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Category: Acta Sumerologica

Selz: Plant of Birth or Plant of Life in the Etana Legend?

“The story of Etana, one of the oldest tales in a Semitic language, was, as I have argued elsewhere, modeled after the then extant Sumerian tales of the Gilgamesh Epic.

Gilgamesh’s search for “the plant of life,” the ú-nam-ti-la (šammu ša balāti) was, however, replaced by Etana’s search for the plant of birth-giving (šammu ša alādi). The entire story runs as follows:

British Museum K. 19530, Library of Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BCE), excavated from Kouyunjik by Austen Henry Layard. Neo-Assyrian 7th Century BCE, Nineveh.  This cuneiform tablet details the legend of Etana, a mythological king of Kish.  http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=287204&partId=1&searchText=WCT28297&page=1 http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cuneiform_the_legend_of_etana.aspx This image is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

British Museum K. 19530, Library of Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BCE), excavated from Kouyunjik by Austen Henry Layard. Neo-Assyrian 7th Century BCE, Nineveh.
This cuneiform tablet details the legend of Etana, a mythological king of Kish.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=287204&partId=1&searchText=WCT28297&page=1
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cuneiform_the_legend_of_etana.aspx
This image is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

The gods build the first city Kish, but kingship is still in heaven. A ruler is wanted (and found). Due to an illness, Etana’s wife is unable to conceive. The plant of birth is wanted.

In the ensuing episode eagle and snake swore an oath of friendship. Suddenly the eagle plans to eat up the snake’s children; a baby eagle, with the name of Atrahasīs opposes this plan, but eagle executes it.

Now, the weeping snake seeks justice from the sun-god. With the god’s help the eagle is trapped in a burrow, and now the eagle turns to the sun-god for help. He receives the answer that, because of the taboo-violation he cannot help, but will send someone else.

Etana prays daily for the plant of birth and in a dream the sun-god tells Etana to approach the eagle. In order to get the eagle’s support Etana helps him out of his trap.

BM 89767, Limestone cylinder seal illustrating the myth of Etana, shepherd and legendary king of Kish, who was translated to heaven by an eagle to obtain the plant of life.  This seal portrays Etana’s ascent, witnessed by a shepherd, a dog, goats and sheep. Dated 2250 BCE, this seal was excavated by Hormuz Rassam, and came from an old, previously unregistered collection acquired before 1884.  Dominique Collon, Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum: Cylinder Seals II: Akkadian, Post-Akkadian, Ur III Periods, II, London, British Museum Press, 1982.  R.M. Boehner, Die Entwicklung der Glyptic wahrend der Akkad-Zeit, 4, Berlin, 1965.  Alfred Jeremias, Das Alte Testament im Lichte des Alten Orients: Handbuch zur biblisch-orientalischen Altertumskunde, Leipzig, JC Hinrichs, 1906.  Also AN128085001, 1983, 0101.299.  This image is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.  © The Trustees of the British Museum. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=128085001&objectid=368707

BM 89767, Limestone cylinder seal illustrating the myth of Etana, shepherd and legendary king of Kish, who was translated to heaven by an eagle to obtain the plant of life.
This seal portrays Etana’s ascent, witnessed by a shepherd, a dog, goats and sheep. Dated 2250 BCE, this seal was excavated by Hormuzd Rassam, and came from an old, previously unregistered collection acquired before 1884.
Dominique Collon, Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum: Cylinder Seals II: Akkadian, Post-Akkadian, Ur III Periods, II, London, British Museum Press, 1982.
R.M. Boehner, Die Entwicklung der Glyptic wahrend der Akkad-Zeit, 4, Berlin, 1965.
Alfred Jeremias, Das Alte Testament im Lichte des Alten Orients: Handbuch zur biblisch-orientalischen Altertumskunde, Leipzig, JC Hinrichs, 1906.
Also AN128085001, 1983, 0101.299.
This image is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=128085001&objectid=368707

Now the eagle, carrying Etana on his back, ascends to the heavens. On the uppermost level of the heavens Etana becomes afraid and the eagle takes him back to the earth.

The end of the story is missing, but that Etana finally got hold of the plant of birth is very likely, since other sources mention his son.

To summarize: I have tried to show that some features of the Enoch tradition are a re-writing of very ancient concepts. I do not claim that they all can be explained assuming dependencies, as earlier scholarship has done.

I do not intend to idolize “origins,” but what might eventually come out of such a research—if the topics mentioned here are thoroughly worked out and elaborated in detail—is, that our texts implicate many more meanings than tradition may have supposed.

In my opinion there can be little doubt that the official transmission of texts in Mesopotamia was supplemented by a wealth of oral tradition. Indeed, the situation may be comparable to the one attested in the (still) living oral tradition on Enoch in the Balkanian vernaculars.”

This Akkadian clay tablet, dated to circa 1900-1600 BCE, preserves a partial version of the Sumerian Legend of Etana.  Held by the Morgan Library.  http://www.codex99.com/typography/1.html

This Akkadian clay tablet, dated to circa 1900-1600 BCE, preserves a partial version of the Sumerian Legend of Etana.
Held by the Morgan Library.
http://www.codex99.com/typography/1.html

(See G.J. Selz, “Die Etana-Erzählung: Ursprung und Tradition eines der ältesten epischen Texte in einer semitischen Sprache,” Acta Sumerologica (Japan) 20 (1998): pp. 135-79.

A different opinion is expressed by P. Steinkeller, “Early Semitic Literature and Third Millennium Seals with Mythological Motifs,” in Literature and Literary Language at Ebla (ed. P. Fronzaroli; Quaderni di Semitistica 18; Florence: Dipartimento di linguistica Università di Firenze, 1992), pp. 243-75 and pls. 1-8.

Further remarks on the ruler’s ascension to heaven are discussed by G.J. Selz, “Der sogenannte ‘geflügelte Tempel’ und die ‘Himmelfahrt’ der Herrscher: Spekulationen über ein ungelöstes Problem der altakkadischen Glyptik und dessen möglichen rituellen Hintergrund,” in Studi sul Vicino Oriente Antico dedicati alla memoria di Luigi Cagni (ed. S. Graziani; Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 2000, pp. 961-83.)

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 799-800.

Lenzi: The Exaltation of the god Anu

“This brings us to the last element of historical context: antiquarianism at Uruk. Certainly others have noticed the conspicuous rise of the Anu and Antu cult in Hellenistic Uruk in both the archaeological evidence of the massive Bīt Rēs temple dedicated to Anu and Hellenistic cuneiform texts.

(For the former, see, for example, Downey, Mesopotamian Religious Architecture, 17-32, who identifies the Bīt Rēs as “the most important religious structure in Uruk during the Seleucid period” (17), and for the latter, see Amélie Kuhrt, “Survey of Written Sources Available for the History of Babylonia under the Later Achaemenids,” in Achaemenid History I: Sources, Structures and Synthesis, ed. Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg (Leiden: Brill, 1987), 147-57, here 151.)

A stele of the Assyrian king Šamši-Adad V (c.815 BCE), standing in the gesture of blessing before five divine emblems:<br />  (1) the crown of the sky-god Anu, with three horns; <br />  (2) the winged disk, often associated with Marduk or Aššur; <br />  (3) the disk and crescent associated with the Moon god Sin; <br />  (4) the fork associated with Nabu (?); <br />  (5) the eight-pointed star of Ishtar.<br />  It is now apparent that the horned crown of Anu is portrayed on numerous depictions of ummanū, or human apkallū.<br />  The cross worn as an amulet is a symbol of the sun god, Šamaš.
<br />  It is worth noting that this king is portrayed without any indicators of divinity like a horned headdress, though he does hold a mace in his left hand, and the rosette design is evident on his bracelet. <br />  BM 118892, photo (c) The British Museum.

A stele of the Assyrian king Šamši-Adad V (c.815 BCE), standing in the gesture of blessing before five divine emblems:
(1) the crown of the sky-god Anu, with three horns;
(2) the winged disk, often associated with Marduk or Aššur;
(3) the disk and crescent associated with the Moon god Sin;
(4) the fork associated with Nabu (?);
(5) the eight-pointed star of Ishtar.
It is now apparent that the horned crown of Anu is portrayed on numerous depictions of ummanū, or human apkallū.
The cross worn as an amulet is a symbol of the sun god, Šamaš.

It is worth noting that this king is portrayed without any indicators of divinity like a horned headdress, though he does hold a mace in his left hand, and the rosette design is evident on his bracelet.
BM 118892, photo (c) The British Museum.

But Beaulieu has offered a compelling explanation of this cultic development along with its attendant theological distinctives. He argues that it is a deliberate, archaizing theological program under the direction of temple functionaries, probably beginning in the late Persian period and culminating in Hellenistic times.

(See Paul-Alain Beaulieu, “Antiquarian Theology in Seleucid Uruk,” Acta Sumerologica 14 (1992), 47-75. (Beaulieu also focuses on antiquarianism in his “Antiquarianism and the Concern for the Past in the Neo-Babylonian Period,” Bulletin of the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies 28 [1994], 37-42).

Beaulieu dates the rise of the prominence of Anu and Antu by the appearance of these deities in personal names. Summarizing his findings, he writes: “the crucial phase of the process had probably already taken place by the end of the fifth century” (“Antiquarian Theology,” 55).)

A key element in this program was the fashioning of the Urukean pantheon after the canonical god list An = Anum, thereby exalting Anu and Antu, ancient patron gods of Uruk, to its head while demoting other high-ranking deities like Marduk, the old imperial capital’s head deity, and Ishtar, a goddess prominent at Uruk in earlier periods, to a lower level in the pantheon.

Ruins and Plan of the Anu Ziggurat and the White Temple. Uruk ( Present-day Warka, Iraq). c. 3300-3000 BCE.

 https://www.pinterest.com/pin/168814686005734256/

Ruins and Plan of the Anu Ziggurat and the White Temple. Uruk ( Present-day Warka, Iraq). c. 3300-3000 BCE.


https://www.pinterest.com/pin/168814686005734256/

(Beaulieu cites SpBTU I 126 as evidence that the old god-list was known in Seleucid Uruk (“Antiquarian Theology,” 73, n.40). He discusses other related archaizing items, too, such as bringing an obscure goddess like Amasagnudi, consort of Papsukkal/Ninsubur, the vizier of Anu, to cultic prominence.)

Beaulieu describes the reasons for this theological move as follows:

“By putting Anu back in the foreground the religious establishment of Uruk achieved a double purpose. They created a theological system which could challenge the dominant MardukNabû theology of Babylon, and they promoted an Urukaean deity to the head of their new version of the national pantheon, thus enhancing local pride.”

(“Antiquarian Theology,” 68. Since greater antiquity was perceived as conferring greater authority in Mesopotamia, one might add that Uruk had a distinct advantage in reasserting the claims of the Anu cult against the claims of the Babylonian Marduk cult: Anu was considered older than him even by such traditions as the Enūma Eliš.

However, even if one wishes to see the exaltation of Anu in terms of reasserting the authority and position of a local deity within the pantheon, this does not exclude the possibility that other concerns contributed to the decision to do so.

The decision to exalt Anu, e.g., may also have been influenced by the increasing importance of astrology among scholars, who at this later period of Mesopotamian history were now primarily associated with temples.)

In other words, with the disintegration of indigenous imperial structures under foreign regimes with little interest in arcane Mesopotamian theological matters, local cults were able to reassert their own distinctive interests. The local temple elites in Uruk did this by utilizing ancient (conceived as such by mid-first millennium times) god-list traditions to exalt Anu to the head of the pantheon.”

Alan Lenzi, The Uruk List of Kings and Sages and Late Mesopotamian ScholarshipJANER 8.2, Brill, Leiden, 2008. pp. 158-60.

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