In Babylonian mythology, Tiamat is one of the foundational principles of the universe known as a maelstrom of dark, roiling seawater. In the cosmogonic myth outlined in the Enûma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic, she combines with Apsu (the personification of fresh water), and their union gives rise to the first generation of gods. After becoming outraged at the conduct of her offspring, she spawns a horde of demons and attempts to destroy the entire pantheon, after which point she is slain by the storm-god Marduk. In an etiological sense, the materiality of the world is explained with the suggestion that it actually consists of the fragmented corpse of the great mother goddess. In this more corporeal guise, Tiamat is often thought to have had the form of a dragon, serpent or other hideous beast.
As the Babylonian and Semitic societies were closely related (in terms of religion and culture), certain elements of this primordial myth continue to be evidenced in the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as the decidedly aquatic description of primordial chaos in Genesis 1.2: "Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters."
Thorkild Jacobsen and Walter Burkert both argue for an etymological connection between the goddess' name and the Akkadian word for sea (tâmtu) in its earlier form (ti'amtum), which was derived from the Sumerian ti ("life") and ama ("mother"). Jacobson explicates this identity by drawing upon a fortuitous copyist's error:
That she is, in fact, the sea can be seen from the opening lines of the epic where it is said that she and the sweet waters, Apsu, mingled their waters together, and from the fact that some copyists of Enuma elish write tâmtum, the normal form of the word for "sea," for Tiamat. This would hardly have been possible if her identity with the sea had not been clearly felt by the copyist and his readers.
Tiamat has also been claimed to be also cognate with West Semitic "tehwom" ("the deeps") mentioned in Genesis 1 (which represents one of the correspondences that will be explored in more detail below).
Appearance and characterization
First and foremost, Babylonian mythology characterizes Tiamat as the salty, primordial sea, whose roiling chaos provided the generative force for the first living deities (as discussed below). In addition to this cosmogonic role, she also played the part of the cosmic aggressor, lashing out violently against the younger gods who lost her favor. In this context, as told in the Enuma Elish, her physical description includes, a tail, a thigh, "lower parts" (which shake together), a belly, an udder, ribs, a neck, a head, a skull, eyes, nostrils, a mouth, and lips. She has insides, a heart, arteries, and blood.
Hornblower provides a sketch of the sources detailing her more menacing (and more concrete) physical form in his study of early representations of dragons:
Tiamatis generally represented as a kind of fierce griffin, but in early cylinders as a huge snake (W., p. 198, figs. 578-9; and Budge: "The Babylonian Legends of Creation," 29); the latter version seems to be the earlier, and it may be that when the myth traveled inland to Assyria, and the hero became Assur instead of Bel-Marduk (and before him, perhaps, of Ea or Enlil), the form of the monster changed in sympathy-a suggestion which cannot at present be confirmed, for as yet no early Babylonian cylinders rendering the combat have been found (W., p. 197). As Tiamat was a creature of the ocean, she should be, at least theoretically, clad in scales, and in fact dragons are often thus depicted, notably the great ones decorating the walls of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, where they served, of course, for protection; they are griffin-shaped with scaly bodies and serpents' heads with the reptile's flickering tongue (L.W. King: "A History of Babylon," p. 51, fig. 13). The dragon in this form was the attribute-animal of Be1 (M., vol. i, p. 226, fig. 137); as a griffin it had the same connection with the god Assur, and may be seen accompanying him as he fights Tiamat, who herself has the same shape (W., p. 199, figs. 567-8)—a scene illustrating strikingly the double nature of the monster, tutelary in one connection, malignant in another.
This description accords well with Barton's earlier account:
- We learn, however, from Babylonian and Assylian sculptures and seals that Tiamat was regarded not only as the female watery principle, whose waters through union with those of the male principle produced all life, but also as a seadragon with the head of a tiger or griffin, with wings, four feet, claws, and a scaly tail. This composite figure was evidently intended to signify both the power and the hideousness of this evil enemy of the great gods.
The Babylonian cosmogony, as outlined in the Enuma Elish and elsewhere, begins in the formless primordial chaos that predated the phenomenal world. In this void, two primeval principles met and intermingled: Tiamat, the "shining" personification of salt water, and Apsu, the male deity of fresh water. This process is described poetically in the Enuma Elish:
- When in the height heaven was not named,
- And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
- And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
- And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
- Their waters were mingled together,
- And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
- When of the gods none had been called into being,
- And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
- Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven.
The offspring of the union between these two beings included the earliest generation of Mesopotamian deities, such as the Elder Gods Lahmu and Lahamu (the "muddy"). The gods, in turn, were the parents of the axis of the heavens (Anshar (from An ("heaven") and Shar ("axle or pivot")) and the earth (Kishar), who eventually sired Ea (Enki) and Anu—the two most important deities of their generation.
Theorists have offered two disparate etiological explanations for the specifics of this creation account, one geographical and the other psychological. In the first case, they have noted that the "mixing of the waters" as a source of fecundity is a natural metaphor for residents of the Persian Gulf, where fresh waters from the Arabian aquifer mix and mingle with the salt waters of the sea. This characteristic is especially true of the region of Bahrain (whose name means in Arabic, "twin waters"), which is thought to be the site of Dilmun, the fabled site where this creation account took place. In the second case, it is postulated that this understanding of the primordial state of the universe could have arisen as the result of a pre-scientific thought experiment:
In an effort to conceptualize the pre-cosmic state, a process commonly employed in early speculative thought is to reverse in the imagination the evolutionary sequence-to begin from the world of experience and systematically think away the components of that world. What remains is the state of "existence" as it must have been before the coming-to-be of the first element of empirical reality. The representation of the primeval watery state which opens the Mesopotamian creation text Enuma Elish is a characteristic example [passage quoted above]. … In this conceptual process each item of the cosmic order is simply negated, allowing "nothing" to be conceptualized somewhat less abstractly as "not-any-thing." As is evident from this example, the details of such a process are culturally determined, reflecting what each particular world-view holds to be the minimal defining features of cosmic or social structure.
Contention with Marduk
The Enuma Elish then describes the younger generation of gods, in their zeal to celebrate their material existence, throwing an elaborate party, replete with dancing, laughter, and music. This racket aggravated Apsu, who decided that he could not abide by the noise and chaos of these youthful deities and decided to kill them. Hearing about this villainous plan, Enki (the crafty god) ensorceled the divine patriarch and slew him in his sleep. When Tiamat was informed of her consort's murder, she flew into a rage and decided to exterminate younger gods once and for all.
In her rage, the elder goddess decided to use her generative power for ill, spawning a legion of monstrosities to destroy the young gods:
- When on high the heaven had not been named,
- firm ground below had not been called by name,
- naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter,
- (and) Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all,
- their waters commingling as a single body;
- no reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared,
- when no gods whatever had been brought into being,
- uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined—
- then it was that the gods were formed within them.
Two of the gods, Enki and Anu, initially attempted to stand against her wrath, but were repelled by her ferocious forces. Fearing for their lives, they beseeched Marduk, Enki's powerful son, to stand against the vicious goddess. Once they promised to revere him as "king of the Gods" after his success, the divine hero sallied forth, battled the chaotic goddess (and her minions) and eventually overcame her. After Tiamat was destroyed, Marduk dissected her enormous body and used her remains to construct the cosmos:
- And the lord stood upon Tiamat's hinder parts,
- And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.
- He cut through the channels of her blood,
- And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.
- Then the lord rested, gazing upon her dead body,
- While he divided the flesh of the … , and devised a cunning plan.
- He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
- One half of her he stablished as a covering for heaven.
- He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
- And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
The entirety of the material creation was thus generated, with half of her body as the sky, the other half as the earth, her ribs (or thigh bones) as the vault of heaven and earth, her monstrous udder as the mountains, her weeping eyes as the source of the Tigris and the Euphratesand her poisonous spittle as the earthly moisture (clouds, winds, rain, and fog). Kingu, the servant of the saltwater goddess, was captured and was later slain, so that his red blood could be mixed with the red clay of the Earth to make the bodies of the first humans. From a philological perspective, Hansen notes that these transformations are more homologous than alchemical:
- In some homologous transformations it is unclear whether a physical metamorphosis actually takes place at all. The roof of the Babylonian cosmos may be literally nothing other than the upper half of Tiamat, just as the Norse sky may consist simply of Ymir's unmodified skull. Consequently, unlike radical transformations, in which the central fact is a permanent physical change, in homologous transformations it is a permanent change of function.
Resonances in other Near Eastern religions
Given the cultural continuity between the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Hebrews, many scholars have explored possible connections between their mythological and religious traditions. One intriguing point of potential syncretism is the description of the cosmos before creation as a chaotic, watery void—a conception that some see as an archaic remnant of a primeval struggle between Yahweh and Tiamat. Another is the potential correspondence between Tiamat and the fantastic beasts described in the books of Ezekiel, Habakkuk, and Isaiah. It has also been suggested that the battle between David and Goliath was an archetypal retelling of the conflict between Marduk (a youth who desires kingship) and Tiamat (a malevolent giant). Finally, some scholars have proposed the possibility that the Leviathan mentioned in the Book of Revelations (12:7-12) is simply a characterization of Tiamat in her monstrous, serpentine guise.
- Jacobsen, 104-108; Dalley, 329.
- New International Version.
- Jacobsen, 105.
- Jacobson, 105.
- Yahuda (1933); Barton, 17-19.
- Hornblower, 81.
- Barton, 5.
- Sacred Texts, sacred-texts.com Enuma Elish. Retrieved October 20, 2007.
- Powell, 99.
- Crawford (1998).
- Crawford, Killick, & Moon (1997).
- Mondi, 21-22.
- Powell, 99-100.
- Sacred Texts, Enuma Elish. Retrieved February 4, 2009.
- Powell, 99-101.
- Sacred Texts, Enuma Elish. Retrieved February 4, 2009.
- Scred Texts, Enuma Elish. Retrieved February 4, 2009.
- Hansen, 9.
- Genesis 11:31.
- Barton, 17-19.
- A. E. Whatham, "The Yahweh-Tehom Myth," The Biblical World 36:5 (November 1910): 290, 329-333.
- Theodore J. Lewis, "CT 13.33-34 and Ezekiel 32: Lion-Dragon Myths," Journal of the American Oriental Society 116 (1) (January-March 1996): 28-47.
- Ferris J. Stephens, "The Babylonian Dragon Myth in Habakkuk 3," Journal of Biblical Literature 43:3/4 (1924), 290-293.
- J. B. Geyer, "Twisting Tiamat's Tail: A Mythological Interpretation of Isaiah XIII 5 and 8," Vetus Testamentum 37: Fascicle 2 (April 1987), 164-179.
- W. E. Staples, "Cultic Motifs in Hebrew Thought," The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 55 (1) (January 1938): 44-55.
- Howard Wallace, "The Newly Discovered Jerusalem Scrolls: Leviathan and the Beast in Revelation," The Biblical Archaeologist 11 (3) (September 1948): 61-68. 67.
- Barton, George A. "Tiamat." Journal of the American Oriental Society 15 (1893): 1-27.
- Beaulieu, Paul-Alain. "The Babylonian Man in the Moon." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 51 (1999): 91-99.
- Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influences on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Translated by Margaret Pinder. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. ISBN 067464364X.
- Crawford, Harriet E. W. Dilmun and its Gulf Neighbours. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0521586798.
- Crawford, Harriet, Robert Killick, & Jane Moon (eds.). The Dilmun Temple at Saar: Bahrain and Its Archaeological Inheritance: Saar Excavation Reports / London-Bahrain Archaeological Expedition. London: Kegan Paul, 1997. ISBN 0710304870.
- Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. ISBN 0192835890.
- Hansen, William. "Foam-Born Aphrodite and the Mythology of Transformation." The American Journal of Philology 121 (1) (Spring 2000): 1-19.
- Hornblower, G. D. "Early Dragon-Forms." Man 33 (May 1933): 79-87.
- Jacobsen, Thorkild. "The Battle between Marduk and Tiamat." Journal of the American Oriental Society 88 (1) (January-March 1968): 104-108.
- James, E. O. The Worship of the Skygod: A Comparative Study in Semitic and Indo-European Religion. London: University of London, the Athlone Press, 1963.
- Mondi, Robert. "ΧΑΟΣ and the Hesiodic Cosmogony." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 92 (1989): 1-41.
- Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth (Second Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. ISBN 0-13-716714-8.
- Unger, Eckhard. "From the Cosmos Picture to the World Map." Imago Mundi 2 (1937): 1-7.
- Yahuda, A. S. The Language of the Pentateuch in its Relation to Egyptian. London: Oxford University Press and H. Milford, 1933.
All links retrieved March 12, 2020.
- The Babylonian Creation Epic Enuma Elish at sacred-texts.com
- Another translation of The Babylonian creation story
- Brief article on Tiamat at Encyclopedia Mythica
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