Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Tiamat ... and other dragons

Tiamat is the most famous dragon of ancient Near Eastern mythology. Just a small hitch: no ancient Babylonian text actually describes her as a dragon.

But it isn’t actually a problem after all. This story has a twist: we probably should think of Tiamat as a great serpent, even though there’s no direct testimony. It’s just that the reasons for thinking that are indirect.

Marduk fighting Tiamat? Or Marduk charging into battle alongside the mušḫuššu, his personal symbol and ally? Or some other god with a serpent-like monster? (Assyrian cylinder seal, ca. 800-750 BCE)

The following summaries, at least, are straight-up wrong --
Some sources identify [Tiamat] with images of a sea serpent or dragon. ... In the Enûma Elish, the Babylonian epic of creation, she ... wars upon her husband's murderers, taking on the form of a massive sea dragon ... Tiamat is usually described as a sea serpent or dragon ...
-- Wikipedia, ‘Tiamat’ (retrieved 14 Oct. 2018)

The dragon’s form varied from the earliest times. The Chaldean dragon Tiamat had four legs, a scaly body, and wings ...
-- Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Dragon’ (retrieved 14 Oct. 2018)
The Wikipedia article does give a citation for the claim that some sources identify her with images of a serpent. But the source it cites -- Jacobsen (1968), a very competent and clear article -- says nothing of the kind. And where Wikipedia claims that Tiamat is ‘usually described as a sea serpent’, there’s a conspicuous absence of citations. The reason for that absence is that no such descriptions exist.

As for the Britannica article, its description is pretty clearly based on the illustration below, from Nimrud in what is now northern Iraq. We definitely don’t have any textual source giving Tiamat four legs, scales, or wings. Yet you’ll often see this same illustration cited as if it’s a typical ancient depiction of Tiamat.

Just one thing: Tiamat is a primordial female divinity, right? So ... notice a tiny problem?

Definitely NOT Tiamat: this monster has a penis. (Drawing of a Neo-Assyrian relief from the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud, 800s BCE. Source: Layard, The monuments of Nineveh vol. 2 (1853), plate 5)

(You’ll probably need to click on the image and zoom in. Yes, it is tiny, yes that’s very funny, ha ha.) Anthony Green (1997a: 142, 1997b: 258) points out that the relief comes from a temple of Ninurta, and suggests that the monster might be Asakku or Asag, slain by Ninurta in the poem Lugal-e.

Moreover, the Britannica claims to be talking about a Chaldaean Tiamat; the illustration is Assyrian. And just in case you weren’t sure already that the Britannica article is garbage: a couple of lines later it claims, as a matter of historical fact, that it was Uther Pendragon himself who established dragons’ role in English heraldry. Yes, seriously.

How is Tiamat really depicted?

In the Enuma elish, the Babylonian creation epic, Apsu and Tiamat are primordial divinities of the cosmic waters, husband and wife, and the ancestors of the gods. Misbehaviour among the gods leads to battles between Ea and Apsu (tablet 1), and then between Marduk and Tiamat (tablets 2-5). Marduk’s conquest of Tiamat, who is the stormy salt sea, is a key step in bringing about cosmic order.

However, the poem is short on physical descriptions. Marduk gets a bit of a description in tablet 1; Tiamat, not so much. We’re told that she creates or gives birth to eleven monsters in preparation for the battle:
She created the Hydra, the Dragon, the Hairy Hero,
the Great Demon, the Savage Dog, and the Scorpion-man,
(three?) fierce demons, the Fish-man, and the Mighty Bull ...
-- Enuma elish 1.141-143 = 2.27-29, 3.31-33, 3.89-91 (trans. Lambert)
Some of her physical features get mentioned. She has a throat (4.31), blood (4.32), entrails (4.41), a mouth (4.65), legs (4.91), lips and a belly (4.98-99), a head (4.130), and eyes, nostrils, and breasts (5.55-56).

There’s just one clearly non-human detail: Tiamat has a tail (5.59), which Marduk uses to make the Durmahu or ‘great bond’ that holds the earth in place. So whatever she is, she isn’t totally humanoid. Still, it’s not exactly specific.

Another couple of possible candidates for depicting Marduk fighting Tiamat. Left: cylinder seal, yellow frit, glazed, 17 mm high; Assyrian, Nineveh, ca. 900-700 BCE (Berlin VA 7951). Right: cylinder seal, serpentine, 17 mm high; Assyrian, Nineveh, ca. 800-600 BCE (Pierpont Morgan Library, NY).

Do the pictorial arts help? Well, potentially. But they don’t exactly simplify things.
  1. Text ≠ image. There’s no reason to expect that textual sources and pictorial arts should resemble each other, or even try to resemble each other. Verbal narratives and visual myths are very different things, with different storytelling techniques, different symbols, and maybe even completely separate stories. For example, in the Ninurta relief above, it may be surprising to see Ninurta carrying lightning bolts; but one variant makes Adad, the storm god, the hero of the Asakku story instead. From the point of view of someone that relies on texts, this looks like leakage and hybridisation between separate variants. For someone who begins with the pictorial arts, it’ll seem artificial to unravel the textual sources into separate ‘variants’.
  2. No name tags. Mesopotamian pictorial arts don’t give many clues as to who’s who. There are several options for identifying a giant serpent. It might be Tiamat. But it might also be another sea divinity, Irhan, whose name is written with a symbol for ‘snake’; it could be the mušḫuššu serpent that serves as Marduk’s symbol and ally; it could be another monster which is Nabu’s symbol; it could be one of Tiamat’s eleven monstrous offspring. Or it could be an entity that doesn’t even get mentioned in any textual source.

... and other dragons

That brings us to the subject of other dragons. What do we know about them? Do we have stories about battles with them? The Greek god Zeus has links to storm gods in other mythologies, like Jupiter and Thor: does Tiamat have links to actual dragons?

The story-type of a god battling a Chaos Monster in order to establish the order of the cosmos is a widespread one, and the Chaos Monster is quite often a serpent. In Babylonian-Assyrian myth Marduk defeats Tiamat and Nergal defeats a giant serpent called a bašmu. In Greece Zeus defeats Typhoeus, and Apollo defeats Python, both giant serpents. In Ugarit Baal defeats Yamm and Litan, and in Israel Yahweh defeats Leviathan, all of them serpents.

There are poetic and linguistic links between many dragon-slaying stories, too, as argued by Calvert Watkins in his classics study How to kill a dragon (1995).

Tiamat as a five-headed dragon in the game Dungeons and Dragons. Left: Monster manual, 1st edition (1977); right: The rise of Tiamat (2014).

Don’t think of explaining this as some cultures copying their myths from another. That isn’t how myth works. Think instead of people drawing on a common pool of myths, story-types, and imagery, a bundle of mythical elements that they have all inherited.

A good example is the parallels between Job, in the Hebrew Bible, and the Ugaritic Baal Cycle. Job has Yahweh defeating several monsters, and the Baal Cycle talks about Baal’s and Anat’s conquests. Take this passage where Anat boasts of her victory over Yamm:
I (Anat) fought Yamm, the Beloved of El,
surely I finished off River (Nahar), the Great God [or: god of the great waters],
surely I bound Tunnanu and destroyed (?) him.
I struck down the Twisty Serpent,
the Powerful One with Seven Heads.
-- Baal Cycle 3.iii.38-42 Smith (= CAT 1.3)
and compare it with this passage from the Hebrew book of Job --
By his power he stilled the sea (yam);
by his understanding he struck down Rahab.
By his wind the heavens were made fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
In the Baal Cycle Yamm is a sea divinity/monster, in Job the same name may simply mean ‘the sea’, lower-case -- though I think it’s worth considering it a possible personification there too. The Baal Cycle passage isn’t a list of different enemies, but a list of titles for Yamm (Smith and Pitard 2009: 248-249); the same may be true of the Job passage. Tunnanu is cognate with Hebrew tannin, ‘serpent’ or ‘dragon’.

Later on Job devotes an entire chapter to Yahweh’s victory over Leviathan (Job 41). There Leviathan is a sea monster that spits fire and breathes smoke, and has glowing eyes. Other passages in the Hebrew Bible make it clearer that Leviathan is a serpent. In Psalm 74.13-14 Leviathan is a water serpent with multiple heads. And then there’s this passage:
On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon (tannin) that is in the sea (yam).
Compare this to the Baal Cycle passage above, and to the following passage about Litan:
Litan, the Fleeing Serpent,
... the Twisty Serpent,
the Powerful One with Seven Heads
-- Baal cycle 5.i.1-3 Smith (= KTU 1.5)
We get the same formulas referring to both Yamm and Litan in Ugaritic, and to Leviathan in Hebrew: ‘fleeing serpent’, ‘twisty serpent’, ‘Tunnanu/tannin’, multiple heads.

Leakage between dragon stories. I think it’d be a mistake to draw a firm distinction between Yamm and Litan, because the sources seem to make a point of blurring sea serpents together.

Should Yamm/Litan/Leviathan be equated with Tiamat as well? Well, given how much blurring we’ve already got ... maybe. Hebrew does have a cognate for Tiamat as well -- tehom, the ‘sea’, and also the primordial waters before creation in Genesis 1.1. We don’t have any multi-headed dragons in Mesopotamian textual sources, but there are a couple of pictorial depictions.

{Edit, three days later: we do in fact have a seven-headed serpent in a Sumerian myth: it is one of the ‘Slain Heroes’ killed by Ningirsu or Ninurta in the poem Lugal-e. Green 1997a: 141, 1997b: 259 identifies it with one or both of the serpents shown below.}

Left: engraved shell plaque of unknown provenance; 39 mm high, ca. 2600-2300 BCE (Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem). Right: stone cylinder seal from Tell Asmar, Iraq; 32 mm high, ca. 2271-2154 BCE (Iraq Museum, Baghdad). Source: Green 1997a, plates 13 and 14 (= ANEP 671 and 691).

The dragon dies one head at a time. In the left figure a god (Ningirsu/Ninurta?) has already killed one head; in the right, two figures are fighting the dragon and four of its heads are drooping dead. In both pictures, flames seem to be shooting from the monster’s back.

Some later sources, ranging from the Greek world to Mesopotamia, also feature multi-headed dragons, with varying degrees of similarity:
  • Zeus vs. Typhoeus (Hesiodic Theogony 810-868, Greek, ca. 700 BCE): Typhoeus is a serpent with a hundred heads (825, cf. 855-856), and flames shoot from his body when he is struck (859-867).
  • Heracles vs. Hydra (ps.-Apollodoros Library 2.5.2, Greek, ca. 100-1 BCE): the Hydra has nine heads, and its blood is a deadly poison; Heracles’ ally Iolaus burns the root of each head as Heracles defeats it, one by one. The final head is immortal and ends up being buried under a rock. After the battle, Heracles ‘cuts up’ (anaschis-) the Hydra’s body.
  • The Christian New Testament, Revelation (Anatolian/Syrian?, ca. 80-100 CE): ‘a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns’ (Rev. 12.3-4). A ‘beast’ with the same number of heads and horns (13.1-14) has had one head mortally wounded, but the wound heals. (One or both of these also symbolises Rome, with its seven hills.)
  • Rav Acha vs. the demon: the Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 29b (ca. 500 CE) tells how Rav Acha bar Ya’akov defeated a demon in the shape of a serpent with seven heads, and how one head died each time that he bowed and prayed.
It’s not hard to draw parallels between the pairing-up of two figures in the Tell Asmar seal, and Heracles and Iolaus; or between the flames shooting from the dragon’s body in the Mesopotamian images and the Typhoeus story; the one immortal head in the Heracles story and in Revelation 13; or the one-head-at-a-time procedure that we see in most of these variants.

Does Tiamat herself belong to the same family? That’s another question. On the one hand, there aren’t many echoes between the Tiamat story and the multi-headed dragons.

But there are some. When Heracles ‘cuts up’ the Hydra, explicitly a water dragon (hydr- = ‘water’), that’s reminiscent of Marduk cutting up Tiamat. The stormy sea winds that come from Typhoeus (Theogony 869-880) are reminiscent of the storm winds that Marduk appoints ‘to harass Tiamat’s entrails’, that is, to create storms at sea (Enuma elish 4.42-48). And the narrative of a divine battle to destroy chaos and establish order in the cosmos is a common theme.

That probably isn’t enough to justify identifying Tiamat with the seven-headed dragon, specifically. However, there’s a lot of leakage between dragon stories. It probably is justified to imagine Tiamat as some kind of dragon. And it doesn’t seem like it would have been impossible for an ancient Assyrian to have interpreted a seven-headed dragon as a picture of Tiamat.

References and further reading

  • Blust, R. 2000. ‘The origin of dragons’ (subscription required). Anthropos 95.2: 519-536.
  • Green, A. 1997a. ‘Myths in Mesopotamian art.’ In: Finkel, I. L.; Geller, M. J. (eds.) Sumerian gods and their representations. Cuneiform Monographs 7. Styx. 135-158.
  • Green, A. 1997b. ‘Mischwesen. B. Archäologie.’ In: Meissner, B., et al. Reallexikon der Assyriologie. Berlin: De Gruyter. Vol. 8, 246-264.
  • Jacobsen, T. 1968. ‘The battle between Marduk and Tiamat’ (subscription required). Journal of the American Oriental Society 88.1: 104-108.
  • Lambert, W. G. 2013. Babylonian creation myths. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
  • Miller, R. D. 2014. ‘Tracking the dragon across the ancient Near East.’ Archiv Orientální 82.2: 225-245.
  • Smith, M. S. 1997. ‘The Baal cycle.’ In: Parker, S. B. (ed.) Ugaritic narrative poetry. Society of Biblical Literature. 81-180.
  • Smith, M. S.; Pitard, W. T. 2009. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, vol. 2. Leiden: Brill.

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