Kvanvig: The Apkallus had a Cosmic Function
“There is a clear difference between the group of seven and the subsequent group of four figures in Bīt Mēseri. The difference is not expressed in the same way as in the Uruk tablet in a general pattern of apkallus and succeeding ummanus. In Bīt Mēseri all the figures are apkallus with a curious exception of the last one, who is only two-thirds apkallu.
In Bīt Mēseri, there are thus two periods of transition, from the seven apkallus of divine descent to the four apkallus of human descent, and from the extraordinary apkallus to ordinary scholarship (we assume ummanus).
The last transition is exemplified with Lu-Nanna; he is a mixture of both apkallu and, we must assume, ummanu. The difference between the first two groups is expressed through their origin. At the end of the list of four it is stated: [seb]et apkallu ša Ea bēlum [u]zna rapašta ušaklilušunuti,” of human descent, whom the lord Ea has endowed with a broad understanding” (lines 30-31).
“Born in the river” means engendered in the abode of Ea, which shows divine descent, in opposition to the human descent of the four succeeding ones, who, nevertheless are given great wisdom.
The apkallus are given a cosmic function. This is repeated twice, first in connection with the first apkallu, then in connection with all seven apkallus at the end of the list in Bīt Mēseri.
In both cases their responsibility concerns usurāt šamê u erseti (lines 1 and 13). Akkadian usurtu means concretely, “drawing,” abstractly, “plan, regulation, destiny;” so the apkallus are in charge of the “plans of heaven and earth.”
We have met this concept in Atrahasis where the birth-goddess Nintu: usurāti ša niši ussar, “draws the drawings for the people,” (S, 14), i.e. creates the basic conditions and fixes the destinies.
(Text in Lambert and Millard, Atra-Hasis, 62-3).
There is, however, a difference in Bīt Mēseri, which is made clear by the two different verbs used. In the case of the first apkallu (line 1) the verb mušaklil, participle, of the verb šuklulu (Š stem), is used. The verb means both “complete” and “make perfectly.”
The first apkallu thus “completed” or “made perfectly the drawings of heaven and earth.”
In the summary about all the apkallus (line 13) the verb muštešer, participle, Št stem, of the verb ešēru is used, which has the meaning “keep in order.”
Thus there is a distinction between what the first apkallu initially did, and what all apkallus did together. The first apkallu completed the design of the world-order; the seven apkallus, as a group, maintained this world order.
The corresponding Sumerian line 12 (the tablet is bilingual) has a text close to what we find in a Sumerian hymn. We quote the text in the German translation by van Dijk:
“Die urformen von Himmel und Erde
in rechter Ordnung zu halten, in die Weite von Himmel und Erde
den grossen Entscheidungen den Weg zu bahnen,
die Kultordnungen vollkommen zu machen.”
(Hymn to Nusku I, 14).
(J. van Dijk, Summarische Götterlieder, AHAW, PH, abh. I. Heidelberg 1960, 14; transliteration, 108; translation, 111.).
What is said here about the god Nusku is in Bīt Mēseri said about the apkallus. It covers the wide aspects of culture and civilization listed by Berossos about the first and seventh apkallu; it brings us, however, even one step further. The apkallus had a cosmic function; they were cosmic guardians.
They were both in charge of the me, and they were in charge of people’s destinies. In the last role, they are also described in a Babylonian myth where they are the custodians of the tablets of destinies.”
(W.G. Lambert, “The Twenty-One “poultices,”” AnSt 30 (1980): 77-83; B.R. Foster, “Wisdom and the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Orientalia (NS) 43 (1974): 344-54.).
Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, pp. 116-7.