When we are looking back in history and try to understand our past, we can´t deny that one of the first forms of civilisation that flourished in the world was Mesopotamia. This area, which was located in between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, became a fountain of wealth, culture and tradition for millenniums. This area was on what is now the actual Iraq. The area was home to various forms of civilisations. Some of them were the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians or Babylonians, just to give few examples. These civilisations spoke languages like the Akkadian, the Sumerian and other languages which are direct cause of our alphabet, like the Phoenician. Just to show the importance and the inheritance produced by Mesopotamia, we have the Sumerian language, which is a cuneiform based type of writing that dates of the third millennium before Christ, making it one of the most, if not the most, form of writing.
They constructed magnificent buildings like the Ziggurats, palaces and some really organised cities. Babylonia, city that is named in the Bible, is one example of organised city. In fact, this city could be considered one of the most wonderful cities built on Antic History.
I was just listing some of the great achievements that the Mesopotamians did. We are though going to speak about a different characteristic that is found in Mesopotamia, a characteristic that contrasted them with their closer neighbours, the Egyptians. This peculiarity I would like to speak about is their pessimism view towards the world where they lived. But in order to explain this trait, first it is important to understand the geographical conditions of the area.
Mesopotamia as I said is an area which is positioned in between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. These two rivers are tempestuous, with rapid changes that made them difficult to navigate and very unpredictable. At times they either brought torrential waters or low water flow levels. Flooding and drought occurred often because there uncontrollable rivers. The weather conditions in Mesopotamia were tough, not very different from nowadays. There was rain just in a certain time of the year, and there were long periods during the year without rain. All these conditions made life difficult in the area.
The area of Mesopotamia has mountain ranges in the North, area that was home for tribes. Those tribes often attacked southern neighbours and return to hide in the mountains. At times, attacks were followed by intentions of settling down. This obviously made the place an unsecured area to live.
The communities inhabiting in those areas must have suffered many wars, not just from the tribes of these mountains, but also from nomad tribes, like the Semites and other communities, whom shared the same location and fought for its control. The fertile area wasn´t huge and there was competition for its control.
The geographical conditions and the amount of communities having to share the fertility of the river surroundings made Mesopotamia an uneasy region to live. Obviously, all these events did had an impact on the cosmology of the civilisations inhabiting Mesopotamia. This was reflected on their religion, their view of life and death, their pessimism. The Mesopotamians were polytheists and the Gods were very much related to natural disasters. In fact, they believed that Gods were responsible for all natural reactions. The King was a servant of the Gods. He had to serve, to offer to the Gods for the stability of his country. Gods would bring this stability at their will and humans had no much confidence that order would be maintained at all times. As I said, changes were happening all the time and disasters occurred often. The King was just a servant so was below the Gods, in another league, and on a relationship of inequality towards them. This was reflecting on their pessimism view of life.
To reflect on this trait, let´s now have a look at a text written in Akkadian and translated by W. G. Lambert. The text is a dialogue between a Master and his slave . In the dialogue, the Master is giving orders to his slave and the slave is reinforcing the Masters decisions by encouraging them. Continues the dialogue when the master, contradicting himself, says the opposite to his own statement right after the slave has encouraged it. The slave replies by again encouraging his Master on his second and opposite statement. The dialogue goes on like this for the whole time, and the subjects of this dialogue are various, including love, marriage, revolution or sacrifice, just to give few examples. I am showing you a couple of examples:
Revolution: – Slave, listen to me! – Here I am, Master, here I am!
– I want to lead a revolution! – So lead, Master, lead!
If you do not lead a revolution, where will your clothes will come from?
– O well, slave, I do not want to lead a revolution!
– Do not lead, master, do not lead a revolution!
The man who leads a revolution is either killed or flayed,
Or has his eyes put out, or is arrested and thrown in jail!
Love: – Slave listen to me! – Here I am master, here I am!
– I want to make love to a woman! – Make love, Master, make love!
The man that makes love to a woman, forgets sorrow and fear!
– O well, slave, I do not want to make love to a woman!
– Do not make love, master, do not make love! Woman
is a real pitfall, a hole, a ditch,
Woman is a sharp iron dagger that cuts a man´s throat!
One of the thoughts that can be extracted from it is that whatever the Master will decide to do, might have negative consequences for himself. If he does love, may be killed by his woman, if he leads a revolution, he may end up killed. The Mesopotamians had this pessimism about life and about death also. Gods were responsible for everything that was happening in this world and all these rapid changes in weather conditions, river flows or war attacks by their neighbours, were a reflect of Gods´ unhappiness. Gods could punish them at any time and regardless of their decisions in life. Death was seeing as a terrible event that affected the living relatives and the dead itself, whom would suffer in the underworld where he or she were destined to be.
All these wars, this suffering, these uncontrollable geographical conditions, reflected on their concept of life and death, their reason for life, their view of the divine, the hereafter… These characteristics made Mesopotamians the way they were. Pessimism was a consequence of all of it.
Based on the book “Mesopotamia: writing, reasoning and the gods” by Jean Bottero.