The Great Serpents of Old

The Great Serpents of Old

We think of wyrms and dragons as iconic medieval monsters, and so they are. For sea monsters we turn to ancient instead Greece, the Bible, or the dark ages But the great serpents of legend have very old roots - going back at least to Babylonian times, and probably earlier. They are creatures of such import that they are given individual names, and no two are really alike. But perhaps, like in the story of the blind men and the elephant, they are really all the same creature and we can only appreciate one part at a time. Whatever the case, here are a few Great Serpents whose names you may not have heard before. They come from deepest antiquity.

Sumer and Babylon

Three great horned serpents are known to us from Akkadian literature, their names in some cases coming from Sumerian roots. Though there are several written descriptions, it can be hard to tell them apart as the texts don't always make it obvious which serpent they're referring to.

One of these was Ušumgallu (from Sumerian UŠUMGAL - “The Great Dragon”) who was considered a monster or a demon. Where humans and hybrid creatures were thought to have been made by the gods, monsters and demons had older and more obscure roots. The great serpents were usually thought to have been of offspring of the primordial goddess, Temtu, who in later myth was herself described as a sea monster and given the name Tiamat. Temtu was the encircling salt sea, a mother goddess who gave birth (in some myths) to the lesser gods after mating with the Abzu (subterranean fresh waters). She was later depicted as a sea monster in her own right.

Ušumgallu was counted among the 'warriors' said to have been slain by the god Ninurta, the champion Enlil, king of the gods, and defender of the city of Nippur. The myth recounting this slaying is lost (if it ever existed), but the deed is listed among the god's past exploits in a myth known today as 'The Exploits of Ninurta'. In that myth, Ninurta was also credited with slaying the six-headed wild ram, Anzud the thunderbird, and more. Of his various enemies, only the enigmatic Palm Tree King seems to have escaped.

Ušumgallu can be equated with the lion-dragon - a great horned snake with forelegs and fierceness of a lion. The word 'UŠUMGAL' was sometimes used as a metaphor for a king or a god in order to speak of their greatness.

The following verse comes from a myth of the god Tišpak, the warrior god and protector of the city of Ešnunna, and translated by Benjamin Foster in Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature.

“The sea produced the serpent.
Enlil has drawn the image of the serpent in heaven.
Its length was twenty leagues, its height was one league.
Its mouth was six cubits, its tongue twelve cubits,
Its horns were twelve cubits.
At sixty cubits it snatches birds.
It draws nine cubits of water when it swims.
If it raises its tail, it darkens the sky
All the gods in heaven fear it.
Go, Tišpak! Kill the lion-serpent!”

A seal depicting the slaying of Ušumgallu or perhaps Tiamat: Source: Wikimedia

Bašmu (Venemous Serpent) was another of the three great horned serpents of Babylonia. Bašmu was said to have two forelegs and wings, and to be sixty double-miles long. Bašmu lived in the sea, and devoured fish, birds, onagers, or humans with equal zeal. It had six mouths, seven tongues, and seven eyes on its belly. The following two texts describe Bašmu - or perhaps the third great serpent called Mušmahhu (Exalted Serpent), about whom little is known but who may have been the seven-headed serpent who was also slain by Ninurta.

“I seize the mouth of all snakes, even the viper,
Serpent that cannot be conjured:
The alabaster burrower,
The fish-snake with rainbow eyes,
The eel, the hissing snake,
The hisser, the snake at the window.
It came in by a crevice, it went out by a drain.
It struck the gazelle while it slept.
It secreted itself in the withered oak.
The snake lurks in a roof beam, the serpent lurks in wool.
The serpent has six mouths, seven tongues,
Seven are the poisonous vapours of its heart.
It is bushy of hair, horrible of feature, its eyes are frightful.
Bubbles ooze from it's maw, it's spittle cleaves stone.”

“The Idiqlat* bore it,
The Ulaya raised it,
It lies under the rushes like a serpent.
Its head is like a pestle,
Its tail is like a pounding tool.
Adad gave it its roar,
Nergal, the descendant of Anu, gave it its slither.
I conjure you by Ištar and Dumuzi,
Not to come near me a league and sixty cubits!”
(Both texts from Before the Muses by Benjamin Foster)

*For context, the Idiqlat is the Tigris River; the Ulaya is the ancient river upon which the important Elamite city of Susa rested. Adad is the Babylonian storm god, Nergal the destructive warrior and king of the Underworld, and Anu is the father of the gods. The goddess Ištar and the shepherd god Dumuzi were famously married until they had a falling out so spectacular it sundered the seasons from one another.

Bašmu as he appears on the cover of the forthcoming Mythic Babylon setting for Mythras

Hatti and Mitania

In the lands north of Babylonia, another giant dragon-like monster lived. He is called Illuyanka and referred to in both Hattian and Hurrian myths. There are a few different versions of his story, but in one myth, Illuyanka took the eyes and heart of the weather god, Teššub, thus depriving him of his power, but as with so many of the great serpents he was ultimately slain by the god. Some scholars believe that Illuyanka was a metaphorical construct meant to evoke the Gašgaeans, who were a rival people to the Hittites. The name 'Illuyanka' comes from two proto-Indo-European roots - hillu and henge, both of which mean 'snake'. The latin word 'Anguilla' shares the same roots, but written in reverse order.

"The serpent defeated the Storm-god and took his heart and eyes." Source: Wikimedia

Yet another legendary great serpent is Poubi Lai, a lake serpent from Manipuri mythology. Poubi Lai is said to have been the embodiment of the spirit of Loktak Lake in northeastern India. In ages past, he was awakened as a manifest spirit of the lake when over-fishing threatened the balance of nature. Poubi Lai ravaged the local villages, so the local king took to appeasing him by offering one basket of rice and one living person for his daily meal. But the people found this situation untenable, and one of the villagers went into the hills to find the great shaman, Kabui Salang Baji, who fashioned a great javelin from an aquatic plant with which to tame the serpent.

Carving of Poubi Lai by Karam Dineshwar Singh. Source: Wikimedia

All these stories make it clear that Great Serpents can be slain by those with special powers, be they gods or heroes. But the task won't be easy, and who will suffer in the meantime? Your own giant serpent quest might require the help of dread shamans, greedy kings, or blind gods. Keep in mind, too, that snakes are said to be immortal - shedding their skins every so often to re-acquire the vigor of youth. What is the secret of that power, and is it shared by the Great Serpents of Old?​

Continue reading...