On the plain of words, a worn-out ziggurat casts its shadow – the world of ideas is deeper than memory. Who measures its angles? Who discerns its diagonals? Who calculates the effect of rain and dust on it? Who can see the hollow that time leaves in it?
Towards the end of the 3rd millennium B.C., in Sumer, a poem celebrated the sovereign God, the God of gods. Enlil, his name Sumerian name, is its oldest written name, ever.
« Enlil! His authority is far-reaching,
His word is sublime, holy!
What he decides is imprescriptible.
He assigns forever the destiny of beings.
His eyes scan the entire earth.
His radiance penetrates to the farthest reaches of the land.
When the venerable Enlil takes his place in majesty..,
On his sacred and sublime throne,
When he exercises his powers as Lord and King in perfection,
The other gods spontaneously prostrate themselves before him and obey his orders without question.
He is the great and powerful ruler who dominates Heaven and Earth,
Who knows everything and understands everything.»i
A millennium later, a prayer in the Akkadian language was composed for the supreme God. His Akkadian name was Marduk.
« Lord Marduk, O supreme God, of unsurpassed intelligence..,
When you go to war, the heavens falter,
When you raise your voice, the sea is disturbed.
When you brandish your sword, the gods turn around.
Not a single one can resist your furious shock.
Fearful Lord, in the Assembly of the Gods, there is none like you! »ii
The language of the Sumerians does not belong to any known language family. As for the language of the Akkadians, which included Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic peoples, it was Semitic.
Sumerians and Akkadians began to mix in Mesopotamia from the 4th millennium BC. Jean Bottéroiii notes that the Akkadians arrived in the north and centre of Mesopotamia, whereas the Sumerians were already present in the south.
The mixing of these peoples took place gradually. A common cultural capital was formed over time.
The Sumerians were « the most active and inventive, » according to Jean Bottéro. They were the ones who invented writing, around ~3000. Sumerian is therefore the oldest language ever written.
From the 2nd millennium BC, the Sumerians were « absorbed » by the Semites. Akkadian remains the only spoken language, but the Sumerian language, a language of culture, liturgy and scholarship, does not disappear and continues to be written.
There is an enormous amount of documentation about this period. More than 500,000 documents written in Sumerian make it possible to study the religious world of these peoples, their prayers, hymns, rituals and myths.
In this mass of documents, there is no dogmatic, normative text. There are no « holy writings », no « revealed text ».
Yet religion permeated life. The sacred penetrated daily life.
In this multitude of assembled peoples, no one claimed the monopoly of a cognitive election, the supremacy of knowledge.
These peoples, these myriads, of diverse origins, shared together a sense of the sacred, an intuition of mystery.
In Babylonia, beliefs were humble, and the high priests remained modest in their formulas:
« The thoughts of the gods are as far from us as the depths of heaven.
It is impossible for us to penetrate them,
No one can understand them! »iv
To represent the idea of the divine in the Sumerian language, the cuneiform sign used was an eight-pointed star:
In Akkadian, this representation was simplified and stylized as follows:
This original Ilu later became El (God) among the Hebrews and Ilah (the Divinity) among the Arabs, who took the proper name of Allah, literally al Ilah: « the God ».
God, therefore, was written for the first time in Sumerian, Enlil, in four corner strokes, forming two crosses together, or a star.
Then the Akkadian, Semitic language, wrote it Ilu, in three cuneiform strokes, forming a cross or a star – with six branches.
i Source : A. Kalkenstein, Sumerischr Götterlieder
ii Source : E. Ebeling, Die Akkadische Gebetserie « Handerhebung »
iii Cf. J.Bottéro, Mésopotamie. L’écriture, la raison et les dieux. Folio. Paris, 1997
iv Source : W.G. Lambert. Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Cit. in J. Bottéro, Mésopotamie. L’écriture, la raison et les dieux. Folio. Paris, 1997