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Category: Semitic

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.

Commonalities Between Sargon and Moses

” … I will conclude this Lecture with a few illustrations of the extent to which the study of Babylonian religion may be expected to throw light on the earlier portions of Scripture. We have already noticed the curious parallelism which exists between the legend of Sargon’s exposure in an ark of bulrushes and the similar exposure of the great Israelitish leader Moses on the waters of the Nile.

The parallelism exists even further than this common account of their infancy. Sargon of Accad was emphatically the founder of Semitic supremacy in Babylonia; he was the great lawgiver of Babylonian legend; and to him was assigned the compilation of those works on astrology and augury from which the wise men of the Chaldeans subsequently derived their lore.

Moses was equally the legislator of the Israelites and the successful vindicator of Semitic independence from the exactions of Egyptian tyranny, and future generations quoted the books of the Hebrew law under his name.

As we have seen, Sargon was a historical personage, and popular tradition merely treated him as it has treated other heroes of the past, by attaching to him the myths and legends that had once been told of the gods.

Now the name of the great Hebrew legislator has long been a puzzle and a subject of dispute. In the Hebrew Old Testament it is connected with the Hebrew verb mashâh, “to draw out,” not, indeed, in the sense that Moses was he who had been drawn out of the water, for this would not be grammatically permissible, though Pharaoh’s daughter puns upon the idea (Exod. ii. 10), but in the sense of a leader who had drawn his people out of the house of bondage and led them through the waves of the sea.

The translators of the Septuagint, on the other hand, living as they did in Egypt, endeavoured to give the word an Egyptian form and an Egyptian etymology. With them the name is always Μωυσης, which Josephos tells us is derived from the Egyptian words , “water,” and usês, “saved from the water.”

But this etymology, apart from other imperfections, depends upon the change the translators of the Septuagint have themselves made in the pronunciation of the name.

Modern Egyptian scholars, equally willing to find for it an Egyptian derivation, have had recourse to the Egyptian messu or mes, “a son.” This word, it is true, when occurring in proper names is usually combined with the name of a deity; Rameses, for example, the Sesostris of the Greeks, being written in the hieroglyphics Ra-messu, “Lord of the Sun-god.”

But it is conceivable that we might occasionally meet with it alone, and it is also conceivable, though not very probable, that the daughter of the Egyptian king would assign to her adopted child the simple name of “son.”

It is much less conceivable that such an Egyptian name would be that by which a national hero would be afterwards known to his Semitic countrymen. It is difficult to believe that the founder of the Israelitish people would have borne a title which the Israelites did not understand, and which could remind them only of that hated Egyptian land wherein they had been slaves.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 43-5.

Revolting Unmoral Rites

“There is another phase, however, to the character of the mother goddess which explains the references to the desertion and slaying of Tammuz by Ishtar. “She is,” says Jastrow, “the goddess of the human instinct, or passion which accompanies human love. Gilgamesh … reproaches her with abandoning the objects of her passion after a brief period of union.” At Ishtar’s temple “public maidens accepted temporary partners, assigned to them by Ishtar.”

The worship of all mother goddesses in ancient times was accompanied by revolting unmoral rites which are referred to in condemnatory terms in various passages in the Old Testament, especially in connection with the worship of Ashtoreth, who was identical with Ishtar and the Egyptian Hathor.

Ishtar in the process of time overshadowed all the other female deities of Babylonia, as did Isis in Egypt. Her name, indeed, which is Semitic, became in the plural, Ishtar·te, a designation for goddesses in general. But although she was referred to as the daughter of the sky, Anu, or the daughter of the moon, Sin or Nannar, she still retained traces of her ancient character.

Originally she was a great mother goddess, who was worshipped by those who believed that life and the universe had a female origin in contrast to those who believed in the theory of male origin. Ishtar is identical with Nina, the fish goddess, a creature who gave her name to the Sumerian city of Nina and the Assyrian city of Nineveh.

Other forms of the Creatrix included Mama, or Mami, or Ama, “mother,” Aruru, Bau, Gula, and Zerpanitum. These were all “Preservers” and healers. At the same time they were “Destroyers,” like Nin-sun and the Queen of Hades, Eresh-ki-gal or Allatu.

They were accompanied by shadowy male forms ere they became wives of strongly individualized gods, or by child gods, their sons, who might be regarded as “brothers” or “husbands of their mothers,” to use the paradoxical Egyptian term.

Similarly Great Father deities had vaguely defined wives. The “Semitic” Baal, “the lord,” was accompanied by a female reflection of himself–Beltu, “the lady.” Shamash, the sun god, had for wife the shadowy Aa.

As has been shown, Ishtar is referred to in a Tammuz hymn as the mother of the child god of fertility. In an Egyptian hymn the sky goddess Nut, “the mother” of Osiris, is stated to have “built up life from her own body.” Sri or Lakshmi, the Indian goddess, who became the wife of Vishnu, as the mother goddess Saraswati, a tribal deity, became the wife of Brahma, was, according to a Purana commentator, “the mother of the world … eternal and undecaying.”

The gods, on the other hand, might die annually: the goddesses alone were immortal. Indra was supposed to perish of old age, but his wife, Indrani, remained ever young. There were fourteen Indras in every “day of Brahma”, a reference apparently to the ancient conception of Indra among the Great Mother-worshipping sections of the Aryo-Indians.

In the Mahabharata the god Shiva, as Mahadeva, commands Indra on “one of the peaks of Himavat,” where they met, to lift up a stone and join the Indras who had been before him. “And Indra on removing that stone beheld a cave on the breast of that king of mountains in which were four others resembling himself.”

Indra exclaimed in his grief, “Shall I be even like these?” These five Indras, like the “Seven Sleepers,” awaited the time when they would be called forth. They were ultimately reborn as the five Pandava warriors.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

The Names of the Great Mother

“THE dawn of history in all parts of Western Asia discloses the established worship of a nature-goddess in whom the productive powers of the earth were personified. 1 She is our Mother Earth, known otherwise as the Mother Goddess or Great Mother. Among the Babylonians 2 and northern Semites she was called Ishtar: she is the Ashtoreth of the Bible, and the Astarte of Phœnicia. In Syria her name was ‘Athar, and in Cilicia it had the form of ‘Ate (‘Atheh). At Hierapolis, with which we are primarily concerned, it appears in later Aramaic as Atargatis, a compound of the Syrian and Cilician forms.

In Asia Minor, where the influence of the Semitic language did not prevail, her various names have not survived, though it is recorded by a later Greek writer as “Ma” at one of her mountain shrines, and as Agdistis amongst one tribe of the Phrygians and probably at Pessinus. These differences, however, are partly questions of local tongue; for in one way and another there was still a prevailing similarity between the essential attributes and worship of the nature-goddess throughout Western Asia.

The “origins” of this worship and its ultimate development are not directly relevant to our present enquiry; but we must make passing allusion to a point of special interest and wide significance. As regards Asia Minor, at least, a theory that explains certain abnormal tendencies in worship and in legend would attribute to the goddess, in the primitive conception of her, the power of self-reproduction, complete in herself, a hypothesis justified by the analogy of beliefs current among certain states of primitive society.

However that may be, a male companion is none the less generally associated with her in mythology, even from the earliest historical vision of Ishtar in Babylonia, where he was known as Tammuz. While evidence is wanting to define clearly the original position of this deity in relation to the goddess, the general tendency of myth and legend in the lands of Syria and Asia Minor, with which we are specially concerned, reveals him as her offspring, the fruits of the earth.

The basis of the myth was human experience of nature, particularly the death of plant life with the approach of winter and its revival with the spring. In one version accordingly “Adonis” descends for the six winter months to the underworld, until brought back to life through the divine influence of the goddess. The idea that the youth was the favoured lover of the goddess belongs to a different strain of thought, if indeed it was current in these lands at all in early times. In Asia Minor at any rate the sanctity of the goddess’s traditional powers was safeguarded in popular legend by the emasculation of “Attis,” and in worship by the actual emasculation of her priesthood, perhaps the most striking feature of her cult.

The abnormal and impassioned tendencies of her developed worship would be derived, according to this theory, from the efforts of her worshippers to assist her to bring forth notwithstanding her singleness. However that may be, the mourning for the death of the youthful god, and rejoicing at his return, were invariable features of this worship of nature. It is reasonable to believe that long before the curtain of history was raised over Asia Minor the worship of this goddess and her son had become deep-rooted.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, Lucian’s the Syrian Goddess, A Translation of De Dea Syria  with a Life of Lucian, 1913, pp. 1-4.

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