First Published in Sunday Midday Mumbai, 14 July 2009
In Mesopotamia, now called Iraq, in the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, there bloomed one of the oldest civilizations of man. And the people there, who built great brick cities with tall towers for the gods, believed so long as man served the gods and offered them sacrifices life would be good; any sign of defiance and the angry gods would bring down storms and floods and pestilence. This world where man feared gods had many tales to tell. Put down in clay tablets in cuneiform script, long before Abraham’s descendents made his long march to Egypt, they speak of a world that looked up to, and feared, Annunaki, the children of Anu, the sky god.
Once an eagle lived on top of a tree and a serpent lived below. “Respect each other’s children,” said Anu. The serpent obeyed but the eagle did not and one day, too lazy to hunt, swooped down to eat the serpent’s children. In fury, Anu cast the eagle into a pit. “There you will stay in starvation, and never fly out until you help a man beget a child.” So for a long time the eagle suffered in the pit, until a man called Etana called out to him. “Help me, eagle. I have no children. I need to fly to heaven and get from the land of the gods a herb that will help my wife bear me a child.” The eagle promised to help and it soared into the sky, with Etana on his back. Soon Etana found himself rising above the stars and above the clouds and above the sun and the moon. The higher they went, the smaller the earth looked. The cities were smaller than ants and the rivers and canals with enclosed fields spread out like spider webs around them. Such a sight, unseen by any man, made Etana dizzy and he told the eagle, “This makes me dizzy. Take me back down.” So the eagle flies down and brings Etana back to the ground. They try again. This time a little higher but still not high enough to reach the city of the gods. “I am scared of heights,” says Etana. But he tries once again. A little higher with this, his third try. And so it happens again and again, flying up above the skies, each time a little higher. The eagle never loses patience with Etana and Etana, though afraid, never loses his will. Finally, after much hardwork, Etana does reach the land of the gods, and does find the herb that helps his wife bear him a son. He thanks the eagle for his support and the eagle thanks him from liberating him from the burden of a crime committed long ago.
Adapa was the priest of Enki, god of the waters. One day, while he was fishing, the South Wind overturned his boat. Angry, he used the power bestowed upon him by Enki, to break the South Wind’s wing. As a result, the South Wind stopped blowing and this made Anu very angry. “Get Adapa before me,” he said and Enki rushed to the side of his priest. “Adapa,” said Enki, “My father Anu and all the other members of the Annunaki summon you before them to answer for what you have done. When you go there, you will find at the gates, the gods of vegetation, Tammuz and Gishzida, who die each year at harvest time and are reborn after the sowing season. When you meet them you must cry. They will ask you why you cry and you should say you cry for them because they have died in your land. This will make them happy and they will give you clothes to wear and oil to anoint yourself with. Accept these gifts. And they will speak kindly of you before the Annunaki and the Annunaki will forgive you. And then Anu will offer you bread and water. DO NOT accept it. And that will please the gods greatly and you will be allowed to return to earth without punishment.” Adapa did as Enki advised him to. He mourned for Tammuz and Gishzida and he wore the clothes they gave him and he anointed himself with the oil they gave him. And then he refused to eat or drink anything that Anu gave him. And he returned unscathed, his heart full of gratitude for Enki.
Meanwhile, Anu wondered, “I offered this man Adapa bread of life and water of life that would have made him and his children immortal. Why did he not accept it?” Enki did not reply, but he did laugh silently when he was alone. For this was Enki’s way of ensuring man remained forever mortal. For only when man is mortal would he fear the immortal Annunaki and worship them. Only a mortal Adapa would serve as priest in Enki’s temple.