Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Snippets: "The Sumerians"—Enki, Nin-ti, and Eve

Samuel Noah Kramer, in "The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character" (U of Chicago P, 1964), makes occasional connections between Sumerian and Biblical mythology, citing for example a connection between Dumuzi and the Tammuz mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14-15. Another is an interesting similarity between the Sumerian and Biblical creation myth:
One of the more detailed and revealing of the Sumerian myths concerns the organization of the universe by Enki, the Sumerian water-god and god of wisdom... Another Enki myth tells an intricate and as yet somewhat obscure tale involving the paradise-land Dilmun, perhaps to be identified with ancient India. Very briefly sketched, the plot of this Sumerian "paradise" myth, which treats of gods, not humans, runs as follows:

Dilmun is a land that is "pure," clean," and bright," a "land of the living" which knows neither sickness nor death. What is lacking, however, is the fresh water so essential to animal and plant life. The great Sumerian water-god, Enki, therefore orders Utu, the sun-god, to fill it with fresh water brought up from the earth. Dilmun is thus turned into a divine garden, green with fruit-laden fields and meadows.

In this paradise of the gods eight plants are made to sprout by Ninhursag, the great mother-goddess of the Sumerians, perhaps originally Mother Earth. She succeeds in bringing these plants into being only after an intricate process involving three generations of goddesses, all conceived by the water-god and born—so our poem repeatedly underlines—without the slightest pain or travail. But probably because Enki wanted to taste them, his messenger, the two-faced god Isimud, plucks these precious plants one by one and gives them to his master, who proceeds to eat them each in turn. Whereupon the angered Ninhursag pronounces the curse of death upon him. Then, evidently to make sure she will not change her mind and relent, she disappears from among the gods.

Enki's health begins to fail; eight of his organs become sick. As Enki sinks fast, the great gods sit in the dust. Enlil, the air-god, the king of the Sumerian gods, seems unable to cope with the situation when a fox speaks up. If properly rewarded, the fox will bring Ninhursag back. As good as his word, the fox succeeds in some way—the relevant passage is unfortunately destroyed—in having the mother-goddess return to the gods and heal the dying water-god. She seats him by her vulva, and after inquiring which eight organs of his body ache, she brings into existence eight corresponding healing deities, and Enki is brought back to life and health.

Although our myth deals with a divine, rather than a human, paradise, it has numerous parallels with the Biblical paradise story. In fact, there is some reason to believe that the very idea of a paradise, a garden of the gods, originated with the Sumerians. ...perhaps the most interesting result of our comparative analysis of the Sumerian poem is the explanation which it provides for one of the most puzzling motifs in the Biblical paradise story, the famous passage describing the fashioning of Eve, "the mother of all living," from the rib of Adam—for why a rib? Why did the Hebrew storyteller find it more fitting to choose a rib rather than any other organ of the body for the fashioning of the woman whose name, Eve, according to the Biblical notion, means approximately "she who makes live." The reason becomes quite clear if we assume a Sumerian literary background, such as that represented by our Dilmun poem, to underly the Biblical paradise tale; for in our Sumerian poem, one of Enki's sick organs is the rib. Now the Sumerian word for rib is ti (pronounced tee); the goddess created for the healing of Enki's rib was therefore called in Sumerian Nin-ti, "the Lady of the rib." But the Sumerian word ti also means "to make live." The name Nin-ti may thus mean "the Lady who makes live" as well as "the Lady of the rib." In Sumerian literature, therefore, "the Lady of the rib" came to be identified with "the Lady who makes live" through what may be termed a play on words. It was this, one of the most ancient of literary puns, which was carried over and perpetuated in the Biblical paradise story, although there, of course, the pun loses its validity, since the Hebrew words for "rib" and "who makes live" have nothing in common. (147-149)

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