Joseph Campbell


But already in the mangled cuneiform Flood text above, quoted from ca. 2000 B.C., the signs are discernable of at least two distinct orders of mythology. For in Sumerian terms, that text was very late, and during the course of a preceding culture-history of no less than 1500 years, the founding cosmological insight represented in the Flood legend had become overlaid by folkloristic layerings of imaginative, anecdotal narrative. Throughout those very greatly troubled times the land of Sumer had been open to both peaceful settlement and violent invasions by Semitic hordes from the Syro-Arabian desert, until finally, ca. 2350 B.C., the mighty usurper, Sargon I of Akkad, carved out for himself with great violence and destruction of which his monuments proudly boast an empire that extended from the Taurus ranges to the Persian Gulf, which "began," as Samuel Noah Kramer has remarked, "the Semitization of Sumer that finally brought about the end of the Sumerian people, at least as an identifiable political and ethnic entity. . . His influence made itself felt in one way or another from Egypt to India."(8)

The mutilated Flood text of ca. 2000 B.C. is from the ruins of Nippur, which Sargon's grandson, Naram-Sin, sacked and desecrated ca. 2230 B.C. The Sargonids themselves were then over-powered, ca. 2150 B.C., by a mountain people from the Zagros range, the Guti, who overran the empire and maintained control in Mesopotamia until ca. 2050 B.C., when Utuhegel of Erech, a Sumerian, overthrew their king Tirigan and, having caused him to be blinded and brought before his throne, "set his foot upon his neck."(9)

The following century, which is that of our Flood text and known to scholarship as Dynasty III of Ur (ca. 2050-1950 B.C.), was an immensely productive season of renewed Sumerian achievement in the arts, in temple building, religious reconstruction, and text recording. Indeed, practically all that we now know of the literature, mythology, and culture of this remarkable, first literate people in the history of civilization dates from the monuments of this one brief but very precious Sumerian century. A resurgent, reconstructed civilization, however, is not the same as an originating, form-envisioning culture; 350 years of alien domination cannot be written away. As Kramer has described the condition of the material of which he has been the leading modern translator:

Intellectually speaking, the Sumerian myths reveal a rather mature and sophisticated approach to the gods and their divine activities; behind them can be recognized considerable cosmological and theological reflection. By and large, however, the Sumerian mythographers were the direct heirs of the illiterate minstrels and bards of earlier days, and their first aim was to compose narrative poems about the gods that would be appealing, inspiring, and entertaining. Their main literary tools were not logic and reason but imagination and fantasy. In telling their stories they did not hesitate to invent motives and incidents patterned on human action that could not possibly have any basis in rational and speculative thought. Nor did they hesitate to adopt legendary and folkloristic motifs that had nothing to do with cosmological inquiry and inference.

As yet, no Sumerian myths have been recovered dealing directly and explicitly with the creation of the universe; what little is known about the Sumerian cosmogonic ideas has been inferred from laconic statements scattered throughout the literary documents. But we do have a number of myths concerned with the organization of the universe and its cultural processes, the creation of man, and the establishment of civilization.(10)

Prehistorically, the Sumerians were not aboriginal to Mesopotamia. Their native heath is unknown. Speaking an agglutinative tongue showing affinities, on one hand, with the Uralo-Altaic languages (Balto-Finnish, Hungarian, Volgaic, Uralien, Sarnoyedic, Turkish, Mongolian, and Eskimo)(11) and, on the other hand, with the Dravidian tongues of India, the Pelasgian of pre-Homeric Greece, Georgian of the Caucasus, and Basque of the Pyrenees,(12) they had arrived apparently ca. 3500 B.C. to find the river lands already occupied by an advanced Neolithic, farming and cattle-raising population known to science as the Ubaidian (also, Proto-Euphratean), who, as Kramer tells, were "the first important civilizing force in ancient Sumer, its first farmers, cultivators, cattle-raisers, and fishermen; its first weavers, leather-workers, carpenters, smiths, potters, and masons."(13) The culture stage represented was that of Marija Gimbutas's The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 7000-3500 B.C., where the paramount divinity of eastern Europe in that period is shown to have been (to quote Gimbutas's characterization) "the Great Goddess of Life, Death and Regeneration in anthropomorphic form with a projection of her powers through insects and animals."(14) "As a supreme Creator who creates from her own substance," states Gimbutas, "she is the primary goddess of the old European pantheon." And further: "Because her main function was to regenerate life forces, the goddess was flanked by male animals noted for their physical strength. . . . The European Great Goddess, like the Sumerian Ninkhursag, gave life to the dead."(15)

The elegance of the grade of civilization represented in the remains of this Mother Goddess culture-stratum in all of its appearances, whether in the Old Europe of Marija Gimbutas's revelations, the late Neolithic and Chalcolithic sites of Anatolia and the Near East, or in the pre-Harappan strata of Neolithic north-west India, gives evidence to the bold suggestion of Alain Danielou in his recently published comparative study of the religions of Shiva and Dionysus, of a single "great cultural movement extending from India to Portugal,"(16) dating from the sixth millennium B.C., and documented, not in scripture (since there was no writing at that time), but in the grace and clarity of its visual arts. For the ambience is strongly female: exemplary of a profoundly felt, inward knowledge of the transpersonal imperatives and quality of life, to which expression is given in visual art as a cosmetic or accenting adornment, not only of the person, but of anything of significance to life in the culture.

It is this joy in the beautification of life that especially marks the monuments of this earliest agricultural stage; and everywhere its paramount divinity is that metaphoric apparition of the life that outlives death who became in later centuries venerated as the Goddess of Many Names. "I am she," she declared, for example, on appearing as Queen Isis before her devotee Lucius Apuleius at the conclusion of the ordeal described in his allegorical picaresque novel. The Golden Ass (second century A.D.):

I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of the powers divine, queen of all that are in hell, the principal of them that dwell in heaven, manifested alone and under one form of all the gods and goddesses. At my will the planets of the sky, the wholesome winds of the seas, and the lamentable silences of hell are disposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout the world, in divers manners, in variable customs, and by many names. 

For the Phrygians that are the first of all men call me the Mother of the gods of Pessinus; the Athenians, which are sprung from their own soil, Cecropian Minerva; the Cyprians, which are girt about by the sea, Paphian Venus; the Cretans, which bear arrows, Dictynian Diana; the Sicilians, which speak three tongues, infernal Proserpine; the Eleusinians, their ancient goddess Ceres; some Juno, others Bellona, others Hecate, others Ramnusiee, and principally both sort of Ethiopians, which dwell in the Orient and are enlightened by the morning rays of the sun; and the Egyptians, which are excellent in all kind of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustomed to worship me, do call me by my true name, Queen Isis.

Behold I am come to take pity on thy fortune and tribulation; behold I am present to favor and aid thee; leave off thy weeping and lamentation, put away all thy sorrow, for behold the healthful day which is ordained by my providence."(17)

On a gold signet ring from Minoan Crete, ca. 2000-1500 B.C., the Goddess appears standing in majesty on a mountaintop, holding in her extended hand the staff or scepter of authority. Her equivalent form in Sumer at that time was Ninhursag, named in the Flood legend above quoted. "Her name," as Samuel Kramer remarks, "may originally have been Ki '(mother) Earth,' and she was probably taken to be the consort of An, 'Heaven,' An and Ki thus may have been conceived as the parents of all the gods. She was also known as Nintu, 'the lady who gave birth."(18)

In a celestial manifestation, the Goddess was known to the Sumerians in the person also of the pure and lovely Inanna (likewise named in the Flood text), who from heaven descended through seven gates to the netherworld to bring the dead to eternal life. In later Semitic myths, she is Ishtar, descending to the underworld to restore life to her beloved Tammuz, and in the Hellenized-Semitic Christian heritage her part is played by Christ in the episode, following the Crucifixion, of his "Harrowing of Hell," when, shattering the infernal gates, he "descended into hell," there to rescue to eternal life the prophets and justified of the Old Testament (leaving, however, the Greeks and Romans, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Cato, Horace, and the rest, in the devil's keep). 

FIG. 1. Goddess of the World Mountain. Design from a gold signet ring. Knossos, Crete, ca. 1500 B.C. From Sir Arthur Evans, The Palace of Minos, 4 vols. (1921-36).

There were many variants of the adventure represented in the vast amalgam of analogous mythologies brought together and compounded during the period immediately following the conquests of Alexander: Egyptian Isis searching to resurrect the remains of Osiris, her dismembered lord; Eleusinian Demeter seeking to recover her abducted child, Persephone; Aphrodite and Adonis; Babylonian Ishtar and Tammuz. In India, the model was the bride of Shiva, Sati (pronounced Suttee), whose role was to be enacted, until forbidden by British law in 1829, by every widowed wife following in death her deceased lord, whether (if low caste) buried alive with his corpse or (if high caste) consumed alive with him on his funeral pyre, so that, as one together in death, the two should be brought as one to eternal life: the wife becoming thus the sacramental counterpart of Christ Crucified in the Christian image, as Savior unto eternity of her spouse in the house of death.

And the celestial sign of the efficacy of such "death following" was recognized, both in India and throughout the Near East, in the celestial exemplar of the planet Venus, first as Evening, then as Morning Star: first, following her lord, the Sun, into night and then leading him forth to renewed day. As Venus, Ishtar, Sati, Isis, Inanna, and the rest, that is to say, the Goddess of Many Names, of the ancients, functioned and was revered universally as the source and being, not only of all temporal life, but also of life eternal. In Sumer, as Ninhursag, we see her in the first role and, as Inanna, in the second, while in daily life she was to be perceived in every woman. For as expressed by the nineteenth-century Hindu saint Ramakrishna, "All women (according to this way of thought) are the embodiments of Sakti. It is Primal Power that has become women and appears in the form of women."(19)


In All Her Names