There are times when ideas come along that just feel inspired. Then there are times when you think, “this is something I really should do because it sounds awesome in concept.” Those are the kind of ideas that you know readers will appreciate, provided you can do them justice! Otherwise, they’ll just sit on the shelf (or your Documents folder) and gather dust. The following list of ideas sort of straddle these two categories.
They came to me while researching ancient Mesopotamian myths that remain a part of our culture today. In fact, many of the myths that are considered to be foundational to western culture trace their roots to the “land between two rivers” (between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers). Here are the ideas I was mulling over after reading up on some ancient myths.
The Enki Effect
This idea was inspired by an article I did for Universe Today regarding a study titled, “Language Development During Interstellar Travel.” It was an especially exciting topic because, with a little added research, I was able to illustrate how words and language conventions could transform over the course of 10, 20, or more generations. It wasn’t enough just to do an article, I had to keep that train going! So here’s what I came up with…
In the distant future, humanity has expanded beyond Earth to becoming both interplanetary and interstellar. Unfortunately, the earliest missions took several generations to arrive at their destinations, and follow-up missions took many generations more. Thanks to improved technology, interstellar missions are able to reach nearby stars at near the speed of light (NSL), since faster-than-light (FTL) travel is impossible.
There are efforts to bring all human colonies under one roof. The biggest challenge to this, aside from logistics, is linguistics! Being apart for so long, human language has evolved in many different directions and efforts must be mounted to establish a common language. On the one hand, cultural exchanges are planned to allow people from every colony world to come together and learn from each other. On the other, linguists are sent to different worlds to study how the locals speak, as well as finding commonalities that could lead to a universal tongue (vocabulary, syntax, morphology, etc.).
This is known as the Enki Effect, which is all about people learning to understand each other. The theme is based on an ancient Sumerian myth known today as Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. I selected this story specifically because I was especially intrigued by it, largely because of how it and the Tower of Babel story from Hebrew mythology are linked. The Babel story appears in the Book of Genesis (Chapter 11, verses 1-19):
“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”
In contrast, Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta is a story about how languages were united during a particular crisis. It all began when the city of Uruk and Aratta (a rival state possibly in Iran or Armenia) were competing for the affections of Inanna (Ishtar). Whereas the lord of Aratta has himself crowned in Inanna’s name, she is more taken with the temple the city of Uruk has erected for her.
The King of Uruk offers to subdue Aratta in Innana’s name and sends an emissary to Aratta to demand tribute. In order for the declaration to be made, the emissary must recite the “Incantation of Creation,” a hymn imploring the god Enki to restore linguistic unity to all the regions of the land:
“On that day when there is no snake, when there is no scorpion, when there is no hyena, when there is no lion, when there is neither dog nor wolf, when there is thus neither fear nor trembling, man has no rival! At such a time, may the lands of Shubur and Hamazi, the many-tongued, and Sumer, the great mountain of the me of magnificence, and Akkad, the land possessing all that is befitting, and the Martu land, resting in security – the whole universe, the well-guarded people – may they all address Enlil together in a single language! For at that time, for the ambitious lords, for the ambitious princes, for the ambitious kings — Enki, the lord of abundance and of steadfast decisions, the wise and knowing lord of the Land, the expert of the gods, chosen for wisdom, the lord of Eridug, shall change the speech in their mouths, as many as he had placed there, and so the speech of mankind is truly one.”
As you can see, the stories differ quite a bit but have similar themes. In both accounts, it is the building of a temple that causes a divine to take offense (but for entirely different reasons). The divine is implored to unify the different languages of the land, rather than confounding them, and the power that comes from linguistic unity is apparently celebrated – not feared.
These stories are also fascinating because there are modern scholars that believe the Tower of Babel refers to an actual, physical place. For some, it represents the Tower of Etemenanki, a ziggurat in the ancient city of Babylon that was dedicated to the god Marduk. This makes sense considering that many Hebrew exiles lived in Babylon during the period in Jewish history known as the “Babylonian Captivity” (ca. early 6th century BCE).
This period began in 597 BCE when Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon conquered the Kingdom of Judah and sent many Jews into exile in Babylon. It was also Nebuchadnezzar II who is credited with having the ziggurat rebuilt, which was part of a larger restoration effort to rebuild the city of Babylon after the Neo-Assyrian king Sennacherib had it (and Etemenanki) destroyed in 689 BCE.
During this time, a lot of cultural transmissions took place as the Hebrews came into direct contact with the Babylonians. More followed after 539 BCE, when the Persian Empire (led by Cyrus the Great) conquered Babylon and allowed exiled Hebrews to return to Judah*. It was also during this time (6th to 5th century BCE) that the Torah – which includes the Book of Genesis – was being compiled.
To the Hebrews who were forced into captivity in a strange land, this imposing megastructure must have surely felt like a symbol of their oppression. It makes sense then that they would come to depict it as a symbol of avarice, especially after the Babylonian fells to their Persian adversaries (which could only be seen as vindication).
*SIDENOTE: I’ve had this theory since high school that it was during this period that Judaism (and later, Christianity and Islam) picked up the concepts of a dualistic cosmology, the ongoing struggle between good and evil, messianism, heaven and hell, and the Day of Judgement. These are all core concepts in the Zoroastrian faith, which is by some accounts the first monotheistic faith ever to exist and was the state religion of the Persian empire.
Now here is an idea that sort of came together in a reverse fashion. After writing the Formist Series, I felt that the planet Venus deserved more attention. In this series, the capitol of Venus is a floating city known as Ishtar, named for the Babylonian goddess of fertility. In the Babylonian astronomical/astrological tradition, Ishtar was associated with the Morning Star (Venus), and was the basis for Aphrodite and her Roman counterpart, Venus.
In any case, I started with the title for this story, then worked backward to find a mythological source that was suitable. Naturally, I wanted something that would relate to the theme of terraforming Venus, where altering the chemical cycle of the atmosphere will cause torrential rains – aka. The Big Rain (from the 1954 short story by Poul Anderson) – eventually transforming Venus into an ocean planet.
Eventually, I came across the ancient Sumerian myth about Innana, which is what the Sumerians called Ishtar (the predecessors of the Babylonians). This tale, titled Innana’s Descent into the Underworld, dates back to the Third Dynasty of Ur (ca. 22nd to 21st century BCE). In this tale, Innana (Ishtar) ventures to Kur, a dark cavern deep underground that is the Sumerian interpretation of the underworld.
The purpose of this visit is to attend the funeral of her sister’s (Ereshkigal) ex-husband and is captured while there. She dies in the process but can be resurrected if food and water are sprinkled on her remains. In time, the god Enki and Innana’s entourage mount a daring rescue, she is brought back to life, and they escape together. She is pursued by demons (galla) who tell her that if she leaves the underworld, she must send someone in her place.
Upon learning that her husband (Dumuzid) has been carrying on like a lecherous hump in her absence, she lets them have him. Like all religious tales, the story is steeped in symbolism and I figure there are some great opportunities for allegorical references. For one, traveling to the underworld sounds an awful lot like going from a space elevator to the surface of Venus, which is a freshly terraformed ocean paradise.
Also, there are the ceremonial vestments that Innana wears that represent her divine powers (her me), which sound comparable to advanced technology that give the user all kinds of capabilities (communications, augmented reality, access to AI, nanotechnology, biomedical implants, weaponry, etc.) And the structure and of the story is quite interesting when adapted to a futuristic setting.
Red Tide Rising
For this idea, I chose to go with the Deluge! This myth is a source of fascination for me, partly because it’s universal in nature, and also because there’s a link between the Biblical account and (again) ancient Sumerian mythology. The story of Noah’s Ark (also contained in the book of Genesis) is the most well-understood in western culture, so I need not repeat it here. What is lesser known is the fact that it bears a striking resemblance to the Akkadian epic Atra-Hasis (dated to the 18th century BCE).
The tale is contained on three clay tablets, the first containing the creation myth, where the gods Anu, Enlil, and Enki (the Sumerian gods of sky, wind, and water) give birth to the world and humanity. Tablet II speaks of human overpopulation and how the gods relied on periodic plagues, famines, and droughts to control them. Finally, Enlil decides to unleash a seven-day flood to wipe out humanity.
Tablet III is the one that contains the Deluge myth. It begins with Enki warning the titular hero (Atrahasis) of Enlil’s plan to destroy humanity and instructs him to dismantle his house and build a boat to escape. The boat is to have a roof and upper and lower decks to accommodate his family and their animals, which ensures their survival when the flood comes.
Enlil is furious with Enki for violating his oath, but Enki defends his actions and claims he did it to preserve life. They ultimately agree that humanity will live and that other means for controlling the population should be followed. Once again, we see parallels with the Hebrew account, at least as far as the major details are concerned.
In this case, I saw some serious possibilities for a Deluge-themed story involving the terraforming of Mars. After all, transforming the landscape of Mars entails melting its polar caps so the planet can once again have liquid water on its surface. But what if there was a miscalculation and settled lowlands suddenly became threatened? Like I said, potential!
We – Are – Sumer!
Another thing I realized while looking through the astrological/astronomical traditions of the ancient Mesopotamians was how these traditions are still alive today. For example, ancient Greek and Roman mythology was heavily influenced by the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Akkadians*. Not only did the Mesopotamians catalog the constellation as the Greeks and Roman knew them (which are today preserved in the form of Zodiac Signs), recent scholarship indicates that the animals we associate with them were established by the early-mid Babylonian period (1800 BCE – 1200 BCE).
*Addendum: Apparently, the ancient Egyptian, Persian, and Hindu traditions are also similar to those of the Mesopotamians, which is clear evidence of transmission, sharing, and/or a common origin.*
Today, we still use the Latin names and associate the planets with their Greco-Roman counterparts. Sure, we’ve since added a few more planets to the rolls, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto (and then reconsidered Pluto’s planet status after finding Ceres, Eris, Sedna, Haumea, Makemake, Orcus, Quaoar, etc.). But the convention with which we’ve named many of these bodies is still consistent with this ancient tradition: from ancient Mesopotamia to Classical Antiquity to modern Western astronomy.
To run it down for you, here are the Sumerian/Babylonian names for those planets that were known to the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, as well as their Greek and Roman counterparts:
- Utu/Shamash (Sun): the god of truth, justice, and mortality, depicted as driving a brilliant chariot across the sky
- the basis for Helios (Greek pantheon), guardian of oaths and sight, and for the Roman sun god Sol Invictus
- Nabu/Nebo (Mercury): named for the god of literacy, reason, scribes, and wisdom
- the basis for Hermes, herald of the Freel gods, and the Roman god Mercury (messenger of the gods)
- Inanna/Ishtar (Venus): goddess of love, fertility, sex, war, and political power
- the basis for Aphrodite, goddess of love, fertility, and sex, and Venus, Roman god of love, fertility, and sex
- Ki/Antu (Earth): mother of the gods, sister of (and consort to) Anu (sky), replaced later by Inanna (Ishtar)
- the basis for Gaia/Hera, the Greek mother goddess who bore the gods/wife and consort of Zeus (replaced by Aphrodite)
- later became the basis of Terra (Earth) and Juno in the Roman pantheon
- Nannar/Sin (Moon): god of the Moon, wisdom, and the totality of divine power, depicted as riding a chariot across the sky
- associated with Selene, Greek goddess of the Moon, basis for Roman goddess Luna (riding a chariot)
- Nergal (Mars): god of war, plague, strife, and forest fires, associated with calamities
- the basis for Ares, the Greek god of war, strife, chaos, and the basis for Mars (Roman god of war)
- Amarutuk./Marduk (Jupiter): chief of the gods, patron of the city of Babylon and the Babylonian people
- the basis for Zeus, father, and king of the Olympian gods, and Jupiter (Jove), Roman father of the gods
- Ninurta/Ninib (Saturn): warrior deity, the god of agriculture, and patron god of farmers
- basis for Cronos, the Greek god of the harvest, father of the Titans (and Zeus), and Saturn (Roman god of agriculture)
As you can see, there are clear signs of cultural transmission. The names changed, but most of the details and the significance remained the same. This is also illustrated in the constellations, where the twelve signs of the zodiac were all drawn from the astrological traditions of Babylon. Here they are, grouped according to their modern name, their ancient name, and their associated symbol:
- Aries: “Hired Man” the Ram
- Taurus: “Stars (Pleiades)” the Bull
- Gemini: “the Twin” the Rooster
- Cancer: “Crab” the Crab
- Leo: “Lion” the Lion
- Virgo: “the Barleystalk” the Raven
- Libra: “the Balance”
- Scorpio: “Scorpion”
- Sagittarius: “Pabilsag” the Anzu bird
- Capricorn: “the Goat-fish” the Goat
- Aquarius: “Great One” the Eagle
- Pisces: “the Tails” the Dove/Swallow
I can’t speak for everybody, but I sure find this cool. It’s interesting to know that our observations of the heavens and the patterns we’ve applied have very deep roots. And ancient history and the whole question of origins have always lit a fire in my brain!