The Myth of Etana

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published on 02 March 2011

The Myth of Etana is the story of the Sumerian antediluvian King of Kish who ascends to heaven on an eagle to request the Plant of Birth from the gods so that he might have a son. That the myth is very old is attested to by cylinder seals depicting Etana on the eagle's back which date from the reign of Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BCE). The British Museum has among its holdings a fragment of The Myth of Etana from King Assurbanipal's library at Ninevah, dating from the 7th century but, as G.S. Kirk points out, "The Neo-Assyrian version from Ashurbanipal's library happens to be the most surviving text, but where it overlaps with an Old Babylonian version of a thousand years earlier it corresponds with it very closely, sometimes word for word. A short Middle Assyrian fragment maintains the same accuracy.”

The story contains many motifs seen in myths of every culture: a great city created by the gods, a search for a worthy ruler, talking animals, broken oaths, divine intervention and a quest which brings the hero to the land of the gods (this one involving an eagle of mythic proportions). The myth may have been intended, as suggested by R. McRoberts, to convey a political message regarding kingship: "When this story is placed in the context of the First Dynasty of Kish, and its exceptional rule of twenty three consecutive kings, it can be seen as more than a tale of fantasy. Earlier dynasties in the King Lists show only a few kings ruling in succession. It is possible that the success of the First Dynasty of Kish could be owed in part to a new tradition of passing the monarchy on to a male heir of the previous king. The myth of Etana served as a colorful reminder that it was the king’s duty to go to any lengths, or heights as the case may be, to produce that heir."

The story opens with the foundation and building of the great city of Kish where the gods surround the city with high walls and then begin a careful search for a king to rule the city. Etana is finally chosen by Ishtar/Inanna to rule and he builds a shrine to the god Adad. Near to this shrine a poplar tree is growing in which an eagle has built a nest in the branches and a serpent has made a home in the roots.

The eagle and the serpent swear an oath of loyalty, with Shamash, the sun god as their witness, that they will be friends and care for each other's children. The eagle will watch over the serpent's children when the serpent goes out to search for food and the serpent will do likewise for the eagle. This agreement works well until, one day, when the eagle’s children have grown, the eagle decides to eat the serpent's children (not heeding the warning cries of his own children who beg him not to). When the serpent comes home with the day's food he finds his children gone, his nest destroyed and the eagle's talon prints in the earth around his former home. He cries out to Shamash for help in punishing the eagle and is told to hide inside the carcass of a wild ox and, when the eagle comes to eat of the flesh, to seize him, cut off his wings and tail feathers, pluck him, and throw him into a pit. The serpent does as he is instructed and the eagle, helpless in the pit, now cries out to Shamash himself asking for help. Shamash tells the eagle that what he did with the serpent's children was a horrible act but that the god will send Etana to help the eagle.

Etana, meanwhile, is also petitioning Shamash for help because his wife is barren and he despairs of having a son and heir to his throne. Shamash directs Etana to the pit where the eagle is suffering and Etana nurses the bird back to health. The eagle and Etana become close friends and the eagle even interprets Etana's dreams for him. In one of these dreams, Etana ascends to heaven riding on the eagle and is given the Plant of Birth by Ishtar. The eagle believes this dream is a message from the gods for the two of them to attempt this venture and tells Etana to hold on to his wings, placing his breast to the bird's breast.

Clinging to the underbelly of the great eagle, Etana is carried up into the heavens. He is so far up that, when he looks down, he cannot see the earth and becomes afraid. He cries out to the eagle, "I looked but could not see the land! Nor were my eyes enough to find the vast sea! My friend, I won't go up to heaven Set me down, let me go off to my city" and then lets go of the eagle and plunges toward the earth. The eagle swoops down after Etana and rescues him.

The two return to the City of Kish where Etana and his wife both have dreams and the eagle interprets Etana's dream as a command to make a second attempt at the heavens. The second attempt is successful in that they gain the heights of heaven and arrive in the abode of the gods to bow down together but the rest of the story has been lost. As Etana did have a son, Balikh, who succeeded him as king (and is said to have reigned for 1500 years) it is understood that the dream Etana had of Ishtar bestowing upon him the Plant of Birth came true.

The following translation is by Benjamin Foster from his work, From Distant Days: Myths, Tales and Poetry from Ancient Mesopotamia used under Creative Commons License from the Gateways to Babylon website and supplemented by Stephanie Dalley's translation, paraphrased in this present author's own words, toward the conclusion.

TABLET I
They planned a city [ ]
The gods laid its foundations
They planned the city [Kish?]
The Igigi-gos founded its brickwork [ ]
" Let [ ] be their (the people's) shepherd,
" Let Etana be their architect... "
The Great Anunnaki gods ordainers of destinies,
Sat taking their counsel concerning the land,
The creators of the four world regions, establishers of all physical form,
By command of all of them the Igigi gods
Ordained a festival for the people
No king did they establish, over the teeming peoples,
At that time no headdress had been assembled, nor crown,
Nor yet scepter had been set with lapis.
No throne daises whatsoever had been constructed,
Against the inhabited world they barred the gates...
The Igigi gods surrounded the city with ramparts
Ishtar came down from heaven to seek a shepherd,
And sought for a king everywhere.
Inninna came down from heaven to seek a shepherd,
And sought for a king everywhere.
Enlil examined the dais of Etana,
The man whom Ishtar steadfastly... She has constantly sought....
"Let kingship be established in the land,
Let the heart of Kish be joyful"
Kingship, the radiant crown, throne [ ]
He (?) brought and [ ]
The gods of the lands....
(large gap)

TABLET II
[ ] which he called [ ]....
the High Water
[ ] he had built a tower (?) [ ]
[ ] shrine for Adad, the god [ ],
In the shade of that shrine a poplar was growing [ ],
In its crown an eagle settled,
A serpent settled at its root.
Daily they watched the wind beasts.
The eagle made ready to speak, saying to the serpent,
"Come, let us make friendship,
Let us be comrades, you and I".
The serpent made ready to speak, saying to the eagle,
"If indeed.... of friendship and [ ]
Then let us swear a mighty oath of Shamash.
An abomination of the gods [ ]
" Come then, let us set forth and go up the high mountain to hunt.
"Let us swear an oath by the netherworld".
Before Shamash the warrior they swore the oath,
"Whoever transgresses the limits of Shamash
" May Shamash deliver him as an offender into the hands of the executioner,
" Whoever transgresses the limits of Shamash,
" May the mountains remove their praises far away from him,
" May the oncoming weapon make straight for him,
" May the trap and curse of Shamash overthrow him and hunt him down!"
After they had sworn the oath by the netherworld,
They set forth, going up the high mountains,
Each day by turns watching for the wild beasts,
The eagle would hunt down wild oxen and gazelle,
The serpent would eat, turn away, then his children would eat.
The eagle would hunt down wild sheep and aurochs,
The serpent would eat, turn away, then his children would eat.
The serpent would hunt down beasts of the field, the creatures of earth,
The eagle would eat, turn away, then his children would eat the food,
The eagle's children grew big and flourished.
After the eagle's children were grown big and were flourishing,
The eagle's heart indeed plotted evil,
Evil his heart plotted indeed!
He set his thoughts upon eating his friend's young!
The eagle made ready to speak, saying to its children:
" I will eat the serpent's children, the serpent [ ],
" I will go up and dwell in heaven,
" If I descend from the crown of the tree, ... the king."
The littlest fledgling, exceedingly wise, said these words to the eagle, his father:
" Do not eat, my father!
The net of Shamash will hunt you down,
The mesh and oath of Shamash will overthrow you and hunt you down.
Whoever transgresses the limits of Shamash,
Shamash will deliver him as an offender into the hands of the executioner!"
He did not heed them, nor listen to his sons' words,
He descended and ate up the serpents' children,
In the evening of the same day,
The serpent came, bearing his burden,
At the entrance to his nest he cast down the meat,
He looked around, his nest was gone
He looked down, his children were not [ ]!
The eagle had gouged the ground with his talon,
The cloud of dust from the sky darkened the sky.
The serpent.... weeping before Shamash,
Before Shamash the warrior his tears ran down,
" I trusted in you, O warrior Shamash,
I was the one who gave provisions to the eagle,
Now my nest [ ]!
My nest is gone, while his nest is safe,
My young are destroyed, while his young are safe,
He descended and ate up my children!
You know, O Shamash, the evil he has done to me,
Truly, O Shamash your net is the wide earth,
Your trap is the distant heaven,
The eagle must not escape from your net,
That malignant Anzu who harbored evil against his friends!"
When he had heard the serpent's lament,
Shamash made ready to speak, and said to him:
" Go your way and cross the mountain,
I have captured for you a wild ox.
Open its insides, rend its belly,
Set an ambush in its belly,
Every kind of bird of heaven will come down to eat the meat.
The eagle will come down with them to eat the meat,
As he will not know the evil in store for him,
He will search for the juiciest meat [ ], he will walk about outside,
He will work his way into the covering of the intestines,
" When he comes inside, seize him by his wings,
Cut off his wings, his pinions and tail feathers,
Pluck him and cast him into a bottomless pit,
Let him die there of hunger and thirst".
As Shamash the warrior commanded,
The serpent went and crossed the mountain.
Then did the serpent reach the wild ox,
He opened its insides, he rent its belly.
He set an ambush in its belly.
Every kind of bird of heaven came down to eat the meat.
Did the eagle know of the evil in store for him?
He would not eat the meat with the other birds!
The eagle made ready to speak, saying to his children:
" Come, let us go down and we too eat the meat of the wild ox".
The little fledgling, exceedingly wise, said these words to the eagle, his father:
" Do not go down, father, no doubt the serpent is lurking inside the wild ox".
The eagle said to himself,
"Are the birds afraid? How is it they eat the meat in peace?"
He did not listen to them, he did not listen to his sons' words,
He descended and perched on the wild ox.
The eagle looked at the meat, searching in front and behind it.
A second time he looked at the meat, searching in front and behind it,
He walked around outside, he worked his way into the covering of the intestines,
When he came inside, the serpent seized him by his wings,
" You intruded... you intruded...!
The eagle made ready to speak, saying to the serpent:
" Have mercy on me! I will make you such a gift as a king's ransom!"
The serpent made ready to speak, saying to the eagle:
" If I release you, how shall I answer to Shamash on high?
Your punishment would turn upon me,
Me, the one to lay punishment upon you!"
He cut off his wings, pinions and tail feathers,
He plucked him and cast him into a pit.
That he should die there of hunger and thirst.
As for him, the eagle,.....[ ]
He kept on beseeching Shamash day after day:
" Am I to die in a pit?
Who would know how your punishment was imposed upon me?
Save my life, the eagle!
Let me cause your name to be heard for all time".
Shamash made ready to speak and said to the eagle:
" You are wicked and have done a revolting deed.
You committed an abomination of the gods, a forbidden act.
Were you not under oath? I will not come near you.
There, there! A man I will send you will help you"
Etana kept on beseeching Shamash day after day,
"O Shamash, you have dined from my fattest sheep!
O Netherworld, you have drunk of the blood of my sacrificed lambs!
I have honored the gods and revered the spirits,
Dream interpreters have used up my incense,
Gods have used up my lambs in slaughter.
O Lord, give the command!
Grant me the plant of birth!
Reveal to me the plant of birth!
Relieve me of my burden, grant me an heir!"
Shamash made ready to speak and said to Etana:
" Find a pit, look inside,
An eagle is cast within it.
He will reveal to you the plant of birth".
Etana went his way.
He found the pit, he looked inside
The eagle was cast within it
There he was for him to bring up!
 
TABLET III
The eagle looked at him....
He said [ ] to Etana,
"You are Etana, king of the wild beasts,
You are Etana, [ ] among (?) birds.
Bring me up from this pit
Give me [ ] your hand,
"..... [ ],
I will sing your praises for all time".
Etana said to the eagle these words:
"If I save your life, [ ]
If I bring you up from the pit,
From that moment we must be .........."
"[ ] to me [ ]
"From sunrise till [ ]
"..... [ ]
"I will grant you the plant of life".
When Etana heard this,
He filled the front of the pit with [ ]
Next he threw in.... [ ]
He kept throwing in [ ] in front of him,
The eagle.... from the pit
As for him, he flapped his wings,
A first time and a second time... the eagle in the pit,
As for him, he flapped his wings .....
A third time and a fourth time... [the eagle ... in? The pit
As for him, he flapped his wings
A fifth and a sixth time....
(fragmentary lines, then gap)
(from another version)
He took him by the hand in his seventh month in the pit,
In the eighth month he brought him over the edge of his pit,
The eagle took food like a ravening lion,
He gained strength.
The eagle made ready to speak and said to Etana,
"My friend! Let us be friends, you and I!
Ask of me whatever you desire and I shall give it to you ".
Etana made ready to speak and said to the eagle:
"My eyes..... open up what is hidden.
(gap)
Etana and the eagle become friends. Etana has dreams, which he relates to the eagle.
[ ] above
[ ] at my feet
The eagle made Etana understand the dream,
[ ] seated before him,
" [ ] your dream is propitious,
" [ ] burden is brought,
" They will give [ ]
" You have done [ ] of the people
" You will seize... in your hand,
" The sacred bond [ ] above
" [ ] at your feet."
Etana said to him, to the eagle.
" My friend, I saw a second dream,
" [ ] reeds [ ] in the house,
In all [ ], the whole land,
" They heaped up loads of them in piles,
" [ ] enemies, they were wicked serpents,
" [ ] were coming before me,
" [ ] they were kneeling before me".
The eagle made Etana understand the dream
[ ] seated bore him
"[ ] your dream is propitious"
(gap)
 
TABLET IV
The eagle made ready to speak, saying to Etana:
"My friend... that god...."
"We passed through the gates of Anu, Enlil and Ea,
We passed through the gates of Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar,
We did obeisance together, you and I,
I saw a house with windows, it had no seal
I.... and went inside.
A remarkable young woman was seated therein,
She was imposing... beautiful of feature.
A throne was set out, the ground was trodden down,
Under the throne [ ] lions were crouching,
As I went in, the lions sprang at me.
I awoke with a start and shuddered [ ]".
The eagle said to him, to Etana:
" My friend, the [ ] are obvious,
Come, let me take you up to heaven,
Put your chest against my chest,
Put your hands against my wing feathers,
Put your arms against my sides".
He put his chest against his chest,
He put his hands against his wing feathers,
He put his arms against his sides,
Great indeed was the burden upon him.
When he bore him aloft one league,
The eagle said to him, to Etana:
"Look, my friend, how the land is now.
Examine the sea, look for its boundaries
The land is hills...
The sea has become a stream".
When he had borne him aloft a second league,
The eagle said to him, said to Etana,
"Look, my friend, how the land is now!
The land is a hill".
When he had borne him aloft a third league,
The eagle said to him, said to Etana,
"Look, my friend, how the land is now!"
The sea has become a gardener's ditch".
After they had ascended to the heaven of Anu,
They passed through the gates of Anu, Enlil and Ea,
The eagle and Etana did obeisance together,
At the gate of Sin
The eagle and Etana did obeisance together
(gap, fragmentary lines)
(another version of this episode)
"Through the power of Ishtar [ ]
"Put your arms against my sides,
Put your hands against my wing feathers".
He put his arms against his sides,
He put his hands against his wing feathers.
When he had borne him aloft one league,
"Look, my friend, how the land is now!"
"The land's circumference is become one fifth of its size.
"The vast sea is become like a paddock".
When he had borne him aloft a second league,
"Look, my friend, how the land is now!"
"The land has become a garden plot [ ],
"And the vast sea has become a trough".
When he had borne him aloft a third league,
"Look, my friend, how the land is now!"
"I looked but could not see the land!
"Nor were my eyes enough to find the vast sea!
"My friend, I won't go up to heaven
"Set me down, let me go off to my city".
One league he dropped him down (?)
Then the eagle plunged and caught him in his wings.
A second league he dropped him down (?)
Then the eagle plunged and caught him in his wings,
A third league he dropped him down (?)
Then the eagle plunged and caught him in his wings,
Within three cubits of earth [ he dropped him down],
The eagle plunged, and caught him in his wings,
The eagle [ ] and.... while he, Etana [ ]

At this point, according to Stephanie Dalley's translation, there is a "gap of uncertain length" and then her translation continues the story of Etana’s and the eagle’s return to the city of Kish. In Kish, Etana has a series of dreams which "encourage him to make a second attempt to reach heaven." The rest of the piece tells of Etana's dreams, the eagle's interpretation, the dream of Etana's wife (in which she seems to see a long reign for Etana) and Etana's and the eagle's second flight to heaven where "they went through the gate of Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar" and bowed down together. As the last line of the piece is given as "He pushed it open [and went inside]" Dalley concludes that this second attempt at the heavens is successful and Etana receives the Plant of Life from Ishtar.



Bibliography

The Myth of Etana Books

Sorry, we haven't been able to find any books on the subject.
 

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