The Shifting Topographies of Time in Mesopotamian Myth

The Sumerian and Akkadian literary epics of the ancient Near East feature a shifting landscape of different chronologies. In her 1983 article, “Ethnopoetry and the Enmerkar Epics,” Adele Berlin argued for three distinct temporal settings within Mesopotamian myths and epics: human or historical time, mythic time, and finally, fabulous time, where time could flow more slowly, not at all, or even loop back on itself. Since her article, however, the topic of different types of time in Mesopotamian myth has been infrequently revisited in scholarship. This paper analyzes the different chronological frameworks that appear in Mesopotamian cosmologies, centering on a consideration of how one text may internally shift from one type of time to another. Mesopotamian cosmologies are themselves a diverse group of texts. The best known cosmological text, a late second millennium BCE Akkadian text known as Enūma Eliš, opens with following lines: “When on high the heavens had not yet been named; and the earth below had not yet been called into being,” thus establishing its initial narrative as occurring not only in “fabulous time,” but in a proto-temporal setting, before any sense of ordered time was even possible. Such openings are also seen in other Sumerian and Akkadian creation myths, creating a similar sense of deliberately unstructured time. These cosmological narratives, however, could often transition to other types of time, their narratives altering to accommodate the requirements of a more linear chronological structure. The transitions between such temporal settings reveal further insights as to the role such texts might have played in the larger religious and political landscape of Mesopotamia, as well as how these examples may parallel similar temporal shifts in cosmological texts from other, related contexts in the ancient world.