Creation Myths : the Status of Human Beings

The Babylonian epic Atrahasis opens on tablet 1 with the background to the Babylonian gods’ creation of humans:

Atrahasis Tablet 1

When the gods instead of man
Did the work, bore the loads,
The gods’ load was too great,
The work too hard, the trouble too much,
The great Anunnaki made the Igigi
Carry the workload sevenfold

Made the Igigi bear the workload.
The gods had to dig out canals,
Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land, The Igigi had to dig out canals,
Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land. The gods dug out the Tigris river
And then dug out the Euphrates.

They were counting the years of loads.
For 3,6oo years they bore the excess,
Hard work, night and day.
They groaned and blamed each other, Grumbled over the masses of excavated soil
‘Let us confront the chamberlain, And get him to relieve us of our hard work!’


so the lower gods, the “Igigi” go to complain (with weapons!), and the higher gods discuss the matter, and eventually a solution is proposed:

‘Beletili the womb-goddess is present-
Let her create primeval man
So that he may bear the yoke,
So that he may bear the yoke, the work of Ellil, Let man bear the load of the gods!’
They called up the goddess, asked
The midwife of the gods, wise Mami,
‘You are the womb-goddess (to be the) creator of mankind!
Create primeval man, that he may bear the yoke! Let him bear the yoke, the work of Ellil,
Let man bear the load of the gods!’


And so Enki, one of the Gods, acts. They sacrifice a god, mix his flesh and blood with clay, and create humans.

If we ask, “what view of humanity does this story suggest?” then it seems to me the answer is, human as slave. The raison d’être of humans is to work so the gods don’t have to. Later, the story suggests an element of mutual need: when Atrahasis makes a sacrifice to the gods after the Flood, they flock to the smell “like flies to dung”.

It forms an interesting contrast with the more familiar (to us) Genesis chapter 1:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God brooded over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning —the fourth day.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may govern over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and take control of it. Govern the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. ”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food. ” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning —the sixth day.


Genesis makes several points that, compared to other ancient literature are eyebrow-raising. Firstly that the stars, the sun and the moon are not divine or even spiritual beings. They are mere “things”, lights in the sky. They are, as it were, demythologised.

Secondly, the place of humans. Humankind is first of all described as “made in the image of God.” If we ask what that implies, the proximate explanation given is that humans are made to govern. This is evidently a much more exalted view of humanity than that reflected by the Atrahasis epic.

We should notice this appears to apply to all humans. Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires all used the idea of Kings being divine (like a divine right of kings, but on steroids) and therefore having authority to rule as justification for exercise of brutal power over other humans.

Genesis, by contrast, describes all humans as made in the divine image, and the task of government over the earth is given to all.

We should also notice that female and male are included simultaneously. The one Image is created male and female; the command to govern is given to both; and obviously the command to be fruitful (if we take fruitful to mean having descendants!) requires both.

In a less individualistic society than our own, the relationshiops are key. In Atrahasis, humans relate to gods by being slaves, offering labour and food. In Genesis, there are no such gods, and we relate to the one Creator as authorised representatives, governing—that is, taking care of—the world on his behalf. Our fellow-human beings, female and male, are co-rulers, divinely appointed to govern, all given the authority of a ruler, not an underling.

Notes

  1. Atrahasis text translation taken from Myths from Mesopotamia. It’s hard to find on the web, presumably because all the translations are still in copyright.
  2. Genesis text mostly from NIV except I translate רדה as govern, not rule; and כבשׁ as take control, not subdue. If you want to dispute my translation, I’m up for an argument. (In my view it will mostly revolve about connotations of words in 21st century English vs 16th century English. In the 21st Century we associate ‘rule’ with monarchy, and we suspect monarchy of implying inherently bad government. But the entire human race cannot be a monarch, and government is not inherently bad. So rule now seems a poor translation).
  3. “Be fruitful and increase; fill the earth” sounds in English like an emphatic command to have lots of children. But all three of the Hebrew verbs can be read as about fulfilling potential rather than as about fertility specifically.

3 thoughts on “Creation Myths : the Status of Human Beings”

    1. It might just be that Atrahasis was found and translated very recently, in the 1960s? Wherea Enuma Elish and other Mesopotamian texts have been know to Western academia since 1800s.

  1. I took Atrahasis as my point of contrast, but Enuma Elish portrays a similar view. Tablet 6 reads,

    When Marduk heard the gods’ speech He conceived a desire to accomplish clever things.
    He opened his mouth addressing Ea, He counsels that which he had pondered in his heart,
    “I will bring together blood to form bone, I will bring into being Lullû, whose name shall be ‘man’.
    I will create Lullû—man On whom the toil of the gods will be laid that they may rest.

    From his blood he (Ea) created mankind, On whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free. After the wise Ea had created mankind And had imposed the service of the gods upon them

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