Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

by Lewis Spence | 1917 | 108,912 words

Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, is a book that includes explanations of Babylonian and Assyrian legends and myths as well as the myths themselves. Lewis Spence, in the Preface, describes his purpose in writing the book as providing the reader with "the treasures of romance latent in the subject, the peculiar richness of which has...

Chapter II - Babylonian Cosmogony

The Babylonian Myth of Creation

F EW creation myths are more replete with interest than those which have literary sanction. These are few in number, as, for example, the creation story in Genesis, those to be found in Egyptian papyri, and that contained in the Popol Vuh of the Maya of Central America. In such an account we can trace the creation story from the first dim conception of world-shaping to the polished and final effort of a priestly caste to give a theological interpretation to the intentions of the creative deity ; and this is perhaps more the case with the creation myth which had its rise among the old Akkadian population of Babylonia than with any other known to mythic science. In the account in Genesis of the framing of the world it has been discovered that two different versions have been fused to form a single story; the creation tale of the Popol Vuh is certainly a composite myth ; and similar suspicions may rest upon the analogous myths of Scandinavia and Japan. But in the case of Babylonia we may be convinced that no other influences except those of the races who inhabited Babylonian territory could have been brought to bear upon this ancient story, and that although critical examination has proved it to consist of materials which have been drawn from more than one source, yet these sources are not foreign, and they have not undergone sophistication at the hands of any alien mythographer or interpolator.

Image: The Seven Tablets of Creation.
Photo W. A. Mansell and Co.

It would seem that this Babylonian cosmogony was drawn from various sources, but it appears to be 'contained in its final form in what are known as the Seven Tablets of Creation, brought from the library of Assur-bani-pal at Nineveh and now in the British Museum. These have from time to time been supplemented by later finds, but we may take it that in this record we have the final official development of Babylonian belief, due to the priests of Babylon, after that city had become the metropolis of the empire- The primary object of the Seven Tablets was to record a terrific fight between Bel and the Dragon, and the account of the creation is inserted by way of introduction. It is undoubtedly the most important find dealing with Babylonian religion that has as yet come to light.. Before we advance any critical speculations respecting it, let us set forth the story which it has to tell.

As in so many creation myths, we find chaotic darkness brooding over a waste of waters ; heaven and earth were not as yet. Naught existed save the primeval ocean, Mommu Tiawath,[1] from whose fertile depths came every living thing. Nor were the waters distributed, as in the days of man, into sea, river, or lake, but all were confined together in one vast and bottomless abyss. Neither did god or man exist : their names were unknown and their destinies undetermined. The future was as dark as the gloom which lay over the mighty gulf of chaos. Nothing had been designed or debated concerning it.


The Birth of the Gods

But there came a stirring in the darkness and the great gods arose. First came Lahmu and Lahame ; and many epochs later, Ansar and Kisar, component parts of whose names signify ‘Host of Heaven’ and ‘Host of Earth.’ These latter names we may perhaps accept as symbolical of the spirits of heaven and of earth respectively. Many days afterward came forth their son Anu, god of the heavens.

At this point it should be explained that the name Tiawath affords a parallel to the expression T’bom or ‘deep’ of the Old Testament. Practically the same word is used in Assyrian in the form Tamtu, to signify the ‘deep sea.’[2] The reader will recall that it was upon the face of the deep that the spirit of God brooded, according to the first chapter of Genesis. The word and the idea which it contains are equally Semitic, but strangely enough it has an Akkadian origin. For the conception that the watery abyss was the source of all things originated with the worshippers of the sea-god Ea at Eridu. They termed the deep apsu, or a ‘house of knowledge’ wherein their tutelar god was supposed to have his dwelling, and this word was of Akkadian descent. This apsu , or ‘abyss,’ in virtue of the animistic ideas prevailing in early Akkadian times, had become personalized as a female who was regarded as the mother of Ea. She was known by another name as well as that of Apsu, for she was also entitled Zigarun, the ‘heaven,’ or the ‘mother that has begotten heaven and earth’ ; and indeed she seems to have had a form or variant in which she was an earth-goddess as well. But it was not the existing earth or heaven that she represented in either of her forms, but the primeval abyss, out of which both of these were fashioned.

At this point the narrative exhibits numerous defects, and for a continuation of it we must apply to Damascius, the last of the Neoplatonists, who was born in Damascus about A.D. 480, and who is regarded by most Assyriologists as having had access to valuable written or traditional material. He was the author of a work entitled Doubts and Solutions of the First Principles , in which he states that Anu was followed by Bel (we retain the Babylonian form of the names rather than Damascius’ Greek titles), and Ea the god of Eridu.

“From Ea and Dawkina,” he writes,

“was born a son called Belos or Bel-Merodach, whom the Babylonians regarded as the creator of the world.”

From Damascius we can learn nothing further, and the defective character of the tablet does not permit us to proceed with any degree of certainty until we arrive at the name of Nudimmud, which appears to be simply a variant of the name of Ea. From obscure passages it may be generally gleaned that Tiawath and Apsu, once one, or rather originally representing the Babylonian and Akkadian forms of the deep, are now regarded as mates—Tiawath being the female and Apsu, once female, in this case the male. These have a son, Moumis or Mummu, a name which at one time seems to have been given to Tiawath, so that in these changes we may be able to trace the hand of the later mytho-grapher, who, with less skill and greater levity than is to be found in most myths, has taken upon himself the responsibility of manufacturing three deities out of one. It may be that the scribe in question was well aware that his literary effort must square with and placate popular belief or popular prejudice, and in no era and at no time has priestly ingenuity been unequal to such a task, as is well evidenced by many myths which exhibit traces of late alteration. But in dwelling for a moment on this question, it is only just to the priesthood to admit that such changes did not always emanate from them, but were the work of poets and philosophers who, for aesthetic or rational reasons, took it upon themselves to recast the myths of their race according to the dictates of a nicer taste, or in the interests of ‘ reason.’


A Darksome Trinity

These three, then, Tiawath, Apsu, and Mummu, appear to have formed a trinity, which bore no good-will to the ‘higher gods.’[3] They themselves, as deities of a primeval epoch, were doubtless regarded by the theological opinion of a later day as dark, dubious, and unsatisfactory. It is notorious that in many lands the early, elemental gods came into bad odour in later times ; and it may be that the Akkadian descent of this trio did not conduce to their popularity with the Babylonian people. Be that as it may, alien and aboriginal gods have in all times been looked upon by an invading and conquering race with distrust as the workers of magic and the sowers of evil, and even although a Babylonian name had been accorded one of them, it may not have been employed in a complimentary sense. Whereas the high gods regarded those of the abyss with distrust, the darker deities of chaos took up an attitude towards the divinities of light which can only be compared to the sarcastic tone which Milton’s Satan adopts against the Power which thrust him into outer darkness. Apsu was the most ironical of all. There was no peace for him, he declared, so long as the new-comers dwelt on high : their way was not his way, neither was it that of Tiawath, who, if Apsu represented sarcasm deified, exhibited a fierce truculence much more overpowering than  the irony of her mate. The trio discussed how they might rid themselves of those beings who desired a reign of light and happiness, and in these deliberations Mummu, the son, was the prime mover. Here again the Tablets fails us somewhat, but we learn sufficient further on to assure us that Mummu’s project was one of open war against the gods of heaven.

In connexion with this campaign, Tiawath made the most elaborate preparations along with her companions. She laboured without ceasing. From the waters of the great abyss over which she presided she called forth the most fearful monsters, who remind us strongly of those against which Horus, the Egyptian god of light, had to strive in his wars with Set. From the deep came gigantic serpents armed with stings, dripping with the most deadly poison ; dragons of vast shape reared their heads above the flood, their huge jaws armed with row upon row of formidable teeth ; giant dogs of indescribable savagery; men fashioned partly like scorpions; fish-men, and countless other horrible beings, were created and formed into battalions under the command of a god named Kingu, to whom Tiawath referred as her ’only husband’ and to whom she promised the rule of heaven and of fate when once the detested gods of light are removed by his mighty arm.

The introduction of this being as the husband of Tiawath seems to point either to a fusion of legends or to the interpolation of some passage popular in Babylonian lore. At this juncture Apsu disappears, as does Mummu. Can it be that at this point a scribe or mythographer took up the tale who did not agree with his predecessor in describing Tiawath, Apsu, and Mummu, originally one, as three separate deities ? This would explain the divergence, but the point is an obscure one, and hasty conclusions on slight evidence are usually doomed to failure. To resume our narrative, Tiawath, whoever her coadjutors, was resolved to retain in her own hands the source of all living things, that great deep over which she presided.

Image right: “Mighty was he to look upon”
Evelyn Paul

But the gods of heaven were by no means lulled into peaceful security, for they were aware of the ill-will which Tiawath bore them. They learned of her plot, and great was their wrath. Ea, the god of water, was the first to hear of it, and related it to Ansar, his father, who filled heaven with his cries of anger. Ansar betook himself to his other son, Anu, god of the sky. “Speak to the great dragon,” he urged him ; “speak to her, my son, and her anger will be assuaged and her wrath vanish.” Duly obedient, Anu betook himself to the realm of Tiawath to reason with her, but the monster snarled at him so fiercely that in dread he turned his back upon her and departed. Next came Nudimmud to her, but with no better success. At length the gods decided that one of their number, called Merodach, should undertake the task of combating Tiawath the terrible. Merodach asked that it might be written that he should be victorious, and this was granted him. He was then given rule over the entire universe, and to test whether or not the greatest power had passed to him a garment was placed in the midst of the gods and Merodach spoke words commanding that it should disappear. Straightway it vanished and was not. Once more spake the god, and the garment re-appeared before the eyes of the dwellers in heaven. The portion of the epic which describes the newly acquired glories of Merodach is exceedingly eloquent. We are told that none among the gods can now surpass him in power, that the place of their gathering has become his home, that they have given him the supreme sovereignty, and they even beg that to them who put their trust in him he will be gracious. They pray[4] that he may pour out the soul of the keeper of evil, and finally they place in his hands a marvellous weapon with which to cut off the life of Tiawath. “Let the winds carry her blood to secret places,” they exclaimed in their desire that the waters of this fountain of wickedness should be scattered far and wide. Mighty was he to look upon when he set forth for the combat. His great bow he bore upon his back ; he swung his massive club triumphantly. He set the lightning before him ; he filled his body with swiftness ; and he framed a great net to enclose the dragon of the sea. Then with a word he created terrible winds and tempests, whirlwinds, storms, seven in all, for the confounding of Tiawath. The hurricane was his weapon, and he rode in the chariot of destiny. His helm blazed with terror and awful was his aspect. The steeds which were yoked to his chariot rushed rapidly towards the abyss, their mouths frothing with venomous foam. Followed by all the good wishes of the gods, Merodach fared forth that day.

Soon he came to Tiawath’s retreat, but at sight of the monster he halted, and with reason, for there crouched the great dragon, her scaly body still gleaming with the waters of the abyss, flame darting from her eyes and nostrils, and such terrific sounds issuing from her widely open mouth as would have terrified any but the bravest of the gods. Merodach reproached Tiawath for her rebellion and ended by challenging her to combat. Like the dragons of all time, Tiawath appears to have been versed in magic and hurled the most potent incantations against her adversary. She cast many a spell. But Merodach, unawed by this, threw over her his great net, and caused an evil wind which he had sent on before him to blow on her, so that she might not close her mouth. The tempest rushed between her jaws and held them open ; it entered her body and racked her frame. Merodach swung his club on high, and with a mighty blow shattered her great flank and slew her. Down he cast her corpse and stood upon it; then he cut out her evil heart. Finally he overthrew the host of monsters which had followed her, so that at length they trembled, turned, and fled in headlong rout. These also he caught in his net and “kept them in bondage.” Kingu he bound and took from him the tablets of destiny which had been granted to him by the slain Tiawath, which obviously means that the god of a later generation wrenches the power of fate from an earlier hierarchy, just as one earthly dynasty may overthrow and replace another. The north wind bore Tiawath’s blood away to secret places, and at the sight Ea, sitting high in the heavens, rejoiced exceedingly. Then Merodach took rest and nourishment, and as he rested a plan arose in his mind. Rising, he flayed Tiawath of her scaly skin and cut her asunder. We have already seen that the north wind bore her blood away, which probably symbolises the distribution of rivers over the earth.[5] Then did Merodach take the two parts of her vast body, and with one of them he framed a covering for the heavens. Merodach next divided the upper from the lower waters, made dwellings for the gods, set lights in the heaven, and ordained their regular courses.

As the tablet poetically puts it,

“he lit up the sky establishing the upper firmament, and caused Anu, Bel, and Ea to inhabit it.”

He then founded the constellations as stations for the great gods, and instituted the year, setting three constellations for each month, and placing his own star, Nibiru, as the chief light in the firmament. Then he caused the new moon, Nannaru, to shine forth and gave him the rulership of the night, granting him a day of rest in the middle of the month. There is another mutilation at this point, and we gather that the net of Merodach, with which he had snared Tiawath, was placed in the heavens as a constellation along with his bow. The winds also appear to have been bound or tamed and placed in the several points of the compass ; but the whole passage is very obscure, and doubtless information of surpassing interest has been lost through the mutilation of the tablet.

We shall probably not be far in error if we regard the myth of the combat between Merodach and Tiawath as an explanation of the primal strife between light and darkness. Among the most primitive peoples, the solar hero has at one stage of his career to encounter a grisly dragon or serpent, who threatens his very existence. In many cases this monster guards a treasure which mythologists of a generation ago almost invariably explained as that gold which is spread over the sky at the hour of sunset. The assigning of solar characteristics to all slayers of dragons and their kind was a weakness of the older school of mythology, akin to its deductions based on philological grounds ; but such criticism as has been directed against the solar theory—and it has been extensive—has not always been pertinent, and in many cases has been merely futile. In fact the solar theory suffered because of the philological arguments with which it was bound up, and neither critics nor readers appeared to discriminate between these. But we should constantly bear in mind that to attempt to elucidate or explain myths by any one system, or by one hard and fast hypothesis, is futile. On the other hand nearly all systems which have yet attempted to elucidate or disentangle the terms of myth are capable of application to certain types of myth. The dragon story is all but universal: in China it is the monster which temporarily swallows the sun during eclipse ; in Egypt it was the great serpent Apep, which battled with Ra and Horus, both solar heroes ; in India it is the serpent Vritra, or Ahi, who is vanquished by Indra ; in Australia and in some parts of North America a great frog takes the place of the dragon. In the story of Beowulf the last exploit of the hero is the slaying of a terrible fire-breathing dragon which guards a hidden treasure-hoard; and Beowulf receives a mortal wound in the encounter. In the Volsung Saga the covetous Faffnir is turned into a dragon and is slain by Sigurd. These must not be confounded with the monsters which cause drought and pestilence. It is a sun-swallowing monster with which we have here to deal.

Image: Conflict between Merodach and Tiawath.
Photo W. A, Mansell and Co.

The tablets here allude to the creation of man ; the gods, it is stated, so admired the handiwork of Merodach, that they desired to see him execute still further marvels. Now the gods had none to worship them or pay them homage, and Merodach suggested to his father, Ea, the creation of man out of his divine blood. Here once more the tablets fail us, and we must turn to the narrative of the Chaldean writer Berossus, as preserved by no less than three authors of the classical age. Berossus states that a certain woman Thalatth (that is, Tiawath) had many strange creatures at her bidding. Belus (that is, Bel-Merodach) attacked and cut her in twain, forming the earth out of one half and the heavens out of the other, and destroying all the creatures over which she ruled. Then did Merodach decapitate himself, and as his blood flowed forth the other gods mingled it with the earth and formed man from it. From this circumstance mankind is rational, and has a spark of the divine in it. Then did Merodach divide the darkness, separate the heavens from the earth, and order the details of the entire universe. But those animals which he had created were not able to bear the light, and died. A passage then occurs which states that the stars, the sun and moon, and the five planets were created, and it would seem from the repetition that there were two creations, that the first was a failure, in which Merodach had, as it were, essayed a) first attempt, perfecting the process in the second creation. Of course it may be conjectured that Berossus may have drawn from two conflicting accounts, or that those who quote him have inserted the second passage.

The Sumerian incantation, which is provided with a Semitic translation, adds somewhat to our knowledge of this cosmogony. It states that in the beginning nothing as yet existed, none of the great cities of Babylonia had yet been built, indeed there was no land, nothing but sea. It was not until the veins of Tiawath had been cut through that paradise and the abyss appear to have been separated and the gods created by Merodach. Also did he create annunaki or gods of the earth, and established a wondrous city as a place in which they might dwell. Then men were formed with the aid of the goddess Aruru, and finally vegetation, trees, and animals. Then did Merodach raise the great temples of Erech and Nippur. From this account we see that instead of Merodach being alluded to as the son of the gods, he is regarded as their creator. In the library of Nineveh was also discovered a copy of a tablet written for the great temple of Nergal at Cuthah. Nergal himself is supposed to make the statement which it contains. He tells us how the hosts of chaos and confusion came into being. At first, as in the other accounts, nothingness reigned supreme, then did the great gods create warriors with the bodies of birds, and men with the faces of ravens. They founded them a city in the ground, and Tiawath, the great dragon, did suckle them. They were fostered in the midst of the mountains, and under the care of the‘mistress of the gods’ they greatly increased and became heroes of might. Seven kings had they, who ruled over six thousand people. Their father was the god Benani, and their mother the queen, Melili. These beings, who might almost be called tame gods of evil, Nergal states that he destroyed.[6] Thus all accounts agree concerning the original chaotic condition of the universe. They also agree that the powers of chaos and darkness were destroyed by a god of light.

The creation tablets are written in Semitic and allude to the great circle of the gods as already fully developed and having its full complement. Even the later deities are mentioned in them. This means that it must be assigned to a comparatively late date, but it possesses elements which go to show that it is a late edition of a much earlier composition —indeed the fundamental elements in it appear, as has been said, to be purely Akkadian in origin, and that would throw back the date of its original form to a very primitive period indeed. It has, as will readily be seen, a very involved cosmogony. Its characteristics show it to have been originally local, and of course Babylonian, in its secondary origin, but from time to time it was added to, so that such gods as were at a later date adopted into the Babylonian pantheon might be explained and accounted for by it; but the legend of the creation arising in the city of Babylon, the local folk-tale known and understood by the people, was never entirely shelved by the more consequential and polished epic, which was perhaps only known and appreciated in literary and aesthetic circles, and bore the same relation to the humbler folk-story that Milton’s Paradise Lost bears to the medieval legends of the casting out of Satan from heaven.

Although it is quite easy to distinguish influences of extreme antiquity in the Babylonian creation myth, it is clear that in the shape in which it has come down to us it has been altered in such a manner as to make Merodach reap the entire credit of Tiawath’s defeat instead of En-lil, or the deity who was his predecessor as monarch of the gods. Jastrow holds that the entire cosmological tale has been constructed from an account of a conflict with a primeval monster and a story of a rebellion against Ea ; that these two tales have become fused, and that the first is again divisible into three versions, originating one at Uruk and the other two at Nippur at different epochs. The first celebrates the conquest of Anu over Tiawath, the second exalts Ninib as the conqueror, and the third replaces him by En-lil. We thus see how it was possible for the god of a conquering or popular dynasty to have a complete myth made over to him, and how at last it was competent for the mighty Merodach of Babylon to replace an entire line of deities as the central figure of a myth which must have been popular with untold generations of Akkadian and Babylonian people.


Type of Babylonian Cosmology

We must now consider the precise nature of the Babylonian cosmology and its place among other creation myths. Like the cosmological efforts of most primitive or barbarian peoples it does not partake of the character of a creation myth so much as an account of an evolution from chaos and the establishment of physical laws. The primitive mind cannot grasp the idea of the creation of something out of nothing, and the Babylonians and Akkadians did not differ in this respect from other races in the same stage of development. In whatever direction we look when examining the cosmologies of barbarian or semi-civilized peoples, we find a total inability to get behind and beyond the idea that the matter of creation lay already to the hand of the creative agency, and that in order to shape a world it had but to draw the material therefor from the teeming deep or the slain body of a hostile monster. Not only does the idea of creating land and water out of nothingness seem absurd to the primitive mind, but man as well must be framed from dust, mud, clay, or the blood of the creative god himself. Yet Merodach was able to bring a garment out of nothingness and to return it thither by merely speaking a word ! Why, then, did not the theology which admitted the possibility of such a phenomenon carry out its own conception to a logical conclusion and own the likelihood of the god’s ability to create an entire universe in the self-same manner ? Perhaps the step was too bold for an individual to take in the face of an entire theological college, and in any case what would seem a perfectly feasible act of magic to the theologians of Babylon when applied to a garment might not serve for application to the making of the earth and all that is therein. The cosmology of Babylon is therefore on a par with those of Scandinavia, China, and many North American Indian tribes, nor does it reach so high an imaginative level as those of ancient Egypt, India, or the Maya of Central America, in some of which the vocal command of a god is sufficient to bring about the creation of the earth and the waters surrounding it.

The making of the sun, the moon, and the other heavenly bodies is, as will be more fully shown later, of great importance in Babylonian myth. The stars appear to have been attached to the firmament of heaven as to a cloth. Across this the sun passed daily, his function being to inspect the movements of the other heavenly bodies. The moon, likewise, had her fixed course, and certain stars were also supposed to move across the picture of the night with greater or less regularity. The heavens were guarded at either end by a great gateway, and through one of these the sun passed after rising from the ocean, whilst in setting he quitted the heavens by the opposite portal.

The terrestrial world was imagined as a great hollow structure resting on the ( deep.’ Indeed, it would seem to have been regarded as an island floating on an abyss of waters. This conception of the world of earth was by no means peculiar to the Babylonians, but was shared by them with many of the nations of antiquity.

As emanating from the blood of Merodach himself, man was looked upon as directly of heavenly origin. An older tradition existed to the effect that Merodach had been assisted in the creation of mankind by the goddess Aruru, who figures in the Gilgamesh epic as the creatress of Eabani out of a piece of clay. We also find an ancient belief current that humanity owed its origin to the god Ea, but when Merodach displaced this god politically, he would, of course, ‘ take over ’ his entire record and creative deeds as well as his powers and sovereignties. At Nippur Bel was looked up to as the originator of man. But these beliefs probably obtained in remoter times, and would finally be quenched by the advance to full and unquestioned power of the great god Merodach.


Connexion with the Jonah Legend

Some mythologists see in the story of Jonah a hidden allusion to the circumstances of Babylonian cosmology. Jonah, as we remember, was summoned to Nineveh to prophesy against it, but proceeding instead to Joppa (the scene of the later myth of Perseus and Andromeda) the ship in which he set sail was storm-tossed, and he himself advised the sailors to cast him overboard. They did so, and “a great fish” swallowed him. This ‘ fish/ it has been claimed, is merely a marine form of Tiawath, the dragon of chaos, and the three days and nights which Jonah remains inside it are “the winter months.”[7] This does not seem very clear. Hercules in like manner descended into the belly of a fish and emerged again after three days, according to the Phoenicians. The name of Jonah may be compared with that of Oannes or Ea. The love-god, in the Hindu Vishnu Purana , thrown into the sea, is swallowed by a fish, like the ring of Gyges. Was there a local sea-monster at Joppa, a variant of Tiawath, and is it the same in the Jonah myth as that in the tale of Perseus ? A tawny fountain at Joppa was thought to derive its colour from the blood of the sea-monster slain by Perseus, says Pausanias. Was then the monster who lay in wait off Joppa, Tiawath the goddess of darkness, and was Jonah none other than Ea or Oannes, her mortal foe, the god of light, whom she would mythologically swallow during the sere months of winter ?

Footnotes and references:


Another spelling is Tiamat.


Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, p. 374.


Of whom we now hear for the first time.


In many mythologies we find the gods praying and sacrificing to one another, and even to deities presumably higher than themselves and unknown to man or only guessed at by him. Thus the Vedic gods are constantly sacrificing one to the other, and there are many American instances of this worship of god by god.


See Pinches,. The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, p. 39.


This account has been claimed as a weak version of that part of the creation story which deals with the creation of the host of the abyss. The fact that Nergal states that he destroyed these monsters might justify us in believing that the myth was on this occasion so edited as to provide the monarch with an opportunity for boasting.


Bible Folk Lore, London, 1884. Anonymous.

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