Apsu and Tiamat, "Chaos Monster and Sun God"

Marduk and Tiamat Didn’t Work it Out

In the beginning there was freshwater Apsu of the abyss and saltwater Tiamat of the deep. When the gods came to exist, Tiamat and Apsu conspired against them until Marduk, patron of Babylon, fought and defeated them. He cut Tiamat’s body in two: half became the heavens and half, the earth. So what began as a world of swirling water ended in a vision of civilization ruled by a champion-turned-king.

Why does the champion become king?

Why don’t the people simply go on with their lives after he saves them? Perhaps if what the people want in a leader is a defender, they recognize that the champion is fit for that. Or perhaps by saving someone, you gain a kind of authority over them, one which the champion has historically opted to accept.*


* Historically in some cases. In some times and places, I’ve since found out, it wasn’t assumed that the champion would go on to become king. After winning the fight, he chilled out and life went on.


Why must the primeval chaos be conquered? Why is chaos equated with evil?

Chaos can be creative or destructive. There’s a time to ride it, to open oneself and become it; and maybe a time to fight it too. There’s a chaos that leads to death, like cancer; and a chaos that the systems of life can resolve, like childbirth.

This primeval chaos: maybe it was of the first kind. Perhaps it was bent on stamping out life. Or maybe that’s just the story told by those who ended up winning. Because the legacy that Marduk and the Babylonians began in that act of victory was not a living order, a generous resolution of chaos, but control, consuming. Centuries, generations of violence and oppression are reflected in that story where the whirling wild was subjugated by the fighter’s boot.

It didn’t only happen there. On the other side of the world, in the mythologies of North America, the same storyline appears. Does that hint at some kind of universal truth? Did the water monster need to be destroyed for life to succeed? Was she evil in that way? I don’t know.

Why is the water monster female? Why is the conquerer male?

Marduk and Tiamat of Babylon, the Thunder Bird and Water Monster of the Black Hills: two stories, one plot, two places utterly removed from one another. Is it as simple as saying that the story is told in both places only because the people were once related? That long ago, when every human was native to the Middle East, the story was born, and it survived as people diverged and became different and ended up belonging to new lands? I’m not convinced.

Anyway why, in both places, is the primeval feminine monstrous?

In what universe would a mother devour her offspring unless the father could stop her? Is that just a story based in a masculine fear? “What if my mother turned on me; what if the womb devoured me? What if my mate devoured my children?” Or is it rooted in a sublimated knowledge of the feminine power that these patriarchal societies had sought to quell? “What if we can’t hold them down?”

Whatever the motivation, it had to be important enough to keep the story alive, resonant enough in each new generation to guarantee its continued telling.

What is this need we have to see masculine fire slash feminine water in half? Why does that comfort us?

And does the inverse ever appear: is there ever a time when we long for water to subsume the lightning bolt? Of course fire-fighting is a present-day example. But does it appear in ancient stories?

Did the ancients ever value chaos?

Were they right or wrong?

Here’s a better question: what does a given story win for you, and what does it lose for you? Marduk’s victory bought a sense of identity for Babylon within its region and justified their social system. It lost for them, perhaps, the value of whatever came before. Whatever didn’t fit into that careful structure.

I believe there’s a time to fight chaos and a time to let it fill you; a time to stand against control and a time to let it order the world. It seems best for the two to be reconciled, walking together. But there’s also a time when they are at odds. There’s a time when the best thing is for fire to split water, and for water to drown fire. There are times when the two are absolutely opposed, and in those cases a victory of one over the other may bring relief, may serve life.

But like any victory in battle, that comes with a price. The fact that the battle existed in the first place is always a tragedy. Conflict is one thing but battle is another, and creative tension and costly violence are not the same thing.

  • Russ Hemati

    You may consider reading Paul Ricouer’s “Symbolism of Evil” to consider these questions further. I have many issues with that book (big surprise – Russ has an issue with some book), but it is very thought provoking and gives some shape to the commonalities of the Western (conquering) mythologies and theogonies.

    • Elisabeth M

      Thanks, I’ll make a note of that one.