Enuma Elish: The Oldest Written Creation Myth

Clay impression of a cylinder seal depicting adoration scene from Nippur, Iraq, detail, Akkadian civilization, 2330-2150 B.C.
DEA / A. DE GREGORIO / Getty Images

Cultures around the world and throughout the history of humankind have sought to explain how the world began and how their people came to be. The stories they've created in service of this mission are known as creation myths. When studied, creation myths are generally considered symbolic narratives rather than fact. The use of the term myth in the common phrase only further characterizes these stories as fiction. But contemporary cultures and religions generally regard their own creation myth as truth. In fact, creation myths are usually regarded as profound truths carrying great historical, cultural, and religious significance. Though there are an infinite number of creation stories and certainly many versions of the same due to their development through oral tradition, creation myths tend to share some common features. Here we discuss the creation myth of the ancient Babylonians.

The Ancient City State of Babylonia   

Enuma Elish refers to the Babylonian creation epic. Babylonia was a small city-state in the ancient Mesopotamian empire from the 3rd millennium BC through the 2nd century AD. The city-state was known for their advances in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, and literature. It was also famous for its beauty and divine laws. Along with their divine laws was their practice of religion, which was marked by multiple gods, primordial beings, demigods, heroes, and even spirits and monsters. Their religious practice included the celebration through festivals and rituals, the worship of religious idols, and, of course, the telling of their stories and myths. In addition to their oral culture, many of the Babylonian myths were written down on clay tablets in cuneiform script. One of the most famous surviving myths captured on these clay tablets was arguably one of their most important, Enuma Elish. It is considered one of the most important sources of understanding the ancient Babylonian worldview.

The Creation Myth of Enuma Elish

The Enuma Elish is composed of close to one thousand lines of cuneiform script that have often been compared with the Old Testament creation story in Genesis I. The story features a great battle between gods Marduk and Tiamat that results in the creation of the Earth and mankind. The storm god Marduk is ultimately declared a champion, which enables him to rule over the other gods and become the chief god in Babylonian religion. Marduk uses Tiamat's body to form the sky and the earth. He forms the great Mesopotamian rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, from the tears in her eyes. Finally, he forms mankind from the blood of Tiamat's son and spouse Kingu, in order for them to serve the gods.

The Enuma Elish was written across seven cuneiform tablets that were copied by ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. The Enuma Elish is considered the oldest written creation story, perhaps from the second millennium B.C. The epic was recited or re-enacted in the annual New Year's events, as is recorded in Seleucid era documents.

George Smith of the British Museum published the first English translation in 1876.

Also Known As: The Chaldean Account of Genesis (name was given by George Smith to his translation of the Enuma Elish, in 1876), The Babylonian Genesis, The Poem of Creation, and The Epic of Creation

Alternate Spellings: Enūma eliš


"The Battle between Marduk and Tiamat," by Thorkild Jacobsen. Journal of the American Oriental Society (1968).

"Enuma Elish" A Dictionary of the Bible. by W. R. F. Browning. Oxford University Press Inc.

"The Fifty Names of Marduk in 'Enūma eliš'," by Andrea Seri. Journal of the American Oriental Society (2006).

"Otiose Deities and the Ancient Egyptian Pantheon," by Susan Tower Hollis. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt (1998).

The Seven Tablets of Creation, by Leonard William King (1902)

"Textual Fluctuations and Cosmic Streams: Ocean and Acheloios," by G. B. D'Alessio.The Journal of Hellenic Studies (2004).

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Gill, N.S. "Enuma Elish: The Oldest Written Creation Myth." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, learnreligions.com/enuma-elish-the-oldest-written-creation-myth-117858. Gill, N.S. (2021, December 6). Enuma Elish: The Oldest Written Creation Myth. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/enuma-elish-the-oldest-written-creation-myth-117858 Gill, N.S. "Enuma Elish: The Oldest Written Creation Myth." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/enuma-elish-the-oldest-written-creation-myth-117858 (accessed March 21, 2023).