Ascent of the Sage: “From Adapa to Enoch”, part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing our discussion of From Adapa to Enoch (Seth Sanders), begun at Heavenly Journeys, from Babylon to Judea . . . .

In the previous post we saw the earliest account of a return journey to heaven was that of Etana. Etana ascended to heaven with the aid of an eagle he mercifully restored after it had treacherously broken a divinely sanctioned oath, secured a lasting dynasty on earth, and after his death became an immortal figure in the underworld and one to whom living persons could regularly appeal.

Etana was the “first king”, but his central role as a ritually significant figure was relatively shortlived. Another figure, a wise and learned scribe, replaced him as the mythical power behind the king and the source and power of the scribal elites.

(Sanders’ focus is on return journeys to heaven, not the one-way ones where someone (e.g. Damuzi) goes up to become a star or constellation. The significance of the return journeys is that the traveller brings acquires some special gift or message that puts them in a mediating position to benefit (or curse) other mortals.)

So we come to the story of Adapa.

Adapa in the Old Babylonian Period (ca 1800-1600 BCE)

The earliest known reference to Adapa is a ritual text relating to the exorcism of demons; most interesting is that this text is similar to the latest known reference to Adapa from, probably, the first century AD, another ritual text curing disease through exorcisms. The significance of that lies in the text being part of a “canon” that was long preserved and used for study and rituals by the scribal class.

I take liberties in copying Sanders’ text without the scholarly qualifications and omissions:

The Earth Lords, the Earth Ladies, Enkum and Ninkum!…
I am Adapa sage of Eridu, I am the man of Asalluhi.
To cure the man in his illness, Enki [=Ea] the great lord sent me.

Ea/Enki was the god of magic and secret knowledge, and Adapa was given the same occult gifts.

The ritual text informs us that Adapa was not merely a distant figure but that the exorcist, the one performing the exorcism, identified with Adapa. He spoke as Adapa the words of Adapa. Mesopotamian scribes or ritual specialists could, in their confrontation with the demon causing the disease, become the supernatural being Adapa and speak as Adapa.

The Myth of Adapa and the South Wind

The narrative myth syncs with the above ritualistic text. The earliest (Sumerian) form of the myth of Adapa in outline.

  1. Primordial time: after the Flood had destroyed the land
    • inventions of canals, agriculture, kingship
    • South Wind brought blessings
    • but a time of ignorance: no-one knew how to give or follow orders
  2. Adapa, a sage, was the devotee of the god Ea [=Enki], in Eridu.
  3. Adapa went fishing to supply his master’s temple
  4. He navigates without rudder or pole, until . . .
  5. Adapa’s boat was capsized by the South Wind
  6. Adapa cursed the South Wind breaking his wings with his word
  7. The supreme god Anu, on hearing Adapa had been responsible for violating the natural order, summoned him
  8. Fearing his son and priest would be punished by Anu, Ea, god of wisdom and cunning, gave Adapa two instructions to keep him safe:
    • he was to dress in mourning clothes and tell the gods at Anu’s door, Tammuz/Dumuzi and Gizzida/Ningishzida, that he was in mourning because they had disappeared from the earth — this would ensure the good favour and help from these two gods
    • 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.
  9. At first all goes well and Adapa is given a throne, but then . . .
  10. 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.
  11. Anu orders Ea (presumably through Adapa) to restore the South Wind’s wings and sends down to earth the incantation that will keep the South Wind in its ordained place.
    (We have here the origin of Adapa’s power over demons and healing; and further, the origin on earth, through Adapa, of “the cosmic principles of culture and order”.)
  12. The narrative concludes with a ritual prayer against the South Wind responsible for bringing disease to a patient.

The very words of Adapa have power. Adapa brings to the world, on his return from heaven, the secret knowledge of the words that have power over the elements, over illness, and their demonic causes. Adapa is the epitome of wisdom and secret knowledge. Ritualist, exorcists, will call upon his name, identify with Adapa himself and claim to speak his very words, to restore health, and, as we will see, to master the elements more broadly.

Adapa and the Assyrian Kings

The first king to cite Adapa in a public monument was Sargon II, conqueror of Israel. Sargon compared himself directly not with the mighty Gilgamesh but with the supremely wise Adapa:

The king: open-minded, sharp-eyed, in all matters the equal of the Sage, who became great in counsel and wisdom and grew old in understanding.

Sennacherib’s Annals boasted

Ea gave me broad understanding, endowed me with vast knowledge equivalent to that of the Sage Adapa.

Esarhaddon inscribed his claim to be

Rival of the Sage Adapa, who Prince Ea endowed (with wisdom).

Assurbanipal in particular promoted himself as an epitome of scholarly knowledge and access to “hidden cosmic secrets”. He documented his presence in the temples and “among the council of scholars”:

I grasped the work of the Sage Adapa, the hidden treasure of the whole scribal art.

Assurbanipal exalted the scholarly feats of the king to an unprecedented level:

The intellectual image of Assurbanipal depicted in his inscriptions is tied to a new state-sponsored project that modified and expanded scribal culture. As Frahm notes (1997:280), this period witnessed an explosion of commentaries and ritual texts. While accidents o f preservation may explain the number of such texts, it does not explain the appearance of whole new discursive forms such as the “cultic commentary”; a significant feature of these new forms is their sheer difficulty. The difficulty of the materials may derive from their in-group nature. (p. 45)

Sanders writes

Adapa is the mythic figure to whom the king is most often compared. The king’s deeds are like those of Adapa, his wisdom rivals that of Adapa, even his mother’s health is like that of Adapa. (p. 66)

The great building projects of the Assyrian kings, his conquests, were all evidence of the god-given qualities of the king, the qualities of Adapa himself. Adapa represented the authority, the wisdom, the intellectual prowess of the king.

Assurbanipal’s boast to have mastered all written knowledge provides a propagandistic self-conception modeled on the ideal figure of the sage. The profile includes rivalry with a supernatural intermediary figure, schooling in cosmic secrets, the decipherment of encoded messages, and presence in the counsel of the learned. It may be compared to the more limited propagandistic description of Nebuchadnezzar I as descended from Enmeduranki, a Sumerian king described as performing extispicy and lecanomancy . . . . Nebuchadnezzar does not claim any divinatory ability for himself, but retrojects this ability into an invented past. It is significant, then, that Assurbanipal’s scholars also utilize this type of ancestral ideology, claiming that the king is descended from a sage and Adapa . . . . As the Neo-Assyrian kings adopted scribal features, they also thereby further politicized the figure of the scribe. (p. 46)

The Scribal / Adapa Revolution

After the Persian empire swept away the Babylonian kings the Mesopotamian scribal class that had existed to support those kings accordingly found a new role and status for itself.

The Persian conqueror Cyrus set up a mock inscription portraying the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, as having made himself look ridiculous by claiming to be more clever than Adapa. The king’s comparison of himself with Adapa thus becomes a mark of hubris; Nabonidus, the last Mesopotamian king, is blasphemous and absurd for presuming any sort of comparison with Adapa.

Part of the mockery in the inscription had Nabonidus creating a statue of a god that was said to be so bizarre that not even Adapa “knew its name”. At this point Seth Sanders discusses an interesting feature of the powers of Ea and his sage-servant Adapa:

Ea is understood as having formed the shapes of every known thing in the apsû, the aquatic matrix of all form and knowledge. Correspondingly, Adapa is described as the one who knows the names of all the things Ea formed. Adapa’s mythic role as a knower of names is connected to his role as the scholar par excellence (with the lexical emphasis of Mesopotamian scholarly training, much of early education was organized around knowing signs and names) and the related role of exorcist par excellence: being able to name the cause is part of the diagnosis and treatment of illness. The role of Adapa as a knower of names is thus somewhat like Adam in Genesis 2 or God in Psalm 147, both of whom name entire classes of things (animals and stars, respectively) but more like Enoch in the Aramaic Astronomical Book and Book of the Watchers, who is permitted to enumerate and learn the names of all the stars as part of a revelation. (pp. 46 f)

Thus ended Adapa’s role as a foil for the royal power.

Without the nearby king to serve the Mesopotamian scribes and scholars took direct charge of much of the public administration supported, of course, by the Persian emperor. Integral to that continuity was the ongoing preservation and use of the scholarly texts in which the totality of scribal wisdom, bequeathed by Adapa, was found.

The Persian empire was replaced by Hellenistic rule and in the first century BCE we find our last known public inscription honouring Adapa. It is in the largest temple ever built to the sky god, Anu, in Uruk. This temple was a combination of Babylonian and Greek influence, even bearing a hybrid Babylonian-Greek name. Inscriptions had once declared the greatness of the king’s power and wisdom, but this time the one who was declared to be the builder of this magnificent structure was a mythical character, Adapa himself!

Not only is [Adapa] actually said to have built the Resh temple itself, the only case in which a mythic sage usurps the royal political privilege of temple-founding, but he appears in the temple’s archives in a uniquely prominent historical role, as the sage of the first king in history . . . . (p. 49)

It appears that the scribes are claiming precedence over royalty.

Meanwhile, let’s survey the types of texts that featured Adapa throughout the first millennium BCE.

Adapa, Author of Letters

Sanders compresses much information in his paragraphs and is surely writing for a well-informed scholarly readership and I so far I have found myself frequently pausing to chase up citations that I expect to shed more understanding on much of his discussion. All the more important, in my view, to see if I can do my bit in contributing to a wider lay readership being alerted to the scholarship.

So at this point I will quote from van der Toorn’s 2007 work that Sanders cites. It relates to the revelation from the gods being found in texts, in particular in letters inspired by gods.

Revelation as a Scribal Construct in Mesopotamia

A key text for understanding the Mesopotamian concept of revelation is the Catalogue of Texts and Authors. The Catalogue is a sophisticated work of scholarship; it lists all the classic texts studied in scribal circles of the seventh century b.c.e. and gives for each text the name of its author. In the discussion of the Catalogue in connection with the Mesopotamian concept of authorship . . . it became clear that the Catalogue does not distinguish between author and editor. Nor is the list concerned with authorship for the reasons modern readers would find it relevant; the primary interest of the Mesopotamian scholars lies with the authority of the traditional texts.

The Catalogue lists the works of the cuneiform tradition in their order of presumed antiquity. Though the text has been preserved only in fragments, it is still possible to see that it distinguishes three successive eras in the literary production. The earliest group of texts are “from the mouth of Ea,” the second group of texts are by sages from before the Flood, most notably Adapa, and the third and largest group of texts are by various postdiluvian scribes and scholars of great repute. Antiquity is the yardstick of authority: the older the work, the higher its rank among the classics. The divine authorship attributed to the oldest texts underscores the fact that they enjoy the greatest authority. For the purpose of the present discussion, it is this group that merits our particular attention.

The core of the cuneiform canon consists of the large reference works of the various scholarly disciplines of first-millennium Mesopotamia. Everything that falls within the categories of incantation literature . . . , liturgical lore . . . , astrology . . . , medical prognostics . . . , and various types of omen literature (physiognomy, malformed births, and chance utterances) is traced to Ea, the Mesopotamian god of wisdom. In addition to these compendia, the Catalogue mentions two Sumerian myths as being “from the mouth of Ea” . . . ; the scribes used these literary texts as scholarly literature. . . . Also, the concept of revelation it employs is a scribal construct. An explanatory passage toward the end of the text implies that Ea spoke these texts and that “Adapa wrote them down at his dictation” . . . .  These texts “from before the Flood” . . . were transmitted down the generations through the intermediary of Adapa and other celebrated sages from the past.

Without actually using the word “revelation,” the Catalogue applies that concept to a major part of the written tradition. It thus reflects a new paradigm of revelation; no longer an interaction between gods and religious specialists, revelation is now encoded in a set of written texts. . . . . (van der Toorn, pp. 207 f)

Here Adapa makes his appearances as the pseudepigraphic author of texts, letters, relaying instructions for incantations, for example, to scholars.

While Mesopotamian kings still remain on the throne, the apkallü [sages] remain confined to myth and ritual. After the end of native kingship, the non-human, supernatural sages enter history as well. They appear, opposite rulers, in king lists and Adapa takes on the temple-building attributes of a king at Uruk. (Sanders, p. 67)

Orality was being replaced by textual instruction.

Adapa, Exorcist and Healer, Transgressor – Mediator

A mortal expert in the rituals required for healing by exorcising demons could actually inhabit Adapa and speak as Adapa himself.

As Adapa, sage of Eridu,
I am indeed the exorcist of Enki, I am indeed the messenger of Asalluhi –
The great lord Enki has sent me to revive the sick man!

An especially interesting feature of some of the texts is that Adapa appears to be presented as a fallible person who transgressed against the gods (see the myth above) but who nonetheless obtained divine favour. It is this Adapa whom the scribes enter, or who enters the scribes, in certain rituals:

The one whom he . . in his fury . . . he honors
Marduk, have mercy on your servant, the sage (lit. Adapa) who . . . !
Take away, Lord, his guilt, remove his punishment.
His mouth has confessed the sin he committed . . . .

The references to Adapa that evoke his wisdom and authority are in royal, historiographical, or magical-medical contexts. This prayer surely testifies to the fact that Adapa is synonymous with “wise” . . . . But it also evokes a different aspect of him, the one who went to heaven clad in mourning because of a transgression. This is the sage as a figure of hubris . . . . Is the speaker adopting the role of Adapa as a transgressor with a special relation to the gods? It is through disasters as well as victories that the apkallu seem to mediate between heaven and earth. (pp. 56 f)

Adapa in History

Adapa appears in the Esagila Chronicle as a punisher of a king who fails to live up to his expected pious role of caring for his people and honouring the god Marduk by performing the necessary priestly duties of maintaining food (fish) for his temple.

Whosoever offends the gods of this city, his star will not stand in the sky. [His] kingship will be no more, his scepter will be taken away, his treasure will become a heap of rubble . . . . I want “to tell (?)” you:

. . .  The wise Adapa heard “…” in his holy sanctuary’ and cursed Enmekar . . . (Glassner, p. 267)

So the sage here has the right to punish the king.

Adapa in Geography and the Divine Realm

Adapa appears in a key position in a text that was used for training scribes apparently right through the first millennium BCE at least up through Persian times. The text was essentially a map of Babylon’s shrines. Here we find Adapa enthroned in “the god of heaven’s seat beside the king of the gods”.

In the third century BCE we have Berossus writing an account of Babylonian culture for the Seleucid king, Antiochus I. Sanders finds some evidence to suggest that Berossus knew of Adapa as a seventh sage from creation, this conforming to a widespread tradition in which the seventh in a generation has a special place in the divine scheme.

Myth of Adapa and Enmerker

This myth is not widely known because it “survives” in a very fragmented form. The significance of this myth is that here Adapa explores not heaven but the underworld.

Adapa did not just explore heaven: together with the legendary and infamous king Emerkar – who he is elsewhere described as cursing – he also discovered the horrors of the underworld. The myth of Adapa and Enmerkar begins by stating that someone, perhaps Adapa, “was wailing to Marduk” . . . The gods react to the lament but do not seem to help. Enmerkar, king of Uruk, becomes involved and together with Adapa descends into the earth and enters a tomb; perhaps they engage in necromancy:

24 … an ancient corpse from remotest times [… ]
25 He made a terrible clamor in the pala[ce … ]
26 They went down nine cubits [in the depths..]
27 [Nine] cubits of earth they went down […]
28 [He/they] destroyed the door of the tomb […]…

Something horrible follows; when the text becomes readable again, they have a smith reseal the tomb . . . Adapa encounters the smith again and anxiously ask him if the door to the grave is secure . . . .

The text is important for the development of the figure of Adapa in two ways: the first is as evidence of his insertion into the legendary past, as an advisor or companion of Enmerkar, king of Uruk. The second is that it displays yet another variation on the pattern of Adapa or an apkallu transgressing the boundaries of heaven and hell, life, and death. In the earlier myth he causes a disturbance in heaven; here he seems to cause one in the netherworld, alongside a king who is also remembered as a transgressor in the Esagila chronicle, quoted above. (Sanders, pp. 61 f)

Adapa the Ritual Practitioner Par Excellence

Adapa is the ideal priest, perfectly fulfilling his duty to keep the gods supplied with food for the gods. His words have power, also, as we have seen. An exorcist would recite ritual texts that tell us he identified with Adapa and spoke as Adapa himself in performing rituals to exorcise demons in order to heal.

I am Adapa, exorcist of Eridu.

These ritual texts inform us of what the exorcist’s aspirations, expectations, in “taking on” the person and words of Adapa.

Adapa is the devoted servant of the god Ea. Ea created the order it was his servant Adapa who knew the names of all things created. The two are effectively “as one”, to a point. In the ritual texts the words of Ea often are indistinguishable from those of Adapa — and therefore of the exorcist. The exorcist is thus speaking as the mouthpiece of the god Ea. But Adapa is not perfect: he offends the gods, at first in using his power of speech to break the wings of the South Wind. Significantly the South Wind was identified with Ea, Adapa’s god. The Wind itself was a deity that wielded power of good and evil on earth.

Adapa’s role here appears mysteriously ambivalent. There is room to interpret the texts in a way, as Sanders suggests, that makes Adapa for a time a demonic figure, a cause of disease, and it is through his powers of ritual that he works to cure the curse that he himself has brought about.

Adapa is an icon of the danger of ritual performance and linguistic power. In Mesopotamian scribal context, the main Adapa myth presents a paradoxical combination of obedience and threat: his power over language and ritual always exceeds their boundaries. The two themes in the myth of Adapa and the South Wind that cohere most strongly with the ritual uses and allusions of Adapa outside the myth are his perfectly effective ritual performance and the disruptive potential of that ritual performance. As a Mesopotamian reflection on ritual, we see here an ambivalence between disease and cure: the same power is ultimately responsible for both. And politically, we see the image of a servant whose very perfect service threatens to overtake the power of his masters. Historically, from the viewpoint of the scholar’s role in Mesopotamian society, this actually happened. (Sanders, p. 65)

. . .

So Adapa acquires a central and changing role through the political changes of Mesopotamia and through the accompanying developments of new texts, new genres, and an emerging role of human sages, the intellectual elites, the scribes. Sanders next sets out to examine the evidence for the way those ritualists and scholars would have identified with Adapa.

Continuing . . . .

Glassner, Jean-Jacques. 2004. Mesopotamian Chronicles. Writings from the Ancient World ; No. 19. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

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

Toorn, Karel van der. 2007. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Ascent of the Sage: “From Adapa to Enoch”, part 2”

  1. What I find interesting about this is that it appears to be another example of a mythical figure that was believed to be a real person and treated as a real historical figure by ancient peoples. That’s one of the things I’m working on collecting now are examples of other people who didn’t actually exist but were thought of as real historical figures by ancient Mediterranean/Mesopotamian cultures, like Orpheus, etc.

  2. Neil, this is an excellent summary of Sanders. I am also delighted to see you expose other important studies for your readers. Prof. Dr. van der Toorn’s work is a very significant study for those interested in scribal activity and ancient text production. He discusses, for example, a number of categories of textual production in the ancient world that encompass a variety of tasks: transcription, compilation, expansion, and yes, invention (pp. 110-140). These concepts or categories will be important to consider as the roles of Adapa and Enoch take shape in various contexts, genres and traditions.

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