The Apkallu, whose nature and origin remain unclear, is often referred to in the clay tablets inscribed in the cuneiform script of ancient Mesopotamia. The apkallu are likely to have played an important role in ancient Mesopotamian mythology as intermediaries between gods and men.
The term is used in several contexts, sometimes as an epithet for kings and gods and a synonym for knowledge and wisdom. In this article, we will explore ancient Mesopotamian mythology and religion to find clues about the mysterious apkallu.
The Origin and the Meaning of the Term Apkallu
The term “apkallu” is thought to be Akkadian, possibly derived from the earlier Sumerian “abgal.” Sumerian was the language of ancient Sumer, spoken in southern and south-central Mesopotamia from the mid-sixth to early 3rd millennium BC (5500 – 1900 BC).
The origin of the Sumerian language is unclear. It was replaced by Akkadian, an extinct East Semitic language, as the main spoken language of Mesopotamia, which continued to be spoken in ancient Babylonia and Assyria.
What Does Apkallu Mean in Akkadian?
It is thought that the term was used to denote some form of wisdom and can be translated into English as “the wise”, “sage” or “expert.” It was used as an epithet for the gods’ Ea and Marduk but applied to other deities as well. Alternatively, the term was used to refer to priests, especially diviners.
What Are Apkallus?
The apkallu are thought to have been sages and teachers of humankind sent by the gods to enlighten humanity. The god Enki is attributed as being their creator. Their first mission was to establish culture and civilization, teach humankind how to cultivate the soil, and offer sacrifice to the gods.
Previously, humans did not understand how to worship the gods properly, therefore, the gods sent the apkallu to help guide them. The apkallu emerged from the sea; for this reason, these ancient fish people were frequently depicted on reliefs as fish-like or fish-human hybrids. The apkallu served as the priests of Enki and advisors to the early kings of Sumer.
The Apkallu in Ancient Mesopotamian Mythology
References to the apkallu as sages can be found in Sumerian myths written on cuneiform tablets. A list of apkallu, intended as divine sages who counseled the king, appears on the Uruk List of Kings and Sages dating to the 2nd century BC.
The first seven sages listed were associated with kings whom they were thought to have advised. Additional sages are included in the list, but they are referred to as scholars and not of divine origin, having appeared after the Deluge, a flood myth mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The seven original sages and four human scholars who appeared after them have also been mentioned in religious texts and the Poem of Erra. The latter tells how the god Marduk banished the apkallu back to Abzu, the primordial waters from which they emerged.
“Where are the Seven Sages of the Apsu, the pure puradu fish, who just as their lord Ea (Enki), have been endowed with sublime wisdom?”
The Seven Apkallu: Sages in the Form of Fish as the Semi-Divine Teachers of Humankind
Although the apkallu were mentioned in numerous ancient sources, including the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, where they are credited as the builders of the walls of Uruk, the bulk of what we know about them comes from the works of Berossus.
A Babylonian scholar who lived in the 3rd century BC during the Hellenistic era, Berossus was the author of the Babylonian History, which is thought to have consisted of three books. His work has been lost but is frequently cited by classical authors such as Flavius Josephus.
– Uanna: The First Apkallu Who Taught Humans How To Read and Write
The first and arguably the most important among the sages was Uanna (or Oannes), a creature that rose out of the sea at the beginning of history. He was described as having the body of a fish, the head and feet of a man and a fish tail.
Uanna taught men how to read and write, the basics of mathematics, and arts and crafts that enabled them to build a civilization. He is described as the one “who finished the plans for heaven and earth.” Uanna returned to sea and was followed by other sages.
– How Did Uanna Look Like?
The following description of Uanna is found in the work of Berossus, as recorded by ancient Greek authors:
“In the first year it made its appearance, from a part of the Erythraean sea which bordered upon Babylonia, an animal endowed with reason, who was called Oannes. [According to the account of Apollodorus] the whole body of the animal was like that of a fish; and had under a fish’s head another head, and also feet below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish’s tail. His voice too, and language, was articulate and human; and a representation of him is preserved even to this day.”
– Adapa, the Ancient Sage, and Mythological Figure Is Sometimes Identified with Uanna
Adapa was a mythological figure listed as a sage in the aforementioned Uruk List of Kings, as the adviser of the first King of Sumer, Ayalu. He was created by the god Enki but his origins and nature are unclear.
Uanna/Adapa may have been the Sumerian fish god whose name became a synonym for wisdom. According to a Sumerian temple hymn, the seven sages came from Eridu, the oldest Sumerian city, which was then located on the coast of the Persian Gulf. This may explain why the sages were described as having emerged from the sea and hada fish-like body.
Who Were the Sages Who Followed Uanna?
The seven pre-deluge sages were divine and sent as emissaries by the deities to teach and guide people. Each of them was associated with one of the ancient Sumerian cities and served its king in a priestly capacity. Six sages had appeared after the first, Uanna, listed in the order of their appearance:
- Uanduga (Uannedugga), “who was endowed with comprehensive intelligence”
- Enmedugga, “who was allotted a good fate”
- Enmegalamma, “who was born in a house”
- Enmebulugga, “who grew up on pasture land”
- An-Enlilda, “the conjurer of the city of Eridu”
- Utuabzu, “who ascended to heaven”
Scholars believe that the list is chronological but there seems to be no genealogical connection between the sages themselves and the kings they are associated with.
The Last Apkallu Before the Deluge
For centuries, the divine apkallu acted as teachers who advised the kings and ensured the gods were honored at temples across ancient Sumer. However, the gods decided to cause a great flood in which the old world disappeared.
The apkallu who appeared after the flood were part-divine but mortal. They were referred to as scholars, rather than sages, but continued to serve kings as advisers. Eight post-deluge kings are connected with a specific sage, including Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon and Esarhaddon of Assyria.
Plaques of the Apkallu Were Used in Homes to Ward Off Evil
As the divine teachers of humankind, the apkallu played a prominent role in ancient Mesopotamian religion. Ordinary Mesopotamians placed plaques with depictions of the apkallu as magical amulets to ward off evil and protect the household from spells.
Depiction of the Apkallu in Mesopotamian Art
Images depicting the apkallu have been found on reliefs, most notably those from the Neo-Assyrian Empire, during the reign of King Sennacherib (705 – 681 BC). They were meant to guard the royal palace against evil spirits.
The apkallu appear in one of three forms, bird-headed, human-headed, or fish-cloaked. The latter type depicts a humanoid figure wearing a fish cloak suspended from the top of the head. The head of the fish is directly attached to and merged with the human head.
Berossus describes the first apkallu, Uanna, as having a beard but no wings. The fish-cloak is the symbol of Ea or Enki, the Sumerian god of water and knowledge. His Eblaite and Syrian counterpart, Dagon, is sometimes called the Babylonian fish god, but no clear connection with Ea and the apkallu can be established.
The Seven Sages in Greek Mythology
It is interesting to note the resemblance between the apkallu (the seven sages who lived before the Great Flood) and the seven wise people thought to have lived during the Archaic Age of Greece (800 – 480 BC). They are now regarded as semi-legendary figures who the ancient Greeks believed lay the foundations of Greek philosophy.
It is presumed that the Greeks had borrowed the idea from Babylon or Assyria. Like the apkallu, the seven sages passed down their knowledge to others, which helped usher in a new era of progress.
Who Were the Seven Greek Sages?
It was the famous Athenian philosopher Plato (427 – 347 BC) who first mentioned the names of seven wise people. He lists Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mitylene, Bias of Priene, Solon, Chilon, Cleobulus and Myson as being the original seven sages who taught the Greeks philosophy.
Later Greek sources all mention Thales, Pittacus, Bias, and Solon, but there was some disagreement about the remaining three positions. Myson, Pythagoras and Periander, among others, are included in the list of seven sages.
We should note, however, that the Greeks did not attribute the sages with any divine qualities, as was the case with the Mesopotamian apkallu.
According to ancient Mesopotamian belief, men were created by the gods to work the land and worship their creators through ritualistic sacrifice in the form of offerings. The first people proved to be incapable of performing these tasks, which prompted Enki to send the seven apkallu (sages) as teachers. Here are a few takeaways about the Seven Sages of Mesopotamia:
- They were sent by the gods to teach humanity how to build a civilization. They taught common people how to write and advised kings on important state matters.
- The bas reliefs found on the walls of ancient Assyrian palaces depict them wearing fish-cloaks, which was probably a reference to the origins of the Mesopotamian civilization on the Red Sea.
- They were invoked as protectors of the household against evil spirits and spells.
The apkallu will continue to be a subject of research for scholars eager to unlock the secrets of ancient Mesopotamia.