The Story of Etana
They were planning a city; the Great Gods were in assembly. They had begun making the world and establishing the places of everything. But the Igigi had not yet set times for everything, nor had they put a king over the peoples of the world.
The Great Gods decided to build the city. They designed Kiš, and the Anunnaki and the Igigi laid its foundation, made its walls, and built its brickwork solidly. They decided to place a King as ruler over the city, as shepherd of all the people.
The seven Sebitti made the city strong against all enemies, and the Igigi patrolled its streets by themselves. The scepter and crown, the headband and staff of rulership had not yet been brought down from heaven and given to a mortal King.
Now Ištar was searching for a shepherd, the Lady Inanna was looking for a King. She found the man Etana, and took him to her heart.
Ellil began looking for a throne for Etana. He said: "I have found the place for the King Ištar has chosen; he shall be the King of Kiš." All the Gods proclaimed Etana King along with Ellil, and they brought him the scepter and crown, the headband and staff of rulership, and placed him in Kiš.
They called Etana King of the Four Quarters, and he built himself a palace and a temple for his God. He ruled over the people and brought all the peopled lands together, so that the country flourished.
But Etana had no heir. His wife, Munin, was afflicted with the la'bu disease. When she became pregnant, the baby died in her womb. Then the surgeon removed the little skeleton from her womb with a kakku-hook, but it pierced the wall and Munin began to bleed severely. Although the bleeding soon stopped and the flesh did not become infected, Munin was always infertile afterwards.
Etana's mother-in-law tried to make other women in the harem attractive to him, but Etana was not interested in any woman except his wife Munin.
Now one night Munin had a dream. She told Etana the dream: "My dear husband, I had a dream last night. In the dream I saw a man holding a beautiful plant, and he watered the plant continually until it grew tall in his house. With the plant his city and his house were securely established. The plant he was holding was šammu ša alâdi, the Plant of Birth. I couldn't see where it was growing, but after it had blossomed, it withered away."
After Munin told him her dream, Etana said to her: "This dream is a clear sign from the Gods! I must find the Plant of Birth, to take away our disgrace produce an heir."
So Etana set out to find the Plant of Birth. He set out an wandered all countries, all lands, but could not find the Plant of Birth. He crossed the mountains, and travelled the length of the rivers, but the Plant of Birth eluded him. The months and the years passed, and Etana grew weary. He rested by a stream in the mountains and built a shrine to Adad his God, the God of Fertility. Every day he made offerings to Adad, and prayed to Šamaš to hear his case.
Now in the shade of the shrine grew a poplar tree. An eagle nested in its branches, and around its roots a serpent made its home.
One day the eagle said to the serpent: "Let's hunt together and be friends."
But the serpent said: "I don't trust you at all. You are cursed by Šamaš. But if you insist, let's swear an oath on the net of Šamaš, his word which is spread over the whole earth, from which nothing escapes."
So they swore the oath on the net of the Sun, so that whoever broke it should be cursed by the God, and given over to destruction.
After they had sworn, they went to their homes again. Soon the eagle had children at the top of the tree, and the serpent bore its young at its base.
The serpent and the eagle hunted together, and shared their food with each other and one another's young. The children of both were growing strong.
But when the eagle's children were almost grown, the eagle decided he wanted to eat the serpent's children. He told what he was thinking to his own children, and said: "I know the serpent will hate me, so I won't live in this tree anymore. I'll fly around and only come down to eat the fruit at the top of the tree."
But one of the eagle's children, an exceptionally wise one, said to its father: "Don't do this, dear father! Don't forget that you swore an oath before Šamaš; you will be given over to destruction!"
But the eagle did not listen to his children: he simply went down and gobbled up the serpent's young ones.
When the serpent came home from hunting, it dropped its daily catch of meat in front of its home. Then the serpent looked and stared, because its home was not there. All night the serpent waited, and at dawn it noticed that the eagle had not returned; the eagle had gone also.
Then the serpent started weeping, crying before Šamaš: "Why did you let this happen, Šamaš? I helped the eagle to rear his young, to build his home, but you let him kill my young and destroy my home! He ate my children! You have the power to punish him for his crime, Šamaš! Avenge me, and punish him for breaking his oath!"
Šamaš heard the serpent's bitter prayer, and told him what to do. He should go to a certain spot on the mountain where a wild bull had already been prepared for him. Slitting open its belly, he should climb in and hide. When all the birds come down to feed on the carcass, the eagle would soon be tempted and come as well. He would search for the most tender parts, those deep inside the belly. While the eagle is dining on the soft tissues, the serpent should grab him by the wings and clip them. He should pluck the eagle clean of feathers, cut off his wings, and throw him into a deep pit, to die of hunger and thirst.
The serpent did as Šamaš had commanded. He waited inside the carcass for the eagle.
When the eagle saw all the birds eating the dead bull on the mountain, he thought it might be a trick and did not join them. But his hunger overcame him and he decided to go down, encouraging his young to come with him. But the especially wise fledgling said to his father: "Don't go father! The serpent could be waiting inside."
But the eagle thought to himself: "What danger could there be if the other birds aren't afraid?"
So he went down to eat. When he got there he picked and ate carefully, always watching for any sign of danger. He kept looking for the most tender pieces, and soon got into the intestines of the bull.
As soon as he reached them the serpent grabbed his wings and clipped them tight, shouting: "Têrub qúnênni, têrub qúnênni - 'You stole my nestlings, you stole my nestlings!"
The eagle begged: "If you let me go I'll give you a reward the size of a dowry!"
But the serpent said: "How can I let you go? I'm inflicting the vengeance of Šamaš on you! If I let you go your punishment would come back to me."
And with that he plucked him, cut off his wings, and threw him into the pit.
As the eagle lay dying in the darkness, he prayed to Šamaš every day to free him: "Don't let me die in the pit! Free me, Šamaš, so I can shout your praises in the sky forever!"
Šamaš said to the eagle: "You have brought me only sorrow with your evil behavior. I won't help you. But I will send you a man - maybe he will help you."
Etana prayed every day to Šamaš: "O Šamaš, you have always enjoyed the best cuts of my sheep, and the earth has drunk the blood of my lambs. I have always honored the Gods and respected the spirits of the dead. The dream-diviners have made full use of my incense, and the Gods have made full use of my lambs at the slaughter. Now I ask, my Lord Šamaš, that you give me the Plant of Birth. Take away my disgrace and give me a son!"
Šamaš heard Etana's prayer, and told him what to do. "Cross the mountain; find a pit. Look into the pit; an eagle will be there. He will show you the Plant of Birth."
Etana did what Šamaš told him; when he found the pit, he looked inside and saw an eagle there.
The eagle said to Šamaš: "Thank you for sending the man you promised, Lord Šamaš! I will be your devoted servant forever! Let me do whatever he says, and let him do whatever I say."
So Šamaš made the eagle and the man able to understand one another.
Then the eagle said to Etana: "Why have you come to me?"
Etana said to the eagle: "My friend, show me the Plant of Birth! I am disgraced without a son. Leave behind your disgrace and come out of the pit; when you get out, please fetch and bring to me the Plant of Birth!"
The eagle agreed to fetch him the Plant of Birth if Etana would help him out of the pit.
Thereupon Etana lowered a basket filled with food into the pit. In the evening a rainstorm began, and as the rain fell into the pit the eagle lapped it up like a thirsty camel. Now the eagle was strong again.
The eagle looked up to Etana like a God, and he said: "Atama Etana, šar buli, atama Etana, bêl iurâtu! You are Etana, King of the Animals, you are Etana, Lord of the Birds! I know you are truly my friend. Bring me out of the pit, and I shall help you. I'll bring you the Plant of Birth."
Now the eagle's wings had been cut off, and could not grow back. So Etana built a ladder out of juniper wood, with six rungs, and put it into the pit. The eagle began to climb out. He stretched his neck and reached the second rung, and raised his talons to it; he stretched his neck and reached the fourth rung, and raised his talons to it; he stretched his neck and reached the sixth rung, and raised his talons to it; then he climed out of the pit.
Etana said to the eagle: "I will make new wings for you to fly again. I will beat the copper of my weapons into wings and feathers. I'll only keep back my scepter and crown."
So Etana set to work hammering out new wings for the eagle, and soon they were ready. He tied them on tight, ready for flight.
The eagle jumped a little, then hopped into the air and began to fly. He shouted joyfully, and came back to the ground. Then he told Etana to climb on his back and hold onto his new wings, and together they flew around until they stopped to rest at the top of the mountain.
There they slept, and Etana dreamed. He dreamed that he was in Kiš, and a large weight was being carried in front of him. Then he saw markasu ellu ša elati, the Sacred Pole of the Heights, and it lay in front of him.
Etana awoke and told the dream to the eagle. The eagle said: "The dream is good! The weight means that all the peoples shall pay you tribute, and the Sacred Pole means that you bear rulership in your hands."
Then they slept, and Etana had a second dream. He saw all the peoples assembled, and they threw the old reeds of their houses into massive piles. His enemies came on the ground toward him like snakes, and did obeisance to him.
Etana awoke and told the dream to the eagle. The eagle said: "Your dream is good! It means that your enemies at home will be rounded up, and your foreign enemies shall make peace with you."
Then they slept again, and Etana had a third dream. He saw the city of Kiš weeping. All its people were in mourning. Etana too sang a song of lamentation: 'O Kiš, giver of life, Etana mourns! O Kiš, giver of life, Etana mourns with you!'
Etana awoke and told the eagle his dream. The eagle said: "Your dream means that your rule wall fall to someone else in a secret way." Etana wondered about this, and then they fell asleep again.
Then the eagle had a dream. He awoke and told Etana what he had seen: "My friend, we went through the gate of Anu, Ellil and Ea, and bowed inside. We went further, and passed through the gate of Sin, Šamaš, Adad and Ištar, and bowed inside. I saw a house with an unlocked window, and opened it. Inside I saw a young woman sitting on a throne; she was extremely beautiful, and wore a crown. Her throne was surrounded by lions, and as I walked towards her the lions lept up at me. I woke up at that moment with a shock."
Then the eagle said to Etana: "I know the meaning of my dream; I know what we must do. I will take you to the Heaven of Anu. Hold on to me."
Etana held on to the eagle and they took off into the air. They flew up for one bêru and the eagle said to Etana: "Look down, my friend! What does it look like?"
Etana shouted: "The whole land is like a mountain, and the sea is like a mountain stream!"
They flew up for a second bêru, and the eagle asked Etana to tell him what he saw.
Etana said: "The land is like a small hill!"
They flew up for a third bêru, and the eagle asked Etana to say what he saw.
Etana told him: "The sea is just like a gardener's ditch!"
Then they reached the Heaven of Anu, and went through the gate of Anu, Ellil and Ea. They bowed as they went inside. They went further and passed through the gate of Sin, Šamaš, Adad and Ištar, and bowed as they went inside.
But when they were inside, the eagle did not see a house with an unlocked window.
So the eagle said to Etana: "Come on further, I shall take you to the highest height to see Ištar the Queen of Heaven, and by her strength she will give you the Plant of Birth." Etana climed onto the eagle, and they took off.
They flew up one bêru, and the eagle said to Etana: "Look, and tell me what it looks like!"
Etana shouted: "It looks twelve times smaller than normal! And the sea is like a large pasture!"
The eagle carried him up a second bêru. He asked Etana to say what it looked like now.
"The country is like a garden plot!" Etana shouted, "and the sea is like a pond!"
The eagle carried him up for a third bêru. He asked Etana what he saw.
"I can't even see the country or the sea!" he said, "take me back, my friend, I can't take it any more!" and he fainted on top of the eagle.
So the eagle descended with Etana one bêru, two bêru, three bêru. He was flying straight down into a pond, but Etana still would not wake up, and the eagle was worried he would crash into the water with such a weight on his back.
He called out: "Ištar! Ištar my Queen! Don't let us drown!"
At three cubits above the ground, just before he was to dive into the water, the shore appeared and they landed in a pile of brushwood.
When Etana awoke he was ashamed of his fear, and asked the eagle to take him up again. The eagle promised he would, and together they took flight.
They went up one bêru, and the eagle asked Etana what it looked like.
Etana shouted: "The land looks like a mountain, and the sea a mountain stream."
They went up a second bêru, and the eagle asked Etana what he saw.
"The land is just like a hill," Etana told him.
They went up a third bêru, and the eagle asked Etana what he saw.
Etana said to him: "The sea is as small as a gardener's ditch!"
Then they reached the Heaven of Anu. They passed through the gate of Anu, Ellil and Ea, and bowed inside. They went further and passed through the gate of Sin, Šamaš, Adad and Ištar, and bowed inside.
When they were inside the gate, the eagle saw a house with an unlocked window. He pushed it open and they entered the house together.
Inside they saw a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne, surrounded by gigantic lions. Even Gods were afraid to approach the ferocious lions, and there was nothing like them in Heaven or Earth. At the sight of Etana and the eagle, they lept at them with claws extended and teeth bared, snarling and growling.
But the Goddess reached out and whipped them with a lash, and they became quiet and lay down at her feet.
Etana and the eagle looked at the Goddess. Her face shone with bright light, and her whole body was enveloped in divine radiance. Etana could not move: he was paralysed with fear. But she opened her hand and gestured him to come forward.
He began to walk toward her, and he could see that she was holding in her hand a bright pectoral. She presented the pectoral to Etana, saying: "Wear this always, and do not be afraid. Let your land always be fruitful, let your earth bring forth produce, let your skies rain down abundance."
Then Etana and the eagle left the presence of the Goddess and returned to the earth.
In Kiš Etana's rule flourished; his lands were rich in produce, his skies rained down fertilizing rain. His people were happy; but Munin still could not conceive. Etana was desperate, and called the eagle to him, asking to go yet again in search of šammu ša alâdi, the Plant of Birth.
For the fourth time they passed through the gate of Anu, Ellil and Ea. They entered and bowed inside; then they passed through the gate of Sin, Šamaš, Adad and Ištar, and bowed as they went inside. Etana and the eagle saw the house and went into it, where the Goddess was sitting.
She beckoned Etana forward, and asked him why he had come.
Etana said: "My land is rich in produce, my people fertile, the country is happy. But my wife cannot produce an heir! Please give me the Plant of Birth, that she may be healed and bear me a son."
Ištar said to him: "Go back to the earth, and on the mountain you will find a small plant by the mountain stream. Its thorn will prick your finger like a rose. Take it to your city and nourish it, and before it blossoms rub it on your wife; then she will conceive."
Etana and the eagle left. They flew back to earth and went to the mountain. Etana found the plant the Goddess had described and returned to Kiš with it. He nourished it daily, until it grew and flourished in his home. Before it blossomed he took the plant and rubbed Munin all over with it. That night they made love and she conceived.
As the days grew into months, Munin grew large with the child in her womb. But Munin was ill during her pregnancy, and worried about her baby. Etana prayed every day to Ištar and Šamaš not to let the child die.
At the end of the eighth month Munin went into labor and gave birth to a son, and they called him Balih. Etana ordained a festival for Kiš, and the city rejoiced over Etana, Munin and Balih, for now Kiš had an heir.
One night Munin had a dream. She woke up and told it Etana: "My husband, God has shown me a dream, saying: 'You and Etana will die far from home; the King will mourn before you mourn, and his body will not receive the respect due to the dead. His son will be taken away, and will not know him, but he will rule before his father dies. Etana's ghost will wander the earth and not find rest.'"
After Munin had told him her dream, she could not stop crying. But Etana said to himself: "What is the meaning of this judgement? What have I done to offend the Gods? I have not done anything evil; how could I deserve this? I will prevent it!" So Etana put Munin and the baby Balih in Ehursagkalama, the chief temple of Ištar in Kiš, for their protection, and ordered that no one be allowed to see them.
Now ever since Balih had been born, Etana had neglected his friend the eagle. When the eagle had tried to come into the Etana's house, Etana had sent him away.
The eagle cried to Šamaš: "Why has Etana abandoned me, Šamaš? He has forgotten our friendship, how we worked together, how I helped him get the Plant of Birth! It was I who saw the dream that led us to Plant of Birth. He made copper wings for me, fitted me so that I could fly again, beat his weapons down to make me whole. I took him to the highest Heaven, and when we fell it was I who prayed to Ištar! Now he has sent me away! Don't let him do this to me, Šamaš! Help me to get vengeance!"
Šamaš said to the eagle: "Why should I help you? You are cursed; I won't come near you. But fly to Ehursagkalama, and there you will find something to help you achieve what you desire."
So the eagle flew to Ištar's temple, where Munin and Balih were in seclusion. Over Ehursagkalama, where glorious rituals were performed, the eagle flew back and forth, looking for what Šamaš had told him to find.
Now every day Munin would hold her baby Balih and look out the widow at the countryside of Kiš. When the eagle suddenly flew past the window, Munin was frightened and dropped Balih, and he fell out of the tower.
The eagle saw the falling baby and swept down beneath him, catching him on its back. He recognized Balih and thought to himself: "This is the blessing of Šamaš! Now I can punish Etana for abandoning me!" He took the child a little distance to a garden, and set him down amid the rushes.
The gardener who lived there had no son. When he heard the child's cries, he came to the rushes where he found the baby Balih lying there. He took up the child and brought him into the house to raise as his own. The eagle saw what had happened, and the next day he came to the gardener and said: "The child you found is from the Gods; his parents live in a far off country. I brought him to you. Every day I will hunt for you and bring you meat, and you will be able to bring up the child to be strong. But you must tell no one his name, or I shall take him away again."
Now when Munin lost her child Balih, she could not move or speak for days. When Etana learned what had happened, he pulled his hair and let out a wail. He could not comfort Munin, for she only accused him, saying: "It was your eagle that took him, it was your eagle who took him! You neglected your friend and he took his revenge!"
Etana vowed to find his son and to punish the eagle, but although he looked everywhere in Kiš, all over the countryside, and in the mountains, he could not find his son or the eagle.
At length he prayed to the Gods: "How could you let the eagle take my son, the son you blessed me with? But if I cannot find my son, then give me another!"
The Gods heard his prayer, and when Etana and Munin made love she conceived again.
But Munin was ill for her whole pregnancy; she fainted when she stood up, she was sick continually, and she barely spoke or moved. Etana was worried and prayed to Šamaš: "Šamaš, don't let my beloved Munin die! We have suffered enough already - please let her and her child live; let me have an heir that will grow strong, and not be taken away!"
Šamaš heard Etana's prayer, and after nine months were finished Munin gave birth to a daughter, Mudam. Etana wanted a son, but he said to Munin: "The Gods have blessed us twice; they have spoken, and if Balih is not found she shall one day be Queen."
The years passed, and Mudam grew into a beautiful girl. All the people of Kiš wondered who would be chosen to be her husband. Etana never let her out of his sight.
But Etana never stopped mourning Balih in secret; he looked in the faces of all the townspeople every day, thinking that maybe this or that person might be Balih, who would be a handsome young man by now. After seven years he decided to go in search of him.
Etana said to Mudam: "I must go on a journey to find your brother Balih. You must not leave the palace for anything. Stay with your mother until I return."
So he left the palace in secret at night, and left Munin and Mudam alone.
Now the gardener would come into the palace garden each day, and one day he brought his son with him. Balih was a handsome young man, and when he saw the beautiful Mudam he immediately fell in love with her. When she saw him, she could not stop looking at him, and when the governor of the palace noticed it, he sent the gardener and his son away for good. The governor said to Mudam: "You must not think of him! When your father returns, he will choose a suitable husband for you."
One year, and a second passed, but still Etana was gone. Three, four and five years passed, and still there was no word of Etana. The sixth year came and went, and in the seventh year Munin died, and Mudam was alone.
A cry went throughout the land, and all the surrounding lands: "Munin the Queen is dead! And Etana the King is missing! There is no King in Kiš!" So the people of Kiš proclaimed Mudam Queen.
Mudam remembered the gardener's son whom she had seen when she was a girl, for she still loved him. She sent out a call for all the gardeners of Kiš to come to the palace with their sons, and when they did she recognized Balih immediately. He was now a large handsome man, and when he saw her his eyes burned radiantly with the love he had felt when he first saw her.
The Queen commanded Balih to stay with her, and sent everyone else away. The next day Mudam sent word to everyone that she had chosen a husband to be King, and arranged a wedding feast for the whole town of Kiš.
Mudam asked her beloved his name, but he said: "I cannot tell you my name, because the eagle who brought me to the gardener said 'Tell no one his name, or I shall take him away.'"
So Mudam and Balih were married. That night she conceived a son in her womb. The next day word came to Mudam that Etana was alive, and living in a distant town.
Balih rose and said: "Let me go and find him. The eagle who has helped raise me can take me anywhere very quickly. Once we know where he is, you can go there yourself."
Mudam agreed with his plan, and Balih called for the eagle. The eagle heard his call, and he knew already that Etana was alive since he flew up to the heights daily and saw all the things that happen on the earth.
Now Etana had heard the cry of the land that Munin was dead. But he did not hear that Mudam had been made Queen. He mourned his wife as he did his son, and wandered the city in rags, lamenting his loss.
So the eagle took off and flew with Balih to the town where Etana had sat in mourning for seven years. The eagle put Balih down on the road a little outside of the town, and said: "Let me go ahead and see that the city is safe. Then I'll return and pick you up" and he flew off.
Now Etana walked outside the towns walls every day, and when he saw the eagle coming he started shouting at it: "You stole my son! You stole my son!" And he strung his bow and began to shoot arrows at the eagle.
But the eagle circled above and shouted out: "You abandoned me! After everything we did, you sent me away! Now I have my vengeance, and more!"
At that, Etana pulled his bow taught and shot an arrow straight through the heart of the eagle, and it came plunging to the ground. Etana pulled out his sword and began cutting off the copper wings he had made so long ago, chopping off the eagle's wings, talons and head, and cutting him open so his blood gushed out upon the dark soil.
Balih had come upon the city and saw what had happened. Enraged, he rushed up to his dead companion the eagle and shouted to Etana: "You murderer!" as he pulled his sword out.
Etana was frantically cutting up the eagle, and responded to Balih: "He betrayed an oath to Šamaš, he broke his promise of friendship!"
Balih shouted: "The eagle was my father!"and struck Etana's neck with a blow so hard that his head came off.
Balih mourned the eagle, and commanded that Etana's body should be cut up and distributed in wild places, to be left unburied: "His ghost shall not find peace, his memory shall not be respected, the murderer who killed the eagle!"
Then he set off back to Kiš, carrying Etana's head with him.
When Mudam saw him coming she rushed toward her husband, but when she saw the head he was carrying she screamed and fell to the ground.
Balih asked her: "What's wrong, Mudam? This man murdered the eagle upon which I used to ride, who saved my life. Now I have avenged my father the eagle the sent the murderer's body in pieces all throughout the land, so that his ghost shall never find rest."
But Mudam said: "That man is my father, Etana! He was searching for his lost son, my brother Balih!"
Then Balih dropped the head he was holding, and his knees gave way beneath him. He let out a loud moan, and cried: "I am Balih! I am Balih!"
The whole city of Kiš mourned. They set up permanent lamenting in all the temples of the land, saying: "Kiš is in sorrow, Kiš is disgraced! For this day treachery has repayed Kiš four times over! Give praise to the Great Gods of Heaven and Earth, for this day they have repayed the betrayer, and brought justice to the land! Kiš is in sorrow, Kiš is disgraced!"