The Vocabulary of Myth, Part VIII

Sumerian Cosmogony…

  Babylonian Cosmogony…

  Enuma Elish…


     We come now to Mesopotamia, and begin with the cosmogony of Sumeria, the earliest phase of the great civilization that persisted for four millennia in the plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  Since Sumeria had no single and comprehensive version of the myth of creation, however, its cosmogony must be pieced together from scattered references.

A highly schematic, and admittedly oversimplified, summary might run something like this:  Nammu, the goddess of the primeval sea, gave birth to heaven and earth, the god Anu and the goddess Ki respectively.  From their undifferentiated union issued the god of air and storm, Enlil, who then separated heaven from earth and so brought the universe into its present arrangement in the form of earth below, heaven above, and air in the interval between.

Once again, the primordial element, the cosmogonic sea, is uncreated and eternally pre-existent.  Once again, creation consists in the act of separating the elemental opposites which were originally in a state of chaotic union, in this case (and as usual), the heavenly male principal from the earthly female.

But the more important of the Mesopotamian creation myths, at least for our purposes, is that which has come down to us in a composition of some grandeur, known, from its opening words, as the Enuma Elish (“When on high…”).  Written in a Semitic language, the Enuma Elish dates from around 1500, in the middle, that is, of the second (Akkadian) phase of Mesopotamian civilization.  Its central figure is the god Marduk, the lord of the great city of Babylon, which was at the time the political and cultural centre of a vast empire.

In the pre-Akkadian (i.e., Sumerian) version of the myth (now lost), Marduk’s role was undoubtedly played by Enlil; but the Babylonian god has by now absorbed all of the powers and dignities of this ancient god of storm, notwithstanding that he himself was principally a solar and agricultural deity.  The process, sometimes called “syncretism”, by which later deities subsume the attributes and functions of earlier ones, or the major gods of great imperial powers assimilate those of the indigenous local gods, is a common and never-ending one.  Indeed, when in the first millennium Assyria had become the supreme power between the rivers, Markuk was in turn superseded in the Mesopotamian creation myth by the Assyrian god Assur.


Here is the Reader’s Digest summary of the myth:

In the beginning, nothing existed except Apsu, the sweet-water ocean, and Tiamat, the salt-water ocean.

In the text, Apsu is referred to as the “primeval begetter” and Tiamat as “she who gave birth to them all”, including the sky and earth, who as yet “had not even been thought of”, and the gods, who were “hidden within” this primordial pair.  As the text also specifies, the waters of Apsu and Tiamat were originally mingled in an undifferentiated unity.  Once again we have the original watery chaos out of which all things will eventually arise and in which all things are potentially present, but as yet in a state of formless confusion.

Then, from this watery chaos, two deities came into existence, Lahmu and Lahamu, both begotten by Apsu (the sweet waters) upon Tiamat (the maternal sea).

Scholarly consensus interprets Lahmu and Lahamu as personifications of the silt, deposited by the fresh waters of the Tigris and Euphrates into the salt water womb of the Persian Gulf, a process which has been going on since time immemorial and through which the land mass of Mesopotamia has been gradually built up.  But scholarly consensus has of late been rather too smitten with such naturalistic allegories, and it is probably safer to note again nothing more than the repetition in Lahmu and Lahamu of the conjunctio oppositorum of the universal male and female principles.

Then, from Lahmu and Lahamu derived in turn the next divine couple, Anshar and Kishar, the circular horizons of the male heaven and female earth respectively.  Anshar and Kishar thereupon gave birth to Anu, the god of the sky, who engendered from himself Ea (also called Enki) the god of earth and earth’s waters.

Enki will appear throughout Babylonian mythology as a culture hero, the founder of agriculture, and the source of all wisdom.  Anshar is said to have made Anu “in his own likeness” (since the sky resembles the horizon inasmuch as it is round); and Anu is also said to have formed Enki, the earth, “in his own image” (since the earth, in the Mesopotamian imagination, was shaped like a disc).

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