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Creation Myths

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CREATION MYTHS* Religious stories explaining the origin and order of the universe. Parts of some Mesopotamian creation myths bear a close resemblance to the biblical accounts of Creation and earliest times.

Stories explaining creation were known throughout the ancient Near East. Many were based on stories originating in Sumer, one of the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations. Although now commonly regarded as fanciful and even entertaining explanations for why things were as they were, the myths seem to have fulfilled an important social function. Their recital at religious festivals was believed to have magical power to revitalize nature and society. The creation stories assured worshipers that the original state of order created by the gods would continue to overcome the forces of chaos that threatened illness, ruin, sterility, and death.

PREVIEW

•Sumerian Creation Myths

•Akkadian Creation Myths

•Egyptian Creation Myths

•Creation Myths and Genesis

Sumerian Creation Myths The Sumerians flourished in southern Mesopotamia between 4000 and 3000 bc. Although they were non-Semitic, their cosmology influenced the Semites (various peoples inhabiting Palestine, Phoenicia, Assyria, and Arabia), who eventually adopted the Sumerian chief deities. About 5,000 tablets and fragments inscribed with an assortment of Sumerian literary works have been discovered. Although most of those tablets were inscribed in the early post-Sumerian period (c. 1750 bc), the compositions belong to at least the latter half of the third millennium (2500–2000) bc. As yet, no Sumerian account dealing directly with the origin of the universe has been uncovered. What is known about their notions of creation has been gleaned in part from brief passages scattered throughout their literature, especially from the introductions to poems, where Sumerian scribes were accustomed to writing several lines dealing with creation. In addition, nine myths have survived about the gods who organized the universe, created human beings, and established civilization.

The Sumerian religion, like that of all ancient Near Eastern peoples except the Israelites, was a naturalistic polytheism: they worshiped as gods the natural forces governing fertility (rain, wind, clouds, sun, moon, rivers, seas, and so on). Consequently, people understood the origin of the universe (cosmogony) as accompanying the origins of the gods (theogony).

Heaven and Earth In a tablet cataloging the Sumerian gods, the sea goddess Nammu is described as “the mother, who gave birth to heaven and earth.” In another text she is described as “the mother, the ancestress, who gave birth to all the gods.” Evidently the Sumerians looked upon the primeval sea as the first cause and prime mover of all things, believing that “the heaven and earth” were somehow engendered in that sea. Moreover, in their view the major components of the universe were heaven and earth; their term for universe was a compound word meaning “heaven-earth” (exactly as in the opening verse of the book of Genesis, where “heaven and earth” designate the entire organized universe). Before Enlil, the air god, separated them, heaven-earth was conceived of as a mountain whose base was the earth and whose peak was heaven.

Enlil, called “the king of heaven and earth” or “the king of all the lands,” was the most important of the Sumerian gods. His creative work in organizing the earth is celebrated in “The Creation of the Pickax,” which describes his fashioning and dedicating that valuable agricultural instrument. In part it reads:

Enlil, who brings up the seed of the land from the earth,

Took care to move away heaven from earth,

Took care to move away earth from heaven.

… He brought the pickax into existence, the “day” came forth.

He introduced labor, decreed the fate.

Upon the pickax and basket he directs the “power.”

Thus Enlil separated heaven from earth, brought seed to fruition, and fashioned the pickax for agriculture.

Civilization The water god Enki was also god of the abyss and wisdom. Although Enlil drew up “blueprints” for the universe, Enki did most of the work carrying them out. His efforts went beyond fashioning the natural world to initiating the most important aspects of culture and civilization. In “Enki and the World Order,” the water god makes his way to the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, the two rivers that water the sandy Mesopotamian valley, and fills them with life-giving rains and winds. Then, preparing the earth for cultivation, he “turns the hilly ground into fields, … directs the plow and … yoke, … opens the holy furrows, and grows the grain in the cultivated field.” Then the god lays the foundations of houses, stables, and sheepfolds, and builds them. He fixes the “borders” and sets up boundary stones. Finally he invents weaving, called “that which is woman’s task.” Having organized the earth, Enki entrusts each place and element to a special deity.

Sumerian Eden Another myth, “Enki and Ninhursag: A Paradise Myth,” bears a remote resemblance to the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. The myth seems to take place before the creation of animals or humans in Dilmun, a land in the east where the gods reside— “pure,” “clean,” “most bright,” and probably without sickness or death. Having filled that land with fruitful fields, Enki successively impregnates three goddesses: Ninhursag, “the mother of the land”; Nimmu, his daughter by that union; and Ninkurra, his granddaughter by Nimmu.

Ninhursag seems to use Enki’s semen to make eight new plants. Evidently they are “forbidden fruit,” because when Enki eats them, Ninhursag curses him and leaves the garden, adding, “Until he is dead I shall not look upon him with the eye of life.” Under the curse, the garden languishes and the gods mourn. Enlil, the king of the gods, seems unable to cope with the situation. Enki lies dying. The fox, evidently already present in Dilmun, saves the day by luring Ninhursag back to Dilmun, where she heals Enki and revives the garden.

The Creation of Humans Regarded as the mother of all gods, Ninhursag may have personified Earth. In “The Creation of Man,” she plays an important role along with Enki.

Having come into existence before there was meat or bread for them to eat, the gods face a dilemma:

They knew not the eating of bread,

Knew not the dressing of garments,

Ate plants with their mouth like sheep,

Drank water from the ditch.

To relieve that situation, Enlil and Enki fashion a cattle god and a grain goddess. Cattle and grain suddenly abound, but the gods are unable to utilize them. Something is still needed to tend the animals and make grain into bread. The gods complain to Enki and command him to create servants to take care of their needs.

Coming to their aid, Enki takes “clay that is over the abyss” and with Ninhursag oversees its fashioning into human beings who are pressed into the gods’ service, especially to make them bread. At a feast afterward, Enki and Ninhursag get drunk and ineptly make several abnormal human types, including the barren woman and the eunuch. But whole or flawed, man and woman are the clay of the abyss, and are related by nature to chaos.

Akkadian Creation Myths The Babylonian and Assyrian cultures, both Semitic, shared the Akkadian language, which distinguished them from the non-Semitic and linguistically different Sumerians. By far the most familiar creation myth of the ancient Near East is the Babylonian creation epic known as Enuma Elish (from its opening words). It deals explicitly with the creation of the universe and contains some parallels to the biblical account. A later Assyrian version of the myth appropriately substituted the national god Asshur for Babylon’s god Marduk.

In Enuma Elish the human race is made from the blood of Kingu, leader of a rebel horde against the creator god Marduk. Consequently, in the Babylonian myth, man and woman are again related to chaos. In another myth preserved in an Old Babylonian fragment, humankind is made from the blood of a slain god:

Let [man] appear!

He who shall serve all the gods,

Let him be formed out of clay,

be animated with blood!

Enki opened his mouth,

saying to the great gods: …

Let them slay one god.

With his flesh and his blood …

let Ninhursag mingle clay.

According to another Akkadian myth, the gods created man as a perverse being, presenting him with twisted speech, lies, and untruth.

Egyptian Creation Myths The customary Egyptian myth of creation (found, for example, in the dedication ritual of a royal pyramid or in the Book of the Dead) relates that before the creation there was a watery void, accompanied by darkness, formlessness, and invisibility. That watery chaos bore the name Nun, “the great god who came into being by himself … the father of the gods.” The void subsides, leaving a primordial mound of earth with the creator god Atum (“totality”) upon it. Atum brings into being the rest of the universe and assigns places and functions to its parts.

In a detail similar to the Mesopotamian myths, the air god Shu separates heaven-earth by lifting the sky goddess Nut from the earth god Geb and placing himself between the two.

The most significant Egyptian creation myth is the so-called “Memphite Theology” (c. 2700 bc), which sought to move the Egyptian capital to Memphis by claiming it to be the site of the original creation mound. Rather than describing the creation in purely physical terms, that myth conceives of the universe as coming into existence through the mind (“heart”) and commanding speech (“tongue”) of the creator god. According to that myth, then, an intelligent will controlled the universe.

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c circa—approximately

[1]Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). Tyndale Bible dictionary. Tyndale reference library (Page 330). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.

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