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Neo-Babylonian Creation Texts (Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 3)

31st March 2007

This is the third post in the series “Ideas of Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia.â€? The first post in the series detailed some methodological issues and highlighted some bibliographical resources, while the second post surveyed creation texts from the Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000 – 1600 BCE). This post will discuss a number of Neo-Bablylonian creation texts, while the fourth post in the series will synthesize the findings and relate them to our understanding of the biblical creation texts.

Neo-Babylonian Sources (ca. 1000–500 BCE)

Some of the more familiar “creation texts” from the ANE are found in the Neo-Babylonian period. The compositions are presented in random order and quotations are taken from the most recent scholarly translation of the text, usually The Context of Scripture. Once again, it should be noted that this section is by no means exhaustive.

enuma_elish.jpg1. Enuma elish / The Epic of Creation
[Texts come from three primary sources: (1) excavations at Nineveh by the British, published in CT XIII (1901); L. W. King, The Seven Tablets of Creation (2 vols.; London: 1902); (2) British-American excavations at Kish, found in S. Langdon, Oxford Editions of Cuneiform Texts VI (1923); and (3) German excavations at Ashur, printed in E. Ebeling, Keilschrifttexte aus Assur religiösen Inhalts (Leipzig, 1919, 1923). A composite cuneiform text was published by W. G. Lambert and Simon B. Parker, Enuma elish: The Babylonian Epic of Creation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966). Translations: Context of Scripture, 1.111; ANET 60-72, 501-503; Jacobsen, Treasures, 167-191; Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis: the Story of Creation (2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 1-60; Dalley, Myths, 228-77. Online: Sacred Texts; GatewaysToBabylon.com]

This poem, often called after its opening words Enuma elish (“When above…�), is usually dated around 1100 BCE. Its Akkadian seems to be a bit older than that date, suggesting that it could have been composed earlier. Jacobsen proposes that it could derive from the middle of the latter half of the second millennium BCE (Treasures, 167). Assuming that the Babylonian version is primary, it clearly could not have been written before the reign of Sumula-el (1936–1901 BCE), during whose reign Marduk came to supremacy. Hammurapi, Agum-Kakrime, Nebuchadnezzar I, among others, have all been suggested as possible reigns under which the epic could have been composed. Dalley favours an Amoritic setting for the composition of the tale (Myths, 229-230).

Referring to this work as “The Epic of Creation� is somewhat of a misnomer. While some of its contents certainly deal with questions of origins, its primary concern is with exalting Marduk and the establishment of permanent kingship. As such, it would be more accurate to consider it a panegyric in honour of the god Marduk (cf. the last line of the epic: “The song about Marduk, who vanquished Tiamat and assumed kingship.�). The epic also had a cultic function. A ritual text is extant that gives directions that the Epic of Creation was to be read (or enacted) on the fourth day of the New Year Festival in Babylon.

The epic itself consists of seven tablets which trace the advances towards and challenges against attaining the goal of Monarchy. The story can roughly be divided into two sections: a brief one dealing with the foundations of the universe (tablet one), and a much longer section narrating how the present world order was established (tablets two through seven). Only the portions of the epic which especially pertain to this series will be highlighted. The narrative poem begins:

When on high no name was given to heaven,
Nor below was the netherworld called by name,
Primeval Apsu was their progenitor,
And matrix–Tiamat was she who bore them all.

As noted above, the first tablet of the epic deals with the origins of the basic powers of the universe. The theogony of the gods begins with the older intransitive gods Apsu and Tiamat (representing sweet water and salt water respectively). Then the tablets go on to describe the discontent between the older gods — Apsu and Tiamat — and the younger, more boisterous and dynamic gods. Apsu and Tiamat are disturbed by the noise that the younger gods make to the extent that Apsu decides to respond destructively. The younger gods hear of the plot against them and through their appointed champion Marduk, the older gods are vanquished. After Marduk’s victory, he splits Tiamat’s body and fashions the heaven and the earth from it, and also creates the constellations, sun, and the moon.

The next creative act, which is told of on the sixth tablet, is the creation of humankind. After victory, Marduk spared the lives of the gods who had sided with Apsu and Tiamat, and they in turn pledged their allegiance to Marduk and vowed to build him a royal palace. The work proved to be too burdensome for them, and in order to relieve them from their toil Marduk decides to create humankind. The text reads:

“I shall compact blood, I shall cause bones to be,
I shall make stand a human being, let ‘Man’ be its name.
I shall create humankind,
They shall bear the gods’ burden that those may rest.
I shall artfully double the ways of the gods:
(10) Let them be honored as one but divided in twain.�

Marduk, on the advice of his father Ea, calls for an assembly of the gods during which Kingu (or Qingu), the god who incited Tiamat and started the war, was killed and from his blood Ea fashioned humankind. The tale continues to tell of the building of Babylon and ends with the Igigi gods praising Marduk by his fifty names.

2. Chaldean Cosmogony / Bilingual Creation Story
[Texts published in L. W. King, CT XIII (1901) 35-38. Translations: R. W. Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament (NY and Cincinnati, 1926), 47-50; Heidel, Babylonian, 61-63; S. G. F. Brandon, Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East (London, 1963), 70.]

This bilingual text (Sumerian and Akkadian) comes from the sixth century, but most likely originates from earlier sources. Like the above myth, the central theme and objective of its creation story is to provide justification and support for Marduk’s position as supreme monarch among the Babylonian pantheon. It begins when “all the lands were sea,� and then tells how Eridu and its temple arose in Apsu, along with Babylon and Marduk. Marduk, with the help of the goddess Aruru, then created humankind, “in order to settle the gods in the dwelling of (their) heart’s delight� (Heidel, Babylonian, 63, line 19).

3. The Theogony of Dunnu / Babylonian Theogony
[Published by A. R. Millard, CT XLVI 43. Translations: W. G. Lambert and P. Walcot, “A New Babylonian Theogony and Hesiod,� Kadmos 4 (1965) 64-72; Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Harab Myth,� Studies in the Ancient Near East 2/3 (Malibu; 1984); Context of Scripture, 1.112; ANET 517-518; Dalley, Myths, 278-281.]

This brief story in Akkadian about the begetting of the gods is a Late Babylonian copy of a theogony from the early second millennium when Dunnu was a town of distinction. Unfortunately, a large part of the text is missing, so a proper analysis cannot yet be made. The text depicts the Plough and the Earth as being the source of creation and genitors of the Sea, unlike the stories that have Apsu and Tiamat as the primeval forces in creation. The composition continues to narrate the begetting of other gods, with the motif of incest, patricide and matricide being especially prominent.

4. Atra-hasis
[Full publication data can be found in W. G. Lambert and Alan R. Millard, Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (New ed.; Winnona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com), 31-41. Translations: Context of Scripture, 1.130; ANET 104-106, {512-514}; Jacobsen, Treasures, 116-121; Dalley, Myths, 1-38; W. L. Moran, “The Creation of Man in Atrahasis I 192-248,� Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 200 (1970): 48-56; ibid., “Some Considerations of Form and Interpretation in Atrahasis,� in Language, Literature and History: Philological and Historical Studies Presented to Erica Reiner (ed. F. Rochberg-Halton; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 245-256; ibid., “Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood,� Biblica 52 (1971): 51-61; A. Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Concept of Overpopulation and Its Solution as Reflected in the Mythology,� Orientalia, n.s. 41 (1972): 160-177. Online: GatewaysToBabylon.com]

This Akkadian creation story provides the background for the early history of humankind that leads to the disastrous great flood. The myth is named after its main hero, Atra-hasis (which means “extra-wise�), who built and ark and saved humanity from the destruction of the great flood. The earliest surviving manuscripts come from the seventeenth century BCE, though the composite nature of the work makes any conclusive statements beyond this impossible.

The epic begins at a period in time, before the creation of humanity, when the lower deities had to provide the labour necessary to provide sustenance for the higher gods. The first two lines of the composition reads:

When the gods instead of man [or perhaps: "When the gods were man"]
Did the work, bore the loads . . .

At that time the responsibility for the universe was divided between the great triad of ruling gods: Anu controlled heaven, Enlil ruled on earth, and Enki in the fresh waters below the earth and the sea. In due time the gods found their labour intolerable and began to grumble and ultimately they revolt and refuse to work anymore. The always diplomatic Enki proposes a solution to the quandary: create humankind to do the menial work. This recommendation is approved by the gods, who then enlist the help of the mother goddess Mami (Nintur). The actual description of the creation of humankind is told in two successive parallel accounts. In the first Mami, with the help of Enki, produces humankind from clay made from the flesh and blood of a god named Geshtu-e (We-e), who was obviously the leader of the rebellion (lines 5-245). The second, and more concrete, account notes how Enki and Mami come to the “room of fate� and create seven pairs of people by snipping off clay from a mud brick (lines 249-351).

The epic goes on to tell how humanity proliferates and becomes too noisy; and how, at the insistence of Enlil, the population is reduced respectively by plague, then twice by famine and drought. Finally Enlil sends a great flood to wipe out humanity once and for all, but Enki conspires with Atra-hasis, who is saved from the flood.

5. Trilingual Creation Story
[Printed in E. Ebeling, Keilschrifttexte aus Assur religiösen Inhalts (Leipzig, 1919, 1923) no. 4. Translations: Ebeling, Zeitschrift der deutschen morganländischen Gesellschaft LXX (1916): 532-38; Heidel, Babylonian, 68-71. Cf. Jacobsen, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 5 (1946): 143, n. 24 ]

This composition discovered at German excavations at Ashur dates from ca. 800 BCE provides another rendition of the creation of humanity. In this text the blood of two craftsman deities is used to make humankind. It reads:

When heaven had been separated from the earth, . . .
(and) the mother goddess had been brought into being; . . .
[Then] the great gods, . . .
Seated themselves in the exalted sanctuary
And recounted among themselves what had been created. . . .
What (else) shall we do? . . .
“Let us slay (two) Lamga gods.
With their blood let us create mankind.
The service of the gods be their portion,
For all times. . . .�

As with many other texts, humankind was created in order that they might serve the gods. Significantly, for the first time in any Babylonian literature the first two humans are given names: Ulligara and Zalgarra, which probably mean “the establisher of abundance� and “the establisher of plenty,� respectively.

6. When Anu Had Created the Heavens
[Printed in The text is published and translated by F. H. Weissbach, Babylonische Miscellen (Leipzig, 1903), pl. 12, 32-34. Translations: Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels, 44-46; Heidel, Babylonian, 65-66]

This text is a brief cosmological story found in Babylon. The creation account in it is employed as an incantation — a magic ritual for the restoration of the temple. The text recites an ancestry of the gods, that begins with Anu, and then recounts the creation of humankind. In this composition Ea pinches off some clay in the Apsu and creates humankind “for the do[ing of the service of the gods(?)].�

7. The Worm and the Toothache
[Published by Thompson, CT XVII (London, 1903) pl. 50. Translations: Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels, 52-53.; Heidel, Babylonian, 72-73; ANET 100-101. Online: GatewaysToBabylon.com]

This manuscript is one of the best incantations that contains cosmological material. It dates from Neo-Babylon times, though a colophon indicates that it originates from an earlier date. The incantation is to relieve a toothache, which evidently was associated with the worm. The cosmological data starts with the creation of heaven by Anu and then goes on to record how Anu created the Earth (Ki), and the Earth created the rivers, and so on all the way down to the worm.

The final post in this series will synthesize the findings and relate them to our understanding of the biblical creation texts.


3 Responses to “Neo-Babylonian Creation Texts (Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 3)”

  1. John Hobbins Says:

    Tyler,

    thanks for a wonderful series. I am looking forward to the synthesis. A briefly discuss the genre of Genesis 1 on my site. The subject of genre trips up a lot of people. Not everyone will like the solution I offer, but at least I don’t sidestep the question as many do.

    A couple of observations. First of all, the number of texts and realia from Mesopotamia and beyond that are relevant to Genesis 1-3 is immense. An excellent example of the kind of thing that remains to be done is provided by Andreas Schuele in his ZAW 117 (2005) 1-20 article entitled “Made in the ‘Image of God’: The Concepts of Divine Images in Gen 1-3.” This article is available online in PDF format free of charge at the ZAW site (how long that will last, I don’t know). As Cline’s old Tyndale Bulletin article (of which Schuele seems unaware; the article is available online at the author’s site) also demonstrates, it’s possible to approach Gen 1-3 very profitably against the background of a wide assortment of ancient near eastern texts and realia. You know that, of course, but perhaps it bears stressing.

    Secondly, in terms of translations, I think you would do your readers a favor if you also listed relevant pages from Benjamin Foster’s Anthology. I have the 2005 Third Edition. I recommend Foster’s translations above all others. He also lists editions of the cuneiform texts, the most important secondary literature, and major translations in German and French, not just first publications and major translations in English as you do. I suppose that interests only me and other former students of Grayson and Sweet who read your weblog. But still.

    Your site is about as good as it gets. Scholarly but readable. Thanks again.

    John Hobbins
    http://www.ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com

  2. Novum Testamentum Blog » Biblical Studies Carnival XVI Says:

    [...] Tyler Williams has a nice post on Neo-Babylonian creation texts. Kevin Wilson has three posts on the two priestly layers of Numbers 1-10 (1, 2, and 3). Also with a triumvirate of posts, Kevin Edgecomb discusses the rulers of Aram-Damascus (1, 2, and 3). John Hobbins talks about the aramaic poetry in the Book of Daniel. Joe Weaks reviews the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in Kansas City, and Jim West reviews the documentary, Decoding the Dead Sea Scrolls. [...]

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