Peeps at Ancient Assyria - Jamse Baikie

Hero Stories of the Ancient East (Continued)

In the British Museum there lies another set of tablets, from the royal library of King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, which tells us the story of a rash mortal who tried to fly up to heaven and see the abodes of the gods, and of what befell him. Unfortunately, the tablets are very much broken and destroyed, so that large parts of the story are lost. When it begins, the hero Etana is in great distress. He is expecting the birth of a son; but his wife is in sore sickness, and he is afraid that both she and her son may perish. So he consults the Sun-god Shamash, and the god tells him of a wonderful plant, growing among the mountains, which will bring safety and health to both mother and son. Etana goes in search of it, and no doubt finds it and secures his wife and child from harm. In his search he was helped by his friend the Eagle, who carried him over the mountains.

But in some way or other that we cannot make out, Etana, while engaged in warfare against a hostile city, had managed to offend Ishtar, who, for a lady who was the goddess of love, seems to have been very ill-natured and ready to take offence. She laid a cunning plot to avenge herself upon him; and his friend, the Eagle, was made the innocent accomplice of the goddess in her cruel design. Meaning no evil, the Eagle suggested to Etana that they might fly together up into the heavens. Etana was nothing loath; he clung to the great bird, and it flapped its huge pinions and sailed up into the sky. As they rose above the earth, the gates of heaven opened, and as Etana saw the glory within, and the great throne of God, he threw himself upon his face in terror.

But the Eagle was troubled with no fears, and wished to go farther still. He turned to his trembling companion and reassured him.

"My friend, lift up thy face,

Come, and let me carry thee to the heaven of Anu.

On my breast place thy breast,

On my pinion place thy palms,

On my side place thy side."

So once more the two wheeled out into the air and flew upwards through the sky to the higher heavens. For two hours they flew, and then the Eagle said to Etana, "Look down, my friend, and see how the earth appears, and the sea." Etana looked down into the depths, and answered, "The earth appears no bigger than a mountain, and the sea has shrunk to a pool." For two hours more they resumed their flight, and then the Eagle said again, "Look, my friend, how the earth appears," and Etana looked down and answered, "The sea is a mere belt round the earth." Then for another two hours they flew, and when the Eagle said once more, "Look, my friend, how the earth appears," Etana answered, "The sea is a mere gardener's ditch." So at last they came to the gate of the second heaven, and there they rested for a while.

But the Eagle, the unconscious tool of the anger of Ishtar, was not satisfied yet. There was still a third heaven to reach, and he would not be content until he had placed his friend by the side of the great goddess. He said:

"Come, my friend, let me carry thee to Ishtar.

With Ishtar, the mistress of the gods, thou shalt dwell.

In the glory of Ishtar, the mistress of the gods, thou shalt sit.

On my side place thy side, On my pinion thy palms."

Etana was only too easily persuaded, and they mounted higher and higher till the earth seemed only as large as a garden plot and the ocean no bigger than a courtyard. Then at last, Etana's heart failed him, and he began to implore the eagle to descend, but it was too late. The rash voyagers through space had come into the sphere where Ishtar ruled, and her vengeance fell upon them. Headlong they dropped from heaven, with lightning speed, until at last they crashed to the earth.



In all likelihood Etana was killed by his fall, for in the story of Gilgamesh he is mentioned by Eabani as one of those who are dwelling in the dark and miserable world of the dead; but the Eagle was reserved for an almost more wretched fate. He had a feud with the Serpent, which was under the protection of Shamash, the Sun-god, and an opportunity came to him of eating the Serpent's young when they had newly come out of the egg. One of the young birds, "who was endowed with much wisdom," warned him against such an action. "Do not eat, my father, for it is a net of Shamash that is laid for thee. The snare of Shamash will fall upon thee, and catch thee." But the Eagle was too intent on his opportunity to listen to the wisdom of his child. "He swooped down and ate the young of the Serpent."

Then, in anger, the Serpent went before the throne of the Sun-god and appealed to him for vengeance upon the evil-doer. He described how his nest with his young ones was set in a tree, and how the Eagle had swooped down upon it and devoured the young. "Behold, Shamash, the evil he hath done me. Help, O Shamash!" Then Shamash, the Judge of all the Earth, gave wily counsel unto the Serpent. "Go into the mountain," he said, "and you will find the carcass of an ox that is dead. Enter into its body, and hide thyself in its entrails. Then when the birds of the air swoop down upon it, the Eagle will come with them. When he hath entered into the ox, seize thou him by his wing, tear off his wings and his talons, pull him in pieces and cast him into a pit, that he may die the death from hunger and thirst."

Then the Serpent departed from before the face of Shamash, and went into the mountain, and did, according to the word of the god; for he tore open the body of a wild ox, and entered into it, and took up his dwelling in its entrails. When they saw the dead ox, all the birds of the air swooped down to eat of its flesh; but at first the Eagle would not come. He suspected a snare, and hovered aloof. At last, however, his appetite overcame his prudence. "Then the Eagle opened his mouth and spake unto his young: "Come, let us swoop down, and let us also eat of the flesh of this wild ox!" The same young eaglet, who was endowed with much wisdom," tried to dissuade him. "O my father," he said, "the Serpent lurks in the flesh of this wild ox." But the Eagle would not listen; he swooped down on the carcass, and began to tear at the choice parts of the flesh. Then the Serpent seized him by the wing. In terror the Eagle begged for mercy, and offered a ransom for his life; but the Serpent told him that if he released him, the anger of the Sun-god would be against them both.

"So he tore off his wings, his pinions, and his talons.

He pulled him in pieces, and cast him into a pit. . . .

And he died a death from hunger and thirst."

Now we come to a story which has a curious resemblance to a famous tale of modern times. No doubt you have all read Wandering Willie's Tale in "Redgauntlet," one of the most wonderful of short stories, and you remember how Piper Steenie went down into the world of the dead to get his receipt from Sir Robert Redgauntlet, and how his old friend Dougal MacCallum, who opened the gate for him, warned him to take nothing from any of the dead men who spoke to him, "neither meat, drink, or siller, except just the receipt that is your ain"; and how when he went into the hall he saw all the ghosts of the persecutors, "Earlshall, with Cameron's blade on his hand," and "bluidy Mackenzie," and "Claverhouse, as beautiful as when he lived, with his long, dark, curled locks streaming down over his laced buff-coat, and the left hand always on his right spule-blade, to hide the wound that the silver bullet had made." They offered the piper meat and drink, but he would not touch them, for he knew that if he did he would be forced to stay with the dead forever. They offered him bagpipes to play them a tune; but he saw that the chanter was white-hot steel, and would not touch it; and at last he got his receipt and escaped from his ghastly company.

Well, now listen to this story, first told perhaps some 5,000 years before Sir Walter wrote Wandering Willie's Tale, of the fisherman who broke the wings of the South Wind, and went before the gods to answer for it. It befell that Adapa, the son of the great god Ea, was fishing one day that he might provide fish for his father's house. Then came the South Wind like a bird with mighty pinions, and with the flap of its great wings it overset Adapa's boat and plunged him into the dwelling-place of the fish. But Adapa's heart and arm were strong, and in his anger at being overset he fought with the South Wind and broke its wings. Then for seven days the South Wind ceased to blow across the world. Therefore Anu, the great god of heaven, called to his messenger Ilabrat, and asked him: "Why has the South Wind ceased for seven days to blow across the world V And Ilabrat answered him: "My lord! Adapa, the son of Ea, has broken the wings of the South Wind."



Therefore Anu in anger summoned Adapa to come up into heaven and appear before him to answer for his act. So Ea the great god advised his son to obey the summons of Anu, and to humble himself before the gatekeepers of heaven that they might intercede for him; but above all, there was one point in which he was to be on his guard. "When thou comes before Anu they will offer thee food of death. Do not eat. They will offer thee waters of death. Do not drink. They will offer thee a garment. Put it on. They will offer thee oil. Anoint thyself "The order that I give thee do not neglect." So the herald of heaven came, and Ea delivered up Adapa his son to answer before the throne of God.

Now when they came to the gate of heaven, the two Watchers of the Gate, Tammuz and Gishzida, were on guard. But Adapa humbled himself before them, and with wise words prevailed with them, so that they brought him before King Anu, and stood ready to intercede for him. Then said Anu: "Come, Adapa, why hast thou broken the wings of the South Wind?" And Adapa answered: "My lord! For the house of my lord Ea I was fishing in the midst of the sea. The waters lay still around me, when the South Wind began to blow, and forced me underneath. Into the dwelling of the fish it drove me; and in the anger of my heart I broke the wings of the South Wind." Then the two Watchers of the Gate interceded with Anu, and the anger of the great god was appeased, and he pardoned Adapa.

"But," said he, "what shall we do now that an impure mortal has seen the courts of heaven? We can do nothing but make him like unto ourselves. Offer him food of life, that he may eat of it." They brought it to him, but he did not eat. Waters of life they brought him, but he did not drink. A garment they brought him. He put it on. Oil they brought him. He anointed himself. Therefore Anu the great god looked at him and lamented over him. "Come, Adapa, why didst thou not eat and drink? Now thou canst not live." And Adapa answered: "Ea, my lord, commanded me not to eat and not to drink." You see the supreme god had been kindlier than Ea expected, and instead of offering bread and water of death, had offered bread and water of life; and so through his father's too great caution poor Adapa missed the chance of becoming immortal like the gods. Or perhaps Ea himself was jealous lest his son should become equal with him, and tricked Adapa into refusing the food that would make him live forever. Anyhow, the story has the same moral as both the Gilgamesh and the Etana stories, and the stout-hearted fisherman, like the others, finds that between God and man there is a gulf that can never be bridged. But it is curious to see how the ancient Babylonian and the great Scottish storyteller hit upon the same idea.