Cor Hendriks – The Macaws (28): The eagle on the tree and the snake beneath

The Captain Black – Eagle X Snake (foto ilmarinaio.wordpress)

In the Gilgamesh epos, in a text called Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World’, it happened (according to Santillana, on occasion of the new distribution of the ‘Tree Way’, on that day) that a huluppu tree (a willow?) which had been planted on the banks of the Euphrates and nourished by its waters was uprooted by the South Wind and carried off by the Euphrates. A Goddess (Inanna, according to Kramer) wandering along the bank seized the floating tree, and at the word of Anu and Enlil (the two leading deities in the Sumerian pantheon) she (or Inanna) brought it to Inanna’s (this is Ishtar’s) garden in Uruk. Inanna tended the tree carefully and lovingly, hoping to have made of its wood a Throne and bed for herself. After ten years had passed and the tree had matured, Inanna, to her chagrin, found herself unable to realize her hopes. For in the meantime a dragon had set up its nest at the base of the tree, the Zu bird (Oberhuber anzû bird) had placed his young in its Crown, and in its midst the demoness Lilith had built her house. But Gilgamesh, informed of Inanna’s distress, rushed to her aid. Making light of his weighty armor, the giant slew the dragon with his huge, bronze axe, seven talents and seven minas in weight [cf. the weapons of Hans Arcarpe, Strong John]. Thereupon the Zu bird fled with his young to the mountain, while Lilith, terror stricken, tore down her house and escaped to the desert. After Gilgamesh had uprooted the liberated tree, his followers, the men of Uruk, cut down its trunk and gave part of it to Inanna for her Throne and bed. Of the remainder (that is  the root and Crown) Gilgamesh made for himself the pukku and mikku, two wooden objects of magical significance [Santillana, 1969, p. 439f. The pukku (made from the root) and the mikku (from the top) are a ‘drum’ and a ‘drumstick’. Their magical activity is not clear. The Zu bird is the planet Mars (ID, p. 443, reference Gössmann, Planetarium Babylonicum, p. 195). Cf. Oberhuber, 1977, p. 9f; Böhl, 1941, p. 98f: after an introduction concerning the creation of the World, first the holy tree is described, that has to be considered as a willow. The Mistress of the City of Uruk, the Goddess Inanna or Ishtar, has planted and taken care of this tree, with the intention of later having made a Throne and a bed out of it. After 10 years, when the willow is full grown, it turns out that dark forces have taken possession of it. Under the roots lives the snake, in the branches has the bird of the UnderWorld made its nest, and in the trunk lives a female devil. The Goddess calls in the help of Gilgamesh, the King of her town, who drives out the evil forces and fells the tree. The continuation of this peculiar story is written on a clay tablet found by Sir C Leonard Wooley at Ur and translated by Cyril J Gadd. Gilgamesh equips himself for battle and crushes in the first place the head of the snake and chases away to the surprise of the inhabitants of Uruk also the other demons. Instead of (FMT Böhl has here a question mark) giving to the Goddess the wood destined for her Throne and bed, he (Gilgamesh) makes of the root a drum and of the wood a drumstick].

The story start with events that went before and seemingly have no relation with the following story. It was, according to the translation of Samuel Noah Kramer

Once upon a time’ that ‘a tree, a huluppu, a tree –
It had been planted on the bank of the Euphrates,
It was watered by the Euphrates
The violence of the South Wind plucked up its roots,
Tore away its Crown.
The Euphrates carried it off on its waters.’

Then we are told about a woman, which is probably Inanna.

‘The woman, roving about in fear at the word of Anu,
Roving about in fear at the word of Enlil,
Took the tree in her hand, brought it to Erech:
I shall bring it to pure Inanna’s fruitful garden.
The woman tended the tree with her hand, placed it by her foot,
Inanna tended the tree with her hand, placed it by her foot.
When will it be a fruitful Throne for me to sit on,” she said.
When will it be a fruitful bed for me to lie on,” she said.

Viewing the repetitive style, the Throne and the bed are probably one and the same, as Inanna and the woman. The text continues with the tree:

The tree grew big, its trunk bore no foliage [only the top!],
In its roots the snake who knows no charm set up its nest,
In its Crown the Imdugud bird placed its young,
In its midst the maid Lilith built her house
The always laughing, always rejoicing maid,
The maid Inanna how she weeps!

Then she decides to take action.

As light broke, as the horizon brightened,
As Utu [the Sun God] came forth from the “princely field”,
His sister, the holy Inanna,
Says to her brother Utu:
My brother, after in days of yore the fates have been decreed,
After abundance had sated the land,
After Anu had carried off heaven,
After Enlil had carried off earth (et cetera)”’

Inanna is repeating the starting lines of the poem, ending with the following lines.

‘“The always laughing, always rejoicing maid,
I, the maid Inanna, how I weep!”’

But just like Enlil couldn’t help Gilgamesh, so Utu cannot help his sister.

Her brother, the hero, the valiant Utu,
Stood not by her in this matter.

Then Inanna turns to Gilgamesh (maybe the next morning).

‘As light broke, as the horizon brightened,
As Utu came forth from the “princely field”,
The sister, the holy Inanna,
Speaks to the hero Gilgamesh:
My brother, after in the days of yore the fates had been decreed (et cetera).”’

Inanna repeats the same thing she told her brother, with the same concluding lines of her weeping.

Her brother, the hero Gilgamesh,
Stood by her in this matter.
He donned armor weighing fifty minas about his waist
Fifty minas were handled by him like thirty shekels [are handled by ordinary men] –
His “axe of the road
Seven talents and seven minas he took in his hand.’

Thus armed he goes to the tree.

At its roots he struck down the snake who knows no charm [further on we shall see what could be meant by this enigmatic description],
In its Crown the Imdugub bird took its young, climbed to the mountains,
In its midst the maid Lilith tore down her house, fled to the wastes [where she is hanging out according to Isaiah].
The tree he plucked at its roots, tore off its Crown [the same things as the South Wind did],
The sons of the city who accompanied him cut off its branches.
He gives it to holy Inanna for her Throne,
Gives it to her for her bed,
She fashions its roots into a pukku for him,
Fashions its Crown into a mikku for him’ [Kramer, 1970, p. 199 202].

Othmar Keel, in his study of the World of Old Eastern Picture Symbolism and the Old Testament, has a picture of the Imdugud bird, a door lintel of a temple, a symmetrical composition of the bird ‘spread eagled’ between two facing away stags. Keel has added to the picture the ancient text ‘The Imdugud bird killed there numerous opponents’. The Sumerian bird Imdugud, the lion headed eagle, that guards the temple doors, is mentioned in a song on Enlil ‘The shepherd Urnammu let the high House of the Mountain (Enlil temple) in Duranki (‘Girdle of the heaven and the earth= Temple terrain in Nippur) rise up unto heaven, put it up for the admiration of the masses, decorated the front of the High Gate, of the Great Gate, of the Gate of the Salvation to the Step Mountain, of the Gate of the uncut Grain, heavily with purified gold. The Imdugud bird killed there numerous [opponents], against the there standing eagle goes no evil one up, [the temple’s] doors are high, full luster, the house is high, covered with terrible shine, heavily grounded, inspiring great fear’ [Keel 1972, p. 108, 110 after SAHG 88; picture 164].

The dragon at the roots corresponds to Nidhöggr of the Edda, the Zu bird with the eagle on top of Yggdrasil, while Lilith in the middle is replaced by the squirrel Ratatöskr, always running up and down, bearing envious words between the eagle and Nidhöggr [Molenaar, 1985, p. 197; Simrock, 1938, III, p. 21Gylfaginning §16]. Of Odin it is said that he lets his horses graze in the branches of the World Tree Yggdrasils askr. But upon this tree nests also the ‘Much knowing Eagle’ that fights with the dragon that is trying to undermine the tree at its roots. At the foot of this tree is the holy source, from which it is fed and whose host Mimor teaches Odin the art of magic and of iron work. As ruler of Walhalla Odin is called Qrn (‘eagle’), above his fortress circles an eagle. But Mimor disappears and Odin, the Eagle, now appears as master of magic and medicine, of poetry and writing [Sternberg, in ARW 28, 1930, p. 136].

In Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights a crow and his wife have made a nest in a tree and when the time comes of the hatching of their young, which is the midsummer season, a serpent issues from its hole and crawls up the tree, where it coils itself up and there abides the days of the summer, while the crow is driven away and has no opportunity to clear his home nor any place wherein to lie. When the days of heat are past, the serpent goes away to its own place, and the crow says to his wife ‘Thank God, who has preserved us and delivered us from the serpent, albeit we are forbidden from increase this year.’ Next summer, when the hatching season comes around, the serpent again sallies forth from its place and makes for the crow’s nest: but as it coils up a branch, a kite sweeps down on it and strikes claw into its head and tears it, whereupon it falls to the ground a swoon, and the ants come out and eat it [Burton, IX, p. 46f].

Our matter is treated by Haim Schwarzbaum in his study of the Medieval collection of Hebrew tales Mishle Shu’alim (‘Fox Fables’) of Rabbi Berechiah Ha-nakdan in chapter XI The Fox and the Eagle. The fable, told by the Rabbi, is about a fox walking in a garden with his cubs when an eagle pounces upon one of the cubs and carries it off to his nest in a high tree. He pays no attention to the entreaties of the fox, who takes a firebrand and burnable stuff and starts a fire under the tree, saying: ‘Let my son be consigned to the flames together with the eagle and his sons!’ When the eagle sees the big fire he cries out to the fox ‘Here you have your beloved cub. Please, blow out the fire’ [Schwarzbaum, 1979, p. 64f; see Hadas, 27 29, nº11, ‘Fox & Eagle’; Melchior Hanel, p. 47 51: ‘Parabola vulpis et aquilae’. A short version of the story can be found in the Hidot Isopet (edition Venice, 1544, 74b): the eagle carries off (all) the cubs of the fox to a certain tree. The mother of the cubs vainly implores the eagle to restore the cubs to her. She fetches a firebrand and surrounds the tree with fire, so the eagle is compelled to return the cubs to the Vixen (ID, p. 69). Also in Phaedrus, I, 28 (Vulpis et Aquila) the fox snatches a firebrand from an altar and surrounds the tree in which the eagle has his nest with fire. This is motif L315.3Fox burns tree in which Eagle has his nest. Revenge theft of cub(s)’].

According to Schwarzbaum, this fable is rooted in very old patterns, Mesopotamian (Sumerian, Accadian), Egyptian, Greek, et cetera. An adequate reconstruction of the life story of this fable would call for a comprehensive monograph; so he limits himself to the most important versions and their problems, taking into account the results of most recent research in this field of comparative folklore opening up quite new vistas [Schwarzbaum, 1979, p. 65].

In ancient Greece the fable was told by Archilochus of Paros (8th or 7th century BC) as an ‘old folktale’. The eagle had sworn a pact of friendship with the fox. They resolve to live near each other as good neighbors. The eagle builds his nest on the oak tree, and the fox makes his hole under the roots. But one day, when the fox is out hunting, the eagle treacherously swoops into the fox’s den, seizes the cubs and carries them off to his brood, making a sumptuous banquet of them. When the fox sees the vile deed of the eagle, he is furious, but has no means of taking revenge, so he applies to Zeus, imploring him to wreak his revenge on the treacherous eagle. The eagle snatches a burning piece of offal from an altar and carries it to his nest. A strong wind fans the bits of dry stalk of the nest into a vast blaze. The eagle’s nestlings are thus completely burnt, and fall down on the ground where the fox devours them (in accordance with the ‘Law of Retaliation= What goes around, comes around) [Schwarzbaum, 1979, p. 65].

An ancient Egyptian version is called ‘The Vulture mother and the Cat mother’. A vulture has her nest in a tree in the desert, and a cat has her young at the foot of a nearby mountain. The vulture is afraid that the cat will attack the young vultures and doesn’t leave the nest; and the cat has the same fear. The vulture suggests a peace endorsed by an oath before Re, the God of justice, and the cat agrees. One day a young of the vulture takes some bits from the food the cat had prepared for her young, and the angry cat, trying to get back the food, hurts the young vulture so much that he can’t fly back to the nest. The bird complains that he fell out of the nest, and then dies. The mother vulture waits for an opportunity to take revenge, and one day when the cat is hunting the vulture pounces upon the kittens. When the cat comes back and sees her young gone, she prays to Re, who orders ‘a Divine Power’ to go punish the vulture. The Divine Power finds Retaliation sitting under the tree and orders him to avenge the cat on the vulture. And Retaliation executed Re’s order. Then it happens that the vulture sees a Syrian roasting some meat. The vulture tore off a piece of the meat and flew with it to her nest. But some burning coals have attached themselves to the meat and are without noticing brought to the nest which immediately catches fire. The young vultures fall down to the ground, roasted and all; and the cat, according to Schwarzbaum, gobbles them up under their mother’s eyes, but in Emma Brunner-Traut’s version the cat doesn’t touch them and says to the vulture: ‘As true as Re is the living god, you have eaten my young! But I don’t eat your young even when they are roasted.’ [Brunner-Traut, 1974, p. 115 117, nº 19; Schwarzbaum, 1979, p. 66. That the cat doesn’t eat the young of the vulture is in line with the moral of the tale, that the vulture is the bad guy. The teller of the story, the monkey, points out to his audience, the Ethiopian cat, the righteousness of Re, who avenged the evil deed that the vulture committed to the cat].

Schwarzbaum points to a story in Phaedrus (II:4), where the eagle has his nest in the top of an oak, the cat is in the middle of the tree, and the wild sow lives at the bottom. The cat, full of malice and deceit, succeeds in destroying the community so formed by accident. She tells the eagle that the sow is trying to overthrow the oak: the eagle is frightened and dares not leave the tree. The cat also tells the sow that the eagle intends to carry off her pigs: the sow dares not leave her nest. Both the eagle and the sow do not stir abroad and perish through hunger with their young ones, thus affording the perfidious cat and her kittens an ample repast [Schwarzbaum 1979, p. 67cf, Motif K2131.1, ‘Cat brings suspicion between Eagle and Sow’].

Finally there is the Etana myth, the ancient Mesopotamian myth of the Eagle and the Serpent. Here also there is a non aggression pact between the eagle and the serpent that the eagle violates by treacherously raiding the serpent’s hole, gobbling up the young serpents during the absence of the parent who went off to obtain food for his young. The snake goes crying to the Sun God Shamash, who advises the serpent to conceal himself within the carcass of a wild ox. As soon as the eagle swoops down to get at the best parts of the carcass the serpent grabs his wings and breaks them, tossing the wingless eagle into a ditch and leaving him there in a tragic plight. In the version told by Georges Roux the serpent caught the big bird, broke his ‘heel’, plucked him and threw him in a pit [Schwarzbaum, 1979, p. 66f; Roux, 1982, p. 115]

We have already seen the story of Etana, and the tale of the serpent and the eagle starts on the second tablet, but unfortunately the first lines are damaged. In them Etana builds a Throne dais of Adad his God.

In the shade of that Throne dais a poplar sprouted (…)
On its Crown an eagle crouched, [and a serpent lay at its base].
Every day they would keep watch [for their prey (?)].
The eagle made its voice heard and said to the serpent
Come, let us be friends.
Let us be comrades, you and I.”
The serpent made its voice heard and spoke to the eagle

“[You are not fit for] friendship [in the sight of Shamash!]
You are wicked and you have grieved his heart.
You have done unforgivable deeds, an abomination to the Gods.
(But) come, let us stand up and [make a pledge (?)]
Let us swear an oath on [the net of Shamash (?)]”
In the presence of Shamash the Warrior they swore an oath
Whoever oversteps the limit set by Shamash,
Shamash shall deliver into the hands of the Smiter for harm.
Whoever oversteps the limit set by Shamash,
May the mountain keep its pass far away from him,
May the prowling weapon make straight for him,
May the snares (on which) the oath to Shamash (is sworn) overturn him and ensnare him!
When they had sworn the oath on [the net of Shamash (?)],
They stood up (?) and went up the mountain.
Each day they kept watch [for their prey (?)].
The eagle would catch a wild bull or wild ass,
And the serpent would eat, (then) turn away so that its young could eat.
The serpent would catch mountain goats or gazelles,
And the eagle would eat, (then) turn away so that its young could eat. (Et cetera)
The young of the serpent [had an abundance] of food.
The eagle’s young grew large and flourished.
When the eagle’s young had grown large and flourished,
The eagle plotted evil in its heart,
And in its heart it plotted evil,
And made up its Mind to eat its friend’s young ones.
The eagle made its voice heard and spoke to its young
I am going to eat the serpent’s young ones,
The serpent [is sure to be an]gry,
So I shall go up and abide in the sky.
I shall come down from the tree top only to eat the fruit!
A small fledgling, especially wise, addressed its words to the eagle, its father
Father, don’t eat! The net of Shamash will ensnare you.
The snares (on which) the oath of Shamash (is sworn) will overturn you and ensnare you.
(Remember) Whoever oversteps the limit set by Shamash,
Shamash will deliver into the hands of the Smiter for harm.”
It would not listen to them, and would not listen to the word of its sons.
It went down and ate the serpent’s young.
In the evening at the close of day,
The serpent came and was carrying its load,
Laid the meat down on the entrance of its nest,
Stared, for its nest was not there.
Morning came (?), but [the eagle] did not [appear],
For with its talons it had [clawed at] the ground,
And its dust cloud [covered] the heavens on high.
The serpent lay down and wept,
Its tears flowed before Shamash.
I trusted in you, Shamash the Warrior,
And I was helpful (?) to the eagle who lives in the branches.
Now the serpent’s nest [is grief stricken].
My own nest is not there, while its nest is safe.
My young ones are scattered and its young ones are safe.
It came down and ate my young ones!
You know the wrong which it has done me, Shamash!
Truly, O Shamash, your net is as wide as earth,
Your snare is as broad as the sky!
The eagle should not escape from your net,
As criminal as Anzu, who wronged his comrade” [In Erra and Ishum, tablet III, there is talk of a ‘net, like that [which overwhelmed) wicked Anzu’ (Dalley, 1991, p. 300). For Anzu, see infra. His comrade whom he wronged, is Ellil (?)].
[When he heard] the serpent’s plea,
Shamash made his voice heard and spoke to the serpent
Go along the path, cross the mountain,
Where a wild bull (…) has been bound for you [or, ‘Where [Shakkan] has’, or ‘[I, Shamash] have bound a wild bull for you’].
Open up its innards, slit open its stomach,
Make a place to sit inside its stomach,
All kinds of birds will come down from the sky to eat the flesh.
The eagle too [will come down] with them.
[Since] it will not be aware of danger to itself,
It will search out the most tender morsels, will comb the area (?),
Penetrate to the lining of the innards.
When it enters the innards, you must seize it by the wing,
Cut its wings, feather and pinion,
Pluck it and throw it into a bottomless pit,
Let it die there of hunger and thirst!
At the command of the Warrior Shamash,
The serpent came upon the wild bull,
And opened up its innards and slit open its stomach,
And made a place to sit inside its stomach.
All kinds of birds came down from the sky and began to eat the flesh.
But the eagle made its voice heard and spoke to its son
Come, and let us go down and let us eat the flesh of this wild bull!
But the young fledgling was exceptionally wise, and said to the eagle, its father
Don’t go down, father; perhaps the serpent is lying in wait inside this wild bull!
The eagle reasoned thus to itself
If the birds felt any fear,
How would they be eating the flesh so peacefully?
It did not heed to them, did not listen to the words of its sons,
Came down and stood upon the wild bull.
The eagle inspected the flesh,
But kept scanning ahead of it and behind it.
It inspected the flesh again,
But kept scanning ahead of it and behind it.
It kept going further in (?) until it penetrated to the lining of the innards.
As it went right in, the serpent seized it by the wing.
You robbed (?) my nest, you robbed my nest!
The eagle made its voice heard and began to speak to the serpent
Spare me, and I shall give you, as one betrothed, a nudunnû payment.”
The serpent made its voice heard and spoke to the eagle
If I were to free you, how would I answer Shamash the Most High?
The punishment due to you would revert to me,
The punishment that I now inflict on you!
It cut its wings, pinion and feather,
Plucked it and threw it into a pit,
To die of hunger and thirst [Dalley, 1991, p. 191 – 195 (Text Kinnier Wilson, 1985)].

The trick of the serpent

The trick played by the serpent on the advice of Shamash of hiding in a dead animal in order to grab the eagle, can also be found in modern folktales. An example is the RUssian tale of ‘Roll Little Pea’ from the neighborhood of Novogroudok (Biélorusse), as the hero is called, who is born from a pea. His sister has been captured by a dragon and his two elder brothers have both died by the hands of that dragon, who is killed by Roll Little Pea. After that he cuts open a horse and hides himself inside. A raven comes with her young and starts to eat of the flesh. Roll Little Pea grabs a young one by the leg; the raven begs and Roll Little Pea only wants to release the little one when the raven brings him the Waters of Healing and of Life. The raven takes the bladders, flies to the three times 10th Kingdom, gets the waters and brings them to the hero, who sprinkles it on the corpses of his brothers, and they jump up [Gruel-apert, 1988, p. 143 152,  nº 57, ‘Roule Petit Pois II’ (Afanassiev, p. 134, 74b; recorded by M Dimitriev)].

Another kind of example can be seen in the Georgian story of ‘The Beautiful Girl from the far away Land of Nigozeti’, a mixture of several types, but mainly ATU 531. The jealous courtiers tell the King that the hero can bring him the Bird King (who will surprise the World with its song). The horse commands him to ask the King for nine bags of millet and then takes him into the mountains where birds abound. There the boy has to lie down and cover himself with the millet. The birds all come eating, but finally the Bird King comes and seats himself right above the boy’s heart, whereupon he can grab him. Just like Shamash tells exactly how to act, so the horse tells the boy exactly what to do: the Bird King will pick three times and then he has to grab him, and when the other birds attack the boy, the horse chases them away [Mijne, 1989, p. 36 50 (here p. 43), retold by Jelena Virsaladze].

Another RUssian example from the collection of Afanassiev is a version of ATU 551, the search for the Water of Youth. At the end of the story, when Ivan, the youngest of the three sons of the Tsar, comes back with the Water of Youth, he is ambushed by his brothers, robbed of the Water, and chopped into little bits. While they bring the Water to the Tsar who is rejuvenated, the old man, that has been Ivan’s helper all the while, comes to his body and grabs a raven that is eating from Ivan’s body by the legs and forces the other ravens to collect the pieces of Ivan; he puts them together, blows over them and Ivan jumps up, saying: ‘Fie, granddad, have I slept long!Without me you’ld still be sleeping!’ (he is naked; the old man blows and he has clothes on) [Gruel-apert, 1990, p. 59 – 63,78, ‘L’eau de jeunesse et la Fille Roi’ ( Afanassiev p. 175, 104e, recorded Province Arkhangelsk)].
Also in an Estonian version of ATU 550 the treacherous brothers have killed the youngest, and taken his bride (horse, and bird). The wolf, the helper of the youngest, is chased away from the wedding, goes back to the hero, tears a horse down, hides in its belly, catches that way a raven, and forces it to bring him Water of Life and of Death, with which he revives his friend.[Kallas, 1900, p. 137f,  nº 18, ‘Die klugen Brüder und der einfältige Bruder’].
In a Rumanian version of ATU 550 also the brothers have killed the youngest. The stench from his corpse lures the ‘krummen wolf’; he strangles a passing horse and hides inside. Crows come and the wolf manages to catch three young; the parents are sent out to get two kinds of water, curing and reviving water. Brought by the old crows it is tested on one of the young. Then the wolf revives the hero [Draak, 1936, p. 34 (version RR 2)].

The trick is also part of the Tartar epic Ai Tolysy Radloff collected in South Siberia. The tale has a lot of motives, and is in the main part a version of ATU 516B, wherein Ai Tolysy plays the part of Faithful John. Before this adventure the hero and his friend Kattandzula fight against a seemingly indestructible army, but Ai Tolysy discovers that a mysterious fat hero revives the dead army, and kills him. But he can’t bring his horse to a stand, with the usual exaggeration it takes more than a day’s journey. So when he comes back to the killed enemy he discovers he has killed Kattandzula. Like Gilgamesh after losing Enkidu he cries, laments, puts medicine in his mouth, but is not able to revive him. ‘Where do I go now?’ he says, dismounts still weeping, cuts the throat of the horse of his friend, takes a knife, and is on the brink of cutting it open, when in the distance a raven is croaking. Two ravens fly over, followed by two young. ‘Here is a land where a War has been. Our wings are tired, let us fly down and drink blood,’ the young birds say. Their mother opposes them ‘No, don’t let yourself down: on a battlefield is bad blood.’ But the children keep whining, and finally their mother gives them permission, warning them not to stay too long. When Ai Tolysy sees the ravens coming he crawls into the slaughtered horse, and while he lies in wait, the two ravens land and start to pick up blood. One of them says: ‘We should eat the horse’s fat.’ They hop on the horse, start picking at the fat, and are both caught by Ai Tolysy. The parent birds see it, land, and beg him to let their children go. But he will only let them go when they make his friend alive. The two ravens lament, saying they know nothing about making alive. But he threatens to wring the necks of their little ones. The birds ask for a day respite, then half a day, but he gives them from sunrise till the sun rises. They fly away, and he hears the sounds of wings flapping, and they are already coming back. He sees them in the far distance, but they are chased by a magpie the size of a horse’s head who hacks at the birds, making their feathers fly. Ai Tolysy takes his arrow [big] as a shovel, takes his bow and shoots (nothing on earth didn’t hear the shot, the above living Kudai [God], the below living Aina [hell demons] have heard it), cutting the back of the magpie from the front. The ravens land and one of them has in his hand a golden flask full of medicine. Ai Tolysy twists off the head of one of the young, and the raven laments ‘Why have you wrung its neck?To find out if you have brought the good stuff,’ and he orders them to cure the young bird. They pour a little bit on the young bird, and it becomes alive. Then they pour it on Kattandzula, then on his horse, and both come back to life [from Radloff, 1868, 2, p. 176 223]

Etana’s flight

The story then continues with ‘a certain Etana’, who had no children and was desperately in need of the plant of birth which grows only in heaven. He also cried to Shamash, and Shamash advised him to rescue the eagle, win his friendship and use him as a vehicle to fly to heaven. This Etana did. ‘Upon the eagle’s breast he placed his breast, upon the feathers of his wings he placed his hands, upon his sides he placed his arms’ and, in this uncomfortable position, he took off for a breathtaking flight. Gradually he saw the earth shrink to the size of a furrow and the sea to the size of a bread basket. But when land and sea were no longer visible Etana panicked: ‘My friend, I will not ascend to heaven!’ he shouted and, loosening his grip, he plunged head down towards the earth, followed by the eagle. At this critical moment the text breaks off, and lots of (modern) writers have no problem with Etana plunging to his death, [1] but Roux is positive that Etana reached heaven, for not only did he live a respectable 1,560 years but, according to the King List, he had a son and heir called Balikh [Roux, 1982, p. 115f] Kramer doesn’t even mention Etana’s fall and continues: To be sure, Etana did not stay put in heaven, for according to a recently translated funeral dirge on a tablet in the Pushkin Museum as well as to the long known seventh tablet of the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, we find Etana residing in the nether World whither all mortals, no matter how great their achievements except, of course, the Flood hero Ziusudra must finally descend [Kramer, 1970, p. 43 44, in the King List he was called ‘a man who ascended to heaven’].
The scene in the Epic of Gilgamesh concerns the dream of Enkidu, which he has shortly before his death. In his vision he is already taken to the UnderWorld, also called the House of Dust, and he sees there ‘the Kings of the earth, their Crowns put away forever; rulers and Princes, all those who wore Kingly Crowns and ruled the World in the days of old. They who had stood in the place of the Gods Anu and Enlil, stood now like servants to fetch baked meats in the house of dust, to carry cooked meat and cold water from the water skin. In the house of dust which I entered were high priests and acolytes, priests of the incantation and of ecstasy; there were servants in the temple, and there was Etana, that King of Kish whom the eagle carried to heaven in the days of old’ [Sandars, 1972, 92; Böhl, 1941, p. 58, versus 49) has only: ‘There lives Etana’].

The dream of Enkidu starts with the vision of a Bird Man: ‘The heavens roared, and the earth rumbled back an answer; between them stood I before an awful being, the sombre faced man bird; he had directed on me his purpose. His was a vampire face, his foot was a lion’s foot, his hand was an eagle’s talon. He fell on me and his claws were in my hair, he held me fast and I smothered; then he transformed me so that my arms became wings covered with feathers. He turned his stare towards me, and he led me away to the palace of Irkalla, the Queen of Darkness, to the house from which none who enters ever returns, down the road from which there is no coming back.’ According to Böhl it was

a man with a threatening look;
as from the divine stormbird was his face;
He had eagle’s wings
and as eagle’s claws were his nails.
[Sandars, 1972, p. 92; Böhl, 1941, p. 57, versus p. 17 – 19. Irkalla is another name for Ereshkigal, Queen of the UnderWorld].

Not only Enkidu has become a bird, all the inhabitants of the House of Darkness wear like birds a coat of feathers [Böhl, 1941, p. 58 versus 38; Sandars, 1972, p. 92, They are clothed like birds with wings for covering].


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[1] So Jockel (infra); Neumann, 1973,p 187f; Böhl, 1941, 57: ‘the herdsman Etana, who was carried by an eagle to the highest heaven and crashed shortly before arriving at his goal; Graves, § 29.2:Etana, the Babylonian hero, after his sacred marriage at Kish, rode on eagle back (sic!) towards Ishtar’s heavenly courts, but fell into the sea and was drowned. Etana’s death (…) was (…) a punishment for the bad crops which had characterized his reign he was flying to discover a magical herb of fertility. His story is woven into an account of the continuous struggle between Eagle and Serpent (waxing and waning year, King and Tanist) and the Eagle, reduced to his last gasp at the winter solstice, has its life and strength magically renewed. Thus we find in Psalm ciii.5: Thy youth is renewed, as the eagle’s.’” That Etana was sitting on the eagle is also the impression created by Kramer (1970, p. 43f) who says: ‘This legend was quite popular among the seal cutters, to judge from a number of seals depicting a mortal climbing heavenward on the wings of an eagle.’

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