Pop Culture Pagans say that the old myths have no meaning for them. I wonder if they know how many old myths are today’s pop culture stories. I watch gangster movies, and found a Babylonian myth retold in U.S. gangster terms. I wonder how many other myths in pop culture guise are out there. I do not include “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman, since he was deliberately introducing ancient Gods to a modern audience.
In the Babylonian Creation Myth (Enuma Ellish), the world is first created by the two original Gods – Apsu of the Sweet Water and Tiamat of the Salt Water. These Gods mingled their waters and gave birth to the next generation of Gods. Chaffing under the rule of Apsu and Tiamat, these “New” Gods decide kill Them. After the murder of Apsu, her mate, Tiamat wages war against Them. In desperation, the leaders of the “New” Gods, Anu, Enlil, and Enki seek out Marduk, the principal God of the Babylonians for his help. He, only, agrees to fight Tiamat, if They will make Him their ruler. Then after defeating Tiamat, Marduk remakes the world from her body, and assumes leadership over all the Gods.
The Babylonians recited this myth every New Year, reminding themselves of their place in the universe. The subtext of the creation myth is that other peoples (including the Sumerians) ruled Mesopotamia before the coming of the Babylonians. After constant warfare by the others, the Babylonians came to establish law and order in the region. Mesopotamia was then recreated into a Babylonian construct.
The movie, Mobsters (Michael Kabankoff, 1991), tells a similar story. Obviously, it is about the rise of Charles (Lucky) Luciano from a poor Sicilian immigrant to the boss of the new National Commission of the American mob. Although the film purports to depict an historical person and his deeds, the director and writer instead chose to only highlight certain elements of his life, and omit others. Moreover, they also added fictional elements to highlight their plot points. The result was a mythic retelling of Luciano as Marduk.
At first glance, the pairing of the activities of American mobsters in the 1920s to the Creation Epic of the Babylonians seems absurd. However, there are subtle similarities such as two original bosses ruling the criminal underworld of New York City. Furthermore, the subtext of both are the same – the overthrow of the old order, a period of disarray, and finally the establishment of the new order. The original world that Luciano inhabits is ruled by two Sicilian bosses – Joe Masseria and Salavatore Faranzano. Like Tiamat and Apsu, these two bosses spawn other bosses, who chafe under their rule. Fearing usurpation, Masseria and Faranzano kill off the others first. The war between the two finally ends when Luciano kills them both, and recreates the Mob as his own construct.
In both stories, ethnicity is stressed since new groups of peoples are moving in to replace the original groups. This is implied in the Babylonian epic with the Gods of the Sumerians becoming ruled by the Gods of the Babylonians. In Luciano’s world, Arnold Rothstein, who is Jewish, is the middle generation of bosses. Like Anu, Rothstein takes the next generation under his wing. He grooms the mixed ethnic group of Luciano, Frank Costello (Sicilian), Meyer Lansky (Russian Jew), and Bugsy Siegel (Ukrainian Jew) to be the future bosses.
Caught between the two bosses fighting for supremacy, Luciano decides that the old way of doing things has to end. Spurred into action when Rothstein is murdered, Luciano plots to kill both bosses, and then set up his new system of governing the criminal underworld. As part of his plan, he convinces Faranzano to let Masseria think that he won their war. After assuring Masseria of his “ultimate victory,” Luciano runs afoul of Faranzano, who scars and almost kills him. Still mindful of his ultimate goal, Luciano murders Masseria and returns to Faranzano.
Watching Faranzano divide the underworld of New York City into the Five Families, Luciano sees how he can organize the other mobsters effectively into a collective group. After Faranzano declares himself “Boss of Bosses” (Capo di tutti capi), Luciano decides that the wars over who is to be the next boss has to end. Faranzano knows this and sends Mad Dog Coll (Irish) to murder him, only to have Luciano kill him instead.
After confronting Faranzano, Luciano drops him to the pavement below, killing him. The scene of Luciano holding Faranzano’s body outside a window of a tall building is reminiscent of Marduk using the two halves of Tiamat’s body to form the heavens and the earth. In this scene, Luciano acts as Marduk in recreating his world.
The final scene has Luciano meeting with the crime bosses from all over the United States. He explains that the underworld will be run nationally by a commission of bosses. The head of the new Commission would be selected by the bosses. Of course, they choose Luciano, who, like Marduk, establishes a new order with himself as the boss.
Though two seemingly dissimilar stories, Mobsters and the Babylonian Creation Epic echo each other. Although Luciano and the formation of the National Commission are history, the movie reimagines their story in mythic terms. The result is the retelling of the Enuma Ellish for modern audiences.