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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.

The Great Year Doctrine of World Catastrophe

“In the Greek world the first distinct mention of the Great Year was made by Plato, who argued in his Timaeus that time is produced by the celestial bodies: the moon determines the month, the sun the year; but the times of the planets and of the sphere of the fixed stars are so great that it can hardly be known whether they are times at all.

In any case it is clear that the perfect number of time fulfills the perfect year at the moment at which the sun, the moon, the planets, and the fixed stars have all completed their courses and have again reached their starting point. (Plato, Timaeus, 39c, 39d).

By this is meant that the Great Year is completed when the celestial bodies have reached the same positions in relation to each other as they had at the beginning of that period. The identical conception is found in Cicero, qualified by the statement that the actual duration of such a period is a matter of controversy (Cicero, De natura deorum, II, 51-2).

But in his Hortensius, the book which was later to make such a strong impression on the young Augustine, Cicero equated the Great Year with 12,954 ordinary years, as we know from Tacitus and Servius (Tacitus, Dialogus de oratoribus, 16, 7. Maurus Servius Honoratus, Commentary on the Aenid of Virgil, I, 296. The same number is given by Solinus in connection with the phoenix, Solini Polyhistor, cap. xxxvi).

In addition to these opinions about the Great Year there is another according to which the sun, the moon, and the five planets all return at the end of the Great Year to one and the same sign of the Zodiac, the one under which they were when it began. According to Censorinus, Aristotle himself had put forward this same view, and preferentially indicated this period as “the Greatest Year.” This year, like the ordinary solar year, was thought to have a summer and winter too, the summer culminating in a world conflagration and the world in a world flood. (Censorinus, De die natali, 18, II. ).

How much of this really goes back to Aristotle cannot be said with certainty. (V. Rose, Aristotelis fragmenta, Lipsiae, 1886, 39, frg. 25). According to Seneca, Berossus, the Babylonian priest of Bel who wrote in the third century BC, propagated the same doctrine in a more detailed form: when the sun, the moon, and the planets came to lie in a straight line under the sign of Cancer, the world would burst into flames; and if they reached that position under Capricorn, the world would be inundated. (Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, III, 29, I).

BM102485 - Boundary stone (kudurru) Kassite dynasty, about 1125-1100 BC Probably from southern Iraq A legal statement about the ownership of a piece of land The cuneiform inscription on this kudurru records the granting by Eanna-shum-iddina, the governor of the Sealand, of five gur of corn land in the district of Edina in south Babylonia to a man called Gula-eresh. The boundaries of the land are laid out; the surveyor is named as Amurru-bel-zeri and the transfer completed by two high officials who are also named. Nine gods are invoked to protect the monument, along with seventeen divine symbols. The symbols of the important Mesopotamian gods are most prominent: the solar disc of the sun-god Shamash, the crescent of the moon-god Sin and the eight-pointed star of Ishtar, goddess of fertility and war. The square boxes beneath these signs represent altars supporting the symbols of gods, including horned headdresses, the triangular spade of Marduk, and the wedge-shaped stylus of Nabu, the god of writing. A prominent snake is shown on many kudurru and may, like many of the symbols, be related to the constellations. The text ends with curses on anyone who removes, ignores or destroys the kudurru. L.W. King, Babylonian boundary stones and (London, Trustees of the British Museum, 1912) © The Trustees of the British Museum http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/b/boundary_stone_kudurru-6.aspx

BM102485 – Boundary stone (kudurru)
Kassite dynasty, about 1125-1100 BC
Probably from southern Iraq
A legal statement about the ownership of a piece of land
The cuneiform inscription on this kudurru records the granting by Eanna-shum-iddina, the governor of the Sealand, of five gur of corn land in the district of Edina in south Babylonia to a man called Gula-eresh. The boundaries of the land are laid out; the surveyor is named as Amurru-bel-zeri and the transfer completed by two high officials who are also named.
Nine gods are invoked to protect the monument, along with seventeen divine symbols. The symbols of the important Mesopotamian gods are most prominent: the solar disc of the sun-god Shamash, the crescent of the moon-god Sin and the eight-pointed star of Ishtar, goddess of fertility and war. The square boxes beneath these signs represent altars supporting the symbols of gods, including horned headdresses, the triangular spade of Marduk, and the wedge-shaped stylus of Nabu, the god of writing.
A prominent snake is shown on many kudurru and may, like many of the symbols, be related to the constellations. The text ends with curses on anyone who removes, ignores or destroys the kudurru.
L.W. King, Babylonian Boundary Stones (London, Trustees of the British Museum, 1912)
© The Trustees of the British Museum
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/b/boundary_stone_kudurru-6.aspx

These rather improbable theories were especially favored among astrologers, since Greek astronomy had already reached a point of development at which the doctrines of Berossus could not be accepted. (J. Bidez, Bérose et la grande année, in Melanges Paul Fredericq, Brussels, 1904, 9-19.)

These texts treating the views of Aristotle and Berossus say that world catastrophes corresponding to the summer and winter of the solar year can occur in the course of the Great Year. The period between two world catastrophes could also be seen as a Great Year, but only in the derivative sense. The true Great Year, which might with Aristotle be called the Greatest Year, coincided with a complete cosmic revolution, whether interpreted in the sense of Plato and Cicero or in that of Aristotle and Berossus.

The Great Year of the Classical world arose from the purely mythical conception of a cosmic periodicity ultimately traceable to Babylonia.” (B.L. van der Waerden, Das gross Jahr und die ewige Wiederkehr, in Hermes, 80, 1952, 135-43.)”

R. van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix: According to Classical and Early Christian Traditions, Brill Archive, 1972, pp. 72-6.

Bilat, Beltis, Nin-Ki-Gal, Allat, Infernal Queen of the Underworld

“When the god of Nipur became Semitic, his character underwent a change.

As the supreme deity of the state he was necessarily a Baal, but the Semitic Baal embodied very different conceptions from those which were associated with the Accadian Mul-lil. It is true that, as I have just pointed out, his primitive attributes still clung to him, but they were superadded to other attributes which showed him to be the supreme Sun-god of Semitic worship.

That supreme Sun-god, however, revealed himself to his worshippers under two aspects; he might be either the beneficent god who gave life and light to the world, or he might be the fierce and wrathful sun of summer who scorches all nature with his heat, and sinks at night, like a ball of glowing metal, into the darkness of the under-world.

Necessarily it was rather under the latter aspect that the Mul-lil of Nipur became the Semitic Bel.

This is the Bel whose cult was carried to Assyria, and whose name is mentioned frequently in the inscriptions of Nineveh, where among other titles he bears that of “father of the gods.”

This is a title which he received, not in virtue of his primitive character, but because he had become the Semitic Bel.

He was distinguished from the younger Bel of Babylon, Bel-Merodach, as βελιτανας or βολαθην (Βêl-êthûn), (ed. note: Greek sic) “the older Baal,” when Babylon became the imperial city, and its Bel claimed to be the father and head of the Babylonian gods.

But the distinction, as might be expected, was not always observed, and the older and younger Bel are sometimes confounded together.

The confusion was rendered the more easy by the fact that the wife of the Bel of Nipur was addressed as Bilat, and thus was undistinguished in name from Beltis of Babylon.

But she was in reality, as we have seen, the queen of Hades, Nin-ki-gal as the Accadians called her, or Allat as she is named in the Semitic texts.

Allat is interpreted “the unwearied;” like the Homeric epithet of Hades, αδαμαστος, “the inflexible” divinity who ceases not to deal on all sides his fatal blows. Her proper title, however–that, at least, under which she had originally been known at Nipur–was Nin-lil, “the lady of the ghost-world.”

It is under this name that Assur-bani-pal addresses her (Trustees of the British Museum (H.C. Rawlinson), The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, ii. 66) as “the mistress of the world, whose habitation is the temple of the library” (i.e. the temple of Istar at Nineveh).

As Allat, the goddess of Hades, she was a much-dreaded and formidable figure, who is described in the legend of the Descent of Istar as inflicting upon her sister-goddess all the pains and diseases which emanated from her demoniac satellites.

The unfortunate Istar, stripped of her clothing and adornments, is held up to the scorn of the lower world; and Namtar, the plague-demon, is ordered by Allat to smite her with maladies in the eyes, in the sides, in the feet, in the heart, in the head, and, in short, in all the limbs.

Throughout the legend Namtar appears as the messenger of the infernal queen.”

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. 148-50.

Mul-lil = Bel

“The “lord of the ghost-world” extended his sway over this nether earth also.

He is therefore entitled “the lord of the world,” as well as “king of all the spirits of the earth.” According to one version of the story of the Deluge, it was he who caused the waters of the flood to descend from heaven, and who designed the destruction of all mankind.

“When Mul-lil,” we are told, “approached and saw the ship (of Xisuthros), he stood still and was filled with wrath against the gods and the spirits of heaven. ‘What soul has escaped therefrom?’ (he cried). ‘Let no man remain alive in the great destruction.'”

It was then that Ea came forward with words of wisdom, and protested against this attempt of Mul-lil to confound the innocent with the guilty.

“Let the sinner alone bear his sin; let the evil-doer bear his own iniquity.”

And though the wrathful god was pacified, so that Xisuthros and his companions were allowed to escape from their threatened death, the rescued hero did not forget the evil intentions of Mul-lil; but when inviting the other gods to his sacrifice after his descent from the ark, he specially excepted the god of Nipur.

“Let the (other) gods come to my altar, but let Mul-lil not come to the altar, since he did not act considerately, but caused a deluge and doomed my people to destruction.”

In these quotations I have called the god by his old Accadian name, Mul-lil; But long before this account of the Deluge was composed, even though in its present form it probably reaches back more than 2000 years before the Christian era, the Accadian Mul-lil had become the Semitic Bel.

His primitive attributes, however, still adhered to him. He was still the god of the lower world, whose messengers were diseases and nightmares and the demons of night, and from whom came the plagues and troubles that oppressed mankind.

In a magical text (Trustees of the British Museum (H.C. Rawlinson), The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, iv. 1. 5, 6), Namtar, the plague-demon, is called “the beloved son of Mul-lil“–standing, in fact, in the same relation to Mul-lil that Tammuz does to Ea, and in the next line Mul-lil’s wife is asserted to be Nin-ki-gal or Allat, “the queen of the mighty land” of Hades.

This magical text, however, is a good deal older than the time when the Semites adopted and transformed the deities of the Accadians, or at all events it expresses the ideas of that earlier period.”

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. 146-8.

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