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Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography

23rd April 2008

horowitz_cosmic.jpgI want to put a plug in for a book that I ordered for our library when I was doing my “Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia” series last spring, but I have just had a chance to look at it now that classes are finished. The book is Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (Eisenbrauns, 1998; Buy from or or Eisenbrauns).

This is an excellent discussion of the ancient texts that relate to how the Mesopotamians viewed the cosmos. It discusses a number of different Sumerian and Akkadian sources for Mesopotamian cosmic geography, including the Mappi Mundi, the Sargon Geography, Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, among others. Then he surveys the different regions of the universe according to Mesopotamian thought.

All in all this is a great resource, though it ends somewhat abruptly. It would have been great to have a concluding chapter that synthesizes his findings and even to relate it to the Israelite conception of cosmic geography for us biblical scholars.

Posted in Ancient Near East, Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia | 3 Comments »

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:


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).


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 |]) and Kenton Sparks (Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible [Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2005; Buy from |]). 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.


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.

Posted in Ancient Near East, Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Genesis, Series | Comments Off

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;]

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 | Buy from, 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:]

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:]

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.

Posted in Ancient Near East, Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Series | 3 Comments »

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.

Posted in Ancient Near East, Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Genesis, Old Testament, Series | 1 Comment »

Ideas of Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 1

29th January 2007

Next to a close reading of the biblical text, one of the most important steps in its interpretation is knowledge of the ancient cultural and literary context of the Bible. For proper interpretation, we need to know a text’s genre. Genre functions to mediate between speakers and hearers by establishing common guidelines that control both the production of a certain texts and their interpretation. We work with and recognize different genres all the time in day to day life. But when we come to the Bible – an ancient document that is linguistically, culturally, and historically remote from us — our ability to identify certain genres is attenuated due to our unfamiliarity. Misreading a text’s genre leads to incorrect interpretation. Thus, when approaching the biblical creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, it is essential to have some knowledge of other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts. This isn’t necessarily easy to do, since many of the ancient texts are difficult to understand conceptually. In connection with ancient cosmologies, Richard Clifford notes “ancient oriental literature is alien and difficult to understand, though the many biblical phrases and ideas in our discourse may trick us into thinking otherwise… Particularly difficult are ancient cosmogonies. Major differences separate them from modern conceptions” (Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible, p. 198).

This is the first of four posts on ideas of creation in ancient Mesopotamia. This post will discuss some methodological issues surrounding the study of Mesopotamian texts and highlight some of the resources available for studying this literature. The second and third posts will survey Old Babylonian texts and Neo-Babylonian texts, respectively. The fourth post will synthesize some of the findings and relate them to our understanding of the biblical creation texts. I should note that I am by no means an expert in ancient Mesopotamian literature. A lot of this work originally derived from a graduate course I did with Dr. Ronald F. G. Sweet at the University of Toronto a number of years back.

Approaching the Diversity of Materials

There a number of methodological issues surrounding the interpretation of ancient Mesopotamian creation texts. First, in relation to the nature of the textual evidence, the problem is not that there is a paucity of material, but that the available material is of such a wide scope historically and culturally that it would be erroneous to speak of a uniform view of “creation in Mesopotamia.� The ancient culture of Mesopotamia covers a period of more than five thousand years and at least two groups of entirely different peoples and languages. Therefore, it is necessary to recognise that the myths and stories relevant to this topic are by no means homogeneous, and should not be described as an absolute unity. The tendency to create uniform views where none exist needs to be guarded against, and the generalisations that result from this study must be recognised to be just that—generalisations. A related dilemma is the composite nature of many of the extant texts. Many later works borrow—or even copy directly—motifs and themes from earlier texts. The supreme example of this is the Akkadian Gilgamesh Epic. Tigay’s reconstruction of the evolution of the epic identities a number of separate Sumerian stories that underlie the final form of the Gilgamesh Epic (see his The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic).

Second, uncertainty of our ability to understand across the borders of conceptual conditioning (to echo Oppenheim) highlights the important hermeneutical issue of imposing modern questions on ancient texts. While questions about origins were certainly not avoided in ancient Mesopotamia, they were almost always subsidiary issues. The primary purpose of much of the ancient mythological and epic literature was to exalt one deity over another or to explain the organization of human society, rather than provide a systematic teaching concerning creation. For instance, Jacobsen notes, in relation to Enuma elish, that “world origins . . . are essentially accidental: gods were born out of mingling of the primeval waters and they engendered other gods� (The Treasures of Darkness, p. 191). Similarly, only the first twenty lines of the first tablet of Enuma elish actually deal with the creation of the universe, while the bulk of tablets four through six covers its organisation. Furthermore, it is 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.

(This perhaps is not so different from the biblical worldview considering that the two major biblical creation accounts are incorporated into the book of Genesis, the first book of the primary history.” Because of our modern preoccupation with creation (and especially as it relates to science) we tend to isolate discussions of ancient Israelite ideas of creation from their narrative context in the much larger biblical picture.)

Arrangement and Dating of the Sources

Another major difficulty in doing a study such as this is the question of how best to arrange and present the data. Should the compositions be grouped according to language, subject matter, cultural origin (i.e., are they Sumerian, Assyrian, or Babylonian), or date? Each of these options has its own pitfalls, but for the purposes of this study the texts will be presented according to their date.

This does not solve all problems though, as dating Mesopotamian literature also has its associated uncertainties. Dating can be based on two variables: (1) the date of the extant text; and (2) the date of its original composition. This study will use the first criteria. While this is not ideal, it is the most reliable, as in many cases there is no scholarly consensus concerning the original date of composition of many texts. This is due primarily to historical circumstances and the type of literature we have. Historically, the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the various other political groups that had their turn at ruling in ancient Mesopotamia almost without exception accepted and built upon the older religious traditions of the Sumerians. It is therefore almost impossible to draw a clear distinction between, for example, the specifically Sumerian and the Assyrian and Babylonian elements in the religious texts.

Most of the texts containing materials that are useful for this study tend to come from two periods of Mesopotamian history. First, most of the earlier Sumerian myths, epics and hymns date from the Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000–1600 BCE). Ringgren notes that “it is precisely in these last centuries [of the Sumerian ‘empire’] that most of the works of Sumerian literature seem to have been written down. It is probable that they existed earlier . . . but were transmitted in oral form� (Helmer Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East [London: S.P.C.K., 1973], 3). The tablets themselves principally come from archaeological excavations in places such as Nippur and Ur. Second, a lot of the materials representing the views of the Babylonians and Assyrians have been found at Ashurbanipal’s (668–626 BCE) library at Nineveh (Kouyunjik, in modern Iraq). The date of most of these texts fall into the Neo-Babylonian Period (ca. 1000–500 BCE).

It should be noted that there is some correlation between the date of the text and its language. For example, most of the compositions coming from the Old Babylonian period are written in Sumerian, while those from the Neo-Babylonian era are typically composed in Akkadian. This approach will also allow — albeit in a limited fashion — both a diachronic and a synchronic analysis of the information. Synchronically, all the texts can be probed for similarities and differences that might be significant. Diachronically, any change in thought between the two major historical periods can also be noted.

Annotated Bibliography of Texts and Discussions

The resources for the study of these ancient stories may be broken up into three categories: guides to the literature, primary texts in translation, and discussions of the ideas of origins and creation in the texts themselves as well as in connection with the biblical creation stories.

Guides to ANE Literature

  • Kenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible. A Guide to the Background Literature. (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2005). This is one of the best and most recent guides to all of the background literature. It includes an introduction to comparative study of ANE texts and ANE archives and libraries, as well as a discussion of all of the relevant texts organized by genre. Original publication data and other useful bibliography is included for each ancient text. Buy from | Buy from
  • John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context. A Survey of Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990). Similar to Sparks, though a bit dated and written for a more conservative audience. Buy from | Buy from
  • John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). While not a guide to the literature, this work is an excellent introduction to the worldviews and value systems of the ancient Near East and how the worldviews expressed in the Bible are similar, yet at times distinct, from them. Buy from | Buy from

Primary Texts in Translation

  • Bill T. Arnold and Bryan Beyer, Readings from the Ancient Near East: Primary Sources for Old Testament Study (Encountering Biblical Studies; Baker, 2002). A college-level collection of excerpts (with introductions) of the most relevant ancient texts; written by a couple evangelical scholars. Buy from | Buy from
  • Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). A highly readable, yet critical, translation of the major Mesopotamian mythological texts (e.g., she represents the various lacunae and reconstructions in her translation). Highly recommended. Buy from | Buy from
  • A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2 vols.; Oxford: Ocford University Press, 2003). The definitive critical edition with translation, including apparatus, photographs, and line drawings for all of the tablets in existance. Buy from | Buy from
  • William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions, Monumental Inscriptions and Archival Documents from the Biblical World (3 volume set; Brill, 2004). A detailed reference work for the study of the OT/HB and the ancient Near East, this book provides reliable access to ancient Near Eastern texts that have some bearing on the interpretation of the Bible. Translation of recently discovered texts is included, alongside new translations of better-known texts. The recognized replacement of Pritchard’s ANET. Buy from | Buy from
  • Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps that Once… Sumerian Poetry in Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987). A classic collection of Sumerian texts by the noted scholar. Buy from | Buy from
  • Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C. (Rev. ed.; New York: Harper, 1961). A somewhat dated translation and discussion of Sumerian texts by the renowned Sumerian scholar; needs to be read in light of Jacobsen’s and other more up to date work. Buy from | Buy from
  • W. G. Lambert, and Alan R. Millard, Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (New ed.; Winnona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999). The standard critical translation of this important Mesopotamian epic. Buy from | Buy from
  • Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels (Fully Expanded and Revised; Paulist Press, 1997). An accessible college-level collection of brief excerpts from ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the OT. Buy from | Buy from
  • James Bennett Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement (3rd edition; Princeton University Press, 1969). This is the classic collection of ancient texts that shed light on the OT/HB. Dated, though still highly recommended. Buy from | Buy from

Discussions of ANE Texts and Biblical Ideas of Creation

  • Richard J. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and the Bible (CBQMS 26; Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1994). An excellent introduction and discussion of the ANE creation accounts and their relevance to the Bible. Buy from | Buy from
  • Richard J. Clifford and John J. Collins, eds., Creation in the Biblical Traditions (CBQMS 24; Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1992). A good collection of essays dealing with different ideas of creation found in the Bible. Buy from | Buy from
  • David Damrosch, The Narrative Covenant. Transformations of Genre in the Growth of Biblical Literature (Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987). Buy from | Buy from
  • Ronald A. Simkins, Creator & Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 1994). An intriguing examination of the cultural world of the Bible and the ancient Near East, especially as it related to conceptions of creation. Buy from | Buy from
  • Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982). Buy from | Buy from

The next instalment will survey Old Babylonian texts relating to creation.

Posted in Ancient Near East, Creation, Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Series | 8 Comments »