The purpose of this article is to show alchemical symbolism in Sumerian myth and Religion, and proceed to affirm through myth, imagery, symbolism and scholarship that it is very likely to conceive that alchemy was one of the strongest foundations for the Mesopotamian religious thought and worldview from the dawn of consciousness in the Near East, but until now not traced as far back in time. We will present arguments to ground this statement based on Sumerian mythology, religion and scholarship, and faithful to essence of previous works (e.g. Sumerian Religion and the Eternal Return), this article does not intend to be dogmatic or final on the subject, but work as an invitation for further insights on this topic for our better understanding of Mesopotamian thoughts in relation to Matter and Spirit.
For the scope of this work, alchemy is broadly defined as the religious and practical art of combining male and female elements to make sense of the universe and/or describe the workings of existence. We also propose that all phenomena that take place on earth (the physical plane) also take place in the spiritual realms because by the bond that unites heaven and earth the godsī worker while taking up and perfecting the work of Nature, at the same time work on him/herself with the godsī guidance. This comprehensive and loose definition is appropriate for the scope and purpose of this article fundamentally because there was no difference in Ancient Mesopotamia between the religious and the profane, the wondrous and the mundane. Ancient Mesopotamians lived in a world where Nature was not separated from the Divine, where the Mundane was a reflex of the Extraordinary and where the events of daily life had a foundation in the skies. I quote from Zur's and Smith's The Phoenician Letters: "In the skies, signs; in fire, visions; in water, forms; on earth, words" (pg. 15) (2) to reveal the designs of heaven and earth and the fates of everything and everyone that existed. Thus, all phenomena in the physical plane had its reflection in the heights, and vice-versa.
The first point we would like to raise to prove that alchemical symbolism as the combination of male and female components, or the Sacred Marriage of Inner and Outer Elements, can be found at the root of Sumerian religious and literary works relates to the passionate language used by ancient Mesopotamian scribes in their religious and literary works. Basically, our soul ancestors made use of the words of love through the mastery of wondrous erotic metaphors to explain their world, the creation of the universe, the birth of gods and goddesses, function of humanity, kingship, the making of the first tools such as the pickax, etc. We quote:.
"The Great Earth made herself glorious, her body flourished with greenery. Wide Earth put on silver metal and lapis lazuli ornaments, adorned herself with diorite, calcedony, carnelian, and diamonds. Sky covered the pastures with irresistible sexual attraction, presented himself in majesty, The pure young woman showed herself to the pure Sky, the vast Sky copulated with the wide Earth, the seed of the heroes Wood and Reed he ejaculated into her womb, the Earth, the good cow, received the good seed of Sky in her womb. The Earth, for the happy birth of the Plants of Life, presented herself" (Dijk J. Van "The Birth of Wood and Reed", Acta Orientaliia 28 I, p.45).
Clearly, this language is ecstatic and places Matter into the sphere of the miraculous, creative and most precious, a living substance that also incarnates the Beloved. Near Eastern scholars soberly point out that this language has a strong anthropomorphic component whose most persistent pattern is that of sexual reproduction (Leick, 1994, in her brilliant study of Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature). However, to reduce these texts to mere sexual intercourse would not do justice to Mesopotamian scribes and mystics, and thus Leick also adds up that most Mesopotamian literary creations have divine protagonists and that "the distinctions between a religious content (supplied by the divine names) and a secular intention (e.g. entertainment at court) is not clear" (pg. 6). Why so?
I will try and explain how I see this intrinsic relationship between the religious and the mundane as expressed in the language of passionate heavenly metaphors or divine matings to explain earthly phenomena from its very beginning in Sumerian mythology. This is how I experience this mystery, so mistakes are my own, but please join me in a ride to a time before all befores when an individual started asking him/herself about the origins of life, and to understand its meaning, based the coming to terms with facts into a metaphor that involved fundamentally what was important to the local community that was developing around him/her. It is said that kingship, or the administrative power that rules and organizes the land in Sumer descended from the heavens in Eridu, in the Southern marshes of Sumer. Specifically in Eridu, life came from the fertile waters, and from these waters vegetation and animal life found sustenance and growth. Reeds, for example, born and nurtured by the marshes, provided hiding places for beasts and plenty of hunt for humankind, and were also used to manufacture the first baskets and dwelling places, as well as temples. Think of the musings that took place perhaps more often in the long cool or hot nights under the starry skies, and transfer these images to the personal sphere. The world was seen as male and female, because these were the realities simpler to abstract and as such closer to our ancestorsī soul. Thus, the Earth was feminine and Goddess, because simply women gave birth and as such preserved the future of the community before men considered their own role in reproduction. The Earth, or Ninhursag-Ki, had precious ores growing and ripening within. But men were also called to work in nature, and did so by transformation of the external elements, like Anu kissing and seeding the Earth Mother as in the quote introduced above, as well as by protecting their home grounds and expanding them when needed be.
But there is much more to this reality. I would like you to dive into a world where all that lived and existed was fundamentally conceived with the passion of elements and beings, how they related to each other, combined, mated, and died, i.e. I am referring to life as a cosmic reality grounded on physical principles, or the beginnings of alchemy as a physical and spiritual discipline, based on what Mircea Eliade, the famous historian of religions, called the mythologies of traditions where the world was sexualized in a sacred manner, where the Earth was the Terra Mater or Petra Generatrix (Eliade, Mircea, The Forge and the Crucible). However, Eliade does not trace back these facts to the beginnings of Mesopotamian thought and Sumer, and this is thread I will be following now, in the hope to further our understanding of our soul ancestors.
In other words, what we have here is perhaps the mystical foundation for one of the most hallowed of all Mesopotamian rites, the Sacred Marriage or Hieros Gamos. In it, the Dance of Creation accomplished day by day by the living universe was then transferred to the human man in the role of the king and shepherd of the land and woman, the high priestess and garment of the goddess, who became vessels of the divine Lover and Beloved, or the vision of transcendent humanity in joy and connected to each other in all levels, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual, and reflecting the primeval unity of Heaven and Earth, Anu and Ki, whose embrace within Mother Nammu the Sea gave origin to the Anunnaki, the Great Gods, and to everything there is.
On a practical level, the empirical observations of how the universe related to itself will provide later the foundation for the physical operations carried out by practical alchemists in their laboratories as in the Middle Ages. It is interesting to point out though that the primeval symbolic language of the Inner and Outer Marriage of Matching Complements of alchemical texts, ancient and modern, so important to establish the integration of all elements of the personality in Depth Psychology of our 20th Century, uses a language which resonates the passionate style of ancient Mesopotamian scribes.
Getting back to Ancient Mesopotamia, it is in this sacred world that is starting to make sense of itself, that we should turn particularly to the charming figures of Enki and Ninhursag. To attempt to understand their mystery is no easy task for us today, because we must forget moral and rational hang-ups and penetrate in a worldview where life is a cosmic phenomenon that is realized in the flesh of all that breathes and lives, where sex is sacred, and where fundamentally the descent of generations of human beings has its equivalents in the sphere of divine beings and the forces of nature. Nature which is and reflects the gods, and nature whose workings are done by us, human beings, and carried out in the name of the gods. What I am trying to establish is the necessary background to explore a world where creation does not proceed out of nothing, but of some prima materia (the Earth, or Ninhursag-Ki) who was seeded and become through lovemaking a process of division and subdivision, in a dynamics that never ends (Leick, 1994). Later, the Earth received the love and workings of Her shaman, beloved and worshipper, who in Mesopotamia is called Enki or Ea, of Babylonian and later Assyrian glory. In historical terms, he will be known as the priest-king, the moral authority of the community, the one who rules by wisdom and faith, the spiritual foundation that gives sustenance to material power. This is why kingship came from the heavens to Eridu and later was grounded in Enlilīs main city, Nippur.
Letīs examine Enki and Ninhursag-ki more closely, because perhaps alchemy can be better understood by examining the rich, passionate and feisty relationship between these two deities described in so many myths, which shows very clearly the link between the Living Earth and Her Beloved Artisan. Enki is the god of the Sweet Waters from the Abzu, or the sacred moisture that comes from within the earth, and that is the source of life to plants and all sorts of vegetation, ponds, lakes and rivers. He is also the god of Wisdom, the Magician and Master of all Crafts.
Because of Enkiīs watery, changing nature, many scholars say He is also the Mesopotamian trickster. I will strongly disagree with this statement, and turn to "The Phoenician Letters" (2), for a brilliant definition of Enkiīs changing nature:
"Consider water in its many states, mist, cloud, rain, hailstones, snow, ice, streams, rivers, seas. The one thing that is the same in all states is susceptibility to change, it is the nature of water to change. Put it into a skin and fills the skin into a pot, it takes the shape of the pot, into air, mist and cloud, snow and ice, into earth, streams and rivers. Even so it is water." (page 61).
Enki is also the pure idea of the form, or the archetypal god. Again, we turn to "The Phoenician Letters", because He is the god from..:
"... the one form many arise. So that from a basic form of table, all the possible forms of table in course of time will appear" (page 62). In other words, he is the idea of form, the perfect mental conception upon which all deriving forms are based.
Combining these two definitions in one, Enki is the God of all primeval conception of Form, or Archetypes, in its wholeness and completion, for He contains the Ideas of all There is. As such, He is also the Magician and Transformer of all things and beings in Nature.
Ninhursag-ki, on the other hand, is the Earth Mother, in whose womb all precious things grow: from the Great Gods and Goddesses, metals to all that blossoms. She is the Eternal Beloved first of Anu, the Skyfather, from the beginning of existence in the embrace of Mother Nammu, the Sea, and then suffered the separation of her Beloved Anu due to the growth of their firstborn, Enlil, Lord Air. Ninhursag-Ki is also the fecund Earth, and as such the subject we are dealing with is more precisely the alchemical relationship of the Goddess as the Prima Materia, the living Spirit that grows and transforms in combinations of all sorts and Her Beloved Artisan, the Shaman, Magician and Priest, symbolized by Enki.
Perhaps we can better understand the experience of wonder of the Shaman and the Earth Mother, if we turn to the myth of Creation of Man (and Woman) according to the Sumerians (see myth of Atrahasis, Tablet 1 in Stephanie Dalley's). I believe the ideas of the Earth and Matter as living substances are clearly outlined there in a wonderful metaphor, and the operations that gave origin to humankind can also be described as alchemical operations in the moulds of the ancient maxim "solidify the spirit and volatize matter". The storyline says that in the beginning, much has to be done to build the world, and the young gods carried the load for the older gods. As they grew tired of working that much to effect existence, the younger generation of gods turned to Enki, the God of Sweet Waters and Magic, for help. Enki immediately contacted Ninhursag, and together with some other men and women, they gathered to create human beings.
To start with, Enki and Ninhursag held rituals of purification along a full moon cycle. Then, a god called Geshtu-e, is sacrificed, and Ninhursag mixes Geshtu-eīs blood in clay of the sweet waters of the Great Deep, to fashion the base material to give origin to humankind. The younger gods, the Igigi, spat on the clay and womb goddesses are called to help in the operations, and together they bring forth seven men and seven women. To remind humankind of their divine essence, the spirit of the sacrificed god resonates like a drumbeat in every heart, mind, body and soul forever after. I find this myth is a wondrous metaphor of the mystery of incarnation, whereby the spirit is made flesh, and the flesh is raised to spiritual heights, and whose main mystery is devotion and love.
I invite you now to follow the seed of truth embedded in this great myth. Think of a man, a shaman, and a woman, a sorceress, who lived in the marshes of Ancient Mesopotamia a long, long time ago. Follow this man and that woman as very probably the newcomers, the black-headed Sumerians just arrived in the Southern marshes close to the Persian gulf, and think of the mighty work they realized they had to carry out to build their homes in that place. Much had to be done, and they did it, but the workload was enormous, especially when it involved working with the older settlers of the region. Thus, with time a symbiosis is accomplished between the old culture and the hardworking newcomers, whereby the Spirit of the ancient settlers dies out as a willing sacrifice to ensure the grounding of new ideas represented by the new settlers. Clay, the sacred image of the Earth Mother, the Spirit of the ancient local consciousness and the fashioning of new beings are all accomplished by men and women, led by the Shaman and his beloved consort, the sorceress and representative of the Earth Mother, whose joint efforts built together a metaphor to explain the creation of humans as creatures endowed by Inner Life to Reveal it in the Outer Worlds, by a bond with the gods to continue with them and for them the workings of Existence. Divine Consciousness was the willing sacrifice, because to enter the Realms of the Sacred it is necessary to embrace vulnerability and surrender to a new and necessary growth that may bring death to previous choices, views and lifestyles.
Therefore, when Enki and Ninhursag created Humankind out of the fertile clay of the Apsu and endowed man and woman with the Spirit of a sacrificed God, or primeval consciousness, what The Magician and the Great Mother desired was for humankind to fulfill its human essence by being the gods' co-workers and representatives of the Spirit on Earth. From the Depths Above to the Great Below, we are the Bond between Heaven and Earth, and bound to the gods we are, as They are to us, by love, service and dedication to Never-ending Workings of Creation. This is also the reason why many invocations inscribed with the cuneiform writing system contain the expression "BY THE DURANKI", i.e. BY THE BOND OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, which, in my opinion, expresses the dynamic and intrinsic relationship between the Great Above and the Great Below, later expressed more syncretically in the alchemical maxim AS ABOVE SO BELOW much before the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus in Egypt. And believe me, one cannot be more alchemical than THIS! Thus, the roots of such alchemical maxim may not be in Egypt, but again, in Mesopotamia.
It is not by chance that humanity is created out of clay, the base material that abounds and is the prima materia of the living earth. But the living earth also contain within the seeds of precious metals and stones, and within humanity resonates the Living Spirit of a sacrificed god like a drumbeat to be heard until the end of times, says the myth of Creation of Man and Woman according to the Sumerians. The potter is the first shaper of things, but s/he was also the worshipper and beloved of the Earth Mother, the artificer and artisan of creation.
The alchemical idea of transmutation of the soul can also be traced back to Mesopotamia. Letīs examine the following quotation on Nergal, the God of War:
:"Nergal is the burner, the destroyer, for this is the last limitation. When a man dies he will, if he fears, burn in the flames of his terror. He will be torn by the dogs of his unfulfilled desires, cut to pieces by his guilt, until all that he has tied to his to himself is purified and a little, just a little metal - it may be gold, or copper, or mercury, or silver or even lead - be left. This test takes place between every breath; between every breath a man dies and is reborn, so every day he is born into the light of day and dies into sleep, that fortaste death wherein the dreams torment and taunt him with the deeds of the day. Here he must be a hero, walking unafraid through the land of his own underworld, mocked by the laws he has acted against. He must meet the demons that he himself has created, he must fight the battles which take place in him every day. This is justice: between breath and breath he may see the judgements he passes upon other, and as he does so visits them upon himself. Only courage and steadfastness in truth and insight are his weapons here" (page 45).
The Phoenician Letters is a set of mystery teachings from a master to a devoted acolyte in the Mesopotamian tradition. It consists of 10 letters, each involving a god/goddess (Rimon-Adad, Nabu, Ishtar, Nergal, Shamash, Marduk, Anu, Enlil, Ea-Enki, Sin-Nana) by the master to the acolyte exchanged during the period of two years. The letters cover the training of a future priest-king by a master kept unknown up to the last letter. My reading of this quotation is that the piece of metal that is left from the burning of what should be burnt may refer to that part of matter in us that is primeval and without blemish, the seed of the Great Mother Ninhursag we all carry within, represented by the metal attributions of Mesopotamian deities, or the imperishable in us, our Personal Gods.
Finally, I experience the myth of Creation of Man and Woman according to the Sumerians as the never-ending miracle of spirit entering matter, and matter raising itself through the planes by prayer, meditation and devotion to the heights above. This growth was achieved by both women and men, in the myth represented by the divine forms of Enki and Ninhursag, and the metaphor shows the truth all initiates have experienced from times immemorial. Spirit can only incarnate through love, the same way we can only ascend to the heights of religious and visionary experience by giving spiritual body to our soul's designs. Love and devotion are the keywords here, and slain in this context may very well mean the necessary loss to achieve higher consciousness, the disrobing and vulnerability needed to enter both Great Above and the Depths Below, the realm of the gods. We who live our lives in the light of the Mesopotamian tradition here and now realize the miracle of matter touching spirit in our personal dedications to the deities of our hearts, and in our daily lives by making things be as much as we can, perhaps to make them last more than the duration of a dream.
One of my favorite alchemical maxims is "Wisdom built herself a house on a rock and from this rock flow the waters of life". It is attributed to Solomon, but after reading these previous considerations, you may agree with me that it is not in Hebrew mysticism that the roots of this maxim can be found. Swap the sexes and you will have the Rock as Ninhursag-Ki, the wondrous lapis of alchemy, and Enki as the flexible water lord. And from the combination of strength and flexibility wisdom, the craft of life, knowledge and knowing united as one, is born in all worlds.
As we can see, there is a wealth of alchemical symbolism embedded in Sumerian myth and religion that can be easily discerned by diving into the essence of Mesopotamian writings, by allowing the passionate voice and the metaphors of our soul ancestors to sing again in our ears, resonating in our minds, hearts and souls. As far as this Great Work is concerned, I have experienced personally Sumerian myth and Religion as an Adventure in Self-Discovery and Mastery that signifies the attainment of a state superior to human condition that is yet very much grounded in Matter. To be Mesopotamian here and now for me means very much the resurrection/sacralization of the body in all its forms, the ensouling of matter in my daily life so that the Spirit can find countless ways to express Her/Himself. Matter that is also Ninhursag-Ki, in whose womb all precious things grow, seeded by the ecstatic workings of her Magicians and Sorceresses of past, present and future.
(1) Also in Lishtar (1998) Sumerian Religion and the Eternal Return, Lammas Issue of the Green and Burning Tree, PagansOnLine.
(2) Davies, Wilfred and Zur G. (1979) The Phoenician Letters. Mowat Publishing, Manchester, UK.
(3) Dijk J. Van "The Birth of Wood and Reed", Acta Orientaliia 28 I, p.45
(4) Leick, Gwendolyn (1994). Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature, Routledge, New York.
(5) Eliade, Mircea (1978). The Forge and the Crucible, University of Chicago Press, Philadelphia.
(6) Stephanie Dalley (1989). Myths From Mesopotamia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.