Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Enki and the Embodied World

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Enki and the Embodied World

Article excerpt

The central and indeed paradigmatic role of the body in cosmogonic myths has been studied most extensively to date by Bruce Lincoln, with primary emphasis on the Indo-European (IE) tradition. (1) Within that tradition, a clear homology holds--microcosm to macrocosm and vice-versa--between body part and natural feature, as best represented by narratives in which an ancestral corpse first undergoes dismembering transformation and then reconstitution into the world at large, each body part matching some physical (and often societal) feature. (2) Moreover, rather than giving rise to a unilateral and merely static set of metaphorical correspondences--hair with trees, for instance, eyes with sun and moon, mouth with cave or fire, blood with channelled waterways, and so forth--Lincoln has convincingly argued that these homologies instead comprise the terms of a dynamic, reversible cycle of destruction and reconstruction worked out at the practical level in the relation between sacrifice and healing. These are experienced as complementary acts: the one dismembers, the other restores a body that at the same time figures as icon for the world itself. (3) Medicine, in this sense, is an authentically cosmogonic technology--by definition, the very first technology, in fact--just as sacrifice presents a kind of therapy of the primally chaotic world.

The Sumerian mythic narrative now generally known as "Enki and Ninhursag" (EN) offers a hitherto unexplored instance of a similar but still quite distinct typology at play outside the IE tradition. (4) I have recently argued that the myth, far from being an archetype of the story of the Fall in the Hebrew Genesis tradition, as scholars in the early decades of the last century were understandably all too eager to assume, falls squarely instead into the category of trickster-tales. (5) Its concern is chiefly to map the effects wrought by the passage of Enki, trickster god of sweet subterranean waters, through one after another of a series of natural and cultural sites Sumerian civilization marked out in the process of organizing its world. Both as a creative force and no less--perhaps even especially--as an agent of transgression, Enki successively either makes anew or else transforms City, Marsh, Riverbank, Garden, House, and Temple into habitable spaces; in turn, he is himself ultimately transformed into the creator and guarantor of an ordered realm--the "paradise" of Dilmun (6)--that comprises those and other significant venues. He does this principally through exercise of his sexual potency in the form of predatory encounters with a number of females, including (thus incestuously) his own offspring. (7) Through the course of his activities, physical landscapes are radically altered. The blank and arid scape of Dilmun ab origine, for example, becomes a rich and highly cosmopolitan mercantile center, while previously uncultivatable land becomes fertile. Moreover, the structures of various social institutions (economic trade), technologies (agriculture, herbal medicine), and behaviors (courtship) are also either created or at least delineated and confirmed.

The myth focuses (as does the present study) on two episodes in which those transformations culminate: (8)

(E1) (EN 197-217). In a parody of earlier scenes in which Enki prowls the border between marsh and dry land to stalk his female prey, the trickster turns his attention to eight plants that have just sprouted on the riverbank from his own semen spilled in a previous assault. (9) Predation is again his modus operandi, but here the narrative switches from a sexual to a culinary code as Enki now expresses his desire to "know the hearts" and "fix the destinies" of those plants. (10) Here too is parody, of course, since these terms more properly belong to the solemnity of generically more elevated "sacred myth," not the folktale burlesque of Enki's incestuous romp through the marsh. In the case of the plants in EN, this "knowing" and "fixing" come to pass as his sukkal Isimud names each plant in turn, plucks or cuts it from the ground, and hands it to Enki, who proceeds to devour it. …

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