The Anzu’s Story

Alongside starring in the Epic of Anzu, the divine storm bird was featured in other ancient Mesopotamian myths, raising the tantalizing idea that the same Anzu was involved in all of these stories—at least in the popular imagination. In a 1950 essay, “Akkadian Sidelights on a Fragmentary Epic,” Elizabeth Van Buren proposed an intriguing timeline of the Anzu’s activities based on Akkadian myths set in the historical past. Her mythological history, while in some ways fanciful, raised questions about recurring literary motifs as well as lost stories, and inspired later scholars to explore connections between ancient myths and visual imagery. I would like to summarize the Anzu’s story here, updated with Sumerian sources, to highlight some important themes in ancient Mesopotamian mythology.

The Anzu made his first recorded appearance in the early third millennium BCE during the reign of the shepherd king Etana, the thirteenth ruler of the first dynasty of Kish. According to the Akkadian Epic of Etana, known through Old Babylonian and later texts, the eagle (which howled like a lion) was living in the mountains at that time, nesting peacefully in the branches of a tree with a serpent at its roots, under a pact of friendship sworn before the sun god Shamash. But trouble began when the eagle, with “evil in his heart,” violated his oath and devoured the serpent’s offspring. The distraught and angry serpent plotted revenge and, on the advice of Shamash, managed to trap the treacherous eagle in a deep pit. Meanwhile, Shamash sent the shepherd king, Etana, who had prayed for the plant of birth to conceive a son, on a journey to the mountains to rescue the eagle. In reward for his help, the eagle took Etana on a dramatic flight to the Heavens to obtain the plant. While Etana’s search must have been successful (the Sumerian King List notes that his son succeeded him), gaps in the earliest texts have left questions about how the story might have originally ended.

Etana Seal
Scenes from the Myth of Etana, Modern impression of a serpentine cylinder seal (BLMJ 2787) in the collection of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. Late Akkadian, 2254-2154 BCE. Image Credit: Bible Land Pictures. Courtesy of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem.

As Van Buren and others have observed, depictions of Etana’s flight on Sargonic cylinder seals (like the one pictured here) featured common elements not mentioned in the Epic, suggesting that alternate versions were in oral circulation at the time. Other images of eagles and lion-headed birds in Akkadian glyptic art hinted at lost stories in which the Anzu, in retaliation for being captured, trapped Shamash in a mountain grave, from which the sun god rose triumphantly.

The Anzu was also active several hundred years later during the first dynasty of Uruk. According to Sumerian myths dating from the Ur III period, the divine storm bird had developed a benevolent reputation by that time. When Enmerkar, the first king of Uruk, marched his army against Aratta, his son Lugalbanda ventured into the mountains to seek help from the legendary bird. To curry favor, while the Anzu and his wife were out hunting, Lugalbanda brazenly decorated their nest and fed honey cakes to their young chick. Upon returning home, the Anzu was at first distraught to hear no sounds, then gladdened when he saw that Lugalbanda had taken good care of his offspring. In reward, he endowed Lugalbanda with fast running speed and endurance—a gift that benefited later Ur III kings such as Shulgi, who claimed ancestral ties with the early Uruk rulers (and likely inspired the story).

Sometime later during the first dynasty of Uruk, the Anzu left his mountain home and moved to southern Mesopotamia, to Inanna’s cult garden in the city of Uruk, as reported in Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld. There he built a new nest for his offspring in the top branches of a tree, which lo and behold was also inhabited by a serpent at its roots, as well as a phantom maid in its trunk (possibly an allusion to Ereshkigal). Intending to make furniture from the wood, Inanna called upon Lugalbanda’s son, Gilgamesh, to get rid of the occupants and cut down the tree. The hero-king killed the serpent, scared away the phantom maid, and caused the Anzu to flee back to the mountains.

The Anzu’s career culminated with his theft of the Tablet of Destinies and his eventual defeat by the Sumerian storm god Ninurta or Ningirsu—a tale known primarily through Akkadian sources. (See my previous blog post on “The Anzu’s Theft?”) In the end, the divine storm bird was either killed or captured, though some later stories claim that he escaped and went down to the Netherworld, where he surrounded himself with a host of other evil Anzu.  

This brief story of the Anzu, while sketchy and incomplete, invites us to consider the parallels between Akkadian and Sumerian myths. The conflict between the eagle and the serpent—a common folklore motif in many lands, often with the ‘cosmic tree’—had specific meanings in ancient Mesopotamia, with the eagle symbolizing Ninurta/Adad, Enlil and the Heavens, and the serpent associated with Enki/Ea and chthonic fertility deities. A similar conflict unfolded in the Sumerian myth of Ninurta and the Turtle, in which Enki lauded Ninurta’s victory over the Anzu, then punished him for hubris by trapping him in a deep pit. These and other stories offered a mythological picture of an erratic and tumultuous storm god, and expressed cultural ideas about divine conflict and judgment, reward and punishment, defeat and triumph.

Note: Other interesting sources include Knipe (1967), and Steinkeller (1992), listed on the Resources page of my website.

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