Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand. In this episode, we meet Anzu, a monstrous embodiment of thunder. He’s a fascinating character in his own right. He gives us a glimpse into how Mesopotamians understood the world around them, their own place in that world, and their relationship to the divine.
Everyone would have known what Anzu looks like, and everyone would have heard his ferocious roar. So we know him from right across Mesopotamian history, from one side of the cuneiform world to the other. He is an example of continuity and shared culture. But he also shows us the limits of this continuity. He takes different forms in different times and places. His roles change, and his character has nuance.
Our guest is an expert in literature, with a passion for the monstrous. Her starting point is a careful reading of the texts. She connects the text with images, representations of Anzu in art and artefacts. What did these texts mean? How did people use them?
In this episode, our guest distinguishes the source material using several terms. You’ll hear talk of the Old Babylonian period. This means the early second millennium BC. You’ll also hear the term Standard Babylonian. This describes a special literary style. In practical terms, it means the time about 1000 years later, in the first millennium BC. She also mentions the library of Ashurbanipal. For present purposes, this is a huge royal collection from Assyria (in northern Iraq), assembled in the seventh century BC. It is the single most important group of literary texts ever found.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable. And let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Hi, Jon. Nice to hear you.
Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Dahlia Shehata and I am assistant professor at the University of Wuerzburg. I’m an assyriologist. And I’m currently working on a great story about the big and monstrous bird Anzu.
Let’s start with our hero, shall we? Who is Anzu?
Well, Anzu is a great bird. He appears in images as a mixture between eagle and lion. His face is that of a lion and the rest of his body is that of a great bird of prey. He’s a monster, then; he’s a mixture between two animals. And this is in fact fascinating, because the different body parts present us his character. So he’s of course a mixture between the most strong animals in the world, and both kings of heaven but also of earth. And on the other hand, he shows us what kind of spheres he represents. The bird represents the heaven, of course, so his sphere of action is mostly the heaven. And on the other hand, he is also the king of the earth. And this is what actually the text tells us about him; he originated somewhere in the mountains. He is born somewhere in between the high peaks of the mountains. So he has also some chthonic character. So he comes from the earth. And on the other hand, we have then this thunderbird, who is depicted in early images and connected to some heavenly power. And this is what Anzu actually tells us about: that this monster seems to represent some water power on earth. And he is really very important to keep water on earth and for keeping life on Earth.
What happens in the Anzu story?
Well, I would say the story is actually a classic. It is comparable to some modern Lord of the Rings or James Bond. You have on the one side a bad guy, and this is the Anzu bird. And this thunderbird is killed by the good guy, and the good guy is represented by the god Ninurta. Of course, it’s the nuances and the single characters that make the difference between modern and antique stories than in Mesopotamia. The characters are mostly divine, so the Anzu story is actually a myth. And it starts with the Anzu bird stealing the precious Tablet of Destinies. And then he flies back to his mountains where he actually originally came from. The theft of this precious object threatens the world’s order, and its balance, and all the gods are described to be shocked and unable to act. Then the god Ninurta is chosen out of a group of young heroic gods and he is supposed to fight evil Anzu and bring back order to the world. And, in fact, Ninurta is also the son of the supreme god, Enlil, and Enlil is the initial holder of the Tablet of Destinies, which is actually his main insignia. Ninurta also takes off into battle to avenge his father. And this is a very important information in this story. So after battle, and some confusion in order, of course succeeds to kill evil Anzu, and thus rescues the world and the divine order. And at the end, his reward is to be elevated to kingship over all the other gods and thus he replaces, actually, his father as the first sovereign over all the other gods. The story shouldn’t actually be named today Anzu story, but rather the story about Ninurta’s elevation. Because the main character who gains a lot in the story is the god Ninurta. Actually, in antiquity, the text was called BIN SHAR DADME and BIN SHAR DADME in Akkadian means something like “the son of the king of all the habitations”. So it really starts with naming Ninurta, actually, through his title. But still, since this is the only text we have about Anzu, back then, we call it today the Anzu myth, or the Anzu story. So it makes Anzu very famous for us.
How should we understand the story? What does it really mean?
It’s quite interesting and apparent in the story is the world’s conception, because it’s kind of a dichotomy, or it is divided between a good part and a bad part. This is very typical for this kind of combat myth. So we have the world of the bad guys, and Anzu represents them. And on the other hand, we have the world of the gods. And of course, here we have the hero Ninurta, leading them. And we have also the dichotomy between anthropomorphic figures and the animal or monsters. And so we seem to have a division between animals and humans in this worldview. And of course, if you take the story, the plot is quite simple. It is a typical combat story. But we have still some little details and nice movements in the story and developments that help us and give us to understand the topics underlying this rather simple story.
Well, as I said, there’s first a theological background. Ninurta is elevated, he is raised to be the great god or king of all the gods. But on the other hand, we have also some ecological topics. The myth explains us how the world came to be as it is today. And here the beginning of the story is very interesting, because it introduces us to a world which lacks water. And it’s actually after the birth of Anzu and after bringing the Anzu bird from the mountain to the temple of the gods, that the water come into the world. So it seems that Anzu is connected to some power of water. And here, we might come back again to how Anzu actually looks like, because he is a bird. And he is a strong animal. And we see how his bird feature represents the power in heaven. So through his wings, he can move the clouds and he can bring the rain clouds to the land. And also his wings: he creates a great shadow on the land. So this is also very comparable to clouds in the sky. And then of course, we have his face being that of a lion and the lion of course, he roars very loudly. And this is an acoustical feature of Anzu, representing the thunder, the heaven when the storms come over the land. And this represents quite nicely how Anzu represents these powers of nature.
After two thirds of the story, the text breaks off. And this is actually very usual to these old cuneiform tablets. And every time it gets really exciting, and we want to know what is going to happen, the tablet is breaking off. And I still hope that we might find some other tablets and fragments to reconstruct this part of the story. But it’s still very exciting, because we read here that it seems that after Ninurta has conquered the Anzu bird, he gets hold of the Tablet of Destinies. And right in this moment, he seems to want to keep them for himself because he realizes these tablets give him enormous power, and he wants to keep this power with itself. And then the text breaks off, and we have the feeling that the world is getting into new conflict. And this time, it’s not the monster that threatens the world. But it’s the god Ninurta himself who threatens the divine order. And after about 30 lines, which are broken off, we get back some text again at the end. And we read there that Ninurta is elevated and raised, and he’s praised by all the other gods. So it seems that this conflict has been solved quite well. It might have been solved through raising Ninurta to kingship over the divine world.
This tablet is really very exciting to take. And we get into the text and read what the text tells us about this Tablet of Destinies, and we first hear that it is an important object of the supreme god. It is in his temple and he keeps it in his temples. Later on, when this Tablet of Destinies is stolen by Anzu, and different heroic gods are asked to bring it back and to kill evil Anzu, they are all afraid and they say “No! Are you crazy? No, I won’t go out and try to kill Anzu, because he’s invincible. He has the Tablet of Destinies”. So what does this tablet does to Anzu? He gets enormous powers. And it’s only through one word that he can turn you into clay. So it means to kill you. And so he only needs to give one word and then he can destroy you or destroy the world, which means actually that his words get magical strength and power through the Tablet of Destinies. And this same effect happens also throughout the combat between Anzu and Ninurta. When we have Ninurta, trying to shoot his arrows to Anzu, and right in this moment, Anzu says his spells. He orders that the shaft of the arrow turns back to its reed, the feathers of the arrow turns back to the birds, and the tendons even go back to the sheep. So he dissolves all these components, and turns them back to where they came from actually, so Ninurta is unable to conquer Anzu, because of this magical power Anzu holds in his hands.
What actually was this Tablet of Destinies and why was it so powerful?
Okay, we take a look at the appearance of the Tablet of Destinies. It seems to be really a tablet, real tablet, maybe a very precious one made of lapis lazuli, or gold. We don’t exactly know, but there are some texts from the first millennium who explain that it is a real tablet, and it was held by the supreme god. It is the god Ashur, the god of the Assyrian empire, and he seems to carry it around his neck as a necklace. If we turn again to the Sumerian version of Anzu, we hear that this Tablet of Destinies is introduced threefold. It is first called the Sumerian ME. So what are the ME? That is a very difficult concept, and actually describes everything that makes up the civilised world. And then again, the Tablets of Destinies is described to be the GISH HUR. GISH HUR is also Sumerian, and it means the designs or the plans for the world. And finally, we really name it as the DUB NAM TAR, the TUPPI SHIMATI, the Tablet of Destiny. So actually, this tablet has in itself all these concepts. It is the civilised world; it is the plans and the designs of the world. And all this is somehow written down or kept on this one tablet, and there are some mysterious descriptions of this tablet from first millennium texts. And it says there, for example, that the Tablet of Destinies is the bond of supreme power, and it is the kingship of minor and major gods. Or it is the secret of heavens and the netherworld, so there remains some secret around this tablet that we don’t really get to know what exactly is on it.
This opens a much deeper question about how Mesopotamians viewed the world, doesn’t it? What was destiny? Is the power of the Tablet of Destinies that it tells the holder everything that’s going to happen? Or does it have some blank space where the holder could write in whatever they wanted to happen?
If you would ask me how I imagined destiny today, I couldn’t really say it exactly as well. But back then I believe that this tablet obviously held some rules for the world. And these were important to hold order in the world. And that’s why it was so dangerous if this tablet got into the wrong hands. And so there are some rules and orders kept in this tablet. And they give the paths or the ways how things function with each other and how relations are to each other between living beings, objects, and well the different details of the world. But on the other hand, of course, not everything was fixed because otherwise we wouldn’t have this concept of prayer and offerings. Because of course humans could have influence on what the gods decided on them. So not everything was really written or kept in this tablet. But still, there were, of course, some structures, orders and relations that were decided or even designed to be always the same in this Tablet of Destinies, what make up actually the destinies of the world; destinies meaning here actually more orders, structure, decision … main decisions or systems of the world. And on the other hand, as I said, I think this destinies as we understand today, what happens with your life and the future, are not really fixed. And are still free to be taken influence on or changed through mankind or through offerings, maybe, or through praying to your god. You can tell him “Well, please help me. I’m ill. Please let me be healthy again. Please don’t let me have Covid in this year”, or something like this actually.
You said at the beginning that Ninurta beat Anzu. Where we left the story, Ninurta was shooting arrows at him, but Anzu held the Tablet of Destinies, and was able to destroy the arrows. So how did Ninurta eventually defeat Anzu?
Here I would actually refer only to the Standard Babylonian version. The moment Ninurta throws his arrow to Anzu and tries to kill him, and manages through holding the Tablet of Destinies to destroy this arrow. But in this moment, Ninurta gets some help from the god of wisdom, which is Enki, and Enki tells him a trick. He tells him that right in the moment when Anzu says, “Let the feathers go back to the birds”, Ninurta is to shoot another arrow. And because the other arrow has feathers in it, these feathers will go directly into Anzu’s body, who’s actually a bird himself. And this is the trick about conquering and killing Anzu, and helping the arrow to reach its target. It is not enough that Ninurta is strong and mighty, and he’s very powerful, but it also needs some thinking, you know, it needs some trick to figure out how to kill this monster.
It sounds like another classic storytelling motif, doesn’t it? Be careful what you wish for?
Yes, exactly. Yeah, take care of what you’re saying. Because otherwise it could be turned against you. Exactly.
When and where do we know Anzu from?
The story about Anzu is actually known from iconography, but also from many texts. The first images showing some great hero gods or one god fighting a great bird of prey come from the third millennium. We see here images of two great hero gods fighting a huge bird. And in this case, the bird doesn’t have lion’s face, but it’s just a simple bird of prey, but is very big. And I assume this is already a depiction of the fight between ginurta or some other heroic God and the Anzu bird. Actually, the earliest idea we get from the story goes back to the third millennium. And we have some stories about Anzu in these UD.GAL.NUN texts. Well, the UD.GAL.NUN texts are Early Dynastic, from the middle of the third millennium. You have here some beautiful myths, which are very difficult to understand. But still there are hints to a story about Anzu. But in this early epoch, Anzu is not connected to Ninurta and is obviously not defeated by Ninurta, but by the sun god. The sun god, Utu, he is the standard heroic god for the third millennium. So it seems that this Anzu story has shifted, you know, the hero who killed Anzu. This role shifts from the third to the second millennium. And first it was the sun god, and later on, it was Ninurta, the son of Enlil. And then in the second millennium, we have the first text really telling us about Anzu and his story and his defeat by Ninurta. We have for example, the Old Babylonian text, which actually comes from Susa, so not really from Babylonia, and this is the oldest Akkadian transmission we have for the Anzu story. And then again, we have a Sumerian version coming from southern Babylonia, middle Babylonia, from Nippur and Ur, and unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of text on this tablet. And the Sumerian version might have had about three tablets and we only have about one tablet today. So about 80 lines and that’s all we have.
In this version, we have Ninurta also with a different character and it seems that the moment of threatening the divine order is even more important in this version. Actually, there is one tablet from Ur which is known, and which gives us an idea about how Ninurta was threatening Enki and Enlil. And he wanted to have kingship, but there is also a second tablet from Nippur, and it is not deciphered yet. It is quite difficult, because, well, the signs are really very small and it’s difficult to read. But I already realised that it must have been really different. And we have probably some prologue explaining to the listener how the Anzu came into being, and then we have the introduction of the Anzu chick, which is a companion obviously of Ninurta, but later on turns against him and steals the Tablets of Destinies. In the Old Babylonian tablet again, the Anzu chick has disappeared, and we read actually about the standard story of Anzu. Still, there are some little differences. For example, how Ninurta conquers and defeats Anzu. It seems that he has used some lightning to blind Anzu in course of defeating him. Ninurta represents, of course, light. Through his brightness, he destroys the Anzu shadow.
So we have mainly one Standard Babylonian version. This version is distributed throughout the whole of Mesopotamia. And it’s mainly known from first millennium manuscripts, and most of these manuscripts are also held in the library of Ashurbanipal. This standard Babylonian version is the longest one. It’s about 600 lines long, and it was written on three tablets. And the forerunner of this standard Babylonian version is the Old Babylonian version from the second millennium BC. The Old Babylonian version, though it seems to be the forerunner–and we see many parallels in the single sentences and lines to the Standard Babylonian versions–it is still shorter.
And then again, we have from the first millennium as well, next to the Standard Babylonian version, we have a version from Sultantepe, far away from the Assyrian centre, far away in Turkey. And this Sultantepe version is a very short version. It doesn’t give us an idea of a narrated story or narratio. It is rather something like a hymn. Because the language is very lyric, it has very regular four line stanzas, this story must have been used somehow different from the Standard Babylonian or the Old Babylonian versions. Orally, there are much more … more different versions about the Anzu story. And this is actually quite normal. Because of course, we know that written tablets are written material that only reflects the work of an elite of scholars and scribes. And they were writing down and copying these texts as they were known to them. And on the other hand, we have, of course, the oral transmission. And we have to imagine that there are many more stories about Anzu that were known back then. I sometimes think of the Christmas story, for example, and actually, everybody of us know how the Christmas story goes, and we always tell it again and again, orally. But actually, I don’t know many people who actually read the Christmas story in the Bible. And so, through telling this story over and over again, you get little differences and nuances and extensions of the original story, which are really interesting, of course. But unfortunately, we might never know how these stories about Anzu looked like, that were only transmitted orally.
How do you make sense of these different versions? Is it that there were always different versions and accident of discovery means that we have one version from a particular time and place and a second version from another? Or does the story change over time?
The story actually changes because the character changes. So we have Anzu in the third millennium, not really as a bad guy. We have him rather as a protection spirit. He is imaged, and we find him also as amulets or on jewellery. He is a spirit protecting you from evil forces. And this is really interesting, how his wide wings are a symbol of protection in these epochs. And then later on, Anzu develops to become really a very evil demon, and this was what we find in the first millennium. Also in the images. Anzu is depicted as a lion, and screaming and crying and roaring against his defeater, Ninurta. And he is totally evil and has to be killed. So we have different conceptions of how the god controls the power of Anzu. Anzu represented some water power: he brings rain, he brings fertility to the land. So he is important for some rules and order in the world. But he’s still an animal. So the divine world has to take control of him. And in the third and second millennium, we see that this control is imagined rather as holding the leash. You have to control his forces to use them for yourself. So Ninurta himself, he rides this animal Anzu, or is depicted beside him as a companion. And we’ve seen these similar images. For example, in Lagash. Lagash is a city which was quite important at the end of the third millennium. And there we have a god which was like Ninurta; Ningirsu is his name, and Ningirsu actually has Anzu as his companion. And he uses his forces, because it represents also powers of water and flooding waters and also storms in the sky. So these figures, they actually belong to each other. And if we go then and move to the first millennium, we see that the idea of control completely changes. Control means here, I have to kill the animal. And this happens in the Standard Babylonian myth, which became standard in the first millennium. Through killing the monster, Ninurta gets hold of his powers and can use them for himself. This actually reminds of some computer games, modern computer games, where you have to kill the monsters to get their life power.
What’s the focus of your research? When you work on an established text like the Anzu story, what new information can you find?
At the beginning, there’s always the text reconstruction. And it is always good to take a second, third and a fourth look at these texts. How are the single signs to be read? I’ve had some new discoveries and really exciting discoveries. For example, there was one sentence which was always read that the nose of Anzu looks like a saw. But then when I looked at the tablet in the original, I realised that this sign was misread. And it was not actually his nose, but it’s his wings that look like a saw. And this makes a huge difference, because now you could correlate the texts with the images. And of course, we see Anzu always depicted with his wide wings, and at the edge, his wings look like saws. And in this case, we even had some idea that this could be part of some connection between Anzu and the sun god in the early epochs, because also the sun god, he has a saw, you know, when he comes out of the mountain in the morning, digging himself out of the mountain by the saw. And Anzu was related to the sun god in early times. So maybe his wings being like a saw had similar functions.
Another point which I could manage is to join some single tablets and single fragments of cuneiform tablets. And here it came out that we always knew of one little piece which had the start or the beginning of the story. And then we had some other pieces with the rest of the story. And now I found out that they actually belong together. And not only this, I realised that this new tablet actually had the shape of an amulet. And this shows us that this story about Ninurta, or Anzu, actually was regarded as some protective object, you know. Then, of course, after reconstructing the text, I worked a lot on the way of narration and how are the different characters described? Or how do they develop within the text? And this was really fascinating because I realised that Ninurta and Anzu had similar developments, but they stand opposite to each other. So in the beginning, we have Anzu described as a really mighty and powerful being and powerful monster, which isn’t absolutely evil, but he has very positive features. And then it develops throughout the story that Anzu becomes evil because he steals the Tablet of Destinies, And at the end, he is killed. Ninurta has the opposite development at the beginning. He’s very silent and, and he doesn’t say a lot, and he obeys his mother, you know. It was she who said “Go out into battle and fight evil Anzu”, and his character becomes more and more strong, and he develops into an independent and self-confident god and hero god, who is then of course the king of the gods at the end of the story.
I could also follow through single moments when Ninurta starts to speak himself. When, you know, Ninurta stands opposite to Anzu, he finally is very self-confident and says, “I am here to kill you”, you know.
And next to this there was also the structure of the text. One very nice example are the phenomenon of repetitions. The text has a lot of repetitions, especially the Standard Babylonian texts. And repetitions are to us today, very boring. Of course, especially long passages are repeated all over and all over again. But repetitions have different functions in the texts, and was very obvious in the moment Ninurta kills Anzu and throws his arrow, this moment was repeated all over and over again. And especially this microsecond, when the arrow pierces Anzu’s body, this sentence is repeated about four times in the text. It’s something like a slow motion. So this is a technique of narration, actually, to broaden this moment of the death of Anzu. There seems to be really some thoughts behind that, you know, it was not just a simple story. The authors–we don’t know, of course, who wrote this text–had an idea and had a concept how to tell the story, actually, to make it really exciting for the audience.
At the end, looking at the story, I had great interest in following the development described in comparison to other texts. This is the transtextual analysis. Looking, for example, at Ninurta, we know that Ninurta is a great hero god. In other texts, he appears as the monster slayer, he killed all kinds of monsters: I don’t know, the bison-bull, or the seven-headed snake, but also other monsters. So he’s a very famous and important hero god. On the other hand, he also represents a power of nature. He represents the flood and waters and storms. And you see all these characteristics mirrored in the text, of course, because Ninurta and Anzu they fight in the sky, so they are both powers of the weather; they are storms, water, flood, rain. All this comes together and is described through the story of Anzu. And this is really nice to see, that these single characteristics of Ninurta or Anzu, as we know them from other texts and images, and then how they’re brought together in this Anzu story. This is really exciting.
How can we follow your work?
Actually, my main work about the Anzu story will be published in a book hopefully in one year. And then of course, you can follow my work through my webpage at the University of Wurzburg, and also through Academia. And there you can also see my newest publications to the topic of Anzu, but also to other topics around these monstrous beings.
Well, thank you very much. The idea of a struggle to control chaos is very 2020, isn’t it?
Absolutely. And working on Anzu, I always was reminded with modern ideas of the Axis of Evil or something like this, or how you put your idea of the evil beings on one person or one state. This is very typical for humans, I guess. Today, of course, we have COVID-19. And this is our main enemy. But the problem is we cannot really identify this enemy. And maybe it’s similar to Anzu, because you couldn’t really identify this animal. It was half lion, half eagle. What is it about actually and what are its powers?
Well, thank you very much, Dahlia.
I’d also like to thank our patrons, Tyler Russell, and Enrique Jimenez, Haider Al-Rekabi, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C and Rune Rattenborg. I really appreciate your support. It makes a big difference. And thank you for listening to Thin End of the Wedge. If you enjoy what we do, please consider supporting us via Patreon: that’s patreon.com /wedgepod. Even a couple of pounds a month helps keep the podcast going, and brings us closest to the point where we can make proper translations into Middle Eastern languages. You can also support us in other ways: simply subscribe to the podcast; leave us a five star review on iTunes or your podcatcher of choice; recommend us to your friends; follow us on Twitter @wedge_pod. If you want the latest podcast news, you can sign up for our newsletter. You can find all the links in the show notes and on our website at wedgepod.org. Thanks, and I hope you’ll join us next time.