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Apsu and Tiamat Didn’t Work it Out

February 5, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

In the beginning there was freshwater Apsu of the abyss and saltwater Tiamat of the deep. When the gods came to exist, Tiamat and Apsu conspired against them, until Marduk, patron of Babylon, fought and defeated them. He cut Tiamat’s body in two. Half of her body became the heavens, and half, the earth. So what began as a world of swirling water ended in a vision of “civilization,” ruled by a champion-turned-king.

Why does the champion become king? Why don’t the people simply go on with their lives after he saves them? Perhaps, if the people want a defender, they recognize worthiness for this task in the champion. Or perhaps, by saving someone, you gain a kind of authority over them – one which the champion has historically opted to accept.

Why must the primeval chaos be conquered? Why is chaos equated with evil? Chaos can be ultimately wholesome or destructive, as can control. There is a time to ride it, to open oneself and become it; and perhaps a time to fight it too. There is a chaos that leads to death – like cancer – and a chaos that the systems of life, the body, can resolve – like childbirth. This primeval chaos: perhaps it was of the first kind. Perhaps it was bent on stamping out life. Or perhaps that’s just the story told by those who ended up victorious, Marduk and the Babylonians. Because the legacy they began in that act of victory was not a living order, a generous resolution of chaos; no, it was control. Centuries, generations of violence and suppression can be seen in this story, wherein the swirling wild is subjugated by the fighter’s boot. Yet even across the world, in the mythologies of North America, the same story is told. Does that not testify to some kind of truth? Did the water monster need to be destroyed in order for life to succeed? Was she evil, in that sense? I do not know.

Why is the water monster female? Why is the conquerer male? Marduk and Tiamat of Babylon, the Thunder Bird and Water Monster of the Black Hills – two tellings of one story, in two places utterly removed from one another. Is it as simple as saying that this story is only told in both places because the people were once related? That long ago, when every human was native to the Middle East, the story was born; and it survived as people diverged and became different and came to belong to new lands? I am not convinced.

Anyway, why, in both places, is the primeval feminine a monster? In what world would a mother devour her offspring unless the father could stop her? Is this a fear-based story – what if my mother turned on me; what if the womb devoured me? Whatever its motivation, it had to be relevant enough to keep the story alive, resonant enough in each new generation to ensure its continued telling. What is this need we have to see masculine fire slash feminine water in two? Why does this comfort us? And does the inverse ever appear – is there ever a time when we long for water to subsume the fire bolt? Of course; fire fighting is a literal example today. But does it appear in ancient story? Did the ancients ever value chaos? And in either case – were they right, or wrong?

This is a better question: what does a given story gain for you, and what does it lose for you? Marduk’s victory gained a sense of identity for Babylon within its region, and justified their order of life. It lost for them, perhaps, the value of whatever came before. Whatever did not fit into their careful system.

In truth, I believe there is a time to fight chaos and a time to let it fill you; a time to stand against control, and a time to let it transform the world. The Tao Te Ching teaches that harmony comes from a balance of the two, from the two being reconciled and walking together. There is a time when the best thing is for fire to split water, and for water to drown fire. There are times when the two are not cooperative, but absolutely opposed, and in those cases a victory of one over the other may be a great relief, may serve life. But like any great victory in battle, it comes with a price. The tragedy is that the battle ever existed. And let me add, there is a difference between “battle” and “conflict.” Creative tension and destructive violence are not the same thing.

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  1. Russ Hemati
    July 11, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    You may consider reading Paul Ricouer’s “Symbolism of Evil” to consider these questions further. I have many issues with that book (big surprise – Russ has an issue with some book), but it is very thought provoking and gives some shape to the commonalities of the Western (conquering) mythologies and theogonies.

    • Elisabeth M
      July 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm

      Thanks, I’ll make a note of that one.

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