Myth Monday: And I Was Crying and I Was in The Bath

Last week on Myth Monday, we looked at a couple of Mesopotamian myths featuring guys trying to unlock the secrets of life (as you do).

Today, I’m going to summarize a myth about a guy called Anzu who has many ambitious life goals like “terrorize the countryside” and “take over the world with my magical tablets.”

Anzu

Once upon a time, the scariest and most beautiful monster was born. The gods heard about it, took a look at him, and concluded that only “holy water” and “broad earth” could have spawned such a creature. They give him a job, even though Anzu (the creature) doesn’t have any references or even a resume. He was obviously spawned just for them!

So Anzu takes a look around and realizes the gods have it going on really good, and the key to their power seems to be this magic Tablet of Destiny (referred to as the TOD from here on out). Like any ambitious young monster, Anzu hatches some plots, and one day, while his boss Ellil is having a bath and has put down all of his weapons, Anzu steals the TOD.

Suddenly, all of the light went out of Ellil’s bath-room and he was peeved. So the gods all flip out, and Anu, their leader, summons three separate warriors: Anu’s son Adad, Anunitu’s son Gerra, and Ishtar’s son Shara. They ask each of them to hunt down Anzu, kill him, and retrieve the TOD.

All three of these warriors, who are also the children of gods, say the equivalent of, “Thanks but no thanks, dad. Have you SEEN Anzu’s teeth? Also, he has the TOD now so he can turn anyone he wants into clay!”

[I’m not sure why you would make a tablet that had the ability to turn people into clay. That’s just begging for someone to steal it while you’re bathing.]

So the gods have to think for a moment. Ea decides that the only remaining option is to ask for Belet-ili’s help. Ea asks her to send her “favorite” warrior, Ninurta, after Anzu.After some high-quality flattery, Belet-ili agrees. Ninurta is also the son of Ellil, the guy who took a bath and deeply regretted it.

Okay so now they have a plan! Belet-ili gives Ninurta his marching orders, which are very long and dramatic, but essentially come down to: “Get your army together, scare the crap out of Anzu, and then cut his throat!”

Ninurta’s response isn’t recorded, but I’m guessing it was something like: “….K.”

He summons seven evil winds (because Ninurta is a badass and apparently makes friends with evil winds), gets his army, and goes after Anzu.

The two armies meet up on the mountain Anzu is using as his base, and there’s the usual trash-talking, army-clashing, blood-bathing conflict one might expect.

Ninurta tries to shoot Anzu, to no avail because Anzu uses the TOD to deflect everything shot at him. Rude! After many efforts, and some advice to the gods (which is basically, “….don’t give up, Ninurta! Shoot him again! Cut his wings off! DO IT!”) Ninurta succeeds at last in cutting up Anzu’s wings with his arrows and then shooting Anzu through the heart.

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Anzu on the left, the warrior Ninurta on the right with his thunderbolts. Source

Ninurta takes back the TOD, and returns to the gods. They shower him with glory and honor and titles, as per tradition.

Notes

We haven’t seen Belet-ili in a while, but you may remember her in Atrahasis , when the gods also had to beg her for help. She’s kind of a big deal: goddess of wombs and creation, mistress of the gods, etc etc.

Ellil is also in Atrahasis: he’s the god who is determined to destroy mankind in a flood and gets pissy when Ea helps Atrahasis survive.

There are a lot of sets of three in this myth. The gods ask three separate guys (before Ninurta) to kill Anzu, with the same wording in the requests and the same wording in the denial. Ninurta tries to kill Anzu three times, and is repelled by the TOD three times.

This myth, like the other Mesopotamian myths I’ve looked at, and like many old myths of other old cultures, started out being told orally, and were only written down when someone had the time/education/inspiration, and/or when the myth was canonized. Dalley points out that various small parts of this myth are repeated word for word in other myths: all of the storytellers had a sort of “grab bag” of phrases or interludes, and could mix and match them depending on what they needed from the story.

If this myth has a moral, it’s probably Don’t Steal From The Gods; or maybe Be Grateful To Be A Bath Attendant. Anzu has the fatal flaw of hubris: he wants to control everything, even the gods.  But Ninurta isn’t shown to be a particularly bad or good guy: he obeys Belet-ili, but he is promised many honors and prizes if he succeeds, so I don’t know how pious his obedience is. He returns the world to the status quo, and keeps the gods in power.

Source

As always, this post brought you by Myths From Mesopotamia, translated and edited by Stephanie Dalley.

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Myth Monday: I Don’t Wanna Live Forever

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.

“Adapa”

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Source 

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.

“Etana”

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.

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Source

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 END

Notes

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.

Source

As always, my information about the myths is taken from Myths From Mesopotamia, translated and edited by Stephanie Dalley.

Myth Monday: How to Offend the Queen of the Underworld in 3 Easy Steps

Two weeks ago on Myth Monday, we covered “The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld.”

This week, we’re revisiting the Mesopotamian underworld and its queen Ereshkigal in the story of “Nergal and Ereshkigal.”

Ereshkigal, being queen of the underworld, can’t leave her kingdom. Why? Not sure but I’m guessing that if she does, she’ll unleash the zombie apocalypse. So when the gods are partying and feasting, they send proxies instead so that Ereshkigal can feel included. They send this guy Kakka to Ereshkigal with a message: “Hey sis, thinking of you, xoxo, your brother Anu.” Ereshkigal sends her vizier Namtar to take part in the feast instead.

However, when Namtar gets there, he isn’t shown proper respect by this one guy Nergal. So, of course, because they’re all reasonable all-powerful gods, Anu punishes him by sending Nergal to the underworld (to make amends, possibly? Or just to die a horrible death by zombie. UNCLEAR). The gods give Nergal advice to help him survive (the usual, “don’t eat or drink or smell or cuddle ANYTHING YOU SEE” advice when one is traveling to Hell/Faerie/Underworld), and a chair which will ensure his ability to come back to the world of the living. I’ve always wanted a chair that can take me to the underworld and back again.

So Nergal gets down there, and obeys all of the rules very faithfully, until Ereshkigal puts on a MIGHTY FINE DRESS and takes a MIGHTY FINE BATH and then Nergal is like “one little cuddle couldn’t hurt, right?” And then they cuddle strenuously for six days.

Of course, on the seventh day, Nergal is like, “I’m taking my chair and getting out of here” and goes back to the land of the living.

Ereshkigal wakes up and is Displeased and utters the same curse that our girl Ishtar did in “The Descent of Ishtar”: Send my boyfriend back or “I shall raise up the dead, and they will eat the livivng. I shall make the dead outnumber the living!”

You know, normal break-up threats.

She then sends Namtar (her vizier, if you’ve forgotten, I know I did!) to get Nergal back. Namtar tells the gods that they better just send Nergal back or they’re going to have a zombie apocalypse on their hands.

Nergal, whether willingly or under orders (I can’t tell), goes back. However, this time instead of being let in through the seven gates of the underworld, he breaks them down like an invader. He goes into Ereshkigal’s throne room, marches right up to her, and throws her off of her throne.

And then they cuddle strenuously for another six days.

Nergal and Ereshkigal rule the underworld together after that, and live happily (?) ever after.

The End

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Source

There are a lot of repetitive journeys through the seven gates leading into the underworld, by Kakka the envoy, Namtar the vizier, and Nergal. It’s apparently a bit of a process to get there. There are also some echoes and repetitions  from the Ishtar story we looked at a couple of weeks ago, including the “I will make the dead outnumber the living” speech, as I mentioned above.

It reminds me of the story of Persephone and Hades, if Demeter got Persephone back only to send her again into the Underworld in order to assassinate Hades (write me that fic). It’s interesting to see a “gender-swapped” version of the more famous Persephone/Hades story, even though Ereshkigal is much older than the Greek story. One of the big differences, of course, is that  Nergal isn’t kidnapped by Ereshkigal, he is sent to her as a punishment. Ereshkigal does fall in love with him (like Hades with Persephone) and decides she’s going to have him even if the gods don’t like it (like Hades) or if she has to ruin the land of the living to accomplish it. In Ereshkigal’s case, she threatens the land above with zombies, whereas Hades’ mere act in taking Persephone ruins the growth of plants and trees.

Or maybe this story is basically Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

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Ereshkigal and Nergal, probably.

 

My source for this myth is, once again, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgameth, and Others, translated and edited by Stephanie Dalley.

Myth Monday: Underworld Adventures

Last week on Myth Monday: Reviews of some myth collections 

I’m still reading through Myths From Mesopotamia (edited and translated by Stephanie Dalley). If we’re (un)lucky I’ll focus some future posts on Gilgamesh, but honestly so much has been written about Gilgamesh, and there’s so much I could say about Gilgamesh, that I don’t know where to start.

Anyway, today on Myth Monday we’re going to go to the underworld with Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, love, war, sex, etc etc etc. I guess she’s a big deal. Buckle in, because this story is wild.

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Ishtar could get it. Source

“The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld” is a short Babylonian/Assyrian myth, but there’s a Sumerian version too. For reasons that are not clear in the myth (but of course hotly contested among scholars), Ishtar decides she’s really got to go down to the underworld. Maybe she’s just sight-seeing. Maybe she’s trying to rescue someone. Maybe she’s got the hots for the queen of the underworld. In any case, she goes down there and bullies the gatekeeper into letting her come in: if he doesn’t open the door, she will huff and puff and blow his door down (that’s probably a metaphor). She also threatens to animate the dead and turn them into zombies and send them out into the land of the living. I’m not sure if she’s qualified to be lady of the zombies, but the gatekeeper is scared enough that he asks the queen of the underworld, Ereshkigal, to let Ishtar in.

Ereshkigal agrees, but is not in the best of moods (I probably wouldn’t be either if a sex-goddess threatened to break my doors down and turn my dead minions into zombies).

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Queen of the Night,” who may be Ishtar, Ereshkigal, or someone else.

Ishtar has to give up her worldly possessions one by one as she progresses through the seven doors of the underworld, and at last meets up with Ereshkigal.

Meanwhile, in the land of the living, nobody wants to have sex anymore because their sex goddess is gone. The gods are pretty unhappy with the inactive love lives of the entire land, so they send “Good-looks the playboy” (according to my translation) to, ahem, ask Ereshkigal very nicely to return Ishtar. Ereshkigal curses Good-looks, I presume because she’s not impressed with his good looks, but returns Ishtar anyway. However, the queen takes as ransom Dumuzi, Ishtar’s lover. Ishtar doesn’t seem upset about this (she probably has like 9,000 lovers after all) but Dumuzi’s sister Belili* is extremely upset.

The End.

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Ishtar’s lion on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon

* I’m really confused about who Belili is and how she figures into all of this. In some versions she is Dumuzi’s sister and his lover. Yikes.

I can’t help comparing this myth to the Greek underworld and Persephone. When Persephone is kidnapped by Hades (or seduced, depending on the version), no plants will grow in the land of the living while she is in the underworld. In both of these myths, the absence of the goddess results in the stagnation or lack of reproduction, whether plants or mammals. Both goddesses represent life in some way, and are needed to keep life alive (so to speak).

Coming up on Myth Mondays: another Mesopotamian myth featuring Ereshkigal, Percy Jackson, and more!

Myth Monday: I Like Big Boats and I Cannot Lie

So I’ve been reading Mesopotamian myths, like you do, and this week I read Atrahasis I, II, and III, a very old story about a flood sent by the gods to destroy humanity.

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One of the clay tablets that records Atrahasis. It looks super fun to translate. Source

Quick Context:

So Atrahasis is old. Really old. The clay tablets it is inscribed on are dated around 1700 BC,  during the reign of Amm-saduqa of Babylon, and the author is Ipiq-Aya, writing during that same time (Dalley 3). It’s written in Akkadian, the language of oooooooooooold Babylon.

For comparison, the oldest copies of the Bible are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were copied around 408 BC to 318 AD. The oldest pieces of writing ever found are from 3200 BC, also in Mesopotamia (ancient Sumer).

Fun Flood Fact: Atrahasis is also sometimes called Uta-na’ishtim, which, when abbreviated may have been pronounced as “Noah” (Dalley 2).Prometheus may also have originated from Greek translations of Atrahasis. Prometheus and Atrahasis both helped humanity survive in spite of the gods’ wishes. Noah was chosen by God to help humanity survive.

A Quick Guide to Mesopotamian Gods:

I’m really unfamiliar with this pantheon, and it’s really frustrating because I’m used to Greek/Roman and knowing everyone’s many, many names. Below is a list of the most significant gods in this myth. I also found this handy master-list online if you’d like to know more.

Enlil/Ellil: a warrior god; in this story he’s kind of a genocidal brat.

An/Anu: one of the oldest gods; sometimes the father of the gods like Zeus, in this story he’s one of the decision-makers.

Enki/Ea: god of wisdom/magic and lives under the ocean like a normal person; in this story, he’s very much on the side of humanity.

Belet-ili/Mami/Nintu: goddess of wombs; in this story she’s a pretty big deal and basically performs human transmutation by murdering another god.

Ishtar: goddess of marriage;  in this story she comes up whenever the gods are putting limits on humanity.

A Concise and Irreverent Summary of Atrahasis:

Once upon a time, the gods had to do all the work and decided they were sick of it. So they did a group brainstorm and decided to create someone else that could do the work for them. Of course, the only one who can do that kind of creation nonsense is the “womb-goddess” Belet-ili/Mami/Nintu, and the only way she can do it is by using the body of a god. Slaughtering one of their own doesn’t slow the gods down, though. RIP Ilawela, we don’t know if you volunteered or not. Then Mother Mad Scientist mixes Ilawela’s flesh and blood with earth and, voila! Humans!

But then they have all of these humans, who are immortal because the gods didn’t think this through, and the humans do all the work, but they also keep having babies and not dying and all those little humans are so noisy. So the gods brainstorm together again because they can’t hear themselves think. They decide to send plagues to take down the noise level a notch or three.

This is where our boy Atrahasis comes in. He is pretty tight with one of the main gods, Enki. Between the two of them, they figure out a proper offering to give the gods to butter them up so they’ll stop sending plagues. Here is where the story falls into a bit of a pattern where the gods try to wipe out mankind every once in a while because they’re so noisy, using a variety of plagues, floods, and famines, and every time Atrahasis figures out an offering to appease them.

Finally the gods’ think-group comes up the next great hit: The Flood. The gods decide to send a massive flood to reduce the population. They try to bring Enki in on the plan, but he loses his chill and is like, wow, if you guys want to flood mankind out of existence, do it yourself (even though he’s the one who keeps the ocean locked up). Enki sends a dream to Atrahasis so that Atrahasis has a compelling urge to dismantle his own house and build a boat out of it. Totally normal dream-compelled behavior. So Atrahasis and whoever goes with him manage to survive, but everyone else is wiped out. Nintu (Mami/Belet-ili) regrets all of her decisions and mourns humanity, because they are her child made out of dead god-bits, after all, but Ellil spots Atrahasis’ boat and loses his mind.

ELLIL: “WHAT DOST MINE EYES SEE BELOW ME? A BOAT? THERE IS ONLY ONE OF US WHO WOULD DARE”

ENKI: “Yep I did it, it was me, come at me bro.”

Instead of beating up Enki, though, the gods’ think-group comes up with various population controls, such as risky childbirth, plague, and shortened lifespans, and humanity gets to live happily ever after. Sort of.

The End

I’m told that the “story of the Flood was one of the most popular tales of ancient times” (Dalley 1). The editor of the Mesopotomian myth book I’m reading says that all of the many flood stories that exist might have started because various people (or just one person who spread it around) noticed all of the fossils of sea animals that were way above the waterline (Dalley 7).I’m going to throw out the crazy idea that the reason it was so popular was because everyone had been telling the story for generations because at least some aspect of it was true. I definitely subscribe to Tolkien’s view of true myths:

 …just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.

You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.”

References:

Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Mariner Books, 2000.

Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford World Classics, 2008.