A bas-relief thought to be of Marduk and Tiamat from a temple at Nimrud dates the legend to at least the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE)

Enuma Elish – Creation of the World and of Mankind

Enuma Elish

Enûma Eliš (also transliterated Enuma Elish) also known as The Seven Tablets of Creation is a Babylonian or Mesopotamian epic poem describing the beginnings of the cosmos, the birth of the gods, the rise to dominance of the god Marduk, and the creation of humanity. It can help us better understand the ancient Babylonian worldview, as well as how other ancient Near Eastern peoples used the ideas seen in this text.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, archaeologists were digging in the library of King Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.) in the ancient city of Nineveh. They discovered thousands of clay tablets written in a language that came to be known as Akkadian (a distant and much older cousin to Hebrew).

These tablets contained things like laws, administrative matters, and literature. It was like unearthing a time capsule to see what life was like in the ancient Near East 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. But it was the religious texts found there that got the most attention. One of those texts bore striking similarities to Genesis 1. How people viewed Genesis would never be the same again.

The Enuma Elish

The Enuma Elish Tablet
Babylonian clay tablet written in Akkadian, containing the oldest known cooking recipes. The tablet includes 25 recipes for stews, 21 meat stews and 4 vegetable stews. ca. 1750 BC.

The name ‘Enuma Elish’ comes from the first two words of the poem, meaning ‘when on high’ or ‘when in the heights.’ The Enuma Elish comes from Babylon, and the best text we have is written in the Akkadian language, using cuneiform script, on seven tablets. The poem was read as part of the ritual for the Akitu festival, which marked the Babylonian new year.

Enûma Elish has about a thousand lines and was recorded in Akkadian on seven clay tablets. This epic is one of the most important sources for understanding the Babylonian worldview, centred on the supremacy of the god Marduk and the creation of humankind as the servants of the gods. One of its primary purposes seems to be the elevation of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, above other older Mesopotamian deities.

The story of Enuma Elish has two basic parts. The first involves a cosmogony, the beginning of the universe, and a theogony, the birth of the gods. The second part of the epic tells of the battle between the god Marduk and the chaos-dragon Tiamat and how Marduk became the king of the gods.

The work ends with the construction of a city for Marduk, Babylon, and a temple for him, called Esagilla, in the city. Finally, Marduk is enthroned as chief god. Scholars have termed Enuma Elish the “Babylonian Genesis.” The reason is that both stories share some concepts that were immediately apparent.

  • In both stories, matter exists when creation begins. Similar to Enuma Elish, Genesis 1 describes God ordering chaos, not creating something out of nothing.
  • Darkness precedes the creative acts.
  • In Enuma Elish, the symbol of chaos is the goddess Tiamat who personifies the sea. Genesis refers to the “deep.” The Hebrew word is tehom, which is linguistically related to Tiamat.
  • In both stories, light exists before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.
  • In both stories, there is a division of the waters above and below, with a barrier holding back the upper waters.
  • The sequence of creation is similar, including the division of waters, dry land, luminaries, and humanity, all followed by rest.
Cuneiform Clay Tablets
Cuneiform Clay Tablets

In contrast to Sumerian mythology, which attributes the beginnings of the creation of the cosmos to two essential elements, heaven and earth, from which the gods and the human race both sprang, the Enuma Elish myth places the origins of the cosmos before heaven and earth in far-off time.

Only primaeval waters existed: saltwater, called Tiamat, and sweet water, called Apsu, the first living things in the cosmos. Given the prominent part played by saltwater (Tiamat) in the Enuma Elish story, some have concluded that this myth must be non-Mesopotamian in origin, maybe Syrian or at least Semitic (Jacobsen, 1976, pp. 165–187; Durand, 1993, pp. 41–61).

This theory is somewhat puzzling because the main god of the myth, Marduk, does not have the qualities of Adad, the main god of the Semitic-Occidental tale, who also appears in a different story in Assyro-Babylonian mythology. The myth is taken from seven tablets and closes with the words of the “Hymn of Marduk” (VI.161). The hymn was certainly recited if not actually sung, as recorded in the ritual for the festival of the New Year at the temple Akitu

Enuma Elish – Creation of the World and of Mankind
Clay Cuneiform tablet: hymn to Marduk, Neo-Babylonian 1st millennium B.C., Mesopotamia

The festival record also notes the day on which the priest carried out the rite, the fourth day of the eleven set aside for the entire festival, which was celebrated in the month of Nisan.

Many scholars see connections between Enuma Elish and the creation story of Genesis 1, as well as the ancient Greek writer Hesiod’s account of the early battles of the Olympian gods and Titans, and Canaanite mythology explaining the supremacy of Baal over other older gods. The Genesis parallel, however, is notable for its difference, as stately creation by the word replaces the motif of creation out of conflict.

The Maori make the same point when they state that the world parents emerge out of PO. Po for the Maori means the basic matter and the method by which creation comes about. There is thus some form of reality before the appearance of the world parents.

Even though the world parents are depicted and described as in sexual embrace, no activity is taking place. They appear as quiescent and inert. The chthonic (underworld) structure of the earth as latent potentiality tends to dominate the union. The parents are often unaware that they have offspring, and thus a kind of indifference regarding the union is expressed.

The union of male and female in a sexual embrace is another symbol of completeness and totality. As in the African myth from the Dogon referred to above, sexual union is a sign of androgyny (being both male and female) and androgyny, in turn, a sign of perfection.

The indifference of the world parents is thus not simply a sign of ignorance but equally of the silence of perfection. The world parents in the Babylonian and Maori myths do not wish to be disturbed by their offspring. As over against the parents, the offspring are signs of actuality, fragmentation, specificity; they define concrete realities.

The separation of the world parents is again a rupture within the myth. This separation is caused by offspring who wish either to have more space or to have light, for they are situated between the bodies of the parents.  In some myths the separation is caused by a woman who lifts her pestle so high in grinding grain that it strikes the sky, causing the sky to recede into the background, thus providing room for human activities.

In both cases, an antagonistic motive must be attributed to the agents of separation. In the Babylonian and Maori versions of this myth, actual warfare takes place as a result of the separation.

In the Dogon myth referred to above, the creation deity begins the act of creation by placing two embryonic sets of twins in an egg. In each set of twins is a male and female; during the maturation process, they are together thus forming androgynous beings. In a Tahitian myth, the creator deity himself lives alone in a shell. After breaking out of the shell, he creates his counterpart, and together they undertake the work of creation

Enuma Elish: Creation Tablets
Enuma Elish: Creation Tablets

Enuma Elish: Summary of the Story

The story, one of the oldest, if not the oldest in the world, concerns the birth of the gods and the creation of the universe and human beings. In the beginning, there was only undifferentiated water swirling in chaos. Out of this swirl, the waters divided into sweet, freshwater, known as the god Apsu, and salty bitter water, the goddess Tiamat. Once differentiated, the union of these two entities gave birth to the younger gods.

The document opens with a description of the situation in the beginning when Apsu and Tiamat exist and mix their waters, from which emerges the first pair of primaeval divinities, Lahmu and Lahama. In turn, Lahmu and Lahama produce Anshar and Kishar, from whom comes Anu, who produces Nudimmud, otherwise known as Ea, the god of wisdom (I.1–20).

The new generation of gods make too much noise and disturb Apsu’s sleep. Apsu becomes angry and wants to punish the young gods, but their mother Tiamat disagrees. The young gods, however, give no indication of being sorry, so Apsu urged on by his herald Mummu, plans to destroy the troublemakers.

The young gods hear of these plans, and Ea decides to protect the new generation from Apsu’s attack. Ea uses his magic to send Apsu to sleep and kills him (I.21–70). In this way Ea takes over the home of Apsu and settles in there with his consort, producing the hero of the myth, Marduk. Even at birth Marduk already demonstrates a physical strength that makes him superior to all the other gods (I.71–109).

In the meantime, Tiamat, even more, upset by the noise of the young gods, seeks the help of the other primaeval gods to put an end to the continuing disturbance. With the help of Æubur, who produces enormous dragons, she creates eleven giant, frightening monsters, and she engages in battle against her sons.

Tiamat makes Kingu leader of her forces for the purpose, and she also marries him and entrusts him with the tablets of destiny. This news reaches of Ea, who informs the assembly of the gods (I.101–II.70). Anshar, to whom Ea has turned, first rebukes him for killing Apsu and then sends the god of wisdom to Tiamat to calm her and thus forestall the catastrophe. Ea goes to Tiamat, who is enraged and refuses to accept his apologies, so the divine messenger returns empty-handed. Anshar tries again, sending his son Anu, who returns with the same result as Ea.

A mood of dejection sets in throughout the divine world. As ever, Ea proposes the perfect solution—to call for Marduk’s help. Marduk is warned in advance by his father and goes to Anshar to volunteer his services on condition that the gods grant him supreme power among the gods if he is victorious (II.71–162).

The gods hold an assembly and agree to grant Marduk the power he has requested so he can confront the hostile army straightaway (III.1–IV.34). Marduk dons his fighting gear and creates new weapons, including a spell to counteract Tiamat’s poison. There is a titanic struggle, but Marduk’s arrow strikes Tiamat’s heart. She collapses to the ground while her army is captured (IV.35–128).

Marduk now begins his work of creation. He cuts Tiamat’s body in two. With the upper part of her body, he forms the heavens with all the established points, the year and the month, the sun and the moon. With the lower part, he creates the earth with its mountains and rivers.

Marduk and Tiamat (Enuma Elish: The Epic of Creation)
A bas-relief thought to be of Marduk and Tiamat from a temple at Nimrud dates the legend to at least the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE)

Marduk receives praise and honour from all the gods. He then decides to create a suitable sanctuary for himself, which is called Babylon (IV.129–V.156). Marduk continues his work of creation, making the human race from the blood of Kingu, giving it the task of labour, and he reorganizes the pantheon into greater and lesser gods, who all sing a hymn to his glory in Babylon (VI.1–120). The poem ends with a litany of fifty names of Marduk and a doxology (VI.121–VII.162).

Directly linked to this, at least in terms of ideas, is an incantation that contains in its opening passage the story of the creation of an account of the way the earth was arranged. The god responsible for this creative process is Marduk, who has replaced the cosmic trio of Anu, Enlil, and Ea, upon whom this high honour and task is normally bestowed.

This text is a forerunner of the great religious revolution by which the Babylonian priests placed their god at the head of the pantheon, a task completed by the creation of the poem Enuma Elish.

The story may be divided into three quite distinct parts. In the first, it is clear that the earth was still untouched and all the lands still seas, so there were no cities or materials to build them, and thus no temples either (obv. ll.1–11). In the second part, Marduk intervenes and begins to separate the waters of the sea and to carry out the work that produces the present world order.

He creates humanity and the animals of Sumukan, along with the entire environment, the flora and fauna, to make the world a pleasant place to visit. He, of course, pays a good deal of attention to Babylon and the Esagila, which the Anunna call “a pure city, home of the heart’s desire” (ll.12–34). In the third part, once the earth has been made habitable, Marduk creates bricks and begins to build the Sumerian cities that had not existed previously along with their temples (ll. 35–39ff.).

The cities concerned are Nippur with the temple Ekur, Uruk with the temple Eanna, Eridu with the temple Apsu, and the sacred cities of Enlil, Inanna, and Enki, the cities of the Sumerian principal gods. The symbiotic relationship between Eridu and Babylon, connected by the Esagila temple, forms the basis for the accession of Marduk to the head of the pantheon, which had once been Sumerian but has become Babylonian.

Marduk as creator

Marduk proceeds to capture the gods who sided with Tiamat and to break their weapons. They “fill the world with their cries of grief.” He then defeats Kingu and takes from him the coveted Tablets of Destiny.

Finally, Marduk then smashes Tiamat’s skull with his club and splits her into a likeness of a huge fish or clam. One half of the titanic body becomes the sky. Then, “he stretched the immensity of the firmament, he made Esharra, the Great Palace, to be its earthly image, and Anu and Enlil and Ea had each their right stations.”

A bas-relief thought to be of Marduk
A bas-relief thought to be of Marduk

Next Marduk creates the Zodiac, heavenly bodies, and the god of the Sun. From the remains of Tiamat’s body, “He skimmed spume from the bitter sea, heaped up the clouds, spindrift of wet and wind and cooling rain, the spittle of Tiamat.”

Marduk’s star was Jupiter, and his sacred animals were horses, dogs, and especially the so-called dragon with forked tongue, representations of which adorn his city’s walls. On the oldest monuments, Marduk is represented holding a triangular spade or hoe, interpreted as an emblem of fertility and vegetation. He is also pictured walking or in his war chariot. Typically, his tunic is adorned with stars; in his hand is a sceptre, and he carries a bow, spear, net, or thunderbolt. Kings of Assyria and Persia also honoured Marduk and Zarpanitu in inscriptions and rebuilt many of their temples.

With his own hands from the steaming mist, he spread the clouds. He pressed hard down the head of water, heaping mountains over it, opening springs to flow: Euphrates and Tigris rose from her eyes, but he closed the nostrils and held back their springhead. He piled huge mountains on her paps and through them drove water-holes to channel the deep sources; and high overhead he arched her tail, locked-in to the wheel of heaven; the pit was under his feet, between was the crotch, the sky’s fulcrum. Now the earth had foundations and the sky its mantle.

Finishing this great work of creation, Marduk turned toward the making of temples. The gods rejoice at Marduk’s wonderful work and fall prostrate at his feet in worship. Even his parents, Ea and Damkina declare: “In time past Marduk meant only ‘the beloved son’ but now he is king indeed, this is so!”

Babylon is established as the home of the gods, and Marduk then decides to make humankind as the servants of the gods:

Blood to blood I join,
Blood to the bone I form,
an original thing, its name is MAN,
Aboriginal man is mine in making.

With Ea’s advice, a great assembly is called to decide which one of the gods will be sacrificed to embue mankind with life. The rebellious faction agrees that it should be Kingu, the one who stirred up their revolt. “They bound and held him down in front of Ea, they cut his arteries and from his blood they created man.”

The myth concludes with a hymn of praise to Marduk.

Creation and sacrifice

In many cosmogonic myths, the narrative relates the story of the sacrifice and dismemberment of a primordial being. The world is then established from the body of this being. In the myth Enuma Elish, the god Marduk, after defeating Tiamat, the primaeval mother, divides the body into two parts, one part forming the heavens, the other, the earth. In a West African myth, one of the twins from the cosmic egg must be sacrificed to bring about a habitable world. In the Norse Prose Edda, the cosmos is formed from the body of the dismembered great Ymir, and, in the Rigveda, the oldest Indian text, the cosmos is a result of the primordial sacrifice of a man, the Purusha.

In these motifs of sacrifice, something similar to the qualification of the undifferentiated matter of creation is suggested, for, just as the primal stuff of creation must be differentiated before the world appears, the sacrifice of primordial beings is a destruction of the primal totality for the sake of specific creation.

When the victim of the sacrifice is a primal monster, the emphasis is on the stabilization of the creation through the death of the monster. The monster symbolizes the strangeness and awesomeness occurring when new land or space is occupied. The “monster” of the place is the undifferentiated character of the space and must be immobilized before the new space can be established.

In a myth from Ceram (Molucca Islands), a beautiful girl, Hainuwele, has grown up out of a coconut plant. After providing the community with their necessities and luxuries, she is killed and her body cut into several pieces, which are then thrown over the island. From each part of her body, a coconut tree grows. It is only after the death of Hainuwele that human beings become sexual; that is, the murder of Hainuwele enables humankind to have some determination in the process of bringing new life into the world.

Enuma Elish and the Bible

Sculpted reliefs depicting Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, hunting lions, gypsum hall relief from the North Palace of Nineveh (Irak), c. 645-635 BC,
Sculpted reliefs depicting Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, hunting lions, gypsum hall relief from the North Palace of Nineveh (Irak), c. 645-635 BC,

Ever since the first publication of the work’s text, comparisons have been drawn between Enuma Elish and the Bible, particularly the first chapter of Genesis. Attention has been drawn to the parallels between the seven tablets of Enuma Elish and the biblical seven days of creation.

Both stories begin with primaeval water, which in the Bible is called tehom, the Hebrew cognate of Tiamat; the biblical spirit (or wind) of God that hovered over the waters bears some similarity to the winds of Anu that roiled Tiamat. Both stories contain the notion of creative work: the biblical sky divides the waters above from the waters below, as the upper half of Tiamat’s body is divided from her lower half by the sky, and both stories depict in the same way the origin and function of the sun and the moon.

However, the differences between Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish are so vast that there is no reason to talk about mythological similarity or literary dependence. The similarities are evidence only of a shared cosmology, a shared “science” that saw the world as beginning in water and surrounded by it, a concept also found in early Greece.

The importance of Enuma Elish to the study of Genesis 1 is to demonstrate that these concepts were in fact (and were almost certainly perceived to be) common Near Eastern lore rather than data of Israel’s revelation, and that Israel used this lore to convey its own independent message.

The most striking parallels between Enuma Elish and the Bible are not to Genesis but to the scattered poetic passages that allude to the Lord’s defeat of the sea in primordial times. This defeat of the sea is often accompanied by mention of the kingship of God, the creation of the world, and sometimes the creation of the Temple.

These themes present a fundamental biblical cluster of ideas, one that has striking similarities with ideas in Enuma Elish. This does not mean that the motifs have a Babylonian origin. The defeat of the sea, the kingship of the god, and the building of the god’s palace (but not the theme of creation) are also found together in the Ugaritic Baal epic, written circa 1500 BCE and therefore (it is believed) earlier than Enuma Elish.

This cluster is not found in earlier Mesopotamian sources; most probably it was an ancient West Semitic collection of ideas that found expression in Ugaritic literary works and the Bible and that at some point was brought into Mesopotamia.

Scepticism Regarding Creation

The unknowability of creation

Alongside the various myths and doctrines regarding creation, there are equally sceptic positions concerning the unknowability of creation. This critique is present in several religious and philosophical traditions. It may be correlated with the mythical meaning of Deus otiosus, the deity who retires from the world after his creation, or with the mythic theme from some earth-diver myths that emphasize the physical and intellectual fatigue of the deity after creation.

In the first case, the removal of the deity from creation leaves no access to his plan or will; in the other case, because of the fatigue of the deity who has exhausted all of his knowledge in creation, there is thus nothing for human beings to learn from him. In the Indian tradition the Rigveda expresses scepticism in this manner:

He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in the highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

The Buddha declared certain cosmological and metaphysical questions unanswerable. His refusal to answer questions of this kind gave rise to the “silence of the Buddha” as a philosophical style in Buddhism. They included such questions as whether the world is eternal or not or both; whether the world is finite (in space) or infinite or both or neither.

In the Chinese tradition Guo Xiang (died 312 CE) questioned the origin of the basic oscillation of the Daoist movement. For Guo, there is no such thing as Non-Being for Being is the only reality. Being could not have evolved from Non-Being nor can it revert to Non-Being. As Guo Xiang put it,

I venture to ask whether the Creator is or is not? If He is not, how can He create things? If He is, then (being one of these things), He is incapable of creating the mass of bodily forms. . . . The creating of things has no Lord; everything creates itself. Everything produces itself and does not depend on anything else. This is the normal way of the universe.

Scepticism of this same kind is expressed by Parmenides, a Pre-Socratic, and in the modern tradition of Western philosophy from Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernunft (1st ed. 1781; Eng. trans., Critique of Pure Reason, 1929) to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922). Scepticism of this kind about the nature of the cosmic order and especially about the ultimate origin of the universe places limitations on the possibility of the rational consciousness to authentically ask these questions.

In some instances, theologians have agreed and held to a notion of revelation as a response to these unanswerable questions. In other cases, the questions themselves have been labelled nonsensical

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