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Old Babylonian Creation Texts (Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 2)

20th February 2007

This is the second post in the series “Ideas of Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia.” The first post in the series, which detailed some methodological issues highlighted some bibliographical resources, may be found here. The third post will survey Neo-Bablylonian creation texts, while the fourth post will synthesize the findings and relate them to our understanding of the biblical creation texts.

My first post was discussed by a couple other bloggers. Duane over at Abnormal Interests agreed with my plan to present the texts in roughly chronological order using the date of the tablets rather than the various proposed dates of composition. Charles Halton at Awilum, however, noted (correctly) that the fact that the current extant texts of Sumerian mythology date to the Old Babylonian period does not mean that they were not written until this time. I just took the easiest way to present the material. :-)

Old Babylonian Texts (ca. 2000 – 1600 BCE)

There are a number of creation texts from the Old Babylonian period. Most of these are Sumerian texts. The compositions are presented in random order. It should be noted that this section is by no means exhaustive. For quotations, the most recent scholarly translation of the texts is customarily utilised.

1. Creation of the Hoe
[Translations: Context of Scripture, 1.157; Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 40, 51-53; Jacobsen, Treasures, 103.]

This brief Sumerian text (109 lines) is a didactic poem about how the hoe (i.e., pickaxe), which was important in both making bricks and agriculture, came into being through a divine act. It includes a long introduction that “is of prime significance for the Sumerian conception of the creation and organisation of the universe� (Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 51). Unfortunately, nothing of any consequence is known about its background or authorship, which somewhat obscures the meaning of the text at a few points. More recently this composition has been interpreted as a satirical school text.

The story goes as follows: After Enlil had separated the heaven and the earth, he “bound up� the slash in the earth’s crust which resulted from the separation. Then Enlil fashions the hoe and uses it to break the hard top crust of the earth. The hard topsoil had thus far prevented the first humans, made below, from “breaking up through the ground� — much in the same way that hard topsoil will prevent germinating plants from sprouting. The passage concludes with a glowing eulogy in honour of the newly created hoe.

Here is an excerpt that refers to the creation of the world:

Not only did the lord who never changes his promises for the future make the world appear in its correct form,
— Enlil who will make the seed of mankind rise from the earth —
not only did he hasten to separate heaven from earth,
( …. ) and earth from heaven,
but, in order to make it possible for humans to grow “where the flesh sprouts,�
he first affixed the axis of the world in Duranki (Context of Scripture, 1.511).

2. Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld
[Translations: Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 30-41; Dalley, Myths, 120-25]

A partial translation of this Sumerian tale, also known as “Gilgamesh and the Halub-tree,� is found appended to the end of the Gilgamesh Epic (Tablet 12). The original Sumerian composition describes primordial times when a single halub-tree grew beside the Euphrates. Inanna uprooted the tree and planted it in her garden. Later, when she wants to remove the tree, she could not because a snake had taken up residence in its trunk. The Sumerian hero, Gilgamesh, came and cut it down and made a chair and bed for Inanna, and in return she made a pukku and mekku for him. The pukku and the mekku eventually end up in the Underworld, and the story follows Gilgamesh’s attempts to regain them.

As with the last text, for the purposes of this study the prologue is especially important. It reads:

After heaven had been moved away from earth,
After earth had been separated from heaven,
After the name of man had been fixed;
After An had carried off heaven,
After Enlil had carried off earth, . . .

Again, as with the passage above, heaven and earth are first separated, humankind is created, and then An is given heaven while Enlil is given earth.

3. Emesh and Enten / Dispute Between Summer and Winter
[Translations: Context of Scripture, 1.183; Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 49-51; Jacobsen, Treasures, 103.]

This piece of literature, fully entitled “Emesh and Enten: Enlil Chooses the Farmer-god,� has been reconstructed from fourteen separate tablets (only seven of which have been published), and is about 308 lines long. The text itself deals more with the organisation of the heaven and the earth, rather than cosmology. Gordon actually classifies it as an “Unilingual Sumerian Wisdom Disputation� (E. I. Gordon, “A New Look at the Wisdom of Sumer and Akkad,� Bibliotheca Orientalis 42 [1960]: 145). The composition begins with Enlil cohabiting with the hursag, the mountain range, and subsequently engendering Emesh, the god of summer, and Enten, the god of winter. The two gods get into a dispute concerning their relative value and roles, after which Enlil puts the animal world under the authority of Enten and vegetation under the authority of Emesh.

4. Enki and Sumer / Enki and the World Order
[Translations: Kramer, Journal of the American Oriental Society 54 (1934): 413; Jacobsen, Treasures, 85.]

This myth, pieced together from various tablets and fragments, deals exclusively with the ordering of the world and the establishment of “law� (me) on it by Enki. After an introductory hymn in praise of Enki and various temple rites are described, the composition goes on to tell of how Enki orders all things in Sumer, after which he orders things in other lands and assigns each of them their natural resources and characteristics. He then fills the Tigris and Euphrates with fish and water, institutes “rules� or “decrees� (mes) for the sea, appoints the winds to Ishkur’s command, and then causes the fields and animal life to flourish, as well as other acts of organisation. A god is made responsible for each phenomenon. Underlying this myth — and others — is the belief that each object of nature and feature of culture has its own me, “law,� intrinsic to it, as well as its own specific purpose in the working of the universe — both of which is a result of divine assignments.

5. Cattle and Grain
[Translations: Chiera, Sumerian Epics, 26; Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 53, 72-73.]

The beginning of this poem tells the purpose for which humanity was created: to provide food for the gods. The actual myth concerns Lahar, the cattle-god, and his sister Ashnan, the grain-goddess. This brother and sister pair were created by the gods to provide food for the “Anunnaki,� the followers of An. This arrangement did not work out though, as the followers of An were not sated. In order to remedy this situation and provide food for the gods humankind “was given breath.�

Kramer also attempts to derive from the first line of this composition an idea of what the Sumerians pictured as the actual shape of heaven and earth. The first line reads: “After on the mountain of heaven and earth.â€? From this line Kramer concludes that “it is not unreasonable to assume . . . that heaven and earth united were conceived as a mountain whose base was the bottom of the earth and whose peak was the top of heaven.â€? Against this interpretation Jacobsen cogently argues that in the phrase “on the mountain of heaven and earthâ€? (hur-sag an-ki-bi-da-ke4) the genitive cannot be taken as an appositive genitive (with mountain = heaven and earth). It should rather be taken as a possessive genitive, expressing the notion that from a phenomenological perspective the mountain appears to touch both heaven and the earth (Jacobsen, “Sumerian Mythology: A Review Article,â€? in Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture [Harvard Semitic Series 21; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970], 117-118).

6. Eridu Genesis
[Translations: Context of Scripture, 1.158; ANET 42-44; Jacobsen, “The Eridu Genesis,� JBL 100 (1981): 513-29; The Harps that Once, 145-50.]

This myth of beginnings is pieced together from three sources: two Sumerian texts dated ca. 1600 BCE, and a bilingual document (Sumerian with Akkadian translation) from the Neo-Babylonian era. The story-line of the reconstructed text includes the creation of humankind and animals, the founding of kingship, the building of the first great cities, and the Deluge. Unfortunately, due to lacuna the earlier fragments do not contain the account of creation of humankind. Nevertheless, in the older texts the creation of humankind is assumed, and as the creators An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursaga are mentioned:

When An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninḫursaga
fashioned the dark–headed (people),
they had made the small animals (that come up) from (out of) the earth
come from the earth in abundance
and had let there be, as befits (it), gazelles,
(wild) donkeys, and four–footed beasts in the desert (Context of Scripture, 514).

From numerous parallels in other myths, though, it seems very likely that only Enki and Ninhursaga actually took part in the creative process (Jacobsen, “Eridu Genesis,� 516).

7. Enki and Ninmah / The Creation of Humankind
[Translations: Context of Scripture, 1.159; Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 69-72; Jacobsen, Treasures, 113-114; Harps, 151-66.]

This Sumerian tale is a prime anthropological text. It narrates the creation of humankind as well as including the motivation and the methods for doing so. It is not clear, however, whether the text as we have it was originally one or two separate and independent stories. Jacobsen thinks the latter because of what he considers major differences in setting and outlook between the two stories. The major differences that he mentions are: (1) Ninmah plays significantly different roles in the two sections. In the first she is a secondary figure, while in the second she has a much more prominent role; (2) in the first text humankind is engendered without the help of male semen, while in the second male semen is part of the process (Jacobsen, Harps, 151-153). Another way of looking at the text is offered by Kikawada. He construes the two parts of the myth as representing an archetypal ancient Near Eastern literary convention in which the creation of humankind is told in two parts. From his perspective any differences would be attributed to the typical movement from the general to the particular that is characteristic of the convention. The two explanations do not need to be considered mutually exclusive, in that even if the two parts of the myth were at one time totally distinct, an editor/redactor evidently put them together according to the convention (Isaac M. Kikawada, “The Double Creation of Mankind in Enki and Ninmah, Atrahasis I 1–351, and Genesis 1–2,� Iraq 45 [1983]: 43).

The first part of the story begins with how at the beginning of time the lower gods had to toil for their livelihood. The work proved to be too much for them and they actively rebelled and blamed Enki for their toil. Enki’s mother, Namma, informed her son about the turmoil and suggested that he create a substitute for them. Enki then remembered “Apsu’s [“the deeps�] fathering clay� and had his mother get a couple of womb-goddesses pinch off this clay for her, and then Namma gave birth to humankind—“[without] the sperm of a ma[le]� (Jacobsen, Harps, 156-157). The poem goes on to describe how Ninmah, “the exalted lady� (= Ninhursaga), and Enki got into a contest during a celebration in honour of the newly created humanity. The contest entailed Ninmah trying to create deformed humans that Enki could not find a place for in society. Enki prevails and the composition ends with a hymn praising Enki.

8. Enki and Ninsikila/Ninhursaga
[Translations: ANET 37-41; Jacobsen, Harps, 181-83.]

This composition is a good example of a text that deals with theogony — the engendering of the gods. Jacobsen contends, as with the above myth, that it is made up of two originally separate and independent stories. The first story consists primarily of an eulogy to the pristine land of Dilum. The second story basically narrates Enki’s sexual adventures. Enki’s first target is Nintur, whom he courts and eventually has to marry her to get his way with her and this produces Ninnisiga. Enki then proceeds to have intercourse with his daughter Ninnisiga, and then with his granddaughter, and then great-granddaughter, etc. Finally Enki’s real wife, Ninhursaga, has enough of his fooling around and warns Uttu — the next in line — about him. Enki eventually takes Uttu by force, but unbeknownst to Enki, Ninhursaga removes the semen from Uttu’s womb and plants it. Enki comes across the plants and eats then — making him pregnant. As he cannot give birth, Ninhursaga places him in her vulva and gives birth to eight deities — four gods and four goddesses.

One Response to “Old Babylonian Creation Texts (Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 2)”

  1. Paolo Merlo Says:

    Dear Tyler,
    all these sumerian texts are available on line (text and translation) at ETCL (The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature)

    Best wishes,
    Paolo Merlo