Myth and the Ancient Soul
by Nancy Castille
Humanity Transitions from Primitive to Mythical
The advent of writing in the human species marks an important inflection point in human history which is fascinating to ponder. If one is journeying in time in search of the evidence of Spirit and how Spirit has woven itself into history, one naturally wants to find those people of the past that first invented writing. Credit for the invention of writing is often given to the Sumerian people of the Fertile Crescent, who, in approximately 4000 BC invented the cuneiform form of writing in which a stylus is used to make systematic impressions in clay tablets. For the first time, humans had means to preserve and codify their stories and beliefs using means outside of traditional oral narrative or gestural techniques. The language preserved on the beautiful clay tablets discovered has transmitted to us some of the most beautiful and interesting stories and myths that humanity has ever produced. Reading these ancient stories and myths allows a glimpse into the history of the human soul and at the same time, also allows us to see the ways in which the myths served to support existing cultural traditions in the society of the time.
As humanity was learning to write, it was at the same time undergoing a shift in social structure from ways of thinking that would support a hunter-gatherer society to ways of thinking that would prove of greater benefit to a hierarchically-organized agricultural society. Systems of thought and social organization became increasingly complex. With the coming of the agricultural revolution (or the Neolithic age), people increasingly came to live within great city-states under highly stratified social structures, generally ruled over by a powerful king or monarch. The king played a key role in promoting agricultural and economic success within the society. He was powerful, sometimes ruthless, but nonetheless, still played the role as nurturing father and provider for the people. In order to gain the benefits to society that a king could bring, one can say that people willingly gave up some of their personal power in order to gain the benefits of social order. The social egalitarianism which had been prevalent in a primitive hunter-gatherer society gradually transitioned into a highly stratified society in which the king had significantly more power than the rest. The religious beliefs left behind often reveal and reinforce the assumed social order.
Of course, the role that religion plays is not exclusively social. Religion is deeply personal and reveals much about the deepest yearnings of the human spirit. Looking at the soul-making function of religion is equally, if not more interesting to understanding the role it plays in society. It is clear, however, that religious beliefs and cultural traditions are often developed to buttress and substantiate the existing power structure.
In the clay tablets of Mesopotamia, religious beliefs were recorded so that we can today see what the ancient mind thought and how it approached solving cultural as well as personal or spiritual problems. We observe that religion generally did not challenge the authority of the king but usually substantiated and supported it, either directly or indirectly. Kings increasingly came to declare divine status, most likely to strengthen the fealty they could command from their subjects as well as to legitimate their monarchic roles.
This period of time is particularly interesting to study because it represents a time of transition in the evolution of religion within human history. It also represents a shift from oral narrative culture to written culture, a time of the advent of agriculture and the consequent build up of city-states, a shift from the mythic phase of religion to the theoretical and codified stage. It is a time when religion moved from its primal roots in what is called in the field of religion the "mimetic" phase to the more advanced "mythic" phase. During the mythic phase, use of language and narrative is used more extensively, with narratives designed to strengthen and reinforce existing systems of social relations. The myths of the society give emphasis not only to existential and spiritual questions, but also buttress existing power structures and cultural traditions. The mythic phase does not, of course, eliminate its mimetic or gestural roots. Primitive religions are characterized as mimetic based on their use of gesture, repetitive physical acts, chanting, rhythm, and dance. The elements of the mimetic phase are preserved within the mythic. But the mythic moves into the realm of language and narrative.
I would characterize the ancient culture that produced the Seven Hymns to the Goddess Inanna as a society just on the cusp of the primitive but about to move into a more advanced phase of human history, they mythic phase. It is interesting to gaze into ancient texts that were created so close to the beginning of human civilization. One can thereby get closer to understanding the main features of the mythic phase of human consciousness, as humans evolve from their deep primitive roots into fully mythic beings.
The Soul of the Ancients
We see how the ancient Sumerians told stories to organize society and explain the world around them. Here they are, at the dawn of civilization, worlds apart from where we stand in modern day. And yet certainly, when one discovers the voice behind the Gilgamesh narrative, one understands instantly that the answer to the question of whether these people are like us is a resounding "Yes!" In other words, there is clear evidence for the operating of Soul through the ancient minds and evidence of the nature of human yearning that is similar to the yearning we still feel today. Their mythology and stories tell us much about who they were as a people and what their world was like. But more importantly, their stories tell us about the human spirit and the journey it has taken throughout the centuries of the development of human consciousness.
This essay stems from a fascination with the idea of ancestors and the transmission of consciousness across time. I look for evidence of Spirit and how it operates in humanity in these ancient texts. One wonders "What were these people like? Were they anything like me?" How did the human spirit react to the conditions with which it was presented so long ago in the Mesopotamian desert? As always, my approach to religion is to look at it from a social and institutional perspective while at the same time recognizing that the element of the personal and spiritual is a simultaneously revolving sphere of existence. Some of what looking deeply into ancient myths tells us tells us about interior or invisible things, while some of the myths explain the role myth plays in reinforcing social structures.
So there they were these ancient peoples, on the cusp of the mythic, emerging into a world organized by agriculture and the rise of large city-states. So what do their stories tell us about these ancient people?
The myths and religion of the ancient Sumerians are deeply affected by the environment around them. In them, we feel the cycles of nature in a sometimes cruel landscape. These people struggled to make a living out of an unforgiving land. They had to learn to to work together collectively, wielding language and narrative to encourage the greatest possible social cooperation and cohesion, allowing them to dominate the natural environment in which they found themselves. Looked at in this light, one can easily understand why fertility played such a prominent role in their mythical narratives. They would go to great lengths to influence whatever forces might improve their chances of drawing a better yield from the land. This includes the creation of goddesses and gods that would assist them in taming the elements.
Females are often depicted in key roles in the ancient Sumerian narratives. The stories of Inanna, one of the star females in the Sumerian pantheon, depict her as lusty, powerful and strong. From her father, she steals the "mēs", the fundamental laws of society, and distributes them to the people. Inanna is fearless and deep. She travels to the underworld to visit her dark sister and she demonstrates incredible strength and humility in the face of challenges. Even though she is murdered in the underworld, she is later resurrected and returns home a stronger and better ruler, and a source of inspiration for all.
6,000 years ago, humans had not yet invented priggishness and repressed views on sexuality. Sexuality had a natural and regenerative function. Both male and female had their important roles to play in the ongoing cycles of nature. It is refreshing to see female sexuality depicted in such an unrestricted manner in the stories about the goddess, Inanna. She yearns for her man, Dumuzi, and spends 7 days straight in bed with him, reveling in the joys of connubial union. There is nothing prurient or shameful about the recounting of these stories.
Between the lines and the images lies the spirit of these ancient people. They too longed for stability, love, wisdom, health, and prosperity, just as we do. How life-affirming it is to traverse back in time to a time so long ago and to find even there, the heart and soul of mankind shines out of the darkness.
This essay is influenced by and based on two main works:
Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, by Robert N. Bellah, 2011
Gods In the Desert: Religions of the Ancient Near East, by Glenn S. Holland, 2009