Some beliefs—the story of creation, the perpetuation of life, the inevitable fate of humanity—have come down to us in Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, which was preserved in cuneiform writing on clay tablets. The epic of creation, the Enuma elish (2d millennium B.C.), describes the battle between the young gods (forces of order), led by Marduk, and the old gods (forces of chaos), led by Tiamat and her consort Kingu. Another well-known myth, symbolizing the death and rebirth of vegetation, is that of Ishtar's descent to the underworld in search of her lover Tammuz and her triumphant return to earth. Here is the resurrection theme common to later religions. Perhaps the most famous of all Babylonian myths is the story of Gilgamesh. Although the people of the ancient Middle East conceived of a sort of after-existence, they generally believed that a person's fate was decay and dust. Their beliefs foreshadowed the change from polytheism to monotheism, faith in some sort of divine benevolence, and even the idea of salvation so important in the religious mysteries and later in Christianity.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.