Enuma Elish

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A portion of tablet III of the Enuma Elish, c. 650 BCE.

The Enuma Elish (Akkadian: 𒂊𒉡𒈠𒂊𒇺, Enûma Eliš) is an ancient Babylonian creation myth focusing on the god Marduk creating the world after vanquishing the goddess Tiamat.

I had never even heard of the Enuma Elish growing up and only discovered it after researching ancient texts.

Authorship and Dating

An author is not mentioned in the Enuma Elish, and tradition doesn't ascribe it to anyone specific. Based on similarities with other artifacts from the era, the story is estimated to have been written around 1900-1600 BCE making it the earliest creation myth in human history so-far discovered. The oldest extant artifact is dated to around 650 BCE and exists on seven clay tablets with text written in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform script. Each tablet holds between 115 and 170 lines of text and the bulk of the story is intact. Large portions of tablets V and VI are missing from the oldest artifact, but later tablets contain much of the missing portions.

Content

"Enuma Elish" in cuneiform.

The story describes the creation of the universe beginning with the god Apsu, the personification of the fresh waters of the deep, and the goddess Tiamat, the personification of chaotic salt waters. The two intermingle and give rise to several generations of other gods including Marduk, the personification of the sun. Tiamat grows weary of their children, and Apsu suggests destroying them, but Tiamat doesn't want to. Apsu tries anyway, but is defeated by his children. Angered by this, Tiamat creates 11 monsters and takes a new consort, Kingu, and gives to him the Tablets of Destiny making him the supreme ruler of all existence. The other gods, afraid of Tiamat's power, beg Marduk to destroy her, but he does so only on the condition that he be made the supreme god if he succeeds. The other gods agree and outfit Marduk with powerful weapons. The god Anu creates the four winds for Marduk to call on and gives him a net to entangle Tiamat. Marduk successfully slays Tiamat and captures the gods who were on her side and the 11 monsters. He uses Tiamat's corpse to create the sky and earth, places the gods in the sky by using stars to make constellations of them, and creates the moon, months and weeks, and gives the Tablets of Destiny to the god Anu. Marduk then uses his blood to create the mortals of the earth, and the gods build the city of Babylon and the giant temple Esagila to honor Marduk, and everyone praises him.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the Enuma Elish, at least to those familiar with the Abrahamic faiths, is the similarity between its description of the creation of the world to that of the Hebrew creation myth in the Book of Genesis, which is estimated to have been written around 1,200 years after the Enuma Elish. In the story, Marduk creates the universe by forming a separation between the sky and the earth, parting the waters of the deep, and he creates the moon, stars and constellations, makes 12 months in a year, and seven days in the week with the seventh day being kept special.

Status

I do not own a printed copy of the Enuma Elish, but I read an English translation on 2019-06-28.

Review

Good

  • This is the oldest creation myth discovered so far.
  • I like how the story uses nice counting elements like the 11 monsters of Tiamat and the seven winds of Marduk.
  • There are some pretty clever monsters described in the story like scorpion men.
  • The Tablets of Destiny, which give the holder supreme power, are an interesting sounding artifact.
  • Marduk's fight with Tiamat is pretty heroic. Rather than try a sneak attack, Marduk calls her out, and demands she take up arms and prepare herself before they fight. She chants magical spells against him, but he is better equipped and clever enough to defeat her.
  • It's interesting to see the term "lord of rulers," which could also be written "king of kings" or "lord of lords," used so early in writing.

Bad

  • There is a confusing pantheon of gods which is difficult to keep track of, and little description is given of each. Obviously, this story was written for the culture in which it was being read, so everyone would already know the pantheon, but it's difficult for outsiders to understand it.
  • Like many ancient texts, many of the subjects in the work are described using superlatives. Tiamat's monsters are so strong that "none can withstand their attack," and their weapons are described as "invincible." Of course, Marduk defeats them and breaks their weapons, so the superlative descriptions are clearly in error.
  • There is an unnecessary amount of repetition.
  • The 11 monsters of Tiamat show very little imagination. They're just big animals or animal-man hybrids.
  • Marduk shows off his mighty powers by making a garment disappear and reappear. Not a very impressive miracle!
  • I'm presuming Marduk gives him the Tablet of Destiny as a reward for all his help, but that doesn't fit with the fact that Marduk is supposed to be the supreme god after vanquishing Tiamat.

Ugly

  • The story is highly disjointed. Part of that no doubt comes from the fragmentary nature of the extant source material, but this is common in most ancient texts. Authors of the time just assumed every reader would already know a lot of necessary backstory.

Links

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