By Stefan Stenudd
I'm a Swedish writer and historian of ideas, researching the thought patterns in creation myths. I've also written books about Tao Te ching, the Taoist classic, and other East Asian traditions. Here's my personal website: stenudd.com
Creation Myths Around the World
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Enuma Elish 4
The Babylonian Creation Myth
4 Enuma Elish Theories
Translators of Enuma ElishGeorge Smith, who lectured more than once at the Society of Biblical Archeology, created some sensation in 1876 when he was the first to present Enuma Elish to the public, pointing out several similarities to the Bible’s account of the creation. A few years earlier, in 1872, he had made a similar announcement about the discovery of a flood myth in the Gilgamesh epic, and its nearness to that of the Bible. At his time, there were numerous and big gaps among the fragments of Enuma Elish, making any conclusion uncertain. Smith was quite aware of this:
I believe that time will show the Babylonian tradition of Genesis to be invaluable for the light they will throw on the Pentateuch [The five first books of the Bible], but at present there are so many blanks in the evidence that positive conclusions on several points are impossible.
As the gaps of Enuma Elish were filled, George Smith was proven wrong. The similarities between Enuma Elish and Genesis were diminished. A less controversial similarity is that between the Enuma Elish epic and Hesiod’s Theogony. This, though, has neither been a matter of much debate, nor has it influenced the interpretations of the former text.
When comparing Enuma Elish and Genesis, already in 1902 L. W. King rejected several of the similarities previously assumed. For example, he strongly opposed the idea of comparing the seven days of creation in the Bible with the seven tablets of Enuma Elish. Still, he saw ingredients shared between the two myths, such as a primordial state of what he called a watery chaos, the Hebrew term of which, tehom, is the equivalent of Babylonian Tiamat. He also saw a parallel in the Bible’s division of the waters above and below the firmament, with Marduk cutting Tiamat in two.
Furthermore, he found a striking similarity between the ordering of the heavenly lights in the fifth act of creation in Genesis, and the same event in Enuma Elish, in the beginning of the fifth tablet. The Bible’s odd plural “Let us make man” he compared to Marduk’s cooperation with his father Ea in the same act of creation. He pointed out that a Babylonian influence was present in a wide region already in the 15th century BC, and that Babylonian myths had been naturalized in Palestine even before its conquest by the Israelites.
To King, the Enuma Elish epic is based on some Sumerian heritage, transformed to fit the Babylonian culture and its city-state religion. This is evident in the glorification of the Babylonian god Marduk. The supremacy of the Babylonian god dominates Enuma Elish, culminating in the last tablet, where he is given the fifty divine names and the powers they represent, almost as if replacing every other god in the mythology. King gives the example of how the Sumerian god Ea (Enki) is in some versions of the Enuma Elish myth replaced by Marduk. Also, Ea is obviously the hero of the first part of the Enuma Elish epic, later to be replaced by his son Marduk in a fashion that suggests a deliberate shift from a Sumerian to a Babylonian perspective.
King also stresses some astrological aspects of Enuma Elish, where the gods and monsters represent astrological and astronomical components, such as certain stars and Zodiac constellations. In the second volume of his work, he includes some examples of Babylonian astrological texts with traces of the Enuma Elish myth. The battle between Marduk and Tiamat is given an astrological interpretation, where Tiamat represents a star or constellation near the ecliptic, and at least some of the eleven Enuma Elish monsters represent Zodiac signs. When Marduk gives the gods instructions, this can be seen as assigning them heavenly bodies and positions in the sky. Marduk himself probably represents the planet Jupiter.
Present day translators of the Enuma Elish epic agree with most of what King concluded. Ola Wikander (1981-), a Swedish scholar on ancient languages and the history of religion, whose translation into Swedish of Enuma Elish was published in 2005, states firmly that Enuma Elish is the work of one single writer, who saw Babylon as the natural center of the world, and wanted to express just that. He also points out that there are many astrological and astronomical components, without specifying them.
In addition to propagating Babylonian superiority, Wikander speculates that the Enuma Elish text also intends to justify the turn from collective rule to absolute monarchy. He compares Enuma Elish with the significantly older Atrahasis epic, in the beginning of which the gods are human, and do human labor. Here, too, men are created to relieve the gods of their burdens, but men and not gods disturb the gods with their noise, and a great flood is sent to drown them. Again it is clear that the gods are the real inhabitants of the world, having men only as their servants. Wikander also mentions that much of what happens to Marduk is similar to earlier stories about the god Ninurta.
Stephanie Dalley, a Shillito Fellow in Assyriology at Oxford, and editor of The Legacy of Mesopotamia, who has worked on several excavations in the Middle East, is sparse with comments on the Enuma Elish epic. She prefers to compare Enuma Elish to the epic of Anzu, rather than that of Atrahasis – both of them included in her book. Anzu also predates Enuma Elish considerably, and was well known in the time when the latter is supposed to have been composed.
Regarding a Sumerian influence, she is more hesitant. According to her, the sea had no importance in the Sumerian pantheon. She makes no mention of any astrological significance of Enuma Elish, but stresses its political functions. The phrasing of the Enuma Elish text is “designed to impress rather than to entertain,” and the recital of it at the fourth day of the Babylonian New Year Festival contributed to a glorious divine renewal of the king’s mandate to rule. All the significant members of the city-state were present to renew their oaths, just like the gods swore their oaths to Marduk:
AbsenceThe discovery of Enuma Elish was so late that it had little or no influence on the theories of the 19th and early 20th century pioneers of anthropology and the history of religion. Neither E. B. Tylor nor Wilhelm Schmidt, Andrew Lang, or James Frazer, just to mention a few, have discussed Enuma Elish at length – or at all – although they were all alive at the time of its publication.
I see two major reasons for this. Firstly, at the time of George Smith’s presentation of the Enuma Elish epic in 1876, it contained more gaps than text fragments, and therefore it was hardly accessible to others than Assyriologians. It was only by L. W. King’s publication of Enuma Elish in 1902 that it had enough substance and clarity to be readily interpreted by others than experts on Babylonian culture. Secondly, in the late 19th and early 20th century, anthropologists and historians of religion were primarily occupied with the study of myths from what they called primitive societies, hunter and gatherer cultures of old and of the present. Biblical study was far from their minds, so another example of myth from the same region and tradition would not tickle their fancy.
An example of this is James Frazer, who did not even mention Enuma Elish in his last book, The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion, published in 1933, and the reason is already in the title. His thesis about the fear of the dead as a driving force is limited to the “primitive” religions, and to these he would be reluctant to count the first one to be put into writing, and being regarded as the very cradle of Judeo-Christian tradition.
PsychologyMoving to the field of psychology, which early on nourished an interest in myth and religion, Sigmund Freud was just as silent about Enuma Elish as the anthropologists of his time. In his case, this is even more striking, since his theory about a primeval father murder as the origin of all religion would find a perfect Enuma Elish example in Ea’s killing of his grandfather Apsu, and then again to some extent in Marduk’s killing of Tiamat.
Although a generation is skipped in the former case, and two in the latter, they serve as good examples of the conflict between generations that Freud saw at the bottom of it. His two books on the subject are: Totem and Taboo, the German original published in 1913, and Moses and Monotheism, originally published in 1939. He had no aversion to Biblical mythology, making it the core of his second book Moses and Monotheism. He was neither a historian of religion nor an Assyriologian, but King’s book as well as several others, some in German, were available at his time.
We can only conclude that Enuma Elish was not that very familiar outside the field of expertise. Also, the complexity of it may have made Freud reluctant to use it as an example of his theory, especially since he was well aware of the controversy his speculations would initiate.
His junior colleague and later adversary Carl G. Jung was equally silent about Enuma Elish. His initial major work on myth from 1941, The Science of Mythology, with essays of his and of Karl Kerényi, makes no mention of Enuma Elish or its myths, nor is it treated in any other of his writings. He did touch on the subject of Tiamat’s and Marduk’s battle as one against the dragon and hero archetypes, but seems to have had no particular interest in the Enuma Elish epic as a whole. His followers, on the other hand, had more to say about it.
JungiansIt is within the Jungian line of the history of religion that Enuma Elish has made the strongest impact. This can easily be explained by the two circumstances of timing and content. The Jungian perspective on myth appeared and blossomed at a time when the knowledge of Enuma Elish spread outside the field of Assyriology, and in this epic the Jungians found several elements that they could easily fit into their theories on myth.
The most important Jungian among historians of religion was Mircea Eliade (1907-86), who was born in Romania and moved to Chicago in 1957. There, he was professor of history of religion from 1958 until his death. He published a number of books and edited an encyclopedia of religion as well as academic journals on the subject.
In his anthology of religious texts from 1967, Essential Sacred Writings From Around the World, first published as From Primitives to Zen, he included most of Enuma Elish, and in the short introduction he states that it starts with “the very first separation of order out of chaos,” that is the birth of the gods out of the commingled waters of Apsu and Tiamat. He shows a particular interest in the use of Enuma Elish at the Babylonian twelve days New Year celebration, the akitu, where he found the main function to be the king’s “duty of regenerating time.” [Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History, translated from the French by Willard R. Trask, London 1989, 55. It was originally published as Le Mythe de l’éternel retour: archétypes et répétition, Paris 1949.] The recitation of the Enuma Elish battle between Tiamat and Marduk, and the creation of the world out of the former, was a cosmogonic re-enactment that felt real to the participants:
With creation stories, the Jungian historians of religion tend to focus much of their interest into categorizing them. In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Eliade, a student of his, Charles H. Long, writes the text on cosmogony, giving these six types:
In world-parent myths the world parents are, in most cases, the second phase of the primordial ordering. Prior to the appearance of the world parents there is a chaotic or indeterminate phase.
He gives Enuma Elish as the first example of such a myth. Thereby he is in accord with Eliade’s view. Long also states that “the offspring of world parents tend to be aliens to their parents,” who are indifferent to their needs, resulting in the offspring becoming the agent of the separation of the parents from one another. Again he uses Enuma Elish as the first example.
Long was also the writer of one of the first anthologies on creation myths, Alpha: the Myths of Creation, published in 1963. Here, too, he sorts Enuma Elish with the world parent myths. Although generously quoting arguments against it, he insists that Tiamat is to be interpreted as a dragon – or a snakelike monster – as well as a primordial mother:
Long regards the separation of the primordial parents as necessary for the offspring, in order for the latter to “become concrete and actual or free beings,” as if until then they are just half-born:
Another extensive anthology of creation myths is Primal Myths: Creation Myths around the World, 1979, by Barbara C. Sproul, Associate Professor at the department of religion, Hunter College, who also uses Jungian perspectives, and mentions Joseph Campbell as one of her teachers and inspirations. About Enuma Elish, she boldly states that it was not primarily written as a cosmogonic account, but “its purposes were to praise Marduk,” and to honor Babylon itself. She also claims the Enuma Elish text to be written for recitation, which is contradicted by its translators, who insist that several of its finer points and wordplays are evident only to a reader. She refers, of course, to the New Year’s Festival:
For example, the description of Enuma Elish’s original state as one of chaos, is based on the idea that Tiamat represents chaos – but she is not the only primordial being. Apsu is also there, but the Jungians consider neither his presence nor his relation to the Tiamat chaos.
Furthermore, the observation that Enuma Elish’s creation is both one of an original chaos and of world parents, is not considered enough by the Jungians. Long simply states that this is a common combination, where Enuma Elish seems to be the foremost example he supports his thesis on. That’s no explanation, and no reason to neglect an examination of the contradictions between the two Enuma Elish accounts of creation.
About the New Year ritual, neither Eliade nor other Jungians consider that the major part of the Enuma Elish epic is concentrated on the glorification of Marduk, and not on the events of creation. Therefore, it is much more plausible that Enuma Elish was used in rituals to confirm Babylonian superiority through elevating their own god. It was not a return to chaos and a renewed creation of order, as much as it was a dethroning and renewed throning of Marduk and the Babylonian king.
Still, some kind of symbolic reading of Enuma Elish is needed to understand it – at least for the events preceding the glorification of Marduk. It is definitely the powerful and seemingly archetypical images of the Enuma Elish gods and their deeds, that have made this epic a popular example in Jungian works on myth.
Feminism and Enuma ElishSome feminist perspectives on myth are also strikingly Jungian. This is obvious in Creation and Procreation, 1989, by Marta Weigle (1942-), a professor of English, anthropology, and American studies, at the University of New Mexico. Among the Enuma Elish ingredients she focuses on Tiamat, which makes good sense. She presents some theories on how to interpret the goddess and what becomes of her. Weigle’s examples all regard Tiamat as a symbol of female uncontrollable force, connected to the unconscious.
She quotes Anne G. Dellenbaugh’s conclusion about Tiamat: “She who will not be held back.” According to the same source: “this wild sea monster will sooner or later burst through the patriarchally constructed pseudo-cosmos to realize herself.” In reappropriating Tiamat, Weigle says: “the parthenogenetic parturients symbolically invert the supposed Other and create new images for cosmogonic chaos and emergence.” Dellenbaugh compares it to a Jungian interpretation of the movie Jaws, where the sea is connected to the unconscious and the female.’The Terrible Female’ or ‘the Terrible Mother’ is a symbol of the unconscious. The movie’s object, then, is to induce fear of the unconscious by showing a dangerous beast roaming the sea, in order to “teach women to be terrified of the depths of our own minds.”
Applied to Enuma Elish, this must mean that the story would be a warning to women not to explore their own resources, or there will be a Marduk striking them down, even dismembering them, which could be seen as a symbol of forcefully stripping them of their capacities.
Certainly, Tiamat’s fate is horrible, although she was initially the nurturing mother of her banes, and remained such until they had killed her spouse and shown no remorse at all. But that also shows her peacefulness, her reluctance to break into anger. First, she is quite prepared to accept the calamity of her offspring, and even after the murder of her spouse she must be convinced by others, before thinking of revenge.
So, the men of the Enuma Elish epic have no need of holding her back. Instead, they are the ones to raise her waves, repeatedly. It is also interesting that she is the mother of the world, not once but twice: at first when giving birth to the gods, and secondly when in death her body becomes the building material of the world. It is not the sign of a matriarchate, but it is infinitely matrilineal.
Enuma ElishThe Babylonian Creation Myth
This article about the Enuma Elish Babylonian Creation Myth was originally written in the year 2007 for a seminar at the Department of History of Ideas, Lund University, as a part of my dissertation in progress on Creation Myths and their patterns of thought. Transforming the text to webpages, I have excluded footnotes, or edited them into the text.