How did ancient Mesopotamians imagine the creation of the world? Or the creation of mankind? Since the decipherment of cuneiform writing roughly 150 years ago, a vast number of clay tablets have been unearthed in and around Mesopotamia, offering a glimpse into the thoughts and ideas of long-lost civilizations. One of the most famous accounts of the creation of the world and mankind from the fertile crescent is the Babylonian creation myth named Enuma Elish (“When the heavens above”) after the first two words of the text. The exact date when the poem was first written is still debated. However, the version we know today consists of seven tablets of roughly 160 lines each and was most likely put into clay towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE by an unknown author in Babylon.
What Is the Enuma Elish About?
The largest part of the Enuma Elish is dedicated to the origin of the gods and the fight of the god Marduk against the primordial creature and mother of all gods, Tiamat and her servants, and Marduk’s subsequent rise to the top of the Babylonian pantheon. The actual creation part, dealing with the making of our human world and mankind, is described rather briefly towards the end of the poem. Thus, the poem is often also referred to as the Song of Marduk since he is the most prominent figure and the driving force behind the development of the plot.
As a mythological text, the Enuma Elish primarily fulfills two functions. First, it explains the origin and genealogy of gods (theogony). Second, it describes the beginning of humanity and our world (cosmogony). However, the Enuma Elish must also be read in the context of Babylon’s rise to power in Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium BCE. With this in mind, the Enuma Elish gives us, as we shall see, an interesting insight into the use of religious texts as political propaganda tools more than 3000 years ago.
In this article, we shall first look at the plot of the poem and then at the larger historical context and purpose of the poem. All quotes from the Enuma Elish follow the 2013 translation by Lambert and the full text of the poem can be found here.
Theogony: How Were the Gods Created?
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The poem begins with the following lines:
When the heavens above did not exist,
And earth beneath had not come into being—
There was Apsû, the first in order, their begetter,
And demiurge Tiāmat, who gave birth to them all;
They had mingled their waters together
Before meadow-land had coalesced and reed-bed was to be found—
When not one of the gods had been formed
Or had come into being, when no destinies had been decreed,
The gods were created within them.
(Tablet I, 1-9)
Before anything had come into being, only two large bodies of water existed: Apsu, which literally means sweet water, and Tiamat, which can be translated as salt water. Whereas Apsu is conceived as the primordial father of all things, Tiamat is his female counterpart. The moment these two bodies of water mingled together, the divine beings Lahmu and Lahamu were born. The etymology of their names and their attributes are still unclear. However, this pair is presented as the progenitors of all the gods that came afterward into being. First, the gods Anshar and Kishar (literally, the upper and lower universes) emerged. It seems that Anshar and Kishar have been rather indefinable deities who did not figure prominently in Mesopotamia’s belief systems and religious practices. However, their son, the sky god Anu, is usually understood to be the highest god in the Mesopotamian pantheon, followed by his son Ea, the god of wisdom and incantations, who is referred to in the poem by his lesser-known name, Nudimud.
Unrest Among the Gods and the Killing of Apsu
Soon Apsu and Tiamat, the primordial parents of the new gods, feel disturbed by the presence of their offspring. Used to the eternal silence of the vast emptiness in which they lived before, they cannot find rest during the day and sleep at night because the young gods are simply too loud. Thus, Apsu and Tiamat hold a council on what to do with their noisy children. While Tiamat proposes to tighten the discipline among the gods, Apsu advocates for a more radical solution. Under the malicious influence of his councilor Mummu, Apsu plans to murder all the young gods. Despite Tiamat’s rejection of such cruel punishment, Apsu is determined to put an end to the gods’ misbehavior. Yet the god Ea, in his wisdom, perceives Apsu’s plan and decides to act before his father. Reciting a magical incantation, Ea puts Apsu into a deep slumber and kills him.
The Birth of Marduk
After the slaying of Apsu, Ea decides to put up his dwelling place in the depths of the sweet water ocean where Apsu was living before. There, his son Marduk is born, who shall later surpass all other gods. The poem describes Marduk’s terrifying and powerful appearance and how his grandfather, Anu, formed the four winds and gave them to Marduk with the command, “My son, let them whirl!” (Tablet I, 106). Marduk follows the order of Anu, causing great havoc not only to Tiamat but to an unnamed group of other gods as well. Helpless, these gods plead for Tiamat’s help to stop wild Marduk. Confusingly, the text does not specify who exactly are these other gods. However, they must be a group of gods opposing Marduk and his divine relatives. Tiamat agrees to take up arms against Marduk and the gods supporting him. Thus, she prepares for war and assembles an army of demons and monsters around her.
She created the Hydra, the Dragon, the Hairy Hero,
The Great Demon, the Savage Dog, and the Scorpion-man,
Fierce demons, the Fish-man, and the Mighty Bull,
Carriers of merciless weapons, fearless in the face of battle.
Her commands were tremendous, not to be resisted.
Altogether she made eleven of that kind
Tablet I, 141-146
Marduk vs. Tiamat
As the leader of her army, Tiamat appoints her new spouse, Kingu. Afraid of Tiamat’s power, Anshar sends his sons Ea and Anu to confront and appease Tiamat. However, both falter in the face of her immense power. Thus, Anshar turns to Marduk and asks him to set out against Tiamat and her army. Marduk agrees, but only under the condition that all the gods must bow before him and accept him as their supreme leader and highest among all the gods once he has defeated Tiamat. As a demonstration of his strength, Marduk creates a constellation of stars in the night sky and makes them disappear and reappear.
Convinced of Marduk’s might, the gods rejoice and send him out against Tiamat. But first, Marduk prepares for battle: Armed with his mighty bow and club and accompanied by winds and the storm flood, Marduk, breathing fire and filled with an aura of terror and might, sets out in his chariot to confront Tiamat.
As he draws closer to Tiamat and her army of daemons, Marduk gathers all his courage and unleashes his forces. In the ensuing battle, Marduk casts a net around Tiamat and sends his winds against her. Unable to withstand his assault, Tiamat is bound and killed by Marduk. After the death of Tiamat, her leaderless army retreats, and the battle comes to an end. Her spouse and general, Kingu, is taken as a prisoner awaiting his punishment. Now, in the moment of his greatest triumph, Marduk fashions another plan that should increase his glory even more.
Cosmogony: The Creation of the World and Mankind
Standing in front of Tiamat’s dead body, Marduk takes her corpse and splits it into two. With one half, he forms the heavens above and places therein the moon, sun, and stars. Here the author weaves in the vast astronomical knowledge of ancient Babylon (for a detailed account, see Lambert 2013 172-192). First, the stars are created and grouped into certain constellations. Further, the division of the year is fixed by assigning three specific stars to each of the 12 months in one year. Then Marduk decrees the path of the moon god Nanna (Sin) through the night sky, thus fixing the division of the month according to the lunar phases. Lastly, the sun god Shamash is assigned to his task of regulating the day (tablet V).
After all the celestial bodies are set in place, Marduk turns to the creation of the earth. Again, he takes the other part of Tiamat’s body and forms the world we humans are living in. From her eyes, he let flow the two rivers Euphrates and Tigris; he heaps up mountain ranges on her breasts and digs wells into her body. Finally, Marduk conceives the desire to accomplish one last deed to elevate him even further. After taking counsel with Ea, the god of wisdom and incantations, Marduk formulates the following plan:
I will bring together blood and form bone,
I will bring into being Lullû, whose name shall be ‘man’,
I will create Lullû-man
On whom the toil of the gods will be laid that they may rest.
Tablet VI, 5-8
From the blood of the traitor Kingu, the lover of Tiamat and leader of her armies, Marduk creates mankind. The purpose of the creation of humans is clear from the beginning; we are here to serve and work for the gods so that they may rest. After the creation of the world and mankind, the gods fulfilled their promise and accepted Marduk as their supreme leader and highest among them. In addition, the gods showed their gratitude to Marduk by building Babylon and his temple and dwelling place, Esagil. Finally, the poem comes to an end with a long list of different names and praises of Marduk.
Historical Context and Purpose of the Text
Apart from fulfilling the basic function of a mythological text, i.e. giving an explanation of natural and cultural phenomena of a given society, the Enuma Elish also contains a highly political message. During the reign of Hammurabi I in the 18th century BCE, Babylon turned from a small city-state into a large empire. It became the political as well as cultural center of Mesopotamia and the surrounding region. Accordingly, the city’s main deity, Marduk, rose from a minor god, only worshipped in Babylon, to one of the most important deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon.
The rulers of Babylon must have understood that their reign in Mesopotamia, with its many city-states, each worshipping different gods, needed an ideological foundation that was strong enough to support and justify their claim to power. And this is exactly what the Enuma Elish does. It represents Babylon’s claim to rule as a natural circumstance originating from the supreme leadership of Marduk. As Marduk is presiding over the spiritual world of Mesopotamia, it seems fitting that the rulers of Babylon are dominating the material world.
Research has shown that the Enuma Elish was performed publicly during the Akitu festival, the Babylonian celebration of renewal in the spring, indicating that it was heard by many people and spread throughout the Mesopotamian world. Thus, turning it into a powerful tool of political propaganda that explains and justifies the rise of Babylon. Against this background, the Enuma Elish is not just a mythological text but also a very clever piece of propaganda literature supporting Babylon’s dominion in Mesopotamia.