In ancient Mesopotamia (c. 9000–500 B.C.E.),
there were several universal myths of creation. Within each civilization that occupied the region, a myriad of myths and at times conflicting traditions were used to explain the mystery of existence.

Little is known about the first Sumerian myths, written during the third millennium B.C.E. The surviving material is fragmentary, and the documents so far discovered are difficult to interpret. Nevertheless, as far as can be determined, Mesopotamian texts from the earliest times to the decline of the cuneiform tradition in the first centuries B.C.E.do not appear to address the question of creation. The primal existence of the gods is assumed rather than explained, with heaven and Earth created by the god Enlil, the head of the Sumerian pantheon.

There is one exception, however, a myth in which heaven and Earth were separated before the existence of the gods Enlil and his spouse, Ninlil. A text written in the city of Ur (in what is now Iraq) explains that in its beginnings Earth was dark. There was no light or vegetation, and no water emerged from the deep. Another Sumerian composition, preserved in a copy from the early part of the second millennium B.C.E., entitled Gilgamesh and the Netherworld, contains a prologue that describes the formation of the world by the gods An and Enlil, who separated out the parts of the universe from an initial mass.

Sumerian Creation Myths

The origins of humankind are dealt with in a Sumerian poem from the second millennium, “The Song of the Hoe.” This composition compares the creation of humankind to the growth of plants. After the god Enlil separated heaven from Earth and Earth from heaven, he made the human seed spout forth like a plant from the soil at a sacred place called Where Flesh Came Forth. Humans were then assigned the task of worshipping the gods, a common Mesopotamian mythological theme.

Another Sumerian poem, “The Disputation Between Ewe and Wheat,” describes primeval Earth as initially being barren. People went about naked, eating grass as if they were sheep, for wheat and bread did not yet exist. Without ewes and goats, there was also no weaving, cloth, or clothing.

An explanation of how Earth came to be ordered is given in the Sumerian myth Enki and the World Order. Enki, one of the main deities in the Sumerian pantheon, was assigned responsibility for the organization of the world, including the fates of the land of Sumer, the foreign lands, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. To manage his work, he entrusted various gods with specific responsibilities. Selected deities were charged with management of the twin rivers and surrounding marshes, the sea, rains, irrigation and crops, construction and architecture, wildlife on the high plain, herding of domestic animals, oversight of the whole of heaven and Earth, and woman’s work.

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Enki and Ninmah

The Sumerian myth Enki and Ninmah gives an explanation for the creation of humankind. In the time after heaven and Earth were separated, there was a shortage of food. A solution was found by assigning minor gods the task of producing food by farming. To do so, they had to undertake the burdensome job ofdigging canals and dredging clay. The work was so difficult that the junior gods complained, and finally, fed up with all the work, they decided to rebel.

The senior god Enki, fast asleep at the time, was roused from his slumber. Realizing the need for a creative solution, Enki decided to create humankind. Humans would then bear the burden of working the soil and creating produce. The goddess Namma was asked to knead clay from the fresh waters that were under the earth and place it in her womb. She then gave birth to the first humans.

In the second part of this myth, Enki and the goddess Ninmah became inebriated at a banquet and challenged each other to a contest. The goddess began by creating people who were disabled and challenged Enki to solve their problems and provide for their welfare. Enki responded by assigning them professions so that they could be independent and earn their own livings. Enki in turn challenged Ninmah. He molded clay and placed itin the womb of a woman, creating a being unable to function. Ninmah was confounded. She could not find a suitable profession for the being to earn its daily bread. The myth concludes with the exclamation that Ninmah was not the equal of the great Enki.

Babylonian Traditions

Babylonian theologians and poets also incorporated stories about the creation of humans and the world in texts to justify and glorify kingship. The best-known myth of this type was Enuma Elish, or When on High. Created at the end of the second millennium B.C.E., it contains a story of a battle among the gods that was used as a charter myth for the emergence of a new political order. The story centers on the exploits of Marduk, a god who was elevated to supremacy in the city of Babylon at the end of the second millennium B.C.E.

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The myth tells of Marduk obtaining his position as the chief god of Babylon and reflects on the unchallenged power of the Babylonian ruler. The story begins with the existence of an immense expanse of sweet (apsu) and salt (tiamat) waters that existed before the universe and first gods came into being. Out of the mingling of these primeval waters, the gods emerged in pairs. Like young children, the gods were rambunctious, and they so upset the god Apsu that he decided to destroy the young deities. The clever god Ea came to their rescue and killed Apsu.

Marduk

Described as perfect and unequaled, the god Marduk was born to Ea and his wife, Damkina. Marduk, as a leader of the younger generation, was selected by the gods to be their commander. He became their supreme leader and champion, charged with defending the lesser deities against the fury of the goddess Tiamat. The goddess was upset at all the noise and commotion, and she was determined to avenge the slaying of her husband, Apsu. Marduk, armed with an array of winds, heroically battled Tiamat, a symbol of the old order.

Victorious in battle, Marduk needed to dispose of Tiamat’s body. He split it in two like a dried fish and fashioned the upper part as heaven and the lower part as Earth. Afterward, he created the constellations and the netherworld. He also brought forth the Sun and Moon, organized the calendar, and was given the authority to care and provide for the sanctuaries.

Finally Marduk, thankful for the benefits granted by the gods and their submissiveness to his rule, decided to ease their burden by creating humans from the blood of a slain rebellious god. The myth employs this episode to explain that humans were created to sustain the gods and release them from their menial labors. This provided a rationale for humanity’s rebellious nature. Marduk also gave the gods new roles by assigning them to various positions in heaven and on Earth.

The City of Babylon

In the next episode of Marduk’s story, he demanded that the gods build him a capital city, Babylon. He also requested a temple, Esagila, in which he would dwell and administer the affairs of the gods.

In gratitude to Marduk, the gods complied. They prostrated themselves before him, pledged obedience to their unquestioned leader and commander, and confirmed his kingship. The myth continued with the gods pronouncing the fifty names of Marduk, each an aspect of his power and character. The story concludes with Marduk as the victor and absolute ruler.