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Death and Rebirth Myths: Baal and Dumuzi and the Question of Interpretation

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This is an essay written for my Near Eastern Mythology subject at Melbourne Uni. Needless to say, this subject was right up my alley. Once again, I used this essay partly to investigate one of Joseph Campbell’s theories again – this one concerning his championing of James Frazer’s ‘Death and Resurrection’ mythic archetype. The evidence suggests that Frazer’s methods are out of date but there is once again no real reason not to chose to interpret the myths in this way anyway. In fact, the subject of this essay is really an attack upon those who would somehow claim that one interpretation (or no interpretation) is somehow more ‘scientifically’ valid when we are in fact free to choose.

The theme of death and rebirth appears frequently in myth and literature throughout history. The Mesopotamian myth of ‘Inanna/Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld’, and the Canaanite myth of ‘Baal and Mot’ have been interpreted as representing this theme, most notably by the influential social anthropologist James Frazer, writing at the turn of the 20th Century. However, in more recent times, some scholars have cast doubt upon the categorization of these myths, suggesting that they represent the theme of a disappearing or merely dying god instead.

In this essay I will examine each of these myths in turn, briefly reviewing their historical context, the reconstructed texts, and the variants we possess. I will then examine the argument for and against the interpretation that these are death-and-rebirth myths and conclude with a consideration of the nature of mythology itself and how this affects the argument. I will argue that while it is of paramount importance to base interpretations upon the archaeological evidence, it is difficult to affirm or deny a particular mythological interpretation over another when the often-incomplete archaeological evidence sustains both interpretations. Furthermore, such disputes, when directed toward interpretations of mythology, concern not differing facts but relatively superficial disagreements over names and definitions.

Ugaritic (Canaanite) Baal

The myth of ‘Baal and Mot’ heralds from a set of texts discovered on the site of the ancient city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra in Syria). The coastal town had its beginnings in the 8th millennium B.C.E. but is best known as a key trading port at the end of the 13th century B.C.E.[1] It is generally considered by historians as part of the ancient land known as Canaan situated approximately in the modern Levant, along the eastern Mediterranean coast, including the lands of modern Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and the coastal regions of Lebanon and Syria.[2] Canaan was inhabited by mainly Semitic peoples divided into a number of different kingdoms or cultures[3] often involved in complicated political alliances.[4] Ugarit was the capital of a kingdom of the same name and Baal-Hadad can be construed as Ugarit’s patron god.[5] Baal was a storm god,[6] often portrayed as king of the pantheon, although he was still acting under the supreme god El.[7] His adversary in this myth is the underworld god Mot, a figure that does not often appear in the texts;[8] he is the personification of the concept of death.[9]

His myth is considered part of a cycle of Baal myths – the earlier parts recount Baal’s battle with the sea god Yam and the completion of his palace.[10] At this point, Baal has a premonition that he is to be swallowed by Mot.[11] Baal and Mot exchange messages; Mot declares he is hungry and invites Baal to visit.[12] The next section is very difficult to interpret. Some scholars suggest that Baal receives instructions from another god.[13] Baal decides to engender a child from a heifer;[14] it is unclear if this is related to the instructions. There now follows the first sizeable lacuna in the text.[15] When the story resumes, Baal’s death is announced to the gods, who find Baal’s body, undertake his burial, and unsuccessfully seek a replacement in king Athtar.[16] The goddess Anat threatens Mot, who admits swallowing Baal. Anat slices, winnows, burns, grinds and sows Mot (like wheat).[17] After another brief lacuna, the god Latipan appears to be having a dream in which he sees that Baal is alive, but El points out that the fields are still parched and destitute.[18] Sun goddess Shapash says she will seek out Baal before the text lapses into another lacuna.[19] Baal has returned when the text resumes. Baal has a final battle with Mot, before the intervention of Shapash results in Mot conceding to Baal.[20]

Variants of myths involving Baal and death or disappearance are fragmentary. T. N. D. Mettinger mentions a version in which Baal is not killed by Mot but by entities called “eaters” or “devourers” – perhaps some kind of beast. Baal’s death results in a drought for 7-8 years.[21] Mettinger suggests that this more simple account of Baal’s death may be an early version, the rebirth element entering the mythology later, perhaps with influence from the Mesopotamian Dumuzi myth.[22]

Mesopotamian Dumuzi

Dumuzi (also called Tammuz) was a vegetation/fertility god of ancient Mesopotamia, one of the earliest high civilizations stretching back as far as the 4th millennium and located between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in modern Iraq. Unlike Baal, Dumuzi may originally have been an historical king, as the name appears more than once in Mesopotamian king-lists,[23] suggesting at least a legendary background. Like many mythic characters, Dumuzi appears to be a syncretistic amalgam of more localized and earlier god-figures that shared characteristics such as vegetative powers or even just a similar name.[24] Historian Thorkild Jacobsen theorized in the 1970s about the differing Dumuzis, suggesting, for example, a local incarnation for the cowherds – the ‘Wild bull’ Dumuzi[25] – and another for the shepherds of the central grasslands.[26] Both Dumuzis were portrayed as married to Inanna (called Ishtar in the later Akkadian period), a powerful goddess.

Dumuzi’s early death is apparently an integral part of his character, although brought about in various ways depending on the version of the myth.[27] The best-known and most complete extant version we possess is ‘Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld’, a myth initially more concerned with Inanna and her desire to conquer her sister Ereshkigal, goddess of the underworld.[28] Inanna ventures to the underworld but Ereshkigal kills her. The god Enki revives her and Inanna attempts to escape, but she is told that she can only return to the land of the living if she proffers a substitute to remain in the underworld in her stead.[29] Ultimately, it is her husband Dumuzi whom Inanna sends to take her place, displeased with his carousing in her absence.[30] Luckily however, Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna makes a deal – she will take Dumuzi’s place in the underworld for half of every year, allowing Dumuzi to rise to the land of the living during that time.[31]

A later version of the story (discovered earlier than the reconstructed version above), written in the Akkadian language, is much briefer and vaguer.[32] In this version, Ereshkigal simply orders Dumuzi brought down to replace Ishtar in the underworld[33] and the ending involving Dumuzi and his sister (here called Belili) is far more obscure. Belili has vengeful thoughts and apparently declares, “when Dumuzi comes up to me… the dead shall come up and smell the smoke offering.”[34] No specific mention is made of the half yearly bilocation.

The Debate

James Frazer in The Golden Bough (1890) considered the dying and reviving god to be an important essential feature of all myth and religion,[35] listing many examples from the Near East, such as Dumuzi, Tammuz, Adonis, Osiris, Attis and Christ.[36] Frazer’s work was certainly influential, although since publication most of his methods and many of his conclusions have been disproved or questioned.[37]

The argument against Frazer’s idea is founded on the view that lumping myths into the death-and-rebirth category often involves making unwarranted assumptions about missing or obscure parts of the recovered text and even overlooking details that contradict the theory. The main counterarguments involve the idea of disappearing deities – who do not die – and dying gods – who do not resurrect.[38] For example, the myth of Telepinu from the Hittite religion furnishes an example of the disappearing deity type. The god Telepinu, wishing to punish his people, disappears. Since Telepinu is a weather/fertility god, this leads to drought and starvation as the crops die in his absence. Eventually a goddess finds where Telepinu is hiding and convinces him to return. Humanity is forgiven and the land is fertile once more.[39]

J. Z. Smith argues that the Baal myth exemplifies a similar motif of disappearance-reappearance rather than death-and-rebirth.[40] He argues that Baal evades death by sending down a substitute to be eaten by Mot. The basis of this ‘substitution’ view seems to be founded on a fragmentary section which appears before the first major lacuna in the text: “He (Baal) loved a heifer in the pasture(s),… he did lie with her… and she conceived and gave birth to a boy. [Mightest] Baal did clothe him with [his robe], [           ] him as a gift for the…”[41] The clothing of the boy in his robes seems to indicate, at least to some, a disguising of the boy to look like Baal.[42] This way, Baal essentially fakes his death with Mot and then disappears, to be rediscovered by the goddess Shapash, presumably narrated in the significant lacuna near the end of the tale.

But Mettinger finds this substitute/disappearance interpretation unconvincing. He argues it is clear that Baal has died: the gods find his corpse, arrange his burial, search for his replacement, and Mot even confesses eating him.[43] Indeed, if a substitution has occurred, it has fooled not only Mot but all of the gods and, while this is not inconceivable, it is remarkable that the extant text nowhere acknowledges their foolishness in being taken in. The most convincing evidence for Baal’s death is that the crops withered,[44] a detail suspiciously absent from retellings of the myth that advocate the substitution theory.[45] Either way, it is difficult to come to a definite conclusion since there are two large lacunas in the text at the crucial sections.

The argument against Dumuzi’s status as a death-and-rebirth god is mostly unconvincing since the reconstruction of the Sumerian version of the myth. The obscurity of the Akkadian version, particularly the ending, led some scholars to question Dumuzi’s return from the underworld. Smith interprets, “when Dumuzi comes up to me” as indicating either the month Dumuzi or he translates ‘comes up to me’ as in ‘greets me’,[46] an interpretation that Mettinger considers unjustified.[47] Some have remarked on the puzzling ritual evidence, which seems to indicate a ritual of mourning for Dumuzi but no reliable accounts of rebirth celebrations.[48] A very convincing piece of evidence for Dumuzi’s conception as a death and rebirth god is found in the reconstructed text of a letter, discussed by Mettinger, from one Yaminite king to another in which the king compares himself to the god: “As for me,” he writes, “look at me. … I escaped from death… ten times during uprising[s]. Why, now, [am I not] like Dumuzi? They kill him, at the [time of] counting the year. [In the spring (?),] he always comes back to the temple of Annunitum […].”[49] I would argue this evidence is particularly convincing as it apparently expresses an actual contemporary interpretation of the myth.

The Nature of Myth

From the examination above, I conclude that it is still appropriate to speak of these stories as death-and-rebirth myths, however, if we take a step back and examine the fundamental question we are seeking to answer, we will discover that the two alternatives are virtually synonymous in all important respects.

As students of history and archaeology, we are interested in reconstructing the myths of an ancient people because we wish to learn not only about how these people lived but also about what they thought and believed. In doing so, we must be aware of the nature of the primary source material we are examining, as far as this is possible. In this instance, we must be conscious that the texts under discussion are mythological texts. We therefore must bear in mind what we know already about mythology and particularly Near Eastern myth. As Tammi J. Schneider remarks, “[a]ncient Mesopotamian religion was not dogmatic or systematic.”[50] This means that we cannot expect a dogmatic consistency between retellings of the same myths, between retellings of different myths, or even within divergent parts of the same retelling.[51] From what we know of the Baal cycle, this also holds true for Canaanite myth. Also, Mettinger notes, “[a] particular myth may not be identical with a certain text”.[52] Furthermore, mythic characters can be conflated with an historical person, several historical persons, a local god, or several local gods. The same events can be recounted in different ways – literal, historical, metaphorical, comical, euphemistically, allegorically – with influence from other myths, stories, historical events, political biases, social-cultural interactions, moral posturing, philosophical reflection, and elements of pure entertainment.

Within this highly complex mythological framework, we must be wary of making arguments that are inappropriate not just in terms of content (what is argued) but in terms of method (how we argue). As N. Wyatt cautions, “The besetting sin of too much contemporary scholarship is … to fail to recognize the depth of the symbolic dimension [of ancient mythology].”[53] The language of myth is not the language of history, the usual language of archaeological scholarship. A primary source artifact that reveals, hypothetically, that Sargon of Agade disappeared in 2215 B.C.E. may lead us to conclude that this was the year of his death. A primary source artifact that states the high god Baal disappeared or died, even if this could be dated, should not be interpreted in the same way. Baal’s mythological death, for example, is a mythical event occurring in the life of a mythical character recounted in a particular text or fragment; such an event, frankly, could mean anything. In fact, the very multiplicity of practical, political, emotional, metaphorical, allegorical and contradictory meanings contained in a text is exactly what we should expect of a mythology.

This makes the concept of ‘proving’ a mythological event highly ridiculous, meaningless and inappropriate; historical events can be proved but mythic ones cannot. Most myths are impossible to conclusively interpret, even modern ones, let alone mythologies read in fragments several millennia after they were written down. J. Z. Smith’s critical scholarship is riddled with such inappropriate ‘proofs’: “This is a disappearing-reappearing narrative,” he writes. “There is no suggestion of death and resurrection.” “The tradition of bilocation… has no suggestion of death and rebirth.”[54] He is correct that bilocation need not necessarily suggest death and rebirth, but to argue that it absolutely does not is as ridiculous as arguing that it absolutely does. As Mettinger remarks offhandedly, “One could add that descent and disappearance are two analogous metaphors for death.”[55]

Conclusion

To conclude, the distinction between the Dumuzi and Baal tales as death-and-rebirth or as disappearance-reappearance myths is a question of mythic interpretation rather than archaeological proof. We have textual evidence for distinct parts of particular renditions of these myths which permit us a glimpse of the lost content of these mythic cycles. However, we possess very sparse and inconclusive evidence for their interpretation throughout the centuries in which they were alive in the imaginations of these ancient Near Eastern peoples. Our inability to draw conclusions is due to (a) the fragmentary nature of the recovered text, and (b) the plethora of multiple and contradictory meanings that any mythology will arouse even within its own historical-social context.

The argument is worthy of a footnote at best, for the conclusions do not define but merely categorize myth for our convenience – we need merely be reminded that (a) the Baal myth does not specify the precise details of Baal’s apparent death and rebirth, or that (b) the Dumuzi myth suggests an annual cycle of death and renewal but we do not possess many clear indications of its contemporary interpretation. Smith himself seems to be preoccupied with mere categorization at times, arguing that the Dumuzi myth should be considered a substitution myth rather than a death-and-rebirth myth. Neither alternative makes any significant difference as to the knowledge we possess about these ancient peoples; we simply file these myths under different sub-headings.[56] The most disturbing part of the whole debate is that the expansion of this minor footnote into pages and pages of fussy scholarship demonstrates a disturbing lack of understanding of the nature of mythology in general; in the interests of historical accuracy (the prime concern of archaeology as opposed to literary criticism), a complete, unfragmented mythology cannot be meaningfully condensed into such reductive categorizations.

Word Count: 2650

Works Cited

Dalley, S., ed. and trans. 2008. Reissue. Myths from Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Revised edition 2000. Original edition, 1989.

Frazer, J. 1996. Reprint. The Golden Bough. Abridged edition. London: Penguin. Original edition, 1922.

Gibson, J. C. L. 1977. Canaanite Myths and Legends. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Jacobsen, T. 1970. Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture. Edited by William L. Moran. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kramer, S. N. 1979. From the Poetry of Sumer: Creation Glorification and Adoration. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leick, G. 1991. “Baal and Baal-Myths.” In A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology, 18-23. New York: Routledge.

Mettinger, T. N. D. 2001. The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Schneider, T. J. 2011. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Segal, R. A. 2004. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, J. Z. 1987. “Dying and Rising Gods.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Eliade, M. et al. New York: Macmillan, 521-26.

Tubb, J. N. 1998. Canaanites. London: British Museum Press.

Wyatt, N. 2007. Word of Tree and Whisper of Stone: And Other Papers on Ugaritian Thought. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.

Yon, M. 2000. “Ugarit: 6,000 Years of History.” Near Eastern Archaeology 60: 187-89.


[1] Yon 2000, 188.

[2] Tubb 1998, 13.

[3] Tubb 1998, 13-4.

[4] Yon 2000, 188.

[5] Wyatt 2007, 102.

[6] Mettinger 2001, 55.

[7] Wyatt 2007, 63.

[8] Wyatt 2007, 102.

[9] Wyatt 2007, 103.

[10] Smith 1987, 522.

[11] Leick 1991, 21.

[12] Mettinger 2001, 57.

[13] Leick 1991, 21.

[14] Mettinger 2001, 58.

[15] Mettinger 2001, 36.

[16] Mettinger 2001, 58.

[17] Mettinger 2001, 58.

[18] Gibson 1977, 77-8.

[19] Gibson 1977, 78.

[20] Mettinger 2001, 58.

[21] Mettinger 2001, 67.

[22] Mettinger 2001, 209.

[23] Mettinger 2001, 198.

[24] Jacobsen 1970, 24; Mettinger 2001, 185.

[25] Jacobsen 1970, 27.

[26] Jacobsen 1970, 29.

[27] Jacobsen 1970, 29.

[28] Kramer 1979, 82.

[29] Kramer 1979, 82.

[30] Kramer 1979, 83.

[31] Kramer 1979, 83.

[32] Smith 1987, 525.

[33] Dalley 2008, 160.

[34] Dalley 2008, 160.

[35] Segal 2004, 65.

[36] Frazer 1996, 392.

[37] Segal 2004, 24.

[38] Smith 1987, 521-22.

[39] Mettinger 2001, 78.

[40] Smith 1987, 522.

[41] Gibson 1977, 72.

[42] De Moor in Mettinger 2001, 59.

[43] Mettinger 2001, 61-62.

[44] Mettinger 2001, 59.

[45] Such as Leick 1991, 21-22.

[46] Smith 1987, 525.

[47] Mettinger 2001, 24.

[48] Alster in Mettinger 2001, 25; Kutscher in Mettinger 2001, 199.

[49] Mettinger 2001, 201.

[50] Schneider 2011, 39.

[51] It should be noted that even within the more dogmatic systematic religions such as those of the Abrahamic tradition, inconsistencies and contradictions are still rife in matters of interpretation, moral strictures, and even fundamental events, especially when expressed by divergent sects at different times throughout history.

[52] Mettinger 2001, 187.

[53] Wyatt 2007, 105.

[54] Smith 1987, 522.

[55] Mettinger 2001, 77, my emphasis.

[56] An argument perhaps could be made that we should shy away from Frazer’s death-and-rebirth terminology to avoid association with his outdated social Darwinism, but this argument never materializes.

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Written by tomtomrant

14 October 2012 at 3:25 pm

The Unseating of the Goddess

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This is an essay written for my Literature class at Melbourne Uni. I was however using the essay to investigate Joseph Campbell’s theory that the early mythologies of the world’s high civilisations were matriarchal in outlook before the rise of patriarchy. I discovered, as I often do with Campbell, that modern scholarship does not agree in detail but that this hardly affects the sense of Campbell’s argument – a more egalitarian mythology is certainly more matriarchal than a patriarchal one and this was Campbell’s point in essence.

The portrayal of women in classic texts can be seen as reflecting important developments in a culture’s relationship to maternity, kingship, the chthonic other, the social order, and the actual treatment and position of women, largely because these are the ideas that the dominant masculine hierarchy projected upon female characters in their literature. The portrayal of women will be explored through an examination of the characters of Tiamat in the Epic of Creation and Eve in Genesis[1] from the Bible. I argue that despite the portrayal of the feminine through a repressive or at least contrary patriarchal masculine mindset, the modern reader can still detect traces of a deeper wisdom hidden behind the text, a wisdom, if not of a matriarchal goddess, at least of a more egalitarian, and so spiritually-centred, cultural ethos.

Feminist scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that most early Near Eastern goddesses and female mythic characters were primarily “invented by men to serve male interests” (303). We must bear this in mind when considering a convincing reading for the contemporary audience of these texts. The forthright and domineering aspect of some Near Eastern goddesses, such as Ishtar or Anat, has lead scholars such as Marija Gimbutas and Jane Ellen Harrison to suggest that these characters were vestiges of an early matriarchal culture preceding the rise of authoritarian patriarchy. However, Ruether convincingly argues that, while this idea is an important inspiration for modern feminism (274-298), it is an over-simplification of history (20-40). The development was probably a less dramatic shift from a more egalitarian society, with the divine pantheon structured using metaphors of the family, to a more overt patriarchy, with mythology more blatantly promoting the new political hierarchy (Ruether 46-47). As the masculine ethos came to overpower and unbalance the earlier more egalitarian dynamics, feminine powers were sidelined, distorted by male interests or, in some cases, such as that of the Old Testament, virtually eliminated altogether.

The Epic of Creation uniquely appears to reflect such a moment of transition, the suppression and unseating of a goddess. Tiamat is initially portrayed as a benign primal mother, who not only “bore them all” (233),[2] that is, all of the pantheon, both male and female, but also bears with them all: “However bad their ways,” we are told, “she would indulge them” (233). Crucially, unlike in the later text of the Bible, a goddess here gives birth to all the gods and initially acts as a mother in the natural way, that is, reflecting natural human patterns of childbirth and motherhood. Furthermore, as the primal mother, she is an immensely powerful and important figure.

Yet, as Ruether states, the primary purpose of the Epic is to “herald the ascendency of the God Marduk, patron of Babylonia, over the more ancient deities” (48), and Marduk cannot come second to anyone. Even the earlier masculine deities are portrayed as weaklings, presumably to enhance the prestige of Marduk – Apsu is treacherous and easily dispatched (234-235); Anshar and Ea are cowardly and impotent in the face of threat (241-242). Tiamat is no weakling of course, yet a weakness must be found; we see what Bettina L. Knapp terms “a certain passivity” (31) in her attitude, a certain “unwillingness to act aggressively to bring order to an evidently chaotic condition” (31). Tiamat is unable to act even when her consort Apsu is murdered: “You did not go to his side,” the gods complain, “but sat mute” (236). When she does finally rise up against the rebelling gods, her powers are still as potent as ever, but have been transformed from life-giving maternal powers to chthonic powers of darkness; she becomes a kind of vicious dragon, bearing forth venomous snakes and mutant animal creatures (Daley 237). Joseph Campbell defines this as a type of mythological defamation, which, “consists simply in terming the gods of other peoples demons, [and] enlarging one’s own counterparts to hegemony over the universe” (80). Indeed, these strangely gruesome and threatening offspring justify Marduk’s violent attack upon Tiamat; he appears as the shining hero-warrior against her image as an impulsive, devouring dragon. He tears her apart and fashions the world from her dismembered body, effectively appropriating her maternal world-creative powers.

This usurpation or appropriation of female powers has apparently progressed much further in Genesis (Campbell 85). Here there is no goddess at all. God creates the world from the word, by simply performing ‘creation’ (1:3).[3] He even, in chapter 2, causes a woman to be born from a man (22), a particularly jarring biological incongruity (Katz 45). Eve, a mortal woman (definitely not to be interpreted as a goddess in this emphatically patriarchal monotheistic text), then sets in motion humankind’s expulsion from the blissful Garden of Eden by listening to the serpent, eating of the tree of knowledge, and sharing this fruit with Adam, the first man (3:1-24). The contemporary audience of this text would undoubtedly view the whole incident of the expulsion as negative. In the Christian tradition, this becomes the Fall of Man, the basis of Christ’s saving mission. In the Jewish tradition, the event was less far-reaching – Rabbi Hertz (qtd. in Campbell 115) attests that Eve’s sin was more than remedied by the handing down of the Law of God from Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). All the same, Eve, and womankind throughout history, has incurred blame for this disaster; as Paul writes, “It was Adam that was created first, and Eve later, nor was it Adam that went astray; woman was led astray, and was involved in transgression” (1 Timothy 2:13-14).

Thus to a contemporary audience of these texts, female characters were looked on with suspicion; both these texts suggest that woman should submit to man and that she may harbor powers that are chthonic or sinful which men should be wary of. To a modern audience, these are clearly sexist portrayals of women, but it is striking how modern readers can detect more complex readings in small details of the text which the contemporary audience would have glossed over or considered unimportant.

For instance, Claire Elise Katz considers Eve’s transgression as an “act of defiance” which “demonstrates will, autonomy, and thoughtfulness”, qualities decidedly lacking in Adam who “blindly obeyed Eve’s suggestion to eat the fruit” (45). Furthermore, she argues that since Adam was asleep at the time of Eve’s creation from his rib, he played no role in her creation, thus “he did not have any control over Eve” (45). Campbell similarly considers Eve to have essentially created the world of time and knowledge by eating of the tree and releasing us from the unconscious passive dreamtime of the Garden. Viewed this way, “it was not God but Adam and Eve to whom we owe the great world of the realities of life” (110). Indeed, Katz points out that in Hebrew, Eve’s name, Chava, means ‘life’ (45).

Furthermore, much has been made of the similarity between the words ‘Tiamat’ in the Epic and ‘tehom’, ‘the deep’, in Genesis (Heidel 98; Lambert 287; Campbell 85). The ferocious winds summoned by the dominating Marduk against Tiamat in the Epic (251) are here compared and equated with the breath of God which stirred the waters of “the deep” on the first day (Genesis 1:2). Such a reading reveals the goddess still present throughout Genesis – she has merely been de-anthropomorphized, reduced to elemental form as “the deep”, and as “the earth”, out of which man and woman were made by God (Campbell 29), much as the world was formed out of her substance by Marduk.

Today, one is tempted to feel sorry for Tiamat as she is sliced to pieces by Marduk in a manner which the modern reader cannot help registering as excessively violent and brutal. The entire story can be read at cross-purposes: Tiamat’s initial reluctance to act aggressively against her rowdy progeny could easily be seen not as impotent passivity but as “extreme understanding of the energetic needs of youth” (Knapp 31). Furthermore, Campbell notes that Marduk has brought about by violence what Tiamat as the primal goddess would have brought about of her own accord – the creation of the world. From her point of view, Marduk is “actually nothing but her agent, seeming to bring to pass what is coming to pass. But she lets him feel he is doing it himself, building his fine house of blocks with his own strength; and so is a good mother, indeed” (Campbell 86). Campbell hastens to add, however, that this is certainly not the contemporary purpose and sense of the Epic.

Finally, we should note that the unseating and repression of the female is not merely an incidental rearrangement of existing mythology, nor do only women feel its negative ramifications. The goddess represented a life-giving, maternal force, a power associated with unconditional care, love and compassion, that is not easily assumed by masculine symbolic imagery often already carrying contradictory associations, with, for example, political power, warfare, and the unyielding office of law. With the repression and subversion of the goddess, her largely peaceful maternal aspects are hidden underground, between the lines of the text, often unrealized, unnoticed and unfelt. In fact, one wonders if this was not the true intention of the authors all along.

To conclude, we can use these texts to theorise about the thematic development of certain ideas in these early civilisations. As the scale of these societies increased, with amplified political power and more violent military conflict, it seems that a deliberate and concerted effort was made to repress feelings of compassion, of unconditional love for humankind, and to focus upon exclusionary ideas of devotion to the one state (or one God) who had to be seen as tough, heroic and forceful in order to rally troops and marshal clan-loyalty. I have demonstrated how two examples of feminine mythic characters, no doubt representing these undesirable maternal qualities in early mythology, were unseated and displaced. These literary developments may help explain the relative brutality and phlegmaticism of later patriarchal societies, particularly those inheriting these myths. In a way, the suppression of actual females may be regarded as a tragic side effect of unfavourable literary associations particularly when these myths were taken literally or used as precedent.

Word Count: 1647 (not including in-text references).

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. 1991. New York: Penguin, 1964.

Dalley, Stephanie, ed. Myths from Mesopotamia. Revised edition. 2008. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Heidel, Alexander. The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation. 2nd edition. 1963. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Holy Bible, The. Knox edition. London: Burns & Oates, 1963.

Katz, Claire Elise. Levinas, Judaism, and the Feminine. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2003.

Knapp, Bettina L. Women in Myth. New York: University of New York Press, 1997.

Lambert, W. G. “A new look at the Babylonian background of Genesis.” Journal of Theological Studies 16 (1965): 287-300.

Lyons, Deborah. Gender and Immortality. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Rae, Eleanor. Women, the Earth, the Divine. New York: Orbis, 1994.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Goddesses and the Divine Feminine. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.


[1] Whereas it is usual to italicize the names of books, the books of the Bible and the Bible itself often seems to escape this convention. As a result I will italicize The Holy Bible but refer to individual books and the colloquial name, ‘The Bible’, without italicization despite the inconsistency this involves.

[2] Quotations from the Epic of Creation are taken from Dalley 233-274. Since this edition does not have line numbers, the numbers in parentheses are page numbers where the relevant section can be located.

[3] Quotations from the Bible are taken from The Holy Bible,Knox edition 1-21. References are in the traditional ‘chapter:line’ format.

Written by tomtomrant

14 October 2012 at 3:15 pm