The Babylonian Story of the Creation and the Earliest History of the World

By: Arno Poebel

Originally Published in 1913

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During the summer of 1912 I examined the collections of cuneiform inscriptions in the University Museum. I was especially interested in historical and grammatical texts and of both I found quite remarkable specimens.

Tablet with missing top, cuneiform writing
Fig. 48.—Obverse of a tablet containing the story of the creation and the deluge.
Museum Object Number: B10673

One of the tablets of historical contents takes us, at least in the belief of the Babylonians, back to the very beginnings of history, namely to the time of the deluge, and even farther back to the time of the creation of mankind. Only the lower part of this tablet has been found; what has been recovered is, however, a priceless possession of the Museum.

The preserved portion of the first column begins with instructions concerning the building of cities, which, it seems, were given by the gods to the first men, whose creation must have been related in the now missing preceding lines. Still we are fortunate enough to read at the end of the first column at least the following reference to their creation. “After Enlil, Enki and Ninharsagga had created the blackheaded” (thus the Babylonians designated humankind) “they called into being in a fine fashion the animals, the four-legged, of the field.” Up to the present time there has been, among Assyriologists as well as among Biblical scholars, considerable speculation as to whom the Babylonians, in the older times, credited with having created the first of the human race. Here we are told that it was the two gods Enlil and Enki and the goddess Ninharsagga. From Greek writers we know of a very queer late Babylonian account of the creation of man which was transmitted to them by the Babylonian priest Berosus, a younger contemporary of Alexander the Great. According to him the god Bel, i.e., Marduk of Babylon, cut off his head and the other gods mixed the blood that flowed from his head with the earth and fashioned man who thus became a rational being. This story has not come to us directly from Berosus; it first passed into a book by the Greek scholar Alexander Polyhistor and from there has been quoted by Eusebius, the writer of the history of the Christian church, and it may therefore have reached us somewhat disfigured. But assuming its general correctness and considering it in the light of our new text as well as what we know from other cuneiform sources, we may perhaps reconstruct the older Babylonian story of the creation of man in this way. When Enlil, the creator of heaven and earth, wished to people the earth with living beings, the god Enki, the god of wisdom and knowledge, devised the image of man after the image of the gods, and the goddess Ninharsagga moulded it in clay, while the blood of Enlil gave it life and intellect. From the Old Testament we know that the blood was considered to be the seat of life, but whether or not the idea that Enlil cut off his head to obtain this life-giving blood will be corroborated from cuneiform sources we cannot tell at the present time.

Tablet with chunk missing, cuneiform writing
Fig. 49.—Reverse of a tablet containing the story of the creation and the deluge.
Museum Object Number: B10673

Turning now to the second column of our tablet we read of some of the antediluvian cities of Babylonia, which Enlil bestows upon certain gods. Here again our tablet settles a disputed question; it mentions the city of Larak, and it is therefore this city that must be identified with the city of Laranche, which according to Berosus was the seat of several of the prediluvian kings of Babylonia.

The third, fourth, fifth and sixth columns then contain the story of the deluge. “At that time,” we read in column 3, “Ziugiddu was king, a pashish-priest of Enki; daily and constantly he was in the service of his god.- In order to requite him for his piety Enki, in column 4, the first of the reverse, informs him that at the request of Enlil it has been resolved “in the council of the gods to destroy the seed of mankind,” whereupon Ziugiddu—this part of the story, however, is broken away—builds a big boat and loads it with all kinds of animals. For seven days and seven nights a rainstorm, as we read in column 5, rages through the land and the flood of water carries the boat away; but then the sun appears again and when its light shines into the boat Ziugiddu sacrifices an ox and a sheep. Lastly, in column 6, we find Ziugiddu worshipping before Enlil, whose anger against men now has abated, for he says: “Life like that of a god I give to him,” and “an eternal soul like that of a god I create for him,” which means that Ziugiddu, the hero of the deluge story, shall become a god.

A Babylonian story of the deluge has been known to us for a long time from a poem that is imbedded in the famous Gilgamesh epic. There exist also several fragments of other versions of the story, and the Museum possesses a small fragment of thirteen partially preserved lines, which was published by Prof. Hilprecht some years ago. Our new text, however, is an entirely different account, as will be seen from the fact that the hero bears a name different from that found in the other deluge stories. But what makes the new account especially important is that it is not, like the other versions, written in the Semitic Babylonian language, but in Sumerian, that is, the old tongue of the non-Semitic race which, in the earliest days of history, held sway over Babylonia. As will be seen from some of the quotations the text is a kind of poetical composition, and as such was originally not intended to be merely an historical record, but served some practical, ritualistic or other purpose. For various reasons it seems to me that our tablet was written about the time of king Hammurabi (2117-2075), thus being the oldest Babylonian record we have at the present time, of the creation as well as the deluge. The text itself, however, may go back to even a much earlier time.

Judging by the color of the clay, the shape of the tablet and the script, our text belongs with another tablet that contains a list of kings. It even seems to me that there were three tablets of about equal size measuring about 5½ by 7 inches, on which an historically interested scribe wrote the world’s history, or at least its outlines. The first of these tablets, I believe, contained the Babylonian theogony and then related the famous fight between the younger generation of the gods and the deity of the primeval chaos, which ultimately resulted in the creation of heaven and earth out of the two parts of Chaos. Here the tablet which I have just described comes in and gives the history of the world as far as the deluge. Then a third tablet gave a complete list of the kings of Babylonia from the time of the deluge to the king under whom the tablets were written. A portion of this third tablet or, to be more accurate, the reverse of this portion, which contains about an eighth of the whole text, was published six years ago by Prof. Hilprecht. It contained two of the last dynasties of this list of kings. I succeeded in copying also the much effaced obverse which contains the names of kings of the period immediately after the deluge, and, in addition to this, I also found larger and smaller fragments of three other and older lists of kings. I need hardly emphasize the great historical and chronological value of these new lists since they give us not only the names of the kings, but the length of their respective reigns, and in some few instances even add some short historical references relating to these kings. The first part of these lists leads us, it is true, into quite legendary times. We find there kings whose names are familiar to us from myths and legends and heroic epics, as, e.g., Gilgamesh, the hero of the famous Gilgamesh epic; Dumuzi, the unfortunate lover of the goddess Ishtar; Etana, who, under the wings of an eagle, made a daring ascent to heaven. etc. Moreover, remarkably long reigns are assigned to the first kings of the lists. Etana, e.g., is said to have ruled 625 years; another king, called the “Scorpion,” 840 years, and Lugalbanda of Erek 1200 years. But very soon the lists become entirely historical; the kings rule only 36, 20 or 7 years, etc.

The long reigns assigned to the earlier kings involve, of course, that a very long duration must be assumed for the whole period from the deluge to the time when the tablets were written; and indeed one of the tablets that was written under the 134th king, the eleventh king of Isin, counts 32,175 years, while another list reckons from the deluge to the 139th king, the last king of Isin, 32,234 years.

This is, by the way, a new corroboration, at least to some extent, of the Greek tradition which, as we saw, goes back to the priest Berosus. For we are told by Greek writers that from the deluge to the first invasion of Babylonia by the Medes—this invasion is, of course, not identical with that of the later Medes and Persians —86 kings ruled over Babylonia for 33,091 years. There must, of course, be some slight mistake in these numbers. On the whole, the great similarity of the two traditions is striking.

In order fully to appreciate the bearing of the new chronological data, it may be well to say a little more on the chronological system of the Babylonians as it has been transmitted to us by the Greeks, and as we can now partially confirm it from cuneiform sources.

At the beginning of all time there were three immense periods. In the first there existed only Chaos and her husband, the Ocean; then, after a long time, the primeval gods Lakhmu and Lakhamu were born, and after similar long intervals Anshar, the upper world, and Kishar, the lower world, came into existence. This primeval period came to an end when the younger generation of gods vanquished Chaos and created Heaven and Earth. Then follows, from the creation to the deluge, the period of the ten primeval kings which lasted 432,000 years. After that the present still lasting period begins, for which, till about 2400 B.C., the Babylonians counted 32,234 years. From the creation to the time of Berosus (ca. 300 B.C.) we would therefore have to count about 466,500 years, but in the introduction to his book on Babylonia he states that the written records of the Babylonians reached back to about 2,150,000*1 years before this time, i.e., long before the creation of the earth, to the time when Chaos still reigned the universe.

Some of the earlier kings we meet again in a number of fragments of chronicles and poetical compositions, which I have copied. I mention here only the epics referring to king Lugalbanda and king Dumuzi. If we combine all the facts that we are able to gather from the new tablets as well as from the older material, the story of the two kings is about the following.

Many small fragments of a tablet pieced together with large gaps in between
Fig. 50.—A tablet containing the famous code of laws of Hammurabi. As many pieces as could be found have been joined together after each fragment had been carefully cleaned.

Lugalbanda began his career as a shepherd; at his time the bird-god Zu stole from Enlil, the king of the gods, the tablets of fate, which gave to their owner supreme power over the whole world, over men and gods alike. Enlil used to wear them on his breast, but one day when he was sitting on his throne, the bird-god Zu snatched the tablets away and flew to a distant mountain rock. None of the gods dared to do anything to recover the tablets, for all power now rested with Zu, but the shepherd Lugalbanda, thus we must conclude, succeeded in recovering them by a trick which he played on Zu, and Enlil requited this service by making him king of Erek and, after a reign of 1200 years, even made him a god. As such he was worshipped even in the latest times of Babylonian history.

King Dumuzi was originally a fisherman, but the goddess Ishtar fell in love with him and made him king of Erek. Concluding from certain allusions in the Gilgamesh epic it seems that Ishtar after some time killed her lover, though afterwards she seems to have repented of her deed, for in order to bring him back from the dead,*2 she herself descends into Hades. A tablet that I found among the collections of the Museum depicts the famous scene when Ishtar enters the realm of the dead. She passes through the first gate and the crown is taken from her head. “Why do you take this away from me?” she asks, and the answer is given,” Go on, 0 Ishtar, such are the laws of the nether world!” She passes through the second gate and the rings of her fingers are taken from her. Again she asks, “Why do you take these away from me?” and again the answer, “Go on, O Ishtar, such are the laws of the nether world!” And so she walks through all the other gates until finally she passes naked through the seventh and last gate. It would lead us too far from our subject if I would here describe how Ishtar herself now was kept a prisoner in Hades, but was rescued by the gods; and it seems her lover Tammuz was rescued too, for later, at the time of Adapa, we find him as a god in the heavenly palace of Anum, the father of the goddess Ishtar.

These legends, it is true, have mostly been known to us already from late Babylonian and Assyrian texts, and besides, the texts which I found in the Museum, are very fragmentary. And yet an inestimable value attaches to them, for first of all they are written like almost all of the literary texts that were found at Nippur, in Sumerian, and then they date from a time almost two thousand years earlier than many of the known legends which mostly came from the library of king Ashurbanapal (about 630 B.C.).

Let us now turn to the really historical times. There is, e.g., a very large clay tablet that contains the copies of a whole series of inscriptions of king Lugalzaggisi of Erek and of the three first kings of Agade in northern Babylonia, Sharrukin, Rimush and Manishtusu, whose time is placed by a late Babylonian statement about 3750 B.C. A short statement on the edge of the tablet tells us that these are all the inscriptions of the just mentioned kings that were extant in Ekur, the temple of Enlil at Nippur, which the University of Pennsylvania has partially excavated. These texts contain a wealth of important historical information. We learn from them, e.g., that Sharrukin on an expedition to southern Babylonia made Lugalzaggisi a prisoner and led him triumphantly in fetters through the gate of the temple of Enlil at Nippur. He then proceeds farther south until he reaches the Persian Gulf, where he washes his weapons in the sea. Then he subdues the various kingdoms in the West and along the shore of the Mediterranean as far as the “cedar forest” and the “silver mountains,” i.e., the Lebanon and the Taurus in Asia Minor. Likewise he leads his victorious armies to the East as also do his two successors, Manishtusu and Rimush, the former of whom crosses the Persian Gulf and vanquishes a coalition of thirty-two kings who had assembled to do battle with him, and then subdues the lands as far as the silver mines or, as the inscription says, the “silver holes.”

Similar copies of royal inscriptions of quite a number of other kings were found in the Museum collections, e.g., of Naram-Sin of Agade, 3750 B.C., of Ur-Engur of Ur, about 2700 B.C., Ishbi-Urra, Idin-Dagan, Ishme-Dagan, Ur-Ninib, Damik-ilishu of Isin, copies of letters to and from king Idin-Dagan of Isin, between 2600 and 2300, the copy of a building inscription of Samsuilana, about 2050, etc. Among the collections that were bought from antiquity dealers I found a very important historical inscription of king Lugal-anna-mundu of Adab, a Babylonian kingdom of which we did not know much up to the present time, presumably before 2700 B.C. It comprised not only Babylonia but the surrounding countries also. In the introduction the king speaks of his conquest of the Elamitic city of Markhalim, and then describes a temple which he built and its seven gates. But I must not forget to make mention of a short Sumerian history of a temple of Ninlil, which incidentally also furnishes information of the great temple of Enlil at Nippur. We learn, e.g., that when this temple had fallen to ruin for the second time, king Gilgamesh rebuilt a certain part of it, while his son (……..)-lugal rebuilt the temple of Ninlil.

Another treasure of the Museum is a copy of the famous code of laws of king Hammurabi (about 2100 B.C.). To be precise I ought to say that up to this time only one of probably three very large and bulky clay tablets that contained the full text of the code has been found; it is very much broken, as will be seen from the accompanying photograph. But nevertheless it remains a great treasure, since the better preserved obverse supplements a part of the great lacuna on the stele of the code in the Louvre, supplying some laws concerning the merchant and his undermen.

The second class of tablets on which I worked during the last summer, the grammatical texts, are very numerous; they mostly came from the temple school, and the greater part of them contain grammatical exercises of pupils. They all deal with the Sumerian language, which the young scribes of those days had to acquire as at the present time boys of the higher schools are instructed in Latin and Greek. These linguistic tablets, which partly date from 2500 and partly from 1300 B.C., can, of course, claim a greater interest only from Sumerian scholars; for them, however, their value will be immense; for they give not only a good many new readings of cuneiform signs, but a few of them contain paradigms of the most difficult and so far only imperfectly known parts of the Sumerian language, namely the personal pronouns and the verbal forms. These new tablets will form the first sure basis for a Sumerian Grammar.

Arno Poebel

*1 Thus according to the Armenian version; the Greek text gives the number as 150,480
*2 This connection is not certain; it is only an attempt to bring in contact with each other the various isolated parts of the epics

Cite This Article

Poebel, Arno. "The Babylonian Story of the Creation and the Earliest History of the World." The Museum Journal IV, no. 2 (June, 1913): 41-50. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/199/


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