Is Life a fix?

The Concept of Fate in Ancient Mesopotamia

The question of free will versus determinism has long vexed the human mind. It arises daily when tragedies occur: why does one person survive an air crash, but not another? It appears in our sciences, such as the study of genetics: are our personalities shaped by nature or nurture? Have we free choice or are our lives formed by biological necessity? Theologians have long wrestled with predestination and free will: Why can the offspring of one set of parents produce both saint and sinner? Does God play favourites? Are we saved or damned from birth?

Such questions are not new and have been documented for millennia.  In the area of the world where civilisation first emerged, ancient Mesopotamia, the Akkadian (Babylonian/Assyrian) term for “fate” was šīmtu.  It appears throughout the Akkadian corpus: hymns, prayers, medical and diagnostic texts, astronomical texts, treaties, royal inscriptions, omens and protective rituals.  This book is a conceptual study of the complex of ideas which attach themselves to the term šīmtu.  In particular, it examines the role of the gods in human affairs—their ability to determine the individual human life.  But it also examines the nature of divinity and the gods’ own susceptibility to fate.

This book also seeks to show the impact that šīmtu was understood to have on the lives of ancient Mesopotamians through examining both their authoritative texts which dealt with šīmtu — especially omen texts — as well as their well-established rituals, which owed their existence to the determination of fate: the substitute king ritual and the new year (akitu) festival.  What comes to light in this study is that the world view embodied in šīmtu is descriptive of a “closed-system” universe, wherein all human life and options are predetermined by the gods.

The Concept of Fate in Ancient Mesopotamia of the First Millennium

Published by Harroswitz (Wiesbaden), 1994

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