Myths of Babylonia and Assyria
Page: 91When a great national hero appealed by reason of his achievements to the imagination of a people, all the floating legends of antiquity were attached to his memory, and he became identified with gods and giants and knight-errants "old in story". In Scotland, for instance, the boulder-throwing giant of Eildon hills bears the name of Wallace, the Edinburgh giant of Arthur's Seat is called after an ancient Celtic king, and Thomas the Rhymer takes the place, in an Inverness fairy mound called Tom-na-hurich, of Finn (Fingal) as chief of the "Seven Sleepers". Similarly Napoleon sleeps in France and Skobeleff in Russia, as do also other heroes elsewhere. In Germany the myths of Thunor (Thor) were mingled with hazy traditions of Theodoric the Goth (Dietrich), while in Greece, Egypt, and Arabia, Alexander the Great absorbed a mass of legendary matter of great antiquity, and displaced in the memories of the people the heroes of other Ages, as those heroes had previously displaced the humanized spirits of fertility and growth who alternately battled fiercely against the demons of spring, made love, gorged and drank deep and went to sleep--the sleep of winter. Certain folk tales, and the folk beliefs on which they were based, seem to have been of hoary antiquity before the close of the Late Stone Age.
There are two great heroes of Babylonian fame who link with Perseus and Hercules, Sigurd and Siegfried, Dietrich and Finn-mac-Coul. These are Etana and Gilgamesh, two legendary kings who resemble Tammuz the Patriarch referred to by Berosus, a form of Tammuz the Sleeper of the Sumerian psalms. One journeys to the Nether World to obtain the Plant of Birth and the other to obtain the Plant of Life. The floating legends with which they were associated were utilized and developed by the priests, when engaged in the process of systematizing and symbolizing religious beliefs, with purpose to unfold the secrets of creation and the Otherworld. Etana secures the assistance or a giant eagle who is an enemy of serpents like the Indian Garuda, half giant, half eagle. As Vishnu, the Indian god, rides on the back of Garuda, so does Etana ride on the back of the Babylonian Eagle. In one fragmentary legend which was preserved in the tablet-library of Ashur-banipal, the Assyrian monarch, Etana obtained the assistance of the Eagle to go in quest of the Plant of Birth. His wife was about to become a mother, and was accordingly in need of magical aid. A similar belief caused birth girdles of straw or serpent skins, and eagle stones found in eagles' nests, to be used in ancient Britain and elsewhere throughout Europe apparently from the earliest times.
On this or another occasion Etana desired to ascend to highest heaven. He asked the Eagle to assist him, and the bird assented, saying: "Be glad, my friend. Let me bear thee to the highest heaven. Lay thy breast on mine and thine arms on my wings, and let my body be as thy body." Etana did as the great bird requested him, and together they ascended towards the firmament. After a flight which extended over two hours, the Eagle asked Etana to gaze downwards. He did so, and beheld the ocean surrounding the earth, and the earth seemed like a mountainous island. The Eagle resumed its flight, and when another two hours had elapsed, it again asked Etana to look downwards. Then the hero saw that the sea resembled a girdle which clasped the land. Two hours later Etana found that he had been raised to a height from which the sea appeared to be no larger than a pond. By this time he had reached the heaven of Anu, Bel, and Ea, and found there rest and shelter.