The Vocabulary of Myth, Part IX

Regression into Chaos…

Jung’s Devouring Mother

 Marduk and Tiamat…

     What follows is the first of many conflicts between the primeval gods and those they have begotten (a motive whose most famous inflection is known in Greek mythography as the Titanomachy, the battle between the monstrous Titans–the original generation of the gods–and their beautiful Olympian offspring, who presently preside over the universe).

And so, Tiamat, the original chaos-mother, decides to do away with the brood to which she has just given birth.

The motive suggests, of course, that order and beauty are fragile emanations, forever in danger of slipping back into the formlessness out of which they have arisen.  Joseph Campbell has called this regressive principle the “Monster of the Status Quo”, whom we will meet in many another mythic guise.  Jung’s designation, the “Terrible” or “Devouring Mother”, is probably more apposite here:  the mother who is moved to jealous repining at the very moment of giving birth, or is so possessive or over-protective of her children throughout their lives as to sabotage their independent development, or completely obliterate their own separate being.

As a matter of growing up, as Jung observes, every child must struggle against the regressive instincts of his mother; every child can only realize its own autonomous personality by separating its infant consciousness from the unconscious unity with the mother in which he or she first entered the world—a state of psychic identification which persists for some time beyond the child’s physical identification with the mother in the womb.

In the mythic imagination, accordingly, every act of creation or individuation–whether the emergence of the world from the maternal sea, the birth of the individual soul from the tomb/womb of the underworld, the ascent of the sun each morning out of the nocturnal darkness, or the daily reawakening of consciousness from the realm of night and dream– is understood as a victory over the forces of chaos and regression that are at the same time the forces of regeneration; every step towards consciousness, civilization, or culture is seen as a Promethean raid upon the original chaotic womb of the mother.

In the Enuma Elish, Tiamat and Apsu are disturbed by the noise being made by the younger gods who come together to dance (no doubt to some kind of early rock music).  Apsu complains that he cannot sleep—that in the presence of this racket, that is, he and the world will no longer be allowed to remain in that blissful state of unconsciousness out of which the human psyche first arose and back into it which it is tempted constantly to lapse.  And so the primordial couple take counsel with Mummu, Apsu’s vizier, as to how to destroy their boisterous litter.

Tiamat, however, is beginning to have second thoughts, so Apsu and Mummu devise a plan on their own; but Ea-Enki (the All-Wise) discovers it, casts a spell of sleep upon the waters (i.e., upon Apsu), slays him, binds Mummu, and puts a cord through his nose.  Ea then builds a magnificent sacred chamber directly above the slain corpse of Apsu, a motive whose naturalistic signification is clear:  the sweet waters have now been subdued and confined underground within Ea’s sacred chamber, that is, the newly formed earth.  This is the first great victory of the forces of order over those of chaos.

In this chamber Ea then gives birth to the divine child Marduk, and a description of his transcendent beauty and strength follows.  But none of this banishes the atmosphere of foreboding; and the rest of the first section of the poem is taken up with the preparations on both sides for the inevitable renewal of the conflict.

First, Tiamat’s children reproach her—not for her and Apsu’s plotting against them, as you might think—but for so passively allowing their father Apsu to be destroyed; and so they stir her up to revenge.

She gives birth again, for the enterprise, to a terrible brood of centaurs, enormous serpents, fierce dragons, and scorpion-men, and at the head of this formidable army, she installs Kingu, the last of her litter, whom she makes her second husband, and ceremonially arms and invests with the tablets of destiny.


The second section of the poem opens with the assembly of the younger gods in counsel about the coming threat.  Ea’s father Anshar suggests to him that he deal with Tiamat as he had done with Apsu; but Ea refuses.  Then Anu is sent on an embassy to try to dissuade Tiamat from embarking upon her reckless project, but she is implacable.  So Anshar rises in the assembly once more to propose that Marduk be given the adventure of destroying Tiamat and her army.  Marduk accepts the commission on condition that he be granted full and equal authority with his elders in the assembly of the gods, and that his word will thenceforth carry the force of destiny; here tablet two ends.

The third tablet concludes with a feast at which Marduk is officially invested with the authority he has demanded.  The fourth begins with his enthronement as king and his investment with the royal insignia.  The gods proclaim, “Marduk is king”, and he is armed for the upcoming combat with bow and arrow, mace, rainbow, lightning, and a net held open at the corners by the four winds.  Then he fashions seven terrible storms, lifts up his mace (which is the flood), mounts his war chariot (“the irresistible tempest”), and rides to battle against Tiamat and Kingu.  (He carries, that is, the weapons appropriate to a god of storm and thunder, as we would expect when we recall that the original hero of the myth was the Sumerian storm-god Enlil.)


When Marduk and his army approach, Kingu and his monstrous host lose heart; only his mother Tiamat stands her ground.  The war will thus be decided in single combat.

First, Marduk fills his belly with flame and unleashes the seven hurricanes; he mounts his storm chariot, and advances against the chaos-dragon; he casts his net around her, and when she opens her jaws to swallow him, he drives in the evil wind to hold them apart.  The wind inflates and distends her body, and through her open gullet Marduk shoots an arrow that pierces her heart and kills her.

When her misshapen brood flee, they are caught in Marduk’s net.  Marduk then takes from the vanquished Kingu the tablets of destiny and affixes them to his own breast.  Then he returns to Tiamat’s corpse, crushes her skull with his mace, and cuts her arteries so the winds carry away her blood.  Next, he fillets her carcass in two, placing the upper half above the earth as the sky, fixing it with bars, and setting guards lest her waters escape.  Finally, he sets the lower fillet in the firmament as the earth.

Marduk then builds Esharra, the abode of the great gods, after the pattern of Ea’s sacred chamber, and sets Anu, Enlil, and Ea in their places within it.  So ends tablet four.

The fifth tablet is fragmentary, but records Marduk’s first steps in organizing the universe, including establishing the rotations of the heavens, the seasons of the year, and the order of the months.

The sixth tablet describes the creation of man.  Following the advice of Ea, it is decided that the leader of the rebellion, Kingu, must die so that from his blood mixed with earth mankind may be created for the service of the gods.  (We will encounter a similar motive when we come to the Orphic myth of Dionysos, whose Titan enemies dismember and devour the young god, but are incinerated by Zeus’s thunderbolt; from their ashes man is created, the Titanic element furnishing the mortal component within man, the Dionsysian, the immortal.)

Finally, the gods build a great temple to Marduk, complete with ziggurat; and at the command of Anu they proclaim his fifty great names, which occupies the rest of the poem.

So ends the Enuma Elish, and so we pause to consider some of the universal themes to which it gives such vivid expression.