Middle Eastern Mythologies
Mythology of Babylon
Were there primary Babylonian human heroes?
Two heroes stand out in Akkadian-Babylonian-Assyrian mythology. The first is Etana and the second and most important one is Gilgamesh.
Etana, reminding us of the Hebrew hero David, was said to have been a shepherd (like the Sumerian Dumuzi) and to have been appointed king of Kish by the gods. Epic fragments tell how when Etana and his wife were unable to produce an heir, the sun god Shamash sent him to find an eagle that had been captured by a serpent and then to ride the eagle to Heaven, where Ishtar ruled as queen. Etana was to petition Ishtar for the Plant of Birth. Etana did as he was instructed and a baby was born to his wife.
The Gilgamesh myth is contained in the great Babylonian epic about the hero that had gained wide popularity in Mesopotamia by the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. As we have seen, Gilgamesh had been well known since the Sumerian period and in all likelihood a Sumerian epic preceded the Babylonian version. There also were Hittite and Assyrian versions.
Gilgamesh was, in fact, a Sumerian king of Unug (Uruk) in the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. He was associated closely with the sun god Utu (Shamash) and, as was Etana, with Dumuzi (Tammuz). A later story, perhaps based on an earlier Sumerian one, tells how a king’s daughter becomes pregnant and a court prophet predicts that the child will become king. This causes the king (who as did Herod in the Jesus story and so many other kings in hero myths) to feel threatened, and he has the child thrown off a tower. The child is saved in midflight by an eagle (suggesting a connection with the Etana myth) and adopted by a humble shepherd until later he becomes king, joining David and Etana and Dumuzi as a shepherd-king.
The world knows Gilgamesh best as possibly the world’s first bona fide hero, in what is the earliest-known epic poem.