Publishing the Forbidden. All Rights Reserved. © Samizdat 2014-2022.

Category: Creation Myths

The Enuma Elish

“THE great Assyrian poem, or series of legends, which narrates the story of the Creation of the world and man, was termed by the Assyrians and Babylonians Enuma elish, “When in the height,” from the two opening words of the text.

The poem consisted of some nine hundred and ninety-four lines, and was divided into seven sections, each of which was inscribed upon a separate Tablet. The Tablets were numbered by the Assyrian scribes, and the separate sections of the poem written upon them do not vary very much in length.

The shortest Tablet contains one hundred and thirty-eight lines, and the longest one hundred and forty-six, the average length of a Tablet being about one hundred and forty-two lines.

The poem embodies the beliefs of the Babylonians and Assyrians concerning the origin of the universe; it describes the coming forth of the gods from chaos, and tells the story of how the forces of disorder, represented by the primeval water-gods Apsû and Tiamat, were overthrown by Ea and Marduk respectively, and how Marduk, after completing the triumph of the gods over chaos, proceeded to create the world and man.

The poem is known to us from portions of several Assyrian and late-Babylonian copies of the work, and from extracts from it written out upon the so-called “practice-tablets,” or students’ exercises, by pupils of the Babylonian scribes.

The Assyrian copies of the work are from the great library which was founded at Nineveh by Ashur-bani-pal, king of Assyria from B.C. 668 to about B.C. 626; the Babylonian copies and extracts were inscribed during the period of the kings of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods; and one copy of the Seventh Tablet may probably be assigned to as late a date as the period of the Arsacidae.

All the tablets and fragments, which have hitherto been identified as inscribed with portions of the text of the poem, are preserved in the British Museum.”

Leonard William King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, London, 1902. pp. xxv-xxvi.

Sumerian Sacred Stories, c. 3500 BCE

” … it is quite as obvious that for the history of the progress of our civilization as we see and know it today, it is the tone and temper, the word and spirit of the ancient mythologies, those of the Greeks and Hebrews, of the Hindus and Iranians, of the Babylonians and Egyptians, which are of prime significance. It is the spiritual and religious concepts revealed in these ancient literatures which permeate the modern civilized world.

Still almost entirely unknown to this very moment is Sumerian mythology, the sacred stories of the non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people which in historical times, from approximately 3500 to 2000 B.C., inhabited Sumer, the relatively small land situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and stretching from the Persian Gulf northward approximately as far as modern Bagdad; a land that may be aptly described as the culture cradle of the entire Near East.

Should the reader turn, for example, to Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics29 and examine the very long article on the cosmogonic or creation myths of the world, he will find a large and relatively exhaustive list of peoples, ancient and modern, cultured and primitive, whose cosmogonic concepts are described and analyzed. But he will look in vain for Sumerian cosmogony.

Similarly, the collection entitled Mythology of All the Races 30 devotes thirteen volumes to an analysis of the more important mythologies in the world; here, too, however, there will be found few traces of Sumerian mythology. Whatever little is known of Sumerian mythology is largely surmised from the modified, redacted, and in a sense, garbled versions of the Babylonians who conquered the Sumerians toward the very end of the third millennium B.C., and who used the Sumerian stories and legends as a basis and nucleus for the development of their own myths.

But it is a known fact that in the long stretch of time between approximately 3500 and 2000 B.C. it was the Sumerians who represented the dominant cultural group of the entire Near East. It was the Sumerians who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of writing; who developed a well integrated pantheon together with spiritual and religious concepts which influenced profoundly all the peoples of the Near East; who, finally, created and developed a literature rich in content and effective in form.

Moreover, the following significant fact must be borne in mind. By the end of the third millennium B.C. Sumer had already ceased to exist as a political entity and Sumerian had already become a dead language, for by that time Sumer had been overrun and conquered by the Semites, and it is the Semitic Accadian language which gradually became the living, spoken tongue of the land.

Nevertheless Sumerian continued to be used as the literary and religious language of the Semitic conquerors for many centuries to come, like Greek in the Roman period and like Latin in the Middle Ages. Indeed for many centuries the study of the Sumerian language and literature remained the basic pursuit of the scribal schools and intellectual and spiritual centers not only of the Babylonians and Assyrians, but also of the many surrounding peoples such as the Elamites, Hurrians, Hittites, and Canaanites.

Obviously, then, both because of their content as well as because of their age, the Sumerian mythological tales and concepts must have penetrated and permeated those of the entire Near East. A knowledge of the Sumerian myths and legends is therefore a prime and basic essential for a proper approach to a scientific study of the mythologies current in the ancient Near East, for it illuminates and clarifies to no small extent the background behind their origin and development.” i

Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1944, pp. 27-9.

%d bloggers like this: