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Mythology Monday: The Mesopotamian Creation Myth

Updated: Apr 28

Mythology Mondays will feature a mixed bag of reposted articles from the old site, new articles and answers to questions sent in, and whatever mythological things we might think are neat to talk about this week.

Submitted: Could you talk about the Mesopotamian creation myth?

The key question here is, of course: which one?

"Mesopotamian mythology" is really an umbrella term for the ancient religions of the cradle of civilization (centered mostly in what is now Iraq). The largest of these are the Sumerian civilization, which was centered on the city of Sumer (4500-1900 BCE); then the Akkadian Empire, which was focused around Akkad (2334-2154 BCE); then the Assyrian Empire with its center in Assur (2200-605 BCE); and finally the Babylonian Empire, based in famous Babylon (1895-619 BCE). As you can see, there's lots of overlap in time - Sumer continued to be relevant for the entire existence of the Akkadian Empire and into the beginning of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, and the Assyrian Empire arose while Akkad was still a power and also coexisted with Babylon for several centuries.

A map of the ancient empires of Mesopotamia

The ancient world's most happening river system

And also, as we can see, they're all on top of each other geographically as well. So it's no wonder they have religious features in common - or rather, they all very nearly share the same religion, each adding their own features, which is why we usually talk about them all together. There isn't a ton of difference between Akkadian mythology and Babylonian mythology, so in the interests of not nitpicking very tiny things like who wears a fish symbol where, we just talk about it all in one big bowl of Mesopotamian Myths.

But because there were multiple civilizations involved, with multiple goals and ideals, over a very long period of time (remember how famously long-lived the Egyptian religion was? they've only got these folks by about 500 years!), there are inevitably differences. So the Sumerian creation myth is not quite identical to the later ones. So let's talk about what is the same, and then where the differences lie!

The Mesopotamian creation myth goes generally like this:

In the beginning of the universe, there were only two beings: Tiamat, the feminine principle of salt water, and Apsu/Abzu, the masculine principle of fresh water. The two of them gave birth to the first gods, the twins Lahmu and Lahamu, who were the silt of the primordial waters, and they gave birth to Anshar, the horizon of heaven, and Kishar, the horizon of earth. These two then gave birth to Anu, the great god of the heavens, and Ki, the goddess of the earth, and from the two of them were born all the other gods: Enlil and Enki/Ea, who were the fathers of Ningirsu/Ninurta and Nergal and Nanna/Sin and Marduk, who were the parents of Utu/Shamash, Ereshkigal, Inanna/Ishtar, and so on and so forth. Enlil was born first, and as the god of air and sky separated his parents to allow space for all the other gods and humanity to live between them. (If that sounds familiar, it's because Egypt has the same myth of Geb and Nut separated by their father Shu, and it's hard to guess, given how ancient both pantheons are, which one borrowed it from the other!)

Once all the gods have been created, however, their dancing and shouting and general noise-making becomes so loud that it begins to disturb Tiamat and Apsu, the ancient progenitors, who find the noise aggravating and intrusive after an eternity of existing silently alongside one another. Tiamat puts up with the noise even thought she doesn't like it because she is the mother of all of them and considers it part of her duty to put up with their youthful hijinks, but eventually Apsu can't take the noise anymore and tells her that he wants to destroy them and be done with it. They argue some, with Apsu almost swayed by Tiamat's argument that they can't destroy their own children, until his servant Mummu (the god of stasis and peace) tells him that he will never sleep again if he doesn't get rid of the gods, and Apsu agrees and decides to clean house.

An ancient engraved cylinder depicting the sun god Shamash/Utu climbing the mountains to rise at dawn, attended by Ishtar/Inanna and Enki/Ea

What is a divinity if not a wretched little noise-making machine?

The gods get word that their ancient sire is planning to do away with them and understandably start panicking, until Enki/Ea, creative trickster god of the waters, tells them he will handle the situation and creates a complex spell that puts Apsu to sleep. Since sleeping was pretty much what Apsu wanted in the first place, the story could have ended here, but that's not how gods usually solve their problems. Enki kills Apsu while he sleeps, takes his symbols and tools for himself, and establishes his new home within the fresh water that Apsu once controlled, making himself the new god of waters. (On a symbolic level, this represents the gods taking control of fresh water, an important and necessary part of life, away from the ancient primordial powers for their own use and eventually humanity's. Apsu was not a god who could be called upon by humanity for help with life-giving water, being too ancient and remote, but Enki is.)

Unfortunately for everyone, this act of killing the patriarch of the gods did not go over well with the entire cosmos. Tiamat was shocked and horrified by the loss of her husband, killed by the very children she had argued with him not to act against, and various of the other gods taunted her, telling her that it was her own fault for not standing with her husband when he needed her and saying that the sea is too violent now that she is upset and she was never a good mother to them, either, since it's bothering them.

Grieving and infuriated by the accusation that she did not love her husband or her descendants, Tiamat eventually decides to declare war on them and begins to give birth to a whole new generation of monsters and gods on her own; symbolically, these are hideous and dangerous monsters because she's having them all by herself, solely born out of the endless depths of the ocean, instead of from the mingling of her salt water with Apsu's fresh water that made the gods. She chooses one of these new gods, the noble Kingu, and makes him her new husband, giving him the Tablet of Destinies to show him as the legitimate ruler given power by her as the eldest deity and sending him out to lead the army against the gods who betrayed her.

Enki hears about this and gets very worried about the situation, and they start by trying to send out envoys to convince Tiamat not to murder them all. Enki goes himself first, but is too frightened of her and comes back; then Anu, his father, who as the father of all the active gods has the authority to tell her to back off with all of them behind him, but she is not impressed and strikes him, causing him to flee. Out of ideas, the gods call an assembly of all their number to try to figure out what to do, but nobody else wants to or could be powerful enough to challenge Tiamat or Kingu, until finally Marduk, Enki's young son, is chosen for his martial prowess and told to go handle the situation. Marduk agrees, but only if the gods will give him full authority as his their ruler if he succeeds, which is probably a pretty easy thing to promise given that it won't matter in the very likely case that he fails like everyone else. They call up Lahmu and Lahamu, Tiamat's and Apsu's eldest children, to legitimize the transfer of power to Marduk, and then send him out with the power of all the gods behind him to try to save the day.

Once Marduk arrives, he's so majestic and terrifying with the powers of all the gods on his side that Tiamat's army is overwhelmed and doesn't want to fight him, and even Kingu is intimidated and unsure of how to proceed; only Tiamat is not afraid of Marduk. He accuses her of being a terrible mother who has married Kingu when he doesn't deserve it and is plotting against her children, and they close in single combat while the rest of the army scatters. Eventually Marduk wins by pouring all the winds of the world into Tiamat's open mouth so that she splits open, and then cutting out her heart; once he has done so, he captures the rest of the army and takes them prisoner, and takes the Tablet of Destinies from Kingu in order to further legitimize his own rule.

He then creates the rest of the world out of the pieces of Tiamat's body; half of her body fashions the heavens, while the other half makes up the earth. Her blood is converted into rain, her skull into earth, her breasts into mountains (punctured so that their milk runs out as rivers), her vulva into the support for the sky, her tail into the Milky Way, and both of her eyes are punctured to become the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Marduk goes home to become the uncontested king of the gods, and humanity is eventually invented by the mother goddess Ninhursag/Nintu to populate the newly created world.

A stone stele of the Mesopotamian king of the gods, Marduk

I got this sweet crown and all I had to do was explode my great-great-great-grandmother!

So that's the general tale, one full of heartbreak and patricide and people making terrible decisions. Scholars have long pointed out that it probably influenced a lot of other nearby mythologies - I already mentioned the analogue with Geb and Nut above, and the pattern of sons superseding their fathers' rule followed by their mothers' violent reaction is one that appears even more violently in Greek mythology. But as mentioned above, there are a lot of changes depending on which period of the empire you're in and who's in charge!

For example, the Sumerian version of the myth, the earliest one, does not contain the whole war between the gods and their parents. It describes Nammu, a primordial deity of the waters, who gives birth alone to Anu and Ki, who then create the gods. Nammu doesn't appear in Assyrian and Babylonian versions of the myth, since she's been completely replaced by Tiamat, but has a cameo in Akkadian mythology as the being called upon by Enki to create humankind.

The Akkadian version of the story adds Tiamat and Apsu as the original creators and sets in place the chain of descent from them to Lahmu and Lahamu, then to Anshar and Kishar, then to Anu and Ki, and introduces the story of the conflict between the gods and their progenitors, though the main actors are Enlil and Ea (Enki).

The Assyrians brought their personal favorite god, Assur/Ashur, a solar god who was the one they considered to have fought and defeated Tiamat, a story that persisted in Assyrian-dominated areas of the empire until the rise of Babylon (Ashur was identified with Anshar, Anu's father, in some areas due to the similar names and also because it made him even more important if you put him so high in the genealogy!).

And, finally, the Babylonian emperor Hammurabi who rolled in around the eighteenth century BCE was a personal devotee of Marduk, and he instigated an empire-wide initiative to rewrite a new national version of the creation story, this time with Marduk as defeater of Tiamat and supreme ruler over all the gods.

This is interesting in Hero's Journey, of course - there are multiple sects within the Mesopotamian religion, and while Marduk as the main dude is probably the most common and visible one, there are probably splinter sects that continue to consider Enki or Ashur or various other deities and stories the important ones and relegate Marduk to side importance. Just as there are huge numbers of splinter sects in modern world religions today, there is probably a wealth of hotly debated difference between different Mesopotamian denominations!

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