“Then Tiamat and Marduk joined issue, wisest of gods.
They strove in single combat, locked in battle.
The lord spread out his net to enfold her,
The Evil Wind, which followed behind, he let loose in her face.
When Tiamat opened her mouth to consume him,
He drove in the Evil Wind that she close not her lips.
As the ﬁerce winds charged her belly,
Her body was distended and her mouth was wide open.
He released the arrow, it tore her belly,
It cut through her insides, splitting the heart.
Having thus subdued her, he extinguished her life.
He cast down her carcass to stand upon it.”
(Enuma Elish IV)
“…Farewel happy Fields
Where joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
Paradise Lost 1.249-255
A few nights ago I attended a swing-dancing evening hosted by the local senior’s recreation hall (at the request of a couple of coworkers, it’s not really my scene). It was part lesson, part dance, part single’s mixer, and after a couple of rounds on the floor I was content to sit in the corner with a friend of mine and avoid the carousel of names and flirtations. Somehow we got to talking about ‘cosmogony’ (creation myth), and I spontaneously spun a couple threads of thoughts together the way only fatigue and dancing can allow.
“I think the common purpose of cosmogonies is not to explain the birthing of reality or humanity,” I said, “but instead to define the Struggle.”*
My friend gave me a strange look, a look I did not understand at the time. “I wrote an essay on that once,” she said, “on the parallels of Gilgamesh and Genesis.”
“Send it to me,” I said, and then we got up and danced and the world ceased to be a matter of hypothetical philosophical extrapolations, and instead shrank to a practical matter of rhythm and grace and unavoidable laughter.
I can’t dance without laughing at myself. If you saw me dance you’d laugh too.
Later I received the essay and I realized the look my friend had given me was more surprise than confusion. The paper deals with the respective alignments of the Genesis and Gilgamesh narratives with the human struggles against morality and mortality.
Her argument is that although the narratives show superficial similarities, the underlying messages are in constant conflict. The “mythopoeic paradigm presented in near eastern narratives” she says, shows how ‘radical’ the Hebrew myth of Genesis truly is. “The essential battle between cosmos and chaos [of Gilgamesh and its ilk] is rejected for a universe of only Goodness; the universal procreative act between competing male and female energies [Marduk and Tiamat], is replaced by an omnipotent, singular, God, unlimited in His lack of divine adversaries; Nature is demythologized and made subservient to an elevated mankind; and, ﬁnally, evil is not built into the structure of the world, or of man, but accounted for by the garden of Eden story.”
Semicolons aside, it’s an interesting perspective for a non-Christian (as she is) to take. Many scholars simply note the similarities, hypothesize that one tradition derives from the other, and close the historical, spiritual, and literary case. As if similarities alone can reduce the Genesis account to mere fantasy, or strip the thorns which make it such a difficult rose to grasp.
As I said, a cosmogony is about Struggle. It defines the agents with and battleground upon which a society is willing to live, work, and die, the purpose behind “the long defeat” (as Galadriel so aptly describes it). Gilgamesh, in its confusing duality of chaos and order, good and evil, life and death, is the tale of the doomed search for immortality. It describes a struggle universal to the human condition, and one with which we easily empathize.
Genesis, on the other hand, defines the struggle against ‘evil’, and (amazing for its context) views evil as an alien intrusion into the human condition. My friend understands this as a focus upon morality, although I myself would argue that morality is traditionally a subjective term (socially or culturally defined) and that the narrative instead delineates absolute good (God) from absolute evil (unGod, the absence of).
Either way, if the purpose of a cosmogony is indeed to present an ultimate Struggle, the two narratives of Genesis and Gilgamesh are far more distanced than their superficial similarities would suggest. Gilgamesh presents a profoundly human concern, articulated in human terms. Genesis hints at the greater and more terrible, it forces humanity to seek meaning and not just time.
I was curious after reading my friend’s essay as to what other cosmogonies might define as the ultimate Struggle. I wondered what else, besides Good vs. Evil or Live vs. Death could become the basis of a creation narrative.
I could have looked to the stories of the far east, or even those of the First Nations here in North America, but, typical for me, I immediately knew which source to study.
At the beginning of The Silmarillion is a 13 page creative narrative titled the “Ainulindale”, which roughly translates as “Music of the Ainur” or “Song of the Holy”. It is a fragment or remnant of Tolkien’s grand aspiration, as expressed in the following quote from a 1951 letter to his editor:
“Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloth”
Tolkien’s world, the entirety of the ages, of the Silmarils, of Middle Earth, and of the War of the Ring, begins with the Ainulindale. It describes, in 13 pages, an omniscient, omnipotent God, the creation of the Ainur (angelic beings), and the setting of the foundations of the world. It also, in my opinion, defines the “Struggle” of Tolkien’s legendarium, writing the first pages of a conflict which continues through all the vast ages of his world.
In the world of Tolkien, the struggle is one inherent in the very act of creating. Eru (He That Is Alone) is solely capable of true creation, and from him spring forth all the facets, nuances, and surprises of life and being. The Ainur, his first creation, each understand a facet or two of Eru himself and are capable of limited creation in their sphere of understanding, but none are capable of creating autonomous sentience in the manner of their god.
Together in the great music they make (a music which holds within it all the history of creation), the Ainur are able to achieve a greater understanding of each other and the purpose and scope of the greater cosmos. Together they begin to grow into their potential and take great joy in the shared vision of perfect creation. Together they are a great symphony creating for the shared joy of themselves and Eru, and fulfilling (in their own unique way) their greater purpose.
Tolkien, whether in his literature or his essays, is deeply concerned with the act of creation. In many ways he ties the act to his delineation between ‘art’ and ‘magic’, or sub-creation that celebrates the greater Creation, and sub-creation that seeks to control it. The Ainur who remain true to Eru are makers of ‘art’ which interacts with and enhances the work of their creator. Melkor, the Ainur who can be considered the ‘Shaitan’ of Tolkien’s world, is the discoverer of ‘magic’ and therefore orchestrator of the “Fall”. Tolkien explains that during the music of the Ainur, “It came into [Melkor’s] heart to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in the theme of his maker Illuvatar [Eru]; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”
Melkor’s fault is not in his desire to create, or even necessarily in his departure from the scope of Eru’s theme. Instead he ‘falls’ through his desire for his sub-creation to increase his own power over others, the wielding of creation as a weapon or destructive machine. The Ainur embrace an open-handed creation for the power and glory of Eru; Melkor embraces a close-fisted creation for his own power and glory. This will be a theme of Tolkien’s from Feanor to Sauron to Celebrimbor to Thorin. The struggle to sub-create as worship to Eru instead of oneself is a defining struggle for all of Tolkien’s heroes and villains.
“He has a mind of metal and wheels, and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment,” says Treebeard of the traitor Saruman, and I can think of few insults as potent in Tolkien’s world. The desire to trade life for machine, art for magic, is damnable, and it exposes one who has lost the transcendent Struggle.
Some of you may argue that the creative agency could be lumped in with Good vs. Evil, and I more or less agree. But I would argue that the Genesis account actually emphasizes a very specific struggle within the greater battleground of Good vs. Evil, and so does the Ainulindale. Either way, I’m more interested in the idea that the purpose of a cosmogony is to define the powers and struggle of the reality to which humanity has been summoned.
Do you agree?
P.S. Some of you may be interested to know that Tolkien was not alone in tying evil to the machine, indeed he is far from the first. I wrote an essay once on the importance of technology and gunpowder to Satan’s character in Milton’s Paradise Lost (culminating in the fallen angels creating and firing massive cannon during the great battle in Heaven), which I may one day delve into in this blog.
* Tolkien once said, “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds, as we know them and have them.”