T is for…Tiamat

Tiamat is a Mesopotamian chaos  monster, symbolic of the chaos before creation and the birthing process of creating. She is highly associated with the ocean and the salt-water therein. She is the mother of everything, including the gods. Her first mate, Apsu, personified male chaos before creation and was associated with the freshwater beneath Earth. Together, the two created many gods and beings.

TModern interpretations depict Tiamat as a multi-headed dragon (in the popular D&D role-playing game) or a sea serpent. However, the descriptions of Mesopotamian myth do not seem to match these depictions. Instead, it is suggested that she has a long tale that “shake together” but otherwise her description is human-like.

In the Enuma Elish it is related that Apsu became angry and irritated with his noisy, chaotic offspring and plotted to kill them. The couple’s son, Ea, discovered this, so he captured and killed his father Apsu. Kingu, another of Apsu’s and Tiamat’s sons, told all of this to Tiamat, who then created 11 monsters to avenge her husband’s death.

Tiamat chose Kingu as her lover and consort, and she gifted him with the Tablets of Destiny. While most of her children were afraid of her, she was overcome by one of them—sources differ in who actually killed Tiamat: sometimes it is Ea himself, or it is Enlil, or it might be Marduk, who is Ea’s son.

Tiamat was sliced in half, and from her ribs were made heaven and earth. Her eyes, full of tears, became the source of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Her tail became the Milky Way, and her blood became the seas. Kingu was also killed, and his blood mixed with the dirt of the earth to make mankind. And so the world was born.

Tiamat’s story might be the earliest recorded (it is certainly one of) example of Chaoskampf, a battle between a primordial chaos tiamatmonster and a culture hero (Marduk, who made the Earth from Tiamat and then became Lord of the Gods).

Tiamat is complex, dark, and mysterious. In part, this is because she is chaos personified—it would be difficult to imagine a linear story of chaos. But she’s also complex, dark, and mysterious because we’re only equipped with part of her myths, what we’ve been able to discover and what has been passed down from an ancient people long since gone. The Mesopotamian peoples were not homogeneous–they did not all come from the place originally and did not all speak the same languages. As a result, Tiamat, and many of the other gods, goddesses, and monsters, became many things to many people—some of which we’ll never know.

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  1. Why do all these stories have them sleeping with their kids! Ewww! There is no glossing over that when reading the Olympus books to your son either! He figures it out and asks you dumb questions about it!
    *grumble*

    Interesting lady, though.
    🙂

    Heather

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  2. Somehow, the idea of her eyes being full of tears at the time of her death makes me wonder about the slaughter of a mother by a child. It made me sad. But that’s an amazing creation myth.

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  3. LOVE this! The Enuma Elish was one of my favorite mythologies to study in ancient religions class. So fascinating. And I’d forgotten about Apsu being the water under the earth, which is particularly fascinating with the recent scientific discovery of water under the Earth’s crust.

    Maybe mythology isn’t such a myth after all. 😉

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  4. It’s often said that the Greek version of the name Tiamat is Tethys…in which case, the ancient Greeks must have known a very different version of the myth than we do (despite the similarity of the currently known Mesopotamian creation myths to the Greek ones, as someone mentioned above), because Tethys, the wife of Oceanos, always sides with the Olympian gods, who would be the equivalents of Marduk and his fellow “young” gods.

    I don’t know why she’s universally made into a dragon in pop culture, though. (Final Fantasy also uses the name for a dragon, and said dragon is never even referred to as being female, implying that they don’t even know where the name came from. (Then again, they didn’t use it for the dragon in “Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children”, despite how logical that would have been, so they obviously don’t know the original significance of the name. They probably just got it from Dungeons and Dragons…))

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    1. Pop culture likes to gobble things up and spit them out in a new ways. Unfortunately, sometimes that leads to an all-but erasure of the original thing.

      Not sure about the Greek equivalent of her—but if it’s Tethys, that is quite different. There is some discussion about what to make of Tiamat’s dual stories, the one in which she’s mother of the gods and of virtually everything and the other in which she is a monstress killed by her son to make the earth–no one really seems to know what to make of that split.

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      1. True, her split between nurturing and destructive is bigger than Gaia’s, and a bit less provoked. Though in Tiamat’s defense, when Apsu first wanted to destroy their offspring, she was against it, and it wasn’t until Apsu was killed that she became willing to turn on her young.

        This sort of thing is why I always wish I had a time machine, so I could go back and see how these stories evolved over time. I’m sure Tiamat’s story looked very different in its earliest forms.

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  5. I must be honest, I was all pleased with myself when I started reading this and recognised the name Tiamat… then I realised that it was from the 80’s D&D cartoon 😀

    Fee | Wee White Hoose
    Scottish Mythology and Folklore A-Z

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    1. Too funny!

      I don’t think I came across Tiamat until I was taking a mythology class in college—Mesopotamian religion just isn’t taught much these days. lol

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  6. Mesopotamian myths are so fascinating. Tiamat’s story actually reminds me a lot of Uranus and Geae. I suppose Mesopotamian cultures and Greek culture came in contact.
    There is something dark and still fascinating in this myths, I’m not sure why.

    @JazzFeathers
    The Old Shelter – Roaring Twenties

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  7. Yay Tiamat!
    So, one of my favorite biblical-studies tidbits… in Genesis (in ONE of the creation stories in there), it says that god created “out of the deep” … I am totally commenting of the cuff without consulting my research notes (bad scholar!) but the word used for “the deep” is VERY similar to Tiamat, and some view it as drawing from Enuma Elish (and there are certainly similarities!)
    So…yeah… I should probably write a thing at some point 🙂

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