At first glance the story of Marduk and Tiamat in the Enuma Elish seems to be a creation story of Mesopotamia as told by the Babylonians. However, the subtext tells how humans mastered the volatile environment of Mesopotamia. Layered below this is the rise of Babylon to be the principal power of the region. The Enuma Elish describes the lives of the succeeding generations of Gods, their conflicts with the Gods before Them, and ends with Marduk as their ruler. Each generation of Gods probably represents a prior group of peoples who lived the region. Since Marduk is the major God of the Babylonians, this myth then becomes the story of how Babylon came to rule Mesopotamia.
The myth starts by describing the ancient landscape of Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago. Apsu, the sweet water, mixes with Tiamat of the salt water. The symbol of their union is the mingling of the Tigris and Euphrates with the sea to produce the salt marshes. The sea was much farther inland then, and tides had more effect on the people living there. The landscape of the area is one of river bottoms, tidal marshes, swamps, and wetlands. Even the names of their children Lahamu and Lahmu which means mud reflect this as well.
The next generation of Gods were Anu, Enlil (Ellil), and Enki (Ea) of the Sumerians. Unlike the first group, these Gods focused on developing agriculture and decreeing divine laws. While Anu ruled the Gods, Enlil granted kingship, and Enki created people. (In a similar story to Apsu and the noisy Gods is Enlil and the noisy humans. In both cases, the Gods tried to destroy the noisemakers, since the activities of farming disturbed them.)
In Tiamat’s case, the noisy ones were the next generation of Gods, who were replacing the original ones. They were draining the swamps, digging the canals, and irrigating the fields. These Gods were taming the “sweet water”, thereby killing Apsu as a God. The efforts of the new Gods threatened Tiamat, since They were transforming the salt marshes into farmland.
Furious, Tiamat raises an army, which metaphorically reflects the violence of the times. Through continuous irrigation, salt made the land of the Sumerians infertile. Faced with dwindling resources including water, the various cities fought each other to gain these precious resources for their peoples. During this awful time, the suffering Sumerians wrote lamentations describing their misery — bodies melting in the sun and cities shrouded in smoke. Into this war-torn landscape came the Amorites, who adopted the Sumerian culture, and established their main city of Babylon. Under their king, Hammurabi, the Babylonians cemented their empire and imposed law and order in Mesopotamia.
This creation myth, the Enuma Elish, relates how the Babylonians came to power and recreated the world, making order out of chaos. Their principal God, Marduk, assumes power over the other Gods and defeats Tiamat. The Sumerian Gods, Enki and Enlil cede their power to Marduk by granting “Enlil-ship” to Him. Meanwhile, the other Gods confer “Anu-power” on Him. Hence, several generations of Gods pass from importance.
After adopting myths from the Sumerians, the Babylonians rewrote the creation myth to include the rise and rulership of Marduk. After Tiamat came Enlil, who was the original head of the pantheon. With each succeeding generation, Enlil shared his power first with Anu and then with Enki. While They ceded their power to Marduk, Anu remained in the titular rule. In Enuma Elish, the Babylonians acknowledge their predecessors, the Sumerians and the others. But they end the myth with Marduk recreating the world and establishing his reign. He does this by building the world on the bones of Tiamat, one of the Gods of the original peoples living there. Marduk remakes the world as the Babylonians remade Mesopotamia.