The Myth of Why We Work

Since our species started writing, it seems we’ve been telling stories about the primacy of labor.


The Atrahasis is the famous Mesopotamian story of a great flood and a man who survived with his family in a boat full of animals.

Early on, the myth recounts the creation of humankind. It turns out that there was a great civil war among the gods, for legions of the less powerful gods were forced to do hard labor. The subservient gods rebelled.

To put an end to the conflict, the god Ea comes up with a brilliant solution:

‘Belen-Ili the womb-goddess is present,
Let the womb-goodness create offspring,
And let man bear the load of the gods! …
Create man, that he may bear the yoke!
Let him bear the load of the gods!
(Atrahasis Tablet I, trans Dalley 2008[1989]:15)

Yes: humans were created for the specific task of doing all the manual labor that the gods didn’t want to be bothered with.

The purpose of humanity’s creation is similar in the Babylonian Epic of Creation. Here, again, humanity is fashioned by the god Ea (this time, assisted in no small part by the god Marduk) to ease the demands of hard labor on the gods:

Let me put blood together, and make bones too. 
Let me setup primeval man: Man shall be his name.
Let me make a primeval man.
The work of the gods shall be imposed on him, and so they shall be at leisure.
Let me change the ways of the gods miraculously.
(Epic of Creation Tablet VI, Ibid 260-1)

When Ea the wise had created mankind,
Had imposed the toil of the gods on them…
He imposed the work of the gods on them so that they might rest. (Ibid 261, 265)

Interestingly, there is also something of a parallel undertone in the second version of the creation story told in Genesis:

Yahweh took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. (Genesis 2:15, World English Bible)

And it is also interesting to note how aristocratic Egyptians were often buried with an ushabti; a small idol or figurine that was intended to do manual labor in the afterlife on behalf of the deceased, just in case the gods might summon the poor departed spirit to work the land:

If I am summoned or if I am assessed to do any work which has to be done in the afterlife… every time the fields are to be fertilized, the banks irrigated, or sand ferried from east to west… (Egyptian Book of the Dead, Ch. 6, trans. Wilkinson 2016:168)

Today, it seems, we mostly believe the same myth. We’ve only secularized it slightly by eliminating the deities from the narrative. We seem no less convinced than the ancients that our principle reason for existing is to work. We organize many of our societies around this principle revelation. In a sense, the mythology is still alive and well.

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