Enuma Elish

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ENUMA ELISH , the name given to the myth that contains the theological thoughts of Babylon in the first millennium, is so called from its opening words, "When above." The style and content of the poem indicate that it is indeed the authentic product of the new religious thinking that placed the god Marduk at the head of the pantheon. Manuscripts of this myth have been found at many different sites in Assyria and Babylon, covering a period from approximately 1000 to 300 bce, so the date of composition is established with some certainty in the final period of Mesopotamian civilization.

In contrast to Sumerian mythology, which attributes the beginnings of the creation of the cosmos to two essential elements, heaven and earth, from which the gods and the human race both sprang, the Enuma elish myth places the origins of the cosmos before heaven and earth in a far-off time. Only primeval waters existed: salt water, called Tiamat, and sweet water, called Apsu, the first living things in the cosmos. Given the prominent part played by salt water (Tiamat) in the Enuma elish story, some have concluded that this myth must be non-Mesopotamian in origin, maybe Syrian or at least Semitic (Jacobsen, 1976, pp. 165187; Durand, 1993, pp. 4161). This theory is somewhat puzzling because the main god of the myth, Marduk, does not have the qualities of Adad, the main god of the Semitic-Occidental tale, who also appears in a different story in Assyro-Babylonian mythology.

The myth is taken from seven tablets and closes with the words of the "Hymn of Marduk" (VI.161). The hymn was certainly recited if not actually sung, as recorded in the ritual for the festival of the New Year at the temple Akitu. The festival record also notes the day on which the priest carried out the rite, the fourth day of the eleven set aside for the entire festival, which was celebrated in the month of Nisan.

The Plot

The document opens with a description of the situation in the beginning, when Apsu and Tiamat exist and mix their waters, from which emerges the first pair of primeval divinities, Lahmu and Lahama. In turn, Lahmu and Lahama produce Anshar and Kishar, from whom comes Anu, who produces Nudimmud, otherwise known as Ea, the god of wisdom (I.120). The new generation of gods make too much noise and disturb Apsu's sleep. Apsu becomes angry and wants to punish the young gods, but their mother Tiamat disagrees. The young gods, however, give no indication of being sorry, so Apsu, urged on by his herald Mummu, plans to destroy the troublemakers.

The young gods hear of these plans, and Ea decides to protect the new generation from Apsu's attack. Ea uses his magic to send Apsu to sleep and kills him (I.2170). In this way Ea takes over the home of Apsu and settles in there with his consort, producing the hero of the myth, Marduk. Even at birth Marduk already demonstrates a physical strength that makes him superior to all the other gods (I.71109).

In the meantime, Tiamat, even more upset by the noise of the young gods, seeks the help of the other primeval gods to put an end to the continuing disturbance. With the help of Æubur, who produces enormous dragons, she creates eleven giant, frightening monsters, and she engages in battle against her sons. Tiamat makes Kingu leader of her forces for the purpose, and she also marries him and entrusts him with the tablets of destiny. This news reaches of Ea, who informs the assembly of the gods (I.101II.70).

Anshar, to whom Ea has turned, first rebukes him for killing Apsu and then sends the god of wisdom to Tiamat to calm her and thus forestall the catastrophe. Ea goes to Tiamat, who is enraged and refuses to accept his apologies, so the divine messenger returns empty-handed. Anshar tries again, sending his son Anu, who returns with the same result as Ea. A mood of dejection sets in throughout the divine world. As ever, Ea proposes the perfect solutionto call for Marduk's help. Marduk is warned in advance by his father and goes to Anshar to volunteer his services on condition that the gods grant him supreme power among the gods if he is victorious (II.71162).

The gods hold an assembly and agree to grant Marduk the power he has requested so he can confront the hostile army straightaway (III.1IV.34). Marduk dons his fighting gear and creates new weapons, including a spell to counteract Tiamat's poison. There is a titanic struggle, but Marduk's arrow strikes Tiamat's heart. She collapses to the ground while her army is captured (IV.35128).

Marduk now begins his work of creation. He cuts Tiamat's body in two. With the upper part of her body he forms the heavens with all the established points, the year and the month, the sun and the moon. With the lower part he creates the earth with its mountains and rivers. Marduk receives praise and honor from all the gods. He then decides to create a suitable sanctuary for himself, which is called Babylon (IV.129V.156). Marduk continues his work of creation, making the human race from the blood of Kingu, giving it the task of labor, and he reorganizes the pantheon into greater and lesser gods, who all sing a hymn to his glory in Babylon (VI.1120). The poem ends with a litany of fifty names of Marduk and a doxology (VI.121VII.162).

Directly linked to this, at least in terms of ideas, is an incantation that contains in its opening passage the story of the creation or an account of the way the earth was arranged. The god responsible for this creative process is Marduk, who has replaced the cosmic trio of Anu, Enlil, and Ea, upon whom this high honor and task is normally bestowed. This text is a forerunner of the great religious revolution by which the Babylonian priests placed their god at the head of the pantheon, a task completed by the creation of the poem Enuma elish.

The story may be divided into three quite distinct parts. In the first, it is clear that the earth was still untouched and all the lands still seas, so there were no cities or materials to build them, and thus no temples either (obv. ll.111). In the second part, Marduk intervenes and begins to separate the waters of the sea and to carry out the work that produces the present world order. He creates humanity and the animals of Sumukan, along with the entire environment, the flora and fauna, to make the world a pleasant place to visit. He of course pays a good deal of attention to Babylon and the Esagila, which the Anunna call "a pure city, home of the heart's desire" (ll.1234). In the third part, once the earth has been made habitable, Marduk creates bricks and begins to build the Sumerian cities that had not existed previously along with their temples (ll. 3539ff.). The cities concerned are Nippur with the temple Ekur, Uruk with the temple Eanna, Eridu with the temple Apsu, and the sacred cities of Enlil, Inanna, and Enki, the cities of the Sumerian principal gods. The symbiotic relationship between Eridu and Babylon, connected by the Esagila temple, forms the basis for the accession of Marduk to the head of the pantheon, which had once been Sumerian but has become Babylonian.


The scribes had grasped that there were two possible ways to elevate their poliad god to a central position in the pantheon: either to link Marduk to the god of Nippur (Enlil) or, certainly more subtle, to relate him to the god Enki. It may be surprising that they chose to establish a father-son relationship between Enki and Marduk, because the former had never historically guaranteed the kingship. Yet the choice of the scribes shows a quite remarkable intelligence: they wanted to overturn historical reality and turn it to something of cosmic significance.

All the Sumerian traditions assigned the position of principal god in their pantheon to Enlil. But at the same time they emphasized that the first seat of the kingship before the Flood was the city of Eridu, the home of the god Enki, who was thus regarded as the first holder of royal power on earth. Hence the scribes decided to make Marduk the son of Enki. Their syllogistic reasoning thus becomes quite clear: if Enki the king is Marduk's father, then Marduk becomes the king. In addition, if Eridu is the home of Enki and the place of his kingship, then Babylon, the home of Marduk, is automatically the one true location of the kingship. So the words of Berossus (third century bce) that the first royal capital on earth was Babylon explains how convincing the syllogism devised by the scribes of Babylon became for later generations.

One important indication of the process begun by Marduk's priests is the fact that among the various names of Babylon is Nun(ki), or Eridu(ki), the city sacred to the god Enki, the father of Marduk, and the first city established on earth according to Sumerian tradition. This tradition allows the Babylonian scholars to compare the two cities of Eridu and Babylon in the first instance, and then to replace the former with the latter. This is without doubt the first step in the slow development through which Babylon categorizes itself as an ancient city, dating from the earliest times and rising to the definitive status of the first city founded by the gods. The idea in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel that Babel was the first city the human race had tried to build has a perfect counterpart in a Babylonian mythological text. The Babylonian scholar responsible had subtly adapted the new reality to the earlier mythological situation. Here too, Eridu is the first city founded, but with subtle shrewdness a substitution takes place. No longer does Eriduancient Eridu, that ishold the leading position, but Babylon and its main temple Esagila have become in this document the key to understanding the situation. Eridu is quite clearly an epithet of Babylon, it is Babylon where the gods decide to live, and it is Marduk, under the name Lugaldukuga, who creates the city and builds the temple dedicated to him, the Esagila.

With this delicate substitution the Babylonians manage to establish their city as the first human urban settlement, as one may deduce from the biblical narrative and, subsequently, from later literature. It is not by chance or by mistake that Berossus, when he deals in his Babiloniaka with the cities founded by the gods before the Flood, lists Babylon in first place, proving that the substitution effected by the Babylonians had by then become part of the accepted cultural heritage of the ancient world. The god central to Enuma elish is clearly Marduk, the principal god of Babylon, who was credited not only with the mythical foundation of the city but also with the creation of the other principal cities of Sumer.

Further Developments

The origin of the universe, as told in Enuma elish, has counterparts in the works of other Hellenistic and Syrian writers. A few of the surviving passages are mentioned below.

The first and the closest to the Babylonian account seems to be that in Eudemus (third century bce), quoted by the later philosopher Damascius (fifthsixth century ce), who put the matter as follows:

Amongst the barbarians, it does not seem that the Babylonians talked of a single universal principle. They held the theory that there were two: Thaute and Apason, making the latter the husband of the former, whom they call the "mother of the gods." In the first instance they gave birth to a single baby, Moümis, who I suppose represented the intelligible world (derived from the two principles). Another generation followed, offspring of the same parents: Dachê and Dachos. Then a third, Kissarê and Assôros, who produced the trio Anos, Illinos, and Aos. Aos and Dauche brought into the world a son called Bel, and they say that he was the Creator. (Bottéro-Kramer, 1989, pp. 721722)

Berossus, whose work has survived in fragments thanks to later writers, offers a vision of the origin of the world only partly similar to the Babylonian one. The principle appears to be water, more precisely salt water, called Thalatta, which had produced animals and monsters together with primitive people who lived like wild animals. Those people needed to be taught by a sage named Oan, who was half man and half fish. While these beings were living in a chaotic magma, Belos attacked and destroyed them. Belos rose up and cut Thalatta in two. With one half he made earth, with the other half, heaven. After he cut off her head, he mixed the blood that gushed out with earth and created human beings with their divine qualities, and then all the animals of the present world. These writers generally regard water as the primordial element.

The theological commentaries edited at Uruk in the final period of the cuneiform culture include accounts that would make even the most detached reader of Mesopotamian religious texts shudder. Almost nothing is known of the history of Babylon in this final time; that is, the Achemenid and Greek periods. Reading the fragments of Berossus, one is able to form the idea that the Babylonian religion centered around Marduk and that his son Nabu continued it. On the other hand little is known of the fate of the cosmic triad Anu, Enlil, and Ea, who are in a backroom position to say the least.

These commentaries, however, relate the violent end of these gods at the hands of Bel, the title assumed by Marduk when he became head of the pantheon, the greatest and most exalted of the Sumerian pantheon, to whom was attributed the creation and organization of the cosmos. The end is bloody, as subsequent texts reveal, for Marduk's father Ea, who is sent away to Apsu; for Enlil, banished to the underworld; and for Anu and his father Anshar. Ishtaran is also killed to hurt the goddess Ishtar, for reasons that remain unclear. Nabu is responsible for killing the eagle Anzu. The texts of course refer to these killings symbolically during the various ceremonies at the different festivals, especially at the most important one for the New Year. The same theological commentaries that mention the killing of the principal gods of the Sumerian pantheon, especially Anu, Enlil, and Ea, also mention the enemies of Marduk, the god of Babylon, who meet their end in the poem Enuma elish. The texts mention Tiamat and Kingu by name, along with their seven children and forty children respectively. Another recurring figure is Anzu. As emphasized above, the most powerful gods of the Sumerian pantheon, Anu and Enlil, along with their children, are victims of the same violent acts.

Enuma Elish and the Bible

Ever since the first publication of the work's text, comparisons have been drawn between Enuma elish and the Bible, particularly the first chapter of Genesis. Attention has been drawn to the parallels between the seven tablets of Enuma elish and the biblical seven days of creation. Both stories begin with primeval water, which in the Bible is called tehom, the Hebrew cognate of Tiamat; the biblical spirit (or wind) of God that hovered over the waters bears some similarity to the winds of Anu that roiled Tiamat. Both stories contain the notion of creative work: the biblical sky divides the waters above from the waters below, as the upper half of Tiamat's body is divided from her lower half by the sky, and both stories depict in the same way the origin and function of the sun and the moon. However, the differences between Genesis 1 and Enuma elish are so vast that there is no reason to talk of mythological similarity or literary dependence. The similarities are evidence only of a shared cosmology, a shared "science" that saw the world as beginning in water and surrounded by it, a concept also found in early Greece. The importance of Enuma elish to the study of Genesis 1 is to demonstrate that these concepts were in fact (and were almost certainly perceived to be) common Near Eastern lore rather than data of Israel's revelation, and that Israel used this lore to convey its own independent message.

The most striking parallels between Enuma elish and the Bible are not to Genesis but to the scattered poetic passages that allude to the Lord's defeat of the sea in primordial times. This defeat of the sea is often accompanied by mention of the kingship of God, the creation of the world, and sometimes the creation of the Temple. These themes present a fundamental biblical cluster of ideas, one that has striking similarities with ideas in Enuma elish. This does not mean that the motifs have a Babylonian origin. The defeat of the sea, the kingship of the god, and the building of the god's palace (but not the theme of creation) are also found together in the Ugaritic Baal epic, written circa 1500 bce and therefore (it is believed) earlier than Enuma elish. This cluster is not found in earlier Mesopotamian sources; most probably it was an ancient West Semitic collection of ideas that found expression in Ugaritic literary works and the Bible and that at some point was brought into Mesopotamia.

See Also

Akitu; Cosmogony; Marduk; Mesopotamian Religions, overview article; Polytheism.


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Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis