Mesopotamian gods, chaos-monsters, and the “combat myth” (Satan 2)

A rebellious fallen angel who later develops into a full-blown personification of evil (as Satan) first begins to appear clearly in our sources within the context of Jewish apocalypticism around 200 BCE (in book 1 of 1 Enoch). The story of this personified evil figure continues to develop and play an important role in early Christianity. Yet there are important predecessors in the Ancient Near East which help us to understand subsequent stories surrounding the figure of Satan. Among the predecessors is Angra Mainyu or Ahriman (the opponent of Ahura Mazda) within Zoroastrianism.

Oldest among these predecessors are the chaos-monsters (also gods) who are slayed by an up-and-coming Mesopotamian (or Hittite or Canaanite or Israelite) deity in traditions dating as far back as the third millenium BCE (our earliest evidence for literate civilizations). In particular, the portrayal of Satan in John’s Apocalypse (written c. 90s CE), which became the most potent early image of Satan as the ancient serpent or dragon, cannot be understood without reference to these older gods who threaten or even personify chaos and are ultimately defeated in combat (see especially Revelation, chapters 12-13).

Although there is considerable diversity among these stories of the Mesopotamian gods and we should not imagine that they’re all the same, there is nonetheless a common pattern that emerges in many of these combat stories:

  • 1) A god among the pantheon engages in activity that threatens the well-being (or even existence) of other gods and the society of the gods.
  • 2) The opposition from the chaos-god seems insurmountable and other gods desperately seek (with great difficulty) someone who can solve the problem.
  • 3) Finally, a less prominent or younger god steps forward and acts as a hero in battling and successfully defeating and killing the monstrous threat, re-establishing order in the universe. Often, there are two rounds in the fight, with the hero losing the first. Sometimes (as in the case of Marduk vs. Tiamat and Yahweh vs. Leviathan) the slaying of the chaos-monster coincides with the creation of the world of humans by the hero-god. In essence, the hero-god has saved the entire cosmos from reverting to chaos and now has a new status as a chief or king among the gods.

It is important to state that the gods who threaten to bring chaos to the entire cosmos are not inherently evil in these traditions, however, and they are indeed gods (which Satan is not within early Judaism and Christianity). Yet the role of the chaos-monster as opponent or adversary of the hero-god and the centrality of the battle between the two (“combat myth”) which ends in triumph for the hero are, in many respects, at the heart of Satan’s story and his function within early Jewish and Christian apocalyptic worldviews.

Perhaps the most well known case of this mythology is the Babylonian story of Marduk’s slaying of Tiamat, the chaotic sea-monster and mother of all gods, whose husband, Apsu, had plans to do away with her noisy children, the rest of the gods. (As chaotic sea-monster, Tiamat is comparable to the Israelite Leviathan or the Canaanite Yamm). Marduk then uses the corpse of Tiamat to create the world as we know it. You can read that story in the Enuma elish (When on high) online.

The other story I want to briefly cite here, a poetic myth dating back to the second millenium BCE, is also intriguing with regard to the chaos-god as a jealous rebel against the current head of the gods. This is the story of the frightful, monstrous bird Anzu (also Zu), who brings chaos in the world of the gods by stealing the tablet of destinies — the record of all the plans of the gods and locus of power — away from Ellil (also spelled Enlil), the father of the gods (see photo below). What better time to rebel than when Ellil’s taking a shower. The problem begins like this:

“Ellil appointed him (Anzu) to the entrance of the chamber which he had perfected.
He would bathe in holy water in his presence.
His eyes would gaze at the trappings of Ellil-power:
His lordly crown, his robe of divinity,
The Tablet of Destinies in his hands, Anzu gazed,
And gazed at Duranki’s god (i.e. Ellil), father of the gods,
And fixed his purpose, to usurp the Ellil-power.
Anzu often gazed at Duranki’s god, father of the gods,
And fixed his purpose to usurp the Ellil-power.
‘I shall take the gods’ Tablet of Destinies for myself
And control the orders for all the gods,
And shall possess the throne and be master of the rites!
I shall direct every one of the Igigi (category of gods)!’
He plotted opposition in his heart
And at the chamber’s entrance from which he often gazed,
he waited for the start of the day.
While Ellil was bathing in the holy water,
Stripped and with his crown laid down on the throne,
He gained the Tablet of Destinies for himself,
Took away the Ellil-power. Rites were abandoned,
Anzu flew off and went into hiding.
Radiance faded (?), silence reigned,
Father Ellil, their counsellor, was dumbstruck,
For he (Anzu) had stripped the chamber of its radiance.
The gods of the land searched high and low for a solution.”
Standard Babylonian version, tablet 1, iii, first millenium BCE; Stephanie Dalley, trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: OUP, 2000), pp. 206-207.

The abandonment of rites in honour of the gods, the silence, and the dumbstruck state of Ellil (as well as other passages which indicate that Anzu’s action has halted water for agriculture) are symbolic of the utter chaos that ensues in the cosmos as a result of Anzu stealing the tablet of destinies, the power of Ellil. After interviewing several divine candidates to fight Anzu, all of which are not up to the seemingly impossible task, young Ninurta (or Ningirsu in some versions) is put forward for the job, and is instructed by his mother, Belet-ili:

“Seize him by the throat: conquer Anzu,
And let the winds bring his feathers as good news to Ekur, to your father Ellil’s house. Rush and inundate the mountain pastures
And slit the throat of wicked Anzu. . .
Show prowess to the gods and your name shall be Powerful!” (SBV, tablet 2).

Ninurta vs. Anzu

In the first battle-sequence, Anzu gains the upper hand by using his Ellil-power to disassemble any of Ninurta’s arrows before they can approach Anzu and Anzu has the power to release and return his own feathers as a smokescreen (using the phrase “Wing to wing” to employ this power). Ninurta then consults with Ea, god of wisdom, who advises that Ninurta disguise his own arrows as though they were Anzu’s feathers, and to time his shooting to coincide with Anzu’s use of his “super-power” (emitting and recalling his feathers). Thus in the second, overwhelming confrontation:

“(As Anzu) shouted ‘Wing to wing’, a shaft came up (?) at him,
A dart passed through his very heart.
He (Ninurta) made an arrow pass through pinion and wing. . .
He slew the mountains (symbolic of Anzu), inundated their proud pastures (ending drought). . . slew wicked Anzu.
And warrior Ninurta regained the gods’ Tablet of Destinies for his own hand.”

Problem solved, and Ninurta’s reward for slaying the jealous and rebellious god who brought chaos was supremacy among the gods:
“You have won complete dominion, every single rite.”

Here, then, is the essence of what scholars call the “combat myth” which, via the Israelite case of Yahweh vs. Leviathan, came to play an important role within the apocalyptic worldview, with its battle between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, the dragon or ancient serpent in John’s Apocalypse.

Excellent books on the relevance of Mesopotamian combat myths and chaos-monsters for early Judaism and Christianity (including Satan) include: Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (2nd edition; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), and Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

Photo (above): Ninurta pursues Anzu, as depicted on a stone sculpture in the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud, Iraq. Drawing from Austen Henry Layard, A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh (London: John Murray, 1853), volume 2, plate 5.

12 thoughts on “Mesopotamian gods, chaos-monsters, and the “combat myth” (Satan 2)

  1. Dave Elkin

    H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos has always struck me as having a foundation in the ancient legends of the Near East. However, he never seemed to see the good, only the evil. It is interesting where one can find ancient gods and ancient myths if one looks

  2. Phil Harland Post author

    You are really onto something here, Dave Elkin. Timothy Beal discusses the links between chaos-monsters and modern horror, including Lovecraft’s Cthulhu in chapter 12 of Religion and Its Monsters (For those unfamiliar as I was not so long ago, Lovecraft was a very well known horror writer who died in 1937 but continues to a have a devoted following, some more serious than others).

    Quite interesting in this connection (as Beal also points out) are the various branches of the “Campus Crusade for Cthulhu” (playing on the similar titles of Christian organizations at colleges and universities) which exist at various institutions and are, often in a humorous manner, devoted to Lovecraft’s horror writing. See, for example, this site.

    There the quite deliberately humorous promotional statement begins like this:

    “Bored by an ordinary, nothing life? Searching for excitement, power? Seeking a higher cause, one worthy of your very life? The Campus Crusade for Cthulhu offers all this, AND MORE! How does Tall, Green, and Slimey sound to you? Pretty scarey. But you can handle it. You will have to learn how to. You will learn to yearn for the soft squeezing caress of undulating tentacles. Or you will be eternally sorry that you did not…”

  3. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello Raj,

    This myth is within Mesopotamian culture, not Jewish or Israelite religion specifically (so Moses’ tablets are not involved). Instead, within several Mesopotamian myths there is the notion that the king of the gods possessed a tablet in which were written many if not most of what was to happen in the future. Type “evolution” into an online English dictionary.


  4. Mateo Urquijo

    Hello! I am wondering about the possible correlation between the Ugaritic `Lotan,` and `Azhi Dahaka,` from Zoroastrianism and their respective or correlative influence on Judaism and subsequent Christianity. First, when was `Psalms` composed? That is, is the Leviathan in Ps.104 the same as the Leviathan in Job 41? I am trying to figure out where to draw the line on Zoroastrian influence and the far older Canaanite/Ugaritic influences carried over from Judaic tradition. Or is it that the Leviathan myth in Zoroastrianism from 650bce itself a carry over from ancestral culture, 2000-3000bce? Thank you!

  5. Alex

    Hey Dave Elkin, I noticed the same similarity, could there really be a connection? It does not seem unlikely that Lovecraft could have based some of his fiction on ancient Mesopotamian religion. The idea of there being powerful reptilian gods seems very similar to Cthulhu mythos…

  6. Ansu

    Interresting to read your brief resumĂ© of the mysterious Ninurta-myth. But I am a bit puzzled; Does’nt this myth start off with Ea advicing (or prophesizing) Enlil to lend Anzu the Tablet of Destiny?

  7. Justin Schedtler

    Dear Dr. Harland,
    Are you familiar with any work done on the “historicization” of the combat myth, i.e., stories in which aspects of the combat myth are transposed onto historical (more or less!) characters?

    Justin Schedtler, Ph.D.

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