Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others Themes

Stephanie Dalley
This Study Guide consists of approximately 33 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Myths from Mesopotamia.
This section contains 1,024 words
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The theme of the creation of mankind is popular throughout many of the myths recounted within the book. In "Atrahasis", it is Belet-ili who creates man from the clay of Ea and the blood of Ilawela to relieve the gods from their work. In "Etana", the gods create the city of Kish, and form Etana to be their builder and the king of the city. In "Epic of Creation", Tiamat and Apsu create primeval gods, who then spawn the rest of the gods. Mankind is not created until Tiamat is killed, and Marduk creates the Earth. Following the gods' proclamation of Marduk as their king of the gods, he creates mankind to do the work of the gods. Ea tells him to kill a god from which to make man, and the assembly chooses Qingu, Tiamat's lover and king of her army. In "Theogony of Dunnu", Plough and Earth unite to form the gods of each portion of the earth. As each gives birth, he or she is killed by her offspring, who then marries either a sibling or a parent. Through this cycle, the Earth is created, as are all living things upon it.

It is clear there were several myths involving the creation of man. "Atrahasis" and the "Epic of Creation" are closest in their depiction, in that mankind is created from the blood of a slain god and other, earthly materials, and are created to reduce the workload of the gods. However, in the Atrahasis myth, it is Belet-ili and Ea who make man, whereas in the Epic of Creation myth, it is Marduk and Ea. In "Etana", however, the gods seem only concerned with creating man for their own particular city, and it is not said how man in created. In "Dunnu", the gods are much more violent and sinister than in other creation myths. It is clear from the numerous accounts of creation, as well as the inclusion of creation explanations within other myths, that this was a topic of high interest to the people of Mesopotamia. Explaining their origins, particularly as extensions of the gods themselves, has been vital to myth and legend in nearly all corners of the world, and these myths have similarities with others, such as the creation tales within Genesis as well as within Greek mythology.

Quest for Fame

The quest for fame, both within the realm of the gods and from mankind, is a popular theme throughout many of these myths, in one form or another. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu and Gilgamesh seek fame by killing Humbaba, an act that in part gets Enkidu killed later in the tale. In Anzu, the theft of the Tablet of Destinies would give Anzu fame and power over all of mankind and the gods, but he dies as a result of his quest. In the Epic of Creation, Ea seeks fame and vengeance through killing Apsu, but finds himself a coward when asked to face his crimes. Marduk seeks the fame and favor of the gods in his quest to kill Tiamat, and through his creation of the Earth and of mankind. In "Erra and Ishum", Erra seeks the fame of the gods by attacking the people of Earth, and by releasing the Sebitti.

In several cases, it appears that the quest for fame is seldom rewarded within the myths. In Gilgamesh, the hero loses a dear friend partly because of his quest for fame on Earth, and in Anzu, his quest to rule the people is stopped by death. In "Creation" Qingu, the leader of Tiamat's army, seeks fame but is killed as a result. In "Erra and Ishum", Erra wins, but is usurped by the man who stopped him, Ishum. However, those who have fame thrust upon them such as Marduk appear to be rewarded with shrines and blessings, showing a clear moral theme throughout the stories.

Violence and deception

In every myth within the book, there is a running theme of violence and deception by the gods, a theme common in nearly all mythology. In "Atrahasis", the gods are angry with man for their noise, and send plague, famine, drought, and finally a massive flood to kill mankind. It is only through the deception of Ellil that Ea through Atrahasis is able to save mankind. In "Gilgamesh", Shamhat deceives Enkidu on behalf of Gilgamesh, forcing him into society. Ishtar deceives her father, and as a result, nearly kills Gilgamesh and Enkidu with the Bull of Horns. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay both Humbaba and the Bull of Horns. Later in the story, Ut-napishtim deceives Gilgamesh into thinking he has slept for days. In the Descent of Ishtar, Ishtar threatens to allow the dead to eat the living if her sister Ereshkigal does not permit her access to the Underworld, and Ereshkigal responds with a plague of sixty diseases. In Nergal and Ereshkigal, Ereshkigal threatens to kill Nergal for his transgressions against her, and in another translation, Nergal attempts to kill Ereshkigal. In Adapa, either Ea or Anu deceives Adapa into rejecting immortality. In Etana, the eagle deceives the snake and eats his young. In turn, the snake deceives the eagle and nearly kills him. In Anzu, Ea is deceived by Anzu in order for him to steal the Tablet of Destinies, and Ea in turn has Anzu slaughtered. In Creation, Ea kills Apsu, but only after Apsu plots to kill Ea and his siblings. Tiamat and Qingu plot to kill the gods, but Marduk kills Tiamat instead. In Dunnu, nearly everyone is killed or kills another. Finally, in Erra and Ishum, Erra slaughters most of humanity.

It is clear that violence was common during the time period in which these were written, and that the violence and chaos of the gods was often used to explain the unexplainable happenings on earth. With the gods as violent and unstable creatures, nearly all things on earth could be explained through the mood of the gods. In this way, the people of Mesopotamia could create myth that tied into reality, and would have the original myths to explain the violence of the gods.

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