Cuneiform tablet telling the legend of Etana
Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC
From Nineveh, northern Iraq
Part of the library of King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC)
The story told on this tablet centres on Etana, a legendary king of the southern Mesopotamian city of Kish.
An eagle has its nest in the branches of a tree while a snake nests at its base. The two animals swear an oath of friendship by Shamash, god of the sun and justice. They both raise their young, but the eagle eats the young snakes. The snake cries to Shamash who tells it to hide in the carcass of a dead wild bull. The eagle flies down to eat from the bull, but is seized by the snake, who ties its wings and throws it into a pit.
Meanwhile, Etana, a pious man, prays to Shamash for a son and the plant of life. Shamash tells Etana where to find the eagle, so that it can help him to find the plant. For seven months Etana teaches the eagle how to fly again. But the eagle is unable to find the plant, and suggests that they fly up to heaven to speak with the goddess Ishtar. Etana is frightened by the height they fly and they have to make several attempts at the journey.
We do not know whether they were successful, as unfortunately the rest of the text is missing and the end of the story is unclear. Versions of the legend are known from as early as the seventeenth century BC, but the story is certainly much older.
J. Kinnier-Wilson, The legend of Etana, new edition (Warminster, Aris & Phillips, 1985)
S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creati (Oxford University Press, 1991)