Before the Flood
The Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis: Mesopotamia's Creation StoriesHello, and welcome to the Literature and History. Episode 2: Before the Flood. Last time, we talked about Mesopotamia, a civilization that endured for two and a half millennia, which we barely knew anything about until the 1850s. In this show, we’re going to talk about Mesopotamian religion.
[music] We have a general tendency as a species. We like to tell stories about why things are they way they are. And we like these stories to have definitive beginnings, and middles, and ends. We might not have the slightest idea about how an internal combustion engine works, or which vitamins and nutrients do what to their bodies, or how radio frequency waves transmit information. We might not have any idea about these processes that are around us every day. But that doesn’t stop many of us as individuals from adopting theories about the beginnings of the universe, the inception of life on earth, or the eventual fate of our species. It’s a strange habit – to ponder these unattainably distant things, and yet not know ten thousand closer and more relevant matters within the circuit of our everyday life.
We like to think about the beginnings and ends of things – their ultimate amplitudes and scope. I think that we do this because our lives have beginnings, and middles, and ends. We move slowly across the X-axis of time, we increase in vigor and intellectual capacity on the Y axis, and then decrease, leaving behind us an arc-shaped parabola of everything that we’ve been and done. It’s no wonder that we want everything – even the universe – to follow a similar arc. We want it to have a moment of conception, and a period of growth, a high noon, and then an inevitable decline. That it might be a long straight line, or many lines, or a series of spirals – all of these have proved less attractive than taking the universe and theorizing that it has the same ultimate arc and lifespan of a human being.
This show is about part of that arc. It’s about the first creation stories that have survived in writing from human history. This episode’s main idea is in its title – “Before the Flood.” Many cultures of the Ancient Near East, when thinking about the beginning of it all, produced stories of great floods. The story of Noah in the Old Testament is just one in a long, long line of them. And likewise, many cultures of the Ancient Near East told stories of what had happened before the great flood, seeking to get back to that origin point that began the great arc of the universe’s lifespan. Today, I’m going to tell you two old, old stories, the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis, two creation stories from ancient Iraq, their earliest versions dated to around 1700 BCE.
Discoveries in astronomy from Copernicus onward have tended to spoil certain creation stories – for instance, it’s now difficult to argue that the earth is a piece of land on top of a great big turtle, or that the sky is part of the carcass of a defeated goddess. It wasn’t even four hundred years ago that Galileo committed the ultimate party foul, letting us all know that we are not, in fact, the physical center of the universe, and that we’re actually just kind of spinning around out here.
But still – I don’t know about you, but if someone is going to tell a good yarn about earth being on the back of a giant turtle, or any other kind of creation story, I’ll be the first in line to listen. Regardless of their factual accuracy, creation stories are often brilliant, pyrotechnic pieces of writing. We don’t need to believe that they are true to understand them as powerful and creative exercises of the human imagination. And when we read creation stories in combination, they reveal a relatively global human need to account for why things are the way they are, and assign a starting point to it all. So let’s consider one. Ready?
As time passed, God became increasingly displeased with the actions of man. A single, supremely pious man pleaded on humankind’s behalf, and asked for God’s clemency. God relented. Unfortunately thereafter, mankind’s errant ways continued, and God’s fury grew. Again the pious man interceded, and again God was persuaded to be merciful.
However, as mankind continued to vex God, God planned a cataclysmic flood, and this time, no pleas for leniency were heeded. The pious man was given instructions to build a vast boat, on which he installed his family, and a huge variety of animals. The flood raged, obliterating humanity, and when it was over, the boat became lodged on a great mountain, surrounded by floodwaters on all sides. The pious man then sent forth birds, to see if they could find land, and when one of them did, he knew his tribulations were complete.
Thereafter God and the pious man and his ancestors had a new covenant. The pious man made animal sacrifices to God, and seeing them, God resolved to treat the pious man and his ancestors with justice and clemency.1
Jokes aside, since the mid-nineteenth century, the elaborate parallels between Mesopotamian creation narratives and the creation stories in the Hebrew Bible have been studied, tabulated, diagrammed, and argued about by distinguished Assyriologists and staunch fundamentalists alike. And because the Old Testament is probably the single most important influence on Anglophone literature, and many people have actually read the Book of Genesis before leaving off around Chapter 30 when the story of Abraham’s descendents starts getting encyclopedic, it’s pretty cool to know what was floating around in the Late Bronze Age that may have influenced this important piece of writing.
In the remainder of this episode, we’re going to look at first the Enuma Elish, and next the Atrahasis. Then we’ll examine some of the detailed evidence that suggests that there was a lot of cross pollination between Israel and Mesopotamia when the great creation stories of these regions were being produced. I’m going to quote a lot from these Babylonian epics, and the book I’m using is Timothy Stephany’s recent Enuma Elish: The Babylonian Creation Epic – a great modern translation.
I’ll give you a one sentence summary of each Babylonian creation epic before we jump into one of them. The Enuma Elish, which we’ll cover first, tells of the creation of the world, a war between the oldest Gods and their grandchildren, and the role that the great Babylonian god Marduk played in this conflict. That’s the Enuma Elish. The Atrahasis, which we’ll cover second, is about why the gods created man, the great flood that the wrathful gods made to purge the world, and Atrahasis, the man who figured centrally into this story. So, first one, war of the gods. Second one, flood story. Fasten your seatbelt.
Let’s start with the first one - the Enuma Elish, Babylon’s awesome, edge-of-your-seat creation story about a time when the world was young and raw, and deities conscripted demons in war with one another, and one young god emerged as the most powerful of all.
The Story of the Enuma Elish[music] Long, long ago, before there were any names for anything, quote “At a time when no divine beings had yet come into existence” (3), close quote, there were two divine beings, male and female, Apsu and Tiamat.2 They intermingled their waters, and within these waters a sequence of Gods were born. First came the gods of the lands, then of the upper and lower spheres, then the god of the heavens, and finally, the god of the sweet waters which irrigate crops, Ea. Ea was respected by all, distinguished by his great intelligence and strength.
A cylinder seal impression showing (probably) the sun god Utu/Shamash (left) and Ea/Enki (center), god of wisdom and the sweet waters.
Anyway, the celebrations of the younger gods did not go unnoticed. Tiamat, the mother of all the gods, complained to her husband Apsu. Apsu concurred that the kids and grandkids were way out of line. He admitted that he couldn’t even sleep with all the racket. He and his officer decided to do something unspecified, but likely atrocious, to silence all of the raucous youngsters.
The wise young god of the sweet waters, Ea, heard of this plan. After making his preparations, Ea chanted an incantation that made Apsu and his officer fall asleep, and killed them both. Then he placed the officer down over the dead body of Apsu, and took up residence on them. The old patriarch Apsu, for the rest of history, was no longer a being, but a place.
Everything was going really well for Ea, deity of the sweet waters that nourish crops. He’d defended his generation of gods against oppression. Ea had used both cunning and strength to defeat a terrible conspiracy. Soon, he married, and his wife gave birth to Marduk, a singularly promising boy. Marduk was handsome and seemly. He had four eyes and four ears, and flames roared out of his mouth when he opened it. Just imagine how proud you would be if you sired a fire breathing son with such unusual facial features. I, personally, would be speechless.
Oh, crap. Tiamat. Yeah. She was still alive. The babushka of all the gods, the grouchy great great grandma whose husband Apsu had been murdered and made into uh – sort of a waterworld theme park where the gods could paddle around. Now there wasn’t just the aggravating, frat party noise of all the younger deities. They’d even made a bunch of winds and tidal swells to irk her further. Tiamat was angry. She vowed revenge, and built an army of gods and demons.
The demons that Tiamat enlisted were a colorful lot. There was quote “a horned snake, a mushussu dragon, / a lahmu-hero, an ugallu-devil, a mad dog, and scorpion-man, / Brutal umu-devils, a half-man half-fish, a half-man half-bull” (9), close quote. As if this weren’t formidable enough, Tiamat recruited a general-God, and told him that when they won the war, he’d rule right alongside her as a soul mate.
Ea, wise young god of the sweet waters and father of Marduk, heard of great grandma Tiamat’s big, scary army. The other gods told Ea that it was his fault that Tiamat was seeking vengeance. He had, after all, butchered her husband and made his carcass into a sort of giant kiddy pool. Ea had few rebuttals to these accusations. At his own father’s orders, he went to confront Tiamat and her forces. Two times he went, and both times he backed down. Ea’s father was ashamed at his son’s cowardice, and so the old man asked Marduk, his grandson, for aid. Marduk agreed to spearhead the attack.
All the younger gods breathed a sigh of relief. They had a feast, and they “slurped up flavorful beer through drinking straws / And were made full through the consumption of alcohol” (23). Somehow, even though Tiamat and her giant horned snake and dragon and minotaur and – uh – fish man were all planning their imminent destruction, the intoxicated younger gods still had time to construct Marduk a royal palace. After their drinking slash building binge was over, it was time for the younger gods to deal with Tiamat.
[music] They declared Marduk the paramount deity. They gave him an arsenal of weapons. He had a including a fateful bow. He had a net, designed to ensnare any foe. He was given a mace so vast and powerful that it could cause floods. Marduk buckled his weapons on. And then, bristling with armaments, and at the helm of a chariot driven by venomous horses, Marduk was ready for a fight.
After Marduk built a grand temple called Esharra, he told the gods he would build his own personal home, called Babylon. The gods then created humankind. Since Atrahasis deals with man’s creation more extensively, and since the story of our creation is very similar in the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis, I’ll get to mankind’s creation in the next section.
Marduk, Yahweh, ZeusIn spite of its quirks and some of the idiosyncrasies of ancient narration that I haven’t had time to mention, Marduk’s story makes for an entertaining and educational read. In a sentence, it is a sort of creation narrative for monotheism itself, and the turn in Ancient Near East religion around the close of the second millennium BCE from worshipping nature deities of waters and trees and mountains to revering distant, supersensory gods that exist beyond the material world.3 Like Zeus, or Yahweh, Marduk fought primordial forces and imposed a patriarchal order on the cosmos.
In one of the more important and memorable junctures of the Old Testament, God touts himself as the only deity who was strong enough to take down a giant sea monster. Just as Marduk is the only member of his pantheon willing to fight the ocean-mother Tiamat, the Old Testament God, at a climactic moment, makes it clear that he, also, out of all the gods, was the only one capable of tackling the biggest, baddest monster of all time. If you’ve read the Book of Job, you know it’s all about Job questioning God. Job is a good person, and he suffers horribly, and he asks his friends, and finally, his god, why he has to suffer so much. At the climax of the theological discussion – probably the most intense theological debate in the Bible – God tells Job to stop asking thorny questions. God silences Job with this speech:
Where were you when I. . .shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? – when I. . . prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped” (Job 38:4, 8-11). “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord. . .Can you fill its skin with harpoons, or its head with fishing spears? Lay hands on it. . .Any hope of capturing it will be disappointed; were not even the gods overwhelmed at the sight of it? No one is so fierce as to dare to stir it up. Who can stand before it? Who can confront it and be safe? – under the whole heaven, who?. . .When it raises itself up the gods are afraid; at the crashing they are beside themselves. Though the sword reaches it, it does not avail, nor does the spear, the dart, or the javelin. (41:1-2, 7-11, 25-6).
In the moment that the speech is delivered to Job, it’s a famous logical non sequitur. It doesn’t answer poor Job’s question – it only, after forty chapters of philosophical discussion, overwhelms Job with imagery of God’s power. Perhaps part of the reason why Iron Age readers found the Book of Job’s climax satisfying was that the story of a singular young divine hero, rising out of a pantheon to tackle an oceanic nemesis, was an old story – a powerful story that had been around since the Middle Bronze Age – a story so wired into the consciousness of the Ancient Mediterranean that you just didn’t question it.
Far more than in the Bible, the Enuma Elish’s tale of a youthful storm god going up against elemental deities can be found in the myths of the ancient Aegean, in Greek legends. Hesiod’s Theogony, which we’ll get to in a few episodes, is about Zeus taking on his father Kronos and then establishing the hierarchy of Mount Olympus and then – uh – having sex with everything that moves within a five thousand mile radius. Whether Zeus to the west, Marduk in the east, or Yahweh in the middle, in the ancient world as well as now, the story of a plucky God laying waste to a frightening primordial force made for a powerful narrative. Well, now you know the Enuma Elish.
Now it’s time for the Enuma Elish’s partner epic, the Atrahasis. If the fearless young Marduk is the hero of the Enuma Elish, then the hero of the Atrahasis is us. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Atrahasis of Babylon.
The Story of Atrahasis[music] Thousands of years ago, before the arrival of mankind, the gods had to work very hard, and their burdens were often overwhelming. The gods were compelled to dig trenches for canals, carve out the channels of the Tigris and Euphrates, and perform even more difficult labors. Exhausted, the gods were nearly on the verge of turning on one another, and they convened at the home of Ellil, the volatile counselor of war of the younger gods, and central antagonist of the story, whose name conveniently sounds a bit like the word “evil.”
At their fateful meeting, the gods decided that “We must create a creature who can carry the burden of the gods” (62). In order to accomplish the creation of man, the womb-goddess combined clay together with the flesh and blood of another god. Thus humankind was a “being, divine and mortal” (67).
Once humans were created, the gods determined certain basic parameters about how the species would function. The gods set forth regulations concerning marriage, the term of a pregnancy, fidelity and piety, and honesty. Because the gods created humankind for the sake of labor, a heavy emphasis was placed on the necessity of humanity being dutiful and industrious. A particularly beautiful simile about insects illustrates how the human species is inexorably tied to labor.
When ants leave their nests, unseen deep within the earth,With proverbs and epic similes, the gods established the roles and duties of humanity, and thereafter the first generations of mankind began swarming over the face of the earth. Six hundred years passed, and humankind was a busy, boisterous species. We were so boisterous, in fact, that we began annoying Ellil, the aforementioned ireful war councilor of the gods. Just as Ea and his generation annoyed Apsu and Tiamat in the Enuma Elish, in the Atrahasis, it’s humankind who prove aggravatingly loud to the gods.
Driven by their requirement that they provender themselves,
When the field has filled the threshing floor with its bounty
After reaping, they carry loads of the newly threshed grain
Be it wheat or barley, one hauler follows behind the other,
It is from summer’s harvest that they stock up winter’s food
Not given to rest, these minute ones do a fair share of labor
While too the bee works, through the air, toiling tirelessly,
Be it within the cleft of an empty rock or amongst reed-beds,
Or be it within an old hollow oak tree; there inside their nests,
Swarming in their combs of innumerable cells, making wax
Thus man will seek his work and continue until the twilight. (71-2)
In a passage repeated a number of times, after man was first created, quote “the inhabited lands raised a howl like a bellowing bull” (73) close quote. This cacophony prevented the god Ellil from sleeping. Ellil decided that he would strike mankind down with “an outbreak of the shivering disease” (73). So what happened to mankind? Having incurred the wrath of a martial god, to whom could they turn?
It’s time to introduce the essential cast of Atrahasis. First, picture an upside down triangle. At the bottom of it is the title character. Patient, unerringly pious, hardworking, and dutiful in his sacrifices, Atrahasis is the human hero of the story. On one of the upper corners of the triangle is evil Ellil, the volatile war councilor god who would just as soon wipe out humanity. And on the other upper corner of the triangle is the god of the sweet waters, Ea, the sagely old father of Marduk, who campaigns tirelessly on the behalf of humanity. The story of Atrahasis is fragmented, complex, and repetitious, but ultimately it’s about one god, Ellil, wanting to persecute humankind, another, Ea, championing mankind, and the human figure at the center of all of this, Atrahasis. Evil Ellil, gentle Ea, and the human Atrahasis.
Back to the story. The martial god Ellil got his way, and humans were plagued by a terrible sickness. Ea, wise father or Marduk, told Atrahasis that humanity should rebel, stop working, and stop sacrificing. After people did this, the disease remitted. If you were an Ancient Near Eastern god, whether Greek, or Israelite, or Canaanite, or Babylonian, you needed those meaty sacrifices. So, once the gods got their sacrifices again, the numbers of humanity could continue growing.
Over the course of six hundred years, humanity’s “racket, their clamor and clatter, grew ever louder!” (75). Ellil, unable to sleep, caused a drought. After much suffering, humanity, on gentle Ea’s recommendation, made many sacrifices to the rain god, and the drought ended. Thus began a cycle of droughts and sicknesses, collaborations between Ea and Atrahasis, remittance on punishments, and then new punishments. A beautifully written passage captures the worst droughts:
So from on high, no rain descended to fill the canal works.During this long drought, people resorted to cannibalism, and still, Atrahasis sent his sacrifices down the withering canals to his god Ea. Finally, Ea sent rain to the desperate lands. Ellil was incensed. He demanded that Ea cause a cataclysmic flood.
Below, subterranean waters no longer gushed from springs,
There was no delivery which sprung from the earth’s womb
Nothing green took root and no plants grew into fruition
The folks no longer gazed over the bands of growing wheat
The black soil of the countryside had been blanched white
The landscape everywhere lay encrusted with a salty dust
For the first year they consumed any grain that was in store
For the next there was none left to take from the storerooms
In the third year they were showing the signs of starvation. (80-1)
Hence begins a story that many people Noah – I mean . . .know. Hint hint. Ellil demanded a flood so overpowering that the gods “will retreat to the safety of the highest heaven. . .Where they will cower like dogs, kneeling by an outlying wall” (94). The council of the gods approved.
Ea then went to Atrahasis – and told him to construct a boat, giving him very specific instructions on how to do it. Over the course of a week, Atrahasis and his townspeople built a boat an acre in size. They stocked the ship with animals and skilled craftsmen, and Atrahasis, after he regaled his townspeople with food and drink, was terribly saddened that they would all be destroyed by the flood.
Then the flood began. The narration conveys its awesome power.
The next day there came lowering gray clouds over the sky,[music] The gods became distraught at the destruction they had unleashed. The midwife goddess, Mami, who helped raise the first generations of mankind, was particularly saddened, and “The gods joined her in weeping for the vanished country / She was overcome with heartache, but could find no beer” (101). Yes, it really says that. Poor Mami couldn’t find any alcohol. “She was overcome with heartache, but could find no beer.” I have to admit, I found that line so funny, that I had to sing about it.
An ominous gloom arose and approached like a tempest,
And an unnatural darkness prevailed over the landscape
This brought the Anzu-bird forth, flapping and screeching
Overhead the sky resounded; all of the people gazed aloft. . .
They lost sight of one another within the cascading rain . . .
Every one of them was consumed by the turbulent purge
Even the gods were alarmed by the full force of the flood. (99)
[music] Sorry. Back to the tragic flood that I interrupted with my stupid little song. Although the whole earth perished beneath the waters, Atrahasis’ boat survived. Looking out at the horrible destruction all around him, he wept. The boat settled on a mountain called Ninush. Worried that all other land in the world was gone, Atrahasis sent out three birds, a dove, a swallow, and a raven, and when the raven did not return, he knew it had found land somewhere.
Gratefully, he sacrificed animals. The gods gathered, and although angry Ellil reprimanded kindly Ea for sparing some humans from the deluge, the tide seemed to have turned in favor of humanity. Pun intended. Ea replied to Ellil with a long, wise speech. Ultimately, he emphasized, people were useful, and the gods needed them. He told the assembled gods that people should be punished only if they’ve committed a specific infraction, and that even though humanity was mortal, and suffered from famine, disease, and warfare, we humans should be permitted happiness while we live, enjoying food, mirth, celebrations, accomplishments, children, spouses and so on. Future generations, Ea said in conclusion, should know that the flood happened so that humanity’s limitations, and relationships with the gods, would be clear.
[music] You now know the overall structures of two Mesopotamian creation epics, partner stories to the beginning of the Old Testament. Next time someone tells you that creationism should be taught in American public schools, you can say, “Sure. I think everyone should know the Enuma Elish.”
The Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, and the Old TestamentWell, we’re not done yet. Let’s get into a bit of detail about the timeframes in which these Akkadian and Hebrew creation stories were composed, and some of the more memorable similarities and differences between them.
A map of Mesopotamia. Note the locations of Babylon, where the Judahites were held captive between 586 and 539, Assur (the later Assyrian capital further up the Tigris) and Jerusalem.
Let’s talk about some of the overall parallels. Mythographers and linguists are in the forefront when it comes to sorting through the granular matter of artifacts, dialects, lexicography, handwriting, recurrent motifs, trade routes, and translations, and their work has, and will continue to show us how all of these ancient texts can be connected with one another. And, there’s one utterly obvious point I should get out into the open. Maybe there was a flood! In 1929, an archaeologist working in the city of Ur found an eight foot mud layer in the tells being excavated there, and announced he’d uncovered evidence of the biblical flood. Actually many such mud layers have been found in the ancient near east, suggesting that enough catastrophic flooding took place there to influence quite a few epics.
There’s perhaps an even more obvious point to make about these two groups of stories. Maybe there was not only a flood, but also a time when people interacted with god or gods, a period of divine creation, and historically distant ancestors who negotiated on our behalf. On this subject, I haven’t the faintest idea. The study of literature is more concerned with looking at the texts that have come down to us and trying to understand them in their historical milieu than pinpointing whether Marduk, Osiris, Zeus or Jupiter actually walked the earth. And there are plenty of texts about floods. To some, the volume of texts about floods merely indicates that we as a species tend to tell stories about floods. To others, this volume of similar stories suggests that a global flood actually did take place. Scholar and anthologist Alan Dundes writes that “[T]he flood myth is one of the most widely diffused narratives known. Only in Africa is it relatively rare. . .The comparative study of flood myths [has been] invoked as documentary ‘proof’ that the flood had indeed been a worldwide historical event. Why would so many peoples around the world tell a story about a flood, it [has been] argued, if it were not an actual catastrophic happening?”4 It’s fun to speculate, but the subject to today’s show is much more specific.
Let’s go back to the stories, then – the Babylonian and then the Old Testament accounts of our creation and the subsequent deluge. I want to go through three comparisons that I think help illuminate both the Mesopotamian myths and the Hebrew Bible.
For a third key parallel, we need to look at a different book in the Old Testament – Numbers. This book of the bible follows the seesawing pattern of the central part of Atrahasis. In other words, mankind offends god, then a leader character (Moses or Atrahasis) intercedes on behalf of humanity, and god shows mercy, only to become incensed anew by some novel crime or act of disrespect. Read chapters 11-14, chapters 16, 20, and 21 of Numbers and you will see the poor Israelites again and again erring, being subjected to God’s wrath, and then being saved by Moses’ intercessions. This is the cycle that takes place in Atrahasis, and many biblical scholars believe that the reason the Old Testament god is so alternatingly violent and then kind and generous is that the stories told about him were adapted from older polytheistic traditions, in which multiple gods like Ellil and Ea sparred with one another over the question of what to do with mankind.
Babylon, Mesopotamia, and Subsequent History[music] Everything I’ve told you today was forgotten for two thousand years. It lay on stone tablets buried in ruins in Iraq and Turkey. When people first learn the Enuma Elish and Atrahasis, they have a sense that they’re hearing some obscure stories that wriggled around for a little while before the real heavyweights got rolling – the Old Testament, and Homer, and so on. Let me just remind you of something to put it all in perspective.
For a long time, Babylon was literally a broken heap, said by the locals a hundred miles south of Baghdad to be haunted. Its Zigurrat, Etemenanki, built to honor Marduk, is still a pile of rubble. Its cuneiform history, and religion, and literature lay undeciphered and forgotten. Since the Greek historian Herodotus, we’ve known about the city’s immensity, but for a long time, it was mostly just a name. It was not a good name. The Old Testament tells of the destruction of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar II, and the subsequent Babylonian captivity. The New Testament’s book of Revelation contains a famous description of the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation – a bloated, decadent figure of ruination and imperial excess. This Babylon in Revelation, however, had nothing to do with the Babylon that told the stories about Marduk and Atrahasis we heard today. The Greek speaking authors who produced the Book of Revelation in the first century CE had little in common with their Hebrew speaking counterparts who had lived in the real Babylon over 500 years before. The Whore of Babylon, most readers agree, was Rome, or perhaps Jerusalem. The Whore of Babylon had little connection with the cosmopolitan city that had served as the cultural heart of Mesopotamia for centuries of ancient history.
In the past fifty years, Babylon and its memory have continued to be abused. In the 1980s, Sadaam Hussein reconstructed some of Babylon, in reckless abandon of the methodology of modern archaeology, consequently burying layers of artifacts underneath his new facades. Little different than other Ancient Near Eastern kings, Sadaam Hussein glorified himself there, in stone, having his name carved in processional bricks as a legitimate son of Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylon’s greatest king. After America invaded Iraq in 2003, US forces built a military base there, destroying stonework and undertaking earth moving projects that hurled archaeological objects wherever they happened to fall. I try and picture what it would have been like for a person who lived in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, or Nabonidus’ Babylon, to be brought forward through time. I imagine, maybe, a woman who had been raised amidst the broad boulevards and terraced plots, amidst beautiful stone carvings and flowing courses of water, in an elegant, educated city that cared about its 2,500 year old cultural traditions – a woman who perhaps even had friends in the small population of exiled citizens of Judah – and spoke a bit of their language. I wonder what it would have been like for her, to be brought forward to 2008, and see military vehicles cracking the forgotten paving stones of her streets, and know that to the southwest, in the modern city of Basra, explosions were being caused by strange metal things that ripped through the sky. I wonder what it would have been like for her to hear that, in spite of the fact that Babylon was once the most beautiful, and populous, and cultivated city in the world, all that most people remember about Babylon is a mass kidnapping and a reference to a whore. I think she would be absolutely, understandably devastated. And I hope that in my lifetime, we will see Babylon become an international tourist attraction to rival Athens, or Rome, or Giza, because it is as important as any of them. But we have a long way to go.
In 2014 the organization called ISIS or ISIL occupied the museum in Mosul, in northern Iraq. This museum is the second largest in country. Parked near Nineveh, the Mosul museum is at the heart of Assyria, Babylon’s brother civilization in Mesopotamia. The Mosul museum had already been looted in 2003. But the destruction of artifacts there in 2014 shocked all of us who saw footage of it. Watching black clad men with sledgehammers and circular saws laying waste to winged bull statues, and palace walls, and other artifacts was horrifying for all of us who know even a little about the history of ancient Iraq. It’s one thing to hear Biblical, or Qur’anic proscriptions against idolatry. To see the great stonework of proud Assyria pulverized, or to think of the statues and inscriptions of beautiful Babylon being broken and defaced – that’s another matter.
[music] We who are the historical heirs of Judaism – and this includes Christians and Muslims – we all have trouble with Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia often humbles us. That doesn’t stop the overwhelming majority of us, whatever our religion, from feeling sick to our stomachs when we see archaeological treasures being obliterated. But still.
The knowledge that the Old Testament only came along at the halfway point of recorded human history, and that the singularity of the Old Testament might not be so singular – this knowledge humbles us. The winged bulls of Assyria, and the vast reaches of the Babylonian ruins, however much they have been maimed and disfigured, are still a reminder that a long, and complex, and urban history predated anything that we ever knew about, up until ridiculously recently. And while the ruins and artifacts of ancient Iraq continue to be vulnerable to the vagaries of history, thank goodness that over the past two centuries like minded Ottomans, and Iraqis, and foreigners have been recovering cuneiform tablets there, and learning to understand the stories written on them. Stories, after all, are quite a bit harder than stone.
So if the Enuma Elish and Atrahasis seem like exotic preludes to more familiar stuff, then let me say, again, that these are not colorful peripheral material. These are the beginnings of religion in the western world as we know it. They are the keystone religious texts of one of the top candidates for the greatest city in human history. While they are important as an influence on the Old Testament, they are also, obviously, important for their own sake. The modest view of humanity that they convey is unforgettable. To the Babylonians, we are not grand figures who made consequential choices between good and evil. Instead, we are workers. We’re an industrious, useful, sometimes raucous bunch who can irrigate land, and carry heavy loads, and brew beer. At our best, we’re productive and handy. At our worse, we’re aggravating and out of control. It’s not a heroic, or flattering view of humanity. But empirically speaking, I think there’s a lot of evidence for its accuracy.
So we’ve covered the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis, great tales of Marduk and Tiamat, and Ea and Ellil. We’re not forgetting anything, before we leave Mesopotamia, are we? No, we couldn’t possibly. Wait, I hear music. [Gilgamesh vocal theme.] Oh, hell yeah. Gilgamesh.
Next time we’re going to talk about the Epic of Gilgamesh, a story whose fragments were widely distributed enough in the Fertile Crescent that we suspect even the average Mesopotamian knew about it. It’s a great story, a view into the psyche of the ancient world, it contains fascinating analogues of key elements in the Old Testament, and it has an awesome name. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and Gilgamesh and I will see you next time. Won’t we, Gilgamesh? [GRAAAH!] Whoa! Don’t put the microphone in your mouth!
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2.^Stephany, Timothy. Enuma Elish: The Babylonian Creation Epic. Kindle Edition, 2013, p. 3.Link.
3.^Simo Parpola and Jerrold Cooper have written somewhat differently on Assyrian Ashur and the move from polytheism to monotheism in ancient Mesopotamia, although both agree that the consolidation of "gods" in Mesopotamian polytheism into a single verbal unit gave Mesopotamians a simple noun to describe an entity that determined people's fates. See Kriwaczek, Paul. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012, p. 230. Link 4.^Dundes, Alan, ed. The Flood Myth. University of California Press, 1988, pp. 2-3.