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Ancient Near East – The Legend of Adapa


The Myth of Adapa (also known as Adapa and the Food of Life) is one of the most fascinating stories of Mesopotamian literature; its interpretation has been disputed for more than a century. This is the Mesopotamian story of the Fall of Man in that it explains why human beings are mortal. The god of wisdom, Ea, creates the first man, Adapa, and endows him with great intelligence and wisdom but not with immortality, and when immortality is offered Adapa by the great god Anu, Ea tricks Adapa into refusing the gift.

Adapa's story was initially known from a find at Amarna in Egypt from the archives of the Egyptian King Amenhotep IV, who is better known as Akhenaten (roughly 1377–1361 BC). Babylon, where the story originated in his time, was under the rule of the Kassite Dynasty.

In 1912, three finds from the Library of Ashurbanipal (who ruled from 669–631 BC) had been interpreted and found to contain parts of the story. As of 2001 five fragments from the library are now known. There are differences in several of the known versions of the text.

Adapa was a mortal man, a sage or priest of the temple of Ea in the city of Eridu, the reputed earliest city of Sumer. Ea (sometimes considered his father) had given Adapa the gift of great wisdom but not eternal life.

While carrying out his duties, he was fishing at the river Tigris when a south wind arrived and capsized his boat. He was thrown overboard and spent the day “in the home of the fish.” Wet and angry, he cursed the wind, and the power of his spell broke its wings. The wind was incapacitated; for seven days there was no wind over the land. The sky god Anu was angered by this and sent for Adapa to explain himself. Before going, Adapa received counsel from Ea on how he should behave in the court of the gods. As Ea is Adapa's father-god and creator, Adapa trusted him to tell him the truth. But Ea feared that Anu was apt to offer Adapa the food and drink of eternal life and Ea was intent on making sure that Adapa did not accept the offer.

Giving advice, Ea told him that he should flatter the guardians of the gates, Tammuz and Gishida (two dying and reviving deities) by making it known that he remembers them, that he knows who they are. If Adapa does this then the guardians will let him pass without difficulty and will speak favorably of him to Anu. Once Adapa is in the presence of Anu, Ea further tells him, he should refuse any food or drink offered because it will be the food of death and the drink of death which will be offered as punishment for Adapa breaking the wing of the south wind. However, Ea says, Adapa may accept oil to anoint himself and accept whatever clothing is offered.

Adapa does exactly as Ea suggests, respectfully honoring Tammuz and Gishida and anointing himself and accepting a robe as presented to him by Anu. However, Adapa declined the offer of food and drink, the rite of hospitality reserved for visiting deities, not realizing that accepting Anu’s offering would give him eternal life. Anu laughed at the sage’s ignorance and asked him why he did not eat or drink. Adapa answers that Ea had advised him in the ways of heaven and that he was merely following that god’s instructions. Anu then explained that he had offered eternal life and that by refusing Adapa would not be granted immortality, but would be returned to earth to live as a mortal.

Though it is not expressed directly in the myth, Ea's reasoning in denying Adapa immortality seems similar to Yahweh's in the Genesis story from the Bible where, after Adam and Eve are cursed for eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Yahweh casts them out before they can also eat of the Tree of Life:

“Then the Lord said: 'See! The man has become like one of us, knowing what is

good and what is bad! Therefore, he must not be allowed to put out his hand to

take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat of it and live forever.' The Lord

God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from

which he had been taken.” (Genesis 3:22-23)

If Adam and Eve were immortal they would be on par with Yahweh and there would be a loss of status for God; and this is Ea's same reasoning in the Adapa myth. In the Genesis myth, man takes knowledge for himself by eating of the tree; in the Mesopotamian myth, the god Ea grants man knowledge in the process of creation. Knowing that Adapa is already wise, Ea (like Yahweh in the later story from Genesis) needs to keep the man in his place.