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Category: G.J. Selz

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: On Sacred Marriage

“This passage reminds one of the old Mesopotamian concept—and I am convinced it is a Mesopotamian concept, not a mere invention of modern scholarship—according to which a (mythical) ruler is thought to cohabit with a goddess or with her priestly incarnation.

Hierogamus, bed and couple. Period of the Amorite dynasties, early 2nd millennium BCE Baked clay, H: 11,3 cm AO 8662, Louvre.  http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08021112+&cr=413&cl=1#

Hierogamus, bed and couple. Period of the Amorite dynasties, early 2nd millennium BCE. Baked clay, H: 11,3 cm. AO 8662, Louvre.
http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08021112+&cr=413&cl=1#

(This is a much disputed issue, best known under the heading “Sacred Marriage” concept. What is interesting here is the feature of a divine-human interaction in the sexual life and the consequences thereof. We are not concerned here with the hypothesis of a purely metaphorical interpretation or with a possible actualization in an alleged ritual.

Couple on a bed (hierogamus). From Susa, 14th-12th BCE Terracotta, 11,2 x 5,8 cm SB 7979, Louvre.  http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08021158+&cr=523&cl=1#

Couple on a bed (hierogamus). From Susa, 14th-12th BCE. Terracotta, 11,2 x 5,8 cm. SB 7979, Louvre.
http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08021158+&cr=523&cl=1#

For a comparative evaluation of this topic see P. Lapinkivi, The Sumerian Sacred Marriage in the Light of Comparative Evidence (SAAS 15; Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2004.)

See further E. Cancik-Kirschbaum, “Hierogamie-Eine Skizze zum Sachstand in der Altorientalistik,” in Gelebte Religionen: FS Hartmut Zinser (ed. H. Piegeler, I. Pohl, and S. Rademacher; Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2004), pp. 65-72.

Couple embracing (hierogamus). From Susa, 14th-12th BCE Terracotta, 11,3 x 6 cm SB 6609, Louvre. http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08021159+&cr=569&cl=1#

Couple embracing (hierogamus). From Susa, 14th-12th BCE. Terracotta, 11,3 x 6 cm. SB 6609, Louvre.
http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08021159+&cr=569&cl=1#

G.J. Selz, “The Divine Prototypes,” in Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond (ed. N. Brisch; Oriental Institute Seminars 4; Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2008), pp. 13-31.

Accordingly, the kings of the Ur III empire depict themselves in their hymns as divine scions, as sons of the mythical ruler Lugalbanda and the Goddess Ninsu(mu)na-k. In the present context it is not without interest that these kings were thus becoming “brothers of Gilgamesh,” profiting somehow from the hero’s legendary fame.

Bed with a geometrical pattern, bed with a couple embracing (hierogamus), both from Susa, Iran, 14th-12th BCE SB 11206 geometrical pattern, terracotta 3,1 x 11,8 cm Sb 5888 bed with couple, terracotta, 3 x 9,5 cm, Louvre. http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08021160+&cr=691&cl=1#

Bed with a geometrical pattern, bed with a couple embracing (hierogamus), both from Susa, Iran, 14th-12th BCE SB 11206, geometrical pattern, terracotta 3,1 x 11,8 cm. SB 5888, bed with couple, terracotta, 3 x 9,5 cm, Louvre.
http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08021160+&cr=691&cl=1#

The divine sonship, however, can be traced back to the middle of the third millennium. An Old Sumerian ruler of the south Mesopotamian city state Lagash depicts himself in his text as follows:

“(The god) [Ni]n[gir]su-k [imp]lanted the [semen] for (the ruler) E’[a]na-tum in the [wom]b . . . rejoiced over [E’anatum]. (The goddess) Inana-k accompanied him, named him “In the E’ana (temple) of Inana-k from (the sacred precinct) Ibgal I bring him (= E’ana-Inana-lbgal-akak-atum)” and set him on the legitimising knees of (the mother goddess) Ninchursag(a). Ninchursag(a) [offered him] her legitimising breast.”

(Ean 1, 4:9-12 (H. Steible, ed., Die altsumerische Bau-und Weihinschriften [2 vols.; Freiburger altorientalische Studien 5; Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1982], pp. 1:122) RIME 1.9.3.1, 4:9-12.

See D. Frayne, ed., Presargonic Period (2700-2350 BCE) (RIME 1; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. 129-30.)

Ningirsu-k rejoiced over E’anatum, semen implanted into the womb by Ningirsu-k. Ningirsu-k laid his span upon him, for (a length of) five forearms he set his forearm upon him: (he measured) five forearms (cubits), one span! (to the reconstructed measurements of this period ca. 2.72 meters). Ningirsu-k, out of his great joy, [gave him] the kin[gship of Lagash].”

(Ean. 1, 5:1-5 H. Steible, Die altsumerischen Bau-und Weihinschriften, 1:123) = RIME 1.9.3.1 (Frayne, Presargonic Period, p. 129).

Hence, the ruler is the one “who has strength,” a precondition for his successful rule.

The aforementioned size of 2.72 meters makes just a small giant. However, this size is an outward sign designating someone who transgresses human measurements and norms.

Accordingly it became possible to attribute to such an extraordinary ruler a sort of functional divinity, as can be corroborated by several additional arguments.

We can therefore say that the ruler is perceived as an Avatar, a manifestation of the state god Ningirsu-k.”

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. 795-6.

Selz: The Debate Over Mesopotamian Influence on Jewish Pre-History is 2000 Years Old

“The reports further continue with the famous account of the downfall of the Persian empire in the same year, after the battle at Gaugamela, north of Mosul (331 BCE).

“On the 11th of that month, panic occurred in the camp before the king. The Macedonians encamped in front of the king. On the 24th [1 October], in the morning, the king of the world [Alexander] erected his standard and attacked.

Opposite each other they fought and a heavy defeat of the troops of the king [Darius] he [Alexander] incited. The king [Darius], his troops deserted him and to their cities they went. They fled to the east.”

As I have learnt from the Swiss philosopher and historian of science, Gerd Graßhoff, these collections of data were systematically made in order to obtain knowledge about the possible connections of various events, and more specifically in order to get information of how one could interfere and prevent an otherwise probable future event.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin, 1831 CE.  http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/j/john_martin,_the_fall_of_babyl.aspx John Martin (1789-1854 CE) first exhibited his painting The Fall of Babylon at the British Institution in 1819. He later supervised mezzotint reproductions, hence the date 1831 CE for this print.  Held by the British Museum.  This image is included under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin, 1831 CE.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/j/john_martin,_the_fall_of_babyl.aspx
John Martin (1789-1854 CE) first exhibited his painting The Fall of Babylon at the British Institution in 1819. He later supervised mezzotint reproductions, hence the date 1831 CE for this print.
Held by the British Museum.
This image is included under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

(I refer to Graßhoff, “Diffusion”; see also idem, “Babylonian Metrological Observations and the Empirical Basis of Ancient Science,” in The Empirical Dimension of Ancient Near Eastern Studies—Die empirische Dimension altorientalischer Forschungen (ed. G.J. Selz with the assistance of K. Wagensonner; Wiener Offene Orientalistik 6, Wien: Lit, 2011), pp. 25-40.)

The Astronomical Diaries are certainly a latecomer within the cuneiform tradition; there is, however no reason to postulate a fundamental change in the methodological attitude of Mesopotamian scholars, at least after the Old Babylonian period.

In comparison to our approaches, “there is no methodological difference for Babylonian scholarship compared to causal reasoning to obtain knowledge about causal regularities with causes indicated by signs. This counts for all sorts of domains of knowledge—from medical, over meteorological, economic to astronomical knowledge.”

(Graßhoff, “Diffusion.”)

Numerous articles and books deal with Enoch and “Enochic literature.” From the viewpoint of a cuneiform scholar, Helge Kvanvig’s book Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure and the Son of Man must be considered a major contribution.

The Babylonian surroundings of the forefathers of apocalyptic literature, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah, led to the hypothesis that other apocalyptic texts may have their roots in the Babylonian exile.

Be that as it may, the great impact the Babylonian mantic and astronomical tradition had on the growing Hebrew apocalyptic texts remains beyond dispute.

(VanderKam, Enoch and the Growth, pp. 6-15; Robinson, “Origins,” pp. 38-51.)

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden). Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516 CE) painted The Garden of Earthly Delights with oil on panel between 1480 and 1505 CE. This is the leftmost panel of three. It was acquired by the Museo del Prado, Madrid, in 1939.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jheronimus_Bosch_023.jpg This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden).
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516 CE) painted The Garden of Earthly Delights with oil on panel between 1480 and 1505 CE. This is the leftmost panel of three. It was acquired by the Museo del Prado, Madrid, in 1939.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jheronimus_Bosch_023.jpg
This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Since the times of Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish historian who also recorded the Roman destruction of the second temple on 4 August 70 CE, the relationship of the Jewish prehistory to the similar traditions of the neighbouring cultures became a pivotal point for all sorts of discussions.

While not very widely distributed initially, the Babyloniaca of Berossos gained increasing influence on the picture of the earlier Mesopotamian history in antiquity, despite the fact that the primary source for all Hellenistic scholarship remained Ctesias of Cnidos (in Caria) from the fifth century BCE.

The interest in Berossos’ work was mainly provoked by his account of Babylonian astronomy, and, in the Christian era, by his record of the Babylonian flood lore.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505 CE, the complete triptych. It is in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jheronimus_Bosch_023.jpg This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505 CE, the complete triptych.
It is in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jheronimus_Bosch_023.jpg
This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

(A Hellenistic priest from Babylon, living during Alexander’s reign over the capital (330-323 BCE), that is less than 200 years before the alleged earliest Qumran manuscripts!)

His report of the ten antediluvian kings was paralleled apologetically to traditions from the Hebrew Bible. In this way Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (circa 260-340 BCE), used the Babyloniaca in order to harmonize the biblical and the pagan traditions, whereas Flavius Josephus used it for Jewish apologetics.

Therefore, the controversial debate over the reliability of biblical stories about the patriarchs and their relation to the mytho-historical accounts of Mesopotamian prehistory have persisted for two millennia.”

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. 787-9.

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