no time to worry about what they'd lost, for they were busy trying to learn to swim or breathe mud. When survivors had a chance to rebuild their homes and farms, they'd find that the river had moved miles away from where it had flowed. Even when no flood came, the peoples of the northern mountains came to the mud flats every few years and stole what little the people who lived there had saved for themselves.
Living in such a terrible land as that of the mud flats tends to warp the minds of those who live there. In Eastern Kentucky, where my people lives, someone who plans to do something may say, "God willing, and the creek don't rise." The people by the Euphrates would have understood this line perfectly. Because of the hardness of their life, they became fatalists: that is, they believed that, no matter how hard one worked, all that he or she did could be destroyed at any moment by events beyond one's control.
Many fatalists give up on life; they put on white robes, go to a mountaintop, and wait for the world to end. To the early Sumerians, however, giving up on life was no option because of another depressing belief that they held. They believed that their gods had created them only to be the gods' slaves. According to the Sumerians, the gods, powerful beings in human form, had come from the sky to the mud flats by the Euphrates. There, the gods molded the mud into figures of humans and shouted at them, "Come to life, figures of mud!" When the figures of mud blinked their eyes and tried to figure out why they were lying on the ground, the gods shouted at them, "Why are you just lying there? Don't you understand that we want houses and clothing and food? Get to work and make us these things!" Recognizing that it's useless to argue with beings who can bring mud to life, the Sumerians got to work. They built large houses of mud for the gods, and small houses of mud for themselves, and large walls of mud around the houses in hope that the walls would keep the next flood's water from sweeping the houses away. The walls also turned out to be useful for keeping the peoples of the northern mountains from stealing what little the Sumerians had saved for themselves. In hope of preventing the next flood altogether, the Sumerians built up the Euphrates' banks; they also dug canals from it to carry its waters to reservoirs so that the waters would be available to the Sumerians year around. With these waters, they could grow crops, not just by the river's banks, but as far out in the mud flats as the canals could carry the waters.
Because the mud was fertile, the Sumerians, by working from sunrise to sunset eight months out of the year, could grow more barley and wheat than even the gods could use. Some of the grain, the Sumerians used to bake bread and brew beer for the gods; some of the grain, they used to bake bread and brew beer for themselves; the rest of the grain, they traded to the peoples of the lands around the mud flats for timber, stone, and metal. When the Sumerians received these, they thought, "Maybe, if we turn these into useful, beautiful objects, the gods will be pleased with us." Some of the useful, beautiful objects, the Sumerians used to make the houses of the gods magnificent; some of the useful, beautiful objects, the Sumerians used to make their own houses comfortable; the rest of the useful, beautiful objects, they traded to peoples of distant lands for spices, silk, ivory, precious stones, and gold.
In time, the peoples of the lands around the mud flats looked at the land of the Sumerians and saw, rising from the mud, shining cities like nothing else in the world. The peoples of other lands were amazed at the Sumerians, who were richer, wiser, more powerful, and more influential than any other people of the earth. The Sumerians raised their eyes to the sky and said, "We owe it all to the gods, whose slaves we are"; then they turned their eyes to the peoples of other lands and said, "But we're better slaves than you are."
Moral: If life casts you onto a mud flat, start digging for gold.
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