Enuma Elish: Summary, Text & Quiz

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The Enuma Elish is a Babylonian epic poem describing the beginnings of the cosmos, the birth of the gods, the rise to dominance of the god Marduk, and the creation of humanity. It can help us better understand the ancient Babylonian worldview, as well as how other Ancient Near Eastern peoples used the ideas seen in this text.

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The Enuma Elish is a Babylonian epic poem from the late second millennium, BCE. It tells the story of how the universe came into being, a great struggle among the gods, and the creation of the world and humanity.

The name 'Enuma Elish' comes from the first two words of the poem, meaning 'when on high…' or 'when in the heights….' The Enuma Elish comes from Babylon, and the best text we have is written in the Akkadian language, using cuneiform script, on seven tablets. The poem was read as part of the ritual for the Akitu festival, which marked the Babylonian new year.

Some of the tablets containing the Enuma Elish, written in cuneiform script.
Some of the tablets containing the Enuma Elish, written in cuneiform script.

The story of Enuma Elish has two basic parts. The first involves a cosmogony, the beginning of the universe, and a theogony, the birth of the gods. The second part of the epic tells of the battle between the god Marduk and the chaos-dragon Tiamat, and how Marduk became the king of the gods. The work ends with the construction of a city for Marduk, Babylon, and a temple for him, called Esagilla, in the city. Finally, Marduk is enthroned as chief god.

In the beginning...

Enuma Elish begins with the universe unformed and containing only water. Only two beings exist in this unformed creation - Apsu, the fresh waters, and his wife Tiamat, who is the salt water and the chaotic oceans. Tiamat is depicted as a monstrous dragon. From their union, silt forms, as it does when a freshwater river runs into the salty sea; from that, the gods arise and the universe begins to take form. The gods begin to have children of their own, and soon there are many of them, ruling the cosmos.

This new order of things is too much for Apsu, who is bothered by the noise and commotion caused by the gods. He decides to destroy them, despite the fact that they are his progeny. Tiamat is horrified by her husband's plan to attack her children, and opposes Apsu, but cannot defeat him.

Apsu is eventually conquered by the god Ea, his own great-grandson, who uses a spell to subdue Apsu and keep him imprisoned in a deathlike state of sleep. All seems well, and Ea and his wife have a son, the god Marduk, who as a child is the favorite of the other gods. They give him the winds as a toy to play with, but the winds stir up trouble on the salty seas, enraging Tiamat. Tiamat, her new husband, the god Kingu, and a group of gods to which she has given birth swear revenge for this, and for Ea's treatment of Apsu, although breaks in the text leave her reasons for this change of allegiance somewhat vague.

The conflict

The gods are frightened at the prospect of facing this army, with Kingu at its head. They don't know how they could possibly defeat it. Marduk speaks up, offering to fight for the gods and defeat Tiamat and Kingu on one condition: that he be made absolute king of the gods, having even the power of life and death over his fellow divinities.

The rest of the gods decide to test Marduk's power by setting up a new constellation in the heavens. They challenge Marduk first to destroy it, and then to restore it just as it was. Marduk passes the test, and the gods agree to his conditions. Marduk is armed with a mace, a bow and arrows, and a net, and sent off to do battle.

Marduk faces the dragon Tiamat in single combat; he catches her in his net and dispatches her with an arrow. Marduk then cuts up Tiamat's body and uses it to construct the dome of the sky, as well as various natural phenomena. He buries her head under a mountain and pierces her eyes, which become the sources for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In this way, Marduk demonstrates his absolute mastery over the natural world.

An ancient depiction of Marduk.
An ancient depiction of Marduk.

Marduk pardons the gods who fought with Tiamat (except for Kingu), but demands that as penance they construct for him a royal city, Babylon, and a temple in it from which to rule, Esagilla. Marduk also convenes a council of the gods, at which Kingu is tried and executed. In order to free the gods from any further toil or manual labor, Marduk commands that the gods use Kingu's corpse to construct the first humans, who are to serve the gods by keeping the land worked, and by giving the gods appropriate worship and sacrifices.

Marduk's commands are obeyed. The gods build the city of Babylon and the temple for Marduk, and also create humanity to serve them. The epic ends with a feast at Marduk's temple, at which the rest of the gods formally proclaim him as their king.

Political overtones

Obviously, there are political overtones to this piece. According to the Enuma Elish, Babylon is not just any city, but the home of the palace of the king of the gods, with the city founded and built by divine beings at Marduk's command. The political and cultural prestige conferred by this can be seen from a later version of this story dating from the period of the neo-Assyrian empire (934-609 BCE). Assyria was a rival Mesopotamian civilization. It replaced Marduk with Asshur, an Assyrian god who dwelt in the city of Asshur, from which Assyria took its name. Having the king of the gods as the special patron of your capital city would give any country an advantage.

The story of the Enuma Elish, and its recitation at the Akitu festival marking the new year, have numerous parallels throughout Ancient Near Eastern literature and religion. The theme of one of the gods being so bothered by the noise of a newly-created universe is found in other Mesopotamian texts like the Atrahasis epic, which also contains the idea of humans being created to free the gods from manual labor and drudgery.

Parallel texts

The Hebrew Bible, the best known work of ancient near eastern religion, also has parallels with the Enuma Elish. The very beginning of the Bible, Genesis 1, describes the new universe in terms very similar to the Enuma Elish, with nothing but water, and the initial act of creation being a separation of waters. In addition, there is imagery throughout the Hebrew bible that uses salt water as a symbol of chaos, disorder, and evil, recalling the monstrous Tiamat.

The idea - present in the Akitu festival - that the new year commemorates the creation of the universe, is also present in the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the new year on the Jewish calendar. While there are a number of aspects to this holiday in the Jewish tradition, one of them is that it is the birthday of the world, and this is commemorated by reading the creation story, just as the Babylonian creation story was read during the Akitu festival. The Bible has a very different theological worldview than the Enuma Elish, but some commonalities remain. This is an important and fascinating study in and of itself.

The Enuma Elish is one of the high points of Mesopotamian epic poetry, giving valuable insight into the Mesopotamian religion and world view, but also helping us to understand how these interacted with the politics of the region, as well as with other examples of Ancient Near Eastern poetry and religion.

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