21.1.12

A Hawk and a Snake Fighting the Myth of Etana

Top of "Tree of Life" from British museum 


When I returned from a recent trip, I was walking in a parking lot and a snake seemed to "fail" from the sky. After a double take, I saw the raptor follow, and I was able to capture this on my camera. It caused me to contemplate the meaning of viewing something like this. 


In the contemporary Middle East the hawk and falcon, and eagle are revered animals. I think it fair to say the West shares this appreciation for the raptor as well. One can find raptors on most currency, and used as emblems from the military to sports.  While most cultures revere them in some format pictorially, one is required to go back to find early sources for the depiction of the animal that is similar today, which inevitably takes me to the ancient Sumerians.  Specifically the double headed eagle that today is most commonly associated with European coat of arms. It would appear that following the trail of civilizations,  the Sumarians were once again the fathers of the image dating back to the 20th century BC to the 7th century BC.
Cylindric seals discovered in Bogazkoy, an old Hittite capital in modern-day Turkey, represent clearly a two-headed eagle with spread wings. The aesthetics of this symmetrical position explains in part the birth of this religious figure: It originally dates from circa 3,800 BC, and was the Sumerian symbol for the god of LagashNinurtason of Enlil.
Now how about a snake? The current most visible representation of a snake and a raptor can be found on the flag of mexico. The coat of arms is derived from an Aztec legend that their gods told them to build a city where they spot an eagle on a nopal eating a serpent, which is now Mexico City. However we are once again compelled to reach further back in time to the Sumerians to the Etana myth. 


The tree of Tablet II is Etana himself, whose birth its sprouting marks. The eagle and the serpent are conflicting aspects of man´s soul, the one capable of carrying him to heaven, the other pulling him down to sin and death. Ignoring the voice of his conscience (the small fledgling), he becomes guilty of perfidy, greed and murder; for this, he is punished. This is an allegory for spiritual death; the same idea is expressed by the childlessness of Etana, to whom the narrative returns (Etana´s barren wife being the equivalent to his barren soul, and the desired son/fruit an allegory by which Etana will be judged).

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