1750 BC: Let Man Bear the Load of the Gods!

41.160.187

In one of the oldest surviving creation myths, humankind originates from a labor action. The story, told in the Babylonian Atrahasis Epic, goes like this: long before humankind, only gods exist, with some more powerful than others. These greater godsthe Anunnakiincluding the primary deity Ellil, wisdom god Ea, and  mother/birth goddess Belet-ili, force the lesser ones—the Igigi to perform all the necessary labor of producing food and building canals. This goes on for 3,600 years, until the lesser gods get fed upso they go on strike, burn their tools, and march on boss Enlil to demand a change.

The solution is mixed: After a council with the other Anunnaki, Ellil does agree that the situation merits redress, and Ea comes up with the idea of having Belet-ili create human beings to perform the menial labor—a tidy solution—but also the leader of the strike is killed to help make the new creature. Belet-ili mixes his flesh, blood, and spirit with clay to make the first humans. They will forever feel his spirit in the rhythm of their heartbeat, but will never be powerful enough to rebel themselves.

Here is the text:

When the gods instead of man
Did the work, bore the loads,
The gods’ load was too great,
The work too hard, the trouble too much
The great Anunnaki made the Igigi
Carry the workload sevenfold.
Anu their father was king,
Their counsellor warrior Ellil,
Their chamberlain was Ninurta,
Their canal-controller Ennugi.
They took the box (of lots) … ,
Cast the lots; the gods made the division.
Anu went up to the sky,
[And Ellil (?)] took the earth for his people (?).
The bolt which bars the sea
Was assigned to far-sighted Enki.
When Anu had gone up to the sky,
[And the gods of] the Apsu had gone below,
The Anunnaki of the sky
Made the Igigi bear the workload.
The gods had to dig out canals,
Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land,


The lgigi had to dig out canals,
Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land.
[                            ] of the land
[                            ] inside it
[                            ] raised its top
[                            ] of all the mountains
They were counting the years of loads;
[                            ] the great marsh,
They were counting the years of loads.
For 3,600 years they bore the excess,
Hard work, night and day.
They groaned and blamed each other,
Grumbled over the masses of excavated soil:

“Let us confront our [      ] the chamberlain,
And get him to relieve us of our hard work!
Come, let us carry [the Lord (?)],
The counsellor of gods, the warrior, from his dwelling.
Come, let us carry [Ellil],
The counsellor of gods, the warrior, from his dwelling.”

Then Alla made his voice heard
And spoke to the gods his brothers,

“Come! Let us carry
The counsellor of gods, the warrior, from his dwelling.
Come! Let us carry Ellil,
The counsellor of gods, the warrior, from his dwelling.
Now, cry battle!
Let us mix fight with battle!”

The gods listened to his speech,
Set fire to their tools,
Put aside their spades for fire,
Their loads for the fire-god,
They flared up. When they reached
The gate of warrior Ellil’s dwelling,
It was night, the middle watch,
The house was surrounded, the god had not realized.
It was night, the middle watch,
Ekur was surrounded, Ellil had not realized.
Yet Kalkal was attentive, and had it closed,
He held the lock and watched [the gate].
Kalkal roused [Nusku].
They listened to the noise of [the Igigi].
Then Nusku roused his master,
Made him get out of bed:

“My lord, your house is surrounded,
A rabble is running around your door!
Ellil, your house is surrounded,
A rabble is running around your door!”

Ellil had weapons brought to his dwelling.
Ellil made his voice heard
And spoke to the vizier Nusku,

“Nusku, bar your door,
Take up your weapons and stand in front of me.”

Nusku barred his door,
Took up his weapons and stood in front of Ellil.
Nusku made his voice heard
And spoke to the warrior Ellil,

“O my lord, your face is (sallow as) tamarisk!
Why do you fear your own sons?
O Ellil, your face is (sallow as) tamarisk!
Why do you fear your own sons?
Send for Anu to be brought down to you,
Have Enki fetched into your presence.”

He sent for Anu to be brought down to him,
Enki was fetched into his presence,
Anu king of the sky was present,
Enki king of the Apsu attended.
The great Anunnaki were present.
Ellil got up and the case was put.
Ellil made his voice heard
And spoke to the great gods,

“Is it against me that they have risen?
Shall I do battle …?
What did I see with my own eyes?
A rabble was running around my door!”

Anu made his voice heard
And spoke to the warrior Ellil,

“Let Nusku go out
And [find out] word of the lgigi
Who have surrounded your door.
A command …
To … “

Ellil made his voice heard
And spoke to the vizier Nusku,

“Nusku, open your door,
Take up your weapons [and stand before me!]
In the assembly of all the gods,
Bow, then stand [and tell them],
‘Your father Anu,
Your counsellor warrior Ellil,
Your chamberlain Ninurta
And your canal-controller Ennugi
Have sent me to say,
Who is in charge of the rabble?
Who is in charge of the fighting?
Who declared war?
Who ran to the door of Ellil?'”

[Nusku opened] his door,
[Took up his weapons,] went [before (?)] Ellil
In the assembly of all the gods
[He bowed], then stood and told the message.

“Your father Anu,
Your counsellor warrior Ellil,
Your chamberlain Ninurta
And your canal-controller Ennugi
Have sent me to say,
‘Who is in charge of the rabble?
Who is in charge of the fighting?
Who declared war?
Who ran to the door of Ellil?'”

[                                                                  ]
Ellil [                                                          ]

“Every single one of us gods declared war!
We have put [a stop] to the digging.
The load is excessive, it is killing us!
Our work is too hard, the trouble too much!
So every single one of us gods
Has agreed to complain to Ellil.”

Nusku took his weapons,
Went [and returned to Ellil]

“My lord, you sent me to [                   ].
I went [                                                    ]
I explained [                                           ]
[                                                                 ]
Saying, ‘Every single one of us gods
Declared war.
We have put [a stop] to the digging.
The load is excessive, it is killing us,
Our work is too hard, the trouble too much,
So every single one of us gods
Has agreed to complain to Ellil!'”

Ellil listened to that speech.
His tears flowed.
Ellil spoke guardedly (?),
Addressed the warrior Anu,

“Noble one, take a decree
With you to the sky,
show your strength—
While the Anunnaki are sitting before you
Call up one god and let them cast him for destruction!”

Anu made his voice heard
And spoke to the gods his brothers,

“What are we complaining of?
Their work was indeed too hard, their trouble too much.
Every day the earth (?) [resounded (?)].
The warning signal was loud enough, we kept hearing the noise.
[                                               ] do
[                                               ] tasks (?)
[                                               ]

“(While) the Anunnaki are sitting before you,
And (while) Belet-ili the womb-goddess is present,
Call up one and cast him for destruction!”

Ea made his voice heard
And spoke to the gods his brothers,

“Why are we blaming them?
Their work was too hard, their trouble was too much.
Every day the earth (?) [resounded (?)].
The warning signal was loud enough, [we kept hearing the noise.]
There is [                                                      ]
Belet-ili the womb-goddess is present—
Let her create primeval man
So that he may bear the yoke [(       )],
So that he may bear the yoke, [the work of Ellil!]
Let man bear the load of the gods!”

Translation by Stephanie Dalley. Image: Cuneiform tablet with Sumerian dedicatory(?) inscription from Ekur, the temple of the god Enlil [Ellil],ca. 16th–15th century B.C. (source)

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