The Enuma Elish is arguably the most significant legend that explains many aspects of the Ancient City of Babylon.
It contains some of the most revered versions of Babylon’s epics, history, religion and deities, and events that led to the world’s creation. The Enuma Elish provides an account of the creation story from the point of view of Mesopotamians. This old version of cosmology still attracts widespread recognition.
Since the first archaeological finds between the 1840s and 1870s, interest had grown among scholars, which led to information gathering overtime. These discoveries helped close historical gaps that gave more insights into Mesopotamian myths. Archaeologists have successfully gathered records and pieces from different sites. We currently a wide array of sources about the Enuma Elish.
What is Enuma Elish?
The Enuma Elish is a record of an ancient Mesopotamian or Babylonian myth that contains a carefully outlined narration of creation.
According to this Babylon creation myth, all creation accounts were written on seven extended Akkadian cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets discovered in Kuyunjik, Nineveh (near Mosul) between 1848 and 1876. The tablets, now more known as the “seven tablets of creation.”
Austin Henry Layard, an English Archaeologist and cuneiformist, and his team excavated portions of the Enuma Elish. During an archaeological project, his early discoveries took place while researching at the Ashurbanipal’s Royal Library in ancient Nineveh (present-day Iraq). However, other fragments were excavated from different sites such as Sultantepe, Kish, among others.
Most of the fragments have been put together, except for Tablet V, with relatively more undiscovered pieces. Over time, other archaeologists and historians have also joined in the research. They have contributed immensely to this aspect of knowledge. For instance, George Smith’s 1876 publication “Chaldean Genesis” gives insights into the interpretations of the letterings and connotations.
The Enuma Elish myth derives its name from the first words of the entire piece, found on the first of the seven tablets and translated to mean “When on high.”
According to estimates, the myth has approximately a thousand lines. Each tablet contains a maximum of about 170 lines of the traditional cuneiform script. Each tablet details how the world’s creation, the first of the two gods that existed, and their many godlings. It spoke lengthily of the story of Marduk, the Babylonian supreme deity and god of thunderstorms. This story of creation was recited every Babylonian new year and festivals for thousands of years.
When was the Enuma Elish written?
While experts could not pinpoint when the Enuma Elish was first written, carbon dating indicated it was written, at least the story of Marduk, during the 17th century B.C. All clues have been matched with artifacts and events that occurred at about the same time. However, note that older versions date back to as early as 1200 B.C., some of which were linked to the civilized Sumerian region of ancient Mesopotamia.
Of all the earliest writings on the Babylonian creation story, one of the most significant records was written by Berossus, a Babylonian writer, astronomer, and priest of Marduk. He was active during the 3rd century B.C. He wrote quite extensively about creation, and especially relating it to Marduk. His work included writings on astronomy – the sun, moon, and stars – and what roles these played in the Mesopotamian creation story.
While Berossus’ writings were not precisely the same as those of the seven clay tablets’ interpretation, his work inspired archaeologists, historians, and translators on the Enuma Elish. Other ancient writers include Cornelius Alexander Polyhistor and Eusebius Pamphili, who published the Chronicon, compiled some time in the 4th century. These writers contributed significantly to the generally accepted version of the Enuma Elish.
It can also be argued that the Babylonians and Assyrians first adopted the Enuma Elish at around 1700 B.C. However, there are a few differences between the most adopted versions of the Babylonians and the Assyrians’ Mesopotamian creation story. For instance, while the Babylonian version sees Marduk as its central sovereign deity, the Assyrian version of the Enuma Elish has Ashur in his stead.
Mesopotamian Creation Story
The Enuma Elish creation story starts and ends interestingly. It begins by narrating how the first two gods, Abzu and Tiamat. They came into being, initially from water, and their bodies in a void where there was no heaven nor earth. The water formed a sweet portion, which became Abzu. A salty-sour amount of that water became the goddess Tiamat.
They dwelled in space together for a long time despite their differences until they copulated and gave birth to several young gods. These young gods also birthed other young gods until they grew in great numbers. This meant that Abzu and Tiamat now had company, and it wasn’t going to be a quiet space anymore.
As time went by, these godlings became a nuisance and distracted their father Abzu from what he was supposed to do. First, Abzu made efforts to calm the godlings down so that they could disturb him less. Abzu failed in this regard and became a nagging problem. He decided to kill all his children, but this plan reached Tiamat’s attention. While Tiamat was equally disturbed by the godlings’ nuisance, she disagreed with Abzu’s decision refused to join him.
Instead, she informed her eldest grandson, Enki, the god of wisdom, about Abzu’s plot. Meanwhile, Abzu had gone on to liaise with his adviser- Mummu, who was already helping out with creating a plan for the younger gods’ intended massacre. Enki, who already knew this, waited for an opportunity and struck first. He devised a spell that caused Abzu to fall asleep for a long time, giving Enki enough time to arrange his plans and strategies. He was successful, killing Abzu- his grandfather, and throwing Mummu into a cage. He also used Abzu’s remains in building a home for himself and his goddess wife, Damkina.
When Tiamat learned of Abzu’s death, she became perplexed. She regretted her action of informing Enki and became determined to put an to the godlings’ treachery. She consulted another god, Quingu, who almost immediately accepted to become her ally. With an agreement in place, Tiamat bestows Quingu with some authority by giving him the “tablets of destiny” he (Quingu) wore as a breast shield. Tiamat then created eleven notorious monsters of chaos that would help her finish off the godlings. However, and around this time, Enki’s wife gave birth to Marduk, who became stronger than the rest of the gods.
Tiamat pushed out her monsters’ battalion and advanced towards the young gods in battle at the appointed time. Initially, she destroyed them massively and had almost eliminated all of them. At this time, Marduk came forth and volunteered to represent the young gods- who immediately rallied support for him. Marduk swung down heavily on Tiamat and her army, cutting her into two with a flying spear. According to the myth, Tiamat’s tears at her death formed the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Marduk also used her remains to create heaven and earth, which marked the beginning of his rule over all the remaining gods.
Additionally, Marduk also tried and sentenced Quingu to death, collecting the tablets of destiny from him and then forming the first human from his blood. This human was called Lullu. His specific task was to help Marduk and the other gods rule the affairs of creation and prevent future chaos.
After consultation with Enki on what should be done to the rest of Tiamat’s supporters and soldiers, Marduk decided that every other god that continues with the rebellion should be put to death and to use their blood to create more humans. The humans created would subsequently be made to work and till the fields for the other gods. This decision was mainly aimed at reducing the tendency for Tiamat’s supporters to revolt. This part of the myth also explains how humans were created, and it shows quite clearly that man was only designed to serve as slaves for the gods.
After Marduk’s victory over Tiamat, he bounded her eleven monsters and tired them to his feet- like a trophy. However, according to the Berossus account, Quingu’s blood was mixed with soil before creating man. His account also stated that it was a god’s blood used without saying the god’s name.
In all of ancient Babylon, mostly, the reverence for Marduk was in no small measure. Since he had become the champion of the creation story, the Enuma Elish dedicated a significant part of its ending in praise of him as the supreme deity. Hence, many of the writings on the seventh tablet had his glory. These qualities prompted the Babylonians to make Marduk a widely accepted national god.
For instance, Hammurabi (who lived between 1810 BC to 1750 BC) was one of the biggest fans of Marduk- as the supreme deity. Note that Hammurabi’s reign had brought so much civilization and development to Babylon and was also in the aspect of religion. All through his reign as King, Marduk was crowned “first god” over all others. He became more famous and revered than the high goddess of love, procreation, and war- Inanna. These led to the formation of a famous cult group referred to as the cult of Marduk, which also became strongly affiliated with the political class of Babylon.
Connections to the Book of Genesis
For many years, researchers have tried to find a correlation between the biblical book of Genesis and the Enuma Elish story of creation. While there seem to be some striking similarities at some point, there are equally contrasting facts. We cannot say that all the interpretations brought forth are correct. However, the connections between the two are worth considering, as we might probably- at some point, hit reasons beyond doubt.
Firstly, note that there are more insinuations on the possibility that the biblical book of Genesis’s account of creation is a derivative of the Enuma Elish. This argument seems valid considering that Moses’ history of creation in Genesis was written approximately 600 years after the Babylonian Enuma Elish. However, many historians have faulted this claim, saying there is no tangible basis why this should be considered correct.
Both narrations of creation have the same beginning. There was nothing in existence except for darkness and some formless space. They distinctly mention the presence of water from the very start, mostly how it was a sort of precursor for every other thing that was eventually created. Another similarity that some people reckon with is the numerical seven days of creation and the seven creation tablets. Ultimately, each account mentions “rest” after the creation ended and corroborates that there may be some link.
However, some of the contrasting facts are too important to ignore. For instance, the Enuma Elish speaks of multiple gods in all creation processes (polytheism), while the biblical account supports the concept of one true God (monotheism). While this is a fundamental difference, there is also another grossly different idea regarding the purpose of man. In the Biblical records, a man was created by God to have dominion over the earth and all other creatures. The Enuma Elish, however, puts man in the position of a slave.
As far as these similarities and differences are concerned, there is not enough proof to dispute the connection between the two versions, and there’s also not enough evidence to conclude that there is a link between them.
As a recap, here is a summary of our discussions on the Enuma Elish:
- The Enuma Elish is a Babylonian mythic account of the story of creation.
- The complete text, which consists of about a thousand lines, is written on seven cuneiform tablets, otherwise known as the “Seven tablets of creation.”
- Most of the Enuma Elish fragmented pieces were recovered by Cornelius Henry Layard in the 1840s at the King of Ashurbanipal’s palace.
- The Enuma Elish, which means “When on high,” is derived from the myth’s first line.
- The creation story was written around the 14th century, although there are conflicting records- as the time is not precisely known.
- There are older versions of the story of creation that was in existence before the Enuma Elish was written.
- Marduk is Enuma Elish’s central character because of his enormous role in creating and maintaining order.
- Abzu and Tiamat were the first gods to be formed. All other godlings cane from them.
- When the godlings began to create a nuisance for Abzu, he tried to eliminate them but was eventually killed in the process.
- Tiamat tried to finish what Abzu had started (after she had initially declined to join in), but the fierce Marduk also murdered her.
- Marduk also killed Quingu- Tiamat’s advisor and created the first man Lullu with his blood.
- Marduk also killed every other supporter of Tiamat who continued with the revolution. Their blood was used to create humans.
- According to the Enuma Elish, humans were created to serve as slaves to the gods.
- There are various accounts of the Mesopotamian creation story. The Babylonians consider Marduk their main god, while the Assyrians replace Marduk with Ashur.
- There are several similarities and differences between the biblical account of creation in Genesis and the Enuma Elish
- Although these similarities and differences exist, there is not enough proof that they are connected or derived from themselves (or not).
Considering the intriguing theme and story behind the Enuma Elish, it is an important myth that cannot be easily discarded. Even if the accounts are not accepted everywhere, Mesopotamia still has a lot of respect for this Babylon creation myth.