“In the beginning…” These opening words of the Old Testament have a ringing familiarity, perhaps even to those who might seldom visit a church. But the human imagination allows for many ‘beginnings’, and each culture and belief creates its own beginning appropriate to itself. So…
In the beginning there was only Tiamat. Tiamat, the mother of all which will be, out of whose celestial womb all life will flow, fills all of space. She is the primordial salt ocean, and the rising and falling of her fertile waves are but the outward signs of the momentous acts of creation which are even now taking place beneath her surface, in the dark depths of the cosmos. At first it is as if there is only a vast nothing, a void without form. Then gradually, gradually, small flashes appear. At first they are only scattered sparks, shining briefly at random. Then come more and more, until the darkness is pierced by countless stars.
But Tiamat knows that more is needed: something to complement her own salt body. From her void emerges her husband Apsu. Her husband is also of water, but his waters are sweet. His waters are freshwater. It is this mingling of saltwater and freshwater which produces the potential for all the other gods to emerge. But in the eons to come a great sacrifice will be needed if the world itself – our world – is to be created.
The gods, who are Tiamat’s own creation, rise up and rebel against Apsu. Apsu is slain, and Tiamat, in her attempts to win justice for her lost husband, is herself torn in two. Out of this rending, this great separation, dry land at last emerges. Tiamat’s defeat and sacrifice have made it possible for life on earth to begin – and so for us to exist.
This particular ‘beginning’ myth of Tiamat is from Mesopotamia. In it we recognize many key elements of such stories: the creating Great Mother, the ‘alchemical wedding’ of opposing but complementary forces, the resulting struggle, and the need for sacrifice to drive things forward if further creative goals are to be achieved. Sacrifice is of course also at the heart of the Christian story, and it is the idea of sacrifice in such stories which also contains within it the promise of redemption. And what is redemption but an act of sacrifice with a further purpose? Tiamat’s sacrifice was needed to create the separation of land and sea, and so allow life on land to flourish.
But is there perhaps a further meaning that we can draw from the myth of Tiamat? Why was Tiamat specifically the salt ocean? Men wage war, and women weep. Strife and struggle are mingled with the salt tears of those who are left to mourn, and those who are left are the wives and the mothers who remain to grieve. Our mother is the earth, whose freshwater rivers that are the remains of Apsu always flow to be reunited with his beloved ocean. And our mother is also that ocean, containing the salt tears of Tiamat who, as mothers do, knows both the pains of sacrifice and the sweetness of redemption.
Painting by David Bergen