"Samizdat: Publishing forbidden literature."

Tag: 1985

Eco: Dante and Abulafia, 2


Bartolomeu Velho (d.1568), Figure of the Heavenly Bodies, an illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric conception of the Universe, from Cosmographia, 1568. Held in the Bibliotèque Nationale de France, Paris. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“Yet could Dante have known the theories of Abulafia?

Abulafia visited Italy on several occasions: he was in Rome in 1260; he remained on the peninsula until 1271, when he returned to Barcelona; he returned to Rome in 1280 with the project of converting the pope.

He journeyed afterwards to Sicily, where we lose trace of him somewhere near the end of the 1290s. His ideas incontestably exercised an influence on contemporary Italian Jewish thought. We have a record of a debate in 1290 between Hillel of Verona (who had probably met Abulafia twenty years earlier) and Zerakhya of Barcelona, who arrived in Italy at the beginning of the 1270s (cf. Genot-Bismuth 1988: II).

Hillel, who had contacts in the world of Bologna intellectuals, had written to Zerakhya to ask him the question first posed by Herodotus: in what language would a child speak if it were brought up with no linguistic stimuli?

Hillel maintained that such a child would naturally speak Hebrew, because Hebrew was humanity’s original natural language. Hillel either did not know, or else disregarded, the fact that Abulafia was of a different opinion. Not so with Zerakhya.

He sarcastically remarked that Hillel had been taken in by the siren song of the “uncircumcised” of Bologna. The first sounds emitted by a child without linguistic education, he asserted, would resemble the barking of dogs. It was madness to maintain that the sacred language could be naturally bestowed on human beings.

Humanity possessed a linguistic potential, but it was a potential that could be activated only through education of the vocal organs. This, however, required instruction.

At this point, Zerakhya brought forward a proof that we shall find in a number of post-Renaissance Christian authors (for example, in the In Biblia polyglotta prolegomena by Walton in 1673, or the De sacra philosophia of 1652 by Vallesio): had there been the primordial gift of an original sacred language, then all human beings, regardless of their native tongue, would have the innate ability to speak it.

The existence of such a debate is enough to show, without needing to invent a meeting between Dante and Abulafia, that Abulafia’s ideas were subject to discussion in Italy, especially in the Bolognese intellectual circles which influenced Dante, and from which, according to Maria Corti, he absorbed his notion of the forma locutionis.

Nor does the Bologna debate constitute the only point of encounter between Dante and Jewish thought.

Genot-Bismuth has given us a vivid picture of the close of the thirteenth century in which we will later find a Yehuda Romano giving a series of lectures on the Divine Comedy for his co-religionists, a Lionello di Ser Daniele who did likewise using a Divine Comedy transliterated into Hebrew script, not to mention the surprising personage of Immanuel da Roma, who, in his own poetic compositions, seemed to launch an attack on Dante’s ideals almost aspiring to produce a sort of counter-Comedy in Hebrew.

Naturally this only establishes the influence of Dante on Italian Jewish culture, not the other way around. Yet Genot-Bismuth is able to show opposing influences as well, even to the point of suggesting that Dante’s theory of the four senses of scripture, found in his Epistula, XIII (cf. Eco 1985), had a Jewish origin.

Such a hypothesis may be too bold: there were any number of Christian sources from which Dante might have drawn this doctrine. What seems less daring, and, in fact, entirely plausible, is the suggestion that, in Bologna, Dante would have heard echoes of the debate between Hillel and Zerakhya.

One could say that in DVE he appears still close to the position of the former (or of his Christian inspirers, as Zerakhya reproaches him), while in Paradise he turns towards the positions of the latter, that is, the position of Abulafia (even though, when writing DVE, he already had the opportunity to know both theses).

However, it is not necessary to document direct links (even though Genot-Bismuth finds the presence of Jewish influences in certain passages of the De regimine principium of Giles of Rome), but rather to demonstrate the existence of a cultural climate in which ideas could circulate and within which a formal and informal debate between the church and the synagogue might ensue (cf. Calimani 1987: viii).

We should remember that, before the Renaissance, a Christian thinker would scarcely wish to admit publicly that he drew on Hebrew doctrine.

Like heretics, the Jewish community belonged to a category of outcasts that–as Le Goff shrewdly observes–the Middle Ages officially despised but at the same time admired; regarding them with an admixture of attraction and fear, keeping them at a distance, but making sure that the distance was fixed near enough so they would always remain close at hand.

“What was termed charity in their regard more resembled the game that cats play with mice” (Le Goff 1964:373).

Before the kabbala was rehabilitated by humanist culture, Christianity knew little of it. It was often simply regarded as a branch of the black arts. Even so, as Gorni has pointed out (1990: vii), in the Divine Comedy, Dante seems to share a great deal of knowledge about magic and divinatory practices (astrology, chiromancy, physiognomy, geomancy, pyromancy, hydromancy and, not least, the black arts of magic themselves).

In one way or another, Dante seems to have been informed about an excluded and underground culture in which, at least according to vulgar opinion, the kabbala somehow belonged.

In this way, it becomes ever more plausible that, even if it does not derive directly from the theories of the Modistae, Dante’s forma locutionis is not a language but the universal matrix for all language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 49-52.

Nakamura: An Idiom of Protection Arises in the Material Enactment of Memory

Mastering Matters

“In the material register, Neo-Assyrian figurine assemblages present a physical gesture of miniaturization, hybrid form, and concealment. I have intimated that such material gestures disclose a magic technology as a symbolic and sensual logic that conspires with and against conventional value-producing forms.

The question now becomes one of how this material reality presents protection. I would suggest that in the context of apotropaic performance, a material economy that produces a miniature, hybrid, and hidden reality anchors and accomplishes an experience of human mastery.

Furthermore, this suite of gestures skillfully sustains the belief in divine power and order through a cunning reversal. The collision of Neo-Assyrian socioreligious beliefs with this material making engenders a force that cannot be contained or mastered by narrative closure.

This resistance to such mastery, in effect, secures magic’s very power. Magic does not seek the restoration of balance or the resolution of contradiction (Taussig 1993:126), rather it renders such contradiction immaterial, and in doing so, masters the system which defines the conditions of its disclosure.

The slippage between meaning and matter, belief and practice, enshrouds magic in secrecy that is at once opaque and transparent. As both contingent and autonomous, the magical object secretes indeterminacy into the structure that conceives it, holds it at a distance and thereby masters it.

Artifacts congeal processes of making — the simultaneous forging of objects, selves, relations, cultures, and worlds — in a gesture of becoming. To make is to transform, and such transformation derives from the human enactment of both the self and the world.

If we accept Bakhtin’s idea that to be means to communicate, then figurines are self-creating works that specifically address communications among various beings, human, animal, divine, and supernatural.

They provide the material site for the human action of creation which moves back on the human creators themselves (Scarry 1985:310), and this reverse process acts in complicit as much as disruptive, subversive, and obfuscating ways.

Notably then, the process of material creation discloses a certain “mimetic excess” (cf. Taussig 1993) whereby reproduction amounts to metamorphosis, self-amplification to self-effacement, and divergence to unity.

Bird-apkallū, with hands on their chests, and banduddu buckets in their left hands.

Bird-apkallū, with hands on their chests, and banduddu buckets in their left hands.

The Neo-Assyrians crafted protective figurines as clay or stone copies of various mythological and supernatural beings. Their form as miniature, portable, durable, free-standing, three-dimensional objects confronts humans within a distinct relationship; namely, this material choreography reproduces powerful beings in a reality that assumes an anthropocentric universe for its absolute sense of scale (following Stewart 1984:56).

The materiality of the figurine thereby discloses the authority of humans over the copy, and hence over the original. Here, the production and reception of the copy itself becomes a “dramatic form of (social) experience” (Jenson 2001:23), namely, that of human mastery.

Whether deity, double, ancestor, spirit, or animal, the “original” comes to inhabit a material reality of human design. As petrified and choreographed “life,” the figurine recreates the human as master in this relation, a relation whereby humans, as all-powerful giants, assert and play out their desires within the diminutive tableau of the figurine.

The specific “bundling” of material properties of the figurine provides an enduring frame and anchor for the various ways in which other subjects relate to it thereafter. As a thing, the petrified miniature object will always encounter and constitute subjects as vigorous, gigantic masters with the capacity to possess, manipulate, command, and destroy.

Through this production of figurines, Neo-Assyrian apotropaic rituals trace out complex, and even disorienting, relations between humans, deities, and various supernatural beings in space and time.

Throughout the ritual, the āšipu priest creates protective beings in a perpetual mode of dedication to important deities who are the “creators” of humankind. I have previously argued that these acts of dedication constitute a giving that takes back (Nakamura 2004); here, dedication is a demand for protection, a dialectic of giving that gives back more in return.

Protection then arises from the “mimetic slippage” that exacts a brash assertion of human mastery over divine power, masked through a posed reality of servitude. Apotropaic rituals enact a radical synthesis of material work and belief that configures a force capable of surmounting contradiction.

The durable material gestures of miniaturized scale, hybrid form, and concealment inscribe the subterranean landscape, effectively preserving a desired past for the future. In this way, an idiom of protection arises in the material enactment of memory.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 31-3.

Mesopotamian Apotropaic Gods and Monsters

“It remains, however, that art expresses theological development less clearly than the written sources. The types of art and their contexts were fixed in the third millennium, and only minor changes are allowed through time.

Most of the supernatural beings treated in this book become defeated adversaries of gods at some point in their history, but they are never represented as such in art. Other theological changes are expressed by omitting certain features or contexts, rather than by adding new ones.

The identities and histories of Mesopotamian monsters are the subject of this book. It is an expanded version of “Studies in Babylonian Demonology II,” announced in JEOL 27 90ff., dealing with the lahmu. Here the lahmu, the “hairy one,” reappears in its proper setting between the other apotropaic gods and monsters of the rituals. The expansion is due to the recovery of new textual material.

(F.A.M. Wiggermann, The Staff of Ninšubura: Studies in Babylonian Demonology II, Jaarbericht Ex Oriente Lux 29, 1985-6).


Pazuzu: a demon-god of the underworld, sometimes invoked for beneficial ends. The inscription covering the back of his wings states: “I am Pazuzu, son of Hanpa, king of the evil spirits of the air which issue violently from mountains, causing much havoc.” Pazuzu was particularly associated with the west wind which brought the plague. Under certain circumstances Pazuzu was a protective spirit, particularly to drive his wife Lamashtu back to the underworld. Lamashtu was a demoness who infected men with various diseases. Pazuzu first appeared in the 1st millennium BC with the body of a man and the head of a scowling dragon-snake, with two pairs of wings and talons of a bird of prey. He has a scorpion’s tail and his body is covered in scales. Bronze statuette of Pazuzu, circa 800 BC –- circa 700 BC, Louvre Museum.

The texts treated are rituals for the defence of the house against epidemic diseases, represented as an army of demonic intruders. The gates, rooms, and corners of the house are occupied by prophylactic figures of clay or wood, that the texts describe in detail. The clay figures have been found in excavations, and the importance of these texts for iconography lies in linking descriptions with archaeological fact.

Fortunately the archaeological material corresponding to our texts has been collected and discussed in two recent monographs: Dessa Rittig, Assyrisch-babylonische Kleinplastik magischer Bedeutung vom 13.-6. Jh. v Chr, (1977), and Dieter Kolbe, Die Reliefprogramme religiös-mythologischen Charakters in neu-assyrischen Palästen, (1981). Both authors tried to match the archeological types with the figures of the ritual texts, then still fragmentary.

The main text K 2987B+ (parts of it were edited previously by O. R. Gurney, “Babylonian Prophylactic Figures and Their Ritual,” AAA 22 (1935), 42ff.) and the better preserved extracted KAR 298 are edited and collated below as text I and II, and considerable progress could be made in their reconstruction.

A third text containing similar material is bīt mēseri which has been treated here as text III.

Differing somewhat is the “Ritual for the Substitute King.” A new manuscript has been edited here as text VI.

Lamashtu demon amulet, ca. early 1st millennium B.C., Mesopotamia or Iran, Obsidian. James N. Spear Gift, 1984 Accession Number: 1984.348 Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lamashtu demon amulet, ca. early 1st millennium B.C., Mesopotamia or Iran,
James N. Spear Gift, 1984
Accession Number: 1984.348
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although the identities and the histories of the monsters are the main subject of the present study, the information supplied by the texts on other facets of iconography could not be totally ignored. In the commentary on text II paragraphs on gods, sages, and attributes have been inserted. Here the correspondance of the texts with the archaeological material is less straightforward, and our results remain tentative.”

F.A.M. Wiggermann, Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts, STYX&PP Publications, Groningen, 1992, p. xii.

The Sexual Mingling of Gods and Humans

“Flavius Joseph noted in his Jewish Antiquities the affinities between Genesis 6:1-4 and Greek traditions: “In fact the deeds that tradition ascribes to them resemble the audacious exploits told by the Greeks of the giants.”

The sexual encounters between Greek gods and human women (and also between Greek goddesses and human men) are a common topic in Greek mythology. A work almost wholly devoted to this theme is the fragmentary Catalogue of Women, a work of the seventh or sixth century BCE, though drawing on earlier traditions. (M.L. West, The Hasidic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins, Oxford, 1985; Ludwig Koenen, “Greece, the Near East, and Egypt: Cyclic Destruction in Hesiod and the Catalogue of Women,” TAPA 124 (1994), pp. 1-34.)

It begins with an invocation to the Muses: “Sing now of the tribe of women … who unfasten their waistbands … in union with gods.” (R. Merkelbach and M.L. West, eds., Fragmenta Hesiodea (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), pp. 3-4. Fragment I)

At the beginning of this account, gods and mortals mingled and feasted together, a proximity that led to their sexual unions.

The Catalogue seems to conclude with a fragment that describes the end of this era of divine-human intimacy. Zeus conceives a plan to send a great destruction–the Trojan War–to bring to an end the easy mingling of gods and humans.

“For at that time high-thundering Zeus was planning tremendous deeds, stirring up <quarrel> throughout the boundless earth. For now he was hastening to annihilate the greater part of the human race as a pretext to destroy the lives of the demigods.”

(Merckelbach-West, Fragmenta Hesiodea, 101-2).

It is not entirely clear what Zeus’ intentions are, since it is impossible (depending on some restorations in the following fragmentary lines) that he does not actually destroy the demigods but rather removes them to an idyllic existence in the Islands of the Blessed, as happens in Hesiod’s Works and Days. (H.G. Evelyn-White, Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica (LCL: Cambridge, 1914), pp. 199-201.)

In any case, as L. Koenen observes, “he brings to an end the age of social and sexual intercourse between gods and mortal women.” (See Ludwig Koenen, “Greece, the Near East, and Egypt: Cyclic Destruction in Hesiod and the Catalogue of Women,” TAPA 124 (1994), p. 30).

This fragment, as scholars have noted, is remarkably similar to Genesis 6:1-4, particularly in the latter’s context as a prelude to the Flood story. (Ronald Hendel, “Of Demigods and the Deluge,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1987, pp. 18-20) The Greek fragment includes the details of male gods having sex with human women, propagating a race of semi divine offspring, and the high god’s decision to send a great destruction.

In this case, Zeus’ decision to destroy “the greater part (pollen) of the human race” (or perhaps “the multitudinous human race”) is motivated by his desire to destroy (or remove) the race of mixed human-divine creatures, the demigods or heroes.

These are the great warriors who fight and die on both sides of the Trojan War. A separation between the human world and the divine world is established by Zeus’ plan, preventing the further sexual mingling of gods and humans and bringing to an end the age of heroes. (Ronald Hendel, “Of Demigods and the Deluge,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1987, pp. 16-20).

R. Scodel has argued that the ideas in this fragment are in fact more suitable to a cosmic destruction than to the Trojan War:

“A war, no matter how long and how bitter, does not seem calamitous enough to have been an original form of the myth of destruction: it is, moreover, a normally human and local activity … It therefore seems likely that this aspect of the Trojan War is secondary, and that the theme has actually been borrowed from the Deluge.”

(Ruth Scodel, “The Achaean Wall and the Myth of Destruction,” HSCP 86, 1982, 42-3).

If it is plausible that this motive for the Trojan War (and there are others, including Zeus’ intent to reduce overpopulation, reminiscent of Enlil’s motive in Atrahasis) (See A.D. Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Concept of Overpopulation and Its Solution as Reflected in the Mythology,” Or 41 (1972), p. 176) is related to Near Eastern traditions, in which Genesis 6:1-4 and the flood stories are mutually implicated.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 30-2.

Editorial Note on the Apkallu and the Roadmap Ahead

I am breaking the narrative stream to speak directly to the process emerging from our reading on the apkallū, the antediluvian and postdiluvian sages of ancient Mesopotamia.

If you are reading along over my shoulder, you noticed that we digressed from Martin Lang, “Mesopotamian Early History and the Flood Story,” in a post titled On the Date of the Flood.

Martin Lang wrote:

“Berossos’ own knowledge of primordial kings probably goes back to sources that were available in Hellenistic times. The Sumerian King List itself was still known in the Seleucid era, or rather versions of king lists that echo, structurally and stylistically, their ancient forerunners from the early second millennium.

In matching up the primordial kings with the seven sages, the apkallū, Berossos once again works in the vein of contemporary scholars, who demonstrably constructed lists with kings and apkallū in order to advertise their own importance, and the primordial roots of their knowledge, as Alan Lenzi has recently shown.”

I updated that post to include a link to Alan Lenzi, “The Uruk List of Kings and Sages and Late Mesopotamian Scholarship,” JANER 8.2, 2008, which is serialized and linked in posts below.

I also changed the link to the Sumerian King List to point to the beautiful 1939 edition by Thorkild Jacobsen generously published by the University of Chicago Press, available for free download off the web.

We then dipped into Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Counterparts of the Biblical Nephilim,” in Francis I. Andersen, et al, eds., Perspectives on Language and Text: Essays and Poems in Honor of Francis I. Andersen’s Sixtieth Birthday, 1985, in a post titled On the Apkallū.

This is where I drilled in hard on the apkallū, incorporating bas reliefs and figurines held at the Louvre and the British Museum. Out of numerous posts addressing the apkallū, this one is well-illustrated, and lushly hyperlinked.

Moreover, Anne Kilmer synthesized the supporting research on the apkallū at the time of writing very effectively, so if you are overwhelmed by the other articles, just read this one. It goes without saying that you should not be intimidated by this academic literature. I have made it as readable and accessible as I can.

Yes, there is a lot of it. As I excavate the academic literature on the apkallū the hard way, mining references from footnote after footnote, I get a sense of what it might be like, to be an academic Assyriologist rather than an autodidact.

I do not include everything that I find. I assess and include just those pieces which accrue gravitas in that greater academic community. If you see glaring omissions, please let me know. This note is shaping up to be an academic survey of the literature on the apkallū, and it may save others treading these same paths some time.

Fair warning: our continuing digression into the apkallu will be deep.

As I complete serialization of source texts, I will include links to the posts beneath their citation below. These sources are sorted by date, so we can track the evolution of academic thinking on the apkallū. Our digression includes excerpts from:

After we complete our deep dive into the apkallu, we will return to the Sumerian King List, then resume with Berossos. This is the roadmap ahead.

Editorial note: In some cases citations above which are not followed by links in the bulleted list are internet dry holes, no digital versions are available. In other cases, links are to Google Books editions, which often limit visible pages. Google’s intent is to sell electronic versions of the texts that they scan.

Under these circumstances, I end up rekeying entire articles, at ruinous waste of time. If you have a moment, please send a sweet nastygram to Google asking them to post free and complete eBooks as they continue their vast project to digitize the entirety of human knowledge.

In other cases, I simply have not yet reviewed the articles and posted them. If you are following this project, you see that I post updates nearly every day. Stay tuned.

My purpose in publishing Samizdat is to highlight excerpts from the great books, mining synchronicities from legends and myths. As I point out in the About page, the Deluge was an historical event for the ancient Sumerians.

I now need to update that page, incorporating the research that we have already completed on the Sumerian King List, setting up a future digression into the concept of the Great Year, which Berossos associated with traditions of a Conflagration and the Deluge.

If you wondered where we were going, I wrote this for you.

 Updated 20 November 2015, 23:39 hrs.

On the Apkallu

“During the course of the years studying and teaching the Primeval History as recorded in the literary texts of ancient Mesopotamia, this writer has been struck by certain similarities between the Akkadian apkallu (Sumerian algal / NUN.ME / EN.ME), creatures of the god Ea, the “sages of old,” and the biblical nēpīlîm of Genesis 6 who are introduced just before the flood account.

In the Mesopotamian king and sage lists, the apkallu occur in the pre-flood era, and in some texts for a limited time after the flood. In general, however, the pre-flood sages are called apkallu and their traditional number is seven, while the post-flood sages are called the ummiānu.

Apkallu portrayed with Ea, at far left, with water coursing from his shoulders.

Apkallu portrayed with Ea, at far left, with water coursing from his shoulders.

The apkallu are semi-divine beings who may be depicted as mixed beings, as priests wearing fish hoods, or who may, like Adapa, be called a son of Ea. Moreover, humans and apkallu could presumably mate since we have the description of the four post-flood apkallu as “of human descent,” the fourth being only “two-thirds apkallu” as opposed to pre-flood pure apkallu and subsequent human sages (ummiānu).

A depiction of the apkallu, Adapa, or Oannes.

A depiction of the apkallu, Adapa, or Oannes.

The short mythological “episode” in Genesis 6:1-4 tells us only that after the population increased, the nēpīlîm appeared on the earth after divine beings (sons of elohim) had mated with the daughters of men. The following verse (v. 5) states that Yahweh saw that men’s wickedness was great.

It can be assumed from this brief account that the nēpīlîm were the offspring of those divine fathers and human mothers, and that it was the nēpīlîm who somehow exemplified wicked mankind in general. Let us now turn to the Mesopotamian apkallu tales and lists to see how their behavior, as well as their parentage, may have some features in common with the nēpīlîm.

Antediluvian apkallu portrayed as fish-men, such mixed-species creatures were the teachers of men.

Antediluvian apkallu portrayed as fish-men, such mixed-species creatures were the teachers of men.

The most celebrated apkallu was Adapa, identified as a son of Ea. As we are told in the best known and best preserved myth about him, he executed an act of hubris by breaking the wing of the south wind; the end result, for him, of that wicked act was that he was denied immortality.

He is probably to be equated with the last antediluvian apkallu who was reported to have ascended to heaven. As we know from the late lists of sages, several other apkallu at the time of the flood or right after it also committed daring or wicked acts (the list that follows is abbreviated with respect to details and is conflated from the pertinent texts):

Antediluvian apkallu

  • Uanna — Who completed the plans of heaven and earth
  • Uannedugga — Who was endowed with comprehensive intelligence
  • Enmedugga — Who was allowed a good fate
  • Enmegaluamma — Who was born in a house
  • Enmebulugga — Who grew up on pasture land
  • Anenlilda — The exorcist of Eridu
  • Utuabzu (Utuabba) — Who ascended to heaven
  • [Total of] seven brilliant purādu fish . . . born in the river, who direct the plans of heaven and earth.

(Editorial note, source: Bit Mēseri III, 14’=27′)

Postdiluvian apkallu

  • (both Adapa and Nunpiriggaldim are associated with Enmerkir)
  • Nungalpiriggaldim — Who brought down Ishtar from heaven and who made the harp decorated with bronze and lapis*
  • Piriggalnungal — Who angered Adad*
  • Piriggalabsu — Who angered Ea*
  • Lu-Nanna (2/3d apkallu) — Who drove the dragon from Ishtar’s temple*
  • *[Total of] four of human descent whom (pl.) Ea endowed with comprehensive intelligence.

(Editorial note, also see source: Helge Kvanvig, Traditions of the Apkallus, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011.)

Thus we see that the traditions about the superhuman apkallu contained stories, most of them lost to us, about their famous and infamous deeds. But it is the latter ones, from Adapa to Piriggalabzu (sic), around whom the obvious misbehavior clusters.

It is of further interest to note that the pivotal role of the nēpīlîm passage in Genesis 6 occurs together with the theme of increased population growth on which Genesis 6 opens. If we compare the Mesopotamian material, we see a similar position in the storytelling for the importance of population increase and concomitant wickedness as a factor leading to the flood.

The Mesopotamian sages were endowed with wisdom and special powers because they were created by the god Ea and associated with the deep (as fish-men, etc.). Because of their powers they were capable of acts that could impress or offend the gods, that could cause beneficial or harmful natural phenomena.

It is the negative side of them that seems to be involved in the period just before and after the flood in the sage lists. A similar theme runs through the Atrahasis Epic; there, at each attempt of the gods to decrease men’s numbers by means of drought, etc., Ea instructs his son (?) Atrahasis, the Extra Wise and thus a sage figure in his own right but also to be equated with the king of Shuruppak, how to outwit the gods and overcome hardship.

Thus each god whose cult is neglected and deprived of offerings, as a result of those instructions, was sure to be angered. Their collective anger at such acts and their disgust at humanity’s increase and bad condition led to the joint decision to send the flood.

Table from Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, The Mesopotamian Counterparts of the Biblical Nephilim, 1985

Whereas the Mesopotamian myth and list traditions single out and keep distinct the sages and king-heroes, Genesis 6:4 speaks only of the “heroes of old, men of renown” and equates them with the nēpīlîm. In fact, it is possible that this verse intended to equate both the lines of Adam and Cain with the nēpīlîm. If so, the reintroduction of Noah four verses later would complete the line of thinking, since Noah was one of the heroes of old.

Yet the line of Cain (the Smith), juxtaposed as it is with the line of Adam, seems to operate in a manner similar to the Mesopotamian traditional list of the line of sages juxtaposed with the line of kings, as others have argued.

Like the apkallu who built the early cities and those who brought the civilized arts to men, the line of Cain performed the same service (or dis-service, in the biblical view). As to v 3 concerning man’s shortened lifespan, it may have its counterpart in the post-flood renegotiations of the terms for man’s continued existence as described in the Atrahasis Epic.

There, the fixing of a term of life for mortals was probably contained in the fragmentary section about controlling population growth. In the Sumerian King List it is only after King Gilgamesh (who was 1/3d divine) that rulers begin to have more normal longevity (beginning with the 126 year reign of his successor).

Postdiluvian advisors to kings who were men, the ummianu, were the successors of the antediluvian mixed-species Apkallu who were portrayed as fish-men. In this frieze now held in the British Museum they tend to a tree of life or a tree of knowledge. The antediluvian Apkallu were the so-called seven sages of Sumeria.

Postdiluvian advisors to kings who were men, the ummianu, were the successors of the antediluvian mixed-species Apkallu who were portrayed as fish-men. In this frieze now held in the British Museum they tend to a sacred tree. The antediluvian Apkallu were the so-called seven sages of Sumeria.

One other cuneiform text can be mentioned in which the sages may be associated with wicked acts, viz. The Epic of Erra (alternative full text of the Epic from Foster’s B is available). There the sages (called ummiānu) seem to be guilty by implication since we are told that they were dispatched for good to the apsu at the time of the flood and may have been deprived access to the mes-tree, “the flesh of the gods,” which provided them with the special material to make divine and kingly statues (as well as knowledge, skill and longevity?), but which was hidden from them (and all future mortals) forever when Marduk cast it into the deep.

In Neo-Assyrian art these bird-headed

In Neo-Assyrian art these bird-headed “genies,” as they are often described, are now known to be apkallu, mixed-feature creatures created by the god Ea. They traditionally served as advisors to kings. They are often depicted in association with sacred trees.

If the flood is the same Abubu perhaps the mes-tree (see footnote 11 below) may be compared with the plant (of life) whose hidden location in the deep Utnapishtim revealed to Gilgamesh. If so, it leads us to suspect a further connection between the Mesopotamian mythological trees and plants and the tree(s) in Eden to which another sage figure, Adam, had once had access.

A modern depiction of Gilgamesh harvesting the Plant of Life from the ocean floor, guided by Utnapishtim, the deified survivor of the Deluge.

A modern depiction of Gilgamesh harvesting the Plant of Life from the ocean floor, guided by Utnapishtim, the deified survivor of the Deluge.

In short, we may be able to look to the Mesopotamian sage traditions for the mythological background of Genesis 6:1-4. While the ties between the apkallu and the nēpīlîm are hardly ties that bind, there are enough points of comparison—superhuman / semi-divine beings, acts of daring / hubris, acts that anger divinity, association with wickedness in men, their predominantly pre-flood existence—to encourage our consideration.

The Mischwesen sages seem at least to be closer to the nēpīlîm topically than the theogony materials concerning the generations of the gods. It is hoped that the circumstantial evidence for a remote connection between the apkallu and the nēpīlîm is strong enough to have been worth trying the case.”

(Footnote 11: Now that the bird-faced winged genies of Assyrian Palace art may be identified as apkallu (see Anthony Green, “Neo-Assyrian Apotropaic Figures,” Iraq 45 (1983), pp. 87-96) the close association of apkallu with special trees is clear.)

(For other mixed-beings, creatures of Ea, note F. Köcher, “Der babylonische Göttertypentext,” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung 1 (1953), pp. 72, 74, 78, 80.)

Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Counterparts of the Biblical Nephilim,” in Francis I. Andersen, Edgar W. Conrad, & Edward G. Newing, eds., Perspectives on Language and Text: Essays and Poems in Honor of Francis I. Andersen’s Sixtieth Birthday, 1985, pp. 39-43.