Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta
Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta is an ancient Sumerian legend estimated to have been written around 2100 BCE. The story describes a conflict between Enmerkar, the king of Unug-Kulaba, and an unnamed king of Aratta. Unug-Kulaba is the Sumerian name for Uruk, which was located in what is now south-eastern Iraq. Aratta is described as being far to the north, and is perhaps a fictional city created for the story.
The story serves as the Sumerian origin for writing. Another interesting aspect of the story is that it mentions a time when men lived before dangerous animals existed and describes a world where everyone speaks a single common language. These seem to be prototypes for the Garden of Eden and Tower of Babel myths which weren't written in the Book of Genesis until over 1,000 years later.
"Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta" was followed by "Enmerkar and En-suhgir-ana" which is a sequel of sorts, but also a re-telling.
I learned about this story because it is often described as being a sort of template for the Jewish Tower of Babel, and I like to learn about the origins of myths.
In the story, Enmerkar, king of Unug-Kulaba has built a large temple to the goddess Inanna which is much better than the temple in Aratta. This causes Enmerkar to believe Inanna favors his city over the neighboring city of Aratta, so he sends a messenger to their king with orders to describe how powerful he is and demand Aratta give him precious stones and metals to decorate his wonderful temple. If they refuse, he will raze their city to the ground. The king of Aratta refuses and sends the messenger back with orders to explain how the goddess Inanna personally appointed him king, how powerful he is, and the military might of Aratta. Enmerkar has his messenger send food to the people of Aratta during a famine in order to show off their might and perhaps convince them to persuade their king to surrender their wealth, and, just as the king of Aratta is losing faith, Aratta's crops miraculously grow which steels his faith in Inanna's protection. The messenger continues to go back and forth between the cities, each time having to memorize new threats of war and personal self-aggrandizement. Eventually, the messenger cannot remember everything Enmerkar wants him to relay to the king of Aratta, so Enmerkar invents writing so his demands can be conveyed without error. Much of the end of the story has been lost, but it appears that Enmerkar is victorious. Aratta is still prosperous, but perhaps under the new leadership of Enmerkar.
About a dozen deities from the Sumerian pantheon are mentioned with the most focus on Inanna, Enki, Enlil, and Nudimmud.
I don't own a published version of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, but I have read an English translation.
- The story's plot — two kings warring over who is more favored by the gods — is an accurate depiction of the frailty of human ego as it applies to Middle Eastern religions. Sadly, it's just as true today as it was 4,000 years ago!
- I love how these stories, despite being among the most ancient of human texts, frequently refer to an even more ancient time with phrases like in the "days of yore" and "as the proverb goes." It reminds us that human oral history vastly predates our written history. I also find perspective with looking back 4,000 years on authors who thought of their time as the modern age. It makes me wonder what someone 4,000 years from now will think about our quaint stories and parochial beliefs.
- I find it funny that, when explaining how he will destroy Aratta, Enmerkar invokes the "current market rate." Is he going to defeat them by raising the rate of inflation? However, it's interesting that people at the dawn of civilization already knew enough about economics to discuss the importance of the current market rate of products.
- It's hilarious how the two kings pile mountains of praise upon themselves to a ridiculous degree. Enmerkar brags about his "glistening beard" and says he can "pulverize mountains to flour," while the king of Aratta talks about his "huge heavenly neck-stock" and how his military is as "eagle talons which make the blood of the enemy run from the bright mountain." It shows just how old the pompous politician archetype is.
- The fact that both kings are willing to risk the lives of all their subjects by starting a war because of their pious pride is despicable (if shockingly accurate).
- It certainly seems like Enmerker is supposed to be viewed as the hero. Unlike the king of Aratta, he is named, he also invents writing, and appears to win the conflict. However, his actions clearly make him out to be the villain. He piously threatens to murder his neighbors if they don't give him their wealth so he can decorate a temple he made?
- Sadly, much of the story's ending has been lost to time as the bottom parts of the tablets are no longer legible.
- Basically, the moral is, you can threaten to murder people if they don't surrender their wealth, and the gods will help you provided you use the stolen wealth to build them a lavish temple. Pathetic.
- etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr1823.htm - English translation.