CREATION MYTHS IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST

 

ENUMA ELISH

(for the text, see http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/enuma.htm)

Enuma Elish is the name of a Babylonian epic on 7 clay tablets discovered in the 19th century first in Nineveh, in the library of king Ashurbanipal; then in Ashur, the old capital of Assyria; then Kish and Uruk, Mesopotamian cities. Enuma Elish means “when on high”, and is the opening phrase of the epic: “When on high the heaven had not yet been named, and below the earth had not yet been called by a name (ie. to exist) ...” The epic tells of the origin of the gods, the world, and the humans.

(Tablets 1-3)

The epic begins with 3 watery gods, respectively fresh water, mist, salt water: Apsu (male begetter god), Mummu, and Tiamat (female goddess of birth). They swirl together in one “immense, undefined mass in which were contained all the elements of which afterward the universe was made” (Heidel, 3). Young gods are produced by them, but soon these godlets are creating havoc in heaven: “moving and running about in the divine abode”. Apsu gets fed up and declares “their way has become painful to me, by day I cannot rest, by night I cannot sleep; I will destroy them and put an end to their way, that silence be established, and then let us sleep!” Tiamat is horrified. Although the young gods are bothersome, she does not want her offspring to be destroyed. The young gods find out about Apsu’s plan, and one clever young god named Ea (elsewhere Enki) takes action. He concocts an incantation to make Apsu fall asleep, and then he kills him and Mummu, and makes out of Apsu’s corpse the earth. Ea and his wife Damkina then give birth to Marduk, the wisest of the gods, the sun god. Tiamat becomes exceedingly agitated, rushing about day and night. At the advice of some of the gods, she puts together an army to avenge the death of her husband Apsu, making monsters and dragons. The younger gods are afraid, and powerless before Tiamat. She must be quietened, but how? Finally Marduk steps forward as the champion. The gods have a banquet and get drunk.

(Tablets 4-5)

After this they erect a throne on which Marduk sits, and in a solemn speech, the gods appoint Marduk chief god: “we have granted thee kingship over the entire universe” (this seems to have been an innovation of Hammurabi, c. 1750 BCE), and he was given the power to destroy or create by his word (4:1-30). In a fierce battle, Marduk kills Tiamat, the watery dragon, crushes the dragons underfoot, and consigns the gods who joined Tiamat to prison. He cut Tiamat in two and made part of her the sky and part the subterranean waters, sealing up the waters in each with bars and guards. Then he gave rulership of the three domains—the sky, the land, the watery abyss—to the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea. He set up the constellations, and established the calendar (12 months) by the heavenly bodies. He then made the moon and the sun to establish day and night, and seemingly a seven-day sabbath (4:17-18). Then out of parts of Tiamat he made the physical world: clouds filled with water (her spittle), rivers (her tears), mountains (her breasts). Marduk is then proclaimed king and patron of the sanctuaries, and his palace on earth will be in Babylon.

(Tablet 6) Finally, Marduk decides to fashion “man” out of blood and bone to serve the gods so that the gods can rest. The god who instigated the rebellion (Kingu) is killed and Ea uses his blood to fashion mankind. The summary statement at the end of this assumes that previously some of the gods had to do the work: “he imposed the service and let free the gods” (6:34). The gods build a shrine for Marduk in Babylon and at a banquet “they confirmed him (Marduk) in dominion over the gods of heaven and earth” (6:100).

(Tablet 7) Marduk’s 50 names are expounded.

 

What is Enuma Elish about?

It is not primarily a creation story: very little of the content is about creation. Also, much more important than the creation of humans is the creation of the gods: theogony. The vast majority of the content is praising the attributes and deeds of Marduk, and his establishment as the chief god with his temple at Babylon.

It is not too difficult to discern the purpose of Enuma Elish:

(1) to establish Marduk’s supremacy as the head of the Babylonian pantheon.

(2) to establish Babylon’s preeminence over all the cities in the country.

Although we have the epic attested only in its Babylonian form, it is obvious that the myth was originally Sumerian: most of the names besides Marduk are Sumerian rather than Semitic names. The Babylonians inherited the gods of the Sumerians, with Enlil (the god of earth) generally as the chief god. In the 18th c. BCE, Hammurabi (1792-1750) not only produced a very influential code of laws, but also effected a religious reform by asserting that Marduk was the chief god. The city of Babylon also rose to prominence during this period (first Babylonian dynasty, 1894-1595).

 

ENKI AND NINHURSAG: A PARADISE MYTH

(ANET 37-41)

The story takes place in Dilmun, a pure paradise where there is no sickness or death, “the lion kills not, the wolf snatches not the lamb,” etc. Enki (=Ea), the god of the wisdom and the sweet waters that bring life to the land, impregnates the goddess Ninhursag (=Nintu), the “mother of the earth”. She gives birth to the goddess Ninmu. Enki impregnates his daughter Ninmu, giving birth to Ninkurra. Enki impregnates his granddaughter Ninkurra, giving birth to Uttu. Before Enki can lay his hands on his great-granddaughter, Ninhursag advises her to reject Enki unless he brings a gift of fruit. Enki comes with fruit, she happily receives him, but instead of producing a child, she uses his semen to produce 8 different plants. Enki eats these, infuriating Ninhursag. She curses Enki, vowing never again to look upon him with the “eye of life.” Enki apparently begins to deteriorate and the Anunnaki, the Sumerian gods of the underworld mourn, and in the end Ninhursag is brought back to the gods.

 

Similarities to Genesis 1-3:

-seduction with fruit

-the eating of trees brings a curse consisting of the withholding of life

 

GILGAMESH AND THE HULUPPU-TREE

(S. N. Kramer, Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree, Chicago, 1938; cf. S. N. Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1944, 30f.). The second half of this myth is appended to the Gilgamesh epic in Tablet 12.

 

Heaven and earth are separated, humans are brought into being, Anu and Enlil choose heaven and earth respectively for their realms, Ereshkigal has been given the underworld, and Enki has headed for the watery abyss beneath the earth. A tree planted by the bank of the Euphrates river was blown down by the wind and floated away on the river. Inanna (=Ishtar), the queen of heaven sees the tree and takes it home to her “holy garden” where she transplants it and tends it, hoping that when it is grown she can make a bed and a chair out of it. But when it is grown, she is prevented from using it because a serpent has made its home at the root of the tree, the -bird has made a nest in the top of the tree, and the demon Lilith has made her house in the middle of the tree. Gilgamesh saves the day by killing the serpent with his ax, also frightening off both Lilith and the bird family. Gilgamesh cuts down the tree and gives it to Inanna for her bed and chair. Inanna makes two objects out of the tree—pukku from the roots and mikku from the crown—and gives them to Gilgamesh. One day these gifts fall into the underworld, and Gilgamesh is distressed not to be able to recover them. His companion Enkidu goes to rescue them, but is prevented from returning to the living. His spirit gives Gilgamesh a report on what the afterlife is like.

 

Similarities to Genesis:

-tree with serpent (combined with demon)