Legends of Babylon and and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition

The statement is sometimes made that there is no reason to assume a
Sumerian original for the Semitic-Babylonian Version, as recorded on
“the Seven Tablets of Creation”;[1] and this remark, though true of
that version as a whole, needs some qualification. The composite
nature of the poem has long been recognized, and an analysis of the
text has shown that no less than five principal strands have been
combined for its formation. These consist of (i) The Birth of the
Gods; (ii) The Legend of Ea and Apsû; (iii) The principal Dragon Myth;
(iv) The actual account of Creation; and (v) the Hymn to Marduk under
his fifty titles.[2] The Assyrian commentaries to the Hymn, from which
considerable portions of its text are restored, quote throughout a
Sumerian original, and explain it word for word by the phrases of the
Semitic Version;[3] so that for one out of the Seven Tablets a Semitic
origin is at once disproved. Moreover, the majority of the fifty
titles, even in the forms in which they have reached us in the Semitic
text, are demonstrably Sumerian, and since many of them celebrate
details of their owner’s creative work, a Sumerian original for other
parts of the version is implied. Enlil and Ea are both represented as
bestowing their own names upon Marduk,[4] and we may assume that many
of the fifty titles were originally borne by Enlil as a Sumerian
Creator.[5] Thus some portions of the actual account of Creation were
probably derived from a Sumerian original in which “Father Enlil”
figured as the hero.

[1] Cf., e.g., Jastrow, /Journ. of the Amer. Or. Soc./, Vol. XXXVI
(1916), p. 279.

[2] See /The Seven Tablets of Creation/, Vol. I, pp. lxvi ff.; and cf.
Skinner, /Genesis/, pp. 43 ff.

[3] Cf. /Sev. Tabl./, Vol. I, pp. 157 ff.

[4] Cf. Tabl. VII, ll. 116 ff.

[5] The number fifty was suggested by an ideogram employed for Enlil’s

For what then were the Semitic Babylonians themselves responsible? It
seems to me that, in the “Seven Tablets”, we may credit them with
considerable ingenuity in the combination of existing myths, but not
with their invention. The whole poem in its present form is a
glorification of Marduk, the god of Babylon, who is to be given
pre-eminent rank among the gods to correspond with the political
position recently attained by his city. It would have been quite out
of keeping with the national thought to make a break in the tradition,
and such a course would not have served the purpose of the Babylonian
priesthood, which was to obtain recognition of their claims by the
older cult-centres in the country. Hence they chose and combined the
more important existing myths, only making such alterations as would
fit them to their new hero. Babylon herself had won her position by
her own exertions; and it would be a natural idea to give Marduk his
opportunity of becoming Creator of the world as the result of
successful conflict. A combination of the Dragon myth with the myth of
Creation would have admirably served their purpose; and this is what
we find in the Semitic poem. But even that combination may not have
been their own invention; for, though, as we shall see, the idea of
conflict had no part in the earlier forms of the Sumerian Creation
myth, its combination with the Dragon /motif/ may have characterized
the local Sumerian Version of Nippur. How mechanical was the
Babylonian redactors’ method of glorifying Marduk is seen in their use
of the description of Tiamat and her monster brood, whom Marduk is
made to conquer. To impress the hearers of the poem with his prowess,
this is repeated at length no less than four times, one god carrying
the news of her revolt to another.

Direct proof of the manner in which the later redactors have been
obliged to modify the original Sumerian Creation myth, in consequence
of their incorporation of other elements, may be seen in the Sixth
Tablet of the poem, where Marduk states the reason for man’s creation.
In the second lecture we noted how the very words of the principal
Sumerian Creator were put into Marduk’s mouth; but the rest of the
Semitic god’s speech finds no equivalent in the Sumerian Version and
was evidently inserted in order to reconcile the narrative with its
later ingredients. This will best be seen by printing the two passages
in parallel columns:[1] [1] The extract from the Sumerian Version, which occurs in the lower
part of the First Column, is here compared with the Semitic-
Babylonian Creation Series, Tablet VI, ll. 6-10 (see /Seven
Tablets/, Vol. I, pp. 86 ff.). The comparison is justified whether
we regard the Sumerian speech as a direct preliminary to man’s
creation, or as a reassertion of his duty after his rescue from
destruction by the Flood.


“The people will I cause to . . . “I will make man, that man may
in their settlements, [. . .].
Cities . . . shall (man) build, I will create man who shall
in their protection will I cause inhabit [. . .],
him to rest,
That he may lay the brick of our That the service of the gods may
house in a clean spot, be established, and that
[their] shrines [may be
That in a clean spot he may But I will alter the ways of the
establish our . . . !” gods, and I will change [their
Together shall they be
oppressed, and unto evil shall
[they . . .]!”

The welding of incongruous elements is very apparent in the Semitic
Version. For the statement that man will be created in order that the
gods may have worshippers is at once followed by the announcement that
the gods themselves must be punished and their “ways” changed. In the
Sumerian Version the gods are united and all are naturally regarded as
worthy of man’s worship. The Sumerian Creator makes no distinctions;
he refers to “our houses”, or temples, that shall be established. But
in the later version divine conflict has been introduced, and the
future head of the pantheon has conquered and humiliated the revolting
deities. Their “ways” must therefore be altered before they are fit to
receive the worship which was accorded them by right in the simpler
Sumerian tradition. In spite of the epitomized character of the
Sumerian Version, a comparison of these passages suggests very
forcibly that the Semitic-Babylonian myth of Creation is based upon a
simpler Sumerian story, which has been elaborated to reconcile it with
the Dragon myth.

The Semitic poem itself also supplies evidence of the independent
existence of the Dragon myth apart from the process of Creation, for
the story of Ea and Apsû, which it incorporates, is merely the local
Dragon myth of Eridu. Its inclusion in the story is again simply a
tribute to Marduk; for though Ea, now become Marduk’s father, could
conquer Apsû, he was afraid of Tiamat, “and turned back”.[1] The
original Eridu myth no doubt represented Enki as conquering the watery
Abyss, which became his home; but there is nothing to connect this
tradition with his early creative activities. We have long possessed
part of another local version of the Dragon myth, which describes the
conquest of a dragon by some deity other than Marduk; and the fight is
there described as taking place, not before Creation, but at a time
when men existed and cities had been built.[2] Men and gods were
equally terrified at the monster’s appearance, and it was to deliver
the land from his clutches that one of the gods went out and slew him.
Tradition delighted to dwell on the dragon’s enormous size and
terrible appearance. In this version he is described as fifty
/bêru/[3] in length and one in height; his mouth measured six cubits
and the circuit of his ears twelve; he dragged himself along in the
water, which he lashed with his tail; and, when slain, his blood
flowed for three years, three months, a day and a night. From this
description we can see he was given the body of an enormous
serpent.[4] [1] Tabl. III, l. 53, &c. In the story of Bel and the Dragon, the
third of the apocryphal additions to Daniel, we have direct
evidence of the late survival of the Dragon /motif/ apart from any
trace of the Creation myth; in this connexion see Charles,
/Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha/, Vol. I (1913), p. 653 f.

[2] See /Seven Tablets/, Vol. I, pp. 116 ff., lxviii f. The text is
preserved on an Assyrian tablet made for the library of Ashur-

[3] The /bêru/ was the space that could be covered in two hours’

[4] The Babylonian Dragon has progeny in the later apocalyptic
literature, where we find very similar descriptions of the
creatures’ size. Among them we may perhaps include the dragon in
the Apocalypse of Baruch, who, according to the Slavonic Version,
apparently every day drinks a cubit’s depth from the sea, and yet
the sea does not sink because of the three hundred and sixty
rivers that flow into it (cf. James, “Apocrypha Anecdota”, Second
Series, in Armitage Robinson’s /Texts and Studies/, V, No. 1, pp.
lix ff.). But Egypt’s Dragon /motif/ was even more prolific, and
the /Pistis Sophia/ undoubtedly suggested descriptions of the
Serpent, especially in connexion with Hades.

A further version of the Dragon myth has now been identified on one of
the tablets recovered during the recent excavations at Ashur,[1] and
in it the dragon is not entirely of serpent form, but is a true dragon
with legs. Like the one just described, he is a male monster. The
description occurs as part of a myth, of which the text is so badly
preserved that only the contents of one column can be made out with
any certainty. In it a god, whose name is wanting, announces the
presence of the dragon: “In the water he lies and I [. . .]!”
Thereupon a second god cries successively to Aruru, the mother-
goddess, and to Pallil, another deity, for help in his predicament.
And then follows the description of the dragon:

In the sea was the Serpent cre[ated].
Sixty /bêru/ is his length;
Thirty /bêru/ high is his he[ad].[2] For half (a /bêru/) each stretches the surface of his ey[es];[3] For twenty /bêru/ go [his feet].[4] He devours fish, the creatures [of the sea],
He devours birds, the creatures [of the heaven],
He devours wild asses, the creatures [of the field],
He devours men,[5] to the peoples [he . . .].

[1] For the text, see Ebeling, /Assurtexte/ I, No. 6; it is translated
by him in /Orient. Lit.-Zeit./, Vol. XIX, No. 4 (April, 1916).

[2] The line reads: /30 bêru ša-ka-a ri-[ša-a-šu]/. Dr. Ebeling
renders /ri-ša-a/ as “heads” (Köpfe), implying that the dragon had
more than one head. It may be pointed out that, if we could accept
this translation, we should have an interesting parallel to the
description of some of the primaeval monsters, preserved from
Berossus, as {soma men ekhontas en, kephalas de duo}. But the
common word for “head” is /kakkadu/, and there can be little doubt
that /rîšâ/ is here used in its ordinary sense of “head, summit,
top” when applied to a high building.

[3] The line reads: /a-na 1/2 ta-am la-bu-na li-bit ên[a-šu]/. Dr.
Ebeling translates, “auf je eine Hälfte ist ein Ziegel [ihrer] Auge[n] gelegt”. But /libittu/ is clearly used here, not with its
ordinary meaning of “brick”, which yields a strange rendering, but
in its special sense, when applied to large buildings, of
“foundation, floor-space, area”, i.e. “surface”. Dr. Ebeling reads
/ênâ-šu/ at the end of the line, but the sign is broken; perhaps
the traces may prove to be those of /uznâ šu/, “his ears”, in
which case /li-bit uz[nâ-šu]/ might be rendered either as “surface
of his ears”, or as “base (lit. foundation) of his ears”.

[4] i.e. the length of his pace was twenty /bêru/.

[5] Lit. “the black-headed”.

The text here breaks off, at the moment when Pallil, whose help
against the dragon had been invoked, begins to speak. Let us hope we
shall recover the continuation of the narrative and learn what became
of this carnivorous monster.

There are ample grounds, then, for assuming the independent existence
of the Babylonian Dragon-myth, and though both the versions recovered
have come to us in Semitic form, there is no doubt that the myth
itself existed among the Sumerians. The dragon /motif/ is constantly
recurring in descriptions of Sumerian temple-decoration, and the twin
dragons of Ningishzida on Gudea’s libation-vase, carved in green
steatite and inlaid with shell, are a notable product of Sumerian
art.[1] The very names borne by Tiamat’s brood of monsters in the
“Seven Tablets” are stamped in most cases with their Sumerian descent,
and Kingu, whom she appointed as her champion in place of Apsû, is
equally Sumerian. It would be strange indeed if the Sumerians had not
evolved a Dragon myth,[2] for the Dragon combat is the most obvious of
nature myths and is found in most mythologies of Europe and the Near
East. The trailing storm-clouds suggest his serpent form, his fiery
tongue is seen in the forked lightning, and, though he may darken the
world for a time, the Sun-god will always be victorious. In Egypt the
myth of “the Overthrowing of Apep, the enemy of Ra” presents a close
parallel to that of Tiamat;[3] but of all Eastern mythologies that of
the Chinese has inspired in art the most beautiful treatment of the
Dragon, who, however, under his varied forms was for them essentially
beneficent. Doubtless the Semites of Babylonia had their own versions
of the Dragon combat, both before and after their arrival on the
Euphrates, but the particular version which the priests of Babylon
wove into their epic is not one of them.

[1] See E. de Sarzec, /Découvertes en Chaldée/, pl. xliv, Fig. 2, and
Heuzey, /Catalogue des antiquités chaldéennes/, p. 281.

[2] In his very interesting study of “Sumerian and Akkadian Views of
Beginnings”, contributed to the /Journ. of the Amer. Or. Soc./,
Vol. XXXVI (1916), pp. 274 ff., Professor Jastrow suggests that
the Dragon combat in the Semitic-Babylonian Creation poem is of
Semitic not Sumerian origin. He does not examine the evidence of
the poem itself in detail, but bases the suggestion mainly on the
two hypotheses, that the Dragon combat of the poem was suggested
by the winter storms and floods of the Euphrates Valley, and that
the Sumerians came from a mountain region where water was not
plentiful. If we grant both assumptions, the suggested conclusion
does not seem to me necessarily to follow, in view of the evidence
we now possess as to the remote date of the Sumerian settlement in
the Euphrates Valley. Some evidence may still be held to point to
a mountain home for the proto-Sumerians, such as the name of their
early goddess Ninkharsagga, “the Lady of the Mountains”. But, as
we must now regard Babylonia itself as the cradle of their
civilization, other data tend to lose something of their apparent
significance. It is true that the same Sumerian sign means “land”
and “mountain”; but it may have been difficult to obtain an
intelligible profile for “land” without adopting a mountain form.
Such a name as Ekur, the “Mountain House” of Nippur, may perhaps
indicate size, not origin; and Enki’s association with metal-
working may be merely due to his character as God of Wisdom, and
is not appropriate solely “to a god whose home is in the mountains
where metals are found” (op. cit., p. 295). It should be added
that Professor Jastrow’s theory of the Dragon combat is bound up
with his view of the origin of an interesting Sumerian “myth of
beginnings”, to which reference is made later.

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