Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mythology Talk: The Cradle of Civilization

Question: Could you talk about the Mesopotamian creation myth?

The key question here is, of course: which one?

"Mesopotamian mythology" is really an umbrella term for the ancient religions of the cradle of civilization (centered mostly in what is now Iraq). The largest of these are the Sumerian civilization, which was centered on the city of Sumer (4500-1900 BCE); then the Akkadian Empire, which focused on Akkad (2334-2154 BCE); then the Assyrian Empire with its center in Assur (2200-605 BCE); and finally the Babylonian Empire, based in famous Babylon (1895-619 BCE). As you can see, there's lots of overlap in time - Sumer continued to be relevant for the entire existence of the Akkadian Empire and into the beginning of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, and the Assyrian Empire arose while Akkad was still a power and also coexisted with Babylon for several centuries.

And also, as we can see, they're all on top of each other geographically as well. So it's no wonder they have religious features in common - or rather, they all very nearly share the same religion, each adding their own features, which is why we usually talk about them all together. There isn't a ton of difference between Akkadian mythology and Babylonian mythology, so in the interests of not nitpicking very tiny things like who wears a fish symbol where, we just talk about it all in one big bowl of Mesopotamian Myths.

But because there were multiple civilizations involved, with multiple goals, over a very long period of time (remember those Egyptians we just talked about last week being so long-lived? they've only got these folks by about 500 years!), there are inevitably differences. So the Sumerian creation myth is not quite identical to the later ones. So let's talk about what is the same, and then where the differences lie!

The Mesopotamian creation myth goes generally like this: in the beginning of the universe, there were only two beings, who were Tiamat, the feminine principle of salt water, and Apsu/Abzu, the masculine principle of fresh water. The two of them gave birth to the first gods, the twins Lahmu and Lahamu, who were the silt of the primordial waters, and they gave birth to Anshar, the horizon of heaven, and Kishar, the horizon of earth. They gave birth to Anu, the great god of the heavens, and Ki, the goddess of the earth, and from the two of them were born all the other gods: Enlil and Enki/Ea, who were the fathers of Ninurta and Nergal and Nanna/Sin and Marduk, who were the parents of Utu/Shamash, Ereshkigal, Innana/Ishtar, and so on and so forth. Enlil was born first, and as the god of air and sky separated his parents to allow space for all the other gods and humanity to live between them (if that sounds familiar, it's because Egypt has the same myth of Geb and Nut separated by their father Shu, and it's hard to guess, given how ancient both pantheons are, which one borrowed it from the other!).

Once all the gods have been created, however, their dancing and shouting and general noise-making becomes so loud that it begins to disturb Tiamat and Apsu, the ancient progenitors, who find the noise aggravating and intrusive after an eternity of existing silently alongside one another. Tiamat puts up with the noise even thought she doesn't like it because she is the mother of all of them and considers it part of her duty to put up with their youthful hijinks, but eventually Apsu can't take the noise anymore and tells her that he wants to destroy them and be done with it. They argue some, with Apsu almost swayed by Tiamat's argument that they can't destroy their own children, until his servant Mummu (the god of stasis and peace) tells him that he will never sleep again if he doesn't get rid of the gods, and Apsu agrees and decides to clean house.

The gods get word that their ancient sire is planning to do away with them and understandably start panicking, until Enki/Ea, creative trickster god of the waters, tells them he will handle the situation, and creates a complex spell that puts Apsu to sleep. Since sleeping was pretty much what Apsu wanted in the first place, the story could have ended here, but that's not how gods usually solve their problems; Enki kills Apsu while he sleeps, takes his symbols and tools for himself, and establishes his new home within the fresh water that Apsu once controlled, making himself the new god of waters. (On a symbolic level, this represents the gods taking control of fresh water, an important and necessary part of life, away from the ancient primordial powers for their own use and eventually humanity's. Apsu was not a god who could be called upon by humanity for help with life-giving water, being too ancient and remote, but Enki is.)

Unfortunately for everyone, this act of killing the patriarch of the gods did not go over well with the entire cosmos. Tiamat was shocked and horrified by the loss of her husband, killed by the very children she had argued with him not to act against, and various of the other gods taunted her, telling her that it was her own fault for not standing with her husband when he needed her and further scorning her, saying that the sea is too violent now that she is upset and she was never a good mother to them, either, since it's bothering them. Grieving and infuriated by the accusation that she did not love her husband or her descendants, Tiamat eventually decides to declare war on them, and begins to give birth to a whole new generation of monsters and gods on her (symbolically, these are hideous and dangerous monsters because she's having them all by herself; they are solely born out of the endless depths of the ocean, instead of from the mingling of the salt water with Apsu's fresh water that made the gods). She chooses one of the new gods, the noble Kingu, and makes him her new husband, giving him the Tablet of Destinies to show him as the legitimate ruler given power by her as the eldest deity and sending him out to lead the army against the gods who betrayed her.

Enki hears about this and gets very worried about the situation, and they start by trying to send out envoys to convince Tiamat not to murder them all.
Enki goes himself first, but is too frightened of her and comes back; then Anu, his father, who as the father of all the active gods has the authority to tell her to back off with all of them behind him, but she is not impressed and strikes him, causing him to flee. Out of ideas, the gods call an assembly of all their number to try to figure out what to do, but nobody else wants to or could be powerful enough to challenge Tiamat or Kingu, until finally Marduk, Enki's young son, is chosen for his martial prowess and told to go handle the situation. Marduk agrees, but only if the gods will give him full authority as his their ruler if he succeeds, which is probably a pretty easy thing to promise given that it won't matter in the very likely case that he fails like everyone else. They call up Lahmu and Lahamu, Tiamat's and Apsu's eldest children, to legitimize the transfer of power to Marduk, and then send him out with the power of all the gods behind him to try to save the day.

Once Marduk arrives, he's so majestic and terrifying with the powers of all the gods on his side that Tiamat's army is overwhelmed and doesn't want to fight him, and even Kingu is intimidated and unsure of how to proceed; only Tiamat is not afraid of Marduk. He accuses her of being a terrible mother who has married Kingu when he doesn't deserve it and is plotting against her children, and they close in single combat while the rest of the army scatters. Eventually Marduk wins by pouring all the winds of the world into Tiamat's open mouth so that she splits open and then cutting out her heart; once he has done so, he captures the rest of the army and takes them prisoner, and takes the Tablet of Destinies from Kingu in order to further legitimize his own rule. He then creates the rest of the world out of the pieces of Tiamat's body; half of her body fashions the heavens, while the other half makes up the earth. Her blood is converted into rain, her skull into earth, her breasts into mountains (punctured so that their milk runs out as rivers), her vulva into the support for the sky, her tail into the Milky Way, and both of her eyes are punctured to become the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Marduk goes home to become the uncontested king of the gods, and humanity is eventually invented by the mother goddess Ninhursag/Nintu to populate the newly created world.

So that's the general tale, one full of heartbreak and patricide and people making terrible decisions. Scholars have long pointed out that it probably influenced a lot of other nearby mythologies - I already mentioned the analogue with Geb and Nut above, and the pattern of sons superseding their fathers' rule, and their mothers' violent reaction, is one that appears even more violently in Greek mythology. But as mentioned above, there are a lot of changes depending on which period of the empire you're in and who's in charge!

For example, the Sumerian version of the myth, the earliest one, does not contain the whole war between the gods and their parents; it describes Nammu, a primordial deity of the waters, who gives birth alone to Anu and Ki, who then create the gods. Nammu doesn't appear in Assyrian and Babylonian versions of the myth, since she's been completely replaced by Tiamat, but has a cameo in Akkadian mythology as the being called upon by Enki to create humankind. The Akkadian version of the story adds Tiamat and Apsu as the original creators and sets in place the chain of descent from them the Lahmu and Lahamu, then to Anshar and Kishar, then to Anu and Ki, and introduces the story of the conflict between the gods and their progenitors, though the main actors are Enlil and Ea (Enki). The Assyrians brought their personal favorite god, Assur/Ashur, a solar god who was the one they considered to have fought and defeated Tiamat, a story that persisted in Assyrian-dominated areas of the empire until the rise of Babylon (Ashur was identified with Anshar, Anu's father, in some areas due to the similar names and also because it made him even more important if you put him so high in the genealogy!). And, finally, the Babylonian emperor Hammurabi who rolled in around the eighteenth century BCE was a personal devotee of Marduk, and he instigated an empire-wide initiative to rewrite a new national version of the creation story, this time with Marduk as defeater of Tiamat and supreme ruler over all the gods.

This is interesting in Hero's Journey, of course - there are most likely multiple sects within the Mesopotamian religion, and while Marduk as the main dude is probably the most common and visible one, there are probably splinter sects that continue to consider Enki or Ashur or various other deities and stories the important ones, and relegate Marduk to side importance. Just as there are huge numbers of splinter sects in modern world religions today, there is probably a wealth of hotly debated difference between different Mesopotamian denominations!


  1. Thor mesopotomians were badass. Im crazy to play a chosen of Tiamat when the time comes
    But out of curiosity;what devotional powers Would that pantheon have?

    1. Devotionals take a lot of work and time investment, so I can't give you anything concrete, but I would imagine the Divinity-related powers would have to do with a hero or god's mastery over various concepts in the world - me - while Ritual would probably have something to do with venerating sacred statues and prayer as well as warding off demons, and Theology probably has something to do with concepts of pride/sin, equality among humanity and ascendance of the gods, and different levels of and politics among the gods that control the universe.

      That's just off the top of my head, though, I couldn't tell you for sure without a lot more work first!

    2. you're amazing for answering my question Anne,

    3. Were the ancient mesopotomians concerned with equality? were they anti-slavery?

    4. Yes and no. They were definitely not anti-slavery - like most ancient civilizations, they had slaves, who were mostly prisoners of war and their descendants or else people who were badly in debt and either voluntarily sold themselves/family members to pay it off or were "repossessed" by the government.

      They were very concerned with social status and lines of who was supposed to do what, however, so they were very against things like slavery being imposed on people they didn't think [i]should[/i] be slaves. There's a whole bit in Mesopotamian myth where the Igigi, a secondary race of gods, get upset because they have to do all the work for the greater gods and that isn't fair, and after deliberation the gods agree, and humanity is created specifically to do gruntwork that gods shouldn't have to do. So, you know, that's glamorous for us!

    5. Oh, I see where this question came from, I had to re-read my comment!

      "Equality" in that sense means more that all of humanity were considered equally lesser than the gods, and that once they die, they all go to the exact same dismal place, with no distinction being made between who was a good or bad person or who was important or not when they were alive. Death is the great equalizer in Mesopotamian death beliefs. And no matter how important you are as a human, you still can't approach the importance of a god, so there's a strong thread of "we're all equally unimportant to the gods, so don't get uppity" going on in their myths.

  2. So, here's a question... what is the Tablet of Destinies? Like, what is it? What does it do? I keep seeing it used as a symbol of Divine, even Primordial, Power, and I hear the Seven Gods who Decree hold onto it as a symbol of their rule, but, erm, what does it do? Or is it a macguffin that just exists to be sought and fought over and then be a symbol of power, kind of like how the Vedas get treated in Hindu myth? Also is the Tablet a thing in the Nammu stories or was it added later, like Marduk himself?

    1. Essentially, the Tablet of Destinies is a legal document. It doesn't do anything - it's not like a magic weapon or something. It's a clay tablet that says WHOMSOEVER HAS THIS TABLET IS THE BOSS BY DIVINE AND LEGAL RIGHT on it, and it's binding.

      Mesopotamian mythology is very big on legal rights and rulership; you can't just overthrow someone and become the boss, because that's illegal. You have to either be invested with power by the original rulers of the universe (Tiamat and Apsu), or elected by the entire council of other gods, and even then you have to have a way that you can defend your claim. This is why when Tiamat declares Kingu the ruler, she gives him the Tablet of Destinies, since as creator of the universe she has the authority to declare him her legitimate successor, and why all the other gods have to do a giant song and dance to unanimously elect Marduk their boss and invest him with all of their power in order to give him enough of a legitimate claim to go oppose them. It's also why Marduk takes the Tablet after defeating Kingu; even though he's already won the war and killed Tiamat, he still needs it to truly declare he's the rightful ruler, even with all the other gods behind him. Otherwise, the next person who picked it up could theoretically challenge him and have a real case to do so.

      (It's also why when Imdugud/Anzu steals the Tablet in later myths, everyone loses their minds. They're not worried he's going to wreak mayhem on the universe - the Tablet doesn't do that and anyway, he's already a giant lightning-covered lion-bird, he wreaks mayhem regularly for fun - they're freaking out because if he wants to lead a rebellion, he might succeed because he has the divine investiture of rulership, and he would be a legal ruler in some peoples' eyes. It's very important for Ninurta to go beat the tar out of him and get it back for the royal family.

      It's both more and less than a symbol of power. It doesn't actually do anything in a magical or mystical sense, but it does confer legitimate rulership of the universe on its owner, so it can't be ignored or called unimportant!

      In the older story with Nammu, the Tablet does not make an appearance, probably because the line of descent just goes directly down and brings rulership with it in those older tales. The Akkadian/Babylonian versions bring the Tablet in, and given that Babylon especially was super interested in legal rules and codes, and that Hammurabi was literally setting his favorite god up as the new boss and ordering his entire kingdom to change gears and agree, having a convenient Badge of Bossness would definitely help him make the whole thing look official!

  3. This made me wonder something about the general world of HJ; currently, you are including four Pantheons [Greek, Egyptian, Norse, and Hindu] in the basic book, and there are presumably plans to include more in the future [perhaps Anne will get to finally finish her beloved Hurrians!]. Is HJ going to have its own game world for us to play in? And when the future Pantheons are given their own supplements, are those going to include background on how their faiths fit in to that world? Or are you just going to give us a system, and let individual GMs work out their own world? [Which would be a lot more work and not as much fun from my perspective] I don't think this has ever been discussed much, unless I missed something a long way back...

    1. That's an ongoing conversation with a lot of room to grow in the future, but the answer is some of both. There is a setting chapter in this book that discusses ways that the world of HJ differs from ours; it talks about a world with a lot more major religions rubbing elbows in very public ways, religious festivals and holidays, and different historical paths that might affect things like wars and monuments, etc.

      However, because there's so much that changes in a "like us, but different" kind of modern mythology setting, and because some of it is sensitive culturally and religiously, there are also some areas where we have not (yet?) provided specifics, or given guidelines instead for a GM to fill in that blank as their game needs.

      We're treading a line between providing neat setting material to fire up peoples' imaginations and provide a good framework for folks who don't want to have to do a lot of setting work to enjoy their game, and leaving enough room for different interpretations and historical events as needed for different groups. We plan to continue to provide more setting as we go on, particularly specifics on things that directly impact player characters and modern urban life.

    2. (Also, if you have a plan for Hurrian/Hittite deities in game please share it with me, because my most beloved spouse and systems designer has some sort of idea that people want to hear about other obscure pantheons from places like "China" or "all of the Americas" first...)

    3. You started work on the Hurrians during the GBN days - in a way, they are already partly done, no? Plus, with all the work you've been putting in on HJ, all while getting your own health in order and dodging a hurricane, I say you deserve to give yourself a treat and do a pdf supplement on the Hurrians ASAP when the basic game is done. Hell, my tablet keeps autocorrecting "hurrian" to "hurricane", so if THAT isn't a sign, I don't know what is! ��

    4. Y'all's encouragement of my interest in ancient middle eastern civilizations is always so nice. <3

    5. It only seems fair that you get to have some fun with your favorite pantheon while doing all the tough work. And then we get a cool pantheon as well. Win, win. :-)