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Tiamat, Mummu and the formless creating Sea

Among the ancient cuneiform poems that have been discovered in the last century and a half, the Babylonian Creation Epic (dated about 2500 BCE) caused excitement among biblical commentators in our late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were able to use this poem to show extraordinary similarities with the Genesis creation story. Today feminist theologians use it to review material that until recently has been overlooked or discounted. The creation myth, named the ‘Enuma Elish’ (When on high), like Genesis begins with an account of pre-creation.

When on high were not raised the heavens

And also below on earth a plant had not grown up

Alone there existed primordial Apsu, who engendered them

Only Mummu and Tiamat who brought them all forth

Their waters could mix together in a single stream

In the depths of their waters were the gods created.

There are references to ‘the chaos Tiamat’ who was ‘the producing mother of all of them’. She is referred to as a sea monster, a chaos monster and ‘the deep’. There is a Babylonian depiction of her as a dragon.

The Epic describes her story. Creation of the gods comes first, from her body; then there is dissension between them. Eventually her descendant Marduk with his various friends manages to kill her and tear her apart. He gives the various divisions of her body to his friends and each of these becomes master of some part of the universe created from Tiamat.

Whether Tiamat ‘alone’ created the world, or with the help of Mummu, an enigmatic figure – sometimes female sometimes male – and with Apsu, god of the sweet waters as engendering father, depends on the text. Mummu, whose name is related to the word for mother in almost all languages, appears to be an aspect of Tiamat described as a ‘chaos monster’. The primeval sea, her home, has been understood by numerous ancient writers to be the origin of life.

The concept of Tiamat as a dragon indicates a vision of totality, thus encompassing the four elements 0f a dragon is amphibian, living in both sea and on land; it breathes fire and air. The formless deep which is the body of Tiamat contains everything within it necessary for life – and she herself creates various forms and monsters during the battle with Marduk.

In addition to this totality – a wholeness without form – Tiamat is described as ‘holding the Tablets of Destiny’ which appear to symbolize supreme knowledge of the world and its future.

The Enuma Elish describes how the god Marduk assembles a force to overcome Tiamat and Mummu, in order to become lord of the universe and possess the Tablets. After a horrific battle he is successful. How he kills Tiamat and the way he disassembles the various parts of her body and builds the different areas of the universe from them have been widely commented upon, as has the possible relationship of Tiamat to the Hebrew Tehom (the ‘void’, Genesis 1:2), and the idea that she was an alternative source of creation which must, in the Hebrew bible, be shown to have been vanquished.

Until recently, there was a general consensus among scholars that the dismembering of the ‘chaos dragon’ brought about what Jacobsen (1946) called ‘the fundamentals of world order’. The separation of her various parts and labeling them, as areas of the world, and putting them under the dominion of various lords has, Jacobsen suggests, contributed to the orderly control of Nature. Today, this is no longer a unanimous view, owing to the reappraisal by female scholars. Mary Daly (1979) uncompromisingly names the Tiamat-Marduk story as a ‘sado-ritual syndrome enactment of goddess murder’. Ruby Rohrlich-Leavitt (1977), documenting the consolidation of the state into the hands of a male elite in Sumer during the fourth millennium BCE draws attention to the relevance of the murder of Tiamat and its methods to ways in which force and violence were used to enslave women of the period.

In fact, Tiamat stands out not, as Jacobsen believes, as a symbol of passivity and inaction, but of wholeness and totality. She is the creator goddess from whom all beings emerge, and further, she is the keeper of the tablets of destiny. The later Babylonian priest Berosus, naming her as the ‘woman Omoroka’, praises her as Mistress of Incantations and Mistress of the Moon. ‘The Coil of Tiamat’ is part of certain Kabbalistic doctrines, reflecting echoes of ancient mysteries. N K Sandars 91971) points out that the Babylonian hymns, whilst recounting Tiamat’s defeat, also intimate that she is never really destroyed. The Hymn of Praise exhorts Tiamat to ‘recede into the future…till time of old’. Durdin-Robertson (1975) reflects that the zoomorphic beings of Tiamat’s creation are probably considered to be prototypes of the present Western zodiac, and connect with the well-known Chaldean (Babylonian) skills of astrology and astronomy.

Thus Tiamat comes well within the definition of a Wisdom goddess; creator of the gods, possessor and keeper of the Tablets of Destiny, repository of magical and intellectual powers, and with even a hint of immortality. That she lives in, and is goddess off, salt water gives the idea of the sea as the source of life.

Excerpted from : In a Chariot Drawn by Lions, Wisdom Goddesses in the Ancient Near East, Ch. 6

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