Tag Archives: Sanders: From Adapa to Enoch

How to Become a Divine Messenger — continuing Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, last discussed at Scholars, Divinities and How the Cosmos was Understood “Scientifically” B.C.E.

–o–

Masks are powerful things. They can change your personality. Well, the word persona originally meant mask, a mask worn by an actor. I once attached a cut-out of a face of a leading political figure to a stick and held the face up in front of my own and walked through busy streets doing whatever as part of a political protest. Without the mask there is no way I could have acted the way I did. Acted. Actor. Mask. But we know it’s all pretence.When ancient Mesopotamian exorcists wore masks there was less sense of pretence. The mask brought one into the presence of gods.

We have seen the texts in which the exorcist claims, I am Adapa! Seth Sanders asks the obvious question:

But how seriously may we take these claims?

He gives a hint to the answer in his next sentence:

In fact there are deeply rooted semantic connections in Sumerian between essences, emblems, and masks.

me

The Essence of Things: me

Sanders reminds his readers of what “is well known”. Caution: he means “well known” to scholarly readers. This is not a book for the everyday lay reader. There is no clear introductory definition of apkallu, a key term throughout, and an outsider like myself only picks up his meaning from context and double checking via Google. Even abbreviations are not explained, it being evidently assumed readers will not need to be told that CAD refers to the Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. To grasp the full flow of his argument I sometimes find myself having to renavigate earlier parts of a chapter from points that are explicitly identified as salient in its conclusion. But that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this blog: to take such “hidden learning” from the ethereal halls of academia and give plebs like me an opportunity to know what “they are saying up there.”

As is well known, the Sumerian me represent the divine powers essential to the constitution and functioning of a host of institutions belonging to the spheres of culture and religious life. But in fact every element of the universe was understood as having its own distinctive me – its essence. As Cavigneaux as well as Oppenheim himself showed, the term reaches back into the earliest written texts. Already in the earliest connected Sumerian texts of the mid-third millennium we find the me nam-nun-kam, literally, “me of princeliness” and me nu-hal-hal and [me] nu-ha-lamme of that which cannot be destroyed.” Woods argues [unpublished paper] that the word is likely derived from the Sumerian verb “to be,” with which it shares the same phonological shape, leading to a relationship “that which is” > “essence.” (Sanders, 80)

So far so good. Essences are abstract. But there’s more. They are also very concrete.

The me, the essences, can be picked up, held up, stolen from someone and given to another, ridden, knocked over, hidden, “or stuck in a corner”. There is evidence that the term was also once synonymous with the idea of self or one’s person — and hence possessed by all entities.

Just an aside here. One thing that comes to mind is how the biblical god is able to have “his glory” occupy the temple or go before Israel as if, though it is obviously a part of the very self and being of the god, it can also somehow be separated and occupy its own space. Ditto for his “name”. This does not seem to be quite the same concept being discussed here but it certainly appears to be related in some way.

The term me is part of another word, melammu, a “burning or radiant me” = “radiance, supernatural awe-inspiring sheen (inherent in things divine and royal).” But it can be removed from those who possess it, too, and the language used is that of removing a cloak or a crown in which the awe-inspiring sheen and terror is housed. Concepts of self could be attached to objects such as a crown or a mask.

What is most distinctively Mesopotamian about this concept of the self, then, is that it is an alienable essence. Inextricably bound with identity, it is nonetheless material and mobile – it can be taken. The me-lam, burning or radiant me, . . . a numinous radiance or blinding mask of light, is similarly both a mark of inherent divinity or magnificence and an alienable object that can be snatched away or handed off (Oppenheim 1943, Cassin 1968).

The universe itself, or rather, “the me [translated in this context as “plans”] of heaven and earth”, is kept in order by the powers of the seven divine fish-like sages or apkallu. (Mere human descended apkallu do not have such powers but only “great understanding”.) (pp. 53-55) As per a protective ritual:

1-2 Incantation: Uanna, who completes the plan of heaven and earth,
3^1 Uanneduga, endowed with broad mind,
5 Enmeduga, ordained with a happy fate,
6 Enmegalamma, formed in a house,
7 Enmebulugga, who grew in a field,
8 Anenlilda, incantation-priest of Eridu,
9 Utuabzu, who ascended to heaven:
10-11 They are the seven brilliant Purâdu-fish, Puradu-i’ish of the sea;
12-13 Seven apkallü formed in the river, who keep the plans [= me] of heaven and earth in order.
14-15 Nungalpiriggal, apkallu of Enmerkar, who brought Ishtar down from heaven into the Eanna.
16-17 Piriggalnungal, formed in Kish, who angered Adad in heaven so that
18-19 he did not let there be rain or vegetation in the land for three years.
20-23 Piriggalabzu, formed in Adab, who hung his seal on a Seal-fish and thus angered Enki in the Abzu so that a fuller struck him with his own seal.
24-27 Fourth, Lu-Nanna, two-thirds apkallu, who drove a dragon out of the Eninkiag-nunna, the Istar temple of Shulgi.
28-29 Four apkallu of human descent, who Lord Enki endowed with broad understanding.
30 Ritual action: Before the seven Purâdu-apkallu who are striped with plaster and black paste,
31 which are drawn on the wall of the side of the sanctuary, you recite (the above).

But to return to the exorcist who wears a mask, another persona, that of a divine being . . . . read more »

Scholars, Divinities and How the Cosmos was Understood “Scientifically” B.C.E.

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, last discussed at Ascent of the Sage: “From Adapa to Enoch”, part 2 . . . .

We come now to chapter 2, “I Am Adapa!” The Divine Personae of Mesopotamian Scribes.

If we want to understand how ancient scholars related to their universe, their revealed texts and revealers, the best collections of sources we have, spanning two to three thousand years up to the first century CE, are the cuneiform records of Mesopotamia. In the next chapter Sanders begins to compare Judean texts.

In this chapter (2) Sanders examines the nature of the cosmos among these ancient scribes and how they went about understanding, studying and acting on it.

In addition to the texts, there is the visual imagery of divine beings, divine sages or apkallu, to help us with our inquiry.

We have images of a patient (sick, hence possessed or inflicted by a demon) surrounded by superhuman fish-apkallu standing where exorcists would be positioned.

We have royal inscriptions of the enthroned king framed by bird-apkallu maintaining cosmic order from the seat of royal power.

Scholarly participation in supernatural presence was not confined to exorcism: the economists and political scientists of their day, diviners summoned the gods to meet together in divine assembly so that the diviner could be present to hear and transmit their verdict for the country’s future. (Sanders, 72)

“Medical practice” and “political advisors” were thus the more practical pursuits of scholars. But what are the boundaries between science and what we would relegate to mumbo-jumbo in their world? And did the scholars or scribes really become, in their own minds, supernatural sages (apkallu)? Did they really believe they could journey to heaven and meet with the gods?

At this point we find an interesting connection with another book I have been posting about. It is interesting to compare the concepts of early Judean scribes to their Hebrew text — see the two posts on Nanine Charbonnel’s chapter 2, The Sacred and Creative Power of the Hebrew Text and A God Bound to the Mechanics of Language. Seth Sanders writes,

If cuneiform was the secret of Mesopotamian scribes, the ultimate decipherer of this secret was the semi-human sage Adapa, at once the symbol and the patron saint of the scribe. Probably the single most popular mythic hero in Mesopotamian literature, Adapa beat out even Gilgamesh. As Michalowski notes, “no other hero of a canonical text is so often encountered in other compositions.” This is not surprising, since he would have been so sympathetic to the scribes who produced those compositions. He is supposed to have authored omen collections, fathomed the deepest secrets of words and magic, and broken the wings of the South Wind by the sheer power of his speech. He was of paramount importance to the people who created cuneiform culture.

Adapa is crucial as a phenomenological starting point in our comparison of scribal heroes. As the best-documented ancient Near Eastern figure who ascends to heaven, negotiates with gods, transmits revelation, and fights demons to heal the sick he is simultaneously the closest thing Mesopotamia has to Moses, Enoch and the shaman of North Asian societies. Seen horizontally, from a view of cultures side by side, he represents a broad comparative type: the mediator, who moves between the worlds of gods and humans. (Sanders, 73. My bolding in all quotations)

Adapa is a figure of knowledge and power (see the previous post in this series). He is also worn as a ritual mask. And as we saw in the previous post, his function changes over time as political circumstances change.

In order to grasp something of the way the natural and divine worlds were conceptualized in Mesopotamian culture we need to set aside our dualistic notions of spirit powers and entities. To us, the spirit realm stands against the natural world, yet such a division between the two needs to be set aside, Sanders emphasizes at length. We think of God and spirit beings as not found literally in physical manifestations like idols of stone, or in natural phenomena like earthquakes and storms.

Mesopotamian texts and images portray the divine beings interacting with, present with, humans, both occupying the same space, and in some cases the human speaker actually claims to be the divine Adapa himself.

I am Adapa sage of Eridu [= location of watery source of secret knowledge]
I am the man [= servant] of Asalluhi [= the god of exorcism]
Enki [= creator and master of the demons causing the illness] the great lord has sent me to cure the man in his illness!

In what sense did the speaker understand himself to be Adapa?

Francesca Rochberg

Advances in understanding the Mesopotamian view of the supernatural vis a vis the natural world have come, Sanders explains, through exploring more deeply the nature of Mesopotamian science. And here I take a detour to have a closer look at some of the sources Sanders calls upon, work by the Assyriologist Francesca Rochberg.

Before the “World of Nature”

Imagine not having a concept of “the natural world” or “nature”. We take the concept for granted and that makes it difficult for us to appreciate that it has not always existed.

A key insight has come from the history of science. Exploring Mesopotamian scholars’ criteria for meaning and truth, Francesca Rochberg has shown that cuneiform scholarship tended to see the material world as composed of signs: reality itself is semiotic. Such an ontology does not presuppose a purely non-linguistic physical nature in opposition to culture, and in fact the history of science has shown that an explicit concept of nature is not necessary to all scientific inquiry, citing ancient China and Mesopotamia as cases where forms of science thrived without it (Lloyd 2012:64).  (Sanders, 77)

What were the “subjects” of interest to Mesopotamian scholars?

Various forms of divination: astronomy and astrology, examination of sheep’s entrails, lexical texts (lists of synonyms, grammatical forms, etc.), diagnostic and therapeutic medical texts, magical texts, incantations . . . read more »

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

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. read more »

Heavenly Journeys, from Babylon to Judea

I am looking forward to sharing some of the research of Seth L. Sanders published in From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon (2017). I sought out the book in expectations that it would open to my understanding the ancient thought-world that lies behind our own religious heritage. Sometimes we will hear that a biblical person or trope has a parallel of sorts in ancient Mesopotamia yet give little thought to the fact that the time gap between the two can be half a millennium or more. How can we meaningfully speak of an influence between A1 and A2 if they are separated by such a span? Besides, how credible is it to imagine different cultures, languages, races, being so frozen within a common umbrella culture that never changes so that a story of a hero’s heavenly journey in Babylonia can have the same meaning and function as another hero’s heavenly journey many centuries later and hundreds of miles distant?

Sanders hopes to find answers to those sorts of questions. How was it that a story of a heavenly journey by Enoch in Hellenistic era texts echoed similar stories in Mesopotamia 500 or even 1000 years earlier? And it didn’t just end with Enoch. Paul, we know, also spoke of experiencing a heavenly journey, and we will see in these posts that his letters spoke of other experiences for all those “in Christ” that have remarkable correspondences with the experiences of Enoch and his predecessors and with the scribal elites who read and used these texts.

I said I sought out the book. The book appeared in my mail box a few weeks after I had requested a review copy from Mohr Siebeck. I heard nothing back from them but I presume it was them who forwarded the book to me. So for that I’m thankful.

I have mentioned the literature of the heavenly journeys of sages. Hellenistic era Judea and Babylonian-Assyrian era Mesopotamia also shared literature of exegetical commentaries and astronomical science.

If these changes are part of a shared development in the intellectual life of the region, shifts in a common ancient Near Eastern scribal culture, why do they only appear in Judea so much later, under the new conditions of Hellenism? Ancient Near Eastern scribal culture spans more than 3,000 years, far-flung cities and empires, and many languages and writing systems. The risk of examining it as a whole is there may not be a whole – at least, we will be better able to tell once we have seen it intimately, at specific moments, in particular forms. (p. 1)

Before addressing some of Sanders’ criticisms of past approaches to similarities between Iron Age Mesopotamian and Hellenistic Judean literary cultures I choose to start with the earliest known story of a heavenly journey from Mesopotamia. read more »

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