A Life Divine. Deities and Their Course of Life in Ancient Mesopotamian Creation Narratives

“When the gods created mankind, death they dispensed to mankind, and life they kept for themselves.”[1] These lines, which belong to a ca. four millennia old fragment of the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, show that the question of the origins of mankind was already considered in the world’s oldest written sources. They also illustrate two notions present in creation narratives from ancient Mesopotamia and other historic and contemporary cultures: mankind was created by the divine, and the former is set apart from the latter by a limited lifespan.

Deities are eternal and ever-present, and therefore should not be bound by time. However, creation narratives paint a different picture. Not only do they demonstrate the paradox of timeless deities playing a part in historical, earthly time (such as the creation of mortals), but they also reveal that deities are subject to structured time similar to a human lifecycle. Deities beget and are begotten; they can be young and old; and they marry and die. In some cases, their lifespan is even measured in time.

This paper will provide insight into the relationship between time and divine existence through exploring the course of life of deities as presented in ancient Mesopotamian creation narratives. It will discuss how notions of divine lifetime are embedded in concepts of human lifetime in ancient Mesopotamia, and these will be compared to other traditions in the ancient Near East and beyond. The paper will conclude that the mythological realm of time, which is not segregated from but rather rooted in and intertwined with earthly time, provides a critical mirror of the (ancient and modern) perceptions of the beginning and course of human life.

[1] OB VA+VM iii 3-5. A.R. George, the Babylonian GilgamesĖŒ Epic I (Oxford, 2003): 278.