2019-06-06

A Hero’s Flight to Heaven on the Back of a Bird — Understanding the Parallels

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by Neil Godfrey

Etana ascending on an eagle

I was completely sold on Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch after reading William Brown’s review of it back in 2017.

Brown, William. 2017. “Review of ‘From Adapa to Enoch’ by Seth Sanders.” Blog. The Biblical Review: Reviewing Publications, History, and Scripture (blog). September 24, 2017. https://thebiblicalreview.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/from-adapa-to-enoch-by-seth-sanders/.

After my first quick racing through the book I feel confident enough to say that Brown’s review is pretty much spot on. As I pore through the chapters more slowly and methodically, following up footnotes and other references, I am finding a growing number of points I would like to address in some depth here on this blog. They won’t be completed quickly, and the first post won’t even be about a central point of Sanders’ specific thesis per se; it will be a generic point of methodology — or of fundamental validity of argument in relation to parallel narratives.

The oldest known ascent to heaven in the ancient Near East is the story of Etana, a legendary early Sumerian king who rode to heaven on the back of an eagle in search of a magic herb that could help him produce an heir. (Sanders, p. 28)

The story begins with the eagle making a pact with a snake, a story that is set out in detail at The Myth of Etana (Ancient History Encyclopedia) by Joshua J. Mark. The eagle breaks his promise to the snake and is punished by having his wings damaged, disabling him from flight. Etana finds the eagle in distress and helps him back to strength while the eagle this time returns the kindness by helping Etana to find what he needs in the heavens, a plant that would guarantee his ability to produce a royal heir. So the eagle carries Etana up to the heavens on his back.

You’ve no doubt heard similar stories and here’s why:

The Etana story has strong connections with a widely diffused myth and needs to be seen in historical context if it is to reveal anything about Mesopotamian written culture. A hero’s flight to heaven on the back of a bird is a widespread motif that appears in classical, Persian, Islamic, and even twentieth-century Finnish sources.2 (Sanders, p. 29)

Finnish? Here is the reference cited by Jussi Aro of Helsinki. It is from #537 in Antti Aarne’s The Types of the Folktale:

537 The Marvelous Eagle Gives the Hero a Box which he must not open.

I. The Speaking Eagle. A man aims to shoot an eagle, when suddenly the bird begins to speak like a human being [B21I.3]. The man spares him.

II. The Grateful Eagle. The bird has a wing broken. The man cares for it for three years and wastes all his property by feeding the bird. Finally the eagle recovers and will repay the man for his kindness [B380, Q45].

III. The Journey by Air. The bird then carries the man on his back across the sea [3552] to his kingdom [B222], and intimidates him three times by nearly dropping him into the sea (the hunter has once aimed three times with his gun at the bird). . . . .

Aro comments:

Can we be sure that the fairy-tale motifs mentioned above really go back to ancient Mesopotamian sources and that they have been transmitted either orally or in a literary form for some four thousand years? I think we can. It is true that the fairy-tale versions of the Lugalbanda-Anzu story differ from the original: the hero does not feed or decorate the young but saves them fwm a dragon or a snake; the latter versions are of course more logical and expressive. But still the modern versions preserve many charactedstic features of the original: there is the lonely place, the tree, the bird’s nest with the young, the bird’s suspicions when returning to the nest, the role of the young in appeasing the bird, the help bestowed by the bird on the hero, etc. The most characteristic feature of the Etana-motif again is the speculation on space-travel and the successively diminished appearance of the earth that is described preferably by a dialogue between the bird and the hero between two persons in the primitive spaceship. In this episode there is a bit of old Mesopotamian “science-fiction that has subsequently been turned in Hellenistic and later literature into a warning against hybris and in the folk-tales to a mere embellishment of the story. (Aro, p. 28)

That’s one perspective. But consider Sanders’ comment:

These parallels emphasize a fact crucial for the comparison of ancient scribal products: narratives may resemble each other independently of historical and cultural context. The fact that the Finnish and Islamic versions can easily be described in terms close to the Mesopotamian story reminds us that literary resemblance has limited inherent significance by itself.3 It is impossible to understand a narrative historically on its own; we must understand what it meant to its audiences over time. (p. 29)

And footnote 3:

The similarity of such stories in distinctly separate cultures requires us to abandon the question of whether one form “should be traced back” to the other or is “just coincidence;” either way, absent any historical relationship or comparison of social contexts, the similarity is “just coincidence.” That is, the retention itself is so isolated that, without a concrete social or historical explanation of the similarity, it appears unintelligible and random. (my emphasis)


Aarne, Antti. 1973. The Types of the Folktale; A Classification and Bibliography. Translated by Stith Thompson. 2nd edition. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Aro, Jussi. 1976. “Anzu and Simurgh.” In Kramer Anniversary Volume: Cuneiform Studies in Honor of Samuel Noah Kramer, edited by Barry L Eichler, 25–28. Kevelaer : Butzon & Bercker.

Brown, William. 2017. “Review: ‘From Adapa to Enoch’ by Seth Sanders.” Blog. The Biblical Review (blog). September 24, 2017. https://thebiblicalreview.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/from-adapa-to-enoch-by-seth-sanders/.

Mark, Joshua J. 2011. “The Myth of Etana.” In Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/article/224/the-myth-of-etana/.

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.


 

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Neil Godfrey

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3 Comments

  • Jorge
    2019-06-07 08:57:21 GMT+0000 - 08:57 | Permalink

    Great post. But – pore or pour?

  • Pingback: Carried to Heaven on Eagles’ Wings — More Tales |

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