Comparing the myths of Adapa and Adam, prototypes of priest and humankind

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by Neil Godfrey

I found Liverani’s comparative analysis of the Babylonian and Hebrew myths interesting enough to share here. He dismisses earlier attempts to force relationships between the former with the Genesis account as failures because they attempt to impute themes and meanings where they do not really exist.

Liverani does see a structural relationship between the two myths, however, and when that structure is understood then not only points of comparison stand out, but also an explanation for their differences becomes apparent.

To recap from my earlier post:

The Myth of Adapa

  1. Adapa was the ’son’ and priest of the god Ea, in Eridu.
  2. Adapa was given the wisdom of heaven and earth to equip him to be a priest of the god.
  3. Adapa’s boat was capsized by the South Wind (Shuttu) in a sudden storm
  4. Adapa responded by angrily cursing Shuttu
  5. His words broke the winds of the wind; it subsided immediately failing to blow again
  6. The supreme god Anu, on hearing Adapa had been responsible for violating the natural order, summoned him
  7. Fearing his son and priest would be punished by Anu, Ea, god of wisdom and cunning, gave Adapa two instructions to keep him safe:
    1. he was to dress in mourning clothes and tell the gods at Anu’s door, Tammuz and Gizzida, that he was in mourning because they had disappeared from the earth — this would ensure the good favour and help from these two gods
    2. he was to refuse the bread of death and the water of death that Anu would offer him, but he should accept the clothing and oil of anointing.
  8. All goes according to plan until the moment Anu offers Adapa bread and water: Anu has been so impressed by Adapa that he offers him bread and water of immortal life, not death; but Adapa, recalling his instructions from Ea, fears the banquet of death and declines the offer.
  9. Anu then sends him back to earth and his mortal existence.

One translation of the myth can be found here.

The Genesis myth can be found in a Gideon’s Bible in your nearest hotel room or online here.

The following is from Mario Liverani’s Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography (pp.21-23).

Liverani believes that both myths not only deal with the problem of mortality but that they do so along the same structural axis:

  1. The Adapa myth begins with the “getting of wisdom”. This is referenced in few words. It then enters a lengthy narrative to explain how despite that wisdom, despite the presence of the food of immortality, Adapa must remain mortal.
  2. The Adam myth begins likewise with the getting of wisdom, but in this case the wisdom itself is not good. It is problematic, and the narrative focuses at length on this segment. It then concludes with the pronouncement of mortality (despite the availability of food of eternal life) in a single sentence.

Liverani on this basis compares the two:

  1. Ea intervenes in order for Adapa to acquire wisdom about heaven and earth
  2. The serpent intervenes in order for Adam to acquire wisdom about good and evil
  1. If Adapa accepts the food and drink of life he will become immortal like the gods
  2. If Adam accepts the food of life he will become immortal like the gods (elohim)
  1. Anu offered Adapa the food of eternal life, but Adapa’s refusal allowed Anu to drive him back to earth
  2. To prevent Adam’s immortality God drove Adam out of Paradise into “the world”
  1. Adapa, as the prototype of the priesthood, nevertheless retains the privileges of the priesthood — admittance to the divine house, contact with the gods, knowledge of the rituals and rules of purity, and the exorcising power of words
  2. Adam, as the prototype of humankind, obtains in the form of ‘curses’ — hard work to get food and pains of childbirth — the immortality of the human community (not individual immortality). Before their fall from ignorance Adam and Eve did not know about sex, but now they have the knowledge of good and evil they do, and so the human condition of perpetuation through the pains of childbirth and hard labour for sustenance began

A pity that the myth that became foundational to our heritage was the one that denigrated wisdom, a theme that was sustained through Jesus and Paul.


  • 2007-10-09 04:03:45 UTC - 04:03 | Permalink

    The Adapa myth starts with gaining wisdom directly from a Divine Source at the bequest of that Divine source. Power is granted because power in a subordinate is not feared but encouraged. Immortality is offered but mistakenly declined.

    The Adam myth starts with gaining wisdom indirectly from a Divine source in direct contravention of that Divinity’s desires. Power is usurped because power in a subordinate is feared. Immortality is denied.

  • 2008-06-16 11:41:24 UTC - 11:41 | Permalink


    A couple of things:

    1) One could (and indeed I do) read the text in such a way as presenting Ea getting Anu out of a sticky situation. Ea wants to keep his sage alive but is wise enough to know that if Adapa does everything that Ea says, Anu will have no choice but to offer him hospitality, e.g. a change of garment, oil for anointing, food and drink. Neither Ea nor Anu want to bestow immortality upon humanity, so Ea give him advice that would keep Adapa mortal.

    2) In one late recension of the text (from Ashurbanipal’s library), Adapa is freed from service to Ea an actually gets immortality. The implication is that Ea is doing this just to spite Ea.

    3) Thanks for the reference to the book. I hadn’t seen this one by Liverani 🙂

  • 2008-06-16 18:24:55 UTC - 18:24 | Permalink

    Thanks for the feedback! I wish I had time to explore Mesopotamian and “Mid Eastern” myths in depth. Will take your comments on board when I next return to these studies — sooner rather than later, I hope.

  • 2009-05-25 05:39:38 UTC - 05:39 | Permalink

    Several PhD scholars (1890-1925) have noted that motifs associated with Adapa appear to have been “recast” and assimilated to Adam and I concur.
    Motifs associated with Enkidu of the Gilgamesh Epic, appear to be assimilated to Adam as well. The Hebrews apparently objected to the Mesopotamian explanation of how man came to be denied immortality (being tricked by his god Ea). I have several articles on the subject at my website http://www.bibleorigins.net. Eridu was recast as the Garden of Eden, Ea as Yahweh, Adapa as Adam, and Eden’s serpent is a recast of Ea, Enlil, Anu, Ningishzida and Dumuzi.

  • 2015-08-19 12:57:07 UTC - 12:57 | Permalink

    I recently (July of 2015) learned of the existence of a cuneiform tablet written in Sumerian as opposed to Akkadian (Babylonian). It differs quite a bit from the better known Akkadian versions (14th century BC to 8th century BC) found on the internet. The names of the principal characters are in Sumerian instead of Akkadian. For instance Akkadian Adapa, Ea, Anu, Gishzida, and Tammuz appear in Sumerian as Adaba, Enki, An, Ningishzida and Dumuzi. The tablet opens with a description of the earth being in a state of ruin from the great Flood. It tells of the gods having no food to eat. The gods restore the earth and Edin and its two rivers the Tigris and Euphrates are restored. Irrigation canals are restored and thus too the fields of barley, the flora and fauna multiply. Edin is restored with its aromatic plants.

    Mankind, who has no king or leader, gets one, via the gods’ intervention and law and order are restored, the gods now have food (bread) to eat. Then appears the Adapa story and the south wind episode. Finally an ending is presented of how a goddess called Ninsina heals mankind of the illnesses afflicting him by wind-born diseases.

    It is speculated that this Sumerian account may have been written by an Akkadian scribe due to several grammatical errors. It is dated to the Old Babylonian Period, circa 2000-1600 BC. The translation is in French. I have had the French translated into English just this past month (July of 2015). If interested contact me at wrmattfeld411@gmail.com

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