Enuma Elish: Babylonia’s Creation Myth and the Enthronement of Marduk
Jews for the past two millennia have celebrated the new year on the first of Tishrei, the New Moon of the Fall Equinox. Other Western Semitic cultures, such as the Canaanite culture attested at Ugarit, also celebrated an autumn New Year. Nevertheless, the Torah declares the new year to begin in the spring, on the first of the month known as Nisan, when the festival of Passover is celebrated (Exodus 12).
Spring is the season Eastern Semitic cultures, including Babylonia, celebrated their New Year. As the Priestly scribes responsible for the dates throughout the Torah were living in the exilic and post-exilic periods, dominated by the Babylonian calendar, it is not surprising that they used this calendar.
Babylonian New Year’s Temple Service
The Babylonian New Year’s Festival together with the Akitu festival encompassed the first 11 days of the first month of the year, Nisannu, our Nisan. (The New Year’s Festival and the Akitu Festival are two separate festivals, like Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.) These two festivals celebrated the creation of the world and the enthronement of the Babylonian chief god, Marduk, also known as Bel, “the lord,” in his temple, known as Esagil, a Sumerian term meaning “House [whose] Top is Raised High.” The temple services for the New Year’s season are partially preserved on cuneiform tablets, written in Akkadian, and dating to the time of the Persian Empire.
The New Year’s festivities begin before dawn on Rosh Chodesh (the new moon of) Nisan. The high priest of Bel-Marduk’s holy of holies rises while it is still dark out, performs some sort of purification ritual, and… the tablet is broken at this point. It picks up again in a description of the next day, the Second of Nisan.
Before dawn on this day too, the high priest rises, washes, and blesses (the statues of) Marduk and his wife, the goddess Sarpanitum. Afterwards the day more or less progresses as usual, with two meals/sacrificial services of the morning and two of the late afternoon—in Jewish/biblical ritual terms, shacharit and mincha time, when the daily sacrifices (tamid) were offered. So too the third and fourth of Nisan.
But on the late afternoon of the fourth of Nisan, after all the meals/services have been concluded, the high-priest of Bel-Marduk’s holy of holies, enters this holiest sanctum of the Babylonian world, and covers the faces of the statues of the gods Anu and Enlil, the gods of the heavens above the firmament and the world below respectively.
Anu and Enlil were the chief gods of the pantheon in ancient times, before Babylon became preeminent and its god, Marduk, took their place as the new chief. The covering was a sign of respect to Marduk, removing these former divine kings ritually from his presence.
All this was preparation for one of the holiest moments of the Babylonian year:
. . . after the second meal of Mincha-time, the high priest of Eumaša (Bel-Marduk’s holy of holies in Esagil), will recite Enuma Elish from its beginning to its end before Bel. While (the high priest) recites the Enuma Elish, the front of Anu’s tiara and Enlil’s seat will be covered.
The recitation of the Enuma Elish, “When of High,” better-named The Great Hymn of Marduk, tells about the creation of the world, and how Marduk saved the gods and thereby took his place as king.
Celebrating Creation and the Kingship of Marduk
Enuma Elish opens with:
Enuma Elish Tablet 1 When skies above were not yet named,
Nor earth below pronounced by name,
Apsu, the first one, their begetter,
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,
Had mixed their waters together,
But had not yet formed pastures, nor discovered reed beds,
When yet no gods were manifest,
Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,
Then gods were born within them. (Dalley, p. 233)
In short, the first act of creation, is when Apsu, a giant (male) being made of fresh water, mixed his waters with Tiamat, a giant (female) being made of salt water, from which emerged the first generations of the pantheon. These were playful young gods, whose frolic inside of the water of these giant beings so disturbed Apsu that he planned to destroy them:
Enuma Elish Tablet 1 Apsu made his voice heard,
And spoke to Tiamat in a loud voice:
“There ways have become very grievous to me,
By day I cannot rest, by night I cannot sleep,
I shall abolish their ways and disperse them!
Let peace prevail, so that we can sleep.” (Dalley, p. 234)
Tiamat did not wish to hurt her children but would not stand in Apsu’s way, so Apsu plotted with his vizier Mummu to get rid of these loud gods. But word of this plan reached the wily god Ea:
Enuma Elish Tablet 1 Superior in understanding, wise and capable,
Ea who knows everything found out their plot,
Made for himself a design of everything, and laid it out correctly,
Made it cleverly, his pure spell was superb.
He recited it and it stilled the waters. (Dalley, pp. 234–235)
Ea’s spell puts Apsu and Mummu to sleep, after which he slaughters Apsu and captures Mummu. Ea then builds his home in the watery leftovers of Apsu—Ea becomes the god of freshwater—and with his wife Damkina, produces Bel/Marduk, the greatest of all the gods:
Enuma Elish Tablet 1 Bel, cleverest of the clever, sage of the gods, was begotten.
And inside Apsu, Marduk was created;
Inside pure Apsu, Marduk was born.
Ea his father created him,
Damkina his mother bore him.
He suckled the teats of the goddesses;
The nurse who reared him filled him with awesomeness.
Proud was his form, piercing his stare,
Mature his emergence, he was powerful from the start. (Dalley, p. 235)
The text goes on to describe the incomprehensible majesty of Marduk, the new god:
Enuma Elish Tablet 1 He made him so perfect that his godhead was doubled.
Elevated far above them, he was superior in every way.
His limbs were ingeniously made beyond comprehension,
Impossible to understand, too difficult to perceive.
Four were his eyes, four were his ears;
When his lips moved, fire blazed forth.
The four ears were enormous,
And likewise the eyes; they perceived everything.
Highest among the gods, his form was outstanding. (Dalley, p. 235)
Anu, the god of the upper heavens and Marduk’s great grandfather, is so impressed with the boy that he decides to give him the four winds to play with as a toy. Marduk stirs up the waters with his play, and now it is Tiamat, the sea-goddess, and her offspring that become enraged. Tiamat creates all sorts of demons, dragons, and monsters to fight against the gods on Ea’s side, and she appoints Qingu, her new lover, to lead this army. Ea and the gods on his side have no means to match Tiamat’s forces and must turn to Marduk for their salvation.
Marduk to the Rescue
Ea then asks his powerful son Marduk if he will lead the fight against Tiamat. The young god is more than happy to do so, but asks for kingship in return:
Enuma Elish Tablet 2 Lord of the gods, fate of the great gods,
If indeed I am to be your champion,
If I am to defeat Tiamat and save your lives,
Convene the council, name a special fate,
Sit joyfully together in Ubshu-ukkinakku:
My own utterance shall fix fate instead of you!
Whatever I decree of my lips shall never be revoked, never changed! (Dalley 243–244)
After Anshar sends a long message to the other gods, which is repeated—all of tablet 3 is essentially a double description of Tiamat’s monster army, already described in tablet 2—the gods on Ea’s side agree to Marduk’s terms and proclaim him the supreme ruler:
Enuma Elish Tablet 4 O Marduk, you are honored among the great gods,
Your destiny is unequalled, your word (has the power of) Anu!
From this day onwards your command shall not be altered.
Yours is the power to exalt and abase.
May your utterance be law, your word never be falsified.
None of the gods shall transgress your limits…
O Marduk, you are our champion,
We hereby give you sovereignty over all of the whole universe.
Sit in the assembly and your word shall be pre-eminent! (Dalley 249–250).
Marduk uses the winds he was given as a present to puff up Tiamat and shake up her watery insides. Then he shoots an arrow which pierces her belly and slits her heart, and she simply explodes as a sort of ancient cosmic water balloon.
Marduk Creates the World and Its Temples
After trampling on her corpse and capturing her army, Marduk utilizes her corpse to create the known universe, building upon what Ea had already begun with the leftovers of Apsu:
Enuma Elish Tablet 4 The Lord rested, and inspected her corpse.
He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels.
He sliced her in half like a fish for drying.
Half of her he put up to roof the sky
Drew a bolt across and made a guard hold it.
Her waters he arranged so that they could not escape. (Dalley pp. 254–255)
The parallel here between this and the creation of the firmament in Genesis is striking. Marduk then turns to the all-important work of founding shrines for all the main gods in this new world.
He then turns to the stars and constellations, and uses them to set up the calendar:
Enuma Elish Tablet 5 He designated the year and marked out its divisions,
Apportioned three stars each to the twelve months…
He made the crescent moon appear, entrusted night (to it),
And designated it the jewel of the night to mark out the days. (Dalley pp. 255–256)
Marduk uses the moon to make months, while Shamash (the sun) is responsible for the day and night, and the year (cf. Genesis 1). Then Marduk begins to form the world in which humans will live, beginning with the important places in Babylonia:
Enuma Elish Tablet 5 He opened the Euphrates and Tigris from her eyes…
Piled up clear-cut mountains from her udder…
He set her thigh to make fast the sky,
With half of her, he made a roof; he fixed the earth. (Dalley p. 257)
All is then tied together using Tiamat’s tail as rope, and the remaining watery bits and pieces of Tiamat are released from Marduk’s net forming the ocean.
Building Babylon and His Temple
Having defeated Tiamat’s monsters, all the gods, including his elders, proclaim him to be their king and ruler. Then Marduk announces that he will build a temple, a reference, to the place where the Enuma Elish was being read:
Enuma Elish Tablet 5 Over the Apsu, the sea-green dwelling,
In front of Esharra, which I created for you,
(Where) I strengthened the ground beneath it for a shrine,
I shall make a house to be a luxurious dwelling for myself,
And shall found his cult center within it,
And I shall establish my private quarters, and confirm my kingship (Dalley 259)
Marduk then plans the creation of mankind, who will serve the gods allowing them to rest:
Enuma Elish Tablet 6 Let me put blood together, and make bones too.
Let me set up primeval man: Man shall be his name.
Let me create primeval man.
The work of the gods shall be imposed (on him), and so they shall be at leisure. (Dalley, 261)
Ea then implements Marduk’s plan. He slaughters Qingu, who led Tiamat’s monsters against the gods, and uses his blood to create humanity. Marduk next divides the gods into those that live in the heavens, and those who live below, and Babylon and orders the building of the Esagil temple.
Yet, it is the gods who actually build Babylon itself, not humans, giving the city an extra measure of holiness. The saga ends with a banquet in Babylon where fifty great gods each give Marduk a name—hence the fifty names of Marduk—and the narrator concludes:
A father should repeat them (the 50 names) and teach them to his son.
Thus, in Nisan in ancient Babylonia at the time of the Babylonian exile, it was a mitzvah for Babylonian fathers to teach their sons the holy national narrative of Bel-Marduk, the Enuma Elish, around the same time that Jewish fathers in exile told their sons the story of the exodus, at Passover time.
A Jewish/Babylonian New Year
Implicit in the Enuma Elish and the New Year and Akitu rituals is the Babylonian explanation for why their god Marduk is the head of the pantheon. In the Persian Period, Jews living in Babylonia would have felt a similar need, to explain how it is that YHWH, the god of their small province, was the true King of the Universe.
The Judeans likely encountered the imagery of divine kingship from the yearly enthroning of Marduk, and applied it to their depiction of their own deity. Indeed, we can still hear echoes of the Enuma Elish when we declare God’s preeminence as Lord from the world’s very beginnings, in the popular hymn Adon Olam:
אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר מָלַךְ
Eternal master, who reigned supreme,
בְּטֶרֶם כָּל יְצִיר נִבְרָא
Before any materiality was created,
לְעֵת נַעֲשָׂה בְחֶפְצוֹ כֹּל
When all was completed according to his will,
אֲזַי מֶלֶךְ שְׁמוֹ נִקְרָא
Then his name was proclaimed as “King.”
Given the cultural and geographic proximity of exilic Jewish and Babylonians, it is not surprising that, in keeping with the Babylonian festivals’ themes, YHWH’s kingship became a major theme of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year festival. It is still a core part of its liturgy, reflected in the malchiyot (“kingship”) prayer, and the oft repeated line:
הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם; הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָם.
This is the day the world was born; this is the day (God) will judge all of the world’s creatures.
Over time, the Jewish new year migrated back from the Babylonian Nisan to the West Semitic Tishrei, as reflected already in the Torah’s muted description of a festival on the first of the seventh month (Lev 23:24, Num 29:1). Even with the new date, the New Year celebration brought with it the kingship theme so prominent in Enuma Elish and the spring New Year at Babylon.
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Prof. Wayne Horowitz is Professor of Assyriology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He holds a Ph.D. under the direction of W.G. Lambert at the University of Birmingham, England, which was published as the monograph Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. He writes extensively on Ancient Near Eastern Science, Literature and Religion, with an emphasis on the Heavens and Astronomy and is co-editor of several books, including, Cuneiform in Canaan (2007 [updated 2018]), Writing Science before the Greeks (2011), Living the Lunar Calendar (2012), Between Text and Text (2013), A Woman of Valor (2014, Westenholtz FS); and The Cuneiform Uranology Texts: Drawing the Constellations (2018).
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