Trees and religion – Ancient Mesopotamia

See Part III of this series on trees and religions here.

As elucidated to previously (in the section on Christianity) in brief with regards to the goddess Asherah and the Canaanites, other cultures of the geographical region (encompassing the Levant, and the surrounding areas) that spawned the more contemporary religions that are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, also had their associations with trees – associations that were much more direct, in terms of reverence.

For example, in the polytheistic Mesopotamian religions that spanned the Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, the goddess Ishtar, who was the goddess of fertility, was sometimes depicted alongside a sacred tree (Stuckey, 2002; Weinfeld, 1996). Inanna, the goddess of fertility in the earlier Sumerian empire, was also sometimes depicted alongside a sacred tree (Orrelle & Horwitz, 2016). This sacred tree was, in certain instances, palm-like (Stuckey, 2002; Orrelle & Horwitz, 2016). Perhaps, though by no means conclusively, like in the later monotheistic religions, Giovino (2007) writes, on the back of previous research, that this was the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). This is supported by Altman (2000), with regards to the Assyrian cosmic tree being the date palm. The sacred tree of the Mesopotamian religions would also, in some instances, bear the fruit of the pomegranate (Punica granatum) (Parpola, 1993), as would it sometimes be used, by the Assyrians, to depict the generational family tree of their Gods (ranging from the upper tier of Aššur and Anu, to the middle and lower tiers of gods including Ishtar, Marduk, and Nergal). For the Babylonians, the Tree of Truth (synonymous with the Tree of Knowledge) and Tree of Life were also said to guard the eastern gate of the heavens (Altman, 2000).

tree-of-life
The Assyrian Tree of Life. Source: Samizdat.

With reference to the cosmic tree (axis mundi) of the region’s religions, one can identify the outskirts of the city of Eridu, near to the delta of the Euphrates River, being host to the sacred tree of the Babylonians. As will be detailed later for other religions and their sacred trees, the river plays an important role in the location of the sacred tree, as the abyssal waters here were host to Ea (the god of life), and from this water did the earth become fertilised with life (Altman, 2000). In this sense, not only is the cosmic tree imbued with divine life, but from the roots of the this tree does all life obtain its support.

This cosmic tree also was the residence of the Babylonian’s primal mother goddess. For the earlier Sumerians, the cosmic tree, known as the huluppu (according to some sources this was a weeping willow – perhaps Salix babylonica), connected the underworld (Ereshkigal), the mortal realm (Enlil), and the heavenly realm (An), and was subsequently a symbol of life and renewal amongst the priest class (Altman, 2000; Kramer, 1972). Similarly, the tree was found on the banks of the Euphrates River, until being taken by Inanna to the city of Erech and planted in her garden. Here, Inanna hoped that it would grow tall so she could construct a throne from it, but it did not yield any new growth and it thus stood dead up until its demise at the hands of Gilgamesh and other inhabitants of the city (Kramer, 2010). After being felled, its timber was used to create an array of material goods.

Small statues of Asherah, the goddess of fertility in other ancient Semitic religions (as previously ascertained), have also been found in relative abundance, within the region. These statues, complete with upper body features including breasts and a head, are adjoined to a lower body that resembles a tree trunk (von Feldt, 2014). In the Ugaritic religion, there are similar depictions of deities and trees, with some artefacts showing trees emanating from the pubic region (or region between the navel and pubic area) of goddesses (including Athirat – known as Asherah, in later times), signifying again a divine association or similarity (in the conceptual sense) between trees and the mother goddess (Hadley, 2000; Sugimoto, 2012; Stuckey, 2002; Orrelle & Horwitz, 2016; Vidal, 2004; von Feldt, 2014).

The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was a prominent and lengthy poem of the cultures and religions of the Ancient Mesopotamian world, provides further reference to trees within the Mesopotamian region and its respective religions. In this poem, which does vary somewhat between the different Mesopotamian cultures (notably with regards to how Gilgamesh intends to establish his name in history and achieve immortality, after reaching the sacred forest), Gilgamesh and Enkidu task themselves with slaying Humbaba, the guardian of the near boundless primeval sacred cedar (Cedrus libani) forest as divinely appointed by Enlil (and where the gods and goddesses did reside – notably the goddess Ishtar), after Humbaba became enraged at the pair when Gilgamesh and Enkidu attempted to fell the sacred cedar that Humbaba embodied – in addition to other cedars within the forest (Cusack, 2011; Heidel, 1949; Lechler, 1937; Tigay, 1982). Humbaba exclaimed, in particular, that the sacred cedars were being desecrated and murdered by the pair (Kovacs, 1985; Shaffer, 1983).

Throughout the pair’s travel to the forest, and within it, the solar deity Shamash (Utu) aids them – albeit not initially – by appearing to Gilgamesh in his dreams (which Enkidu interprets), after Gilgamesh prays to Shamash every day for safe travels (which are granted) (Bilić, 2007; George, 2003; Harrison, 1992). Following the successful slaying of Humbaba (again made possible by Shamash), Gilgamesh and Enkidu proceeded to fell the cedars en masse, and use the timber for construction purposes within the largely treeless Mesopotamian region, including for the main door for the Temple of Enlil in Nippur (Harrison, 1992; Kovacs, 1985). Enlil was reportedly enraged by this act of killing Humbaba and felling the cedars, at least in the Sumerian version, and thus condemned Enkidu for the remainder of his life (Tigay, 1982).

gilgamesh_and_enkidu_battle_humbaba
The pair take battle with Humbaba. Source: Black Gate.

Whether or not the cedars themselves are any sort of main aspect of the Epic of Gilgamesh is questionable, though at the very least one can ascertain that the cedar forest was associated strongly with the gods, both because that was their home, and the fact that Enlil appointed a guardian to protect the cedar forest from the haunts of man. This guardian, according to Shaffer (1983), may have even potentially obtained its power from the cedars. Furthermore, the Old Babylonian Akkadian stone fragment of the tale cites the felling of the cedars as equating to that of murder, which suggests that the cedars were held in high regard. Such a high value of the cedar of Lebanon certainly extended to other religions of the world, as noted in earlier sections of this series.

References

Altman, N. (2000) Sacred Trees: Spirituality, Wisdom & Well-Being. USA: Sterling Publishing.

Bilić, T. (2007) A Note on the Celestial Orientation: Was Gilgamesh Guided to the Cedar Forest by the Pleiades?. The Journal of the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb. 40 (1). p11-14.

Cusack, C. (2011) The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

George, A. (2003) The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts – Volume II. USA: Oxford University Press.

Giovino, M. (2007) The Assyrian Sacred Tree: A History of Interpretations. Switzerland: Academic Press.

Hadley, J. (2000) The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, R. (1992) Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. USA: The University of Chicago Press.

Heidel, A. (1949) The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. 2nd ed. USA: The University of Chicago Press.

Kovacs, M. (1985) The Epic of Gilgamesh. USA: Stanford University Press.

Kramer, S. (1972) Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C.. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kramer, S. (2010) The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. USA: The University of Chicago Press.

Lechler, G. (1937) The tree of life in Indo-European and Islamic cultures. Ars Islamica. 4 (1). p369-419.

Orrelle, E. & Horwitz, L. (2016) The pre-iconography, iconography and iconology of a sixth to fifth millennium BC Near Eastern incised bone. Time and Mind. 9 (1). p3-42.

Parpola, S. (1993) The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 52 (3). p161-208.

Shaffer, A. (1983) Gilgamesh, the Cedar Forest and Mesopotamian History. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 103 (1). p307-313.

Stuckey, J. (2002) The great goddesses of the Levant. Bulletin of the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies. 37 (1). p27-48.

Sugimoto, D. (2012) “Tree of Life” Decoration on Iron Age Pottery from the Southern Levant. Orient. 47 (1). p125-146.

Tigay, J. (1982) The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Vidal, J. (2004) The Sacred Landscape of the Kingdom Of Ugarit. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions. 4 (1). p143-153.

von Feldt, A. (2014) Does God Have a Wife?. The FARMS Review. 19 (1). p81-118.

Weinfeld, M. (1996) Feminine features in the imagery of God in Israel: the sacred marriage and the sacred tree. Vetus Testamentum. 46 (1). p515-529.

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Trees and religion – Ancient Mesopotamia

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