The story is familiar: chaos reigned before order; darkness filled the void before light; waters crested and ebbed to shape the land and mountains; generations of gods and humans battled over power and control. These are shared mythologies that run through continents and civilizations. Out of all the creation narratives, one name rises above the rest — Tiamat, the ancient Babylonian goddess considered the foundational force of the universe.
Ancient Babylonia, part of the Mesopotamian empire, was renowned for its beautiful gardens, astronomy, and astrology, and as a cultural bridge between Africa and Asia. The legend of Tiamat is told through the ancient Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, thought to have been scribed by Hammurabi, the sixth ruler and considered the first king of the Babylonian Empire.
The Enuma Elish: The Seven Tablets of Creation
Enuma Elish is the Babylonian creation story, predating and influencing early Judeo-Christian texts. Comprised of 1000 lines etched on seven clay tablets, the Enuma Elish is the primary source for Mesopotamian cosmology and tells the story of how the order was shaped out of swirling chaos. The shaper is Tiamat, goddess of the deep salt waters, who with her mate Apsu, the god of fresh, clean water, gives birth to the first generation of deities. The opening passage sets forth how raw and unformed the world was prior to Tiamat’s efforts:
When on high the heaven had not been named,
Firm ground below had not been called by name,
Naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter,
(And) Tiamat, she who bore them all, Their waters commingling as a single body;
No reed hut had been matted, no marshland had appeared,
When no gods whatever had been brought into being,
Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined—
Then it was that the gods were formed within them.
This early generation of deities is violent and power-hungry, ready to overthrow Apsu and assume power, launching Tiamat into her second, more violent stage. Many scholars view Tiamat through two phases — the nourishing, creative force and the destructive, vengeful goddess.
The Face of Tiamat: Caring Mother and Avenging Spouse
At the beginning of Tiamat’s story, she personifies young and fertile motherhood, giving birth to a multitude of deity offspring. During this stage, Tiamat is described as calm and loving. But when her offspring turn murderous, killing her husband Apsu, Tiamat enters her second phase — her anger transforms her into a vengeful monster with five independent heads. Ultimately, this stage is Tiamat’s undoing, as her need for revenge and her formidable power leads her into battle with Marduk, the god of storms. Even more ambitious than the previous generation, Marduk would only agree to wage battle with Tiamat on the condition that if victorious, he would be crowned “King of the Gods.”
In a true “war of the worlds,” Marduk emerged as the victor against Tiamat by utilizing his wind-driven power, splitting her in half with an arrow. Marduk succeeds Tiamat, but only after using her split body to fashion the heavens and the earth. As described by the New World Encyclopedia:
“The entirety of the material creation was thus generated, with half of her body as the sky, the other half as the earth, her ribs (or thigh bones) as the vault of heaven and earth, her monstrous udder as the mountains, her weeping eyes as the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates and her poisonous spittle as the earthly moisture (clouds, winds, rain, and fog).”
Zecharia Sitchin, the author of “The Twelfth Planet” and “The Cosmic Code,” and Babylonian cosmology expert, asserts that the creation myth of Tiamat and her battle with Marduk is, in fact, an account of the creation of our solar system’s asteroid belt. He wrote that “The asteroid belt was once a single planet which the Sumerians called Tiamat,” asserting that the enormity of a battle between Marduk and Tiamat caused a cosmic impact that created what the Sumerians named the “Great Band,” or asteroid belt, as well as Nibiru, an undiscovered planet associated with Marduk.
Tiamat and the Legacy of Feminine Power
According to Rivkah Brickman Harris, author of “Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia,” Tiamat’s multiple personalities represents the many stages of in a woman’s life, as well as prescribed gender roles relating to power and sexuality. Harris concentrates her scholarship on Tiamat’s older self, and how society negatively stereotypes older women, ultimately punishing them for their independence and ambition. Tiamat’s violent end is identified with the often complicated role powerful women face, both in ancient and modern times.
The emergence of the hero-god in the form of Marduk, who slays the creation goddess, Tiamat, resonates in today’s #MeToo movement, as humanity continues to struggle toward equity and power. Tiamat’s legacy as the original powerful female persona lives on, from the women of Greek mythology, such as Medea, to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, to the emergence of a new generation of politicians and activists.
Will we finally move from a society that shuns women’s power, as Tiamat was ultimately destroyed, or will be learn to celebrate the multiversity that is feminine power? Only time will tell.