Blood on the Wind and the Tablet of Destinies: Intertextuality in Anzu, Enuma elis, and Erra and Isum.

Author:Wisnom, Selena
Position:Critical essay

Anzu, Enuma elis, and Erra and Isum are three fundamentally interconnected poems. (1) As heroic narratives about warrior gods, they form a coherent group which stands in a historical relationship, each alluding to the poems that precede it. Each tells the story of how a god gained recognition through demonstrating his might, and each is intensely competitive, using allusive techniques to establish the superiority of its protagonist over those that came before him. However, while the connections between these poems are by now well established, they remain under-explored. This article takes two motifs as a case study to explore the detailed workings of intertextuality in these poems: the matter carried on the wind as a sign of victory (2) and the tablet of destinies. (3) Both these motifs first appear in Anzu, are transformed by Enuma elis, and transformed yet again by Erra and Isum, building up complex chains of allusion.

Lambert (1986) first acknowledged that Enuma elis borrows elements from Anzu to depict Marduk as the new Ninurta, the implications of which were highlighted by Machinist: "The similarities with and modifications of the Anzu text... allow us to appreciate more precisely what Enuma elis is about" (2005: 44). Machinist then extended the picture to include Erra and Isum. (4) This poem builds on and subverts the allusive patterns in Enuma elis, which in turn had asserted itself over Anzu: the three poems thus form a set reflecting on each other.

Lambert was not complimentary about the way that Enuma elis deployed these allusions and was followed in this negative view by many, (5) but in recent years this attitude has begun to change. Articles by Machinist (2005), Katz (2011), and Seri (2014) explore the use of intertextuality in Enuma elis as a mark of refinement. Karen Sonik has recently written about the tablet of destinies as an important symbol of legitimate power in the poem (2012), and Gosta Gabriel has discussed its function in relation to the determining of destinies (2014: 262-68). However, the meaning of such borrowings has yet to be fully explored, either in Enuma elis itself or in Mesopotamian literature as a whole. This article takes the blood on the wind and the tablet of destinies as two examples of how much deeper into Akkadian literature an intertextual approach can take us. Not only are these motifs much better integrated than is usually recognized, but they are crucial parts of the way that Enuma elis establishes Marduk as the supreme warrior god over Ninurta, adding nuances that can substantially deepen our interpretation of the poem. (6)

As for Erra and Isum, although the poem is acknowledged to be highly innovative, (7) studies of its intertextuality remain few. Only Machinist (2005), Cooley (2008), and Frahm (2011) have written about it specifically from this perspective. Allusions to the blood or feathers on the wind and the tablet of destinies are brief and only small elements in this complex work. However, they are striking examples of just how complex these intertextual chains of meaning can become, and so are particularly worthy of analysis.

Intertextuality is a term with a complex history that has come to be used in many different ways. (8) At its most basic level, it refers to the reoccurrence of words, phrases, and motifs from one text in another. In literary studies, analysis of intertextuality goes beyond pointing out these reoccurrences and moves into their interpretation. That is, when we identify a connection, we must ask what it means and why it matters. Such connections need not always be significant--it is common for religious compositions in particular, such as hymns and balags, to include formulaic epithets and passages which are part of the poetic stock. However, references are often deliberately embedded in a text as literary allusions, and the educated audience is intended to recognize them as clues to the poem's interpretation. It is these kinds of allusions and meaningful recognitions that I am speaking of under the umbrella of intertextuality here.

I speak freely of intention since the enterprise of studying ancient texts inevitably attempts to understand their original meaning. (9) This need not lead us to seek out the irrevocable thoughts of an author, however. Umberto Eco coined the phrase intentio operis, or "intention of the work" as a bridge between the extremes of intentionalist and anti-intentionalist viewpoints (1992). John Barton, in arguing for its applicability to ancient literature, describes intentio operis as the notion that a text has "a sense that follows from the way it is written and constructed, irrespective of what the author or authors or tradents or compilers may have had in their minds at the time" (2013: 18). Using the term "intertextuality" keeps us focused on the text itself, allowing us to seek an authentic meaning or meanings, but without leading to extremes. It recognizes the limits of what is knowable and even what is necessary to know: ultimately it does not matter whether or not an author intended an allusion to be present, for if there is enough evidence in the text to support a particular interpretation the reader is justified in making it.

My approach draws on methodologies developed in Classics, a field that has a long history of analyzing allusions in ancient texts and drawing out their full significance. (10) Allusion was a common and well-established poetic practice across much of the ancient world because there was a more restricted set of texts that the literati could be expected to recognize. In Mesopotamia, different libraries of the first millennium BC contain more or less the same texts, from the personal library at Sultantepe to the temple library at Sippar (Charpin 2010: 214)." The process of learning to write cuneiform involved copying out various literary compositions, which would have familiarized the student with the literary classics. For example, Enuma elis, An-gin7, Ludlul bel nemeqi, and The Babylonian Counsels of Wisdom have all been found as first-millennium school texts (Gesche 2000). Furthermore, literary texts with high status were fewer than we have today, and so it would have been possible to be familiar with them in great detail.

The crucial point is that when we take a close look at allusions, the texts make more sense, as lines and concepts that once seemed obscure are illuminated by their literary context. This will be demonstrated by the blood on the wind and the tablet of destinies: A superficial glance makes them appear badly integrated, but a proper comparison with the poems they come from actually tells us more about Enuma elis and what it is trying to accomplish.

Enuma elis is fundamentally a story about the rise of Marduk. By telling how the god of Babylon came to be the king of the whole pantheon, the poem gives the city a god worthy of its new role as a political and religious capital. We cannot be sure exactly when it was composed, but in my view Lambert's suggestion of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar in the late twelfth century BC remains the most reasonable proposition (1964, 2013: 439-44). The poem clearly connects the rise of Marduk to the glory of Babylon, and so was probably composed at a time of national pride. (12) As Lambert points out, the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I fits these circumstances well, since this was a time of nationalistic revival coinciding with the return of Marduk's statue from Elam, when the city's fortunes had recovered after the collapse of the Kassite dynasty. (13) In this context there is a sense of Babylon needing to prove itself: the city needs a cultural and religious justification for its new position, which is played out in Enuma elis as Marduk proving himself worthy of his status.

Enuma elis narrates a battle against a chaos monster Ti'amtu, (14) who threatens the divine order, a victory that establishes Marduk as the supreme god. However, the Anzu poem already tells a similar story: how Ninurta killed Anzu and was rewarded with a high position in the pantheon. The earliest standard Babylonian manuscripts of Anzu are known from the Middle Assyrian period, and one Middle Babylonian tablet may be a copy of an Old Babylonian version, so the poem was certainly current by the time Enuma elis was written. The story was widely known and became the paradigm of heroism in Mesopotamian culture (Annus 2001: xxi). Not to have dealt with Ninurta's battle against Anzu in Enuma elis would have been to ignore a significant rival, a serious gap in the argument, as it were.

Enuma elis therefore uses a competitive strategy of allusion in portraying Marduk as superior to Ninurta. His battle is modelled on Ninurta's battle against Anzu, but Marduk achieves his victory in his own way, outdoing Anzu on several counts. For example, the crisis Marduk faces is far greater than that of Anzu. Rather than just kill one monster, Marduk has to kill a primeval creator backed by a whole army of monsters. As Machinist remarks, "the point of Enuma elis is to show Marduk appropriating and surpassing his model" (2005: 45). References to Ninurta's task--heroic in its time--within a larger, more complex narrative elevates Marduk's own achievement: he is not only as good as Ninurta was, he is better. There are many such examples of one-upmanship in the poem.

Like Enuma elis, Anzu relates the heroic victory that won its protagonist his high status. Anzu steals the tablet of destinies from Enlil, which deprives him of his supremacy. The whole divine order is thrown into chaos and the gods desperately seek a champion to fight Anzu and take back authority. Three gods are asked to fight but refuse. Ninurta is the only one who rises to the challenge. However, Anzu is a formidable opponent. Since he possesses the tablet of destinies, he can harness its magic power as a weapon. Ninurta shoots an arrow, but Anzu repels it by turning it back into the materials from which it was...

To continue reading