2019-06-07

Carried to Heaven on Eagles’ Wings — More Tales

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by Neil Godfrey

Just for fun, as an appendix to the previous post, here are other stories of heroes being carried up into the heavens by eagles. Some appear to inspire aspirational thoughts of heavenly things while others warn of the hubris that felled Satan.

In that previous post I linked to (and briefly outlined) a story of Etana but for the sake of completeness let’s look at that starting point once more, this time with Aro’s description.

Akkadian Etana Myth

An eagle and a snake make a holy covenant that neither of them will harm the other. In spite of this, the eagle later devours the young of the snake and is punished by the Sun-God. Some kind of atonement is provided by the hero Etana who is looking for the “plant of birth” in order to obtain offspring. The eagle is willing to carry him to heaven upon its shoulders. The plan does not seem to lead to a successful completion, because Etana is frightened by the terrible height. He seems, however, to have obtained the plant, because other fragments of the epic presuppose that he sired a son. What interests us here is the idea of “space-travel” with an eagle and the conversation between Etana and the eagle:

The eagle says to him, to Etana:
“See, my friend, how the land appears!
Peer at the sea at the sides of E[kur]!”
“The land … a mountain,
the sea has become like waters of [. . . . ]”
When he had born him aloft a second league,
the eagle says to him, to Etana:
”See, my friend, how the land appears!”
“The land has turned to a gardener’s ditch.

Etana and the eagle arrive at the heaven of Anu, and there is a break in the text; after that they presumably rise even higher. The conversation is continued on similar lines: e.g. the sea looks after one league’s flight like an enclosure, after two leagues the land is like a garden and the sea like a trough. At last Etana cannot see anything, and he is panicked: “My friend, I will not ascend to heaven.” The eagle descends with enormous speed to the ground.

(Aro, 25f)

Illustrating a version having griffins (eagle-lion hybrids) carrying Alexander aloft.

Alexander the Great’s Ascent

From the origins of Sumerian civilization to the end of the Persian period, this tale must have been read and repeated throughout Western Asia. After the death of Alexander the Great, who had conquered and ruled Babylonia, it was transferred to him. The legend of the Ascension of Alexander spread throughout the ancient world and has descended to modern times in endless versions, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Old French. Representations of Alexander’s ascent on eagles yoked together are found on tapestries, on illuminated manuscripts, painted on walls of palaces, and even in sculptures of Christian cathedrals. A Jewish scribe of the fourth century A.D. refers to it in the Talmud.

“Alexander the Macedonian wished to ascend in the air. He mounted, mounted, until he saw the earth as a cup and the sea as a caldron.”

Here follows a resume of the earliest Greek versions. Arrived at the extremity of the earth, Alexander desired to discover where the vault of Heaven reposed on the earth. His soldiers selected two great birds, which he caused to be without food for three days. He then put them under a yoke, and attached the hide of a bull to the yoke. A basket was fastened to the yoke, into which he climbed, having a long spear. To the end of this spear he attached the liver of a horse. The liver he held high above the heads of the hungry birds; in their eagerness to reach it they carried him upward. He ascended until the air became icy cold. Here he was halted by a bird-man who said to him:

“Alexander, thou art ignorant of terrestrial things, why desirest thou to understand those of Heaven? Return quickly to earth, and fear lest thou be the prey of these birds. Look upon the earth below.”

Seized with fear Alexander looked downward, and the earth looked like a threshing floor, surrounded by a serpent, which was the sea. He descended successfully “by the mercy of supreme Providence,” but landed seven days’ journey from his camp. Saved from famine by a satrap he received a guard of soldiers and reached his camp.

(Langdon, 173f)

Nimrod’s Ascent

In Islamic legends told by the commentators of the Qur’an, especially at-Tabar!, the same story is told about Nimrod (ar. Namrūd), and utilized to explain the words of Surah 14,46:

“They plotted their plots: but God could master their plots, even though their plots had been so powerful as to move the mountains.”

When Nimrod was unable to burn Abraham in the fiery furnace, he wanted to ascend unto heaven, and fight the God of Abraham. He fed four young eagles until they became big and strong, attached them to a box and held bits of flesh above their heads so that they began flying towards heaven. When Nimrod was reasonably high up in the air he lookcd to the earth. The mountains were like ants. After a while he looked again, and the earth was like a round disk surrounded by the sea. In another tradition quoted by at-Tabari he has a companion with him, whom he asks:

“What do you see?” –

“I see water and an island.”

After a while he asks again:

“What do you see?” –

“We are still far from heaven.”

Nimrod was frightened and let the flesh fall. Then the eagles descended with such speed that mountains bowed down when they heard the sound caused by their wings. This detail provides the connection to the Qur’anic verse: “even though their plots had been so powerful as to move thc mountains.”

(Aro, 26)

Iranian King Kai Klaus/Kai Kaous

Scene from Ferdousi’s epic, Shahnameh (Book of Kings)

“O Shah, live for ever! though such is thy might and majesty that  the vault of heaven alone should be thy throne. All the world is submissive before thee, and I can bethink me but of one thing that is lacking unto thy glory.”

Then Kai Kaous questioned him of this one thing, and the Deev said-

“It is that thou knowest not the nature of the sun and moon, nor wherefore the planets roll, neither the secret causes that set them in motion. Thou art master of all the earth, therefore shouldst thou not make the heavens also obedient to thy will?”

When Kai Kaous heard these words of guile his mind was dimmed, and he forgot that man cannot mount unto the skies, and he pondered without ceasing how he could fly unto the stars and inquire into their secrets. And he consulted many wise men in his trouble, but none could aid him. But at last it came about that a certain man taught him how he could perchance accomplish his designs. And Kai Kaous did according to his instructions. He built him a framework of aloe-wood, and at the four corners thereof he placed javelins upright, and on their points he put the flesh of goats. Then he chose out four eagles strong of wing, and bound them unto the corners of this chariot. And when it was done, Kai Kaous seated himself in the midst thereof with much pomp. And the eagles, when they smelt the flesh, desired after it, and they flapped their wings and raised themselves, and raised the framework with them. And they struggled sore, but they could not attain unto the meat; but ever as they struggled they bore aloft with them Kai Kaous and the throne whereon he sat. And so long as their hunger lasted, they strove after the prey. But at length their strength would hold no longer, and they desisted from the attempt. And behold! as they desisted the fabric fell back to earth, and the shock thereof was great. And but for Ormuzd Kai Kaous would have perished in the presumption of his spirit.

Now the eagles had borne the Shah even unto the desert of Cathay, and there was no man to succour him, and he suffered from the pangs of hunger, and there was nothing to assuage his longing, neither could his thirst be stilled. And he was alone, and sorrowful and shamed in his soul that he had yet again brought derision upon Iran. And he prayed to God in his trouble, and entreated pardon for his sins.

While Kai Kaous thus strove with repentance, Rustem learned tidings of him, and he set out with an army to seek him. And when he had found him he gave rein unto his anger, and he rebuked him for his follies, and he said-

“Hath the world seen the like of this man? Hath a more foolish head sat upon the throne of Iran? Ye would say there were no brains within this skull, or that not one of its thoughts was good. Kai Kaous is like a thing that is possessed, and every wind beareth him away. Thrice hast thou now fallen into mishap, and who can tell whether thy spirit hath yet learned wisdom? And it will be a reproach unto Iran all her days that a king puffed up with idle pride was seated upon her throne, a man who deemed in his folly that he could mount unto the skies, and visit the sun and moon, and count the stars one by one. I entreat of thee to bethink thee of thy forefathers, and follow in their steps, and rule the land in equity, neither rush after these mad adventures.”

When Kai Kaous had listened to the bitter words spoken by Rustem, he was bowed down in his spirit and ashamed before him in his soul. And when at last he opened his mouth it was to utter words of humility. And he said unto Rustem-

“Surely that which thou speakest, it is true.”

Then he suffered himself to be led back unto his palace, and many days and nights did he lie in the dust before God, and it was long before he held him worthy to mount again upon his throne. But when he deemed that God had forgiven him, he seated him upon it once again. In humility did he mount it, and he filled it in wisdom. And henceforth he ruled the land with justice, and he did that which was right in the sight of God, and bathed his face with the waters of sincerity. And kings and rulers did homage before him, and forgot the follies that he had done, and Kai Kaous grew worthy of the throne of light. And Iran was exalted at his hands, and power and prosperity increased within its borders.

(Ferdousi, 118-121)

Kurdish tales

The Mesopotamian background comes more clearly to the fore in some Kurdish folk-tales that have recently been collected and published. The Sīmurgh or eagle motif is usually combined with various other stories which do not necessarily have anything to do with it. The hero has been sent, for one reason or the other, on a dangerous journey, and he has arrived at an uninhabited place. There he rests under a big tree and sees that a snake or a dragon is just about to eat the young of a big bird. The hero kills the snake and goes to sleep. The bird arrives and sees the hero sleeping. It thinks that this is the enemy who has eaten its young in several previous years, but the young tell the bird that the hero has, on the contrary, saved them. The bird is thankful and promises to do for the hero anything he wishes. The hero has an arduous task to acconlplish and he has to get to a far-away place; the difficulties are so great that even the bird exclaims: ”Would it be that my young had been devoured this time too, it would be more pleasant to me than helping you to get there!” But because of the solemn vow that the bird has given, it carries the hero to his destination and in some versions also gives him a feather that he has to burn at a critical juncture so that the bird can come to help him again.

. . . .

Similar Kurdish stories are those of Ahmad and Fāzúhur and Mahmud and Simenswar; but these differ in that they place no emphasis on the terrifying height of the flight. In the last-mentioned story the hero has to get provisions for the eagle (seven oxhide waterskins and seven young fatted rams, as fat as full-grown rams), and he completes a journey of seven years in seven months with Simurgh. The motif of procuring provisions is also wellknown from European variants of the motif of travelling with an eagle.

(Aro, 27)

And Turkish Fairytales

The motif of the grateful bird also occurs in Turkish fairytales, e.g. in the well-known collection Billur Kösk. The episode, situated in the midst of a complicated fairy-tale, contains the Anzu-motif (the hero saves the young of the bird) and the motif of feeding the bird (the hero gives at last his own flesh to the bird to eat) which are told in an artistically detailed way. Because in this tale the bird brings the hero back from the netherworld, the space-travel motif of Etana is absent. But this motif appears again (without the Anzu motif) in the Neo-syriac tale published by H. Ritter where a wise old bird is fed so that it is able to carry the hero to a faraway place . . . .

(Aro, 28)

Uzbek and Russian

. . . I . . . refer to a recent publication in Uzbek and Russian where the motif which belongs to otherwise unpublished variants of manuscript no. 802, is summarized as follows (translated from the Russian):

“Rustam travels together with his mother to the country of the devs and the peris. They stop at a desert spot and there spend two days. On the third day Rustam asks his mother whether it is possible for him to go to the steppe of Izgir. She gives her permission and Rustam sets off. When he climbs upon a hill at the juncture of the seven rivers, Rustam sees a plane-tree growing at the river bank and a bird’s nest on its top. Rustam looks to the other side and sees two dragons lying on the black ground. He leaps from his horse, goes to the dragons and kills them. The bird Sīmurgh comes to the spot and is delighted upon seeing the killed dragons. It says to Rustam:

‘You did a good deed in killing the dragons. Every day they ate one of my young. Say what good deed can I do for you?’

Rustam says that he has to get to the bottom of the river of the brilliants. Simurgh answers:

‘Sit on my back, and I shall fly off. You look to the earth and when the earth becomes as small as a kettle, you say to me: “Catch! “, and I shall throw myself as a stone into the river and divide it into two halves; then you can pick up the brilliants from the bottom.”

(Aro, 28)

For the sake of “completeness” — though there are others I have not covered here — let’s repeat the

Finnish tale

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). . . . .

(Aarne, #537)

Back to our western classics, . . . .

From https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Ganymedes.html

Ganymede

The king of all the Gods once burned with love for Ganymede of Phrygia. He found a shape more pleasing even than his own. Jove would not take the form of any bird, except the eagle’s, able to sustain the weight of his own thunderbolts. Without delay, Jove on fictitious eagle wings, stole and flew off with that loved Trojan boy: who even to this day, against the will of Juno, mingles nectar in the cups of his protector, mighty Jupiter.

(Ovid, 10.155)

Does Bellerophon count?

for the winged Pegasus threw Bellerophon, his rider, who would fain have gone to the homes of heaven and the goodly company of Zeus.

(Pindar, Isthmian Ode 7)

If Bellerophon (and we’ll assume his wings are extra large eagle wings), then we must consider . . .

Elijah

9 When they had crossed over, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” 10 He said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” 11 As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. 12 Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw Elijah no more.

(2 Kings 2:9-12)

But back to eagle’s wings:

Israel

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Exodus 19:4

Then we have the “Look, no wings!” ultimate event of Jesus’ ascent in Acts 1:9. But this event probably more accurately belongs to those where prophets are taken up to or through the heavens in other ways — e.g. Ezekiel, Enoch, Paul, Isaiah (Ascension of Isaiah), the child in Revelation.

No doubt there are many more. One article I have not read apparently addresses several different manuscript lines of the Alexander Romance (by a “pseudo-Callisthenes”), some of which include other versions of Alexander’s ascent into the sky.


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.

Hakim Abul-Qasim Ferdousi Tusi, tr Helen Zimmerman. 2015. The Epic Of Kings Shahnameh By Hakim Ferdousi. http://archive.org/details/TheEpicOfKingsShahnamehByHakimFerdousi.

Langdon, Stephen Herbert. 1931. The Mythology of All Races. Vol. V. Semitic. Boston: Archaeological Institute of America. https://archive.org/details/THEMYTHOLOGYOFALLRACESSEMITICStephenHerbertLangdon/page/n205.

Ovid. 1922. “Metamorphoses 10.” Translated by Brookes More. Theoi Classical Texts Library. 1922. https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses10.html#4.

Pindar. 1942. The Odes Of Pindar. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. The University Of Chicago. Accessed June 7, 2019. http://archive.org/details/odesofpindar035276mbp.


 

 

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Neil Godfrey

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3 Comments

  • Arkenaten
    2019-06-07 22:10:17 GMT+0000 - 22:10 | Permalink

    The eagle motif finds its way into a variety of stories it seems…. 🙂

    Well, mountain lions found me there,
    And set me on a eagles wing
    (It’s the eagles wing, baby, what did I say)
    He took me past to the outskirts of infinity,
    And when he brought me back,
    He gave me a Venus witch’s ring
    Hey!
    And he said “Fly on, fly on”
    Because I’m a voodoo chile, baby, voodoo chile

    Voodoo Chile – Jimi Hendrix.

  • prolixir
    2019-06-07 23:12:38 GMT+0000 - 23:12 | Permalink

    When reading the Akkadian Etana myth I was reminded of this:
    The country of Mexico has on its flag an Eagle devouring a snake, this from the Aztec legend that was a sign for them to build their capital city.

  • Steven C Watson
    2019-06-08 16:05:40 GMT+0000 - 16:05 | Permalink

    All these wings seem to be doing is carrying us further from the point, not that it is clear to me what that point is supposed to be.

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