Last week we looked at another Mesopotamian Underworld myth.
This week, we are going to look at two Mesopotamian myths about dudes who try to go to heaven to solve their problems, with mixed results.
Once upon a time there was a guy named Adapa, who was one of the god Ea’s seven sages, and who taught mankind the first religious rites. So he’s kind of a big deal.
One day Adapa was sailing around in his boat and the South Wind was making his life really difficult, so like a normal person he…broke it. He just casually broke the South Wind because it was pissing him off.
Anu, the king of the gods, discovered that his South Wind was broken, finds out Adapa is the culprit, and so summons Adapa to heaven to have a little chat.
Ea, Adapa’s sponsor, is like, “OKAY ADAPA, LISTEN UP, YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN’T HAVE BROKEN THAT WIND but since you’re my sage I’ll give you some advice.” He proceeds to give Adapa a bunch of instructions about what to wear, and how he shouldn’t eat or drink anything offered, because it will kill him.
So Adapa goes up to heaven, and everything happens like Ea predicts. The gods interrogate him about what he did to the South Wind, and Adapa explains that the South Wind was hampering him in his service to Ea, etc etc, and the gods are like “UGH WHY DID EA TEACH THIS GUY SO MUCH STUFF ANYWAY, HE’S A TINY ANNOYING HUMAN.” Then they offer him food, drink, oil, etc, and Adapa rejects it.
However, in an upsetting plot twist, it turns out that the food and drink they offer Adapa would have given him immortality, rather than death. Since he rejects it, they inform him he can’t live forever.
The ending of this story is lost, leaving us a lot of questions like – does Adapa lose his shit and break the rest of the Winds? Did Ea deliberately trick him, or was it a simple misunderstanding? UNCLEAR, FRIENDS, UNCLEAR.
Once upon a time, the gods made a guy named Etana king of Kish.
Meanwhile, an eagle and a snake make a vow to the god Shamash to not eat each other’s children. No seriously, this will all tie together in a second. So the eagle and snake have a great time feeding their kids, finding prey for themselves, and not worrying about their possibly homicidal neighbor, because vows to Shamash are serious.
But then of course one day the eagle is like, “Man, it’s rough feeding all of these kids, and the snake’s babies look so delicious.” So the eagle flies down and takes all of the snake’s babies and eats them.
The snake comes home and is, as you can imagine, extremely upset. He goes to Shamash for help, and Shamash helps him come up with a trap for the eagle involving bull intestines.
The eagle, who has no remorse whatsoever, sees a bunch of birds feeding off of this dead bull and is like, “Man, it’s rough feeding all of these kids, and THOSE BULL GUTS LOOK DELICIOUS.” The eagle flies down to eat the bull, but is trapped in its guts and the snake whips out, grabs the eagle, cuts up its feathers, and throws it into a pit.
The eagle is having a terrible time but no one feels sorry for it because it eats babies.
Meanwhile, Etana is praying to Shamash about how godly and obedient he is, and asks for a son. Shamash tells him to go find the eagle in the pit, who will help Etana find a magic fertility plant of some kind that will solve all of Etana’s problems.
So Etana nurses the eagle back to health, and the eagle searches everywhere for the plant, but can’t find it. But the eagle says, “not to worry, instead of the plant, let’s go to heaven instead! It’s just a short trip and we can solve all of our problems!” So Etana agrees this is reasonable and they fly up. However, Etana is watching the ground completely disappear beneath him and freaks out, so he begs the eagle to take him back down. The eagle agrees.
Some time later, everything is terrible, Etana still doesn’t have a son, so he begs the eagle to try again to take him to heaven. This time, they keep going even though Etana is terrified and they eventually reach heaven. There, Etana finds the magic plant of birth and brings it back to his kingdom.
Etana later has a son to succeed him, named Balih.
The rules Adapa is given about not eating or drinking anything in heaven reminds me of Greek Underworld stories (Persephone and the pomegranate seeds, for example) and Faerie stories. In both of the latter, if you eat Underworld or Fairy food, you’re stuck there forever, and you better be sure about your choice. In Adapa’s case, eating the food of immortality would either make him stuck on earth forever or in heaven forever, it’s unclear, but it’s probably what he would have wanted if he had been more clearly informed about the rules.
The story of the eagle and the serpent reminds me of Aesop’s fables, animal stories that play out some sort of moral lesson. The lesson here is probably “Don’t Break Vows,” but “Don’t Eat Kids” and “Be A Good Neighbor” also apply.
Both of these stories feature guys who are favored by the gods for their service – Adapa is chosen by Ea to be one of his sages and is taught many important things; Etana is chosen by the gods to be king of Kish. In Adapa’s case, he uses all of his knowledge to act against the gods (damaging the South Wind) whereas Etana is being a good kid, sacrificing like he’s supposed to and obeying whatever Shamash (god of the sun and justice) says.
As always, my information about the myths is taken from Myths From Mesopotamia, translated and edited by Stephanie Dalley.