Enuma Elish: the Babylonian Epic of Creation

Enuma Elish is a straight-up cosmology, or creation story. It is also known as the Babylonian Epic of Creation, the Babylonian Genesis, and the Seven Tablets of Creation. It was composed in the early second millennium BCE, either under the rule of Sumula-el (reigned 1936 -1901 BCE), or of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE).

It opens with the line, “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 and mixed their waters together, but had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds.” First there is nothing, but then land and sea are created by Apsu and Tiamat.

This initial creation is directly followed by the breakout of war amongst the gods; the outbreak of divine warfare on the outset of creation is highly prevalent within the corpus of Near Eastern cosmologies. The battle eventually comes down to a showdown between Tiamat and Marduk, the king of the gods and patron of Babylon.

This divine warfare is absent from Genesis 1, and for good reason as the Hebrew Bible was trying to at least keep up a pretense of monotheism. However, hints of this warfare are scattered throughout other sections of the Hebrew Bible. For example, Psalms 74:13-14 reads “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.”

Cylinder seal depicting the battle with Tiamat

Marduk wins the battle with Tiamat—who would take a serpentine form in myth and artistic depiction—and from her corpse, or “her waters,” he creates the land and the earth and the sky. The Psalms passage and the pertinent segment of Enuma Elish are hardly identical, but they both refer to the killing of a serpentine monster, and the splitting of waters in relations to that killing. I don’t think that it is a coincidence.

Another interesting parallel can be found in the original Hebrew. In both Enuma Elish and Genesis 1, the fact that a primeval watery chaos existed before all else is emphasized. In Enuma Elish, this watery chaos is personified, or perhaps deified, in Tiamat. In Genesis 1, that chaos is described with the word te-hom. The clear relation between the name “Tiamat” and the word te-hom, the influence of Babylonian language and culture on the rest of the ancient Near East, and the fact that they both refer to the same pre-creation chaos indicates a connection between these two stories which extends far beyond parallel content and narrative structure.

As for the rest of the Epic and its parallel content, Marduk creates land, then sea, then sky, then heavens, day, night, the sun and the moon, agriculture, and finally, man (who, like Atrahasis) was created from the blood of a god. In Genesis 1, God creates first water, and then the sky and heaven and days and nights, and then land, sea, agriculture, the sun, the moon, life, and finally, man. Creation in Enuma Elish spans over seven tablets, while the creation in Genesis spans over seven days.

You can find a full translation of Enuma Elish here. A link to the next tablet can be found at the bottom of the page.

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