The Babylonian Creation Story (Enuma elish)
(LINKS)Like the Greek Theogony, the creation of the world in the Enuma elish begins with the universe in a formless state, from which emerge two primary gods, male and female:
When the skies above were not yet named
Nor earth below pronounced by name,
Apsu, the first one, their begetter,
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,
Had mixed their waters together,
But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds;
When yet no gods were manifest,
Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,
Then gods were born within them. (Dalley 233)Apsu, the male “begetter,” is the sweet waters, while Tiamat, the female “maker,” is the bitter, salt waters. Sweet and salt water mingle together at the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, site of the origins of Mesopotamian civilization. Some translators see the word “maker” in line 4 not as an adjective describing Tiamat but as another god, named Mummu, who emerges at the same time. As you might expect, Mummu means “maker,” “form,” “mold,” or “matrix.” Besides being Apsu’s vizier, Mummu is the mold or the undifferentiated substance from which things are made. Like Eros at the beginning of the Theogony, this Mummu-power is necessary to get the job of birth-creation going. Stephanie Dalley notes that “the bit-mummu was the term for a workshop that produced statues of deities” (274). N. K. Sandars, however, sees mummu as potential, or entropy (27). In this early period, nothing is named yet because nothing has appeared or been created yet. Notice that pasture-land must be formed–wrested from the desert by the hard work of digging and irrigation. The reed-beds mentioned in line 6 are handier than one might think: in southern Iraq today, the marsh dwellers live and work in floating houses and boats made from the reeds in the reed-beds. The “destinies” mentioned in line 8 are somewhat like the Sumerian me–cultural patterns and ways of living.
After the waters of Apsu and Tiamat mix, the gods Lahmu and Lahamu (“slime, mud”) emerge. And from this pair come Anshar (“whole sky”) and Kishar (“whole earth”), meaning perhaps “the horizon, the circular rim of heaven and the corresponding circular rim of earth” (Jacobsen 168). Anshar and Kishar give birth to Anu, the sky god, who in turn begets what one translation calls “his likeness” (Heidel 18) Ea, the trickster god of the flowing waters, who is familiar to us as Enki. The following genealogical chart summarizes the creation so far:
|MalesApsu (sweet primeval waters)
Lahmu (“slime,” “mud”)
Anshar (“whole sky”)
Nudimmud (“image fashioner”–another name for Ea or Enki).
|Females+ Tiamat (salt primeval waters)
+ Lahamu (perhaps both mean “silt”?)
+ Kishar (“whole earth”–“horizon”?)
+ no female partner named
The young Ea was stronger than his father, and like any youngster he was fond of running around, playing with some other new gods (his brothers). All this noise and commotion disturbed Tiamat, “roiled Tiamat’s belly” (Jacobsen 179). Apsu grew angry, but Tiamat, like many moms, put up with the noise much better than dad. Thorkild Jacobsen interprets this passage like this: “with the birth of the new gods, a new principle, movement, activity–has come into the world” (170). Finally, Apsu and his vizier Mummu go before Tiamat; Apsu suggests that since the noise keeps him from sleeping, he will destroy the young gods, “abolish their ways” (Dalley 234). Tiamat responds furiously, “How could we destroy / what we (ourselves) have brought into being?” (Jacobsen 171). Despite her objections, Apsu and Mummu plot to do away with the younger gods. However, the clever Ea overhears them and concocts a plan to defeat them. Ea makes and recites a magic spell that puts Apsu to sleep and Mummu in a daze. Ea then takes Apsu’s insignia of power, his belt, his crown, and his “mantle of radiance,” and puts them on himself. He holds Apsu down and kills him. Then he
Tied up Mummu and laid across him.
He set up his dwelling on top of Apsu,
And grasped Mummu, held him by a nose-rope.
When he had overcome and slain his enemies,
Ea set up a triumphal cry over his foes.
Then he rested very quietly inside his private quarters
And named them Apsu and assigned chapels,
Founded his own residence there . . . (Dalley 235)Like a captive slave, Mummu is led by a nose-rope. Ea’s “private quarters” are a combination temple and house, built over the sweet waters he controls. It is here that the chief Babylonian god, Marduk, is born to Ea and his wife Damkina.
Unlike the Theogony, which was put together by an individual independent poet, the Enuma elish was an official ritual text, recited every April on the fourth day of the Babylonian New Year festival. This festival went on for eleven days: on the fifth day, a ram was sacrificed, “and the priest who performed the sacrifice [was] sent out into the wilderness, not to return till after the days of the festival [were] over” (Sandars 49). On the evening of the fifth day, the king of Babylon would humble himself before the statue of the chief god Marduk and then would lead a procession of all the gods outside the city gates and back again. Scholars are uncertain which rituals were performed in the remaining days of the festival, but perhaps some sort of “sacred marriage” between the king and the goddess Ishtar was enacted. On the eighth and eleventh days of the festival, the gods were summoned to “fix the destinies” of the universe (Sandars 37). Spring was and still is harvest and threshing time in Iraq, while “the summer season, when Tammuz [Dumuzi] died and was mourned” was “the parched ‘dead season’ of a hot country” (Sandars 45). Since spring floods were unpredictable, the Enuma elish may celebrate the taming of the waters that make agriculture and life possible in this dry region.
The poem certainly celebrates a god who is new to us, Marduk. He was originally a local Babylonian god who was raised to chief god status when the city of Babylon conquered all of Mesopotamia. Earlier versions of the story may have featured Enlil as the hero, but since this is an official epic, the official god Marduk must be exalted. (Later, when Assyria conquered Babylon, the Assyrian scribe simply replaced Marduk’s name with that of his chief god, Ashur.) Marduk’s name means “‘son-child’ or ‘son-of-the-sun'” (Sandars 32) or perhaps “bull calf of the sun.” Marduk is more powerful than his father, and his physical appearance is impressive: he is very large, with four large eyes and four big ears, the better to see and hear everything. Fire blazes from his mouth when he speaks. His proud and doting grandfather Anu creates the four winds for Marduk to play with, and soon a group of unnamed gods goes to “their mother” Tiamat to complain about the resulting noise and commotion:
“When they killed Apsu, your husband,
you did not march at his side, you sat still.
(Now someone) has created four fearsome winds,
your belly is roiled, so we cannot sleep.
Apsu, your husband, was not in your heart,
nor Mummu, who was bound! You kept apart!
You are no mother, you stir roiled around,
and we, who cannot go to sleep, us you do not love!” (Jacobsen 173)Apparently, her belly is really roiled up this time because Tiamat decides to aid these disgruntled gods in their plot to do away with Marduk, Ea, Anu, and their kind. As Mother Hubur,” which both means “river” and is the name of a river in the underworld, Tiamat gives birth to many monsters who will be useful in defeating Marduk. “Hubur” may also be a pun on another Akkadian word, huburu, which means “hubbub” (Dalley 274). The monsters that Mother Hubur gives birth to are pretty fearsome: giant snakes with venom in their veins instead of blood, terrible dragons, “a lahmu-hero, / an ugallu-demon, a rabid dog, and a scorpion-man, / Aggressive umu-demons, a fish-man, and a bull-man, / bearing matchless weapons, fearless in battle” (Dalley 237).
At the head of this army, Tiamat places a god named Kingu, whose name may mean “unskilled labourer” (Sandars 36). Tiamat also makes Kingu her second husband and gives him the “Tablet of Destinies,” on which the decrees of the gods are written and which symbolize “supreme power over the universe” (Jacobsen 174). Kingu now has the power to fix destinies. According to N. K. Sandars, the Akkadian word for “destiny,” shimtu,
means rather more than we mean by destiny, lot or fate; nor is it ‘providence’. It includes the physical appearance, attributes and influence–the whole nature–of a person or a thing (for objects like precious stones have their shimtu); and it includes their place in the grand design of the universe. To ‘fix destinies’ is to have power, not only over events, but over the physical nature of the world. (37)The beginning of the world was a time before destinies were fixed, so basically Marduk and Kingu are fighting over the power to shape the universe. As Tiamat tells Kingu when she gives him the Tablet: “Your utterance shall never be altered! Your word shall be law!” (Dalley 238).
Ea hears of this plot and runs to Anshar with the news. Anshar sends the powerful and wise Ea to tell Tiamat to cease and desist, but his mission fails. Next he sends Anu out, but he fails as well. Anshar gnashes his teeth, and the gods sit silently for a while, “tight-lipped.” Finally they speak: “Will no (other) god come forward? Is fate fixed? / Will no one go out to face Tiamat?” (Dalley 242). Ea has the bright idea to speak to his mighty son Marduk and see what he can do.
Marduk promises Anshar, “You shall soon set your foot on the neck of Tiamat!” Pleased with this answer, Anshar urges Marduk to set out right away and “quell Tiamat with your pure spell” (Dalley 243). But Marduk has one condition–the gods must convene a meeting and proclaim Marduk top dog (or god):
“My own utterance shall fix fate instead of you!
Whatever I create shall never be altered!
The decree of my lips shall never be revoked, never changed!” (Dalley 244)Anshar calls together a council of the elder gods (including Lahmu and Lahamu) and explains the dire situation by repeating the whole story of Tiamat’s army of monsters, Ea’s and Anu’s failures to stop her, and Marduk’s offer to help. The gods’ moment of decision is described like this:
There was conversation, they sat at the banquet,
Ate grain, drank choice wine,
Let sweet beer trickle through their drinking straws.
Their bodies swelled as they drank the liquor;
They became very carefree; they were merry,
And they decreed destiny for Marduk their champion. (Dalley 249)The gods then set up a throne for Marduk, and they proclaim: “May your utterance be law, your word never be falsified ” (Dalley 250). They give him “kingship over the totality of the whole universe” (Heidel 36). As a sort of test of Marduk’s powers, the gods set up in some unspecified way a constellation (a group of stars) and ask Marduk to “Speak and let the constellation vanish! / Speak to it again and let the constellation reappear” (Dalley 250). Marduk speaks a command, and it vanishes; he speaks again, and it reappears. Needless to say, the gods are impressed with the power of Marduk’s words and set about right away decking him out with the regalia of kingship, sceptre, throne, etc. They also give him “an unfaceable weapon” (Dalley 250).
Somewhat like Zeus freeing the Hundred-handers, Marduk prepares weapons for the coming battle. He makes a bow, fletches arrows, grabs a mace, throws lightning before him, fills his body with flame, makes a net “to encircle Tiamat within it,” gathers the four winds “so that no part of her could escape” (Dalley 251), creates seven nasty new winds such as the whirlwind and tornado, and raises up his mightiest weapon, the “rain-flood” (Heidel 39). Then he sets out for battle, mounting his storm-chariot drawn by four horses with poison in their mouths. In his lips he holds a spell and in one hand he grasps “a herb to counter poison” (Dalley 252). Kingu and the rebel gods are “confused” and afraid when they see Marduk in his chariot. Marduk raises up his rain-flood weapon and challenges Tiamat to single combat. Tiamat loses her temper, accepts the challenge, and advances, all the while shouting spells. Marduk encircles Tiamat with his net, blows her up with his winds, and shoots “an arrow which pierced her belly, / Split her down the middle and slit her heart” (Dalley 253). After standing on Tiamat’s corpse, he easily defeats the rebel gods, capturing most of them and smashing their weapons. He ties the arms of the monsters and leads them away with nose-ropes. He grabs the Tablet of Destiny away from Kingu and fastens it to his own breast. Marduk then proceeds to create the universe from Tiamat’s body:
He sliced her in half like a fish for drying:
Half of her he put up to roof the sky,
Drew a bolt across and made a guard to hold it.
Her waters he arranged so they could not escape. (Dalley 255)Notice that the sky is seen here as solid, holding back the waters. Marduk then levels and measures Ea’s dwelling the Apsu and builds his own temple in the sky as a mirror image of the Apsu. Then he sets up the constellations as stations in the sky for each of the greatest gods. From two ribs of Tiamat, Marduk creates east and west, and with her liver, he creates the pole star. He also creates the sun and moon and organizes their daily and monthly cycles. From Tiamat’s spittle, he forms clouds, rain, and fog. Heaping a mountain over Tiamat’s head, he pierces her eyes, from which spring the sources for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. (In Akkadian, inu means both “eyes” and “springs.”) In a similar way, he heaps mountains over her udder, piercing it “to make the rivers from the eastern mountains which flow into the Tigris. Her tail he bent up to the sky to make the Milky Way, and her crotch he used to support the sky” (Jacobsen 179).
Marduk returns from creating the universe, leading the captive gods and monsters before the gods. He presents the Tablet of Destiny to Anu and them makes statues of the eleven monsters, setting them up “at the door of Apsu” (Dalley 257). The gods are extremely pleased with Marduk, so they arrange a reception for him at which they all come forward to kiss his feet. They invest Marduk with the regalia of his office–such as the crown, the sceptre, and “the mantle of radiance”–and they proclaim him king of the gods of heaven and earth. Marduk proclaims that he will create his own dwelling-place between the skies of heaven and the waters of the Apsu and invites the gods to stop by on their way up or down. He decides to name his new dwelling-place Babylon, which means “gate of god.” The gods bow down to him, repeating their praises and promising to obey his command.
Now Marduk decides to “perform miracles”—he outlines his plan to Ea:
Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.
I will establish a savage, ‘Man’ shall be his name.
Verily, savage-man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods
That they [the gods] might be at ease! (Pritchard 36)Ea suggests a slight alteration to the plan: they should destroy one of the rebel gods and create humans from him. When Marduk asks the gods who “incited Tiamat” and started this war, they answer as one, “Kingu!” So Ea takes Kingu, cuts his arteries, and makes mankind from his blood. Ea then imposes the toil of the gods upon mankind, while Marduk divides the gods up and assigns them their various positions in heaven or earth. In gratitude to Marduk, the gods decide to build Babylon, and set about making bricks and raising Marduk’s temple-ziggurat, called the Esagila. Then they build their own shrines.
Marduk invites the gods to a big feast in his new home. At the feast, all destinies are fixed, including “the seven destinies of the cult.” Marduk gives the bow that slew Tiamat to the gods, and Anu is so pleased that he makes the bow an honorary god and gives it (her) a seat at the assembly of gods. The gods swear fealty to Marduk, “by touching their throats with oil and water” (Jacobsen 182). After Anshar orders the worship of Marduk by “the black-headed people,” the gods confirm Marduk’s kingship and mastery by chanting his fifty names.
Babylonian Creation Questions
1. What physical picture can you conjure up from the meanings (waters, mud, silt, whole sky and earth, sky) of the names of the gods at the beginning of the Babylonian Creation Epic? In terms of nature, what do you think Ea’s conquest of Apsu and Mummu means?
2. Why do you think Tiamat decides to aid the opponents of noise the second time but not the first time?
3. Think of some similarities and differences between the rise of Zeus in Hesiod’s Theogony and the rise of Marduk in this epic. For example, in what ways are Tiamat and Kingu like or unlike Kronos and Typhoios? Who do you think is more powerful, Marduk or Zeus? Why?
4. Name some similarities and differences between the Norse creation story and the Enuma elish. For example, in what ways is Ymir like and unlike Tiamat? In what ways is Kingu like and unlike Kvasir? How is Kingu like or unlike Prometheus?
5. Why do you suppose the gods are depicted as getting drunk when they make the decision to give Marduk supreme power?
6. When Marduk makes the constellation appear and disappear, do you think he creates something out of nothing? Notice the emphasis on the king’s words as absolute law: “May your utterance be law, your word never be falsified ” (Dalley 250).
7. What do you think the defeat of Tiamat might mean? (Notice the winds vs. water and male vs. female symbolism.)
8. Compare the type of god used to make man in this epic with the kind of god used in Atrahasis. Do we get a different view of the relationship between men and gods? Compare and contrast with the attitude of God towards his creation in Genesis.
9. Why do you think the city of Babylon created right after mankind? Why do you suppose Zeus didn’t get a similar city in the Theogony?
10. Which aspects of this myth seem to refer to natural events and which to ritual? What charter elements can you find?
- Dalley, Stephanie, ed. and trans. Myths from Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
- Heidel, Alexander, ed. and trans. The Babylonian Genesis. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1951.
- Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.
- Pritchard, James B., ed. The Ancient Near East, Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1958.
- – – -. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1955. Abbreviated ANET.
- Sandars, N[ancy] K. Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Penguin, 1971.
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago: http://www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/default.html
[Authoritative, impeccable scholarship, if a bit puzzling to navigate–check out their ABZU index to Ancient Near Eastern Resources on the web.]