Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

If you found yourself needing to create a race of composite super-soldiers, the scorpion would be a serious candidate for hybridization. They are considered living fossils, as their essential form has been the same for about 400 million years and can be found on every continent except Antarctica, occupying an enormously diverse range of ecologies, from mountains 18,000 feet high to caves 20,000 feet below the ground, and from deserts to rainforests. They can go without food for as long as a year and without water almost indefinitely. The deadliest species (and there are about 25 different species perfectly willing and capable of bringing down a human) have a complex neurotoxin for venom that causes paralysis, convulsions, and cardiac arrest. Basically, they are ancient killing machines. Is it any wonder that some of the oldest monsters written about are Scorpion-Men (Aq-rab is Chaldean for Scorpion, and sometimes “Oppressor of the Gods”)?

The city of Babylon first appears in history during the 23rd Century B.C. as a religious center for the Akkadian empire (also called the Assyrians) that dominated ancient Mesopotamia until roughly the 7th Century B.C. Bablyon emerged as a regional power starting around 1792 B.C., having carved territories out of the former Akkadian Empire. Chaldea was basically a soggy marsh in southeastern Mesopotamia on the right bank of the Euphrates River. After the 626 B.C. death of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, a struggle for succession followed, and the Chaldeans, sensing weakness, formed a coalition that wrested control of Babylon from the Assyrians, and established a short-lived Chaldean Dynasty. Historians refer to this as the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-593 B.C.). Although Aramaic had become the Near East lingua franca, Sumerian Cuneiform was used as a written religious language, and the proud Chaldeans promoted its revival as a tip of their hat to tradition. It is from this Chaldean Dynasty that we have the first religious accounts of a Great Deluge that found their way into the Abrahamic religions. And it is from fragments of cuneiform tablets written during the Chaldean period that we also hear about the fearsome Scorpion-Men.

In the Chaldean version of the Great Flood (which we know as part of the Epic of Gilgamesh), us pesky humans are making too much noise for the delicate ears of the Gods, so they decide to exterminate all of us. Rather severe, but the Ancient Near East was a rough and tumble kind of place.

You know the city Shurrupak, it stands on the banks of the Euphrates. That city grew old and the gods that were in it were old. There was Anu, lord of the firmament {earth}, their father, and warrior Enlil their counselor, Ninurta the helper, and Ennugi, watcher over canals; and with them also was Ea. In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamor. Enlil heard the clamor and he said to the gods in council, ‘The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel {everyone talking at once}.’ So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind. Enlil did this, but Ea warned me in a dream. He whispered their words to my house of reeds, “Reed-house, reed-house! Wall, O wall, hearken reed-house, wall reflect; O man of Shurrupak, son of Ubara-Tutu; tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive. Tear down your house, I say, and build a boat. These are the measurements of the barque {boat} as you shall build her: let her beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures (Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. N.K. Sandars).

Gilgamesh was believed to be a historical Sumerian king that ruled somewhere around the 26th Century B.C., referred to in Sumerian texts by the name of Bilgames. Translations of cuneiform in the 1800’s were still somewhat dubious, so his name was frequently rendered as “Izudbar”. Interestingly, Gilgamesh is named as an antediluvian giant in the Dead Sea Scroll’s Book of Giants written about 100 B.C., and makes an appearance as an Arabic demon of the name Jiljamish in the writings of Egyptian cleric Al-Suyuti circa 1500 A.D. According to the story, the god Ea, perhaps history’s first whistleblower, goes to the Utnapishtim, King of Shuruppak and outlines the other gods’ secret plan to wipe out the human race. Ark building ensues, and ultimately Utnapishtim survives the flood and is made immortal. The flood story is related to Gilgamesh by Utnapishtim when Gilgamesh seeks him out following the heartbreaking death of his friend Enkidu. Concerned with his own mortality he wanders to world looking for a solution, and one of the places it takes him is to the gates of heaven and the underworld. It is here that he encounters the scorpion man and his scorpion wife (apparently they believe in family values and employment gender equality), who surprisingly offer the helpful solution of consulting with the immortal Utnapishtim.

Of the country hearing him….
To the mountains of Mas in his course….
Who each day guard the rising sun.
Their crown was at the lattice of heaven,
Under hell their feet were placed.
The scorpion-man guarded the gate,
Burning with terribleness, their appearance was of like death,
The might of his fear shook the forests.
At the rising of the sun and the setting of the sun, they guarded the sun.
Izdubar [Gilgamesh] saw them and fear and terror came into his face.
Summoning his resolution he approached before them.
The scorpion-man of his female asked:
Who comes to us with the affliction of god on his body?
To the scorpion-man his female answered:
The work of god is laid upon the man,
The scorpion-man of the hero asked,
of the gods the word he said: distant road. . . . come to my presence of which the passage is difficult.
[Chaldean Deluge, Cuneiform Tablet 9, Column 2. The rest of this column is lost. In it Izdubar converses with the monsters and where the third column begins he is telling them his purpose, to seek Hasisadra “Utnapishtim”.] (Smith, 1876 ,p248-249)

Or, less poetically summarized for us by later scholars:

In the gloomy land of the Cimmerians and the confines of Hades, these strange monsters were to be met; and not only there, but in any part of the universe which was conceived as beyond the pale of human habitation, the same weird creatures might be encountered. When Izdhubar undertook the journey to the land of the dead, in order to interview Hasisadra, the Chaldean Noah, scorpion-men were found guarding the gate of the sun; terrible in aspect, gigantic in stature, with their heads in heaven and their feet in Hades (Hall, 1883, p208-209).

The scorpion men are said to have the head, torso, and arms of a human, and the body of a scorpion, and are tasked with warning interlopers and opening the gates for the lord of the Sun, Shamash each day, closing them when he returns at night. Numerous Assyrian carvings depict the Scorpion Men.

The Enûma Eliš, the Mesopotamian creation myth, consists of about a thousand lines inscribed on seven tablets in the Old Babylonian language. The tablets were recovered in 1849 in the ruins of the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (Mosul, Iraq), and were thought to have been composed somewhere between the 18th– 11th Century B.C. Lo and behold, the origins of our scorpion friends are accounted for in them. The abbreviated version of the creation of the universe is that the chaos of undifferentiated water was divided into sweet waters in the form of the god Apsu and bitter waters in the form of the goddess Tiamat, and these two give birth to all the younger gods. The younger gods are too noisy (again with the volume thing), saw Apsu is convinced by some sneaky advisors to kill them all. Tiamat warns her eldest son Enki (sometimes Ea) of the plan, who turns around and kills Apsu. This enrages Tiamat, as her goal was not to get her husband murdered. Tiamat creates herself a monster army to fight the younger gods (she is later slain by Marduk, and her corpse creates the heavens and earth). One of the species of critters Tiamat creates in her rage is the Scorpion-Men. The mythological lesson being taught is; of course, don’t piss off Mom by killing Dad. No doubt we can also read something Oedipal into this.

Tia-mat gathered together her creation
And organized battle against the gods, her offspring.
Henceforth Tia-mat plotted evil because of Apsû
It became known to Ea that she had arranged the conflict.
Ea heard this matter,
He lapsed into silence in his chamber and sat motionless.
After he had reflected and his anger had subsided
He directed his steps to Anšar his father.
He entered the presence of the father of his begetter, Anšar,
And related to him all of Tia-mat’s plotting.
“My father, Tia-mat our mother has conceived a hatred for us,
She has established a host in her savage fury.
All the gods have turned to her,
Even those you (pl.) begat also take her side
They . . . . . and took the side of Tia-mat,
Fiercely plotting, unresting by night and day,
Lusting for battle, raging, storming,
They set up a host to bring about conflict.
Mother Hubur, who forms everything,
Supplied irresistible weapons, and gave birth to giant serpents.
They had sharp teeth, they were merciless.
With poison instead of blood she filled their bodies.
She clothed the fearful monsters with dread,
She loaded them with an aura and made them godlike.
(She said,) “Let their onlooker feebly perish,
May they constantly leap forward and never retire.”
She created the Hydra, the Dragon, the Hairy Hero,
The Great Demon, the Savage Dog, and the Scorpion-man,
Fierce demons, the Fish-man, and the Bull-man,
Carriers of merciless weapons, fearless in the face of battle.
Her commands were tremendous, not to be resisted.
Altogether she made eleven of that kind.
Among the gods, her sons, whom she constituted her host,
She exalted Qingu and magnified him among them.
(Enûma Eliš , Tablet 2, Lines 1-34)

Gigantic, armed scorpion-men working for an angry god is a recipe for havoc and mayhem, but when Tiamat is slain, incidentally after a prolonged war with the younger gods, the scorpion men get demoted to guard duty, and their willingness to help Gilgamesh on his quest for immortality by directing him to Utnapishtim just reeks of sour grapes.

Scorpions are pretty disturbing looking creatures, and since the sizable Middle Eastern variety called the “Death Stalker” is one of the most deadly, it is no surprise that when you need to call on a monstrosity, that they would be the go-to arachnid. We can still feel a certain simpatico with mammals, birds, and other land creatures, but insects are especially alien, unreservedly non-human. Not warm and fuzzy. If they have the arms of a human and can also shoot bows and arrows in addition to the requisite venomous stinging tail, they cut a fairly intimidating figure. Scorpion gods sort of vanished from the mythological scene after ancient Egypt as the big monotheistic religions didn’t have much use for half-insect monsters except to add insectoid appendages to various demons for the nightmare effect. Plus, once civilization was well under way, we learned about the glories of pest control. Takes the sting out of things, if you know what I mean. That does not mean that somewhere near the mountains of Mashu, we might not still find scorpion men lurking under rocks, bitter about the whole Tiamat episode, waiting for us to do ourselves in, so they can resume their rightful place. As the poet Don Marquis said, “It won’t be long/Man is making deserts of the earth/it won’t be long now, before man will have used it up/so that nothing but ants and centipedes and scorpions can find a living on it/what man calls civilization/always results in deserts”. Hang tough, Aqrabuamelu. Your time will come again.

References

Hall, Frederic Thomas, d. 1885. The Pedigree of the Devil. London: Trübner, 1883.

Smith, George, 1840-1876. The Chaldean Account of Genesis: Containing the Description of the Creation, the Fall of Man, the Deluge, the Tower of Babel, the Times of the Patriarchs, And Nimrod: Version of Babylonian Fables, And Legends of the Gods; From the Cuneiform Inscriptions. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876.