“When in the height heaven was not named, And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name, And the primeval Apsu, who begat them, And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both, Their waters were mingled together, And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen; When of the gods none had been called into being, And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained; Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven…”
These words come from the text of the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth which precedes and foreshadows the account of creation found within the Hebrew Bible in the book of Genesis. I first encountered this story in my Introduction to Theology course at Bluffton University. The Enuma Elish recounts the story of the slaughter of Tiamat, the “sweet-water ocean”, the first goddess, the mother of the gods and the embodiment of chaos who becomes a mortal enemy to be destroyed. As the myth recounts, Tiamat, with her partner, Apsu, gave birth to new gods, Lahmu and Lahamu, and Anshar and Kishar, who in turn gave birth to new children who begat others and so went the cycle of life.
However, these younger gods, the great-grandchildren of Apsu and Tiamat, were “full of life and vitality” and enjoyed loud, raucous
gatherings which bothered Apsu. He developed a plan to destroy these young gods, which Tiamat vehemently opposed. Tiamat cried out in rage, “Why should we destroy that which we ourselves have brought forth?” As theologian Catherine Keller notes, “This sounds like every woman who has ever tried, with aching deliberation, to protect children from abuse. Her cry protests the betrayal of life itself…” But Tiamat’s cry was not to be heeded, and Apsu persevered in his quest to destroy the young gods. In punishment for his plot, Apsu was overcome and slain by the god Ea.
Tiamat, disturbed by the death of her husband and upset by a “prank” played on her by the god Anu, decided to launch a war against the gods who were complicit in the death of Apsu. Through a series of events, Tiamat would meet the son of Ea, Marduk, in combat. Marduk kills Tiamat with an arrow, and proceeds to “cast down her carcass and victoriously [stand] upon it.” He splits Tiamat’s body into two parts and uses them to create the earth, with one half of her body forming the sky and the other forming the earth.
This violent myth, a precursor to the Hebrew Bible, prefigures many themes that have come to be at work in religious thoughts about
creation and the nature of evil. It highlights a preference for order over chaos, and it sets the stage for the subjugation of females. It paints with broad strokes the link between women and chaos, and labels them as evil and enemy. As theology has developed throughout history, these links have come to be solidified within so-called “orthodox” or traditional understandings of the doctrines of creation and sin. And the doctrine of sin itself has become inextricably bound to understandings of evil. You can trace these links as they develop throughout Christian history: in the reading of the creation story and Eve’s role in original sin that St. Augustine posits; in colonial texts which make links between women and indigenous peoples and evil, in order to make the process of taking their land and lives compatible with a Christian mission; and in many texts which talk about human dominance over the earth and over the enfleshed body.
In her book, Face of the Deep, Keller outlines the systematic removal of chaos from the creative process that occurred in the development of the creation ex nihilo doctrine, and she advocates for the redemption and reinstitution of notions of chaos. In re-visiting the Enuma Elish, Keller finds in Tiamat’s mothering cry of rage to
save her grandchildren, a supreme example of an ethics of chaos: “…to love is to bear with the chaos.” Keller continues to expound on this idea to develop a robust conception of chaos and its positive functions, and in the end, she suggests that, far from being the in-breaking of evil, chaos might be, in fact, the essence of God. To refer to the “trinitarian first person,” Keller uses the name “the depth of God.” She describes this Trinitarian member when she writes; “Chaos, as Tehom, the heterogeneous depth of divinity and of world, place of places…” Keller describes a Trinity that is made of “folds” and not strictly drawn lines. This definition of the Trinity defies order and systematization. It implies a divinity that is predicated on mystery and innately bound into and within the natural world. And it redeems the idea of chaos, and with it, women, as not evil, but as uniquely tied to the divine.
What do you think? What can we learn from redeeming the concept of chaos?