© Ian Lawton 2000


The Epic of Creation; Atra-Hasis; The Epic of Gilgamesh; Adapa; Etana; The Epic of Anzu (Zu); Erra (Nergal) and Ishum; Nergal and Ereshkigal


It is far easier to list the major Akkadian literary texts, mainly because there are less of them. The first three of these are by far the best known of all Mesopotamian texts. Once again I have used the most up-to-date translations of which I am aware, this time prepared by Stephanie Dalley - a fellow in Assyriology at Oxford - in her Myths from Mesopotamia, published in 1989.[i] Although she admits that her compilation by no means contains the totality of Akkadian literary works, undoubtedly it does cover all the major ones.

Almost all of the smaller number of Akkadian works translated by Dalley contain something of interest, so eight of them are described below. The only two exceptions which do not merit this treatment are The Descent of Ishtar (Inanna) to the Underworld which we covered sufficiently in the previous paper, and the Theogony of Dunnu.

Once again all the names of gods, kings and heroes used are, for consistency and ease of recognition, the Sumerian versions - even though those used in Dalley’s translations of these texts are naturally the Akkadian ones. The longer texts consist of multiple tablets, and my summaries therefore tend to describe the contents of each.

The Epic of Creation

Formerly known from its opening line as Enuma Elish or When on high, this work consists of seven tablets comprising just over one thousand lines. Multiple copies have been found at Nineveh, Kish and Ashur, all of which date to the first half of the 1st millennium BC, and all of which have relatively consistent renderings - except that in the version found at Ashur the god of the same name is the central character, rather than Marduk as in all the other versions. This relative consistency can be partly ascribed to the fact that this text was undoubtedly recited by priests as part of the Babylonian New Year Festival.

Although we have already noted that Marduk is a relative latecomer into the gods’ pantheon, his appearance must date the original composition to the first half of the 2nd millennium BC and the first emergence of Babylon. The fact that all tablets found to date are copies of an older work is attested by their colophons. Furthermore there are some similarities with the Old Babylonian version of the Epic of Anzu (see below) - for example, they both contain references to the 'tablet of destinies' and to various enigmatic weapons, including the unidentified 'kasusu-weapon', the 'storm chariot' and the 'flood weapon'. Alexander Heidel even suggests that an older version still must have existed in which Enlil would have played Marduk’s role, this analysis being based on the Sumerian names of the gods, monsters and winds, but no Sumerian original has yet been discovered.

As its modern title suggests, this text describes the Mesopotamian view of the creation of the universe and, more particularly, of Earth and its surroundings. Tablet I describes the creation of the universe by Abzu (Akkadian Apsu) and Tiamat; the creation of the various gods; and how Enki gains control of Abzu and his vizier, Mummu. Tablet II covers the attempt to find someone to fight Tiamat, whereby eventually Marduk is chosen. Tablet III is effectively a repetition of its predecessor. Tablet IV describes the battle between Marduk and Tiamat, in which he slays her by shooting an arrow which pierces her belly and splits her in two; half of her he destroys and scatters to the winds, and 'half of her he put up to roof the sky'; he then retrieves the 'tablet of destinies'. Tablet V covers Marduk’s reception by the rest of the gods, the granting of overall kingship to him, and his plan to establish Babylon, initially as a city of the gods. Tablet VI describes, relatively briefly, the creation of man by Enki from the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s main warrior; and Marduk’s assignation of roles to the Anunnaki and Igigi. Finally, the remainder of this tablet and Tablet VII is spent praising Marduk by listing the 50 epithets which support his position as the head of the pantheon.

Although perhaps somewhat distorted by editing, there is almost certainly a considerable esoteric element to this epic, especially the early part.


Formerly known as When the gods instead of men from its opening line, this composite text came together into its current form only in the late 1960’s after much painstaking work by Lambert and Millard. The Old Babylonian version primarily used by Dalley dates to c. 1700 BC, and consists of three tablets each with four columns on the front and back. The contents of the various Late Assyrian versions found at Nineveh are fairly consistent with this.

This important text contains the fullest Mesopotamian account of the creation of man, and also a reasonable account of the Flood. It undoubtedly has some roots in the equivalent but shorter Sumerian Flood Myth and Birth of Man texts, albeit with some key differences. The hero of the Deluge in this version, from which the text takes its name, is Atra-Hasis (or 'extra wise').

Tablet I describes how the lesser gods (here the Igigi) rebel against Enlil for making them do all the work required on earth. Enlil summons a council of the gods (here referred to as the Anunnaki), and An and Enki arrive. Enlil wants to quash the rebellion by force, but An (Enki in the later versions) points out that their work is indeed too hard. He suggests man should be created as a worker from 'clay' and the 'blood of a god', and a detailed description of how he and Ninhursag achieve this (involving purification rites and multiple birth-goddesses) follows. However Enlil then becomes angry because of the numerous people and the noise of mankind, a plague is sent on them and Atra-Hasis is introduced, asking how long it will last.

Tablet II mainly repeats Enlil’s complaints and describes the plagues, droughts and famines sent by him - even how after six years of this treatment mankind turns to cannibalism. It then turns to Enlil’s command that a flood must be sent, and his subsequent argument with Enki, who does not agree with the plan to destroy the race he himself has created.

Tablet III begins with Enki instructing Atra-Hasis to listen to him as he speaks from behind a wall - this is Enki’s way of warning him of the flood to come while ensuring he cannot be accused of telling him directly. Enki advises him to build a boat and provides details of its construction and contents, and the ensuing Flood is described in detail. Somewhat late Ninhursag bewails the fate they have decreed for mankind, blaming An for chairing the assembly. Interestingly the gods themselves appear to starve during the seven days and nights of the flood, which has led some commentators to suggest that they could not actually avert it, and only had little forewarning themselves. Unfortunately a large gap in the text means we have no information on the end of the Flood, or on the location where the boat comes to rest, and we rejoin it with Atra-Hasis cooking food for the hungry gods, its fragrance attracting them to return to earth. Enlil rages when he discovers that a man has survived, An suggests it was Enki’s doing, and the latter - despite his earlier subterfuge - proudly admits that he defied them to save mankind. Missing lines follow, but it appears that Enki placates Enlil, then agrees the destiny of mankind with Ninhursag in the final lines. Unfortunately these are fragmented, but they indicate that one third of mankind should do one thing (unknown), another third should do something else (also unknown), and the final third should be prevented from being able to give birth to act as a control on the population.

There are clearly many important parallels between the Creation and Deluge aspects of this text and various others from Mesopotamia, as well as with the book of Genesis.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

We have already noted in the previous chapter that this Akkadian epic is largely based on a composite of four individual Sumerian texts; further that whilst Tablet VII appears to be reproduced almost verbatim from part of Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld, the details of the others have been changed, sometimes considerably. It is also clear that Tablet VII has taken some input from the Descent of Inanna, and Tablet XI likewise from the Sumerian Flood Myth. In fact this text arguably contains the fullest Mesopotamian account of the Flood story, and follows the earlier version in that the hero Utnapishtim, translated as 'he found (everlasting) life', is subsequently deified.

Although the earliest fragments of a composite version of the epic were found at Ur and Sippar, and date to the Old Babylonian period, it appears they may not have included the Prologue, Dreams and Flood elements. The most common composite version, on which we concentrate here, is Late Assyrian and was found at Nineveh. It comprises twelve tablets, with between two and six columns on each.

Tablet I starts by describing Gilgamesh as one who 'gained complete wisdom', 'found out what was secret and uncovered what was hidden', and 'brought back a tale of times before the Flood'. Furthermore he 'inspected the edges of the world', 'kept searching for eternal life', and 'restored to their rightful place cult centres which the flood had ruined'. He is reported as two-thirds divine (because of his mother Ninsun), and as designed with a perfect body by Ninhursag (here Belet-ili). However we gather that he is so ebullient that he annoys his townsfolk, and they plead to the gods for him to be given a companion who will match and occupy him. Ninhursag (here Aruru) therefore creates Enkidu, who as we have seen was originally a primitive, uncivilised man who lived with wild animals. A hunter sees Enkidu by the watering hole and is both scared and annoyed because he unsets all his traps; the hunter’s father advises him to go to Gilgamesh and ask for a young girl to visit, tempt and civilise Enkidu. A somewhat explicit description of the success of this plan follows. Gilgamesh then has a dream which, his mother Ninsun explains, means that a strong and equal companion will come to join him in Uruk.

Tablet II is fragmented at the beginning and somewhat throughout, but we learn that Enkidu has come to Uruk and won over the young population. He and Gilgamesh have an epic fight, after which they become firm friends. At this point Gilgamesh decides to take on the fearsome Humbaba (Sumerian Huwawa), 'whose shout is the flood-weapon, whose utterance is fire, and whose breath is death' - and who has been appointed by Enlil to 'guard the pine forest'.

Tablet III is highly fragmented, but sees the elders of Uruk counselling Gilgamesh to take his friend Enkidu to protect and assist him in his fight against Humbaba; reluctantly Ninsun then agrees to the whole plan.

Tablet IV opens with the two travelling towards the forest. Gilgamesh has three dreams on the way which increasingly frighten him, but which Enkidu reassures him mean that they will triumph over Humbaba. Enkidu then gets scared himself, and is in turn reassured by Gilgamesh.

Tablet V depicts the epic fight with Humbaba. After receiving assistance from Utu the beast is at their mercy. Humbaba pleas for clemency, but after Enkidu has repeatedly entreated Gilgamesh to finish him off he is finally killed.

Tablet VI begins with Gilgamesh cleaning himself up after the fight, after which he is approached by Inanna to be his lover. He rejects her after recounting details of how she has destroyed the lives of numerous previous lovers. Furious at her rejection she asks An (here her father) for the 'Bull of Heaven' to kill Gilgamesh. An concedes and Inanna embarks on her destructive path, only to be thwarted by Gilgamesh and Enkidu together slaying the bull.

Tablet VII is fragmented, but appears to describe a dream in which Enkidu learns that a council of the gods has decreed that either he or Gilgamesh must die as a punishment for their slaying of Humbaba and 'the Bull' (this elaborates on Enlil’s furious reaction noted in the Sumerian version). Unfortunately for Enkidu, Enlil decides it is to be him. In his rage Enkidu curses the hunter and girl who civilised him, but Utu calms him, he cancels his curses, and he accepts his fate. He proceeds to recite a dream of his imminent journey to the netherworld to Gilgamesh, and grows progressively weaker.

Tablet VIII, again fragmented, sees Gilgamesh reassuring his friend how greatly he will be missed by animals and humans alike, and arranging for a magnificent statue of him to be built.

Tablet IX opens with Gilgamesh roaming the country in mourning for his friend. He decides to visit Utnapishtim, the deified Flood hero, to obtain the secret of eternal life - in order that he does not have to suffer the fate of his friend. He travels to Mount Mashu, from which the Sun (Utu) emerges, and which is guarded by fearsome scorpion-men. He explains his quest in retracing Utnapishtim’s original journey, and is eventually allowed to pass. After travelling through ten leagues of total darkness, he finally emerges into a sunlit place of great beauty.

Tablet X sees him wandering by the sea where he meets a barmaid (literally 'ale-wife') who lives there. She questions his unkempt and sorrowful appearance, and he tells her of his friend’s death and his search for Utnapishtim. She tells him no-one has crossed the lethal waters since time immemorial, except for Utu himself, but nevertheless directs him to the ferryman Urshanabi. For no apparent reason other than his general state of distress Gilgamesh initially fights the ferryman, but they then converse and again Gilgamesh has to explain his sorry state of appearance and mind. They embark, and with Gilgamesh rowing they reach Utnapishtim - whose dwelling place is unfortunately unclear due to fragmentation. The latter questions Gilgamesh for a third time about his appearance, and then suggests to him that it is natural for a man to be mortal, and that he should accept death.

Tablet XI has Gilgamesh starting to pick a fight with Utnapishtim, and asking why he was allowed to gain immortality even though their appearance is identical. Utnapishtim then recounts his involvement in the Flood in some detail: He describes how Enki spoke to him from behind a wall, how he filled his boat with the 'seed of all living things'. How the gods made their own escape to heaven, how they suffered themselves, and how they wept at mankind’s destruction. How his boat came to rest after seven days and nights on Mount Nimush. How he released a dove, then a swallow, then finally a raven which did not return. How he made offerings which the gods smelt and flocked to, and how Enlil was furious at discovering survivors. How Enki admitted his contrivance, and suggested that in future famine and such like would be a fairer way of keeping the population under control. Finally how Enlil then blessed him and his wife, and made them immortal 'as the gods'. Utnapishtim then suggests that if Gilgamesh wants to achieve immortality he must first go without sleep for seven days and nights. Gilgamesh fails this test and leaves. But Utnapishtim is persuaded by his wife to reveal to Gilgamesh the whereabouts of the 'tree of life', which he subsequently retrieves from underwater (in fact from the Abzu, Enki’s abode). However on his journey home he bathes in a pool, and a snake (a symbol for Enki) steals the plant. Finally he returns to Uruk empty-handed.

Tablet XII appears out of context because Enkidu reappears apparently alive, and it was probably added on to complete the moral aspects of the tale - although with little regard to continuity. In any case, it begins with Enkidu agreeing to go down into the netherworld to retrieve the 'pukku' and 'mekku' which Gilgamesh has lost.[ii] Gilgamesh advises Enkidu that he must not be clothed in fine garments or he will be recognised as a stranger, and that he must not kiss the dead members of his family. However Enkidu fails to heed this advice, and is prevented from returning. Gilgamesh requests help from Enlil, Nanna and finally Enki, who tells him to open up a hole in the earth to retrieve the 'spirit' of his friend (that is, he will not come back to life fully). They are reunited, and Gilgamesh urges Enkidu to tell him about the netherworld. Although initially Enkidu tells him this would be dangerous, he then reveals the condition of various people Gilgamesh has known in life; from the descriptions not everyone appears to be suffering in the netherworld, although some are and one does not gain the impression of a particularly inviting place.

This composite text can definitely be regarded as essentially a moral tale: it expresses views about mortality, which is portrayed as mankind’s lot; about life after death, where the spirit lives on in the somewhat unwelcoming but relatively bland netherworld; and about how to live life given this state of affairs, the advice being effectively 'enjoy your life and make the best of it'. Reincarnation appears to be, by implication, ruled out. Nevertheless, at the very least the early descriptions of Gilgamesh in Tablet I, and his experiences in Tablets IX onwards, would tend to indicate someone who has at least attempted some kind of esoteric initiation.

It is also interesting to note that, while this epic contains only a few lines dealing with the creation of man (although again these do involve Ninhursag, purification and 'clay'), the description of Gilgamesh’s companion Enkidu as originally a primitive man who cavorted with wild beasts suggests that he represents mankind before his 'civilisation' by the gods. This aspect is made more intriguing by his name itself, which according to Dalley may mean 'created by Enki'.


The full length of this fragmented text, which currently stands at about 120 lines, is unknown. The tablets we have were discovered at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt and at Ashur, and date to the second half of the 2nd millennium BC. To date this text has no real Sumerian equivalent.

Important background information about the central character, Adapa, is known primarily from the work of Berossus [iii] - wherein, as Oannes, he is the first of the antediluvian 'seven sages' sent by Enki from the Abzu to teach the arts of civilisation (me’s) to mankind. We also learn from Erra and Ishum, Tablet II (wherein they are referred to as 'craftsmen') that Enki banished them back to the Abzu and deprived them of immortality when they angered him. This text is consistent with this theme in that it opens with Adapa being described as 'extra-wise' (reminiscent of Atra-Hasis above), and as 'one of the Anunnaki' who has been given wisdom but not eternal life.

The main part of this short tale is devoted to a description of a visit by Adapa to An in heaven to explain why he 'broke the wing of the south wind'. To prepare him Enki tells him to flatter the gatekeepers of heaven, Dumuzi and Ningishzida, that they are sorely missed on earth now that they have permanently ascended to heaven. He also tells him to avoid the bread and water of death when offered it by An; however the use of a pun means that this can also be interpreted as the bread and water of (eternal) life, so he is tricked by either Enki or An (which one is unclear). The outcome is that he rejects immortality.

It is interesting to note that Heidel’s translation [iv] appears to have an extra 20 lines at the end, wherein Adapa is referred to as the 'seed of mankind'. Heidel is at pains to point out that this should not be taken to mean he was the first ever man (c.f. Adam), as some have suggested, because there are abundant references in the story to previous humans.

In that the concept of eternal life can be linked to a true understanding of the immortality of the soul, once again this text has potential esoteric undertones concerning the 'fall of man' or 'prime deviation'.


This text is again relatively short, and again its final length is unclear due to fragmentation. What we have consists of three tablets and approximately 450 lines. An Old Babylonian version comes from Susa in Elam, a Middle Assyrian one from Ashur, and a Late Assyrian one from Nineveh, which is the one primarily used by Dalley. Again so far no real Sumerian equivalent has been found, but the tale is known to date to at least the middle of the 3rd millennium BC by virtue of a cylinder seal of that period which unquestionably shows Etana on the back of an eagle.

The King List records Etana as the 13th ruler of the 1st dynasty of Kish c. 2750 BC, this being the first post-Flood dynasty. It also describes him as 'the shepherd, he who ascended to heaven, who made firm all the lands'. This description corroborates the story in this text, in which the pious Etana enlists the help of Utu to provide him with the 'plant of birth' to cure his apparent infertility. He rescues an eagle which has been imprisoned in a pit by Utu after it ate a serpent’s offspring, and the eagle takes him towards heaven; but he becomes scared, and they return to earth. They go up again after Etana has had various dreams, and finally reach heaven; however the end of the text is incomplete, so we do not find out what happens next.

This text is important on two counts: First, Etana's ascension to heaven has clear parallels with that of the biblical Enoch as revealed by the Book of Enoch. And second, the eagle and serpent in this text may well, once again, have important esoteric significance.

The Epic of Anzu (Zu)

Two versions of this epic have been found: a shorter Old Babylonian one, and a longer Late Assyrian one from Nineveh. It consists of three four-column tablets and approximately 720 lines. Again there is no real Sumerian equivalent, although Dalley associates Anzu (Zu) with the Sumerian creature Imdugud, the 'Thunderbird' in the Epic of Lugalbanda; and Jacobsen draws similar 'lion-headed bird' parallels with Ninurta’s weapon Sharur in The Ninurta Myth. However both of these creatures are benevolent, whereas here Anzu is clearly not. Furthermore Sharur is actually mentioned separately in this text, rendering that comparison potentially redundant - indeed it seems more appropriate to draw parallels with Ninurta’s old enemy Azag.

In any case, this epic commences with Anzu acting as a trusted servant to Enlil; he then decides to make off with the 'tablet of destinies', which confer the 'Enlil-power' and appear to render him all-powerful and virtually indestructible. After Ishkur, Gibil and Shara have turned away from conflict with him, Ninurta eventually vanquishes him in a terrifying aerial battle.

The enigmatic 'tablet of destinies' (which we previously came across in the Epic of Creation) is a difficult concept to interpret, although it is possible that it bears some comparison to the 'divine rules' me's mentioned repeatedly in Sumerian texts. Meanwhile the 'composite' nature of Anzu and the various other weapons or creatures which crop up in the Mesopotamian texts perhaps bears comparison to the composite nature of many Egyptian deities.

Erra (Nergal) and Ishum

Consisting of five tablets and approximately 750 lines, this text is Late Assyrian, with versions coming from Nineveh, Ashur, Babylon and Ur. There is little variation in these, and yet again no real Sumerian equivalent exists.

It takes the form of a dialogue between the narrator Nergal (Erra), Ishum (a lesser known god who acts as Nergal’s advisor) and Marduk. It appears to be a cautionary tale with little story content, in which the aggressive Nergal (backed by the 'sebitti', the seven gods engendered by An to assist him in battle) and a relatively impotent Marduk threaten each other in their relentless desire to gain control. Despite his role as a calming influence on Nergal, under orders Ishum carries out a degree of destruction against mankind, but a sizeable remnant is left and Nergal is persuaded to leave them alone.

My own view, not shared by Dalley, is that this tale exhibits broad parallels with the various Flood stories - it certainly deals with a deliberate destruction of mankind, even though here it is only partial and not achieved by flood; indeed Marduk makes specific reference to sending a flood in Tablet I. And once again this text contains vivid descriptions of devastation which may or may not hark back to some major catastrophe on Earth.

Nergal and Ereshkigal

Again two versions of this tale exist: a short Middle Assyrian one, consisting of only 90 lines, found at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt; and a longer Late Assyrian one of 750 lines, from Uruk. There is once again no Sumerian equivalent.

The text describes how Ereshkigal, goddess of the netherworld, is unable to attend a major banquet of the gods. Directed by An, she sends her envoy to collect her 'present', but Nergal is disrespectful to him. Supposedly as a punishment Nergal is ordered to visit her in the netherworld twice, but he ravishes her on both occasions and on the second ends up remaining there as her husband.

This completes our review of the Akkadian texts.

Source References

[i] By Oxford University Press. Because all of these texts are taken from Dalley’s work and are easy to locate therein, I do not provide specific references for each.

[ii] We saw in the previous paper that Kramer suggests that these objects were a drum and drumstick; Dalley adds that they were also used in some form of game similar to hockey, which possibly had some link to fertility (Myths from Mesopotamia, p. 126, Note 8). Whatever the explanation, their significance in this tale remains somewhat enigmatic. It should also be noted that the older Sumerian version has a first part which is omitted from this tablet, so the loss of these objects to the netherworld does not follow directly on from Gilgamesh’s losing the "tree of life" as might at first appear.

[iii] Berossus is an important figure for anyone attempting to make sense of Mesopotamian literature. He was a Babylonian historian and priest of Bel Marduk who copied out many Akkadian and other texts in Greek in his Babyloniaca, written c. 281 BC. Unfortunately only fragments of this original work survive, but it is quoted by a number of later writers including Alexander Polyhistor (1st century BC), Abydenus (2nd century AD) and Appolodorus - although we face the usual problems of editing and interpretation of his original by these subsequent authors, and indeed by Berossus himself of the originals. The key issue is that he had access to texts which were then lost and which we have not yet recovered, so his work can on occasions fill important gaps and shed new light.

[iv] Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, (2nd Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1951), Appendix, pp. 152-3.