Tales from the Ancient Lands: Adapa

This is the tale of a man called Adapa, known for his wisdom, although it is for you to decide whether he was indeed wise. In the ancient language he was called an apkallu, a sage, one of seven who lived in Mesopotamia before the Flood. In wisdom and magic the sages were without equal among men. Of their names, only Adapa is known today.

Adapa lived in Eridu, the most ancient city of the land, believed by the people who lived there eons later to have been the first city built by the gods.

This, then, is a tale from the beginning of time.

Adapa was Ea’s favourite, although as you will see, such favour is only ever a whimsy for the immortal. A man of lissom limb and black hair, Adapa often sailed the Euphrates from the quay of Eridu to the Lower Sea. For the city he brought back great nets of fish but for himself he simply brought back the memory of the hot breeze and the blue sea.

Adapa thanked Ea for the bounty of his life and every day climbed the great stairs of the E-Abzu temple to attend to his cult. The people came to him to find wisdom and praised his name, but the priests were jealous and complained to the king Alulim that Adapa had become too boastful, too proud. The priests needed the people but the people loved Adapa, not them.

The king sent the priests away, for Adapa was no threat to him. Indeed, in all things Adapa served the king and wished him no harm. So the priests prayed to Anu to side with them against Adapa. Anu the Most High was no friend of Ea and so he decided to help the priests and punish Ea’s favourite. He would drown Adapa in the Lower Sea.

One day, when Adapa was sailing, a strong south wind arose, sent by Anu to wreck Adapa’s reed boat. Adapa, knowing the words of magic, said, ‘O south wind, I fracture your wing.’

With that, the wind stopped, and Anu was furious. He sent winds from the north and the east and the west. ‘O winds,’ Adapa said, ‘I fracture your wings.’

Frustrated by Adapa’s knowledge of the deepest of magics, Anu decided to defeat Adapa by cunning. If he could not kill him he could at least ruin him. He sent his messenger to appear before Adapa and invite him to Anu’s heaven.

‘O mighty Adapa,’ cried the messenger. ‘The lord Anu would host you in yonder heaven, to meet this sage of such great repute.’

His pride thus stoked, Adapa puffed up his chest and accepted the messenger’s invitation. But Ea hastened to his side, for Ea was the master of cunning and thought he knew Anu’s designs.

‘My servant Adapa, beware the wiles of Anu! Dress as if in mourning for thus you will please Tammuz and Gizzida, gods of trees and barley, who guard the entrance to Anu’s heaven – it is their absence from the land you will mourn. If they do not like you, they will kill you! And do not eat Anu’s food! Thus he will poison you.’

Adapa bowed his head and made himself ready. He let down his hair and put on mourning clothes. The messenger took him by the hand and up they flew. Again, Ea warned him, ‘Mourn for Tammuz and Gizzida. And do not eat Anu’s food!’

The door to Anu’s highest heaven stood high as the stars. Tammuz and Gizzida, gods of trees and barley stood guard. From earth, weeping was heard, for Tammuz and Gizzida were gone from the land and the earth mourned.

Holding a shepherd’s crook, Tammuz stood guard. ‘Do you also weep?’ he asked.

‘Verily, my lord,’ said Adapa. ‘Do you not see my mourning dress? You are absent from the land and the people mourn.’

A horned crown on his head, Gizzida stood guard. He looked at Adapa then bowed his head. ‘Welcome, servant of Ea.’ The great door of Anu’s highest heaven opened and Adapa entered.

Adapa trod the first step: dish. Adapa trod the second step: min. The third step: esh. The fourth step: limmu. The fifth step: ya. The sixth step: ash. The seventh step: imin. There he stood before the throne of Anu.

Anu shone like the midday sun, yet brighter. On his head he wore a lapis lazuli tiara. On his shoulder he wore a cloak, embroidered with gold. His feet were bare, his hair white. ‘Welcome, Adapa, servant of Ea’, he said. ‘You are most welcome here. Come and eat with us.’

Before Anu was a table laden with food. Behind the table stood an array of gods, known in the ancient tongue as the Anunnaki and the Igigi. As Adapa had entered Anu’s throne room they had been talking. Now they stood, silent, watching and waiting.

‘Adapa, servant of Ea,’ said Anu. ‘Before we eat, I must ask you: Why did you fracture the wing of the south wind? Do you not know that is my wind, sent to blow over the sea?’

‘Mighty Anu . . .’ Adapa bowed his head. ‘I was sailing in the Lower Sea when a strong south wind arose that threatened to wreck my reed boat. Knowing the words of magic, I fractured its wing.’

‘And why were you sailing?’

‘So I could bring back great nets of fish for my city.’ Adapa did not tell him that that was only half true: he simply loved the hot breeze and the blue sea.

‘And what of the other winds?’

‘I did not wish to die, mighty Anu. The lot of men is hard and death is the gate to the land of no return.’

Anu sat silent. Tammuz and Gizzida spoke: ‘For us Adapa wears his mourning dress. We are absent from the land and the people mourn. Adapa is a pious man and wise.’

From earth wafted sweet incense. The priests prayed to Anu that his wrath would turn to Adapa, for they were jealous because the people loved Adapa, not them.

Anu smiled.

‘Indeed Adapa is a pious man and wise. And I forgive him for in his heart he seeks only the good of his city. If he knows the words of magic, it is only because Ea has told him. It is Ea we must punish. Come, Adapa, eat with us!’

On the table lay the food of life, the water of life—great plates of fruit and grain, meat seared with spice, and goblets of the reddest of wine. Anu ate. Tammuz and Gizzida and the messenger ate. The gods ate. But Adapa did not eat. He remembered Ea’s warning, ‘And do not eat Anu’s food! Thus he will poison you.’ Adapa stood before Anu and did not eat.

The food was gone. Anu asked, ‘Why did you not eat, Adapa?’

‘Ea warned me. It is poison.’

Anu laughed. He threw back his head and laughed. His teeth shone, his eyes glimmered. He laughed and laughed. The gods laughed. Even Ea, watching from afar, laughed.

‘You fool! It is the food of the gods. The food of life! The food of immortality,’ he said. ‘Not poison, Adapa, not something to refuse! To eat my food is to be a god and to live forever! Surely a mighty sage would know this! And now it is gone!’

Adapa wept. He wept in regret for having heeded Ea’s words. He wept for his loss. He wept for his own death—now more inevitable than ever—death that would return him to clay, never again to rise. Oh, that he had eaten! Oh, that he had not paid heed to Ea! Oh, this terrible game of the gods! He thought to curse the gods and die, but Anu stopped him.

‘I am not without mercy, Adapa, mighty sage, apkallu, servant of Ea.’

He called for oil, and Adapa was anointed. He called for a garment, and Adapa was clothed. He raised Adapa’s hands with his sceptre and blessed him with words to be recited in Eridu for all time, words of great power, words of great magic:

uzna rapašta ušaklilšu
uṣurat māti kullumu

He perfected him with great intelligence, to give instruction about the ordinance of the earth.

Thus Adapa, the sage, increased in magic and increased in fame.

The priests hated him. Ea grew jealous of him, for Adapa now prayed to Anu not him.

Adapa continued to fish in the Lower Sea. For the city he brought back great nets of fish but for himself he simply brought back the memory of the hot breeze and the blue sea. No longer did Anu bother him, not out of love but because he simply forgot.

Adapa advised King Alulim until he died, then Alalgar until he died, and En-me-lu-anna until he died. And then death came to Adapa. His body, they say, grew scales as it was washed away by the Lower Sea. And the gods stayed in heaven, forever blessing and cursing man according to their own pleasure.



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