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Enki, Ninhursag, and Eve

I was going to save this post for later but hey, I am having massive writer’s block right now, so I’m just going to go for it. I wrote my undergrad thesis in part about the historical context of Genesis 1-3, and part of that included examining the parallels between those chapters of Genesis and much earlier Near Eastern stories. Clearly writing a thesis about it wasn’t enough for me, I am going to regale you all with this information. As with the Passover posts, I think I’ll make this a ~series~. Because series are fun.

There is a Sumerian paradise myth known as Enki and Ninhursag; Enki is the Sumerian water god, Ninhursag is the Lady of Life, and it takes place in the paradise of Dilmun. The main action begins when Enki impregnates Ninhursag. Ninhursag has a daughter called Nimmu, who Enki then impregnates, who has a daughter called Ninkurra, who Enki impregnates, who has a daughter called Uttu.

At this point, Ninhursag realizes what Enki is doing, and tells Uttu what Enki is up to and tells Uttu to blow him off unless he offers her a gift of cucumbers, apples, and grapes. Of course, Enki finds out about this, brings Uttu the fruit, and sleeps with her. Ninhursag then gets super-pissed off, takes Enki’s semen from Uttu’s womb before she can conceive, and uses it to grow eight plants which she forbids Enki to eat.

Enki, being Enki, decides to eat the plants (which, if you’re keeping track, were grown from the semen with which he impregnated his great-granddaughter), causing Ninhursag to pretty much lose her shit at him. She curses him, saying that, “Until his dying day, I will never look upon him with life-giving eye,” and promptly disappears.

Enki starts to die which upsets the other gods, so they send a messenger to find Ninhursag and convince her to restore Enki to life; she returns in time to save him. To heal him, she orders him to lie with his head against her vulva, and tells him to name each body part which is causing him pain. For each part he names, she causes a deity to be born in order to heal it. The second to last part named by Enki is his rib, or ti in the original Sumerian. To heal his rib Ninhursag creates the goddess Ninti, or Lady of the Rib. When Ninhursag is finished, Enki is cured.

The original cuneiform tablet on which this story was found.

Though the plot of this story is very different from that of the story found in the first three chapters of Genesis, I am sure there are parts of it which made you go OH. ORLY. I C WUT U DID THAR, J AND E SOURCES. I am assuming that they caused that reaction in you, my dear readers, because that us the reaction they caused in me. (If you are a new reader and have no idea what the J and E sources are, you should read this post).

There are quite a few significant parallels between the two stories, as I am sure you noticed, but there are two in particular which excite me. The first is that both stories involve a woman created by or for the rib of a man. Genesis 2:21-23 reads “And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man…He took one of his ribs…And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made He a woman…And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’” In the Enki and Ninhursag story, the pertinent passage reads “‘My brother, what part of you hurts you?’ ‘My ribs (ti) hurt me.’ She gave birth to Ninti out of it.” In Genesis a woman is created from the rib of Man for Man by God, and in Enki and Ninhursag, a female deity is created by another female deity to save the life of a male deity via his rib.

However, what really connects the two stories in question is Ninhursag’s alternate title (she has many) of Nintu, or Lady of Life. Genesis 3:20 reads “And the man called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.” The name Eve, hawwa, is derived from the roots hwy and hyy, both of which were used in northwestern Semitic languages as roots for words pertaining to life; said roots may be found in the Amorite, Ugaritic, Phoenician-Punic, and Hebrew languages. This signals that the name of Eve is symbolic to her status as a life giver.

With the parallels from the Enki and Ninhursag story and the linguistic evidence in mind, it appears that Eve is the successor of many Sumerian goddesses who functioned as givers of life. This is especially fun because the rib section of Genesis has been used for millennia as a theological defense for treating women as property. So, it is rather nice to know that, in all likelihood, Eve began as a goddess, and that the original rib story was more about female power than subordination.

If you want to read a translation of this story, you can do so here.

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