It is believed that everything started in Mesopotamia at around 3500-3000 BCE. Ancient Sumer was the first urban civilization that inhabited the region 6000 years ago. There are many legends and stories in the Sumerian ancient texts that describe the gods who descended from heaven. One of them is really fascinating: the legend of King Etana who traveled to heaven with the gods.
The Sumerian List before the flood: “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years. Alaljar ruled for 36000 years. 2 kings; they ruled for 64800 years. Then Eridug fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira.” After the flood swept over, the kingship once again descended from heaven. That time, Kish became the place of the kingship.
The Igigi, the gods of creation, created a city, laid its foundation, and called it Kish. But the people were without a king, so the gates were barred against the world. Then Ishtar searched the land for a king, and Inninna searched the land for a king, and Ellil searched the land for a king, and they found Etana, a shepherd, and led him into the city. They built his dais, and gave him his scepter, and made him king over all the land.
“Etana, the shepherd, who ascended to heaven and consolidated all the foreign countries, became king; he ruled for 1560 years.”
In the Sumerian tradition, Etana is the first king who ruled the Sumer city of Kish. Etana is portrayed as the ruler chosen by gods who ruled at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC. The gods endowed him with the power and authority to establish rules and order on Earth among people.
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In the Akkadian clay tablet found at Nineveh (Assyrian city of Upper Mesopotamia, now in modern Iraq), in the library of Ashurbanipal (dated 1900–1600 BC), there is written a legend of king Etana in cuneiform. According to the text, Etana, the thirteenth king of the first dynasty of Kish, attempted to fly with an eagle to the heavens to meet the sky-god Anu to find a magical plant to cure his wife’s barrenness, allowing Etana to become a father. It is stated that he ruled for 1560 years (or 635) before being succeeded by his son Balih who ruled for 400 years.
“The eagle made ready to speak, saying to Etana:
“My friend… that god….
“We passed through the gates of Anu, Enlil and Ea,
We passed through the geates of Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar,
We did obeisance together, you and I,
I saw a house with windows, it had no seal
I…. and went inside.
A remarkable young woman was seated therein,
She was imposing… beautiful of feature.
A throne was set out, the ground was trodden down,
Under the throne [ ] lions were crouching,
As I went in, the lions sprang at me.
I awoke with and start and shuddered [ ]”.
The eagle siad to him, to Etana:
” My friend, the [ ] are obvious,
Come, let me take you up to heaven,
Put your chest against my chest,
Put your hands against my wing feathers,
Put your arms against my sides”.
He put his chest against his chest,
He put his hands against his wing feathers,
He put his arms against his sides,
Great indeed was the burden upon him.
When he bore him aloft one league,
The eagle said to him, to Etana:
“Look, my friend, how the land is now
Examine the sea, look for its boundaries
The land is hills…
The sea has become a stream”.
When he had borne him aloft a second league,
The eagle said to him, said to Etana,
“Look, my friend, how the land is now!
The land is a hill”.
When he had borne him aloft the third league,
The eagle said to him, said to Etana,
“Look, my friend, how the land is now!”
“The sea has become a gardener’s ditch”.
After they had ascended to the heaven of Anu,
They passed through the gates of Anu, Enlil and Ea,
The eagle and Etana did obeisance together,
At the gate of Sin
The eagle and Etana did obeisance together”
Italian historian Alberto Fenoglio described the story of Etana well. According to him, [Translation] “King Etana lived about 5000 years ago, he was called the God-king and was taken as a guest of honor inside a flying ship with a form of a shield that landed behind the Royal Palace, surrounded by a swirl of flames. Out of this Flying ship came tall, blond dark-skinned men, dressed in white, who were said to be beautiful as gods. They invited king Etana to come with them, King Etana’s advisers tried to dissuade the King to go inside the flying object.”
King Etana flew to Moon, Mars, and Venus with the ship and had been missing for two weeks. When his kingship was prepared to be replaced with a new king, he returned to his kingdom with one of the blond men who stayed with the king.
Nowadays, the story of King Etana had drawn so much attention because of its historical and cultural value. Interestingly, the legends of a man flying to heaven on the back of an eagle can be found in the Greek myth of Ganymede, as well as in the story of Alexander the Great being carried to heaven by eagles. The name Etana is still widely used among our contemporaries.
There is a peculiar difference between the Late Babylonian (700 BCE) version and its earlier versions. In cuneiform writing, there are two symbols used as prefixes to the names, one denoting a mortal and the other denoting a deity. In earlier versions of the legend, Etana is defined as a mortal. Later, it was changed to the prefix denoting a deity.