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Ninurta and Heracles (1)

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04 Religious and philosophical literature and poetry

01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

04 Religious and philosophical literature and poetry

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The Labours of Heracles form a cycle like the victories of Ninurta. Ninurta is a vigorous champion, a son of the chief god Enlil. An Akkadian text (KAR 76.9) calls him aplu dannu ša Enlil, ‘the strong son of Enlil’, paralleling the formula used of Heracles, ‘the doughty son of Zeus’ (Dios alkimos hyios). In a series of Sumerian texts, starting with the Cylinders of Gudea in the 22nd century and continuing with other Ninurta texts in Sumerian and Akkadian, there are references to a series of monsters, each one different, which Ninurta has killed or captured in separate combats and brought back to his city as trophies. The assemblage of conquests and trophies was taken over by other gods of war. At Babylon they were taken over by Marduk and were represented on his temples, above all on the doors of the great temple Esagila, and mentioned in hymns. In Enūma Eliš they are transmuted into the eleven monsters created to assist Tiamat and defeated by Marduk in a single battle.

Among the creatures killed by Ninurta one can certainly recognize some analogies with the objects of Heracles’ Labours. The seven-headed serpent is the most unmistakable. There is also a terrible lion, corresponding to the Nemean Lion; a ‘buck’, which can be a stag or ram, and which might be matched up with the Cerynean Hind; the storm-bird Anzu, which could at a pinch be put beside the Stymphalian Birds; a crab that is trampled underfoot in a pool, recalling the crab that assists the Hydra against Heracles; and a ‘bison’, pictured as a bull-man, which is slain ‘in the middle of the sea’ and might be compared to the Cretan Bull. The captured bulls and cows that Ninurta adds to his dead trophies in Angim and brings back to Nippur may be put beside the cattle of Geryon. The connection with Heracles is strengthened by the fact that in most cases the Greek hero takes the object of his quest back to Eurystheus at Tiryns, as Ninurta takes all of his trophies back to Nippur. Even from the first two Labours, in which a monster is killed, Heracles takes something as a trophy - from the lion its skin, and from the Hydra its Gall. The correspondence would be still more striking if the canonical number of Heracles’ labours, twelve, were matched by that of Ninurta’s trophies, which number is consistently eleven in the Mesopotamian texts. We do not know how early the number twelve became fixed in the Greek tradition, and it is possible that an older version existed with fewer Labours.

Source (list of abbreviations)
KAR 76.9


West 1997, 467-469West, Martin L. The East Face of Helicon. West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1997.

Amar Annus

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