Basic Information

Alternative names: Baau (benevolent manifestation), Bis-Bis, Hubar, Mummu-Tiamat, Omorca, Omoroka, Tamtu, Tauthe, Tehom, Thalass, Thalatth, Thamte, Thlavatth, Tiawath, Tisalat, Ummukhubar [24]
Translation: Tiamat is Akkadian for 'sea' [14]
Type/Species: Sea Serpent
Origin: Mesopotamian Mythology, Akkadian Mythology, Assyro-Babylonian Mythology, Chaldean/Semitic Mythology, Sumerian Mythology

About Tiamat and Apsu

According to Ancient Mesopotamian myth, all life originated in water, [25] because before the world existed, there was neither sky nor earth, only water, [11] specifically the Infinite Ocean, or the Abyss. [6] In this primordial state, the saltwater and fresh waters mixed together, reflecting the geographical reality of the convergence of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. [25] The ruler of the salt water, or the salt water herself, was the dragon Tiamat, and Apsu was the ruler of the sweet water, or the sweet water himself. [11] The time was thus described:

When sweet and bitter mingled together,
No reed was plaited, no rushes muddied the water,
The gods were nameless, natureless, futureless,
...from Apsu and Tiamat,
in the waters gods were created,
in the waters silt precipitated.

-- Enuma Elish [25]

Thus, Tiamat, the personification of salt water became the spouse of Apsu, the god of fresh water. [14] Their offspring were Ea and the other early deities, [10] or in some cases, the entire pantheon of gods and the world were born of Tiamat and Apsu. [24]

Tiamat also crafted her own children from her own image. [24] In some versions, she created them after she vowed to avenge Apsu's death. She brought forth broods of poisonous serpents, ravening wolves, fire-breathing dragons, fish-men, scorpion-men, and even men with the claws and teeth of lions. [11] Alternatively, she generated these children before the conflict started, when she created apes, hyenas, scorpions, spiders, and vultures. [24] Other variations claim Apsu and Tiamat produced the Girtabili, their child-monsters, together as part of the battle for control. [23]

As the younger deities became greater in number, they began to rebel against Apsu and Tiamat. Apsu learned of his descendant's plot and prepared to stop them, calling upon Mummu for aid. [11] In other versions, Tiamat and Apsu could not bear the uproar of the younger deities, and so planned to destroy them. [27]

In either case, Tiamat put aside her anger and declined to help Mummu and Apsu in their war. [30] In the battle, Ea / Hea (the Babylonian Enki) put Apsu into a deep sleep and slew him. [11] The death of Apsu pushed Tiamat to seek revenge, [27] sometimes specifically on Ea / Hea (the Babylonian Enki). [10] Tiamat named her consort, Kingu, as commander of her forces, [24] and presented him with the Tablets of Fate. [17] Some versions claimed that Kingu incited Tiamat into full revolt. [19]

Once the gods saw Tiamat's preparations, [11] which her newest progeny all armed with horrific weapons, [24] none dared opposed her and her legions of monsters, save only for Marduk / Marodach the son of Ea / Hea. [11] Even some of the deities joined her forces as renegade gods, among the gods of the night sky and the star gods. [24] Thus, Tiamat, went to war as the Dragon of the Deep, the Animal of Tiamat, and the Spirit of Chaos. [7] In the creation epic, Enuma elish, Assur and Marduk interchangeably take over the role of Ninurta, the war god, depending on the region. (Babylonians attributed the heroic role to Marduk; those in Assur attributed to their namesake deity, Assur.) [28]

Marduk was one of the younger deities, the sun god, but he became the supreme god by way of his victory over Tiamat. [3] Even before he went into battle, the gods honored Marduk and set him upon their highest part: [12]

When the gods, his fathers, saw the fruit of his word,
Joyfully they did homage: "Marduk is king!"
They conferred on him scepter, throne, and vestment;
They gave him matchless weapons that ward off foes:
"Go and cut off the life of Tiamat.
May the winds bear her blood to places undisclosed."

-- Enuma Elish [15]

Marduk prepared for the battle. He constructed the first bow, arrow, bow-cord, and quiver. [12] He also crafted an enormous net. [15] Then he called the Four Winds (North, South, East, West) to him, that they may each hold a corner of the net. [12] He took up a made in his right hand. [15]

Then he made the seven winds of Vengeance: [12] Imhullu or "the Evil Wind," the Whirlwind, the Hurricane, the Fourfold Wind, the Sevenfold Wind, the Cyclone, and the Matchless Wind. [15] Alternatively, these winds are named as Hot Wind, Cold Wind, Whirlwind, Sandstorm, the Fourfold Wind, the Sevenfold Wind, and the Destroying Tempest. [12] The he set lightning with a blazing flame to empower himself, [7] and he lashed his chariot and sped into the fray, straight for Tiamat. [12]

Marduk and Tiamat traded words, blow by blow:

The lord [Marduk] approached to scan the inside of Tiamat,
(And) of Kingu, her consort, the scheme to perceive.
As he looks on, his course becomes upset,
His will is distracted and his doings are confused.
And when the gods, his helpers, who marched at his side.
Saw the valiant hero, blurred became their vision.
Tiamat emitted [a cry], without turning her neck.
Framing savage defiance in her lips:
"Too important art thou for the lord of the gods to rise up against thee!
Is it in their place that they have gathered, (or) in thy place?"
Thereupon the lord, having raised the flood-storm, his mighty weapon
[To] enraged [Tiamat] he sent word as follows:
"Why are thou risen, art haughtily exalted,
Thou has charged thine own heart to stir up conflict... sons reject their own fathers,
Whilst thou, who hast born them, has foresworn love!
Thou has appointed Kingu as they consort,
Conferring upon him the rank of Anu, not rightfully his,
Against Anshar, king of the gods, thou seekest evil,
[Against] the gods, my fathers, thou hast confirmed thy wickedness.
[Though] drawn up be thy forces, girded on they weapons,
Stand thou up, that I and thou meet in single combat!"

-- Enuma Elish [16]

Marduk's words inflamed Tiamat, and she was "like one possessed; she took leave of her senses." [16] She raced toward Marduk, lashing her tail and opening her jaws to devour him, [12] but he cast the net before her held up by the Four Winds of Heaven, [7] letting the Evil Wind in her face [17] to pin her jaws opened. [12] Then he loosed a hurricane and drove the winds down her throat to burst her body. [7] Alternatively, after her mouth was kept opened, the other six winds flew down her gullet, distending her and making her weak. Marduk then drew his bow and shot an arrow down her throat, piercing her heart. [12]

[Tiamat] recited a charm, keeps casting her spell,
While the gods of battle sharpen their weapons.
Then joined issue Tiamat and Marduk, wisest of gods.
They strove in single combat, locked in battle.
The lord spread out his net to enfold her,
The Evil Wind, which followed behind, he let loose in her face.
When Tiamat opened her mouth to consume him,
He drove in the Evil Wind that she close not her lips.
As the fierce winds charged her belly,
Her body was distended and her mouth was wide open.
It cut through her insides, splitting her heart.
He cast down her carcass to stand upon it.
After he had slain Tiamat, the leader,
Her band was shattered, her troupe broken up;
And the gods, her helpers who marched at her side,
Trembling with terror, turned their backs about,
In order to save and preserve their lives.
Tightly encircled, they could not escape.

-- Enuma Elish [17]

Tiamat gave a howling cry and fell dead. [12] Thus Bel Marduk, the Lord of Life, earned his title as "Quickener of the Dead." [7]

After her death, her dismembered body became various elements of the world. [23] In some versions, Marduk cut her in half [10] like a shellfish [13] with his sickle-shaped sword. [7] Thus, she became the animistic source of creation. [10]

And turned back to Tiamat who he had bound.
The lord trod on the legs of Tiamat,
With his unsparing mace he crushed her skull.
When the arteries of her blood he had severed, [17]
The North Wind bore (it) to places undisclosed.
Then the lord paused to view her dead body,
That he might divide the monster and do artful works.
He split her like a shellfish into two parts:
Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky,
Pulled down the bar and posted guards.
He squared Apsu's quarter, the abode of Nudimmud,
As the lord measured the dimensions of Apsu.
The Great Abode, its likeness, he fixed as Esharra,
The Great Abode, Esharra, which he made as the firmament.
Anu, Enlil, and Ea he made occupy their places.

-- Enuma Elish [18]

The amount of shaping done by Marduk varies greatly, from simply splitting her body to setting the universe in motion.

Taking the spittle of Tiamat,
Marduk created [...] ...
He formed the clouds and filled (them) with [water].
The raising of winds, the bringing of rain (and) cold,
Making the mist smoke, piling up her poison:
(These) he appointed to himself, took into his own charge.
Putting her head into position he formed thereon the mountains,
Opening the deep (which) was in flood,
He caused to flow from her eyes the Euphrates (and) Tigris, [21]
Stopping her nostrils he left...
He formed at her udder the lofty mountains,
(Therein) he drilled springs for the wells to carry off (the water).
Twisting her tail he bound it to Durmah,
[...] ... Apsu at his foot,
[...] ... she was fastened to the heavens,
(Thus) he covered [the heavens] (and) established the earth
[...] ... in the midst of Tiamat he made flow,
[...] his net he completely let out,
(So) he created heaven and earth...
[...] their bounds ... established.

-- Enuma Elish [22]

Upon Kingu's guilt in the uprising, the gods executed and fashioned humanity from his blood. [20] Thereafter, Marduk separated the salt water from the fresh and set the sun, moon, and stars on their courses. Finally, he fixed the dome of heaven in place with the North Star, and around it Marduk set a great dragon in the image of Tiamat to guard it for all eternity. [13]

Marduk used half her body, [24] alternatively half her hide, [7] to create the firmament and half to make the earth. [24] Half became the mountains and valleys of the earth. [13] The other half became the skies and the Milky Way. [23] Alternatively, the other half Marduk raised up and crafted into the heavens, the dwelling place of the gods. [13] Her blood issued out and formed either the sea [24] or the rivers. [23]

Marduk, the sun-god and master of the concrete and formative principles, conquered Tiamat, the personification of the watery abstract and formlessness. [7] As the emblem of order, Marduk's triumph leads to the taming of the originating genesis of chaos. [29] Marduk's defeat of Tiamat may represent the history victory of Bel Marduk's followers over the worshippers of the serpent-deity Hea / Ea. [5]

Cult members re-enacted this battle every year in the New Year Festival. [28] In ancient times, it was the best-loved festival in Mesopotamia, lasting eleven days. People carried in idols from neighboring states into the main city. Rituals reenacted Marduk's victory over the dragon Tiamat. The king played the role of Marduk, participating in various challenges. The gathered crowds so confirmed the rule of the supreme deity and so acknowledged the king as his representative. [29]

Evolution of Tiamat / Tihamtu

Daily life in Ancient Mesopotamia was difficult. The mythology of many different groups intermingled, and both internal and external conflicts became reflected in the cosmogony, such as the younger deities of order fighting the primordial gods for power. [26] Traces of an earlier cosmology in Ancient Mesopotamia include a Triad of deities: Anu, deity of Heaven and Universal Father; Bel / Belus, the Ruler of the Earth; and Hea / Ea (later, the Babylonian Enki), Lord of the Sea and Lord of Wisdom. [4] In the original cosmogony of the Akkadians, no Dragon of Evil existed; instead, the Watery Deep (or Watery Space), where chaos abided, was the home of the Serpent-God of Wisdom, Hea. [5] His titles included The Intelligent Fish, The Incognisable and Infinite, and the Revealer of Knowledge. People perceived Hea with an affectionate, even fatherly, disposition toward human welfare. [5] The word 'Hea' can be interpreted to mean either 'life' or 'serpent,' [5] and the serpent symbolized Hea. [4] Early on, the Babylonians connected this deity with the Euphrates, known to them as 'the river of the snake.' [5] Later, Hea became identified with Tiamat. [4]

The earliest written records of the Akkadians date to 4500 BC, when they were the dominant people of Babylon, and they had many beliefs around serpent-worshiping, [3] especially in relation to Hea. The Serpent God of Wisdom was encircled and infinite to the early Akkadians. [5] Babylonian Theogeny eventually adopted Tiamat as chaos personified and that which existed before even the gods. [4]

The symbols changed significance with the introduction of dualism. The Infinite Ocean, or the Abyss, no longer was identified with Divine Wisdom, but instead with the source of evil and misfortune. [6] Thus, Hea became identified with the Tiamat, [4] either an enormous watery serpent [27] or an immense dragon, [2] the personification of Chaos that existed before the gods. [4] The younger gods attempted to carve order out of the primordial chaos; [10] thus, a war erupted between the primeval deities and their younger counterparts. [7] Once Hea was associated with Tiamat, the Deity of Wisdom became the source of all misfortune and evil. [6] The dragon and the powers of chaos, or evil, began a war for control of the universe against the pantheon of order. The dualistic nature of this story, however, comes from a late phase of thought. [7]

An intermediate stage of Tiamat's story was found in the library of Assur-bani-al (reigned 668 - 626 BC). One of the clay tablets refers to a conflict without charging Tiamat with evil. Instead, combat was seen as an essential cog in the process of creation, as the conflict was not a war of revenge but a battle of love. The result was the fruitfulness of the once-barren Tiamat, [7] the universal mother of all. [14]

The connections between Hea and Tiamat resided in the primordial ocean and the symbol of the serpent. [6] The serpent also etymologically influenced much of the later Mesopotamian pantheon. For example, Bel Marduk / Bel Marodach was so named because 'Bel' signified 'Lord.' [8] Sometimes deified heroes would attain this title, [9] but it was more commonly attributed to the deities themselves. The history of 'Bel' as a title, however, likely traces back to an abbreviation of Ob-el, or 'The Serpent-God.' [9] The evolution of the myth cycle left Tiamat as the monstrous enemy and eventually transformed Hea / Ea (Babylonian Enki), to one of the deities that opposed chaos and fathered the supreme god, Marduk / Marodach. [6]

Physical Description

Tiamat was variously described as an enormous water snake, [27] and the primordial dragon of chaos with the head of a lion, feathery wings, the forelegs of an eagle, a scaly hide, and the forked tongue of a serpent. [2] The latter description of the dragon came later, when the icon of the dragon became associated with the supreme deity Marduk in Babylon, where the lion was a symbol of royal power. [1] Sometimes Tiamat was depicted with two huge horns upon her head. [23]

Some descriptions of Tiamat mention two forelegs but don't attribute them to the eagle. [23] Other depictions present Tiamat as a winged, seven-headed dragon with a scaly body and large claws, although this was usually in her manifestation as Hubar, the personification of the underworld river Hubar. [24] The descriptions were the same in one regard: enormous size. Tiamat's body was an impenetrable weapon, [23] as her hide was so thick no weapon could pierce it, making her nigh invincible. [11] She was vast and serpentine in shape, [23] and three hundred miles (483 km) in length, [24] with an immense tail. [23] Her mouth was ten feet (3 m) wide, [24] or by some accounts, her mouth is seven miles (11 km) wide. [11] The circumference of her body was one hundred feet (30 m), and she moved in undulations over six miles (9.6 m) high. [24]

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Footnotes

  1. Airey 13
  2. Airey 140
  3. Howey 166
  4. Howey 167
  5. Howey 168
  6. Howey 169
  7. Howey 170
  8. Howey 171
  9. Howey 172
  10. Leeming 382
  11. Lurie 24-25
  12. Lurie 26
  13. Lurie 27
  14. Lurker 345
  15. National Geographic [Essential] 26
  16. National Geographic [Essential] 27
  17. National Geographic [Essential] 42
  18. National Geographic [Essential] 43
  19. Pritchard 29
  20. Pritchard 30
  21. Pritchard 31
  22. Pritchard 32
  23. Pritchard 33
  24. Pritchard 34
  25. Pritchard 36
  26. Pritchard 37
  27. Rose [Dragons] 360
  28. Turner 466
  29. Woolf 62
  30. National Geographic [Essential] 26
  31. National Geographic [Essential] 27
  32. National Geographic [Essential] 42
  33. National Geographic [Essential] 43
  34. Turner 63

For more information on footnotes and references, please see the bibliography.