Curnow: Boundaries of Legend and History
by Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez
“In this chapter I shall be concerned with wise characters from myth and legend. I would not wish to pretend that the dividing line between myth, legend and history can be established with any certainty, and it may be that some of the characters who appear here have been unfairly removed from the historical record.
On the other hand, some cases do appear to be clear cut. In the end, if some characters find themselves in the wrong places, no harm is done as everyone who needs to appear somewhere will appear somewhere. Where it is appropriate and available, I have used the distinction between antediluvian and postdiluvian to mark the boundary between legend and history.
I shall begin again in Mesopotamia with the enigmatic figures known as the apkallu. As has been noted [2.2], technically apkallu simply seems to mean “wisest” or “sage.”
However in Mesopotamian mythology, the term is also applied to a strange and complex group of individuals.
Unfortunately, the legends about them survive in only a fragmentary and not entirely coherent form, although the fundamental core of the stories told about them is fairly clear.
In the days between the creation of mankind and the great flood that destroyed nearly all of it, Ea sent seven sages, the apkallu, for the instruction of mankind. There was a tradition that each was a counsellor to an early king, but it is unclear whether this was an original feature of the myth or a later addition.
Central to the myth is the idea that they brought the skills and knowledge necessary for civilization.
The first of the apkallu was Adapa, a name that itself meant wise (Bottéro 1992, p. 248). He was also known as Uan, perhaps a pun on the word ummanu meaning “craftsman” (Dalley 2000, p. 328). According to the principal source for this, the ancient historian Berossus:
“… he gave them an insight into letters and sciences, and every kind of art. He taught them to construct houses, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and showed them how to collect fruits. In short he instructed them in everything which could tend to soften manners and humanise mankind. From that time, so universal were his instructions, nothing material has been added by way of improvement.” (Hodges 1876, p. 57).
These gifts to mankind are sometimes referred to by the Sumerian word “me,” and comprised all that was required for civilization. They were perceived as much as rules for correct living as knowledge, and behind these rules stood the gods as enforcing agents.
In the complex concept of me can be seen, perhaps, a fundamental principle of human social order backed up by divine sanction. Soden (1994, p. 177) suggests that the order associated with me extended far beyond the human and encompassed the entire cosmos.
In any event, the story of Adapa clearly suggests that the wise bring what is required for civilization to exist.”
Trevor Curnow, Wisdom in the Ancient World, Bloomsbury, 2010, pp. 39-40.