Cor Hendriks – The Macaws (24): The Battle of the Animals and the Birds | Etana and the eagle

In the Estonian tale ‘The Knight’s Son’, a sparrow and a rat, two inseparable friends, emigrate and divide the grain after the first harvest in the new land, and one grain is left over. The sparrow tells the rat to bite it in two, the rat tells the bird to pick it in two, and the sparrow swallows by accident the grain, after which a War starts between the two former friends. The rat finds an old bear as ally, the sparrow the bird Teevits, and three times these two fight, and in the end the bear robs the Teevits from his feather suit, and the bird goes screeching back to his ravine [‘pit’], and is found benumbed in the woods by a hunting knight, who takes him home to take care of him, because of the promised reward. Then it turns out that the bird eats an ox a day, and when the oxen are finished and the bird still is not cured, the wife of the knight wants the bird killed. The Teevits asks now for a chicken a day, but when the chickens are finished, the wife again wants the bird killed, and he asks for an egg a day. When the eggs are finished, the wife is so angry that the knight brings the bird back to the woods. The bird has in the meantime regained his feathers and says to the knight to seat himself on his back to go and get his reward [Prager, 1971, p. 132ff (collection Juhan Kunder)].

This introduction, ‘The Battle of the Birds and the Beasts’ [], is part of a Russian tale, called by Ransome ‘The Firebird’. A mouse and a sparrow live together in one nest, near to the cabin of a boy, Ivan (the story takes place in the time, that it was not decided yet who will live on the ground and who in the trees). One day the mouse and the sparrow decide to divide their stuff, and one shiny grain is left over. The sparrow tries to split it and it shoots in his throat. Then the fat was in the fire and the noise of their quarrel makes Ivan leave his cabin. But other animals come and join the fight: the rabbit against the blackbird, the pigeon and the hare, the wolf and the cock, the cat and the owl, the fox and the falcon, the rat and the robin, the bull and the swan, and many more animals fight against other birds. Louder and louder becomes the noise and ever larger animals come, until the bear comes, the tsar of the animals, and soon after that the firebird, the tsar of the birds. Their fight is long and terrible, till the bird with his glowing head blinds the bear, who in his fall drags the bird down with him and breaks a wing. Both are at the end of their powers, and they all go away, including the bear, while the sparrow and the mouse mourn over their trampled nest and decide to live apart. Ivan makes for the firebird a splint and takes care of him for a week. On the eight day he is cured and takes Ivan on his back to search for something to put on the spot that was tossed open by the fight [Ransome 1985, p. 7ff].

In the Scottish tale ‘The Battle of the Birds’ [] the son of the king (of Tethertown) goes to watch the battle of the birds and other animals in order to tell his father who will be king of the animals that year. The battle is over when he gets there, only an enormous black raven and a snake are still fighting, and the snake seems winning. The prince chops of its head in one stroke, whereupon the grateful raven takes him on his wings over the seven mountains, valleys and marshes [Rackham 1978, 15]. In the Russian ‘Fairytale of the Vasilissa the Wise’ a mouse and a sparrow have discovered a way into a farmer’s corn loft and live there three years in perfect harmony, but then the grain supply is nearly exhausted and the mouse thought out a scheme to keep the last bit for herself. She gnawed a hole in the floor of the loft and let all the rye disappear through it. When the sparrow comes in the morning and finds nothing, he understands that the mouse has cheated him, and he flies to the lion, the tsar of the beasts, to complain about the mouse. He is talking to deaf ears and goes to the eagle, the tsar of the birds, who, angry, immediately declares War to the lion. On a great plain both armies meet and a great slaughter takes places that lasts three hours (and three minutes). The eagle wins and the battlefield is covered with corpses. He sends his allies home and flies to a dark wood, where he, ill, wounded and exhausted, sits down on a high oak (this all happened a very long time ago). A childless merchant dreams one night about a big bird that comes to him, that swallows a whole ox in one piece and drinks a full tub in one gulp, and that they shouldn’t chase away. He tells this to his wife, goes with his gun to the forest and sees the eagle on the oak. He wants to shoot, but the eagle asks him to feed him for three years, three months and three days, until his wings will have their strength back, then he will reward him generously. But the man thinks little of it and aims again at the bird, and it repeats its request, but again the merchant takes aim and the bird repeats again its request and the merchant takes it to his house. He slaughters an ox and fills a tub with sweat mead and thinks that that will last a while, but the bird devours it at once. This is not what the merchant had expected and soon all his stock is consumed. When the eagle notices this, he refers the merchant to the battlefield, where he could skin a lot of animals and sell their skins. That way the merchant makes a lot of money. After a year he has to bring the eagle with his carriage to the highest oak trees and there the eagle flies up into the clouds and dives full speed down against an oak, that splits in two. The eagle is not satisfied and tells the merchant to feed him another year (cf. the power test of Strong John). At the end of the second year the eagle takes another test and this time the oak is in many pieces, but the eagle is still not satisfied. After three years, three months and three days the eagle takes his third test, flies higher than ever before and hits with such force the most powerful oak that it flies from root to top in countless pieces, and the whole forest shakes. Now the eagle is satisfied and beseeches the merchant to take place on his wings, then he will take him to his realm to reward him [Angarowa 1957, 132 137; cf. Gruel-apert 1990, p. 170 180 99: ‘Le tsar mécréant et Vassilissa la magique’ (Afan., p. 224/125f)].
In another Russian version from the collection of Afanassiev from the Prov. Voronej, called ‘The Sea King and Vasilisa the Wise’ [], a king, who loves to go hunting, sees a young eagle on an oak, and when he aims the eagle says: ‘Do not shoot me, my sovereign! Instead, take me to your castle; some day I shall be useful to you.’ The king thinks it over, aims again; anew the eagle asks and also a third time, asking him to feed him three years, and the king takes him to his castle, but after two years all his cattle, sheep and cows, but the eagle isn’t strong enough and asks him to borrow, he will have it repaid. After three years the eagle has regained his force and takes the king on his back to get his reward [Bozoki 1978, p. 291 – 29874: ‘Le roi de la mer et Vassilissa la sage’ (Afan., p. 219/125a) = Heemskerk 1964, 109 117 = Ralston 1874, p. 122ff, nº19 = Guterman 1975, 427 – 437 (also Allan 1999b, p. 50 53)].

A Mokshan version, collected by Paasonen, is called ‘The Lame Winged Eagle and the Hunter’. A sparrow and a mouse have sown millet. They divide the harvest and quarrel over one left over grain, start a process, and the mouse asks as witnesses the earth animals: bear, wolf, fox and hare. The sparrow invites the flying animals. Three days they go at each other, but can’t find a solution. Then on the fourth day the eagle, the biggest of all, flies up and beats with his wing the oak. The oak falls down, killing all the animals. The wing of the eagle is broken and after three days roaming through the forest he is found by a hunter, who wants to shoot him. The eagle says: ‘Don’t shoot me, young man, I will do something good.’ The hunter approaches, aims again, the same plea of the eagle, which repeats itself a third time, after which the man takes the eagle home and feeds it for three years until the wing has healed [Paasonen 1947, 874 – 887 ,nº12: ‘Der flügellahme Adler und der Jäger’].

Much truncated is the Russian version ‘Kolja and the Beautiful Natassia’. A poor hunter can’t find game and goes into a faraway untrodden forest. He comes upon a bird sitting on three gigantic oaks; its gasping beak is as big as a barn door, with sharp teeth. The frightened hunter aims his gun, but just when he is about to pull the trigger, the bird calls out: ‘Don’t shoot; I will give you game.’ The hunter wants to see that and the bird flaps his left wing and the forest is crawling with game. And the hunter has enough to last for quite a while, but when the money he got for his skins is finished, he again goes into the untrodden forest and comes upon the bird, that this time waves his right wing, the third time both wings to make the forest teem with wild life. The third time the bird gives him also for remembrance a rusty box with a rusty lock and a rusty key, that he shouldn’t open before he gets home [Verroen, 1973, p. 119 135].

The Ascension of King Etana (foto ancient-code)
The Ascension of King Etana (foto ancient-code)

Etana lived in the time when there were no kings on earth; the tokens of kingship (scepter, diadem, and crown) were still in Anu’s heaven, and without them no king could reign. Then Ishtar decided to give a king to humanity to educate them in law and custom so that an orderly society would come about. The wife of the demigod Etana was supposed to bear the future king, but she was infertile. Then Etana made offerings and prayers to Shamash to allow him to get the ‘plant of birth’ out of heaven. Shamash told Etana to go on ‘the mountain’. There lived an eagle and a snake, who had lived in peace together, but one day the eagle had eaten the brood of the snake, whereupon the snake had grabbed the eagle from inside an ox carcass by his wings, torn them off and thrown him in a pit to die there of hunger and thirst. When Etana came on the mountain he found the eagle in the pit and told him about the advice of Shamash. They lived a long time together and after eight months the eagle was healthy enough to leave the pit. He was ready to take Etana up to heaven and told him to hang on to his breast. When they were a mile up the eagle said to Etana: ‘Look down; doesn’t the earth look like a mountain and the sea like a river?’ After a second mile the eagle said: ‘Look down on the earth; doesn’t it look like garden?’ So they looked down after every mile and every time the earth looked different. At last they came to the heaven of Anu, Enlil and Ea and threw themselves humbly before the gate. But they didn’t have the plant in this heaven; they had to go higher, to the heaven of Ishtar, who took care of birthing and guarded the plant. Again Etana hang on the eagle, who again every mile showed how big the earth was, till the land resembled a biscuit and the sea a bread basket. Then they could no longer see the earth and Etana got frightened and wanted to return to earth. And he plummeted down with the eagle, without reaching the heaven of Ishtar [Jockel 1953, p. 59 6015].

Of course the real story of Etana is more complicated as this smooth representation. A recent translation is made by Stephany Dalley in her Myths from Mesopotamia, which is full of (?) and [ ]. The Standard Babylonian version is given, which is divided over three tablets (probably a fourth one is missing). We start at the beginning of the world, when
‘[The great gods, the Igigi] designed a city,
[The Igigi] laid its foundation.
[The Anunnaki] designed the city of Kish,
[The Anunnaki] laid its foundation,
The Igigi made its brickwork firm.’
There follows a gap, in which it is said that Ishtar speaks.
‘“Let [Etana (?) be their shepherd (…)
Let Etana be their builder (?) (…) the staff of (…)”
The great Anunnaki who decree destinies
Sat and conferred their counsel in the land.
They were creating the four quarters (of the world) and establishing the form (of it).
The Igigi (…) decreed names (?) for them all.
They had not established a king over all the teeming people.
At that time the headband and crown had not been put together,
And the lapis lazuli scepter had not been brandished (?),
At the same time (?) the throne dais had not been made.
The Sebitti barred the gates against armies (?),
[The (…)] barred them against (other) settled peoples.
The Igigi would patrol the city (…)’

This is a first part, dealing with the creation of the city of Kish, which is followed by the search for a king for the new city.

Ishtar [was looking for] a shepherd
And searching high and low for a king.
Inninna [was looking for] a shepherd
And searching high and low for a king.
Ellil was looking for a throne dais for Etana.’
The young man for whom Ishtar [is looking so diligently]
And searches endlessly (…)
A king is hereby affirmed for the land, and in Kish [it is established (?)].”
He brought kingship (…)’

From here there is a great gap of about 120 lines. The story continues on tablet II with the tale of the eagle and the serpent (that I preserve for a later moment), ending with the eagle lying wounded on the bottom of a pit.

Every day it prayed repeatedly to Shamash:
Am I to die in the pit?
Who realizes that it is your punishment I bear?
Save my life for me, the eagle,
So that I may broadcast your fame for eternity!
Shamash made his voice heard and spoke to the eagle:
You are wicked, and you have grieved my heart.
You did an unforgivable deed, an abomination to the gods.
You are dying, and I shall not go near you!
But a man, whom I am sending to you, is coming let him help you.”’

We switch now to Etana:
Every day, Etana prayed repeatedly to Shamash [cf. the praying of Tobit and Sarah (Tobit 3.16: at that very moment the prayers of both of them were heard in the glorious presence of God)]:
O Shamash, you have enjoyed the best cuts of my sheep,
Earth has drunk the blood of my lambs,
I have honored the gods and respected the spirits of the dead [cf. Tobit! Grateful Dead],
The dream interpreters have made full use of my incense,
The gods have made full use of my lambs at the slaughter.
O  Lord, let the word go forth from your mouth
And give me the plant of birth.
Show me the plant of birth!
Remove my shame and provide me with a son!
Shamash made his voice heard and spoke to Etana:
Go along the road, cross the mountain,
Find a pit and look carefully at what is inside it.
An eagle is abandoned down there.
It will show you the plant of birth.”
At the command of Shamash the warrior
Etana went, crossed the mountain,
Found the pit and looked at what was inside it.
An eagle was abandoned down there.
The eagle raised itself up at once.’

Tablet III is composed from several texts (LV, MAV, OBV and SBV). The first part of tablet is rather fragmented and seems to repeat the prayer of the eagle to Shamash. Then
The eagle made its voice heard and spoke to Etana:
Why have you come to me? Tell me!
Etana made his voice heard and spoke to the eagle:
O my friend, give me the plant of birth,
Show me the plant of birth!
Remove my shame and provide me with a son!
Leave (…)
When you get out (?) (…)”
Then the eagle said [to Etana]:
All alone I shall [search the mountains (?)].
Let me bring [the plant of birth] to you.
When Etana heard this,
He covered the front of the pit with juniper,
Made for it and threw down (…)
And kept (…)
Thus he kept (?) the eagle alive in the pit.
He began to teach it to fly again.
For one [month], then a second [month]
He kept the eagle alive in the pit
And began to teach it to fly again.
For a third [month], then a fourth mo[nth]
He kept the eagle alive in the pit
And began to teach it to fly again.’
(Follows the Old Babylonian Version:)
‘[Etana] helped it for seven months.
In the eighth month he helped it out of its pit.
The eagle, now well fed, was as strong as a fierce lion.
The eagle made its voice heard and spoke to Etana:
My friend, we really are friends, you and I!
Tell me what you wish from me, that I may give it to you.”
Etana made his voice heard and spoke to the eagle:
Change my destiny (?) and disclose what is concealed!”’

Etana (foto mesopotamiangods)

Etana (foto mesopotamiangods)

Here is a gap of about eight lines, after which the text continues with the Standard Babylonian version.

Etana (?) went and [helped the eagle out (?)],
The eagle hunted around [in the mountains (?)]
But [the plant of birth] was not [to be found there].
Come, my friend, let me carry you up [to the sky (and or heaven)],
[Let us meet] with Ishtar, the mistress [of birth].
Beside Ishtar the mistress [of birth let us (…)].
Put your arms over my sides,
Put your hands over the quills of my wings.
He put his arms over its sides,
Put his hands over the quills of its wings.
[The eagle] took him upwards for a mile.
My friend, look at the country! How does it seem?
The affairs of the country buzz (?) [like flies (?)]
And the wide sea is not bigger than a sheepfold!
[The eagle took him] up a second mile:
My friend, look at the country! How does it seem?
The country has turned into a garden (…)
And the wide sea is no bigger than a bucket!
It took him up a third mile.
My friend, look at the country! How does it seem?
I am looking for the country, but I can’t see it!
And my eyes cannot even pick out the wide sea!
My friend, I cannot go any further towards heaven.
Retrace the way, and let me go back to my city!
The eagle shrugged him off for one mile,
Then dropped down and retrieved him on its wings.
The eagle shrugged him off for a second mile,
Then dropped down and retrieved him on its wings.
The eagle shrugged him off for a third mile,
Then dropped down and retrieved him on its wings.
A meter from the ground, the eagle shrugged him off,
Then dropped down and retrieved him on his wings.’

This last part, about ‘a meter from the ground’, is of course strange. The three drops before are understandable, they mirror the climb upwards, consisting of three climbs with question answer game.

After this there follows a gap of uncertain length, in which according to Dalley they go back to Kish. Etana has a series of three (?) dreams which encourage him to make a second attempt to reach heaven.

Etana said to the eagle:
“[My friend, I saw a first (?) dream]
The city of Kish was sobbing (…)
Within it [the people were in mourning (?)]
I sang [a song of lamentation (?)].
O Kish, giver of life!
Etana [cannot give you an heir (?)]
O Kish, giver of life,
Etana [cannot give you an heir (?)]
(gap of uncertain length).
His wife said to Etana:
“[The god] showed me a dream.
Like Etana my husband [I have had a dream (?)],
Like you [the god has shown me a dream (?)].
Etana was king [of Kish for x years (?)]
And his ghost (…)” (gap of uncertain length)
Etana opened his mouth and spoke to the eagle:
My friend, that god showed me [another dream (?)].
We were going through the entrance of the gate of Anu, Ellil, and Ea.
We bowed down together, you and I.
We were going through the entrance of the gate of Sin, Shamash, Adad, and Ishtar.
We bowed down together, you and I.
I saw a house with a window that was not sealed.
I pushed it open and went inside.
Sitting in there was a girl
Adorned with a crown, fair of face.
A throne was set in place, and (…)
Beneath the throne crouched snarling lions.
I came up and the lions sprang at me.
I woke up terrified.”
The eagle said to Etana:
My friend, [the significance of the dreams] is quite clear!
Come, let me carry you up to the heaven of Anu.
Put your chest over my breast,
Put your hands over the quills of my wings.
Put your arms over my sides.”
He put his chest over its breast,
Put his hands over its feathers,
Put his arms over its sides.
The eagle tied its load on securely,
Took him up a mile
And spoke to him, to Etana:
See, my friend, how the country seems!
Inspect the sea, look carefully for its features!
The country is only the edge (?) of (?) a mountain!
And whatever has become of the sea?
The eagle took him up a second mile
And spoke to Etana:
See, my friend, how the country seems!
Whatever [has become of (?)] the country?
The eagle took him up a third mile
And spoke to Etana:
See, my friend, how the country seems!
The sea has turned into a gardener’s ditch!
When they came up to the heaven of Anu.
They went through the gate of Anu, Ellil, and Ea.
The eagle and Etana bowed down together.
They went through the gate of Sin, Shamash, Adad, and Ishtar.
The eagle and Etana bowed down together.
He pushed it open [and went inside].’

The rest of the text is missing, but Dalley adds the remark that according to the Sumerian king list, Etana was succeeded by his son Balih [Dalley 1991, p. 190 – 200 (text Kinnier Wilson 1985)].

For a view of the Sumerian society at the time of Etana, see the Standard of Ur:

For a commentary on the theme of this episode, see

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