The Myth of ‘Enuma Elish’

From the Lecture Series: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

One of the oldest sources of human thinking about evil is the creation myth of Babylon that we know as the Enuma Elish. So, how was evil commonly perceived in the pre-historical times?

Image of moon in the red, night sky behind trees.
In the pre-historic times evil was considered as a reality larger than human existence. (Image: andreiuc88/ Shutterstock)

The Concept of Evil

This story goes back many thousands of years, and some of its elements likely stretch back to pre-history. This narrative expresses one of the most fundamental convictions that humans have had. It is the idea that evil is somehow larger than individual human decisions to be bad, and that evil must precede human malice. They express an idea that evil has a cosmic metaphysical reality beyond human being.

But, it’s an idea that need not have all of the same ethical connotations that we commonly take “evil” to possess. The earliest possible connotations of the word Satan, the word that we all typically talk about as “the Devil”, does not actually mean an evil-doer.

The word simply means “rival”. God’s rival is how the Devil was originally conceived of in these cultures and that the rivalry is in some ways at the heart of the entirety of the Ancient Near Eastern mythos of creation.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Combat Myth

The combat myth was a common theme across many of these cultures. Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Canaanite stories all tell the story in similar ways: the story of the universe as a whole, as a site of combat between good and bad divine powers.

This combat myth gives rise to these cultures’ cosmogonies, that is, their stories of how the world and the cosmos came to be (“cosmogony” is a word that comes from “cosmo-genesis”).

In this myth, the cosmos is the site, or perhaps it’s the consequence, of a titanic struggle between the forces of a good god and the rival evil god. In fact, this cosmogony includes in it a theogony, a “theo-genesis”, a story of the creation of the gods.

The creation of humanity is normally the final act in the drama that begins with the origins of these gods. In these stories, these chaos-gods are confronted, defeated, and destroyed by other, often younger, up and coming hero-gods.

Enuma Elish

Enuma Elish is one such cosmogony myth. The story begins with two primeval gods, Apsu and Tiamat. They create other gods, sort of their children—Ea and his siblings—all of whom live in Tiamat’s body, there being nothing outside the gods.

There they make such a racket that they torment Tiamat and Apsu, and Apsu gets so annoyed that he decides to kill the young gods. But Tiamat disagrees with this and warns Ea, her son, who then kills Apsu. Ea then becomes the chief god and has a son named Marduk, the grandson of Tiamat, who is more powerful still than Ea or Tiamat.

drawing of King Marduk with his pet.
Marduk was a Babylonian God who killed Tiamat and made the earth and heaven from her corpse. (Image: Franz Heinrich Weißbach/Public domain)

Marduk is given winds to play with as a way of amusing himself, and he uses the winds to make storms, which disturb his elders, just as their frolics had once upset their parents.

These gods convince Tiamat to kill Marduk. Tiamat likes this idea, but she gets a bit too excited about it and she scares the gods, some of whom join her because they’re scared into submitting to her and join her team. But there are some that join Marduk instead.

Marduk fights and kills Tiamat and forms the earth from her corpse, slicing her in half. He makes her top half the heavens and her bottom half the ground and the waters. He uses the blood of her second husband, Kingu, whom he also kills, to make human beings.

By the act of destroying the evil chaos-monster and, in an obscurely overlapping way, creating our new world out of her corpse, this hero-god becomes the king god in the Babylonian pantheon. And that’s how the world in the Enuma Elish comes to be.

Learn more about the reformation-the power of evil within.

Meaning and Connotations of Enuma Elish

From the perspective of the concept of evil, several aspects about this myth are key. First, the chaos god Tiamat is not represented as the source of evil per se, though she is one prior to people like Marduk. The “evil” emotions—envy, hate, fear, murderousness—mark the victorious younger gods such as Marduk as much as they mark the older gods.

Evil, then, is an intrinsic structure of reality, part of the basic framework of the universe. Evil is natural, just part of the cosmic order. But it is also a dimension that is in an inevitable conflict with the forces of order, symbolized by Marduk.

Because the cosmos is created in a struggle and out of the old cosmos, the cosmos so created may bear traces of, or be the ongoing site of, this conflict between good and evil. This explains the persistence of evil for this tradition: Evil is literally worked into the fabric of the cosmos here.

Ideas Behind Creation

If we compare this account to that of the Creation in the Book of Genesis 1, it says, “In the beginning, God creates the heavens and the earth”—written in explicit opposition to the Enuma Elish. We also know that the Hebrew word tehom, which in English translations is mostly translated as “the deep”. It is “the deep” over which God moves at the beginning of Creation. The word tehom is etymologically linked to the Babylonian word “Tiamat.”

But here is the difference between these two stories: In Genesis 1, there’s no struggle or rival; tehom is there, the deep is there, but it is passive before God’s absolutely commanding will, and God sees what God has created and deems it all good. There is no sense of a long-ago cosmic war.

Here’s an important difference between Jewish and Christian understandings of Genesis, it’s how these two communities read the text that differs. So, although the Christians want to say that God created the world out of nothing, the Jewish will say that there is something there; it’s the deep, tehom, it’s there already.

Learn more about the Hebrew Bible-human rivalry with God.

The Discovery of Enuma Elish

Photograph of George Smith.
George Smith discovered the concept of Enuma Elish in the 19th century. (Image: The British Museum/Public domain)

Enuma Elish was discovered in the 19th century by a self-taught working-class Englishman named George Smith who taught himself Acadian and Sumerian. Then he convinced scholars at the British Museum to help him get over to the Near East so he could do some digs, and on those digs, it turns out, that he was the first person to discover both much of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish. Before Smith, no one had any idea that there were such texts as this.

So, the Enuma Elish explains the cosmic order; but then the question remains: What’s the place of humans in this order? For while the gods look like humans and while humans are made from the blood of a god, one thing distinguishes them: Humans are mortal, and the gods are not.

Common Questions about Enuma Elish

Q: What is one of the oldest convictions that humans have had about evil?

One of the oldest convictions that humans have about evil is the idea that evil is somehow larger than individual human decisions to be bad, and that evil must predate or precede human malice.

Q: Who was Marduk?

Marduk was the son of the god Ea and the grandson of Tiamat. He killed Tiamat to become the king god and made the earth and the heaven from Tiamat’s corpse.

Q: Who discovered Enuma Elish?

Enuma Elish was discovered in the 19th century by a self-taught working-class Englishman named George Smith.

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