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.”
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.
Ninurta takes back the TOD, and returns to the gods. They shower him with glory and honor and titles, as per tradition.
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.
As always, this post brought you by Myths From Mesopotamia, translated and edited by Stephanie Dalley.