THE ETANA MYTH
By Professor Simo Parpola, extracted from his article The Assyrian Tree of Life, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 52, January-October 1993
Mesopotamian myth of Etana is well known for its central motif, a
man´s ascent to heaven on an eagle´s back. It has thus been
classified as an adventurous story, or early science fiction
containing the first known account of space travel. The
eagle-back ascent motif has been recognized to recur in
Hellenistic, Jewish and Islamic folk tales and legends and has
also been connected with the Greek myth of Ganymede and the
Alexander Romance. Much less attention has been paid to the
tree-eagle and snake figures so prominently in the second tablet
of the myth.
Without going into unnecessary detail, it can be suggested here that the tree-eagle-serpent theme in Tablet II is an allegory for the fall of man and that the ascent to heaven described in Tablet III is to be understood as mystical ascent of the soul crowning an arduous program of spiritual restoration. Seen in this light, the myth becomes closely related to the Gilgamesh Epic in substance, and in presenting Etana as the first man to achieve the ascent, it forcefully contributes to the notion of the Mesopotamian king as the Perfect Man.
The tree of Tablet II is Etana himself, whose birth its sprouting marks. The eagle and the serpent are conflicting aspects of man´s soul, the one capable of carrying him to heaven, the other pulling him down to sin and death. Ignoring the voice of his conscience (the small fledgling), he becomes guilty of perfidy, greed and murder; for this, he is punished. This is an allegory for spiritual death; the same idea is expressed by the childlessness of Etana, to whom the narrative returns (Etana´s barren wife being the equivalent to his barren soul, and the desired son/fruit an allegory by which Etana will be judged).
Etana´s realization of his condition is the beginning of his salvation; from now on, he appears as a person, referred to by his own name. Admitting his guilt and shame, he prays for a plant of birth, that is a chance for spiritual rebirth, and is guided to the path that will take him there.
The path leads him to the mountain where he finds the eagle lying in the pit with its wings cut, a metaphor for the imprisonment of the soul in the bonds of the material world. Complying with the wish of the eagle, his better self, he starts finding it and teaching it to fly again, an allegory for spiritual training and self-discipline. It takes eight months to attempt the first ascent to heaven, which fails because Etana is himself not ready for it. The second ascent, better prepared, is successful and Etana is taken to a celestial palace, where he, having passed through several gates, finds a beautiful girl sitting on a throne guarded by lions.
All this is so reminiscent of the terminology and imagery relating to the ascent of the soul in Jewish mysticism that mere coincidence can be excluded. The several heavens and heavenly palaces which Etana passes are commonplace in Hekhalot texts and later mystical literature. The girl (read Inanna/Ishtar, or Etana´s personal goddess: Lishtar´s Note) is the Shekhinah, the Presence or Beauty of God. Etana´s fall from the heavens has ample parallels in Kabbalistic literature, where the ascent is considered a dangerous practice and the return to a normal state referred to as being "thrown down like a stone".
The heavenward ascent of Etana is already attested on seals from the Akkadian period (ca. 2300 BCE) and thus antedates the earliest Hehalot texts by more than two and a half millennia, and the mystical experiences of 19th century Kabbalists by more than four thousand years. In saying this, I do not want to stress the antiquity of the ascent phenomenon in Mesopotamia. The point I wish to make is that against all appearances, Mesopotamian religion and philosophy is not dead but very much alive in Jewish, Christian and Oriental mysticism and philosophies. The Tree diagram provides the key which makes it possible to bridge these different traditions and to start recovering the forgotten summa sapientia of our cultural ancestors.
From the oldest historical document of Mesopotamia, the Sumerian King List, right after the great flood a dynasty of 23 kings ruled from the city of Kish. Of these the only one we know anything about was Etana, who is described as the one who "stabilized all the lands." Assyriologists take this to mean that he was the first Sumerian king to rule more than one city, and estimate that he lived around 2800 B.C. The most famous myth that bears his name starts with the choice of Etana by Inanna/Ishtar and Enlil to rule the land. The myth breaks for several lines and the story of an eagle and a snake, a tale of a vowed friendship and betrayal, is introduced. When the myth returns to Etana, he appears as a monarch who craves for an heir, and is advised by Shamash/Utu to rescue an eagle, who would take him to the skies where Inanna/Ishtar could be found, for only the Goddess knew of a Plant of Birth, the panacea for Etana's predicament. In the myth, there is a fragment which says that Etana's wife dreamt of Etana having met a crowned girl seated on a throne and guarded by lions. The text breaks up for many lines, but we know that Etana ascended, met the goddess and came back to earth, where he fathered a son according to the Sumerian King List. In what follows, my experience of Etana and the Goddess. Mistakes are, of course, are my own!
One of the many sources for Etana: Dalley, Stephanie (1989) Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and others. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
A favorite view of the Divine Feminine, Mesopotamian style
The Evening Star appeared gloriously in the skies, and soon the navy velvet of the night was going to fall. It was then that Etana spotted in the horizon the last Gate of his Ascent Journey this time, the Gate of Ishtar. Heart pounding with anticipation, he braced himself for the eagle's landing. In front of him, the elegant lapis lazuli walls carved with golden lions and rosettes were a sight to behold. In Babylon, the Gate of the Gods, it was the Gate of Ishtar that led the processional way to the holy precinct of the Great Gods. So it was in the Everlasting Babylon of the Soul.
'I thank you for the ride, my friend', he said to the eagle, patting the neck of his feathered friend as he got off his back. ' I have an important request: would you be so kind to wait for me here? I feel I need to go through these gates on my own.'
'Even if I wanted, friend and king, my entrance would be barred... ', whispered the eagle, and if Etana were not so anxious to proceed, he would most certainly have stopped to ask what his friend meant by that cryptic statement.
The king of Kish took a deep breath to center himself and stepped through the Gate, and the familiar clouds involved him to lead him to the Inner Realms. He allowed himself a couple of minutes to adjust and then proceeded forwards.
Soon the clouds dissipated and he saw himself in a large well-lit room whose glassed windows let in the magic of sunset hour, the rainbow colors of the changing skies. The room was long, a hall fit for kings, and upon a dais he saw Her.
His heart knew who She was, and so he proceeded. How long had it been since She, the Great Goddess of Love and War, and Enlil, Lord Air and the most important of the younger generation of the Anunnaki gods, had come to earth, in search of a king to rule the land? He, Etana, had been their choice. Now, after all these years, Etana wondered whether They had made the right choice. And this realization was killing him deep inside. No matter what, he proceeded to kneel and bow to the ground respectfully in front of Her.
His eyes dared to face Her adoringly. Youthful, tall, long dark hair that showed glints of gold in the sunset hour, She wore a fringed dress of a soft color and fabric he would not be able to name. The garment was a bit lower than knee length, golden leather sandals and a crown of flowers was upon her forehead. As long ago, She had come to him as the Divine Huntress, the Warrior, the spirit of love and adventure. Lions slept under the dais of Her throne. They looked like contented cats and not ferocious beasts. He remembered Her so well, and She had not changed at all.
'Lady of my Heart, Champion of my soul, I lend you graces', he greeted, ignoring the lions and concentrating on Her.
'It has been a long time, King of Kish', She replied.
He breathed hard.
'Perhaps too long... now I know this for sure'.
She rose to her feet, the lions did not stir, and to his utter amazement, She moved towards the large window on the Western Quarter and sat graciously on the window sill, Her back to the twilit skies. She made space for him to take a seat by Her side, but he declined and sat on the floor.
Etana swallowed hard and started in one go, choosing carefully his words to address Her in the first place:
'So much has happened so far, Great Lady, and I sincerely am not quite sure, but somehow I feel I have reached a turning point which is recharging me and eventually will bring me success. As if I were finally sort of discerning the light at the end of the tunnel, although it is just a hope. It is associated with a turning of darkness back towards the direction of the light, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the day when darkness begins to decrease and the hours of daylight increase. It is the beginning of a turn-around; a time of letting go of the old and making way for the new; a time of new beginnings, and it starts with rest.'
'Nice rhetorics, but wouldn't you like to go straight to the point?', asked the Goddess, direct and frank as usual. 'It has been a long and difficult journey for you since we last met. And I can give you some clues for what has happened to you so far. Would you like that?'
Etana sighed, but appreciated Her way of dealing with his awkwardness:
'I need to clarify many, many things with you, my Lady. Oh, I know well about being an initiate, your initiate. It means the never-ending breaking out of old patterns, of everything that needs to be changed so that a solid foundation can be established for living in all worlds. This is exactly what happened to me so far... I just wish I had realized all this before!'
'Can you elaborate more?'
'Sure, I can. I was meditating hard about what has happened to me so far since we first met, when you and lord Enlil chose me to be the first monarch of the land. I came to some conclusions. The trials of being a king and shepherd, the first ruler of the land. No, better still, the trials of deserving my crown and as such becoming the living link between the people of the land and the gods, You in special. The difficulty of understanding and applying the discipline of power and empowerment, to protect the weak and yet not to lose sight of the greedy and troublemakers to attempt to get them back into the fold. This was the meaning of the eagle and the snake, wasn't it? A metaphor for me to understand the meaning of power and the exercise of justice between irreconcilable oppositions within a nation that was being built?'
'How so?' She asked, her voice a quiet command.
'The eagle and the snake can be seen as the warring factions of the land a monarch should keep close watch upon. Difficult to unite, for they are different species, although a truce can be established and maintained by the application of justice. However, the greedy eagle is the one that poses the hardest trial for the king. By betraying the snake and killing its offspring it needed more healing and more atonement. And I meditated a great deal why I had to face all trials with the eagle, the traitor, instead of lining up with the grieving snake.'
Tears started flowing copiously, but Etana continued relentlessly:
'I was the snake myself, grieving for the offspring of my blood I so badly wanted to father. The snake was the animal in me, raw energy and grief. But I am also the king, responsible for peace, wealth, progress and health. I could not leave the treacherous eagle to his devices, I had to rescue him back, heal it and make it ascend with me to finally face you in the end. Hit and crash approach this one of yours, isn't it?'
Suddenly he also understood the eagle's indecision to be accepted by the Goddess' Gate. The eagle might not be allowed to proceed through, because it had killed the offspring of his friend!
The goddess smiled:
'But you never gave up and continued towards the ascent. Even when you fell off the back of the eagle three times, somehow you kept going. One unworthy flight after another?'
Her words hurt, but somehow he felt She was clearly teasing him now, and Etana relaxed a bit.
'I had to.'
'Because You trusted me, and even if I had failed, it was my duty to come to you and say so. Personally.'
He was about to tell Her how sorry he was for not having been able to give Her an heir of his blood, when She seemed to change totally the subject.
'A question for you, my king: what do you live for?'
Somehow he had expected that question all along, but not at this very moment. The answer though came from the bottom of his mind, body, heart and soul.
'To transcend. To learn and experience to make things be in all worlds, even myself for as many times as it takes and REAL FAST with your help! I live to deny all denials and to affirm all affirmations in a celebration of the sacredness of matter so that my soul can fly unbound and free in all worlds I dare to fare. And most of all, I live to experience the Underworld Descent of Existence in this Flesh as a Conscious Pursuit of Passion, Joy and Magic to finally return in Wisdom and Love to the Source and Shaper of All'.
'How far have you lived this truth in the last couple of years?'
Surprise and understanding gripped him hard. How long had he grieved for a kingdom of the future, while he had to rule the land in present time to the best of his ideas and ideals, how much time he had lost trying to breed his offspring when he had not been ready to understand what it was to be a real father? Father of the land, empowerer of the spirit of this people came first, were his duties he had not been able to see.
'I have another question for you, my king,' Her voice sounded deep and soft, and in the distance he heard a bell striking. 'What is my Name?'
His breath caught for a second. She was asking and giving at the same time the Key to HerSelf, the key he had kept hidden for so long within his very Self.
'Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, many are your names. But I know You as the Eternal Moment in Me, my Soul Counterpart, Lover and Beloved as One, the True Vision of Triumphant Joy and Humanity that Overcomes Death and makes You the Greatest of all Goddesses. You are the answer to all my whys, World Soul I reflect on my own'.
She was smiling now and then Her face changed to reveal the faces of every single person and being he had loved in his life, past, present and perhaps to come. The last transformation was totally unexpected, because he saw his own face transfigured by joy, younger and older images of himself in the most special moments of his life past and perhaps to come. Then She was Inanna again.
'You are really so slow sometimes to understand the basics, Beloved King. Tell me, Etana, all the way when you were trying so hard to reach me and not being able to, how did you feel like?'
Her laughter was like the power of dawn ensouling the land for a brand new day. Again, he braced himself for what was coming next.
'I felt like a Fool'.. he blurted.
She stretched Her hands to hold his:
'And do you think you would have come to Me otherwise?'
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