It is undeniable that the natural environment of ancient Mesopotamia had a profound effect on the earliest civilizations known to the world. Humankind’s ability to control irrigation waters directly correlates with the rise of mass agriculture. With this mastery of their river environment, early farmers were capable of supporting large urban populations. However, in Mesopotamia the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were both a source of life as well as destruction for early societies. In many ways, the geography of ancient Mesopotamia fostered a sense of catastrophic determinism within the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians. The scarcity of resources as well as the untamable nature of their deluge environment led these early people to believe their futures veered on a harsh predetermined course. This essay will demonstrate that many prominent sources in ancient literature, law codes, and archaic Sumerian religion reflect the rigorous geographic and natural conditions which caused this deterministic mindset.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the most important literary piece of Mesopotamia, displays a world in which even the mightiest of human beings possessed little freedom to control their own fate due to an insurmountable environment. The Epic of Gilgamesh’s plot centers on Gilgamesh’s unavailing struggle to find eternal life. Naturally, he comes close but ultimately fails. A key aspect of Gilgamesh’s endeavor is his quest for wood in a cedar forest guarded by fire breathing Humbaba.1 The odd fascination of ancient Mesopotamian literature with wood can be viewed as a testament to the dearth of this resource within the Tigris and Euphrates river valley.
The lack of wood in conjunction with stone had a deep impact on Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian civilizations. Instead of building their houses and ziggurats out of wood and stone, the ancient people of Mesopotamia were relegated into building with hardened mud. The impermanence of these structures furthered their deterministic world view by instilling with this ancient society a strong sense of fatalism. Everything they built was bound to be destroyed by their geographic environment. All of their hard work could be taken away in the instance of a flash flood or doomed by harsh desert corrosion. Only a hero king who is “two-thirds god” could bring precious wood into the river valley. 2 In this light, Gilgamesh’s quest for wood offers a small window into the effects of geographic constraints within Mesopotamian society.
Similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Law Codes of Hammurabi unveil a society in which a harsh environment led to a set world view. In an age where it was commonly believed Mesopotamian gods had already preordained the future, Hammurabi’s code came to be viewed as the embodiment of these gods’ will. The prologue of Hammurabi’s Code proclaims that Enil (the storm god) is the “determiner of destinies of the land” and “functions over all mankind.”3 This...