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Sumerian literary documents repeatedly refer to the legendary days when "the kingship descended from heaven," once in the antediluvian era and then again after the Flood. To understand why this event was held to be a great importance, we must first assess how the term "king" was used in early days, and examines social and political changes that led to the establishment of the post-diluvian Mesopotamian kingship. We will then compare the Sumerian Etana epic with sections in Genesis which both tell of the origin of human kingship from different perspectives.

The Antediluvian Kingship

We know very little about the antediluvian kingship. The Sumerian Ziusudra flood epic begins by stating that Ziusudra, the Sumerian Noah who was saved from the flood on a boat with animals in an area that closely parallels the biblical story, was king of Shuruppak, as also was his father, the eponymous Shuruppak. Many authors have pointed out close parallels between the ten antediluvian kings of the Sumerian King List with their legendary lengths of lifes, and scholars from Albert Etienne Terrien de Lacouperie to Stephanie Dalley have observed that the length of the antediluvian Sumerian, Chinese, and Biblical chronologies all converge on the common number of 86,400, with Sumerian and Chinese chronologies having been misinterpreted as representing an amplified time frame because of intrinsic ambiguity in the Sumerian system of numeration in which units were not specified and a number could be read as representing either single units or multiples of sixty. This topic of chronological reconciliation has been documented in dedicated articles, and it is sufficient to state here that convergences suggest a common source for both the antediluvian Sumerian King List and the antediluvian patriarchs of Genesis.

Glassner observes: "the majority of these [antediluvian] kings are otherwise unknown" (Glassner 58). The antediluvian kingship was undoubtedly very different from the post-diluvian kingship. Neither the Biblical account nor the Sumerian records shed any more light on the antediluvian kingship, and so this article will focus exclusively upon the post-diluvian kingship, for which quality information is available from multidisciplinary sources.

The Early "Kingship" of Mesopotamia

Although the institution of monarchy dominated the ancient Near East from the time of the earliest written records through the 19th century, and in some nations like Saudi Arabia the monarchy persists today, several points of evidence demonstrate that Mesopotamia was originally inhabited by freemen who eventually accepted the rule of monarchs for protection, or were compelled to submit to the monarchy by force of arms.

Early Mesopotamian kings were more akin to the Biblical judges than to later concepts of absolute monarchs. The Biblical designation of judges appears to be somewhat of a misnomer. We very rarely see the judges of Israel engaged in judicial activities; their primary activities described in the text are political and military in establishing civic institutions in protecting Israel against its warlike neighbors. This is precisely the sense of the early Mesopotamian "kingship." Although the Israelites clamored for a king to be like their neighbors (1 Samuel 8), the institution of "judges" in the biblical sense is a Mesopotamian tradition which pre-dates the absolute monarchy, as we will see. Sumerologist Thorkild Jacobsen observed:

"The evidence suggests the kingship originally was a temporary office: a king was chosen as a leader when were threatened and ceased to exercise authority once the emergency was over. Now, the emergency had become chronic, and the office of king had become permanent because of it, so had his army and the manning and maintenance of the city wall. Gradually, leadership in all major communal undertakings devolved on the king and became united in his person" (Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976, 78).

"Mesopotamian kingship (nam-lugal) originated with leadership in war. When attacked, threatened, a young noble was chosen pro tem to lead the community and battle and was granted supreme powers during the emergency... since the early kingship had been a temporary office, and the Kings influence and authority tended to win with the passing of emergency, the young kings naturally welcomed opportunities to hold onto their power. Therefore, they were eager to engage in the ratings of wrongs, as "judges" in the biblical sense which allowed them to reassert their position of power in a morally acceptable way" (Jacobsen 83).

The early Mesopotamian kinship was thus a temporary elected office, much in the sense of the later Greek archon or the Roman consul. Because the kingship was initially a temporary and rotating office held by young nobles, there is no contradiction in noting that many kings ruled while their fathers were still alive, and that documented examples exist of an individual gaining, losing, and regaining the kingship. Recognizing this trend eliminates many chronological difficulties which are virtually insurmountable when it is erroneously assumed that each king ruled for life.

The Transition from Patriarchy to Monarchy

In the earliest epochs, we find numerous small rural settlements in Mesopotamia, presumably consisting of freemen loosely governed in kinship groups by the patriarchal order. As wars began upon the earth and peaceful communities were raided, rural citizens gathered into large cities under the military protection of a king. Hans Nissen estimates that in the Late Uruk period, rural dwellers outnumbered city dwellers by four to one. By the Early Dynastic period and up through the Old Akkadian era, the ratio was reversed, with Sumerian city dwellers estimated to have outnumbered the settlers of the countryside by a ratio of nine to one:

"During the later part of the Early Dynastic period...the main body of the population was concentrated in such urban centers, while small settlements out in the countryside has almost ceased to exist" (Nissen, Hans J. The Early History of the Ancient Near East 9000-2000 BC, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, 130).

Archaeologically, several changes are seen which corroborate the transition from freemen to monarchy. Unwalled villages disappeared, and walls were built around large cities to protect them from enemy raids. Nissen observes of early archaeological findings of Uruk, typical of Mesopotamia in this period:

"The general tendency is, however, already clear: the city area grows continually into the Early Dynastic I period when its extension is delineated by the city wall, built in this period" (Nissen, The Early History of the Ancient Near East 9000-2000 BC, 71).

Archaeology provides additional evidence of the rise of human kingship. Only houses and temples, but no palaces, have been identified in cities pertaining to the Uruk and Jemdet Nasr periods. It is only from the transition of this epoch into the Early Dynastic period, which transition apepars to correspond approximately to the reign of Etana of Kish, that we find Mesopotamian palaces. Another evidence of the rise of kingship is found in increasingly complex economic organization with standard weights and measures. Nissen explains:

"These bowls not only provide direct evidence of one aspect of economic organization, but are also indirect proof that units of measurement were already fixed some time before the period when standardization of units of measurement, which must certainly have also existed in other fields, can be included unequivocally among the methods of economic control (a development that can be irrefutably confirmed with the aid of the earliest written documents). It seems almost incredible that what was obviously already a very complex administration should have managed to survive for long using simple methods of control we have been dealing with up to now" (Nissen 85).

Usage of the Term "King" in the Early Times

The Sumerian word for king, LUGAL, is a logogram consisting of the characters LU (person) and GAL (great), which has been rendered literally as "great person" or "big man." LUGAL is thus used in some early documents in the sense of "chieftain" or "governor," rather than in the sense of an absolute monarch. Hayes observes that the term king was used in a different way in early Sumeria than in modern or medieval times (Hayes, Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts, 37).

Prominent Sumerian rulers, like Gudea of Lagash, never referred to themselves as kings on their own inscriptions. Similarly, of the early Babylonian rulers, Rogers observes: "It is curious to observe that of the various business documents which have come down to us from this period, none of these rulers [before Hammurabi] is called king" (Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, 244).

In the account of the battle of the kings in Genesis 14 in which Abraham rescues his nephew Lot, the word "king" is used in a manner consistent with its use at this time period, in which a "king" often ruled a single city-state rather than a large empire (i.e. the king of Sodom, king of Gomorrah, king of Admah, king of Zeboiim, king of Bela (Zoar). They may have been absolute monarchs in some cases, but the territory that was ruled was small.

Legitimacy and Divine Right

Although the Mesopotamian monarchy has been viewed in contemporary times as an institution of oppression, the literature glorifying early kings gives an entirely different picture suggestive of the "enlightened monarchies" of eighteenth-century Europe rather than of primitive despotisms. Samuel Noah Kramer observed:

"The Oriental monarchs, including those of Sumer and Akkad, are often cited by the modern historian as striking examples of despotic tyrants: cruel, oppressive, ruthless. This is certainly not have the Sumerian poets viewed their rulers; as they saw it, all the king's actions - conducting wars, constructing temples, maintaining the cult, digging and restoring canals, building and repairing highways, promulgating law codes - all had one supreme goal: to make the people happy, prosperous, and secure. This theme is an ever recurring motif in the hymns: The king is the farmer who fills the granaries and the shepherd who enriches the stalls and the sheepfolds; he is the high protecting wall of the land; the people look up to him as their father, and live securely in his sweet shade. In brief, to quote the off-repeated summary phrase of the poet: 'he makes sweet the flesh of the people'" (Kramer History 283).

Kramer does acknowledge a conflict of interest for the poets who may perhaps have been in royal employ, in glorifying their king, and recognizes that not all people may have shared the same perspective. The privileged position of early kings gave rise to inevitable questions of legitimacy which reverbrated throughout their societies. Why should one person occupy a privileged position of dominion over others, whereas others served as peasants or even as slaves? The obvious inequities of a monarchy gave rise from the earliest days to the invention of creative rationale for kingly status. Three main rationale were applied by early societies, which have continued to be employed by monarchies down to the present day: the will of the gods, divine right by royal blood, and the benefits of rule.

The Will of the Gods

The first rationale was that kingship was granted by the gods to their chosen: that kingship existed because "the gods willed it," and thus it was futile for humans to attempt to resist the divine order. Rulers went to great lengths to show that they were the "beloved of the gods," and eventually claimed for themselves divine parentage. King Shulgi of the Third Dynasty of Ur expressed his devotion to the goddess Ninlil in this composition while building an idol in her honor:

"The faithful provider, King Shulgi the shepherd, who is of broad intelligence and who will not rest day and night in thinking about you. He, the wise one, who is proficient in planning, he, the omniscient one, will fell large cedars in the huge forests for you." (Black et al., The Literature of Ancient Sumer, 114)

Later Greek myths of human heroes like Heracles with divine fathers and earthly mothers undoubtedly have their origin in the legacy of the early Mesopotamian hero-kings, to whom divine parentage was attribute after their lifetimes, or in later times, who even claimed divine ancestry and deification during their own reigns. Black and colleagues note:

"It is not clear that the legendary heroes whose exploits feature in several Sumerian literary narratives can be distinguished from gods. Usually their names are written with the same determinative sign used to write the names of dieties, and it is known from documentary evidence that some received a cult and offerings" (Black 1).

The same is true of some early kings. Dalley wrote of the hero-king Gilgamesh of the Sumerian epic:

"We now know for certain that Gilgamesh was considered in antiquity to be a historical character. For a long time it was not clear whether the earlier parts of the Sumerian King list, in which superhuman lengths of reign were attributed to all rulers, were entirely fictional or mythical. Historical instructions of the king of Kish, Enmebaragesi, who belongs to the same era, have now come to light...Tablets dating from not long after Gilgamesh's probable lifetime show that he was regarded as a god in Mesopotamia. The city which Gilgamesh and his father ruled is firmly identified as modern Warka in central Iraq." (Dalley 40-41).

The earliest Mesopotamian kings appear to have been deified only after their lifetimes. However, some later Sumerian rulers claimed deification for themselves during their own lifetimes. Early kings claimed descent from the gods: Enmerkar was referred to as "Enmerkar, son of the son-god, Utu" (Kramer, Sumerians, 270). King Naram-Sin, grandson of Sargon of Akkad, was the first to claim deification during his own lifetime and used the god determinative when his name was inscribed (Alexis Castor, "Between the Rivers: History of Ancient Mesopotamia," The Teaching Company, lecture 15). Naram-Sin "felt himself powerful enough to add the epithet 'king of the four quarters' to his titulary and that he was presumptuous enough to have himself deified as the 'god of Agade'" (Kramer, Sumerians, 62). Similarly, The Egyptologist Sir E.A. Wallis Budge tells us that the earliest pharaohs were not worshipped as Gods during their lives; this occurred only after their deaths. It was only in later dynasties that kings and pharaohs were worshipped as gods during their lives (Budge, [need reference]).

The later King Shulgi of Ur claimed deification for himself while boasting of his accomplishments. Kramer observes:

"Shulgi...took the title 'king of the four quarters' and had himself deified during his lifetime. His queen was an energetic and active Semitic lady named Abisimti, who survived Shulgi and continued as dowager queen under Shulgi's three successors, two of whom at least - Shu-Sin and Ibbi-Sin - bore Semitic names. But though Shulgi seems to have been semantically oriented, he was a great lover of Sumerian literature and culture and a prime patron of the Sumerian school, the edubba. In his hymns he boasts of the learning and erudition that he himself obtained in the edubba in the days of his youth, and he claims to have mastered its curriculum and become a skillful scribe" (Kramer, Sumerians, 69).

The king was seen as the one who linked heaven and earth, an intermediary between the people and the gods, or even as a divine incarnation of the gods. There is also some etymological evidence for this pervasive belief among ancient societies. The Chinese character for king, wang4, depicts three parallel horizontal lines linked by a central vertical line. The traditional explanation given for this character is that the three vertical lines represent heaven, the people, and earth. The vertical line connects the three lines - heaven, people, and earth - representing the king's divine right to govern by linking heaven and earth.

Later claims that a ruler was descended from a god have sometimes been used by modern historians as evidence that the ruler was an usurper who felt an acute need to justify his rule to the people. Glassner writes: "As for Ur-Ninurta, the qualification 'son of the god Ishkur' leads us to suspect that he was perhaps not the son of his predecessor but a usurper needing legitimacy" (108).

If the gods could give kingship, the gods could also take it away. Thus the gods who gave the kingship to men and established various dynasties also decreed their ends, as the Sumerian composition declares:

Ur was verily granted kingship - a lasting term was not granted.
From days of yore when the country was first settled, to where it has not progressed,
Whoever saw a term of royal office completed? Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness, 188-189, citing UE(T) VI2, no 132 obv 7-11; cf. STVC, no 25 obv 18-21).

Glassner expounds upon this passage: "So far as Ur was concerned, while kingship had certainly been given to it, an 'everlasting dynasty' had, however, not been granted' Furthermore, says the text, no one has ever seen a dynasty that lasted forever. Even if the dynasty of Ur had enjoyed a great longevity, it was decreed in the order of things that it would one day come to an end" (Glassner 106). The Mesopotamian concept of time was cyclical, with dynasties rising and falling in a sinusoidal pattern as the gods elevated and humbled cities and dynasties even while acting within the bounds of historically defined principles (Glassner 67).

In ancient China, we find the concept of "The Mandate of Heaven," which asserts that rulers in power are overthrown by the powers of heaven when they neglect their duties to the people or act unjustly. The "Mandate of Heaven" thus became a self-fulfilling justification for whoever happened to be in power: those who were in power ruled because they held the "Mandate of Heaven," and when they were supplanted by usurpers it was because the overthrown emporer had lost the "Mandate" whereas the new ruler had gained it. We therefore find less preoccupation about the idea of "royal blood" in ancient China than we find in the early days of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian monarchies.

The Hereditary Kingship: King by Royal Blood

The second rationale for the legitimacy of kingship was royal blood: If the gods put Etana on the throne of Kish, or Sargon on the throne of Sumer-Akkad, then it also seemed to follow that their sons had the same right to the throne. From the time that "the kingship descended from heaven" during the First Dynasty of Sumerian Kish, the "newly founded kingship was based on the hereditary principle" (Glassner 64). The hereditary nature of the kinship was perpetuated in later Mesopotamian cultures. Glassner noted: "One principle found in the [Assyrian] chronicle was that the kingship was hereditary" (Glassner 95).

The Egyptian word Pharaoh is held by modern Egyptologists to be derived from the term PER-AA, "great house," used to refer to the Pharaoh's estate. PER-AA appears to be the Egyptian equivalent of the Sumerian E'-GAL or palace, "great house" from (E' = house + GAL = house, temple) (Nissen, The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 140) , or in other words palace. Egyptologists have long accepted PERAA as the etymology of Pharaoh, although there are reasons to challenge this equivalency. The earliest Egyptian word used to refer to their rulers is ERPAT, "hereditary king;" one author has suggested that in view of the known P/PH/R transformation in early Egyptian documented by Champollion [need citation], this may be the genuine etymology of the word Pharaoh. This is also suggested by the Book of Abraham, which defines the term "which Pharaoh signifies king by royal blood" (Abraham 1:20). This definition corresponds closely to the Egyptian ERPAT but has nothing whatever to do with PERAA, "great house."

The term LUGAL ("great man," later used as king) was applied to those not of royal blood only (1) initially, in the sense a chieftain before the term had taken on the connotation of king), and (2) in later years as the term again began to assume a broader usage. Glassner noted:

"Later, throughout the third millennium, lugal was not applied exclusively to persons of royal blood but to anyone invested alone or collegially with the highest authority within a kinship group." (Glassner, Jean-Jacques. The Mesopotamian Chronicles. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004, 96).

Glassner observed that "the [Assyrian Royal] chronicle did not consider election a legitimation of kingship" (Glassner 95). In contrast, the term "son of a nobody" was used to refer to usurpers not of royal lineage. The question of legitimacy of kings not of royal blood was a frequent issue. The Assyrian Royal Chronicle, for instance, lists as kings numerous "sons of a nobody" along with colorful commentary such as this: "Assur-dugul, son of a nobody, who had no right to the throne, reigned 6 years" (Glassner 139). Yet even great kings sometimes candidly acknowledged their lack of royal lineage. Glassner wrote:

"The Assyrian version of this pseudoautobiography of Sargon employs the formula 'I do not know my father'; the Babylonian version is different, saying 'he had no father,' apparent to make of Sargon 'son of a nobody,' an express into noting a man of no antecedents, not of royal stock, who seized the throne. The expression is frequently translated 'usurper.' However, 'son of a nobody' did not necessarily have the same pejorative connotations as the English term. Did not Nabopolassar, ineffective founder of the neo-Babylonian empire, qualify himself as 'son of a nobody' in one of his own inscriptions?... 'Son of a nobody' means, primarily, that the person concerned was not of royal lineage" (Glassner 29-30).

A similar phrase is encountered in Egyptian wisdom literature, where individuals are admonished not to treat the average person any differently than a "son of somebody" [need reference].

The Benefits of Rule

A final rationalization for the kingship was a logical argument pointing out the benefits of rule and the achievements and prosperity attributed to enlightened monarchs. Sumerian kings often boasted of serving the gods, of having established justice in the land and having protected the poor and the weak from the rich and the powerful, and of their wisdom and intellect in ruling. The kings were keen to point out their accomplishments and the benefits that their rule brought the people. A praise poem of Lipit-Eshtar reads:

"I am possessed of a weighty persona for speaking. I am one with a far-reaching mind and intellect, examining requests. I do not hurry over anything, but research its background. I have a far-reaching heart and broad wisdom. I am a stone that brings...out of the Land. I am one that has truth in his mouth. I am one who never destroys a just person. I am a judge who, in making a decision, weighs his words fairly. I am one who is well acquainted with giving orders to the foreign lands. I have established justice in Sumer and Akkad, and made the Land feel content." (Black 310, A praise poem of Lipit-Eshtar).

Unalterable Decrees of the Gods

Although only the references in Daniel explicitly state that decrees of the kings of the Medes and Persians were unalterable at this late date when the Hebrews encountered Mesopotamian culture following the Captivity and the fall of Babylon, it appears that this practice derived from much earlier periods going back to the Sumerians. The kings were believed to be progeny of the gods; therefore the institution of unalterable decrees was believed to be a natural outgrowth of this relationship reflecting the divine mandate of the "kingship descended from heaven."

The decrees of the kings of some ancient Mesopotamian and Near Eastern nations were unalterable, as we read in the Book of Daniel: "The law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not...Know, O king, that the law of the Medes and Persians is, That no decree nor statute which the king establisheth may be changed" (Daniel 6:12,15). This was believed to be an earthly type of the decrees of the Gods, whose decrees were unalterable as we read in scripture (see Alma 29:4; Alma 41:8; Moses 7:52; D&C 104:2), and from many ancient sources including this Sumerian poem The Pickax:

The lord, in order to bring forth what was useful,
The lord whose decisions are unalterable,
Enlil, who brings up the seed of the "land" from the earth,
Planned to move away heaven from earth,
Planned to move away earth from heaven.
(Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 82).

A more explicit formulation of this teaching is found in this pronouncement attributed to Enlil following the destruction of Ur:

There is no revoking a verdict, a decree of the assembly.
A command of An and Enlil is not known ever to have been changed.

(Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness, 188-189, citing UE(T) VI2, no 132 obv 7-11; cf. STVC, no 25 obv 18-21).

An is the Sumerian God of the Heavens, Creator of All, and Supreme Ruler; Enlil is the god of the wind and the second of the three principle Sumerian dieties. It is stated of the God Enlil: "Not only did the lord make the world appear in its correct form - the lord who never changes the destinies that he determines: Enlil..." (a song of the hoe, Black et al., The Literature of Ancient Sumer 313.)

We find the passage of the mantle of unalterable decrees from the parent gods to the lesser gods in Sumero-Akkadian Epic of Creation when Tiamat tells Qingu: "I have put into your power rule over all the gods! You are the greatest!...Your commands shall always prevail over all the Anukki!...Your utterance shall never be altered! Your word shall be law!" (Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia 240).

The Descent of the Kingship from Heaven

Sumerian primary sources state that the first dynasty of Kish immediately followed the great deluge (Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 227), and that one of the most important city-states of Sumeria was Kish "which, according to Sumerian legendary lore, had received the 'kingship' from heaven immediately after the 'flood'" (Kramer, History, 31). The Kings List states:

"The Flood then swept over (the land). After the Flood had swept over (the land) and kingship had descended from heaven (a second time), Kish became the seat of kingship" (Kramer, Sumerians, 328).

The 'kingship descended from heaven' in the days of Etana, the legendary ruler of Kish who established a unified state with hegemony over all the land in the earliest times. From the earliest days of the Sumerian people, the title of "king of Kish" came to represent the overlord of the land. After Lugal-Zagesi of Uruk (Biblical Erech) united all the Sumerian lands and claimed for himself the title of King of Kish, he was overthrown by his cupbearer, the Sargon the Great of Akkad. Sargon conquered Ur in approximately 2350 BC. At least from the time of Sargon's predecessor Lugal-Zagesi onward, and likely dating back to the much earlier era of Etana of Kish, it was believed that "there could be only one authentic king of the Land [of Sumer and Akkad] at any one time" (Black 118). The title of King of Kish was coveted by later Sumerian rulers, who claimed this title to project dominance and sovereignty over all or most of Sumeria even when they did not control the actual city of Kish: the later ruler Eannatum called himself "king of Kish" after briefly uniting the land, even though "Kish...was not a place Eannatum could have ruled jointly from his own territory" (Nissen 144). Kramer observed:

"Eannatum [of Lagash] was now at the acme of his power; he even felt powerful enough to take the title 'King of Kish' with its implied claim of suzerainty over Sumer as a whole; or as the ancient author puts it, 'To Eannatum, the ensi of Lagash...Inanna (the tutelary diety of Kish), because she loved him, gave the kingship of Kish. In addition to the ensi-ship of Lagash" (Kramer, Sumerians, 55).

King Etana of Kish

Although the first rulers of Kish are referred to as "kings" in the king list, other Sumerian literary compositions are clear that the kingship descended in the days of Etana, the thirteenth ruler of Kish on the Sumerian King List. Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer observed:

"The first ruler of Sumer whose deeds are recorded, if only in the briefest kind of statement, is a king by the name of Etana of Kish, who may have come to the throne quite early in the third millennium BC. In the King List, he is described as 'he who stabilized all lands.' On the assumption that this statement, found in a document dated a millennium or so later than the reign of Etama embodies a trustworthy tradition, it may be inferred that he held sway not only over Sumer, but over some of the neighboring lands as well - in short, that he may have been man's first known empire-builder. That Etana was a notable and outstanding figure in the early history of Sumer is shown by the truly legendary notes in the very same King List that he was 'a man who ascended to heaven' and by a Semitic Akkadian poem current early in the second millennium BC the centers about this same mythical motif. According to this legend, for which a Sumerian prototype may well turn up some future day, Etana was a pious, God-fearing king good practice to the divine code faithfully and assiduously, but was cursed with childlessness and had no one to carry on his name. His fervent desire, therefore, was to obtain 'the plant of birth,' which, however, was located in heaven far from mortal reach. In order to get to heaven, Etana procured the aid of an eagle, whom he had rescued from a pit where it had been cast by a serpent whose friendship it had betrayed and whose young it had devoured. This legend was quite popular among this seal-cutters, two giants from a number of seals depicting a mortal climbing heavenward on the wings of an eagle. To be sure, Etana did not stay put in heaven, for according to a recently translated funeral dirge on a tablet in the Pushkin Museum as well as to the long known seventh tablet of the Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh, we find Etana residing in the netherworld whether all mortals, no matter how great their achievements - except, of course, the Flood-hero Ziusudra - must finally descend. But all these legendary traditions only have to demonstrate that Etana had been a powerful and impressive figure, whose life and deeds had caught the imagination of the ancient bards and poets" (Kramer, Sumerians, 43-44).

Stephanie Dalley renders the following translation from the first tablet of the Etana epic:

[The great gods, the Igigi] designed a city,
[The Igigi] laid its foundation,
[The Anunnaki] designed the city of Kish,
[The Annunaki] laid its foundation,
The Igigi made its brickwork firm.
Let [ ] be their shepherd
Let Etana be their builder (?) [ ] the staff of [ ]
The great Anunnaki who decree destinies
Sat and conferred their counsel on the land
The Igigi [ ] decreed names (?) for them all.
They had not established a king over all the teeming people
Inninna [was looking for] a shepherd
And searching high and low for a king.
Ellil was looking for a throne-dias for Etana.
'The young man for whom Ishtar [is looking so dilige]ntly
And searches endlessly [ ]
A king is hereby affirmed for the land, and in Kish [it is established (?)]'
He brought kingship...
(Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia 190-91).

Until the days of Etana, it is said that the gods "had not established a king over all the teeming people." Only in the days of Etana was it said, "a king is hereby affirmed for the land, and in Kish [it is established (?)]. He brought kingship." Etana king of Kish was thus the one for whom the "kingship had been lowered from heaven" after the flood. The fact that the term "king" was applied to Etana's predecessors can therefore be taken to be late or retroactive interpolation; the record would suggest that they were merely clan leaders or en's - governors or priest-rulers - rather than true "kings" in the later sense.

Etana is called "the man who set every land in order" (Glassner 61). Glassner observes, "One version has a useful detail, making the eagle say: 'You, Etana, are king over the animals.'" (ibid). Glassner writes that the name Etana means "he who went up to heaven... there is reason to think that this story is very old; the ascent to heaven of someone mounted on the back of an eagle was already a figurative motif well-known in Old Akkadian glyptic art" (Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles, 91). "Note also the Sumerian expression an.s^e'...e11, 'ascend to heaven'" (ibid).

The Etana story is preserved in Old Babylonian and Assyrian versions, although it is believed to be much older as Lu-Nanna sage of Ur is the attributed author, and Etana's ascent to heaven is shown on Akkadian period cylinder seals cited as dating to 2390-2249 by Stephanie Dalley (Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, 189). The significance of the Etana story to the ancient Mesopotamians is demonstrated by the fact that "Etana is the only Mesopotamian tale to have been identified unequivocally on ancient cylinder seals" (ibid).

It is only at the very end of the late Uruk period that the first written documents appear, and sparsely at that. Unfortunately, much of our knowledge of this early period and of King Etana comes from later Sumerian writings rather than directly from this initial period.

Etana thus became, according to the Sumerians, the first true king of the post-diluvian world. The Etana epic sheds considerable light on the matter, although our records of the Etana come perhaps a millennium or more after the events have transpired, such that it is difficult to sift the kernal of historical truth from legendary embellishments. Nonetheless, the epic contains many details of importance which demonstrate close parallels to the Genesis account of Nimrod.

Etana and Nimrod

Genesis account of the origins of human kingship is found in this story which contains the first use of the word "kingdom" in scripture, thus implying the reign of the first king:

And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth.
He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord.
And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.
(Genesis 10:8-10).

The name of Nimrod and the city of Babel which he ruled are inseparably connected with the story of human attempts to ascend to heaven by building a tower, and the resulting confusion of tongues:

1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one anotherís speech.
8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
(Genesis 11:1-9)

Genesis does not specifically attribute the building of the tower of Babel to Nimrod, although this inference has been made by many biblical scholars because (1) Nimrod ruled the city of Babel, and (2) only the united kingdom of Nimrod or his immediate successors would presumably have had the resources and manpower to attempt a massive "public works" project of this nature. Genesis notes the scattering of people after the tower, whereas we know from Sumerian records and modern archaeological finds that the time that the land was united by Etana and his son was relatively brief.

The list of five antediluvian cities founded when the kingship first descended from heaven in the Sumerian King List - Eridu, Badtibira, Larak, Sippar, and Shuruppak (Kramer, Sumerians, 328), brings to mind the four cities founded by Nimrod after the flood in the Biblical story (Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh) who appears to correspond to the Sumerian Etana in whose reign the kingship descended from heaven. It is therefore not clear whether the King List account of the five antediluvian cities represents a real memory, or whether it is a later interpolation based upon the fact that Etana founded four cities after the flood, with one more attributed to the antediluvian civilization to show the greater attainments of more remote antiquity.

The reader by this point will undoubtedly have observed numerous parallels between the Sumerian Etana and the Biblical Nimrod, which are summarized in the table below:

Trait EtanaNimrod
Kingship First true king after the Flood, in whose reign the "kingship descended from heaven" Ruler of the first mentioned human kingdom (Genesis 10:10), therefore the first king
LocationKish, Sumeria"The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar" (Genesis 10:10), and presumably expanded from there if these cities were only "the beginning." These are all Sumerian cities, or at least the first three (the identity of Calneh is unknown). Furthermore, the identity of the Biblical Shinar with Shumer/Sumer has long been made by Sumerologists: "'Shinar,' which scholars usually identify with Sumer" (Kramer, Sumerians, 297).
TimingImmediately after the Flood per the Sumerian King list
From archaeology: "The scattering of Etana Nimrod's kingdom would appear to have taken place during Sumeria's late Uruk, and early Jemdet Nasr phase. A strong Sumerian influence is known in Egypt from this time" (Roy Hales, "Etana and the First Kingdom of Man,"
Immediately after the Flood
Heredity and HomelandRuled the city of Kish, presumably named after eponymous ancestor.
When Rawlinson, discoverer of the Sumerian civilizations, first discovered the remains, he described it as "Kush in the desert."
See my article on the ethnographic background of the Sumerian people.
Son of Cush/Kush (Genesis 10:8)
Extent of Realm Etana "consolidated all lands" or "set every land in order"All people gathered together at Babel (implied from the verse "from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth" (Genesis 11:9)).
Building The Etana epic describes the city of Kish as being designed and built by the Gods, but then describes Etana as "the builder." The Tower of Babel story
Animals and Hunting Etana was known as the "king of animals." Nimrod "was a mighty hunter before the Lord" (Genesis 10:9); this was remembered and used as a proverby by future generations down to the day of the Genesis author.
Ascent to Heaven Attempted to ascend to heaven on the back of an eagle. In some versions he completed his ascent (although he is later found in the netherworld by Gilgamesh); in other versions he falls to the ground during his ascent.The people of the attempted to build a tower in Babel to ascend to heaven; in Genesis this is presented as a populist decision (Genesis 11:4), although the knowledge that Babel was part of Nimrod's kingdom (Genesis 10:10) would imply that the primary decision may have come from the monarch. Language is confounded and the tower is abandoned.

These similarities do not prove that the Sumerian Etana is the same as the Biblical Nimrod. However, they are highly suggestive of a common origin: it would be difficult to claim that these numerous close parallels consist of nothing more than random coincidences. The greatest difference between the Sumerian Etana story and the Biblical tale of Nimrod is likely one of perspective. The Sumerian Etana is extolled as a wise, just, and god-fearing king who consolidated all lands under the direction of the gods, and whose attempt to ascend to heaven is immortalized in art and legend down to the Akkadian era. Although the account of the Biblical Nimrod is terse, other Hebrew tradition and apocryphal sources such as the Book of Jasher suggests that he was viewed as a despotic oppressor and blood-thirsty pagan idolater. The Biblical account of the building of the tower to get to heaven is viewed as blasphemous sacrilege pulling down the wrath of God upon mankind, in contrast to the laudatory Sumerian and Akkadian views of Etana's attempt to ascend to the heavens on the back of the eagle. A starker contrast could scarcely exist than between the romantic Sumerian views of Etana and Hebrew views of Nimrod. Furthermore, the "descent of the kingship from heaven" was a major cultural institution to the Sumerians, whereas the Israelites reacted less favorably to this concept both because of their oppression at the hand of foreign kings, and because of the moral negatives associated with the Nimrod story. Nonetheless, as we sift the fabulous from the Sumerian account and focus on areas of historical agreement, it becomes increasingly apparent that the tales of the Sumerian Etana and the Biblical Nimrod are very likely different accounts of the same person, the first post-diluvian king, and the origin of human kingship.

Tower of Babel

Robert Boyd records that during the reign of Ur-Nammu, a Third Dynasty ruler of Ur,

"A clay tablet was unearthed which gave the following account of a ziggurat: 'The erection (building) of this tower (temple) highly offended all the gods. In a night they (threw down) what man had built, and impeded their progress. They were scattered abroad, and their speech was strange'" (Boyd, Robert. "Tells, Tombs, and Treasures," 1969).

The circumstances of this as described by Boyd are not entirely clear, and I have not as yet identified the primary source - in contrast to all other references cited in this article, which are referenced directly to attested translations of Sumerologists and Semiticists, whereas Boyd is an archaeologist. This citation should therefore be taken as tentative until further corroboration can be identified directly from Sumerological sources. Nonetheless, a Sumerian story of the confounding of languages presented in my article on Paradise and the Confounding of Languages.

Other Notes

sandals "were always taken off in the presence of the king" (Budge, Dwellers on the Nile, 181).

"son of the Sun" was a title of the Egyptian king (Budge, Dwellers on the Nile, 182). Also of the Chinese Emperor.

Greek wanax high king vs. later basileus lesser king after bronze age.

"During most of the period from which the Sumerian literature translated here derives, rulers considered themselves as deified in their own lifetimes. There names, equally, were written with the determinative signs for deities, and temples were built in their honour, where they received a cult. ...their belief was that they shared their divine parentage with the gods" (Black 1)