A controversial book by psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, has brought back into vogue the ideas about mythology as embodying universal mental archetypes first put forward by Carl Jung, and promulgated by Joseph Campbell. Now, I don’t want to get into a whole review of Maps of Meaning, except to say that I fundamentally disagree with this approach, and any attempt to meld superficially similar myths from different cultures into what Campbell called a “monomyth”.
If myths are maps of meaning, they are as particular and localised as a real map. It is because myths are attached to a particular place, a particular people, even a particular individual, that they gain their undoubted universal force. If you reduce the myths of different cultures to a “monomyth”, you empty them of meaning. Such a method is simplistic and reductive, and by ignoring the way myth is calibrated to culture, risks misinterpretation.
Peterson—who rather oddly doesn’t seem to have noticed any writers on myth since Campbell and Eliade—devotes 20 pages to an account of the Babylonian creation myth the Enuma elish. His approach is to use this text as a way to reveal the deep forces of the human psyche. He says, for instance, that the generation of gods born from the primal couple Tiamat and Apsu “should therefore be regarded as embodiments of the archaic transpersonal intrapsychic phenomena that give rise to human motivation, as well as those aspects of the objective world that activate those intrapsychic systems.”
Broad assertions like this seem to me almost meaningless. In essence, I think he is looking at the Enuma elish through the wrong end of the telescope, and the best way to understand its relevance to us today is to ask the simple question, What did it mean to the Babylonians?
So here is my attempt to answer that question.
The Babylonians, inheritors of the great cultural legacy of ancient Sumer, were a supremely confident people. This confidence—like that of the Egyptians—was built on an armature of mythology, which was expressed in the architecture of the city, in its customs, and most fully in its elaborate New Year festival, the Akitu, held at the spring equinox.
Both in its mythology and its ritual, the Akitu was fundamentally about legitimising kingship. The Babylonian king held his authority directly from the gods. King Hammurabi claimed to have received the laws enshrined in the Code of Hammurabi directly from the hand of the sun god Shamash. This sense of divine authority has been utilised in recent years by Saddam Hussein, who explicitly compared himself to King Nebuchadnezzar (who ruled Babylon from 605 to 562 BCE), to justify his own dictatorship of Iraq.
The text of the underlying myth of the Babylonian New Year festival, the Epic of Creation, has survived. Known as the Enuma elish from the opening words—which mean “When on high...”—it was ritually chanted, with the force of a magical incantation, on the fourth day of the twelve-day festival.
The sequence of rituals and events was organized by the priests of the great temple of Marduk, the House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth within the Esagila, or temple complex. The purposes were several. On one level, the festival marked the spring barley harvest, and therefore the continuing fertility of the land. On the tenth day, a rite of union between the god and the fertility goddess Ishtar was celebrated, possibly by ritual copulation of the king and a priestess. But the essence of the festival was less to do with fertility than with the affirmation of power and the establishment of order, among gods and men.
On the fifth day, following the previous day’s recitation of the Epic of Creation, the king of Babylon went to the temple of Marduk to ritually abdicate his throne. The king was stripped of his royal emblems and humiliated by the priest, who abused him and slapped his face. Then the king knelt before the statue of Marduk, and swore to uphold his sacred office with honour and justice. He was reinvested with his royal regalia, and then the priest struck him again. It was thought lucky if this slap stung so sharply it induced tears. It was a reminder that the king was merely a slave of the god.
Just as the king was re-affirmed as the bearer, on Marduk’s behalf, of the sacred duties of kingship, so his ministers and subjects renewed their oaths to him, and kissed his feet, just as the gods of heaven and earth submitted to Marduk.
The key element of the Babylonian New Year festival was simply that it did mark the New Year—not in a simple calendrical movement from one year to the next but in a fundamental, ritualised recreation and re-energising of the cosmos, the first four days of which were regarded as outside the calendar. During this period the god Marduk was confined “in the mountain”, meaning the underworld; he was only liberated on the seventh day, by his son Nabu, the scribe of the destinies. Nabu’s statue was brought in procession for this purpose on the previous day, from his cult centre in Borsippa. In preparation for this, the empty temple of Nabu in the Esagila was ritually purified by the decapitation of a sheep.
On the eleventh day of the New Year festival, Marduk settled the destinies of the stars and planets for the year ahead. The festival’s re-enactment of his myth was an essential part of that process by which Marduk was enabled to keep the primal forces of chaos in check, “until time is old”.
By reciting or enacting scenes from the Epic of Creation, recreating Marduk’s triumph over the creator Tiamat, the centrality of Babylon was also re-affirmed. When Marduk overthrew Tiamat and her army, he seized the tablet of destinies with which he then established the cosmos, before founding the city of Babylon to be his home. Therefore Babylon was literally the centre of the universe.
Marduk represented the very essence of what made Babylon Babylon. So intimately were god and city entwined that the first act of any invading army was to carry off the cult statue of Marduk from his temple, thus plunging the city into mourning.
The Babylonian text of the Enuma elish was found on seven tablets during the excavation of Nineveh in the nineteenth century.
It begins when there was no earth or sky, nor any gods. There were just Apsu, the freshwater ocean, and Tiamat, the saltwater ocean. Apsu begets a series of deities on Tiamat: Lahmu and Lahamu, the silt that forms at the junction of the sea and rivers; Anshar and Kishar, the horizons of the sky and the earth. It is Anshar and Kishar who give birth to Anu, the god of the sky, and Anu in turn begets Nudimmud, which is an alternative name of Ea (Sumerian Enki), the god of the freshwater ocean beneath the earth, of wisdom, and of magic. In one of those genealogical confusions that beset such myths, although Ea/Nudimmud is described as the son of Anu, when the action gets going it is to Anshar that he turns for a father’s help.
The younger gods are a rowdy crew, disturbing Apsu and Tiamat with their noisy play. Outraged, Apsu demands that Tiamat join with him to destroy them, but she will not. Apsu refuses to accept this, and secretly takes council with his vizier Mummu (“mist”), who is another of his children by Tiamat. But before Apsu and Mummu can put their plot into action, the wise Ea finds out about it. Using his magical powers, Ea casts a spell of sleep on Apsu and Mummu. He steals Apsu’s belt and crown and mantle of radiance, then slays him, and enslaves Mummu with a nose-rope.
At the place where he has slain Apsu, Ea creates his sacred chamber, and names it “Apsu”. Here he lives in splendour with his consort Damkina, and here their son Marduk is born. Marduk is “so perfect that his godhead was doubled”.
Ea creates the four winds as Marduk’s playthings, and Marduk sets them free to create whirlwinds and tidal waves. The older gods are more offended than ever by this new tumult. Unable to sleep, they go to Tiamat, reproaching her for allowing Apsu to be killed, and demanding that she wage war upon the younger gods. In preparation for this conflict, Tiamat creates all kinds of dreadful monsters to fight on her side, such as the scorpion-man, whose image was engraved on Babylonian seals and boundary stones.
Tiamat appoints her son Qingu (Kingu) as her war leader, and arms him with the tablet of destinies, the source of all order in the universe.
When Ea hears of this army gathered against him, he turns to his “father” Anshar, “the unfathomable fixer of fates” for advice. Anshar tells him to take the battle to Tiamat. First Ea and then Anu set out to challenge Tiamat but each turns back when he sees the strength of Tiamat’s army. The younger gods are horrified, and cast about for another champion. And it is at this point, when the generational conflict between the gods has reached its crisis point, that Marduk steps forward as the hero.
Marduk agrees to take on Tiamat and her army on condition that the other gods accept him as their leader. At a banquet of the gods, Marduk is acclaimed as king, with “sovereignty over all of the whole universe”.
Riding his storm chariot, and with his weapons such as the winds and floods, Marduk takes the fight to Tiamat. At his approach, her army loses morale, but Tiamat herself tries to wheedle Marduk into submission. Marduk demands single combat, and kills Tiamat by making her swallow the evil imhullu-wind and then firing an arrow into her distended stomach.
Marduk then demolishes Tiamat’s army, capturing Kingu in a net of winds, and taking the tablet of destinies from him. He then splits Tiamat’s body in two “like a fish for drying”, using half of it to create the sky and presumably—although this is not specifically stated—the other half to create the earth; the rivers Tigris and Euphrates spring from Tiamat’s eyes. Marduk then determines the courses of the stars, the sun, and the moon, and in doing so sets time going.
At a great feast of celebration, all the gods, both the Igigi of the sky and the Anunnaki of the underworld, kiss Marduk’s feet, and swear obeisance to him as king of the gods. Marduk declares his intention to create a magnificent home above Ea’s chamber Apsu:
Whenever you come up from the Apsu for an assembly,
Your night’s rest shall be in it, receiving you all.
Whenever you come down from the sky for an assembly,
Your night’s rest shall be in it, receiving you all.
I hereby name it Babylon, home of the great gods.
We shall make it the centre of religion.
After his acclamation as king, Marduk exercises judgment over the fate of Qingu, Tiamat’s lover and war leader. Qingu is executed, and from his blood, at Marduk’s instigation, Ea creates mankind to serve the gods.
Nevertheless it is the gods themselves who build Babylon from mud bricks, and raise the Esagila temple complex to be Marduk’s home, establishing inside it the temples of Anu, Ellil (Sumerian Enlil) and Ea, and shrines for all the gods. The ziggurat of the Esagila is identified with the Tower of Babel of Hebrew myth.
Then the gods sing a hymn of praise to Marduk, praising his fifty great names, of which one is Bel, meaning Lord; it is the same root word as Ugaritic Baal.
The inner power of a myth such this Babylonian Epic of Creation was so potent that it could even be appropriated by a conqueror and absorbed into the worship of another god. This fate, in which one god is as it were swallowed whole by another, happened to Marduk in 691 BCE, when Babylon was conquered by King Sennacherib of Assyria. From then on, the hero of the Epic of Creation was the Assyrian god Assur.
The Enuma elish, so intimately entwined with the ritual of the Akitu, was for the Babylonians less a primal psychodrama than it was an assertion of continued power, status, and stability. The combination of myth and ritual explained Babylon to itself.
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