Myths of Babylonia and Assyria
Page: 3The student will find footing on surer ground by following the process which exalts the dragon of the folk tale into the symbol of evil and primordial chaos. The Babylonian Creation Myth, for instance, can be shown to be a localized and glorified legend in which the hero and his tribe are displaced by the war god and his fellow deities whose welfare depends on his prowess. Merodach kills the dragon, Tiamat, as the heroes of Eur-Asian folk stories kill grisly hags, by casting his weapon down her throat.
He severed her inward parts, he pierced her heart,He overcame her and cut off her life;He cast down her body and stood upon it ...And with merciless club he smashed her skull.He cut through the channels of her blood,And he made the north wind to bear it away into secret places.
He divided the flesh of the Ku-pu and devised a cunning plan.
Mr. L.W. King, from whose scholarly Seven Tablets of Creation these lines are quoted, notes that "Ku-pu" is a word of uncertain meaning. Jensen suggests "trunk, body". Apparently Merodach obtained special knowledge after dividing, and perhaps eating, the "Ku-pu". His "cunning plan" is set forth in detail: he cut up the dragon's body:
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves.
He formed the heavens with one half and the earth with the other, and then set the universe in order. His power and wisdom as the Demiurge were derived from the fierce and powerful Great Mother, Tiamat.
In other dragon stories the heroes devise their plans after eating the dragon's heart. According to Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana was worthy of being remembered for two things--his bravery in travelling among fierce robber tribes, not then subject to Rome, and his wisdom in learning the language of birds and other animals as the Arabs do. This accomplishment the Arabs acquired, Philostratus explains, by eating the hearts of dragons. The "animals" who utter magic words are, of course, the Fates. Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied, after slaying the Regin dragon, makes himself invulnerable by bathing in its blood. He obtains wisdom by eating the heart: as soon as he tastes it he can understand the language of birds, and the birds reveal to him that Mimer is waiting to slay him. Sigurd similarly makes his plans after eating the heart of the Fafner dragon. In Scottish legend Finn-mac-Coul obtains the power to divine secrets by partaking of a small portion of the seventh salmon associated with the "well dragon", and Michael Scott and other folk heroes become great physicians after tasting the juices of the middle part of the body of the white snake. The hero of an Egyptian folk tale slays a "deathless snake" by cutting it in two parts and putting sand between the parts. He then obtains from the box, of which it is the guardian, the book of spells; when he reads a page of the spells he knows what the birds of the sky, the fish of the deep, and the beasts of the hill say; the book gives him power to enchant "the heaven and the earth, the abyss, the mountains and the sea".
Magic and religion were never separated in Babylonia; not only the priests but also the gods performed magical ceremonies. Ea, Merodach's father, overcame Apsu, the husband of the dragon Tiamat, by means of spells: he was "the great magician of the gods". Merodach's division of the "Ku-pu" was evidently an act of contagious magic; by eating or otherwise disposing of the vital part of the fierce and wise mother dragon, he became endowed with her attributes, and was able to proceed with the work of creation. Primitive peoples in our own day, like the Abipones of Paraguay, eat the flesh of fierce and cunning animals so that their strength, courage, and wisdom may be increased.
The direct influence exercised by cultural contact, on the other hand, may be traced when myths with an alien geographical setting are found among peoples whose experiences could never have given them origin. In India, where the dragon symbolizes drought and the western river deities are female, the Manu fish and flood legend resembles closely the Babylonian, and seems to throw light upon it. Indeed, the Manu myth appears to have been derived from the lost flood story in which Ea figured prominently in fish form as the Preserver. The Babylonian Ea cult and the Indian Varuna cult had apparently much in common, as is shown.