Tag Archives: Adapa

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

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.


 

From Adapa to Jesus

Adapa Sumerian deity of healing, with healthy catch of fish
Creative Commons Attribution

That the gospels recycled themes, motifs, sayings, can be found across the Middle East from Mesopotamia to Egypt and stretching back millennia to before the Neo Babylonian empire and even before the time of any Jewish Scriptures will be of no surprise to anyone who has read The Messiah Myth by Thomas L. Thompson.

Of the myth of Adapa and the South Wind “the earliest known version is a Sumerian text from Old Babylonian Tell Haddad”, made available by Cavigneaux in 2014. I have part translated, part paraphrased the opening section of Cavigneaux’s French translation of the often broken Sumerian text, and added a distinctive note on one comment that I found particularly interesting.

In those distant days …

After the Flood had swept over,

and brought about the destruction of the land …

The world is reborn

A seed of humanity had been preserved …

Four legged animals once again widely dispersed …

Fish and birds repopulated the ponds and reedbeds …

Herbs and aromatic plants flowered on the high steppe …

The state is born

An and Enlil organized the world …

The city of Kish became a pillar of the country …

Etana becomes king

Then the elected shepherd …

Founded a house …

The South Wind during his reign brought blessings …

Humanity without a guide

Humanity did not have a directive …

[Nobody knew how to give or follow orders]

The Story of Adapa begins

[A loyal devotee of Enki he goes fishing in the quay to supply his master’s temple in Eridu.]

In later exorcistic texts … the quay (Akk. kārum) is a trope for the liminal space between worlds.

At the New Moon he went up to go fishing

Without rudder he let the boat go with the flow

Without pole he went up the stream

On the vast lagoon …

[He is capsized by the South Wind]

He curses the South Wind …

And broke the wings of the South Wind …

Jesus stills storm. Interestingly the South Wind was said to be beneficial; it appears to me that Adapa’s technology, apparently directed by the power of his words, was being frustrated by the South Wind.

The narrative is thus a reference to the destruction of the old world and the restoration of the new, through a Flood or through water bringing about the end of one world and nourishing the emergence of the new. As Thompson observes in The Mythic Past new worlds emerge through parting waters (Creation, Noah, Exodus, Elijah-Elisha, Jesus’ Baptism/heavens divided).

Adapa has a special gift. Though mortal, he has power over words, or rather his words have power over the world. Adapa will become the great mythical sage of scribes, of all who can with the magic of words change the face of the earth and the organization of society: engineers, architects, legislators, ….

We are familiar with astronomy and astrology being all one branch of knowledge in these times; similarly magic and medicine were indistinguishable at this stage. The skills of the scribes, the amazing feats they accomplished with words, appear to have been supernatural gifts.

After Adapa by merely speaking causes the wind to cease the supreme god is astonished and invites him up to heaven. Adapa’s personal god, however, warns Adapa not to accept certain gifts [bread, drink, a coat] that will be offered to him there but to only accept an anointing. The chief god laughingly tells Adapa that he has just refused the gifts that would have given him eternal life.

And so forth.

We see here a story opening with the water, a flood, separating the old and the new. We see the wise hero wielding power over the elements, even stilling a “storm”, by his mere commands. Others are amazed at his ability. In this case, it is the gods who are amazed.

The plot of the story begins with the sage “going fishing”, a scene that is found to have mythical or metaphorical significance of life and death, entering a space between two worlds.

I find such literary comparisons interesting. I’m not saying the evangelists were adapting the myth of Adapa, of course. I am thinking about the way certain mythical tropes have been recycled and refashioned through changing human circumstances and experiences.


Cavigneaux, Antoine. 2014. “Une Version Sumérienne de La Légende d’Adapa (Textes de Tell Haddad X).” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 104 (1): 1–41. https://www.academia.edu/26276183/Une_version_sum%C3%A9rienne_de_la_l%C3%A9gende_d_Adapa_Textes_de_Tell_Haddad_X_

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 42


 

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

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. read more »

The wrong questions to ask about myths — and the gospels

Ancient myths and the gospels are not modern novels but it’s tempting to ask questions about their characters and plots as if they were. Questions like, Why did such and such a person do this and not that? Are there not too many unlikely coincidences in this story to make it plausible? Ancient myths are not concerned with the psychological motivations and development of characters the way modern novels are. Nor do their parts have to hang together in the same unifying way.

Characters can be introduced without any explained motivation for their arrival or the actions they perform. What matters is the consequences they effect.

It is the same with reading the gospel of Mark. But before discussing that, a look at Mario Liverani’s chapter on the myth of Adapa (I know, Adapa is eons removed from the gospel, but the tools required for interpreting it are more applicable to the gospels than are the tools required for modern literary criticism): read more »