Kvanvig: The Adapa Myth Symbolizes the Initiation of Humanity into Civilization
“The relationship between the first and seventh sage is complicated as well. In Bīt Mēseri the seventh sage is said to have ascended to heaven. In the fragmentary two other lists of sages in Bīt Mēseri the seventh sage is also related to heaven: in the second list he ascends like in the first; in the third he descends from heaven.
(Borger, “Die Beschwörungsserie Bīt Mēseri, 192-3. In the text as it is edited now by Weiher this comes in the second list, II, 2 where only the Sumerian text is extant, cf. Weiher, Spätbabylonische Texte, 49 and 51.)
Also the first sage is related to heaven; he is the light of the god of heaven. Nevertheless, both in Bīt Mēseri and in Berossos all the sages are related to water; they are described as fish-men.
This is explicitly clear in the name of the seventh sage, Utuabzu, which means “born in the apsû,” the water deep under the earth where Ea / Enki has his abode. In the first two lists in Bīt Mēseri the seventh sage is given this name. In the third list he is called Utuaabba, which is the same as the Sumerian epithet equated with adapu above.
Utuaabba does not only mean “wise,” directly, it can mean “born in the water,” a slight variation of Utuabzu. The reason why “born in the apsû / water” could designate “wise” is obviously connected to the apsû as the abode of the god of wisdom, Ea /Enki. Uan and Utuabzu are clearly thought of as two distinct figures in the lists, but there is a close correlation between them.
We think that both the double form of the name and the close connection the first and the seventh apkallu have to heaven call for a closer examination of the relationship between the Adapa Myth and the earliest of the lists, Bīt Mēseri.
We cannot in this context go into a profound analysis of the myth, which would demand a publication of its own. We are primarily interested in the interconnections between this myth and Bīt Mēseri. S. Izre’el has made a new edition of the manuscripts, together with an in-depth analysis. Izre’el’s approach is characterized by being both synchronic and structural.
(Schlomo Izre’el, Adapa and the South Wind: Language Has the Power of Life and Death, Eisenbrauns, 2001, 107-11).
Instead of carrying out what he calls a “sociopolitical interpretation,” he seeks out the deepest structural layers of the myth, how it interprets basic challenges in human existence.
A comparison with Piotr Michalowski is interesting here. Michalowski also applies a literary theory to the structure of the myth, taken from ritual studies.
(P. Michalowski, “Adapa and the Ritual Process,” RO 41 (1980): 77-82.)
He comes to the conclusion that the structure of the Adapa Myth is “isomorphic to the form of a rite de passage.” It is in this form that the structure of the text elucidates the dominant meaning of the composition: “the problem of the institutionalization of magic.”
In this sense Michalowski considers the myth to be etiological, for it demonstrates a concern for man’s most potent weapon—language, and how this power has to be channeled into a specific context, the art of magic.
For Izre’el this kind of analysis still remains in the sociopolitical dimension of the myth. “In the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia, language symbolizes intellligence.” I would like now to proceed according to Michalowski’s line of thinking and suggest that the Adapa Myth, structured as a rite of passage, describes Adapa’s passage into full humanity, symbolizing humans becoming aware of their own knowledge.
Mesopotamian tradition tells us that the Adapa Myth not only marks Adapa’s initiation into maturity, into becoming a full-fledged human being, but further symbolizes the initiation of all humanity into civilization.”
Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, pp. 119-20.