From on high, Part One

July 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

For, indeed, the tale that is also told among you, how that Phaetheon yoked his father’s chariot, and, for that he could not drive in his father’s path, he burnt up all the things upon earth and was himself smitten by a thunderbolt and slain; this story has the air of a fable; but the truth concerning it is related to a deviation of the bodies that move around the earth in the heavens. whereby at long intervals of time a destruction through fire of the things that are upon earth.

Plato’s Timaeus, translations compiled by Lewis Spence in his A History of Atlantis

Part of the ancient world, an element always to be aware of, was disaster. There are so many flood and deluge myths worldwide that it may well stand as the single most common way in myth to wipe out an era or age of man. But as those priests in Sais informed Solon in Plato’s Timaeus, flood was hardly the only way the ancients knew to upend their day to day lives. Pestilence, fire, drought, famine – there were a great many ways the world could end, and it had ended, many many times before. To those that spent time thinking about the past, it was a place filled with calamity, where countless ages of man had risen and sunk beneath the waves or been seared or starved off of the stage in their turn. Disaster was common and even those peoples who held their traditions as from time long past could look back and say “beyond this we know nothing” and mean it.

If you like to read mythology, you’ll eventually note some myths seem to have informed each other in turn. Partially this is due to certain regions coming in contact with one another, certain cultures meeting. The ancient proto-Greeks of Mycenae sailed throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean, leaving behind pottery and even their very language on my Cycladian islands and even Crete itself. Meanwhile, the Minoans of Crete had long since been engaged in trade with Egypt, and Egypt was often embroiled in trade and then warfare with the Mesopotamian societies that rose and fell within the boundaries of the Tigris and Euphrates. In their turn, each of these societies came into contact with the very Indo-European peoples that would in time include the Hittites of Asia Minor, the Medes and Persians who would in their turn conquer Babylon, and the very ancestors of the Greeks as well (also an Indo-European speaking people). The ancient world was hardly staid or unchanging. It was constant only in how it changed, how cultures and societies rose, crashed against one another, fell, and yet disseminated their languages and myths and beliefs throught the peoples they contacted. Mesopotamia saw in its turn the rise of Sumer, the Akkadians, the Assyrians and several peoples ruling from the city of Babylon. All of this well before BC 1200.

The Timaeus of Plato holds forth some pretty astonishing claims. One of those claims, as related in the text, is that when Solon visited Sais in Egypt, the priests of the goddess Neith told him that before the tales of the flood of Deucalion, another Athens stood dedicated to the goddess Athena (who the Egyptians told him was the same as their Neith) and that this city had faced a calamitous invasion from an island empire past the Pillars of Hercules.

Before we get too into that, though, let’s consider Neith/Athena. If we accept that Neith and Athena are the same goddess, do we then have to accept that Neith is also Ta-Nit, or Tanit, the Phoenician goddess? Ta-Nit in Egyptian means “The Land of Nit”, and that would seem to indicate that Nit/Neith somehow claimed rulership over the portion of Africa later ruled by the Phoenicians, including Carthage. Tanit’s symbol, remarkably similar to the Egyptian ankh, would seem to link her to Nit/Neith, and her cult in Phoenicia itself (on the shores of the Mediterranean and securely part of the political and social orbit of both the Aegean and Mesopotamian worlds) is linked to Ishtar, who is a later version of Innana, the goddess of love and war of the Sumerians and Epic of Gilgamesh. So by linking Athena to Neith, we’ve played a game of degrees that links the Greek goddess with a Phoenician war goddess worshipped from both sides of the Mediterranean, and in turn linked her to Ishtar/Inanna. This would seem unusual to those of us who know Innana or her Akkadian Ishtar incarnation, where she’s more of a cruel, fickle goddess of sexuality who often treats her lovers poorly or as disposable. Athena is a war goddess, yes, as was Innana, but she’s infamous for her virginity. While Aphrodite has her lovers, betrays her husband Hephaestus in order to dally with Ares, Athena is almost entirely devoted to her roles as a goddess of war and wisdom.  So how do we get from Neith to Ta-Nit to Astarte to Ishtar? And why?

Thereupon the lord, having [raised] the flood storm, his mighty weapon,
To enraged Tiamat he sent words as follows:
“Why are you risen, so haughtily exalted,
You have charged your own heart to stir up conflict,
sons reject their own fathers,
While you, who have born them, have forsworn love!
You have appointed Qingu as your consort,
Conferring upon him the rank of Anu, not rightfully his.
Against Anshar, king of the gods, you seek evil;
Against the gods my fathers, you have confirmed your wickedness.
You have drawn up your forces, girded on your weapons,
Now stand up that you and I might meet in single combat!”
When Tiamat heard him,
She was like one possessed; she took leave of her senses.

The Enuma Elish

The Enuma Elish is the tale of the creation of the world as told by ancient Sumerians, then by their Akkadian, Assyrian and finally Babylonian successors. The version we have is rooted in the culture of Babylon as it elevates Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, to rulership over the universe entire and all the ancient Sumerian gods he was stated to descend from. In the Enuma Elish, the primordial entities Apsu and Tiamat (Apsu symbolizing fresh water and Tiamat salt water) create a host of offspring, who then dwell within Tiamat’s own body and raise up such a ruckus that Apsu decides they should kill their children so that he can get some freaking sleep. Tiamat, the mother of the gods, defends them but Apsu and his vizier Mummu decide “Nope, we’re going to kill ’em, not only are they noisy now but they may prove dangerous if we wait” and so Tiamat warns her offspring. Her child Ea therefore casts a spell on Apsu, the fresh water, and tames him before striking him down. (The presence of the sacred abzu, or containers of fresh water, in Sumerian temples and beyond is traced to this event – the magician (Ea) using his powers to tame the primordial water, turning it to a source of life) While Tiamat had not wanted her offspring to die, neither did she want her mate destroyed, and in her anger at the presumption of the gods and their having spread forth to dominate the world she raised up a host to destroy them, led by her chosen consort Qingu, who she entrusted with the Tablets of Destiny. Armored with the Tablets, Qingu was a threat to all who opposed Tiamat.

In the end, however, Marduk (in the version we have) proves he and his control of wind, storms and floods can seize the mantle of destiny for himself. He crushes Tiamat, rips her asunder and uses her body to fashion the world and the sky. In turn, after seizing the Tablets of Destiny and subduing those gods that served Tiamat in the war, he kills Qingu and uses his blood to make mankind as slaves to do the work of the world the gods do not wish to be bothered with.

Forgive me this incredibly terse retelling of the story, but it serves us for discussion. First off, the war between the gods in the Enuma Elish is not very different than that of the Titans and their godly descendants in Greek mythology. Apsu and Tiama engendering offspring only for Apsu to decide to destroy it, and being overcome by his own children is similar not only to how Cronos used his sickle to neuter his father Uranos as he came to lie with his wife Gaia, but it’s similar in turn to how Cronos decided to devour his own offsrping so as to not suffer the same fast as his own father only for Rhea to betray him. And while Rhea never led an army to destroy her own children, Gaia did engender Typhoeus with Tartarus when she felt her descendants were abusing the world.  (Interestingly, Aphrodite helped Gaia mate with Tartarus and give birth to Typhoeus/Typhon, and we’ll discuss that later.) But not only is the story familiar to us, in the sense of a younger generation of gods overwhelming a new one, but it has elements that set it apart. The first is that the creation of humans in the story is far from the central or crowning moment. Humans are an afterthought, made to dwell forever as slaves, literally made from the blood of a slain rebel god who once could claim the position of king of everything. Humans dwell as slaves to expiate the guilt of the Igigi who served Tiamat in the war, literally replacing the gods who were on the losing side. By the sacrifice of Qingu’s blood the other traitors were redeemed, and so humans were forced forever to live limited lives of drudgery to forever attempt to expiate the guilt of Qingu in usurping Anu’s role.

Another interesting aspect of the Enuma Elish is that Innana, also known as Nin-anna, the Queen of Heaven, is in no way mentioned in it. Other gods and goddesses are all over it, but Inanna, the most worshipped goddess of the region, who survived as an important religious figure through the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians is nowhere to be found. This despite the fact that Inanna was so powerful a figure that she could descend into the underworld and return to the land of the living. Some argue that this means that Inanna was once the chief goddess of the region, before the rise of Sumerian culture, and that her cult was subsumed by that of those that came after, demoting her from Queen of Heaven to a fickle, raging deity of war and lust.

How does this connect her with Neith/Athena? Well, consider the following. What if the reason Inanna doesn’t appear in the Enuma Elish is because she does appear in it? In fact, she’s the most important character in it.

Who, indeed, could we possibly say is a better candidate for Queen of Heaven than Tiamat? Even after her destruction at the hands of Marduk, we note that he charges the gods to keep her waters from escaping, and that he creates the skies themselves from her remains. One of Inanna’s most famous aspects is her identification with Venus, and the planet’s descent below the horizon only to rise again is codified in the story of Inanna’s descent into the realm of the dead and her conflict with Ereshkigal, in whose realm many of those that sided with Tiamat were consigned. By descending into this realm, the celestial Inanna dies and is reborn. Who is to say she hadn’t already pulled that trick at least once? By dividing Tiamat, the gods tore her asunder, her aspects as goddess of love, procreation (mother of the gods), the wise goddess who counseled against war with their offspring, the furious leader of the charge against them, and the very land that renews and is renewed in turn all parceled out to separate goddesses to keep her from recombining and growing to her full strength again.

It’s not hard to imagine, since we know that Marduk’s role in the Enuma Elish was a later interpolation to raise Babylon to supremacy over the region, that the roots of the myth cycle were an attempt to raise the gods of the original Sumerian people to ascendency over the native religion worshipping a series of more primal fertility or creator gods. By effectively taming these gods, turning Apsu into the sacred water of the temple and Tiamat into a series of goddesses, you impose your own culture over that which came before. Colonize the gods, and you colonize the hearts of the men and women to come.

If, therefore, the people of Mesopotamia worshipped a Tiamat who was like Neith and Athena, a goddess of wisdom and warfare, how did she end up divided when they remained fairly true to themselves? Well, first off, Athena certainly didn’t. Even in classical Greek myth, she is born out of Zeus’s brow after he devours her mother Metis, much as his own father Cronos had devoured each of his siblings. (Gods eating gods.) Is this a metaphor for a sky god devouring an earth goddess and then reconfiguring her? Was Tiamat so re-created? Consider that Athena appears at Knossus, where the ancient Minoans traded with the very Egyptians that worshipped Neith, before any mention of Zeus. Did the Myceneans, when they conquered Crete, absorb Neith into their religion just as Zeus attempted to? Was this aided by the presence of a goddess like Neith in ancient pre-Hellenistic Greece, one similar to Astarte/Inanna/Ishtar that the Indo-European ancestors to the Mycenaeans discovered when they invaded the peninsula?

We’ve now spent over 2000 words on what was, essentially, background for that ancient war mentioned by the Egyptian priests. My argument is as follows – what if the Enuma Elish and the Sumerian version of the Deluge myth, the one starring Zisudra that predates and prefugues the Noah myth of the ancient Bible and the myth of Deucalion known in Greece, what if these myths are the same story, the tale of the war the priests of Neith told Solon about from the perspective of the Atlanteans?

After all, if the ancient gods of the Annunaki and Igigi were the enemies of Neith/Athena, they’d have good reason to spread tales of destroying her Tiamat incarnation, carving her up into the sky and the land, and in general doing their level best to neuter her. Stealing her power, her identity, and making it part of their own culture. The Queen of Heaven was so primal and powerful a figure that she had to be divided and absorbed by those that invaded her land, sweeping across Libya and Africa in their turn. Why would Marduk be so concerned about the loss of Tiamat’s waters? What did he truly fear?

Part two will cover the blood of Qingu, the true nature of the disaster that leveled Atlantis, and the fall and rise of Tiamat, she whose waters must not be lost. Did the gods mean to cause the Deluge at all?

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