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Category: Alfred Jeremias

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.

Selz: Tracking Gilgamesh Throughout History and Literature

“The biblical patriarchs and the kings before the flood according to Genesis 5 and 4, Berossos and the Sumerian King List.

Biblical patriarchs of Genesis 5 and Genesis 4, compared to antediluvian rulers from Berossos and the Weld-Blundell prism. Gebhard Selz, Of Heroes and Sages: Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions, Brill, 2011, p. 790.

Biblical patriarchs of Genesis 5 and Genesis 4, compared to antediluvian rulers from Berossos and the Weld-Blundell prism. C. Westermann, Genesis, vol. 1: Genesis 1-11 (BKAT 1.1; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1974), p. 473. 
Gebhard Selz, Of Heroes and Sages: Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions, Brill, 2011, p. 790.

The most important information we can draw from this table is:

  1. Berossos’ account of the primeval history of Mesopotamian is clearly based on an emic tradition reaching back almost two millennia.
  2. The Mesopotamian tradition dates back to an environment of Sumerian literary tradition; this is corroborated by the newly found Ur III version of the Sumerian King List.
  3. The position of Noah and Ziusudra Utnapishtim asserts the interrelation of the biblical and Mesopotamian stories about the Flood.
Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839 CE), Landschaft mit Dankopfer Noahs, 1803. Copyright 2010 Stäfel Museum. http://www.altertuemliches.at/termine/ausstellung/die-chronologie-der-bilder-staedel-werke-vom-14-bis-21-jahrhundert

Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839 CE), Landschaft mit Dankopfer Noahs, 1803.
Copyright 2010 Stäfel Museum.
http://www.altertuemliches.at/termine/ausstellung/die-chronologie-der-bilder-staedel-werke-vom-14-bis-21-jahrhundert

(P. Steinkeller, “An Ur III Manuscript of the Sumerian King List,” in Literatur, Politik und Recht in Mesopotamien: FS Claus Wilcke (ed. W. Sallaberger, K. Volk, and A. Zgoll; Orientalia Biblica et Christiana 14; Wiesbaden: Harrassowtz, 2003), pp. 267-92). (Ed. note: I have searched high and low for a digital copy of this article, which is ubiquitously cited in the literature, but nowhere available. If you have a scan or other digital version, please send it along so that it can be made more widely available. This is an important article that presents an Ur III tablet that is in a private collection. Thank you.)

As already mentioned, hypotheses on the interrelation of these biblical and Mesopotamian sources have flourished for millennia.

In our context the alleged connection of the biblical tradition with the Gilgamesh reception deserves mentioning. Alfred Jeremias, who published the first German translation of the Gilgamesh Epic in 1891, and Peter Jensen supposed that the Gilgamesh material is indeed the blue-print for all related biblical stories, denying them any originality.

The cuneiform tablet (IM 65066) is in the Bagdad Museum.

 A.K. Grayson, from the Reallexikon der Assyriologie, s.v.

The cuneiform tablet (IM 65066) is in the Bagdad Museum.


A.K. Grayson, from the Reallexikon der Assyriologie, s.v. “Königslisten und Chroniken”.
A.K. Grayson, ‘Assyrian and Babylonian King Lists,’ in: Lišan mithurti. (Festschrift Von Soden) (Kevelaer : Neukirchen-Vluyn : Butzon & Bercker; 1969) Plate III.


http://www.livius.org/source-content/uruk-king-list/

From the present state of research this seems, at first sight, not even worth mentioning. It is, however, well-known that Gilgamesh’s fame, how much mixed and distorted the various Babylonian traditions may have become, exerted influence on many stories of ancient authors all over the Near East.

Thus the attestation of Gilgamesh’s name in the Dead Sea Scrolls does not come as a surprise. The name is mentioned in the Book of Giants, which was later adopted by the followers of Mani.

In the Book of Giants, Gilgamesh is the name of one of the giants—offspring of the fallen heavenly watchers and human women.

Another giant mentioned besides Gilgamesh is Hobabis, who may well be a distortion of the name of Gilgamesh’s adversary, Hu(m)baba (Assyrian) / Huwawa (Babylonian), the famous monster guarding the cedar forest, who was finally killed by Gilgamesh and his comrade Enkidu.

(In the fifteenth century C.E. al-Suyūtī collected conjurations against evil demons mentioning amongst them a certain Jiljamiš (see George, Gilgamesh, pp. 60-1.

George also mentions a certain Theodor bar Konai (ca. tenth century C.E.) who “passed on a list of twelve postdiluvian kings that were held to have reigned in the era between Peleg, a descendant of Noah’s son Shem, and the patriarch Abraham.

Among all the extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection represents the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List. In this depiction, all four sides of the Sumerian King List prism are portrayed. http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=the_sumerian_king_list_sklid=the_sumerian_king_list_skl

Among all the extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection represents the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List.
In this depiction, all four sides of the Sumerian King List prism are portrayed.
http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=the_sumerian_king_list_sklid=the_sumerian_king_list_skl

(See also C. Grotanelli, “The Story of Kombabos and the Gilgamesh Tradition,” in Mythology and Mythologies: Methodological Approaches to Intercultural Influences: Proceedings of the Second Annual Symposium of the Assyrian and Babylonian Intellectual Heritage Project Held in Paris, France, October 4-7, 1999 (ed. R.M. Whiting; Melammu Symposia 2: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2001), pp. 19-27.)

The alleged Elamite origin of the monster’s name would nicely fit the observation that, from a Mesopotamian view, the localization of the cedar forest in historical times moved from the Eastern Zagros to the Western Lebanon.

Proof, however, is lacking. The name of the Babylonian flood hero Utnapishtim Ziusudra is, so far, not attested in the extant manuscripts from Qumran.

The name does occur, however, in the form of At(a)nabīš (‘tnbyš) in fragments of the Book of Giants found at Turfan.”

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. 790-2.

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