In Mesopotamian mythology, Marduk was the chief god of Babylon. His cult became important during the reign of the Babylonian king Hammurabi in the 18th century BCE.
The earliest documented people of Mesopotamia settled at the northern end of the Persian Gulf around the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where the rich silt was good for farming. They were known as Sumerians, and they are the world's oldest civilization. Although there is no evidence that they were racially different from the Semitic people of Akkad, who lived to the north of them, their language was not Semitic. The Sumerians were the source of the mythology that dominated the Babylonians and the Assyrians after them.
The Sumerians worshiped a great pantheon—numerous gods of varying rank and character. Their four most important deities were An (the god of heaven), Ki (earth), Enlil (air), and Enki (water). These gods were also worshiped by the Babylonians, who also lived to the north of the Sumerians, and whose civilization flourished later, from around 1900 BCE to around 550 CE. The Babylonians knew the Sumerian gods by different names: An was also known as Anu, while Enki was known as Ea. Marduk was not a particularly important god in the Sumerian pantheon. He rose to prominence only in the Babylonian era.
The son of Ea and Damkina, Marduk is usually depicted as a giant who breathed fire from both his heads. He was sent by the other gods to do battle with Tiamat, who became identified as—although she was not originally—a primordial dragon. After killing Tiamat, Marduk created earth, sea, and the heavens from her body. From Tiamat's consort, Kingu, he fashioned humankind. Marduk then became the king of the gods.
This Mesopotamian creation myth reflects the end of the old goddess era and the beginning of the patriarchal order in western Asia. Historians believe that the change—in which male characters replaced female figures as the highest objects of admiration and worship—probably occurred between about 5000 and 3000 BCE. In the story of Marduk's battle with the she-dragon Tiamat, the transition is dramatically played out.
Tiamat may have been based on the older Namma, the Sumerian sea or water goddess who was mother of earth and sea. Tiamat's eyes were the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. When Marduk defeated her, he painstakingly built up trees, land, reed structures, holy places, bricks, cities, and dams. Out of the alluvial mud of the growing delta of the two rivers, he founded a civilization on land retrieved from the waters. This reflects the importance of the rivers to Babylon.
The story of Marduk and Tiamat comes from the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation epic. The version that exists today was written down around 1150 BCE, although it is based on an earlier version that may date to as early as 1900 BCE. Many of the mythological motifs in the story were borrowed from earlier Canaanite myths about the god Baal.
In the beginning of the story there was nothing but Abzu, the waters underground, and Tiamat, the sea. It was in these waters that the first gods came into being. The gods represented energy and activity. Abzu and Tiamat stood for calm and tranquillity, so there was tension between them and the newcomers. When the gods danced, they disturbed the interior of Tiamat. This so enraged Abzu that he decided to kill his children, but Tiamat refused to let him destroy what they had created. Abzu, however, planned an attack with the help of his page, Mummu. When Enki, the youngest of the gods, heard about the plot, he killed Abzu while he slept and built a temple over his body. He seized Mummu and held him captive by a nose rope.
It was in the same temple that Marduk, the hero of the Enuma Elish, was born. The young god had four eyes and four ears and could both see and hear events that happened far away. Fire came forth from his mouth, and his height was greater than that of all the other gods. As a child he played with the four winds—gifts to him from his doting grandfather Anu, the god of heaven. This agitated the waves and disturbed the tranquillity of the gods who remained in the sea. Eventually even Tiamat was roused by this disturbance: she was slow to anger, but once roused she created a mighty army with a vanguard of monsters. She sent them off under the command of her consort, Kingu, to destroy the gods. To Kingu she also entrusted her Tablets of Fate—stones on which the laws and prophecies were inscribed. Since the decrees of destiny were an important part of Babylonian mythology, these tablets played a vital role both in the Enuma Elish and in the power structure of the gods.
Ea and Anu tried to intercede to prevent a battle, but Tiamat's determination was unwavering. With conflict inevitable, Anshar, god of the horizon and king of the gods, appealed to Marduk for assistance. Marduk agreed, on condition that he would be given absolute authority. When the powers were formally granted to him by an assembly of all the gods, Marduk tested his new strength by destroying a constellation and then immediately making it whole again. Marduk then armed himself with the usual weapons of a Mesopotamian warrior, but also with rains and floods. His association with storms links him to Indo-European gods such as Zeus and Indra who possessed weapons of lightning. Marduk was thus a sky god doing battle with the water goddess who threatened the order of the land. Marduk accused Tiamat of usurping Anu's authority.
The opposing forces joined battle, but Kingu's army scattered as soon as Marduk entered the fray. Only Tiamat stood her ground. Although she is now depicted as a dragon, the Enuma Elish states that she walked on two legs, so she probably did not take the dragon form at the time of the conflict: the image is a later addition. She first tried to disarm Marduk with flattery, making admiring remarks about his rapid emergence as a leader, but Marduk retaliated by sending a wind into her body, swelling it up so that she gasped. Into her open mouth, Marduk shot an arrow that split her heart open. He smashed her skull with his mace, tore open her arteries, and then hacked her dead body in two.
From one half of the body Marduk made the earth and all its mountains and rivers. He kept the winds for himself. The other half he raised to make heaven. He then established new constellations, the calendar, and the movements of the sun and moon. Marduk assigned the administration of these new territories to Ea and gave Anu the Tablets of Fate that had previously belonged to Kingu. He founded a new city, Babylon, and ordered the gods who had fought against him to build it as their penance. His former adversaries were so grateful for the chance to earn forgiveness, and so eager to do his bidding, that he took pity on them and decided instead to create a new race of beings to do the work. Marduk made Kingu bear total responsibility for the war and had him executed. From a mixture of Kingu's blood and earth, Ea created the first humans.
Marduk then divided the gods into two groups, one to run the heavens, the other the earth. As a token of their gratitude, the gods helped to build Babylon after all; their greatest work was the Esagila, a temple to Marduk. When it was completed, the gods held court there and elected seven of their number as the gods of destiny. Finally, Marduk was enthroned with his consort Zarpanit. In the temple he was depicted brandishing his scimitar over the winged dragon, Tiamat. The gods prostrated themselves before Marduk, took an oath of perpetual allegiance, and solemnly recited all his 50 names.
Thus Marduk imposed order on chaos and established a secure society governed by gods who obeyed him. He absorbed other deities to become master of destiny and creator of the universe and humanity, as well as the king of the gods. Not only was he the creator; he was also the determiner of fate, two concepts that are often separated in mythology but which the Babylonians saw as going hand in hand. The human kings of Babylon were invested with the power of Marduk annually at the New Year's festival, showing that the divine power over creation was reflected by rule over Babylon.
See also: AN; ATUM; BAAL; CREATION MYTHS; EGYPT; ENKI; ENLIL; INANNA; MESOPOTAMIA; NILE; TIAMAT; ZEUS.
- Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.
- Babylon. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986. .
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