The Anzu’s Theft?

Relief of Dudu
Detail from the Votive Relief of Dudu, Priest of Ningirsu in the time of Entemena, Prince of Lagash, c. 2,400 BCE. From Tello (ancient Girsu). Bituminous Stone, 23 cm x 23 cm x 8 cm, Louvre Museum, AO 2354. Image Credit: Louvre Museum, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hybrid creatures have appeared in the stories and artworks of many cultures, often with intriguing correlations between texts and images. In ancient Mesopotamia, the lion-headed eagle known as the Anzu became notorious for stealing the Tablet of Destinies from Enlil. The story about the Anzu’s theft and his dramatic defeat by the Sumerian storm god Ninurta, recorded in the Standard Babylonian Epic of Anzu, had its roots more than two thousand years earlier, sometime in the third millennium BCE. Looking back at Sumerian art, depictions of lion-headed eagles with their wings outstretched, grasping the backs of animals, became prominent during the Early Dynastic III period (c. 2,500 BCE), as the heraldic victory emblem of the city-state of Lagash, its warrior kings, and its storm god Ningirsu, an early variant of Ninurta.

At first glance, the story and image seem related, with the ‘Eagle of Lagash’ (like the one pictured here) confirming the storm god’s triumph over the Anzu; but we cannot confirm that the theft story was in circulation at that time. The oldest Sumerian texts about the Anzu’s theft date from the Ur III period (c. 2,100 BCE), along with other stories about Ninurta which reference his battle with the Anzu. The myth of Ninurta and the Turtle, for example, narrated events that took place afterwards, when the Tablet of Destinies was returned to Enki (rather than Enlil), and when the Anzu (still alive) was brought captive before Enki. Adding to the puzzle of lost stories, one of the oldest Akkadian texts about the theft (c. 1,800 BCE) featured Ningirsu rather than Ninurta, raising questions about when and where the myth might have originated.

In its earliest form, the Anzu was conceived as a divine storm-bird, flying like an eagle and roaring like a lion, embodying the southern winds and the thunder clouds associated with Ninurta/Ningirsu (Imdugud). Thus, images of lion-headed eagles, which first appeared on cylinder seals in the Uruk period (c. 3,200 BCE), would have originally symbolized the storm god himself, a fierce yet benevolent agricultural power. However, some time during the third millennium, with the shift towards anthropomorphism, the Anzu came to represent a force of evil and chaos—a force conquered and controlled by Ninurta/Ningirsu, the heroic warrior son of Enlil, with the return of the Tablet of Destinies restoring order to the universe. But when did this happen?

Was the theft story part of a long oral tradition which influenced the design of the Lagash emblem? Or was the story, like the image, invented during the Early Dynastic III period in support of Lagash’s political aims? Was the tale possibly crafted later, in the Sargonic period (c. 2,300 BCE), when depictions of Enki’s judgment of the bird-man became popular in glyptic art? Did the Lagash emblem inspire the creation of the theft story, as well as other heroic myths inscribed during the Ur III period? These questions are purely speculative. What do you think?

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