How can we account for such striking mythological and cultural similarities in ancient and far older Babylonian stories such as Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish, have to the Genesis stories and similar stories in other cultures, especially the culture of the ancient Hebrews?
Answer by Tony Fahey
Victoria, whilst this is an interesting issue, and one that I have some interest in, I cannot say that I can offer a definitive answer to the ‘striking similarities’ between the different religions other than to say, particularly in the case of Gilgamesh and Noah (and, as I will show, between Mithraism and Christianity), that it can be argued that these parallels do seem to be more than coincidental. In the case of Gilgamesh, as both Frank Lorey, in his The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh, and John Simpson in his The Wars Against Saddam: Taking the Hard Road to Baghdad, remind us, scholars in this area do argue that the Hebrews borrowed from the Babylonians the story of Noah and his Ark. As Simpson tells it, the story of Noah has its origins in the Sumerian tale The Epic of Gilgamesh. (see p.29) In this tale, which was written about 3000 BC, the wise and good Ut-Napishtim is told, in the face of an impending flood, to build a ship and to store within it the seeds of all living creatures. According to the scholars, this myth was taken up by Hebrew slaves of Babylon and subsequently absorbed into their own tradition.
Although many scholars also hold that the first of the two creation stories in Genesis was derived from the Mesopotamian myth Enuma Elish, in that the six days of creation in Genesis also parallel the six generations of gods in the myth of Enuma Elish, for me the fact that the Genesis story is monotheistic and the Enuma Elish myth polytheistic represents too much of a disparity to allow that there may any serious cross fertilization of ideas here. What does seem to me, however, is that there is a parallel to be drawn between the ancient Greek tradition (in the case of Zeus), and the Mesopotamian myth (in the case of Marduk), where a great and all powerful god holds dominion over other lesser gods.
Although the Mithraism and Christianity are not directly related to the Old Testament, and although you do not mention them in your question, in view of the fact that we are talking about the similarities between beliefs divided in time, and because Christianity has a direct connection with the Judaic faith, I do think it is worth drawing attention to what many scholars see as a link these two belief systems. Whilst there are many comparisons made between the life of Christ and that of Osiris, of Dionysus, of Buddha, and of others, it seems that the one that draws most attention from those interested in such things is the similarities that exist between Mithraism and Christianity.
For example, according to The National Geographic Society’s book, Great Religions of the World (p. 309), in the Mithras religion, which arose more than 600 years before the birth of Jesus, Three Wise Men of Persia came to visit the new born savior god, Mithra, bringing with them gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Moreover, page 330 of the same source advises us that Mithra was born on the 25th of December, that he died on a cross, that he celebrated a ‘Last Supper with his twelve apostles’, that he was laid to rest in a rock tomb, and that he ascended into heaven during the spring (Passover) equinox. As if this was not enough, Mithras is reported to have returned to earth to encourage his disciples to remember his teachings.
So how does all this relate to your question? It seems to me that, although the similarities in the myth of Enuma Elish and the Old Testament are somewhat more tenuous than those of Gilgamesh, it can be argued that the cultural and mythological parallels between these different belief systems, including those between Mithraism and Christianity, are so similar that they can be seen as more than coincidental.
Regarding the issue of how we account for these similarities, I suppose it should not surprise us to learn that the reliability of the truth of stories handed down from generation to generation, particularly at a time when it was passed on orally, becomes lost along the way. Moreover, while these stories become absorbed into a people’s belief system, the issue of the truth of these myths often becomes less important to those who hold the reins of power than the affect or efficacy they have on perpetuating the culture and/or the organization to which they pertain.