Divine chariots are described quite a bit in the Bible. They are often hard to distinguish from descriptions of Yahweh himself, who was known for making big noisy fiery spectacles in the sky. In fact, as many people have noted, Yahweh behaved a whole lot like a jet airplane.
Below are some descriptions of divine chariots in the Bible (you may also be interested in my post about vehicles of other deities).
Isaiah 66:5 For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.
Psalms 68:17 The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the holy place.
Jeremiah 4:13 Behold, he shall come up as clouds, and his chariots shall be as a whirlwind: his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe unto us! for we are spoiled.
Zechariah 6:1 And I turned, and lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and, behold, there came four chariots out from between two mountains; and the mountains were mountains of brass.
2 Kings 6:17 And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.
In an experience reminiscent of flying carpets, Zechariah reports:
Zechariah 5:1 Then I turned, and lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a flying roll. 2 And he said unto me, What seest thou? And I answered, I see a flying roll; the length thereof is twenty cubits, and the breadth thereof ten cubits.
A cubit is about the size of a typical forearm, about 20 inches.
In the book of Acts, Peter gets take-out delivered by Yahweh:
Acts 10:9 On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: 10 And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, 11 And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: 12 Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.
And then there’s Ezekiel’s wheel, the Biblical prophet’s famous encounter with the physical “word of God” and his very detailed (if odd) description of it, which so many people have interpreted as describing a spaceship.
Ezekiel 1:1 Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2 In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity, 3 The word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was there upon him. 4 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. 5 Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. 6 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. 7 And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. 8 And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. 9 Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. 10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. 11 Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. 12 And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went. 13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14 And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning. 15 Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. 16 The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 17 When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went. 18 As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. 19 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. 20 Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. 21 When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. 22 And the likeness of the firmament upon the heads of the living creature was as the colour of the terrible crystal, stretched forth over their heads above. 23 And under the firmament were their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two, which covered on this side, and every one had two, which covered on that side, their bodies. 24 And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of an host: when they stood, they let down their wings. 25 And there was a voice from the firmament that was over their heads, when they stood, and had let down their wings. 26 And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it. 27 And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about. 28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.
We can’t blame Ezekiel for being confused; it sounds as if he just had no frame of reference for what he was seeing. Even modern-day people having encounters with “UFOs” have trouble understanding and describing what they have seen, and try to make sense of it by comparing it to things they do understand—in Ezekiel’s case, “living creatures” and wheels. For info on various interpretations of Ezekiel’s vision, see the section on the Book of Ezekiel on Wikipedia’s Ancient Astronauts page.
Zechariah 6:1 And I turned, and lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and, behold, there came four chariots out from between two mountains; and the mountains were mountains of brass. 2 In the first chariot were red horses; and in the second chariot black horses; 3 And in the third chariot white horses; and in the fourth chariot grisled and bay horses. 4 Then I answered and said unto the angel that talked with me, What are these, my lord? 5 And the angel answered and said unto me, These are the four spirits of the heavens, which go forth from standing before the Lord of all the earth. 6 The black horses which are therein go forth into the north country; and the white go forth after them; and the grisled go forth toward the south country. 7 And the bay went forth, and sought to go that they might walk to and fro through the earth: and he said, Get you hence, walk to and fro through the earth. So they walked to and fro through the earth.
When I saw a recent photo of a jet nose-diving at a Chinese air show, it jogged a long-standing question in my mind. Why do anthropologists and archaeologists call rock-art pictures such as the ones in this post “maces”? My suggestion for an answer is “Because their academic world-view does not allow them to see these pictures as airplanes or spaceships.”
Here’s a precolumbian Mesoamerican “avian-motif stone” that served as a macehead:
Later maces look quite a bit different:
In the spring 2011 article “America’s Ancient Cave Art,” from the Paris Review, via slate.com, John Jeremiah Sullivan makes an interesting observation. He and his colleague are lying on their backs in a Tennessee cave, looking up at a “panel” of images:
…And last a picture of a crown mace, a thing shaped like an elongated bishop in chess, meant to represent a symbolic weapon, possibly held by the chiefly elite during public rituals. It’s a ‘type artifact’ of the Mississippian sphere, meaning that, wherever you find it [in the U.S.], you have the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, or, as it used to be called (and still is by archaeologists when they think no one’s listening), the Southern Death Cult. In this case the object appeared to be morphing into a bird of prey.
The University of Arkansas offers a website with many good pictures of local rock art, including many pictures of maces, and also this rather amazing rock art picture:
Meanwhile, while researching “mace,” I wasn’t surprised to discover that (as with the ancient Thunderbird gods), the U.S. Air Force is using the name. The USAF used to have a surface-to-surface missile it named the Mace, and still has a tactical squadron of jet fighters called the Royal Maces.
Images of maces appear in a variety of Mississippian art forms, such as pottery vessels, rock art, copper plates, and marine shell gorgets and engraved cups. The contexts in which maces are shown suggest that leaders used them in ritual to symbolize authority and power. Conquering heroes are shown wielding maces in dramatic action poses, while vanquished foes are symbolized by broken maces. Although the mace was most likely not used as a literal weapon, its shape, something between that of a battle axe and scepter, speaks to superiority and dominion – essential attributes of a ruler in warrior society. — Dickson Mounds website.
The ancient area of Mesopotamia is considered “the cradle of civilization” for much of the world. The name means land between rivers, comprising the area of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, roughly modern-day Iraq, plus parts of northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and southwestern Iran.
A non-Semitic tribe calling themselves the black-headed people lived in southern Mesopotamia; the Semitic Akkadians who inhabited the north gave them the name Sumerians. The Sumerians had an advanced civilization that seems to have sprung into being more or less from nowhere around 4000 BCE.
Sumerians were the first known people to grow grains and raise sheep and cattle on a large scale. They were the first to practice “modern” agriculture: large-scale, year-round production, using mono-cropping, irrigation, and specialized workers. Sumer drained marshes for agriculture, aided by the fact that the temples and their high priests owned vast amounts of land—and required that everyone donate labor to the temple, on a moment’s notice and for as long as needed.
The Sumerians’ success at growing and storing grains and herding animals meant they could settle instead of living as nomads. A dozen city-states, of 10,000 or more population each, sprang up in Sumer, such as Eridu and Sippar, each with its own temple for its own tutelary deity, and each ruled by its king or high priest.
Sumer is thought to have been the birthplace of writing; written records begin here about 3100 BCE, consisting of cuneiform text on clay. The Sumerians had a complex system of metrology, the science of measurement; they understood, and perhaps created, arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. Their number system was sexagesimal, based on alternating bases of 10 and 60, and is still used today to measure time and angles. Sumer is said to have been the first to use place values in arithmetic, and the first to calculate the volume of a cube and the area of a triangle.
Sumerians were knowledgeable astronomers; they made star maps. They gave the world its first bureaucracy, with codified systems of law and administration, including “paperwork” (on clay), courts, and jails. They may have been responsible for inventing military formations. They were avid traders and boat-builders and were accomplished at leather- and metalwork, weaving, masonry, and pottery. They may even have invented the wheel—it appears, as a potter’s wheel, nearly simultaneously in the mid-4th millennium BCE, in Mesopotamia, Central Europe, and the northern Caucasus (at the border of Europe and Asia). Soon wheels were propelling carts and grinding grain.
Where did all this advanced knowledge come from? Archaeological findings show that just before the time Sumer blossomed, “civilization” locally consisted, most likely, of peasant farmers, hunter-fishermen, and nomads — and indications are that these rude lifestyles were on their way down, devolving not evolving, at the time Sumer blossomed.
Stories from many civilizations tell of divine teachers — gods and demigods — and sometimes humans specially endowed by the gods with knowledge — who teach humans the arts and sciences needed for civilized living. Ancient texts suggest that one such teacher, Oannes, and his helpers oversaw the education of humans when “kingship” first “from heaven was lowered,” giving rapid rise to Sumerian civilization. Here is what Carl Sagan and his co-auther I.S. Shklovskii had to say about Oannes in the 1966 edition of their book, Intelligent Life in the Universe:
[S]tories like the Oannes legend, and representations especially of the earliest civilizations on Earth, deserve much more critical studies than have been performed heretofore, with the possibility of direct contact with an extraterrestrial civilization as one of many possible alternative explanations.
With or without the help of Oannes, Sumer prospered—and was a popular target for takeover, falling to the Akkadians in 2270, and then being conquered in turn by the Babylonians and Assyrians, among others, with Alexander the Great taking over for Greece in 332 BCE.
Mesopotamians worshiped about 2400 gods and goddesses in the early days, winnowing those to a few hundred over time, as Sumerian gods merged with Akkadian gods, and so forth, and as less popular gods fell by the wayside. Each city-state had its own tutelary deity, who was considered the most superior of all the gods worshipped in that vicinity — although most of the many written prayers that have been found exalt whichever god they’re addressed to as being the best god in every way. Many Mesopotamian gods and goddesses were especially popular with Yahweh’s followers.
In addition to their many gods, Mesopotamians also had many demons to make their lives difficult with plagues and misfortunes, often requiring exorcism. The edimmu, for instance, were ghosts of people who did not have proper burial; [they were vengeful against their former loved ones, love having turned to hate in equal proportion.] They were thought to suck the breath out of sleeping children.
With its lively, multifaceted pantheon, Mesopotamian religion prospered for more than 4000 years. Beginning in the first century CE, it became admixed or replaced with Christianity and Judaism, but remnants of the native religion remained until at least the 4th century CE.
The religious stories of Sumeria, which probably were the first ever to be written down, not only show up transformed into Bible classics—such as the Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Deluge, the Tower of Babel, Moses’s Birth, and the Ten Commandments — but also form the basis of Egyptian and Greek mythologies. Professor Rodney Stark writes in Discovering God that the pantheons of the ancient gods were “remarkably similar”:
Indeed the great Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE) claimed that the gods of Greece had been adopted from Egypt, and many modern scholars agree. [fin][fn: Griffiths, “The Orders of Gods in Ancient Greece and Egypt.”] There is equally strong evidence that both Greek and Egyptian religions display strong Sumerian influences.
Sumer’s was a temple religion; there was no separation of church and state; the highest priest was the king himself. All the people were considered slaves of the city’s god, and the priests, as intermediaries, controlled everyone’s lives.
Priests were mostly descendants of previous priests; it was a closed order. They were highly trained in ritual; important parts were played by dance, hymns, and music — harps, lyres, drums. Sacred temple Sumerian texts were rhythmic, sometimes with much repetition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” sort, and catchy choruses.
Ordinary people did not take place in temple activities, except occasionally in public ceremonies. Upper nobility might be able to gain access to some temple rites, but usually Sumerian temple rituals were performed and witnessed exclusively by priests. The temple was considered the house of the god(s), and the holy sanctuary where the god(s) resided was out of view of everyone except priests. The gods were believed to actually inhabit the sacred temple idols made in their images, in one or another of their forms, and they needed to be bathed, fed, and similarly cared for, in addition to being petitioned and propitiated.
Temples were huge, built on high spots atop raised platforms, and made of baked mud bricks. When the old temple was worn out, the mud bricks were torn down and flattened, and a new temple was built atop the remains of the old one—the only acceptable, sacred site, making the temple that much higher yet than the surrounding city.
Starting about 2300 BCE, the building style shifted to step pyramids called ziggurats—from two to seven successively smaller tiers of sun-baked bricks, with colorful fired and glazed brick facings outside; inside walls were painted with frescos.
The ziggurats were believed to connect heaven and Earth. Etemenanki, the name of a Babylonian temple dedicated to Marduk, means Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth, or perhaps House of the Platform between Heaven and Earth. It had seven multi-colored tiers, with the temple on top—where the god(s) lived—painted indigo blue. The ziggurat included living quarters for the priests, and was a fortress of privacy at the center of a busy city.
There were five dozen or more significant temples in Sumeria, for various gods. The main triad of deities were known by different names at different times, and fused identities when convenient, but the basic story is that the high god An and his (literal or metaphorical) sons Enki and Enlil create heaven and earth, and then the sons come down to Earth to implement plans to mine and farm and provide a nice lifestyle for the gods. [300 come down; 300 stay up]
The gods cast lots and divided (the Cosmos):
[Anu] went up to [heaven]
[Enlil had] the earth as his subject;
[the lock,] the snare of the sea
[was given] to Enki the wise.[footnote: atrahasis]
Mesopotamia wasn’t the only springboard for civilization. Others around the world are: (dates vary widely among sources) Egypt (starting about 3000 BCE); Yellow River Valley (China, 2200 BCE); Indus Valley (India, 1500 BCE); Andes (Peru, 800 BCE); and Mesoamerica (Mexico, 3rd century BCE).
Ugarit was an ancient port city, the site of modern-day Ras Shamra in Syria.
Ugarit’s location was forgotten until 1928 when a peasant accidentally opened an old tomb while ploughing a field. The discovered area was the Necropolis of Ugarit located in the nearby seaport of Minet el-Beida. Excavations have since revealed an important city that takes its place alongside Ur and Eridu as a cradle of urban culture, with a prehistory reaching back to ca. 6000 BC, perhaps because it was both a port and at the entrance of the inland trade route to the Euphrates and Tigris lands.
The excavations uncovered a royal palace of ninety rooms laid out around eight enclosed courtyards, and many ambitious private dwellings. Crowning the hill where the city was built were two main temples: one to Baal the “king”, son of El, and one to Dagon, the chthonic god of fertility and wheat.
On excavation of the site, several deposits of cuneiform clay tablets were found; all dating from the last phase of Ugarit, around 1200 BC. These represented a palace library, a temple library and—apparently unique in the world at the time—two private libraries, one belonging to a diplomat named Rapanu. The libraries at Ugarit contained diplomatic, legal, economic, administrative, scholastic, literary and religious texts. The tablets are written in Sumerian, Hurrian, Akkadian (the language of diplomacy at this time in the ancient Near East), or Ugaritic (a previously unknown language). No less than seven different scripts were in use at Ugarit: Egyptian and Luwian hieroglyphs, and Cypro-Minoan, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Ugaritic cuneiform. —http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugarit
Babyloniaca, written by Babylonian priest Berossus circa 280 BCE, says that all the arts and sciences were brought by a “primeval being, half-man, half-fish, Oannes” who came out of the Persian Gulf and “taught man everything there is to know. Since then nothing new has been learned, though much has been forgotten.” In the 1832 edition of Ancient Fragments, author I.P. Cory translates the writings of Berossus concerning Oannes:
At Babylon there was (in these times) a great resort of people of various nations, who inhabited Chaldæa, and lived in a lawless manner like the beasts of the field. In the first year there appeared, from that part of the Erythræan sea which borders upon Babylonia, an animal destitute1 of reason, by name Oannes, whose whole body (according to the account of Apollodorus) was that of a fish; that under the fish’s head he had another head, with feet also below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish’s tail. His voice too, and language, was articulate and human; and a representation of him is preserved even to this day.
This Being was accustomed to pass the day among men; but took no food at that season; and he gave them an insight into letters and sciences, and arts of every kind. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and shewed them how to collect the fruits; in short, he instructed them in every thing which could tend to soften manners and humanize their lives. From that time, nothing material has been added by way of improvement to his instructions. And when the sun had set, this Being Oannes, retired again into the sea, and passed the night in the deep; for he was amphibious. After this there appeared other animals like Oannes, of which Berossus proposes to give an account when he comes to the history of the kings.
In the story of how Enki gets drunk and gives the 100 [sacred] mes to Inana, repetition is used to recall again and again what each me is:
Holy Inana received deceit, the rebel lands, kindness, being on the move, being sedentary. [El said,] “In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter….”
Holy Inana received the craft of the carpenter, the craft of the coppersmith, the craft of the scribe, the craft of the smith, the craft of the leather-worker, the craft of the fuller, the craft of the builder, the craft of the reed-worker. “In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter…”
This goes on for a long time, and then repeats as Inana acknowledges what she has been given:
“He has given me deceit. He has given me the rebel lands. He has given me kindness. He has given me being on the move. He has given me being sedentary…He has given me the craft of the carpenter. He has given me the craft of the coppersmith. He has given me the craft of the scribe. He has given me the craft of the smith. He has given me the craft of the leather-worker. He has given me the craft of the fuller. He has given me the craft of the builder. He has given me the craft of the reed-worker….”
Enki (Ea), along with An and Enlil, form the triad of gods at the heart of Mesopotamian mythology. He is often said to be the son of An, and the half-brother of Enlil. With the goddess Damkina, he is father of the great Babylonian god Marduk. Ea voluntarily hands over control of humanity to his super-impressive son, which act is said to reflect the passing of the “supremacy once enjoyed by [the city of] Eridu to Babylon as a religious and political center.”
The meaning of the name Enki is not clear; it may mean Lord of Earth or Lord of the Mound or Lord of that Which Is Below or even cunning. The later Akkadians and Babylonians called him Ea, Sumerian for House of Water, the name of his temple.
Enki is said to have created the first Sumerian city, Eridu, called in an ancient text “the holy city, the dwelling of their [the gods’] delight,” one of five antedeluvian Sumerian cities. According to the Sumerian King List:
When kingship from heaven was lowered, the kingship was in Eridu.
Although Eridu (said to mean on the seashore or home of going afar) was located near the mouth of the Euphrates River at the Persian Gulf, that was in 5400 BCE. Nowadays, due to silt accumulation, the city’s remains are inland (at Tell Abu Shahrain, in Iraq). Many scholars think that Eridu is the original Babel, of Tower of Babel fame [and a Mesopotamian story lends support].
Enki is Eridu’s tutelary deity. His temple, and home, called E-A (House of Water) or E-abzu (House of the Watery Deep), is a ziggurat in the midst of marshes, said to be raised upon a mound, or even located underwater. According to ancient texts translated by L.W. King in The Seven Tablets of Creation:
O thou River, who didst create all things,
When the great gods dug thee out,
They set prosperity upon thy banks,
Within thee Ea, the king of the Deep, created his dwelling.
Enki’s focus is more on “sweet” or fresh water than salt water. He is Lord of the Abzu, or Apsu in Akkadian, (meaning Deep Ocean or Water Far), the subterranean fresh-water sea from which all lakes, springs, rivers, and so forth are said to arise, imbued with cosmic forces.
The house Enki has built for himself is a marvel. The Sumerian story, Enki’s Journey to Nibru has a description:
In those remote days, when the fates were determined; in a year when An brought about abundance, and people broke through the earth like green plants—then the lord of the abzu, King Enki, Enki, the lord who determines the fates, built up his temple entirely from silver and lapis lazuli. Its silver and lapis lazuli were the shining daylight. Into the shrine of the abzu he brought joy.
An artfully made bright crenellation rising out from the abzu was erected for Lord Nudimmud [Enki as Lord of Creation, literally Lord of Make Bear Likeness]. He built the temple from precious metal, decorated it with lapis lazuli, and covered it abundantly with gold. In Eridug [Eridu], he built the house on the bank. Its brickwork makes utterances and gives advice. Its eaves roar like a bull; the temple of Enki bellows. During the night the temple praises its lord and offers its best for him.
Before Lord Enki, Isimud the minister praises the temple; he goes to the temple and speaks to it. He goes to the brick building and addresses it: “Temple, built from precious metal and lapis lazuli; whose foundation pegs are driven into the abzu; which has been cared for by the prince in the abzu! Like the Tigris and the Euphrates, it is mighty and awe-inspiring [?]. Joy has been brought into Enki’s abzu.”
“Your lock has no rival. Your bolt is a fearsome lion. Your roof beams are the bull of heaven, an artfully made bright headgear. Your reed-mats are like lapis lazuli, decorating the roof-beams. Your vault is a bull [or wild bull] raising its horns. Your door is a lion who [seizes a man] [or is awe-inspiring]. Your stairway is a lion coming down on a man.”
“Abzu, pure place which fulfils its purpose! E-engura [House of the Subterranean Waters]! Your lord has directed his steps towards you. Enki, lord of the abzu, has embellished your foundation pegs with cornelian. He has adorned you with …… and [?] lapis lazuli. The temple of Enki is provisioned with holy wax [?]; it is a bull obedient to its master, roaring by itself and giving advice at the same time. E-engura, which Enki has surrounded with a holy reed fence! In your midst a lofty throne is erected, your door-jamb is the holy locking bar of heaven.”
As it has been built, as it has been built; as Enki has raised Eridug up, it is an artfully built mountain which floats on the water. His shrine [?] spreads [?] out into the reedbeds; birds brood [at night] in its green orchards laden with fruit. The suhur carp play among the honey-herbs, and the ectub carp dart among the small gizi reeds. When Enki rises, the fish rise before him like waves. He has the abzu stand as a marvel, as he brings joy into the engur [abzu].
Enki is usually shown dressed in a carp skin; excavations at shrines to him in Eridu reveal piles of carp bones, apparently the leavings of feasts and offerings. He is associated with the fish gods Oannes and Dagon; they may be him, or versions or aspects of him. Like Oannes and Dagon, Enki teaches people the skills they need to live highly civilized lives.
But first, before man is even a gleam in Enki’s eye, he works hard, supervising a crew of gods to get the Earth into shape for the gods’ purposes:
The great prince put down the foundations, and laid the bricks. Enki placed in charge of all this him whose foundations once laid do not sag, whose good houses once built do not collapse [?], whose vaults reach up into the heart of the heavens like a rainbow—Mucdama, Enlil’s master builder.
He raised a holy crown over the upland plain. He fastened a lapis-lazuli beard to the high plain, and made it wear a lapis-lazuli headdress. He made this good place perfect with greenery in abundance. He multiplied the animals of the high plain to an appropriate degree, he multiplied the ibex and wild goats of the pastures, and made them copulate. Enki placed in charge of them the hero who is the crown of the high plain, who is the king of the countryside, the great lion of the high plain, the muscular, the hefty, the burly strength of Enlil—Cakkan, the king of the hills.
He built the sheepfolds, carried out their cleaning, made the cow-pens, bestowed on them the best fat and cream, and brought luxury to the gods’ dining places. He made the plain, created for greenery, achieve prosperity. Enki placed in charge of all this the king, the good provider of E-ana [Inanna’s temple, the House of Heaven], the friend of An, the beloved son-in-law of the youth Suen, the holy spouse of Inana the mistress, the lady of the great powers who allows sexual intercourse in the open squares of Kulaba—Dumuzid-ucumgal-ana, the friend of An.
He filled the E-kur [mountain house], the house of Enlil, with possessions. Enlil was delighted with Enki and Nibru [the city of Nippur] was glad. He demarcated borders and fixed boundaries. For the Anuna [Anunnaki] gods, Enki situated dwellings in cities and disposed agricultural land into fields. [ETCSLtranslation : t.1.1.3 Enki and the world order]
Enki is a troubleshooter, a good-humored mediator, and a compassionate friend to humankind. He is said to be one of man’s creators. As the story Enki and Ninmah starts, trouble is brewing among the gods:
[T]he senior gods oversaw the work, while the minor gods were bearing the toil. The gods were digging the canals and piling up the silt in Harali. The gods, crushing the clay, began complaining about this life.
At that time, the one of great wisdom, the creator of all the senior gods, Enki lay on his bed, not waking up from his sleep, in the deep engur, in the subterranean water, the place the inside of which no other god knows.
The primeval mother, Namma, wakes Enki up and tells him he needs to create a worker to relieve the minor gods. First, he tries delegating:
And after Enki, the fashioner of designs by himself, had pondered the matter, he said to his mother Namma: “My mother, the creature you planned will really come into existence. Impose on him the work of carrying baskets. You should knead clay from the top of the abzu; the birth-goddesses [?] will nip off the clay and you shall bring the form into existence. Let Ninmah act as your assistant; and let Ninimma, Cu-zi-ana, Ninmada, Ninbarag, Ninmug, …… and Ninguna stand by as you give birth. My mother, after you have decreed his fate, let Ninmah impose on him the work of carrying baskets.”
Enki and Ninmah drank beer, their hearts became elated, and then Ninmah said to Enki: “Man’s body can be either good or bad and whether I make a fate good or bad depends on my will.”
Enki answered Ninmah: “I will counterbalance whatever fate — good or bad — you happen to decide.” Ninmah took clay from the top of the abzu in her hand and she fashioned from it first a man who could not bend his outstretched weak hands. Enki looked at the man who cannot bend his outstretched weak hands, and decreed his fate: he appointed him as a servant of the king.
The drunken Ninmah continues making creatures with problems: a man who can’t close his eyes, [some say he can’t stop blinking], one with two broken feet, one with paralyzed feet, one who can’t hold back his urine [some say semen], and so on, six creatures in all. Enki finds a job for each one—a way to earn their bread.
Then Enki takes a turn at making a worker:
Enki devised a shape with head, …… and mouth in its middle, and said to Ninmah: “Pour ejaculated semen into a woman’s womb, and the woman will give birth to the semen of her womb.” Ninmah stood by for the newborn ……. and the woman brought forth …… in the midst ……., this was Umul: its head was afflicted, its place of …… was afflicted, its eyes were afflicted, its neck was afflicted. It could hardly breathe, its ribs were shaky, its lungs were afflicted, its heart was afflicted, its bowels were afflicted. With its hand and its lolling head it could not not put bread into its mouth; its spine and head were dislocated. The weak hips and the shaky feet could not carry [?] it on the field—Enki fashioned it in this way.
Enki insists that the creature he made should have a livelihood, just as he gave “bread” to the creatures Ninmah made, and seems to suggest that Umul should build Enki’s house. Enki is well pleased with the way things turn out, saying to Ninmah:
Remove Umul from your lap…. let my penis be praised, may your wisdom be confirmed….
There are too many subsequent pieces missing from the tablet to tell whether this creature, Umul, is the final model called man. According to Sumerian mythology, Adapa was the first man, the counterpart of the biblical Adam, and he sounds nothing like this first creature made by Enki. Adapa is one of the seven antedeluvian sages, wise and accomplished and too loyal to his creator, Enki, for Adapa’s own good, or the good of humankind.
In the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, Enki (Ea) is present at the creation of man, making suggestions, but it is his son Marduk (to whom Enki is said to have voluntarily passed his power) who does the creating.
After a divine council meeting discusses the igigi problem, Marduk gets ready to create man, acting on the council’s wishes:
On hearing the words of the gods, the heart of Marduk moved him to carry out the works of a craftsman. He opened his mouth, he spake to Ea that which he had planned in his heart, he gave counsel [saying]:
“I will solidify blood, I will form bone. I will set up man, ‘Man’ [shall be] his name. I will create the man ‘Man.’ The service of the gods shall be established, and I will set them [the gods] free….”
Enki/Ea suggests that one god should “suffer destruction that men may be fashioned.” Since a god named Kingu had recently tried to take over as leader of the gods, being defeated only after a huge battle [see Tablet of Destinies], the divine council has no trouble in deciding which of the gods should suffer destruction.
“Let him who created the strife be given [as sacrifice], I will cause the axe in the act of sinking to do away his sin.”
They bound him in fetters [they brought] him before Ea, they inflicted punishment on him, they let his blood, From his blood he [Ea] fashioned mankind for the service of the gods, and he set the gods free. After Ea had fashioned man he … laid service upon him. [For] that work, which pleased him not, man was chosen….
The Epic of Atrahasis (a hero king) tells the story of the creation of man somewhat differently:
When the gods, like man, bore the work, carried the labor-basket—the labor-basket of the great gods—the work was heavy, much was the distress.
The seven great Anunnaki caused the Igigi to bear the work.
Forty more years they bore the labor night and day. They wearied, complained, grumbled in the workpits. “Let us confront the throne-bearer that he may remove from us our heavy labor….”
They set fire to their implements, to their spades [they set] fire, their labor-baskets into the flames they threw. They held them [as torches]; they went to the gate of the shrine of hero Enlil. It was night; at mid-watch the house was surrounded; the god did not know. It was night; at mid-watch the Ekur was surrounded; Enlil did not know.
When Enlil wakes up to find his house surrounded by irate minor gods, the Divine Council is called together to address the problem. Enki has a suggestion:
“While [Nintu the birth-goddess] is present, let the birth-goddess create the offspring, let man bear the labor-basket of the gods.”
They called the goddess and asked [her], the midwife of the gods, wise Mami: “you are the birthgoddess, creatress of man. Create lullu-man, let him bear the yoke. Let him bear the yoke, the work of Enlil; let man carry the labor-basket of the gods.”
Nintu opened her mouth and said to the great gods, ‘It is not properly mine to do these things. He is the one who purifies all; let him give me the clay, and I will do (it).”
Enki opened his mouth and said to the great gods: “At the new moon, the seventh day, and the full moon, I will set up a purifying bath. Let them slaughter one god. Let the gods be purified by immersion. With his flesh and blood let Nintu mix the clay. God and man—let them be inseparably mixed in the clay; till the end of time let us hear the ‘drum.’ Let there be spirit from the god’s flesh; let her proclaim ‘alive’ as its sign; for the sake of never-forgetting, let there be spirit.” In the assembly, “Aye,” answered the great gods, the administrators of destiny.
At the new moon, the seventh day, and the full moon, he set up a purifying bath. We-ila, who had rationality, they slaughtered in their assembly. With his flesh and blood Nintu mixed the clay. Till the end [of days they heard the drum]. From the flesh of the god there was spirit. She proclaimed “alive” as its sign. For the sake of not-forgetting there was a spirit.
After she had mixed the clay, she called the Anunnaki, the great gods. The Igigi, the great gods, cast their spittle on the clay. Mami opened her mouth and said to the great gods, “You commanded me a task—I have completed it. You slaughtered a god together with his rationality. I have removed your heavy labor, have placed your labor-basket on man. You raised a cry for mankind; I have loosened your yoke, have [established] freedom.”
They heard this speech of hers; they ran around and kissed her feet. “Formerly we called you ‘Mami.’ Now, may ‘Mistress of all the gods’ be your name. They entered the house of destiny, Prince La and wise Mami. With the birth goddesses assembled, he trod the clay in her presence. She recited the incantation again and again. Ea, seated before her, prompted her. When she finished her incantation, she nipped off fourteen pieces of clay. Seven pieces to the right, seven to the left, she placed. Between them she placed the brick.
[Missing lines here are known, from other versions, to describe how fourteen birth goddesses shaped the clay, making seven males and seven females, arranged in pairs.]
The birth goddesses were assembled; Nintu was seated. She counted the months. At the destined [moment], they called the tenth month. The tenth month came. The end of the period opened the womb.
Her face was beaming, joyful. Her head covered, she performed the midwifery. She girded her loins; she made the blessing. She patterned the flour and laid down the brick.
“I have created, my hands have done it….”
Twelve hundred years later, man has vastly increased in population, and the gods can’t get any sleep for all the noise. They decide to wipe out humans with a plague, but this only decreases the population temporarily, so 1200 years later the gods send a drought to try to keep the population down. Twelve hundred years later, they have to send a famine. Twelve hundred years after that, they decide to send the deluge to wipe everybody out. But Enki finds a way to warn one man, Utnapishtim, the “Sumerian Noah”. (But that’s another story.)
Enki knows the secrets of immortality and can raise the dead. The caduceus (from the Greek meaning herald’s staff) is his symbol, [as it is later for Mercury, Hermes, and Osiris]—two snakes entwined around a rod (which some think represents the two strands of DNA and/or [chakrahs/kundalini yoga]), often surmounted by another potent symbol, the winged globe [Sitchin, p. 240, says it is a Niburu symbol]. The caduceus is said to raise the dead and can be compared to Moses’s bronze serpent, which was built on orders from Yahweh so as to cure the snakebitten Israelites who looked at it.
Enki is the Great Magician of the gods. Supposedly, he knows everything. Enki sings his own virtues in this excerpt from the Sumerian text, Enki and the World Order:
61-80. Enki, the king of the Abzu, rejoicing in great splendour, justly praises himself: “My father, the king of heaven and earth, made me famous in heaven and earth. My elder brother, the king of all the lands, gathered up all the divine powers and placed them in my hand. I brought the arts and crafts from the E-kur, the house of Enlil, to my Abzu in Eridug. I am the good semen, begotten by a wild bull, I am the first born of An. I am a great storm rising over the great earth, I am the great lord of the Land. I am the principal among all rulers, the father of all the foreign lands. I am the big brother of the gods, I bring prosperity to perfection. I am the seal-keeper of heaven and earth. I am the wisdom and understanding of all the foreign lands. With An the king, on An’s dais, I oversee justice. With Enlil, looking out over the lands, I decree good destinies. He has placed in my hands the decreeing of fates in the place where the sun rises. I am cherished by Nintur. I am named with a good name by Ninḫursaĝa. I am the leader of the Anuna gods. I was born as the firstborn son of holy An.”
After the lord had proclaimed his greatness, after the great prince had eulogised himself, the Anuna gods stood there in prayer and supplication:
“Praise be to Enki, the much-praised lord who controls all the arts and crafts, who takes decisions!”
In a state of high delight Enki, the king of the Abzu, rejoicing in great splendour, again justly praises himself: “I am the lord, I am one whose word is reliable, I am one who excels in everything.”
“At my command, sheepfolds have been built, cow-pens have been fenced off. When I approach heaven, a rain of abundance rains from heaven. When I approach earth, there is a high carp-flood. When I approach the green meadows, at my word stockpiles and stacks are accumulated. I have built my house, a shrine, in a pure place, and named it with a good name. I have built my Abzu, a shrine, in ……, and decreed a good fate for it. The shade of my house extends over the …… pool. By my house the suḫur carp dart among the honey plants, and the eštub carp wave their tails among the small gizi reeds. The small birds chirp in their nests.”
“The lords pay heed …… to me. I am Enki! They stand before me, praising me…. In my Abzu, sacred songs and incantations resound for me. My barge ‘Crown’, the ‘Stag of the Abzu’, transports me there most delightfully. It glides swiftly for me through the great marshes to wherever I have decided, it is obedient to me. The stroke-callers make the oars pull in perfect unison. They sing for me pleasant songs, creating a cheerful mood on the river. Niĝir-sig, the captain of my barge, holds the golden sceptre for me. I am Enki! He is in command of my boat ‘Stag of the Abzu’. I am the lord! I will travel! I am Enki! I will go forth into my Land! I, the lord who determines the fates….”
“I will admire its green cedars. Let the lands of Meluḫa, Magan and Dilmun look upon me, upon Enki. Let the Dilmun boats be loaded (?) with timber. Let the Magan boats be loaded sky-high. Let the magilum boats of Meluḫa transport gold and silver and bring them to Nibru for Enlil, king of all the lands.”
Enki sometimes takes the form of monsters:
The head is the head of a serpent,
From his nostrils mucus trickles,
His mouth is beslavered with water;
The ears are like those of a basilisk,
His horns are twisted into three curls,
He wears a veil in his head band,
The body is a suh-fish full of stars,
The base of his feet are claws,
The sole of his foot has no heel,
His name is Sassu-wunnu,
A sea monster, a form of Ea.[fn 79]
A distinctive and characteristic Sumerian god was Ea, who was supreme at the ancient sea-deserted port of Eridu. He is identified with the Oannes of Berosus, who referred to the deity as “a creature endowed with reason, with a body like that of a fish, with feet below like those of a man, with a fish’s tail”. This description recalls the familiar figures of Egyptian gods and priests attired in the skins of the sacred animals from whom their powers were derived, and the fairy lore about swan maids and men, and the seals and other animals who could divest themselves of their “skin coverings” and appear in human shape. Originally Ea may have been a sacred fish. The Indian creative gods Brahma and Vishnu had fish forms. In Sanskrit literature Manu, the eponymous “first man”, is instructed by the fish to build a ship in which to save himself when the world would be purged by the rising waters. Ea befriended in similar manner the Babylonian Noah, called Pir-napishtim, advising him to build a vessel so as to be prepared for the approaching Deluge. Indeed the Indian legend appears to throw light on the original Sumerian conception of Ea. It relates that when the fish was small and in danger of being swallowed by other fish in a stream it appealed to Manu for protection. The sage at once lifted up the fish and placed it in a jar of water. It gradually increased in bulk, and he transferred it next to a tank and then to the river Ganges. In time the fish complained to Manu that the river was too small for it, so he carried it to the sea. For these services the god in fish form instructed Manu regarding the approaching flood, and afterwards piloted his ship through the weltering waters until it rested on a mountain top.”
As “Shar Apsi”, Ea was the “King of the Watery Deep”. The reference, however, according to Jastrow, “is not to the salt ocean, but the sweet waters flowing under the earth which feed the streams, and through streams and canals irrigate the fields”.
Ea was their instructor. Berosus states that, as Oannes, he lived in the Persian Gulf, and every day came ashore to instruct the inhabitants of Eridu how to make canals, to grow crops, to work metals, to make pottery and bricks, and to build temples; he was the artisan god–Nun-ura, “god of the potter”; Kuski-banda, “god of goldsmiths”, &c.–the divine patron of the arts and crafts. “Ea knoweth everything”, chanted the hymn maker. He taught the people how to form and use alphabetic signs and instructed them in mathematics: he gave them their code of laws. Like the Egyptian artisan god Ptah, and the linking deity Khnumu, Ea was the “potter or moulder of gods and man”. Ptah moulded the first man on his potter’s wheel: he also moulded the sun and moon; he shaped the universe and hammered out the copper sky. Ea built the world “as an architect builds a house”.
Ea, whose name is also rendered Aa, was identified with Ya, Ya’u, or Au, the Jah of the Hebrews. “In Ya-Daganu, ‘Jah is Dagon'”, writes Professor Pinches, “we have the elements reversed, showing a wish to identify Jah with Dagon, rather than Dagon with Jah; whilst another interesting name, Au-Aa, shows an identification of Jah with Aa, two names which have every appearance of being etymologically connected.” Jah’s name “is one of the words for ‘god’ in the Assyro-Babylonian language”.
Ea was “Enki”, “lord of the world”, or “lord of what is beneath”; Amma-ana-ki, “lord of heaven and earth”; Sa-kalama, “ruler of the land”, as well as Engur, “god of the abyss”, Naqbu, “the deep”, and Lugal-ida, “king of the river”. As rain fell from “the waters above the firmament”, the god of waters was also a sky and earth god.
Religion has been part of all societies,1 but why? A lot of intellectual discourse has tackled the subject, much of it reaching the conclusion that people just need to have gods and so they make them up. But even a quick scan of ancient religious history will show that authentic experience of something awesome—perhaps not “God” or “gods,” perhaps beings with technology so advanced it seems like magic—inspired the creation and growth of religions around the world.
It was easy for religion to take root, both because authentic experience makes for enthusiastic converts and proselytizers, and because religion indeed fills some human needs. Ancient people expected to deal with the normal troubles of life on their own, but, as Rodney Stark writes in Discovering God, they hoped that the gods would help them with the forces beyond human control:
[P]rimitive peoples … call upon the supernatural for rain, for help in finding game, and for safe voyages. In doing so, they acknowledge the fundamental principle that the supernatural is the only plausible source of many things that human beings greatly desire. Therein lies one key to the universality of religion—its capacity to overcome the generic limitations of human power by invoking entities or forces that transcend nature. Whether it is a Bantu priest in Nigeria chanting that Awwaw grant a good harvest, or a Baptist congregation in Georgia singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear,” religion offers an alternative means to achieve greatly desired ends, when direct methods fail or do not exist.
The earliest religions—lost in prehistory and based, perhaps, on real experiences—were more sophisticated than most of the religions they later spawned, and they were more morality-based than later versions. Most stories about gods show them as wrapped up in their own lives, giving little or no thought to the welfare of humanity or individual humans, or to humans' morality or lack of it. Exceptions are the “bringers of civilization,” divine teachers, deities or demigods whose role is to help, such as Oannes.
The failure of humans to pay proper tribute to the gods—such as neglecting to make sacrifices—gets attention, but instead of striking deficient humans dead, the gods tend to destroy the whole city (much as a few annoying ants might encourage us to take out a whole anthill).
Gods and goddesses around the world have usually been thought of as a lot like humans, except with superpowers and immortality. They have humanlike needs and desires, and display the whole range of emotions and behaviors, for better and worse. Often, the gods are depicted as human or humanoid forms, with perhaps a pair of wings and eagle head and talons to show they can fly.
Since creation stories of many societies state that humans were made from divine matter—often the blood, spit, or semen of a god or gods — deities that look more or less like us are not necessarily reflecting a lack of imagination on the part of those depicting them; it would be reasonable for ancient gods to look a lot like humans, and in ancient stories, including Bible stories, they are able to pass as human when visiting Earth. Homer writes, “The gods, likening themselves to all kinds of strangers, go in various disguises from city to city, observing the wrongdoing and the righteousness of men.”
But it's obvious when looking at depictions of gods that the ancients sometimes had a hard time figuring out what they were seeing, or hearing described. “It's a bird, it's a plane….” Of course, planes were beyond the understanding of ancient people, as were machines generally. If it moves, it's a human or other animal. If it flies, it has to be a bird, but, wait, it's long like a snake, and omigosh it's breathing fire! If it's operating a weapon, it must have hands. If it makes loud noise, it must have a mouth.
Descriptions of the gods are often at least partly descriptions of the vehicles in which the gods travel (see Divine Chariots) —leading to some odd-looking gods, and perhaps leading to the invention of gods with multiple aspects, avatars—magically transforming from fiery serpent to human form as they step out of or slide off of their fiery serpent, or thunderbird, or silver eagle, or flying elephant.
In another realm from most gods and goddesses is the high god, or creator god, a feature of many ancient religions. The high god creates the universe and/or Earth. In many cases, he or she or they afterwards withdraw into remotest heaven, leaving “down-to-Earth” gods to take on the day-to-day work of running the worldly creation.
Almost without exception, societies that emphasize high-god beliefs feature many gods, who are all subordinate to the high deity. Adherents seemed to find the lesser gods more real, more relevant and accessible compared to the abstract and omnipotent high gods. The monotheist religion of high god Yahweh required that the various gods who were originally in his pantheon be downgraded to divine beings, such as angels and demons, since there could only be one god (see Yahweh’s Roots in Polytheism).
Many scholars believe that the prevalence of high god beliefs is the result not of ancient people around the world making up similar stories, but of essentially the same, authentic, ancient revelations (encounters with “God” or “gods”) being experienced by many primitive cultures globally.
High gods usually are sky deities or sky fathers, ruling over the other gods from the heavens. But many, many other gods are also able to fly, and they put in a lot of time in the sky.
1. Rodney Stark,Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief (USA: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 38.