By literature of the Ancient Near East we mean texts that were passed down in the stream of tradition; scribes copied them in the course of their scribal training, and so they were texts for use in instruction. Some of them may also have been enjoyed as entertaining. The stories that appeal to us were not the most popular things in the ancient curriculum, or the most useful. Most of the texts we find were lists of omens and other collections that were studied for their practical advantages, texts on astrology, mathematics, and dictionary lists. Not all texts known from early periods were passed down to later

ones. This process has been called the creation of a canon, and it is certainly one that we can catch sight of in the Bible, although there at some early date the Jews returning from Babylonian exile did crystallize the books they had and tried to keep them unchanging. That is not really part of the canonical process in Mesopotamia or Egypt. In those places people recognized that development was inevitable, though, like the Jews, they also venerated old texts just because they were old. But what is basic? The text we study most these days is the

Gilgamesh Epic, perhaps the earliest extended composition that attempts to address culturally significant values that still are important to us today. It is a story about an Early Dynastic king of the southern

metropolis of Uruk who may or may not be historical; his name means “Heroic Ancestor,” and that is not a name you give to any baby or really anyone still living. He may have lived around 2700 BCE, and if he was not a real person, his story has drawn on the exploits of several memorable heroes who served as models for royal behavior and probably were attractive to more ordinary people too. We have stories about Gilgamesh only from the Old Babylonian

period and after, a thousand years after he may have lived, and they may not have been a unified epic. The epic on eleven tablets was found in the great late Assyrian library and copied around 700 BCE. It is the story of a young king with unlimited powers and unlimited appetites, who was a trial to his people. He even slept with new brides first, with the bridegroom coming second. His people complained to the gods, who created a wild man to be his equal and to try to tame him. This figure, Enkidu, was a throwback to the way people were

before they differentiated themselves from animals. He ran the steppe, the empty area between cities, and freed animals from traps and was in communion with herds of animals. A hunter hired a prostitute to seduce Enkidu; after he enjoyed her for a whole week, he tried to return to the animals, but he was changed, and they no longer accepted him. This may show that human sexuality, involving facing a partner and not just climbing on from behind, was a source of human self-consciousness. The prostitute taught him some of the arts of human living, like eating bread. She then invited him to the city to meet Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and Enkidu hated each other on sight and wrestled,

but neither won, and when they were both exhausted, they became friends. As the people of Uruk had hoped, the two went on a distant adventure to the Cedar Mountain, far to the west in Lebanon, to kill its guardian monster, and to bring back wood so lacking on the Mesopotamian plain. When they came home, the goddess Ishtar accosted Gilgamesh,

who looked pretty good after his bath, and asked him to marry her, implying he would gain immortality if he did so. But Gilgamesh refused, citing all the former lovers of the goddess whom she eventually abandoned. This refusal may derive from the so-called sacred marriage, where a ruler had sex with a priestess, both representing

gods, to ensure fertility. The evidence for this as a habitual practice is slight, but at least one king participated in it. Gilgamesh seemed to be questioning its usefulness, and ironically he also was rejecting a possible path to immortality. Ishtar was furious and begged her divine father to decimate Uruk

by sending down the Bull of Heaven, a destructive monster. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu were strong enough to kill the Bull of Heaven, and Enkidu even threw its thigh at Ishtar, who was screaming in disappointment on the walls of Uruk. She was incensed and demanded the gods kill one of the heroes. And so Enkidu perished from a wasting disease. Gilgamesh was

appalled when Enkidu died; he cradled the body until it putrefied, and then he began to run the steppe as Enkidu had done. He ran, not joyfully and full of animal exuberance, but with excruciating existential sadness. The realization had finally come to him that he too would one day die. Gilgamesh decided to try to find immortal life. He knew that

one human being had attained it. That was the hero of the flood, who had been rewarded for his piety and obedience with eternal life for him and his wife in a distant land across the water. In a harrowing journey Gilgamesh encountered, in an Old

Babylonian version, a female barkeeper who told him his quest was in vain. The best humans could do, she said, was to be kind to those around them and to enjoy their time alive. She seems to give the moral of the whole epic, but later editors did not include her speeches, maybe because they generalized too much. Gilgamesh did make it to the flood hero, who told the story of

how he had obeyed Enki, the wise god of fresh water, who had leaked to him the destructive plans of the other gods. But the flood was not going to happen again, and there would be no other flood hero who might be rewarded with life. The flood hero and his wife contrived a test for Gilgamesh

involving his staying awake for days, but he could not, being really really tired. Finally they told him about a plant that did not offer immortality but only physical renewal, a sort of herbal Botox. Gilgamesh retrieved the plant and, in what may be a sign of maturity, did not immediately consume it; he would bring it back to an old man in Uruk. But even this did not happen since Gilgamesh neglected to safeguard the special plant, and a snake ate it,

immediately molting its skin. This is an explanation of the ability of the snake to look younger, but of course human beings could not do that, now that the plant was lost. Gilgamesh was sad that the plant was gone, but he invited the

flood hero’s boatman who accompanied him to come to Uruk and observe its magnificent walls. This passage echoed one at the beginning of the epic. The idea was that the building of those walls, benignly protecting human activity, was a worthy monument to human endeavor. The story still attracts us and invites us to consider our own limitations. There are no epics from ancient Egypt, and yet there is a mem-

orable story that may represent central aspects of Egyptian thought about the nature of human beings. At the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty in 1994 BCE Amunemhet I again united Egypt, and he devised a plan for succession to the throne; he would make his son co-king, or co-regent, while he was alive. The Tale of Sinuhe shows it was not a smooth transition. Sinuhe

was a court official on campaign against the Libyans with the young co-king when the news of the old king’s death reached him. The heir to the throne immediately went back to Egypt to order affairs and oversee his father’s burial. But Sinuhe was afraid, probably that there would be a purge of officials including himself, and so he snuck away. This story was frequently copied, and the earliest copy comes from later in the Twelfth Dynasty, the period in which the story is set. It was based on the form of an autobiographical tomb inscription, but there is no evidence Sinuhe existed. In the story Sinuhe walked from Egypt to the east, across the

desert of Sinai and encountered friendly nomads who took him in and even gave him a wife. He rose to become an important man in Syria-Palestine and to own fruitful lands, and he succeeded in beating a challenger in single combat. He was honored among the Syrians and served as an informal Egyptian consul. He had fine sons, but all was not well with him. Suddenly he got a message from the Egyptian king, forgiving his

flight and insisting on his return, leaving within twenty-four hours. Sinuhe joyfully disposed of his goods and land he had in Syria and travelled back to Egypt. There he was greeted by the king. He was given new clothes, a

great house and restored to his former status, but the main thrust of

activities on his behalf was preparation of his tomb. The Egyptian assumption was that it would have been horrible for him to die away from Egypt; you couldn’t be sure you would make it to the blessed West if you didn’t have a tomb in Egypt. The Middle Kingdom was the time when the fancy grave goods

previously limited to royalty and the favorites of kings became more generally available. And Sinuhe’s tale may be a sign of that spread of availability. The popularity of the tale probably has to do with its exotic locales, Syria and Palestine being a focus of Egyptian expansion and a place where many readers and copyists had relatives who had traveled, fought, and died. Another set of texts has attracted the attention of modern scholars,

texts inscribed on tombs and later on coffins and papyri, the reedbased paper people wrote on, which recorded spells, magical things to say, which would help the deceased get into the blessed west. There Egyptians imagined life after death would be a lot like life on earth, only forever. These have been called the Pyramid Texts because they were first found on King Unas’ tomb in the Old Kingdom, and they developed into the Coffin Texts which were more widespread, and then the Book of the Dead. The most famous passage in the Book of the Dead is the negative

confession where the deceased was told to tell the gods all the things he did not do that were wrong. The Book implies, as much of the earlier material seems to, that there would be a judgment of the dead. This idea was illustrated by the pictures of the weighing of the deceased’s heart (see Figure 5.1). What happens if you fail that test? Perhaps you get eaten by a fierce monster sometimes depicted in that scene. But the spell texts assume you will make it; you paid all this money to have the texts copied, didn’t you? We get some insight into the mentality of the Egyptian bureaucrats

through their instructional texts, which we call wisdom literature by analogy to the Hebrew Bible’s Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Scribes were proud to be scribes, but they also emphasized the duty to be careful not to abuse their power. A memorable story of this type is “The Eloquent Peasant,” a Middle Kingdom piece that tells the fictional story of a peasant who came in from the west of Egypt to sell some of his farm produce and encountered an arrogant official who confiscated his donkey and his goods. The peasant got an audience with the official’s boss and complained that this

injustice was not how things were supposed to go. The official informed the king that he had a very wordy fellow on his hands, and the king ordered him to write down the peasant’s speeches. The peasant returned nine times, becoming more and more upset at the injustice done to him, pointing out that the real role of government should be to protect the weak, not to rip them off. In the end the king granted the peasant’s petition and punished the official who first took advantage of him. A Mesopotamian text somewhat like “The Eloquent Peasant” is

more ambivalent. “The Dialogue of Pessimism” from first-millennium Mesopotamia is a series of speeches between a bored master and his slave. The master proposed doing something, and the slave enthusiastically endorsed the idea. Then the master changed his mind, and the slave just as enthusiastically endorsed not doing it. This is a

humorous sketch of how to be a sycophant, but it ends with the slave saying that the master really would not survive very long without the slave. How did the ancients think about the origin of the world? The

Egyptian “Memphite Theology” was copied in the first millennium but says it was copied from an Old Kingdom text, and that may be true, since it expresses what seem to be some very old ideas. The Theology says that Egypt started by rising from the sea, probably imagining something like the Nile Delta coming out of the Mediterranean. And the main god who effected this transformation was Ptah. , meaning “the opener,” a god of the Delta. The text says a divine heart and tongue came into existence and began commanding the land to emerge. The god then proceeded to create other gods to administer the new creation. An important part of it was the idea that people who did what the gods wanted would be rewarded while those who did not were punished. And yet human beings were not explicitly created in the text, although all the crafts and skills which the gods loved were fashioned. A similar Mesopotamian story is “The Creation Epic.” This

composition may have formed in the 1200s BCE when a king of Babylonia retrieved the statue of Marduk from its exile in Iran. We know that the text was later used as part of the spring new year’s festival, where the focus was on the god Marduk, the city god of Babylon. The Epic focuses on the strife between the great gods and the

god of the chaotic sea, Tiamat, whose name just means “sea.” This is a sexist poem which depicts Tiamat as deeply evil. She decided to take over the realms of the other gods, and those gods searched for a champion who would defend their temples and privileges. Several of the great gods refused, but Marduk agreed to fight her if the other gods would declare him supreme over them. They agreed, and he armed himself with wonderful spells. Tiamat meanwhile had elevated a minor god to be her spouse

and king of the gods. This god, called Qingu, was not otherwise important. Marduk attacked Tiamat, who had lots of demons to help her,

but Marduk triumphed through the use of his superior spells. This shows that the Mesopotamians thought there was a power of magic that lay above and beyond even the greatest gods, and the proper

spells could tap into that power. Marduk ripped open Tiamat, and then he slew Qingu. Marduk then proceeded not so much to create the world as to

organize it, founding cities and temples and setting up the systems under which we live. As a final thought he created humans from the blood of Qingu, perhaps explaining why human beings could be so troublesome to the gods and to each other. The purpose of humans was to serve the gods and make sure that their temples were well supplied and clean. So the image is of human beings as janitors, or perhaps we can say custodians, of the natural world, not with much authority but connected through service to the powers of the universe. This creation vision is not centered on humans; we are useful, but we are peripheral, and we were an afterthought when Marduk had finished everything else. The text ended with a long exposition of the fifty names of

Marduk. These names were tokens of praise for him and his skills, and many of them implied that he had taken over the powers of other gods. These passages edge toward henotheism, the idea that other gods existed but only one was really important. It is wrong to see any of these texts as authoritative; none would

have been accepted as the answer about what Mesopotamians or Egyptians thought about creation, for example. In a polytheistic world there was little possibility of having only one view of a question. There might always be another god, another temple, with a different story, but in literary texts we do see the range of possibilities. And we can say that some Egyptians and some Mesopotamians valued thinking in these ways to the extent of being willing to devote time to copying and perpetuating these particular words. For that we can be grateful.