Sumerian Sacred Stories, c. 3500 BCE
” … it is quite as obvious that for the history of the progress of our civilization as we see and know it today, it is the tone and temper, the word and spirit of the ancient mythologies, those of the Greeks and Hebrews, of the Hindus and Iranians, of the Babylonians and Egyptians, which are of prime significance. It is the spiritual and religious concepts revealed in these ancient literatures which permeate the modern civilized world.
Still almost entirely unknown to this very moment is Sumerian mythology, the sacred stories of the non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people which in historical times, from approximately 3500 to 2000 B.C., inhabited Sumer, the relatively small land situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and stretching from the Persian Gulf northward approximately as far as modern Bagdad; a land that may be aptly described as the culture cradle of the entire Near East.
Should the reader turn, for example, to Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 29 and examine the very long article on the cosmogonic or creation myths of the world, he will find a large and relatively exhaustive list of peoples, ancient and modern, cultured and primitive, whose cosmogonic concepts are described and analyzed. But he will look in vain for Sumerian cosmogony.
Similarly, the collection entitled Mythology of All the Races 30 devotes thirteen volumes to an analysis of the more important mythologies in the world; here, too, however, there will be found few traces of Sumerian mythology. Whatever little is known of Sumerian mythology is largely surmised from the modified, redacted, and in a sense, garbled versions of the Babylonians who conquered the Sumerians toward the very end of the third millennium B.C., and who used the Sumerian stories and legends as a basis and nucleus for the development of their own myths.
But it is a known fact that in the long stretch of time between approximately 3500 and 2000 B.C. it was the Sumerians who represented the dominant cultural group of the entire Near East. It was the Sumerians who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of writing; who developed a well integrated pantheon together with spiritual and religious concepts which influenced profoundly all the peoples of the Near East; who, finally, created and developed a literature rich in content and effective in form.
Moreover, the following significant fact must be borne in mind. By the end of the third millennium B.C. Sumer had already ceased to exist as a political entity and Sumerian had already become a dead language, for by that time Sumer had been overrun and conquered by the Semites, and it is the Semitic Accadian language which gradually became the living, spoken tongue of the land.
Nevertheless Sumerian continued to be used as the literary and religious language of the Semitic conquerors for many centuries to come, like Greek in the Roman period and like Latin in the Middle Ages. Indeed for many centuries the study of the Sumerian language and literature remained the basic pursuit of the scribal schools and intellectual and spiritual centers not only of the Babylonians and Assyrians, but also of the many surrounding peoples such as the Elamites, Hurrians, Hittites, and Canaanites.
Obviously, then, both because of their content as well as because of their age, the Sumerian mythological tales and concepts must have penetrated and permeated those of the entire Near East. A knowledge of the Sumerian myths and legends is therefore a prime and basic essential for a proper approach to a scientific study of the mythologies current in the ancient Near East, for it illuminates and clarifies to no small extent the background behind their origin and development.” i