Cosmogony and cosmology
Thorkild Jacobsen: Professor of Assyriology,
Harvard University, 1962-74. Author of The Sumerian Kinglist; “Mesopotamia”
in The Intellectual History of Ancient Man
Though the “Eridu Genesis” may have come close to treating existence as a whole, a true cosmogonic and cosmological myth that deals centrally with the origins, structuring, and functional principles of the cosmos does not actually appear until Old Babylonian times, when Mesopotamian culture was entering a millennium and a half of doubts about the moral character of world government and even of divine power itself. Yet, the statement is a positive one, almost to the point of defiance. Enuma elish tells of a beginning when all was a watery chaos and only the sea, Tiamat, and the sweet waters under ground, Apsu, mingled their waters together. Mummu, the personified original watery form, served as Apsu’s page. In their midst the gods were born. The first pair, Lahmu and Lahamu, represented the powers in silt; the next, Anshar and Kishar, those in the horizon. They engendered the god of heaven, Anu, and he in turn the god of the flowing sweet waters, Ea.
This tradition is known in a more complete form from an ancient list of gods called An: Anum. There, after a different beginning, Lahmu and Lahamu give rise to Duri and Dari, “the time-cycle”; and these in turn give rise to Enshar and Ninshar, “Lord and Lady Circle.” Enshar and Ninshar engender the concrete circle of the horizon, Anshar and Kishar, probably conceived as silt deposited along the edge of the universe. Next was the horizon of the greater heaven and earth, and then–omitting an intrusive line–heaven and earth, probably conceived as two juxtaposed flat disks formed from silt deposited inward from the horizons.
Enuma elish truncates these materials and violates their inner logic considerably. Though they are clearly cosmogonic and assume that the cosmic elements and the powers informing them come into being together, Enuma elish seeks to utilize them for a pure theogony (account of the origin of the gods). The creation of the actual cosmos is dealt with much later. Also, the introduction of Mummu, the personified “original form,” which in the circumstances can only be that of water, may have led to the omission of Ki, “Earth,” who–as nonwatery–did not fit in.
The gods, who in Enuma elish come into being within Apsu and Tiamat, are viewed as dynamic creatures, who contrast strikingly with the older generation. Apsu and Tiamat stand for inertia and rest. This contrast leads to a series of conflicts in which first Apsu is killed by Ea; then Tiamat, who was roused later to attack the gods, is killed by Ea’s son Marduk. It is Marduk, the hero of the story, who creates the extant universe out of the body of Tiamat. He cuts her, like a dried fish, in two, making one-half of her into heaven–appointing there Sun, Moon, and stars to execute their prescribed motions–and the other half into the Earth. He pierces her eyes to let the Tigris and Euphrates flow forth, and then, heaping mountains on her body in the east, he makes the various tributaries of the Tigris flow out from her breasts. The remainder of the story deals with Marduk’s organization of the cosmos, his creation of man, and his assigning to the gods their various cosmic offices and tasks. The cosmos is viewed as structured as, and functioning as, a benevolent absolute monarchy.
Man: his origin, nature, and destiny
Two different notions about man’s origin seem to have been current in ancient Mesopotamian religions. Brief mentions in Sumerian texts indicate that the first men grew from the earth in the manner of grass and herbs. One of these texts, the “Myth of the Creation of the Hoe,” adds a few details: Enlil removed heaven from earth in order to make room for seeds to come up, and after he had created the hoe he used it to break the hard crust of earth in Uzumua (“the flesh-grower”), a place in the Temple of Inanna in Nippur. Here, out of the hole made by Enlil’s hoe, man grew forth.
The other notion presented the view that man was created from select “ingredients” by Enki, or by Enki and his mother Nammu, or by Enki and the birth goddess called variously Ninhursag, Nintur, and Ninmah. In the myth of “Enki and Ninmah” recounted above, Enki had man sired by the “engendering clay of the Apsu”–i.e., of the waters underground–and borne by Nammu. The Akkadian tradition, as represented by the “Myth of Atrahasis,” had Enki advise that a god–presumably a rebel–be killed and that the birth goddess Nintur mix his flesh and blood with clay. This was done, after which 14 womb goddesses gestated the mixture and gave birth to 7 human pairs. A similar–probably derived–form of this motif is found in Enuma elish, in which Enki (Ea) alone fashioned man out of the blood of the slain rebel leader Kingu. The creation of man from the blood shed by two slain gods is yet another version of the motif that appears in a bilingual myth from Ashur.
Man’s nature, then, is part clay (earthly) and part god (divine). The divine aspect, however, is not that of a living god but rather that of a slain, powerless divinity. The Atrahasis story relates that the etemmu (ghost) of the slain god was left in man’s flesh and thus became part of man. It is this originally divine part of man, his etemmu, that was believed to survive at his death and to give him a shadowy afterlife in the netherworld. No other trace of a notion of divine essence in man is discernible; in fact, man by himself was viewed as being utterly powerless to act effectively or to succeed in anything. For anything he might wish to do or achieve, man needed the help of a personal god or goddess, some deity in the pantheon who for one reason or other had taken an interest in him and helped and protected him, for “Without his personal god a man eats not.”
About man’s destiny all sources agree. However man may have come into being, he was meant to toil in order to provide food, clothing, housing, and service for the gods, so that they, relieved of all manual labor, could live the life of a governing upper class, a landed nobility. In the scheme of existence man was thus never an end, always just a means.