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Theogony, Cosmogony, and Anthropology in ANE Creation Accounts (Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 4)

4th May 2007

This is the fourth and (probably) final post in the series “Ideas of Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia.� The first post in the series detailed some methodological issues and highlighted some bibliographical resources. The second and third posts surveyed creation texts from the Old Babylonian and the Neo-Bablylonian periods, respectively. In this post I will attempt to synthesize these findings and while I hoped to relate them to our understanding of the biblical creation texts, that will have to wait until a future post.

Theogony, Cosmogony, and Anthropology in ANE Creation Accounts

What ideas of origins and creation can be gleaned from the texts surveyed in the last two posts? Are there any dominant themes and motifs apparent? This section is subdivided into two parts: the first will examine theogony and cosmogony in the texts and the second will deal with anthropology. Theogony and cosmogony are being discussed together for reasons that will become apparent below. Note that this partition is somewhat artificial as some of the texts span both divisions (e.g., “The Epic of Creation�).

The fifteen texts surveyed in the previous posts may be summarized as follows:

[TABLE=3]

There are eight texts that touch on the topic of theogony, two early and six later (A3, A8; B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B7). Concerning cosmogony there are five compositions from the Old Babylonian period and four from the Neo-Babylonian era, making a total of nine texts (A1, A2, A3, A4, A5; B1, B2, B5, B7). There are ten texts that somehow discuss or mention the creation of humankind, five from each time period (A1, A2, A5, A6, A7; B1, B2, B4, B5, B6).

Theogony/Cosmogony

It should be apparent from the above texts that it would be impossible to speak of the Mesopotamian view of the creation of the cosmos without speaking of the creation of the gods: in Mesopotamia theogony and cosmogony were inextricably intertwined. Of this W. G. Lambert notes: “In ancient Mesopotamia there was comparatively little interest in cosmogony as such. Few texts deal in any detail with the process whereby the physical universe originated and attained its present form. A much greater interest was taken in the ancestries of the gods, and these frequently have cosmogonic associations” (“Kosmogonie,â€? in Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie [ed. Erich Ebeling and Bruno Meisser; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1980-1983], 6:219). It should also be clear from the evidence that one cannot speak of “the Mesopotamian view of creationâ€? as a single specific tradition. Some of the texts have Apsu and Tiamat as the prime movers in creation, while others have the Plough and the Earth, while yet others have Anu the sky god.

The texts will be discussed under three headings: (1) the ancestries of the gods; (2) the creation and ordering of the cosmos; and (3) the relationship of the different conceptions of theogony/cosmogony to geography. Any recurring characteristics or themes will be highlighted.

1. The Prime Elements: Ancestries of the Gods

Much of the theogonic data in the literature takes the form of ancestries of the gods. When discussing the ancestries of the gods it is important to remember that “brief, one-sentence myths and allusions have just as much importance as lengthy epic-style narrativesâ€? (Lambert, “Kosmogonie,â€? 219). In the different texts, typically one of four elements is found at the head of the “genealogyâ€?: Earth, Water, Time, and (less often) Heaven. This reflects the tendency in Mesopotamian literature to reduce everything to one prime element at its inception. A good example of a text that has Earth as a prime element is “The Theogony of Dunnu,â€? where the first pair are the Plough (ha’in) and Earth (ersetu). More elaborate myths of this same type are ones that have the Mother Goddess as the prime element. For instance, in “Emesh and Enten,â€? Enlil and Hursag, the mountain range, cohabit and engender Emesh and Enten. An excellent text that has Water as the first element is the “Epic of Creation,â€? where the lineage of Marduk begins with the pair of water-gods, Apsu and Tiamat (grammatically masculine and feminine, respectively). The “Chaldean Cosmogonyâ€? also fits into this category. None of the texts covered above had Time or Heaven as basic components.

The actions of the prime elements would typically take two forms: either the components represented as deities would themselves bring forth further elements — and the present order of things would result; or the elements would be acted on from without, usually by another god, to produce the known universe. Both “The Theogony of Dunnu� and “The Epic of Creation� would be examples of the first kind. A couple texts that could allude to the elements being acted on from without are “Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld,� where Anu takes heaven an Enlil takes earth; while in the “Creation of the Hoe,� Enlil separates the heaven and the earth alone.

2. Creation and Ordering of the Cosmos

Under the rubric of creation and ordering of the cosmos two things can be noted. First, Mesopotamian texts tend to emphasise the ordering of the cosmos over its creation. Once again taking “The Epic of Creationâ€? as an example, only the first twenty lines of the first tablet deals with the creation of the universe, while the bulk of tablets four through six covers its organisation. Various other texts focus solely on the ordering of the cosmos, such as “Enki and Sumerâ€? and “Emesh and Enten.â€? Second, one would be hard pressed to find a text where an item of the cosmos is created by a god. Most of the theogonic texts describe the gods as reproducing, separating, or manipulating things, which is not the same as creating something, ex nihilo, so to speak (I’m by no means implying that the biblical accounts present creation ex nihilo; that’s an issue for another post). Even in “The Epic of Creationâ€? when Marduk “createsâ€? the sky, he does so from the corpse of the vanquished Tiamat.

3. Geography and Conception of the Creation of the Cosmos

J. van Dijk, from his work with Sumerian creation myths, posited that there were two originally separate representations of creation (see his “Le motif cosmique dans la pensée sumerienne,� Acta Orientalia 28 (1964/5): 1-60). The first tradition, in which an embryo-like universe (sometimes represented by a mountain) engenders An, whose marriage to the earth leads to the creation of humankind, originated from the nomadic culture of Northern Sumer around Nippur. The second tradition derived from the region around Eridu in the South, and describes creation as starting from the waters of Nammu and Mother Earth. In this scheme humankind was fashioned from the earth. Dijk suggested that these two separate traditions were later conflated with one another.

Van Dijk’s categorization is followed by most recent works on ANE creation, including Richard Clifford (Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and the Bible [CBQMS 26; Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1994; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com]) and Kenton Sparks (Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible [Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2005; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com]). Whether or not it is entierly accurate, there does seem to be a connection between the geography of the land and the way the creation of the cosmos was conceived. Of this relationship (though in a different context) Denis Baly notes that “any form of religious belief is required by the environment is, of course, certainly false. Nevertheless, one must recognise that what men believe is unquestionably conditioned by the environment in which they find themselves� (“The Geography of Monotheism,� in Translating & Understanding the Old Testament [ed. Harry T. Frank & William L. Reed; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970], 254). This is seen in the so-called “Chaldean Cosmology,� which clearly presupposes the environment of the lower course of the Euphrates and the Tigris.

Anthropology: The Creation of Humankind

In relation to the creation of humankind, two points will be considered: (1) the materials and methods of creation; and (2) the purpose of humanity.

1. Materials and Methods of Creation

Typically the two perspectives provided concerning the creation of humankind is that the human either sprang from the ground (a tradition from Nippur) or that the human was formed from a clay mixture, sometimes using the blood of a god (from Eridu). The one text that is in line with the first perspective is the “Creation of the Hoe.� The second type is represented by many compositions. “Enki and Ninmah� and “When Anu Had Created the Heavens� depict humankind as being made out of a clay substance, with no added blood. “The Trilingual Creation Story,� “The Epic of Creation,� and the epic of Atra-hasis all have humanity being made out of a mixture of clay and the blood of a god. In “The Trilingual Creation Story� the blood is taken from two craftsman gods (lamga), while in “The Epic of Creation� it is the blood of the rebel-god Kingu. Likewise in Atra-hasis humankind is composed of the flesh and blood of a rebel-god named Geshtu-e. A couple of variations on this theme exist though. For instance, in “Cattle and Grain,� all that is mentioned is that humankind is “given breath.�

The significance of humanity being created from the blood of a deity seems to imply that in Mesopotamian anthropology humankind shares in the divine nature. This point could be seen as being made more explicitly in Atra-hasis if Moran is correct in his interpretation of the lines:

With his flesh and his blood
Let Nintur mix the clay.
Let the god himself and man
Be mixed together in the clay.

Of the last line Moran notes: “When the goddess finishes mixing the clay, both god and man will be present, but completely fused and compenetrating each other� (W. L. Moran, “The Creation of Man in Atrahasis I 192-248,� Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 200 [1970]: 48-56). Some have also taken the reference to “giving breath� in “Cattle and Grain� to suggest some sort of divine nature in humanity. It would seem that at least in some traditions humanity was somehow understood to share in the nature of a god. Another aspect of the divine nature may be found in connection with a figure named Umul who is the first human baby, fathered by Enki — if Anne Kilmer’s interpretation of the text is correct (see Anne D. Kilmer, “Speculation on Umul, The First Baby,� Alter Orient und Altes Testament 25 [1976]: 265).

2. Purpose of Humanity

A predominant motif found in almost all the creation accounts is the fact that humankind was created for the express purpose of serving the gods. The degree or severity of this service seems to have differed between accounts. Some myths are less specific and only seem to suggest that “serving the gods,� meant to serve them food and drink. For example, “Chaldean Cosmogony,� “Trilingual Creation Story,� and “When Anu Had Created the Heavens,� would all fall into this category. Other tales indicate that the service of the gods was much harsher—that it entailed doing the hard, brute labour that the gods did not want to do for themselves anymore. The myths “Enki and Ninmah,� “The Epic of Creation,� and Atra-hasis seem to suggest this.

This notion concerning the purpose of humanity should probably not be considered to be so much a reflection of their theology or anthropology as a reflection of their society. H. W. F. Saggs notes:

In the Sumerian city-state . . . the characteristic and most significant organisation was the temple-estate, in which thousands of people co-operated in works of irrigation and agriculture in a politico-economic system centred on the temple, with all these people thought of as the servant of the god. The myth of the creation of man, therefore, was not basically a comment on the nature of man but an explanation of a particular social system, heavily dependent upon communal irrigation an agriculture, for which the gods’ estates were primary foci of administration (H. W. F. Saggs, The Encounter With the Divine in Mesopotamia and Israel [Jordan Lectures in Comparative Religion 12; London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1978], 168).

Whether the concept has a social or theological origin, it highlights an important underlying philosophy that presupposed that the gods needed people.

Conclusions

So what can be said about the ideas of origins and creation in Ancient Mesopotamia? First, while there are many differences in the specifics of the myths concerning origins, there are also many points of contact between them. Integral to all of the accounts is the central role played by the gods in the creation of the world and humankind. The creation and the ordering of the cosmos was a natural outcome of the engendering of the gods. Also, the dignity and purpose of humankind is fairly consistent among the texts: humankind was created to serve the gods. Many of the discrepancies between the different myths can easily be attributed to geographical or historical changes (for instance, the changing of the name of a god to suit a specific locality). It needs to be remembered though that while there are many parallels, there are also many differences.

Second, as far as any diachronic development in the ideas about origins and creation, it is hard to recognise any significant differences. Even if one employs Jacobsen’s matrix that older elements will be characterised by intransitivity and the newer elements by transitivity, one would be hard pressed to see any difference in the texts (besides the interplay that Jacobsen already sees in “The Epic of Creation�; see his The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976], 9ff). One difference between the materials in the two sections is that some of the Neo-Babylonian texts are longer and in better shape, but that has to do with the preservation of texts, not composition or subject matter.

Overall, it must be said that the ideas of origins and creation found in ancient Mesopotamian mythological texts are not crude and unrefined. While they might seem foreign and odd to the modern reader, if an attempt is made to cross the border of “conceptual conditioning,� within their own context and worldview they make sense out of the cosmos and humankind’s place in it.


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