The Legend of Etana

by Aaron Wyckoff

The Igigi, the gods of creation, created a city and laid its foundation, and called it Kish. But the people were without a king, so the gates were barred against the world. Then Ishtar searched the land for a king, and Inninna searched the land for a king, and Ellil searched the land for a king, and they found Etana, a shepherd, and led him into the city. They built his dais, and gave him his scepter, and made him king over all the land.

But Etana feared for his kingdom, for he had no son and heir. His wife Muanna, called Sherbi’anni, had an illness and could not carry a child to term. One day Muanna was visited with a powerful dream, and she spoke to Etana, saying unto him that only with the shammu sha aladi, the plant of birth that grows in the heavens, would she be able to bear him a son and heir.

For many months Etana scoured the land from one end to the other in search of the plant of birth, but he found it not. Then Etana returned to Kish and offered up many sacrifices to Shamash, and beseeched his aid, saying, “Mighty Shamash, god of the sun, god of justice, you have dined on the flesh of my fattest sheep and drunk the blood of my lambs, and inhaled the scent of my last fragment of incense. Deliver unto me the plant of birth, that my wife might bear a child!”

Shamash took pity on Etana, and said unto him, “Follow the road into the mountain region, and on the slopes there is a pit. Search therein, and you will find that which you require.”

Etana followed the long road until he reached the mountain region. Searching the slopes of the mountains he found a pit, and within the pit he found an eagle. The eagle called out to Etana, saying, “My prayers to Shamash have been answered! Free me from this pit, and we will be friends forever.”

Etana descended into the pit, and found the eagle’s wings were cut off, and its feathers all plucked forth, and it was dying of hunger and thirst. Etana brought water unto the eagle until its thirst was slaked, and he brought food unto the eagle until its hunger was sated. Then Etana saw that the eagle was recovered enough to cling to him, and Etana ascended the pit with the eagle on his back.

For seven months, Etana brought food and water to the eagle as it healed, and its wings grew, and it learned again how to fly. In the eighth month the eagle was fully healed, and it spoke to Etana, and asked of him, “How can I repay your kindness?”

Etana said unto the eagle, “I need the plant of birth that grows in the heavens, that my wife might give birth to our child.”

The eagle replied, “I have never flown so high, but lie on my back and grip my wings, and I will carry you there.”

Etana laid his body on the eagle’s back, and stretched his arms along its wings, and grasped its feathers. Then the eagle flew up into the sky. And when it had flown one league up into the sky the eagle spoke to Etana, saying, “Look down at the land below! How small it has become.” And Etana looked, and saw that all the land now looked no larger than a hill, and the broad rivers were narrow streams.

When the eagle had flown a second league up into the sky, it spoke to Etana, saying, “Look, look my friend! How small the land is now.” And Etana looked, and saw that all the land now looked no larger than a garden, and the broad rivers were tiny trickles.

When the eagle had flown a third league up into the sky, and they were at the very gates of heaven, it spoke once more to Etana, saying, “Now look, my dearest friend! See how tiny the land has become.” And Etana looked, and saw that the land was smaller than an anthill, and the broad rivers could not be seen. And he trembled in his fear, and his hands grew cold and lost their grip, and he fell.

One league Etana fell, and the eagle flew down and caught him, and stopped his fall, but a fierce wind struck them and forced them apart. A second league Etana fell, and the eagle caught him, and stopped his fall, but the swirling gusts blew them apart. The final league Etana fell, and the eagle caught him, and stopped his fall only a few cubits above the ground. Together they landed heavily into a thicket of poplar, and fell into darkness.

While they slept, terrible visions appeared to Etana, and he saw the people in pain and misery, and he saw the land stricken by drought and famine, and he was made to know that these things would come to pass because he had not sired an heir. And while they slept, a vision appeared to the eagle, of a woman of surpassing beauty seated upon a throne, and on both sides of her rested lions, and in her hand was the plant of birth.

When they awoke, Etana and the eagle shared their visions with one another, and they knew that the woman could only be Ishtar who lived in the heavens. So together they agreed that they must once more attempt to reach the heavens, and with profound resolution they set forth.

Once more the eagle flew one league into the air, and Etana looked down and saw that the land and rivers were greatly diminished. The eagle flew a second league into the air, and Etana looked down and saw that the land was very small and the rivers were tiny trickles. The eagle flew a third league into the air, and Etana looked down and could not see the land at all. He was sorely afraid, but still he clung tightly to the eagle until at last they arrived in the heavens.

Together they passed through the gates of Anu, Ellil, and Ea, and they made obeisance. Together they passed through the gates of Sin, Shamash, Adad, and Ishtar, and they made obeisance. They came to the throne of Ishtar, and she smiled upon them, and gave the plant of birth to Etana, and made known to him its use.

Etana and the eagle flew down from the heavens and returned to Kish, where Etana cultivated the plant in his garden. For nine months he gave the juice of the plant to Muanna, his wife, until she bore him a son who was named Balih.


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The Legend of Etana: Context
[Editor’s Note: It has always been our intention to include material on real-world myths, legends, fairy tales and folklore, the vast panoply of storytelling which has inspired and informed fantasy fiction as we know it today. Nor did we have any intention of limiting these to the retelling of those stories themselves, but to include discussion, comparisons, background information, and so on. The first contribution to this area we received managed to exceed our expectations: not only did it include considerable background information, that background information was itself accompanied by citations and bibliography! After some discussion, we decided this excellent contribution contained a bit more than we wanted at present—in particular, we didn’t want to frighten away potential contributors by making them think we set the bar that high—so Your Editor ended up producing a condensed version of what Aaron sent us. (In the process, the citations got dropped. Sorry if I raised anybody’s hopes.) The foregoing retelling of the legend is his. Any violence done to the background portion is entirely my own fault.—DB]


The area known as Mesopotamia, which now forms part of present day Iraq, has been home to and controlled by several different peoples over the course of its history, most importantly the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, in chronological order. The Sumerian culture was established as early as 4500 BCE, and was not displaced in importance by the Akkadians until around 2300 BCE.

The cuneiform text for the legend of Etana is preserved on dozens of fragments of clay tablets dating from Babylonian and Assyrian times. None of them is complete enough to give us the entire text; the story we have today is a result of painstaking reconstruction from multiple sources.

Etana appears on the Sumerian Kings List as the thirteenth king of the First Kish Dynasty, which was established following the great flood. None of the kings named before Etana appear in any other known source, and may be entirely mythical. In fact, there is no independent archaeological evidence for Etana, either. The first king with known archaeological evidence, En-me-barage-si, is the ninth following Etana, and ruled around 2600 BCE. If Etana was an actual historical figure, his reign would probably have been sometime between 2800-2700 BCE.

For many of the kings on the list, epithets are given. Etana is called “the shepherd, who ascended to heaven and consolidated all the foreign countries.” Clearly, by the time the list was compiled, the story of Etana’s flight already existed. This is further confirmed by images of Etana flying on an eagle’s back found on ancient cylinder seals dated to around 2300 BCE—older by some centuries than the earliest extant versions of the Sumerian Kings List, by several more than the text fragments from which the legend is known.

It is tempting to question whether Etana did actually rise to power, moving from shepherd to king, or if he had a more noble birth. Two factors argue against a noble birth. First, prior to Etana there is limited indication of hereditary kingship. It has even been argued that the entire legend could have been made up to support the concept. Second, many of the other kings on the list have similar occupations listed, such as fuller, fisherman, boatman, leatherworker, and smith. Kug-Bao, who ruled as king during the 25th century BCE and the only king known to have been female, was a tavern-keeper.

The story of Etana is particularly important because of its age, as well as the fact that so much cultural heritage was exported from the region over the centuries. Because of this, we are able to detect many story elements finding their way into later myths and legends. The motif of a man flying to heaven on the back of an eagle can be found, for example, in the Greek myth of Ganymede, as well as in the story of Alexander the Great being carried to heaven by eagles. The name Etana itself continues to be common in modern society, although it is normally found using the Semitic spelling, Ethan.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the Late Babylonian (700 BCE) version diverges from earlier versions in one important aspect. In cuneiform writing, there are two symbols used as prefixes to the names, one denoting a mortal and the other denoting a deity. In earlier versions of the Etana legend, Etana is named as a mortal. However, in the late version, Etana is given the prefix denoting a deity, indicating that over centuries of retelling he was gradually elevated to demigod status.