What Creation Myth Did the Babylonians Believe?

Aditya Chakravarty

4 mins

09 Apr 2019

All cultures try to understand how the world around them came to be. From the Bible to the Norse Eddas, people have always crafted a creation story. The Mesopotamians were no different.

Though they have varying accounts of the creation of the world, perhaps the most famous Mesopotamian creation myth is that of Babylon — Enuma Elish.

Discovery of the myth

 In the mid-nineteenth century, Austen Henry Layard recovered several texts from the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. Amongst them were seven fragmentary tablets.

Though several lines were missing, the text was translated and discovered to be a creation epic that we now call Enuma Elish. The tablets themselves date to the seventh century BCE, however the myth likely dates to the late second millennium BCE.

 The Epic

The myth starts with the primordial state of the world:

“When on high heaven was not yet named, and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name.”

All that existed were Tiamat and Apsû. They were the embodiment of the primeval salt and sweet waters, and the Parents of Heaven and Earth. Heaven and Earth were not yet named and thus did not yet exist.

Five generations of gods are then listed, starting with Tiamat and Apsû, and ending with Ea. Heaven and Earth are born, as well as Anu, father of Ea and the lord of the sky.

In earlier Mesopotamian mythology, Anu was the chief of the gods and source of all authority. In this myth the relationships of the gods are reworked, with Ea being the greatest amongst these early gods.

In earlier mythology, Ea was a wise god who ruled the fresh waters personified by Apsû. These characteristics were retained in this myth.

A detail of The Adda Seal. The figure with streams of water and fish flowing from his shoulders is Ea (Sumerian Enki), god of subterranean waters and of wisdom.

Apsû and Tiamat were distressed by the later gods, and Apsû sought to destroy them. Ea listened into his plans, and by his cunning defeated Apsû and took his mantle. Thus he came to rule the fresh waters.

However Tiamat was angered and spawned an army of monsters. Amongst the gods she exalted Kingu, raising him to supremacy over the assembly of the gods and gifting him the Tablets of Destiny. These Tablets of Destiny appear in other myths and appear to confer supreme authority.

The idea of the gods controlling “destiny” or history is a central aspect of Mesopotamian thought. Inherent in their worldview was a dualism of myth and reality. Whilst humans undertook actions, agency rested with the divine.

Key events in Mesopotamian history were attributed to the will of the gods, such as the fall of the Akkadian dynasty. Human history and actions were guided by divine will. Before the gods existed, “no destinies were ordained.”

Before Tiamat and her horde, the gods trembled; both Anu and Ea turned away. So Ea’s son Marduk went before the assembly of the gods and proclaimed that if they granted him supreme dominion, he would slay Tiamat. The gods agreed and gifted him vestments, weapons, and a throne. So armed Marduk went forth, seized the Tablets of Destiny from Kingu and slew Tiamat.

Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal impression from the eighth century BC identified by several sources as a possible depiction of the slaying of Tiamat from the Enûma Eliš. Credit: Ben Pirard / Commons.

He split her body in two. From one half he created the sky. In the sky he created the stars, caused the moon god to shine forth, and set the dwellings of Anu, Enlil, and Ea. This relates to Babylonian astronomy; the sky was split into three sections belonging to Anu, Enlil, and Ea.

Finally Marduk planned to create men from his blood and bone, in order to serve the gods and build their temples. The sixth tablet, like the others is fragmentary and the account of the actual creation of man is lost.

The seventh tablet ends the myth with the gods exalting Marduk and announcing fifty of his names, with the epilogue proclaiming that men should remember Marduk and worship him.

The Biblical parallels

There appear to be several similarities with the Bible: a watery realm before creation; a supposed battle between order and chaos; the creation of man; even seven tablets mirroring seven days of creation.

These similarities drew great interest to the myth, indeed most Assyriology of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was driven by attempts to prove the historicity of the Bible.

However most modern scholars agree that these similarities are ultimately superficial.

Diagram from “A dictionary of the Bible; dealing with its language, literature, and contents, including the Biblical theology” (1898).

The political context

During the period that the myth was composed Assyria and Babylon were the two dominant powers in Mesopotamia. Whilst Assyria had a military advantage, Babylon was still revered as a cultural and religious centre.

Marduk was the city god of Babylon. By raising him to chief of the gods, there as an attempt to promulgate this position as the religious heart of Mesopotamia.

Many Babylonians would have believed this myth to be true, especially after generations passed. It raises interesting questions about the nature of myth, religion and belief.

The myth is an outstanding example of Mesopotamian literature, but it also grants us an insight into Mesopotamian culture and politics. Using this source in conjunction with others provides a window into Mesopotamian thought and how they perceived the world around them.