Mesopotamian Creation Myths

Stories about creation are prominent in many cultures worldwide.

In Mesopotamia, evidence from the third millennium to the end of the first millennium B.C. shows that while many gods were linked to natural forces, no single myth addressed the initial creation.

It was simply assumed that the gods existed before the world’s formation.

Unfortunately, little survives of Sumerian literature from the third millennium B.C. Some fragmentary tablets reference a time before the gods, when only Earth (Sumerian: ki) and Heavens (Sumerian: an) existed.

Everything was dark; there was neither sunlight nor moonlight. However, the earth was green and had water underground, but there was no vegetation. More is known from Sumerian poems dating to the early centuries of the second millennium B.C.

One such Sumerian myth, “Gilgamesh and the Netherworld,” begins with a mythological prologue assuming the existence of the gods and the universe.

It recounts how the heavens and earth were once united and later separated. Humankind was then created, and the great gods divided the responsibilities of managing the heavens, earth, and the Netherworld.

The origins of humans are detailed in another early second-millennium Sumerian poem, “The Song of the Hoe.” In this myth, and many other Sumerian stories, the god Enlil is depicted as the deity who separates the heavens and earth and creates humankind. Humans were formed to serve the gods, a common theme in Mesopotamian literature.

In “The Debate between Grain and Sheep,” the earth initially appeared barren, without grain, sheep, or goats. People were naked, ate grass, and drank water from ditches. Later, the gods created sheep and grain, providing sustenance to humanity. According to “The Debate between Bird and Fish,” water for human consumption did not exist until Enki, lord of wisdom, created the Tigris and Euphrates and caused water to flow into them from the mountains.

He also created smaller streams and watercourses, established sheepfolds, marshes, and reedbeds, and filled them with fish and birds. He founded cities and established kingship and rule over foreign lands. In “The Debate between Winter and Summer,” a Sumerian author explains that summer and winter, abundance, spring floods, and fertility result from Enlil’s copulation with the hills of the earth.

Another early second-millennium Sumerian myth, “Enki and the World Order,” explains why the world appears organized. Enki decided the world needed to be well-managed to avoid chaos, so various gods were assigned responsibilities, including overseeing waters, crops, building activities, wildlife, herding domestic animals, and overseeing the heavens and earth, and the activities of women.

In “Enki and Ninmah,” the lesser gods, burdened with the toil of creating the earth, complained to Namma, the primeval mother, about their hard work. She roused her son Enki, the god of wisdom, urging him to create a substitute to free the gods from their toil. Namma then kneaded clay, placed it in her womb, and gave birth to the first humans.

Babylonian poets, like their Sumerian counterparts, had no single creation myth. Various creation stories were incorporated into other texts. The most prominent Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, is a theological legitimization of Marduk’s rise as the supreme god in Babylon, replacing Enlil.

The poem likely compiled during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I in the late twelfth century B.C., celebrates Babylon’s ascendancy and explains how it succeeded Nippur as the center of religious festivals.

The poem, with 1,091 lines on seven tablets, opens with a theogony set before the creation of the heavens and earth. At that time, the ocean waters, Tiamat, and her husband, the freshwater Apsu, mingled, resulting in the emergence of several gods in pairs.

The gods’ noise prompted Apsu to plan their destruction. Tiamat, more indulgent, urged patience, but Apsu was unmoved. The gods, fearing death, called on Ea, who put Apsu to sleep with a spell, then killed him and captured his vizier. Ea and his wife gave birth to Marduk, the mightiest of gods, who was given control of the four winds. The winds created storms, upsetting Tiamat.

Other gods, disturbed by the hurricane winds, urged Tiamat to battle Marduk. She agreed, creating eleven monsters and appointing Qingu to lead them.

Ea, hearing of the preparations, sought advice from Anshar, king of the junior gods. Anshar urged Ea and then Anu to appease Tiamat with incantations, but both failed. Marduk then volunteered, demanding kingship in return for victory. The gods agreed, and Marduk defeated Tiamat and Qingu.

He used Tiamat’s carcass to create the world, splitting her in half to form the heavens and the earth. He organized the constellations, laid out the calendar, created his own planet, made the moon appear, and established the sun, day, and night. From Tiamat’s body, he created clouds, winds, mists, mountains, and earth.

The myth continues with the gods swearing allegiance to Marduk, creating Babylon, and building his temple, the Esagila. Marduk fulfilled his promise to provide for the junior gods by creating humans from Qingu’s blood to free the gods from labor and provide continuous food and drink offerings to temples.

The gods then celebrated, pronouncing Marduk’s fifty names, each reflecting an aspect of his character and powers. The story concludes with a declaration that the story and its message should be preserved for future generations, instructing the wise and knowledgeable. It also serves as a teaching tool for parents and teachers to ensure the land’s prosperity.

Another Babylonian narrative, “Marduk, Creator of the World,” opens with the sea’s existence before creation. First created are the cities Eridu and Babylon, and the temple Esagil.

The earth is formed by piling dirt on a raft in the primeval waters. This is followed by the creation of humans, wild animals, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, marshlands, vegetation, and domesticated animals.

Palm groves and forests appear next. Before the composition becomes fragmentary and breaks off, Marduk creates Nippur and its temple, the Ekur, and Uruk with its temple Eanna.

“The Creation of Humankind,” a bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian story also known as KAR 4, begins after the separation of heaven and earth and the establishment of features like the Tigris, Euphrates, and canals.

At this time, Enlil asks the gods what should be accomplished next. The answer is to create humans by killing Alla-gods and using their blood. Humans are created to labor for the gods, maintain fields and irrigation works, celebrate rites, and gain wisdom through study.

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