Enûma Eliš: The Origin of Practices

Enuma Elis

When the skies above were not yet named
Nor earth below pronounced by name,
Apsu, the first one, their begetter,
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,
Had mixed their waters together,
But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds;
When yet no gods were manifest,
Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,
Then gods were born within them.

So begins the first known myth of creation: Enûma Eliš of Sumerian civilization circa 2nd millennium BCE (Dalley, 2000). Enûma Eliš, or enuma elish, being the opening line (transliteration) of the text. According to the myth, in the beginning there was a formless world, void, without order. From the chaos, then, we see the emergence of all creatures, a template which is reused in every known subsequent deistic religion. The core of the myth is weaved with the thread of rituals. It is impossible to summarize the whole myth here (see, Dalley 2000). But, the point of the interest, for me, is the essence of the rituals which are embedded in the myth that we find in our everyday world. To understand, Bailkey (1967) makes the case for the beginning of the concept of kingship in terms of control and power structures, and interprets the logic of order embedded in Enûma Eliš:

Kingship did not exist in heaven until the gods were threatened with destruction by a host of monsters. To be their leader and champion, the “fifty senior gods” approached Marduk (Enlil in the lost Sumerian version), the heroic son of a fellow senior god. Yet so reluctant were the senior gods to grant adequate power to Marduk that he threatened to refuse the office unless they reconsidered: “If I am to be your champion, . . . and keep you alive, then establish an assembly and proclaim my lot supreme . . . . and let me when I open my mouth have power . . . even as [equal to] you, so that whatever I frame shall not be altered and the command of my lips shall not return void, shall not be changed” (p. 1213-14)

This is where we see the line first blurred between autonomy and docility.

Marduk had, we read, “conceived the idea of creating a clever device” that would further mollify the great gods: “I shall bring into existence a robot whose name shall be ‘man’ ! . . . he shall be charged with the services of the gods, thus they will be relieved [of work] !” (p. 1214)

Where do the laws come from? In short, the myth:

The myths contain additional evidence of the primitive monarch’s limited power and provisional status. Kingship is termed a “counseling” (mitluku) and a “turn of office” (bala), meaning that consultation with the council of senior gods was mandatory and that the office was granted for a limited term and was recallable at will

kingship eventually “descended from heaven” as a gift of the gods to the “beclouded people,” it was established as an exact copy, “a likeness on earth,” of the limited kingship among the gods in heaven (p. 1214)

We don’t know what is the sources and inspirations of the most ancient myths but we could see from a different interpretive perspective: what the most ancient myth’s logic of order points to? Practice precedes Man. Man embodies docility. Docility gives order. So, a primal entry into the hermeneutic circle of understanding, the circle of life begins.


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