Two Babylonian (Akkadian) Tales of Beginnings
1. The Tale of Adapa
Like "Adam," its cognate in Hebrew, the Akkadian word "Adapa" means
"man." Adapa was the first of the seven sages of Eridu who lived before
the flood. These sages talked with the gods, performed their rites, and
helped them bring order and civilization to mankind. The story of Adapa
begins by saying that Ea disclosed "the broad design of the land" to Adapa,
giving him wisdom, but not "eternal life" (Dalley 184). Like the flood
hero Atrahasis, Adapa is described as "extra-wise," and as particularly
faithful and observant to his god Ea (Enki), baking bread and making the
proper offerings of food and water every day. Adapa is also in charge of
ritually assuring the fish supply, so one day, he sets out to fish, letting
his boat drift rudderless in "the broad sea" (Dalley 184)--no doubt the
The South Wind (who is female) kicks up, and overturns Adapa's boat.
Adapa is "plunged into the world of fish" (Sandars 171), so he curses South
Wind, threatening to break her wing. Since Adapa's word is law,
No sooner had he uttered these words
Than South Wind's wing was broken;
For seven days South Wind did not blow towards the land. (Dalley 185)
The sky god Anu wonders about this, so he asks his vizier Ilabrat why the
South Wind has not blown for seven days. Ilabrat tells Anu about Adapa
breaking the wind's wing. Anu is furious. He demands that Adapa be brought
before him. Ea, who knows what's going on in heaven, touches Adapa and
advises him to go to heaven in rags and mourning. Adapa is to approach
the two gatekeepers of Anu, Tammuz and Gizzida, and to tell them that he
is mourning their absence from the earth. Ea predicts that the two gatekeepers
will be pleased with this display of grief: "They will look at each other
and laugh a lot, / Will speak a word in your favour to Anu" (Dalley 186).
In addition to this advice, Ea advises Adapa on how to behave in the presence
of Anu and the assembled gods:
They will offer thee the food of death;
Do not eat it. The water of death they will offer thee;
Do not drink it. A garment they will offer thee;
Clothe thyself with it.Oil they will offer thee; anoint thyself with
it. (Heidel 150)
An envoy from Anu arrives and takes Adapa to heaven. At the gates, everything
befalls as Ea predicted. Adapa's claim to be in mourning for the two gatekeeper
gods, Tammuz and Gizzida, causes them to "laugh a lot." But Anu shouts
at Adapa, "Why did you break South Wind's wing?" (Dalley 186). Adapa explains
that he was just trying to fish for his lord Ea when the wind dumped him
into "the world of fish," so he cursed the wind. At this point Tammuz and
Gizzida speak a word in Adapa's favour to Anu. Anu's anger is softened
somewhat, but nevertheless he grumbles
Why did Ea disclose to wretched mankind
The ways of heaven and earth,
Give to them a heavy heart?
It was he who did it!
What can we do for him?
Fetch him the bread of (eternal) life and let him eat! (Dalley 187)
Another translation renders the two middle lines above as, "He has made
him strong (and) made him a name" (Heidel 151). Despite these translation
difficulties, it is clear that Anu is not pleased that Ea has given Adapa
magic powers like the ability to curse the wind. But as a host, Anu must
show Adapa some respect and offer him food and drink, in this case the
bread and water of eternal life. Adapa, however, follows Ea's instructions
to the letter and refuses what he thinks are the bread and water of death.
He does clothe himself with garments they offer and anoint himself with
the oils they provide. Anu wonders at his guest's lack of appetite:
'Come, Adapa, why didn't you eat? Why didn't you drink?
Didn't you want to be immortal? Alas for downtrodden people!'
'(But) Ea my lord told me: "You mustn't eat! You mustn't drink!" (Dalley
Anu commands that Adapa be sent back to earth and laughs at the cleverness
of Ea. Anu says, "Of the gods of heaven and earth, as many as there be,
/ Who ever gave such a command, / So as to make his own command exceed
the command of Anu?" (Pritchard 80). The text comments that Adapa, who
broke the South Wind's wing, "the man child of man" (Sandars 172), has
brought illness and disease "upon the bodies of men" (Heidel 153). The
text ends with a prayer to Ninkarrak, the goddess of healing, to heal the
sickness of men and women.
1. Why is it appropriate for the wind to have wings?
2. In what ways is Ea's advice to Adapa like / unlike his advice to
the kurgarra and galatur in "The Descent of Inanna"? (Compare
to his advise to Atrahasis.)
3. Why do you think Ea gives Adapa advice that results in the loss of
4. In what ways is this story similar to / different from the Adam and
Eve story? How like and unlike the Prometheus and Pandora story? In what
ways is Ea like / unlike Prometheus and the serpent in Genesis?
5. Name some stories in which humans do or do not follow instructions
/ rules of the god(s) and therefore suffer consequences.
6. How do Adapa's acts bring illness and disease to mankind?
2. Etana and the Eagle
Though this is a Babylonian story, it probably dates back to Sumerian
times, for it begins with a description of how the gods founded and built
the Sumerian city of Kish. The gods decide that Etana should be the city's
first king. After a break of about 120 lines, the text resumes with a description
of a poplar [styrax] tree and its inhabitants: an eagle nests at
the top of the tree, while a serpent makes it home at the base. The serpent
and the eagle swear an oath not to "overstep the limit set by Shamash"
(sun-god and god of justice). The eagle and the serpent both go out hunting
and bring back plenty of food for their young. The account stresses that
both eagle and serpent eat first and then unselfishly "turn away" so that
their young may share in the food. In spite of the abundance of game, the
"eagle plotted evil in its heart . . . / And made up its mind to eat its
friend's young ones." The eagle tells its young sons about the plan, and
how he hopes to avoid the serpent's anger: "I shall go up and abide in
the sky, / I shall come down from the tree top only to eat the fruit!"
(Dalley 192). But one of his sons, an "especially wise" fledgling, warns
him: "Father don't eat! The net of Shamash will ensnare you" (Dalley 193).
Of course, the eagle pays no attention to his son's advice and goes down
and eats the serpent's young. Upon returning from hunting, the serpent
finds its nest and infants gone. He lies down and weeps, crying out to
My own nest is not there, while its nest is safe.
My young ones are scattered and its young ones are safe.
It came down and ate my young ones!
You know the wrong which it has done me, Shamash!
Truly, O Shamash, your net is as wide as the earth,
Your snare is as broad as the sky!
The eagle should not escape from your net . . . (Dalley 193)
Shamash hears the serpent's plea and concocts a clever plan to trap the
eagle: he will hide the serpent in the innards of a dead bull, and when
the eagle comes down to feast, the serpent will seize the eagle, clip its
wings, and throw it into a pit. So the serpent follows the plan, hides
in the stomach of the wild bull, and waits while "all kinds of birds" come
to down to feast on the bull. The eagle spots this tasty carcass, and invites
his young to go down with him and have a feast. Once again, the wise little
fledgling warns his father: "perhaps the serpent is lying in wait inside
this wild bull!" But the eagle reasons, "If the birds felt any fear, /
How would they be eating the flesh so peacefully?" (Dalley 194).
So the eagle flies down to the wild bull and carefully looks around.
Gradually, he drops his guard, becomes engrossed in his eating, and ventures
into the innards of the bull. The serpent grabs his wing, and berates the
eagle for stealing its young. The eagle offers a bribe to the serpent,
but the serpent refuses and clips the eagle's wings, plucks it, and throws
it into a pit to "die of hunger and thirst." The eagle prays to Shamash,
promising to "broadcast [Shamash's] fame for eternity" if the god will
save his life. Shamash responds: "You are wicked, and you have grieved
my heart. / You did an unforgiveable deed, an abomination to the gods"
(Dalley 195). (Another translation reads, "the forbidden thou didst eat"
[ANET 117].) Shamash says he won't go near the eagle, but he will send
a man, Etana, to rescue the starving bird.
Etana the king of Kish has been praying and sacrificing every day for
Shamash to give him a son and heir:
O Lord, let the word go forth from your mouth
And give me the plant of birth,
Show me the plant of birth!
Remove my shame and provide me with a son!
Shamash tells Etana where to find the eagle in his pit. Etana travels to
the mountains, finds the eagle, and offers to free it if the eagle will
show him the plant of birth. The eagle agrees, so Etana shades the pit
with juniper boughs and nurses the eagle back to health. When after eight
months the eagle's wings and feathers have grown back, he gives Etana a
ride to the heavens, in order to find Ishtar and the plant of birth. At
about one mile up, the people below sound like buzzing flies and the sea
looks like a tub. At two miles, the fields look like a small garden and
the sea looks "no bigger than a bucket!" At three miles, Etana can no longer
see either land or sea below. Etana panics: "My friend, I cannot go any
further towards heaven, / Retrace the way, and let me go back to my city!"
(Dalley 198). The eagle returns the frightened king of Kish to the ground.
Back in Kish, Etana and his wife have several dreams warning of the dangers
of a king who dies without an heir. In Etana's last dream, he and the eagle
approach the palace of the gods. Etana comes to "a house with a window
that was not sealed."
I pushed [the window] open and went inside,
Sitting in there was a girl [the goddess Ishtar],
Adorned with a crown, fair of face,
A throne was set in place, and [ ]
Beneath the throne crouched snarling lions.
I came up, and the lions sprang at me.
I woke up, terrified. (Dalley 199)
The eagle says that the meaning of the dreams is clear: they must make
another attempt to fly to heaven. This time, they make it up to the heaven
of Anu and walk into the palace of the gods. Unfortunately, the text is
breaks off as the eagle and Etana enter (bowing) the house of Ishtar. However,
Etana's quest for the plant of birth and a son was apparently successful,
since the Sumerian king list says that Etana was succeeded by his son Balih
Questions for "Etana and the Eagle"
1. In what ways do the agreement and contest between serpent and eagle
mirror the relations between men and the gods in the story? (Contrast high/low,
2. Do you see any similarities in how the motifs of serpent, tree, eating,
and subsequent punishment are used in this story and in the Adam and Eve
story? Compare / contrast with the huluppu tree story (packet 131-134;
3. In what ways could the nature motifs in this story be related to
the motif of Etana's search for a son and heir?
Dalley, Stephanie, ed. and trans. Myths from Mesopotamia. New York:
Oxford UP, 1991.
Foster, Benjamin R., ed. and trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York:
Heidel, Alexander, ed. and trans. The Babylonian Genesis. Chicago:
U of Chicago Press, 1951.
Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian
Religion. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.
Pritchard, James B., ed. The Ancient Near East, Volume 1: An Anthology
of Texts and Pictures. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1958.
- - -. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 1955. Abbreviated ANET.
Sandars, N[ancy] K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin,
- - -. Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: