Myths. In ancient Mesopotamian religion there existed no single source of revelation. Theologians sought to explain and justify the existence of mankind, its institutions, and the cosmos through the development of myths. Their explanations varied with time and place, and many differing traditions came to exist side by side. Theologians viewed each myth as offering its own insight. Knowledge was cumulative. There existed no Bible, no orthodoxy, and no canonical compilation of theological insight. Each myth reflected its own, often independent, tradition.
Creation Myths. In the modern world people look for natural causes to explain matters as diverse as human conflict or the movement of stars in the heavens. War is the result of conflicts of interest; physical disease has organic origins; psychological factors influence emotions; and science is used to explain the motion of celestial bodies. The ancient Near Eastern world explained such things as results of the actions of deities. Illness derived from an attack by demons; historical events such as defeat in war were interpreted as divine retribution for improper actions; and creation was an activity of the gods, who made both the world and mankind. Just as humans were expected to serve their earthly rulers without question, so too humankind was created to serve the gods.
Sumerian Myths of Creation. Little is known about the myths written in Sumerian during the early part of the third millennium b.c.e. No single Sumerian story describes creation; the existence of the gods is simply assumed. There was no conception of a beginning void, an unimaginable starting place like the one described in Genesis. The powers of the cosmos were thought to have existed throughout eternity, originating—according to one version of a god list—from the goddess Namma, a deity of the subterranean waters, “who gave birth to the Universe.” Heaven and earth (sometimes conceived as being male and female) are the creation of the god Enlil, the head of the Sumerian pantheon. The author of one poorly preserved myth, whose title is unknown, expresses his belief that heaven and earth were already separated before the existence of the gods Enlil and his spouse, Ninlil. Another text, written in the city of Ur at the end of the third millennium b.c.e., explains that in its beginnings the earth was dark; there existed no light or vegetation, and no water emerged from the deep. In the Sumerian myth Gilgamesh and the Netherworld, the formation of the world by the gods An and Enlil is described as a result of separation of the parts of the universe, which were initially all mixed together.
Procreation. Just as humans bear offspring as the result of sexual intercourse, in some texts the process of divine creation is represented by a male god impregnating another deity or a part of nature. Yet, in other texts divinities and mankind are created by the modeling of clay. In the Sumerian tale called The Debate between Summer and Winter, the god Enlil impregnates the mountains to create the seasons, which, in turn, provide the conditions for agriculture and procreation of plants and animals:
He copulated with the great hills, he gave the mountain its share. He filled its womb with Summer and Winter, the plenitude and life of the Land. As Enlil copulated with the earth, there was a roar like a bull’s. The hill spent the day at that place and at night she opened her loins. She bore Summer and Winter as smoothly as fine oil. He fed them pure plants on the terraces of the hills like great bulls. He nourished them in the pastures of the hills.
Enlil set about determining the destinies of Summer and Winter. For Summer founding towns and villages, bringing in harvests of plenitude for the Great Mountain Enlil, sending laborers out to the large arable tracts, and working the fields with oxen; for Winter plenitude, the spring floods, the abundance and life of the Land, placing grain in the fields and fruitful acres, and gathering in everything—Enlil determined these as the destinies of Summer and Winter. (Black et al.)
Origins of Mankind. The origins of mankind are addressed in the Sumerian poem The Hymn to the Hoe, a composition that compares the creation of man to the growth of plants. After the god Enlil has separated heaven from earth and earth from heaven, he causes the human seed to sprout forth like a plant from the soil at a sacred place called “Where Flesh Came Forth.” Humans are then assigned their role as providers for the gods. Another Sumerian poem, The Disputation between Ewe and Wheat, includes a description of primeval earth as initially barren. People ate grass as if they were sheep, for wheat or bread did not yet exist; and they went about naked, because without ewes and goats, there was no weaving, cloth, or clothing.
The World Order. Ancient thinkers pondered the question of how the earth came to be ordered. One explanation is given in the Sumerian myth Enki and the World Order. Enki, one of the main deities in the Sumerian pantheon, is assigned responsibility for the organization of the
world, including the fates of the land of Sumer, the foreign lands, and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In order to manage his work he entrusts various gods with specific responsibilities, such as management of the twin rivers and marshes, the sea, rains, irrigation and crops, construction and architecture, wildlife on the high plain, herding of domestic animals, oversight of the whole of heaven and earth, and woman’s work. Goddesses are assigned tasks of overseeing birthing, tending to the god An’s sexual needs, metalwork, demarcation of boundaries and borders, preparation of meals for the gods, and fishing. According to Enki and the World Order, the world is administered by the gods as if it were a kingdom run by a ruler who delegates authority from the top.
Birth of Mankind. Other Sumerian myths address issues of disorder in the world. The myth Enki and Ninmah begins after heaven and earth have already been separated. At that time, after the gods have procreated, there is a shortage of food, and minor gods are assigned to the task of producing food by farming. To do so they have to undertake the burdensome job of digging and dredging the canals. The work is so difficult that the junior gods complain and finally decide to rebel. The senior god Enki, fast asleep at the time, is roused from his slumber and, realizing the need for a creative solution, he decides to create humankind. The goddess Namma is asked to knead clay from the fresh waters that lie under the earth and place it in her womb. She gives birth to the first humans, who then take up the burden of working the soil and creating produce.
Origins of Disabilities. The second part of the myth Enki and Ninmah deals with the origins of humans whose various disabilities make them unable to find productive employment. In this myth, Enki and the goddess Ninmah become inebriated at a banquet and challenge one another to a contest. The goddess begins by creating crippled and disabled people and challenging Enki to provide for their welfare. Enki responds by assigning them professions in which each person’s infirmity becomes an asset, so they can be independent and earn their own living. For example,
Enki looked at the man who cannot bend his outstretched weak hands, and decreed his fate: he appointed him as a servant of the king. … Enki looked at the one, the one born as an idiot, and decreed his fate: he appointed him a servant of the king. … Enki looked at this one, the one not hold back his urine and bathed him in enchanted water and drove out the namtar demon from his body. (Black et al.)
Enki then challenges Ninmah. He molds clay and places it in the womb of a woman, creating a being unable to function. Ninmah is confounded and cannot find a suitable profession for this being. The myth concludes with the exclamation that Ninmah is not the equal of the great Enki.
Enuma Elish. Babylonian poets incorporated stories about the creation of man and the world in texts designed to justify and glorify kingship. The Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish, “When on high,” illustrates the way in which Marduk obtained his position as the chief god of Babylon and reveals the nature of the unchallenged power of the Babylonian ruler. The story begins with the existence of an immense expanse of sweet (apsu) and salt (tiamat) waters that existed before the universe and the first gods came into being. This watery chaos may echo an older Sumerian tradition about descent of the gods from the goddess Namma, a deity of the subterranean waters. Out of the mingling of these primeval waters, the gods emerge in pairs. Like young children, the gods are rambunctious, so upsetting the god Apsu that he decides to destroy the young deities. The clever god Ea comes to their rescue and kills Apsu. Described as perfect and unequaled, the god Marduk is born to Ea and his wife Damkina. Marduk, as a leader of the younger generation, is selected by the gods as their commander. He becomes their supreme leader and champion, defending the lesser deities against the fury of the goddess Tiamat, who has become upset at all the noise and commotion caused by the younger generation and determined to avenge the slaying of her husband, Apsu. Armed with an array of winds Marduk heroically battles Tiamat, a symbol of the old order. After killing the goddess, Marduk needs to dispose of the corpse, so he splits it in two like a dried fish and fashions the upper part as heaven and the lower part as earth. Afterward, he creates the constellations and the netherworld. He also makes the sun and moon come forth, organizes the calendar, and is given the authority to care and provide for the sanctuaries necessary for worship of the gods. Finally, Marduk, thankful for the benefits granted by the gods and their submissiveness to his rule, decides to ease their burden by creating man from the blood of a slain rebellious god. The myth employs this episode to explain that man was created both to sustain the gods and to release them from their menial labors. The same story also provides a rationale for the rebellious nature of mankind. Marduk gives the gods new roles by assigning them to various positions in heaven and on earth. In the next episode of Enuma elish, Marduk demands that the gods build him a capital city, Babylon, and in it his temple, Esangil, where he will dwell and administer the affairs of the gods. In gratitude to Marduk, the gods comply. They prostrate themselves before him, pledge obedience to their unquestioned leader and commander, and confirm his kingship in the Council of Gods. The myth continues with the gods pronouncing the fifty names of Marduk, each an aspect of his power and character. Enuma elish concludes with a reiteration of its main political theme: Marduk, the victor, the absolute ruler, “defeated Tiamat and took kingship.”
Jeremy Black, Graham Cunningham, Jarle Ebeling, Esther Flückiger-Hawker, Eleanor Robson, Jon Taylor, and Gábor Zólyomi, The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, The Oriental Institute, University of Oxford, 1998- <http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk>.
Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 2 volumes (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1993).
Foster, From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1993).
Samuel Noah Kramer and John Maier, Myths of Enki, The Crafty God (New York & Oxford: University Press, 1989).