Basic Information

Alternative Names: Zu-bird
Type/Species: Western Dragon
Origin: Ancient Mesopotamia, including Akkadian Mythology, Babylonian Mythology, Assyrian Mythology, and Sumerian Mythology

About Anzu / Zu

Zu is the name of a huge dragon, sometimes considered a storm bird, in the mythologies of Ancient Mesopotamia. [4] Some sources consider Zu half-demonic, half-divine with sinister and benevolent aspects, [6] and in Sumerian myths the Zu-bird was a mythological creature prone to mischief. [1] Akkadian and Babylonian mythology generally credits Zu as a demonic storm-bird or dragon. [7] Zu was born on the mountain Hehe, [8] though some sources say he nested at the top of the Sabu Mountains. [4]

As a divine incarnation, Zu personified the southern wind and the thunderclouds, [8] and he was sometimes considered an emblem of the deity Ningirsu. [6]

In his mischievous incarnations, Zu steals the sacred tablet, the Tupsimati, from Enlil, not knowing the tablet's great power and stored it in his nest like an egg. The power of the tablet aided Enlil in his rule of the universe, so he sent his son Ninurta to retrieve them. When Zu refused to give them back, Ninurta tore off his wings [4] and decapitated the monster to return the tablet of destiny to Enlil. [5]

In his demonic or antagonistic form, Zu threatened all domestic animals. [6] Zu also stole the Tablet of Destinies to establish himself as the head of the gods. [7] In one variation of the story, Enki carried the power of the tablet before Zu flew off with it. Ninurta attacked the monster mid-flight, forcing the dragon to drop the tablet back into the apsu, Enki's watery domain. [3]

In another variation of the story, Zu was a powerful storm bird appointed by Enlil to guard the deity's bath chamber. [8] Zu watched over the entrance of Enlil's shrine while the deity bathed, and from his new position, Zu watched the crown of Enlil's sovereignty, the divine Tablet of Destinies, constantly. [9] Thus the monstrous being, the divine demon, saw the power of Enlil, and conceived the removal of Enlilship (or his power) by stealing the Tablet of Destinies. Zu would then rule all the decrees of the gods, and he would carry off all the norms. The next day while Enlil bathed and left the tablet on the throne, Zu seized it in his hands and flew away to his mountains, thus suspending the norms. Stillness spread everywhere, and silence prevailed. The brilliance of the sanctuary faded, and Enlil, the counselor of the gods, was speechless. [9]

Anu asked for someone to step forward and slay Zu. The gods asked Adad, the Irrigator and his own son, [9] and Shara, the first-born daughter of Ishtar. [10] Neither agreed to fight, asking "Who is like Zu among the gods?" [10] Both also said that Zu, in taking the Tablet of Destinies, suspended all the norms. "He who opposes Zu will become like clay/At his [words] the gods waste away." [9]

Then Ninurta, the son of Enlil, agreed to slay the monstrosity of Zu. He met Zu on the mountainside, and when the dragon saw the deity approach him with aggression, he demanded an explanation. [10]

When Zu saw him he raged at him,
He ground (his teeth) like a demon, his brilliance covered the mountain,
He roared like a lion seized with anger.
In his rage he called the hero:
"I have carried off everyone of the norms,
And (therefore) the decrees of all the gods I direct:
Who art thou to come to fight with me?
      Explain thyself!

-- Assyrian Tablet [11]

Ninurta did not shake at the rage of the monstrous Zu. He engaged the dragon in combat, and Zu let loose a piercing shriek. Darkness fell and the face of the mountain became covered; thus, Ninurta, the light of the gods, entered the gloom. In the midst of the war, Ninurta launched fourteen storm floods and bathed in blood, and clouds of death sent rain. The lightning was not lightning in this battle, but instead the poisoned arrows of Ninurta. In the middle of the battle, he took his bow and loosed an arrow at Zu, but it could not approach the dragon. [11] The arrow turned back, for Zu called to it: [12]

"O arrow that has come, return to thy canebrake
Stave of the bow return to they wood,
Return bow-gut to the sheep's rump, return wings to the birds!"
While he bore the Tablet of Destinies of the gods in his hands
...the arrows could not approach his body
The battle was stilled, the conflict ceased
The weapons were stopped, in the midst of the mountain
      They vanquished not Zu.

-- Assyrian Tablet [12]

Ninurta sent Adad to report to the gods and Ea Ninigiku all the deeds that transpired. [12] Ea Ninigiku, the deity who imparted destinies, asked Adad to return with instructions: [13]

In battle do not tire, prove thy strength,
Subdue him, by the onslaught of the south wind let his pinions be overcome.
Take the weapon to the back of thy darts,
Cut off his pinions, scatter (them) to the right and left.
When he sees his wings (the sight) will rob him of speech:
"Wing to wing!" he will cry, fear him no (longer).
Draw thy bow (and) from its breast let fly the arrows like lightning.
Let pinions (and) wings dance like bloody things,
Slit this throat, vanquish Zu,
Let the winds carry his wings to a secret place
Toward Ekur, to thy father Enlil
Take flood and confusion into the midst of the mountains.

-- Assyrian Tablet [13]

Ninurta returned to battle with the Seven-of-the-Battle, the seven ill winds, and the seven whirlwinds that stir up dust. The winds of the south, north, east, and west converged on the dragon Zu. He became confused, then frightened, and Ninurta routed Zu and cut his throat. [14] In other accounts, Marduk slew the monstrous Zu and returned the Tablet of Destinies. [8]

In one Sumerian poem, a creation myth features the Zu-bird. A lovely huluppu-tree, possibly a willow, grew on the banks of the Euphrates River. Inanna, the queen of heaven, noticed the tree and took it to Erech, where she kept her own holy garden. When the tree grew large enough, she planned to use its wood, so she tended the tree for many years. But when the time came, she could not cut it down, for at its root, the snake who knows no charm built its nest and at its crown, the Zu-bird placed its young. Lilith, the maid of desolation, took up the middle of the tree for her house. Thus, Inanna's lovely huluppu-tree was tainted. The hero Gilgamesh overheard Inanna telling her brother Utu, the sun deity, about the loss of her splendid tree and the horrors that nested in it. So he readied himself for battle with his armor and his ax of the road. [1] He went to the garden and slew the serpent who knows now charm at the base of the tree. Zu witnessed this and fled with his young to the mountain, and Lilith likewise fled. Inanna rewarded Gilgamesh by presenting him with a pukku, crafted from the base of the tree, and a mikku, fashioned from its crown. Some equate these objects with a drum and drumstick, but whatever they were, the hero Gilgamesh utilized them on his many epic quests. [2]

Physical Description

Zu has various descriptions. Sometimes he is a man with the body of an eagle and the paws of a lion. [8] At other times, Zu is a lion with the head of an eagle, [4] or an eagle with a lion's head. [6] Other times he is described as having the head of an eagle and the torso of a man with a beard. [4]

His beak is as a saw, and his hide is more than eleven coats of mail. [8] References are also made to Zu's teeth (suggesting he had more than just a beak). [11]

Footnotes

  1. Kramer 33
  2. Kramer 34
  3. Littleton 107
  4. Rose [Dragons] 410
  5. Rose [Dragons] 411
  6. Turner 164
  7. Turner 393
  8. Mesopotamians and their Gods: Other Gods
  9. Pritchard [Near East] 93
  10. Pritchard [Near East] 94
  11. Pritchard [Near East] 96
  12. Pritchard [Near East] 97
  13. Pritchard [Near East] 98
  14. Pritchard [Near East] 99

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