Enuma Elish

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: History

  • The Enuma Elish is an Old Babylonian creation myth.
  • Typically a creation myth is a supernatural story that describes how things began, including humanity, the earth itself, life, and the universe (not necessarily in that order).
  • Creation generally comes about by the action of a deity.
  • Though myth might sound as though it is fictional or absurd, it can express ideas that people believe to be true or, at least, to be symbolic of deeper truths. Yet, few would argue for a literary reading.
  • Such myths have been found in many ancient cultures.
  • Not all creation myths are religious in nature; some are purely secular.
  • They generally begin with chaos. Some involve male and female gods, possibly land emerging from an ocean, and even creation out of nothing.
  • The Sumerian creation myth (the Eridu Genesis) is the oldest one that has been discovered. It dates to the 18th century BCE and includes a flood story.
  • In it, various gods created the Sumerians and all the animals. Then the gods established several cities. Shortly thereafter, they decided to send a flood to destroy what they had created. One of the gods warned the hero, who was able to build an ark.
  • A terrible storm lasted for seven days and seven nights, at which point the sun god appeared and the flood abated. The hero and the animals were saved.
  • The Enuma Elish might be about as ancient, though some scholars give it a later date – from the 14th to 12th centuries BCE.
  • Its name is derived from its initial words – Enuma Elish means “when on high.”
  • It has about one thousand lines that were recorded on seven clay tablets. 
  • The original discovery of the clay tablets was made in 1849 by an archeologist in the ruined library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. The library dates back to the 7th century BCE.
  • The Enuma Elish was published in 1876.
  • This is a very important document for understanding the Babylonian religion and worldview. It focuses on the role of Marduk, whom scholars think was already prominent in the 18th century BCE.
  • The first tablet describes the beginning of the world. The earth and the sky had not yet been created.
  • There were, however, two gods – Apsu (the male god) and Tiamat (the female god). They were represented by sweet and salt water, respectively.
  • Several generations later, one of the gods bore a son, Anu. Anu begot Ea, who was known as the “all-wise.”
  • There were six generations in all.
  • Each new generation was better and stronger than the previous one and each generation became more disorderly. Eventually this caused huge problems among the original gods. Tiamat (the mother) refused to discipline her sons; Apsu (the father) tried to control them, but they simply ignored his commands to behave.
  • Finally, in utter disgust, Apsu decided to “unmake” his children. Tiamat got wind of his plans and warned Ea.
  • Ea slew Apsu while he was asleep and built a huge temple over his body.  Ea then had a son, Marduk, who was known as the “hero-king.”
  • His grandfather, Anu, created the four winds for Marduk to play with.
  • His playing was so rough that eventually he disturbed Tiamat and all the other gods that dwelled with her. They began to pressure her to take charge and reproached her for doing nothing to avenge Apsu’s death.
  • Eventually, their entreaties were successful, and Tiamat decided to go to war against the many generations of her children. She gathered a great host of gods to fight for her.
  • Anu and Ea both tried to talk her out of it, though both were unsuccessful.
  • Ea then went to Marduk and convinced him to fight her – one on one.
  • Marduk agreed to do so if all the other gods would name him the supreme god of all. The other gods had little choice but to agree, and Marduk prepared for battle.
  • The story claims he had a great bow, a single arrow, a mace, lightning and a net held by the four winds. He took with him seven hurricanes and filled his body with fire.
  • He captured her with the net and slew her in two with the arrow. 
  • He then claimed his rightful place as lord of all and continued the work of creation.
  • Half of her body was used for the earth; the other half comprised the “firmament.”
  • After creating the earth from her body, he continued with the sky, a calendar, the planets, the sun, moon, stars, and the weather.
  • He made humanity from clay mixed with spit and the blood of her commander/husband.
  • His purpose in creating humans was to make the lives of the gods easier and more interesting. Humans had two main functions: to serve the gods and to “entertain” them. 
  • All of this activity is described on the first five tablets. The remaining two contain a listing of over fifty names for Marduk.
  • Marduk, then, as the main god, established Babylon as the residence of the gods, building himself a temple that reached into the heavens.
  • Scholars believe this myth was read on the Babylonian New Year in celebration of the death and rebirth of Marduk.
  • The primary purpose of this poem was to elevate Marduk above all the other gods of Mesopotamia and to explain why that was the case.
  • Scholars have noticed echoes of the Enuma Elish in the creation story of Genesis.
  • Both civilizations thought the earth was a flat disk, with water above and below it. The “firmament” - thought to be a “dome” of metal - kept the waters in the heavens. The stars were under this dome. Gates allowed the sun and moon to go back and forth.
  • Beneath the earth were fresh-water seas.
  • Both stories claim one specific god to be the Creator and ruler over all things.
  • The Babylonian myth elevates Marduk as god over all; Genesis places Yahweh as God over all.
  • In both stories, creation is an act of divine speech.
  • The sequence of creation is the same: first is light, then firmament, dry land, the sun and moon, and lastly, man.
  • In both stories, the world begins as formless and empty. The only thing that exists is watery chaos.
  • Both refer to the “firmament” -- the inverted bowl that keeps the heavens separated from the earth.
  • Day and night are created before the sources of light – the sun, moon, and stars.
  • It is only then that time is created.
  • In the Enuma Elish, the gods discuss the possibilities of creating humankind; in Genesis, God says, “Let us make man in our own image.”
  • In both stories, the creator rests after making humankind.
  • The biggest difference has to do with the creation of humankind.
  • In the Babylonian myth, people were created for the purpose of keeping the gods entertained and well fed; in Genesis, however, man was created to tend the garden, which was part of God’s “good” creation.
  • The six days of creation in Genesis might correspond to the six generations in the Enuma Elish. Each generation of gods corresponds in some way to what was being created that day.
  • Scholars believe that the story of Genesis 1 was given its final shape while the Israelites were in exile in Babylon in the sixth century BCE.


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