Notes on the Enuma Elish

The Enuma Elish, or “when on high”, is named for the opening lines of the poem. It is a fragmented Akkadian poem that borrows from a number of earlier cosmogonies from the Sumerians and Semitic cultures. The Akkadian version, discovered among the ruins of ancient Babylon, exists on seven tablets and has sometimes been called the “seven tablets of creation.” Along with other Mesopotamian sacred writings, the Eunuma Elish was found at the famous library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (in modern Iraq), along with the Epic of Gilgamesh, among other ancient works. The text is nearly complete excluding major gaps on Tablet V. It was written in the Sumerian/Akkadian cuneiform script and each line forms a kind of couplet. We imagine elder scribes retelling and re-enacting the poem to families and children, perhaps in temples or marketplaces.

The Enuma Elish tells the story of “primeval” Apsu, the freshwater god, and Tiamat, the saltwater god. Together they formed the rest of the gods when their two waters intertwined. Apsu resides in Esharra (akin to the Christian concept of heaven). However, Apsu shortly thereafter plans to kill the new gods as they are loudly keeping him awake at night. When Tiamat hears of this she tells her son Enki, who then kills Apsu and uses his remains to build a home. However, Tiamat grows angry at the young gods for killing her mate, and vows revenge with Qingu, another god. Within the first four tablets, the young champion Marduk emerges. He shoots an arrow that slices Tiamat in two between her eyes, and her blood flows to form the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In Tablet V, Marduk, the creator-god, takes control and is inspired to build an earthly city called Babylon, or the “House of the Great Gods” (the original meaning of the word Babylon). He builds the city for the gods to pass through. Marduk explains his idea to create humans to the Mother goddess “Ea” (sometimes called Enkidi). When the earlier gods who were allied with Tiamat had rebelled, Marduk calls on them to reveal a leader in exchange for a pardon and they present Marduk with Qingu, who is then promptly sacrificed. His blood is used to create the race of men. Marduk consults Ea, the Mother goddess, who creates Lullu, the first man to be helper to the gods in maintaining order over chaos. He separates the gods into the heavenly and netherworld gods. The heavenly gods are to be ruled by Anu, the celestial sky-god, to whom a temple was dedicated in Uruk, the city made famous by the Epic of Gilgamesh. The gods then build Esagila, a temple to Marduk in Babylon. Marduk is named the supreme god.

The text emphasizes its sacredness. Like Hesiod, it self-consciously tells of the origins of the gods. It is a patriotic text that is intended to bring praise and holiness to the city of Babylon and its gods. It is also both a poem and a prayer intended to be recited to the many, not the few. The recitation element is particularly notable in Tablet VII. While the book of Genesis explores the origins of the Hebrew people under the rulership of The Lord and His chosen leaders, Moses and Abraham, the Enuma Elish is a celebration of the origins of Babylon under Marduk. It highlights the sacredness of one place, unlike the ancient Hebrews who were nomadic (prior to the establishment of Jerusalem). Both cosmogonies share some similarities, as well, such as in the origins of water, and light and darkness.

As far as we can tell, the creator-god Marduk gained prominence during Hammurabi’s reign (1792-1750 BC) in Babylon. During his kingship, he replaced many of the traditional female deities with prominent male gods, like Marduk. The rise of the cult of Marduk is intimately connected to the rise of Babylon – the religious and the political are not separated in the ancient world. The ‘noble lie’ of the Enuma Elish is in the need for the city to give preference to order over chaos, and to portray men as partners with the gods. In this way the city thrives under the values espoused in the Enuma Elish. In later translations, the god Marduk is replaced by Ashur, the patron god of Assyria.

For this reading I used two translations: Benjamin R. Foster’s translation in the Norton Anthology of World Literature, and also the W.G. Lambert translation in Mesopotamian Creation Stories.

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