Samizdat

"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

Tag: 2250 BCE

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.

Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablets IV and V, Slaying of Khumbaba

“The IVth tablet is concerned with a description of the monster with whom the heroes are about to do battle.

Khumbaba, whom Bel had appointed to guard the cedar (i.e., one particular cedar which appears to be of greater height and sanctity than the others), is a creature of most terrifying aspect, the very presence of whom in the forest makes those who enter it grow weak and impotent.

As the heroes draw near Eabani complains that his hands are feeble and his arms without strength, but Gilgamesh speaks words of encouragement to him. It may be noted, in passing, that the word Khumbaba is of Elamite origin, a fact which has led certain authorities to identify the monster with an Elamite dynasty which anciently dominated Erech, and which came to grief about 2250 BCE.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish the connexion between the mythical encounter and a definite historical event; but it may at least be presumed that the bestowal of an Elamite designation on the monster argues a certain enmity between Elam and Babylon.

The next fragments bring us into the Vth tablet.

The heroes, having reached “a verdant mountain,” paused to survey the Forest of Cedars. When they entered the forest the death of Khumbaba was foretold to one or other, or both of them, in a dream, and they hastened forward to the combat.

Unfortunately the text of the actual encounter has not been preserved, but we learn from the context that the heroes were successful in slaying Khumbaba.

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 166-7.

E-Sagila, The Great Temple of Bel in Babylon

The temple or “tomb”of Bêlos, as it was also called by the Greeks, was one of the wonders of the world.

Hêrodotos, quoting probably from an earlier author, describes it in the following terms :

“The temple of Zeus Bêlos,with bronze gates which remained up to my time, was a square building two furlongs every way. In the middle of the temple was a tower of solid masonry, a furlong in length and breadth, and upon this tower another tower had been erected, and upon that again another, and so on for eight towers.

And the ascent to them was by an incline which wound round all the towers on the outside. About the middle of the incline are a resting-place and seats, where those who ascend may sit and rest. In the topmost tower is a large shrine, within which is a large and well-appointed couch, with a golden table at its side.

But no image is set up there, nor does any one pass the night there except a single woman, a native of the country, whom the god selects for himself from among all the inhabitants, as is asserted by the Chaldeans, the priests of the god.

They further say, though I cannot believe it, that the god himself visits the shrine and takes his rest upon the couch. … There is another shrine below belonging to this Babylonian temple, and containing a great statue of Zeus [Bêlos] of gold in a sitting posture, and a great golden table is set beside it.

The pedestal and chair of the statue are of gold, and, as the Chaldeans used to say, the gold was as much as 800 talents in weight. Outside the shrine is a golden altar. There is also another great altar upon which full-grown sheep are sacrificed, for upon the golden altar only sucklings are allowed to be offered.

Upon the larger altar also the Chaldeans burn each year a thousand talents of frankincense at the time when they keep the festival of the god. In this part of the temple there was still at that time a figure of a man twelve cubits high, of solid gold.”

It is clear from this description that the great temple of Babylon resembled a large square enclosure formed by huge walls of brick, within which rose a tower in eight stages. Below the tower was a shrine or temple, and outside it two altars, the smaller one of gold for special offerings, while the larger one was intended for the sacrifice of sheep as well as for the burning of incense.

We learn a good deal about this temple from the inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar, which show that although Hêrodotos was correct in his general description of the building, he has made mistakes in the matter of details.

The Temple itself stood on the east side of Babylon, and had existed since the age of Khammuragas (B.C. 2250), and the first dynasty which had made Babylon its capital. It bore the title of E-Sagila or E-Saggil, an Accadian name signifying “the house of the raising of the head.”

Its entrance also bore the Accadian title of Ka-khilibu, which Nebuchadnezzar renders “the gate of glory.”

 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. 92-4.

%d bloggers like this: