Painting Tiamat/Tehom by Angela Yarber

angelaToday I am honored to give a lecture on “Queering Iconography: Holy Women Icons from Sappho to Pauli Murray” at the North Star LGBT Center in Winston-Salem, NC. So, I want to continue the theme of featuring some of my queer Holy Women Icons. Joining Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, Sappho, Jephthah’s daughter, Anna Julia Cooper, the Holy Woman Icon archetype, Maya Angelou, Martha Graham, Pauli Murray, La Negrita, and all my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist is the often overlooked and misunderstood primordial goddess of creation: tehom.

In Genesis 1 we read, “In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” It is the creation narrative held dear, formative, and meaningful for countless Jews and Christians. Interestingly, this word, deep, in Hebrew is tehom. Tehom translates as “deep or depths,” but it’s also a cognate for Tiamat, a Babylonian Goddess of creation. Out of the face of the deep, the world begins. Out of tehom, God creates. Out of Tiamat, the earth comes into being. This dancing Babylonian goddess syncretistically intermingles with the creation myth so pivotal to the faith of Christians and Jews in a way that could be terrifying, or beautiful, or—like the chaotic body of Tiamat that brings the world into being—both.

Catherine Keller deconstructs the terror therein and constructs the potentially parodied and subversive beauty of this esoteric cognate in her book, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. My interest in this earth goddess piqued while traveling in the Middle East and witnessing carvings of her dancing body: eyes filled with rage, arms outstretched to protect her children, healing snakes spilling out of the folds of her skirt, her distended body splitting open so that earth and life and all creation could be and become. It haunted me. And then I read Keller. Most of my interpretation and artistic choices rely on her beautiful work.

Keller recounts the way the Babylonian myth, the Enuma Elish, portrays Tiamat as the ever-raging sea monster mother who must be slain by her own child, Marduk, the mighty warrior who prevails uncensored. Before the war-hungry myth demonized Tiamat, however, she was regarded as the mother of all humanity, all creation, the one who births the world into being. Keller asks, “How does a religion manage to vilify the goddess it still recognizes as cosmic parent of all that is (Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep, 28)?” The creation in the Enuma Elish, in an incredibly abbreviated form, goes like this.

Tiamat and her primal mate, Apsu, create children. Apsu finds the children too noisy and has a difficult time resting. He wants to destroy the children so he can sleep. Tiamat rages furiously (rightly so, most mothers would add). Apsu calls on the second generation to help with his plans. Tiamat grows so furious and restless that she begins to breed monsters. Marduk, her own child, emerges as the soon-to-be great warrior who will slaughter her. Marduk creates imhullu, an evil wind, and lets the evil wind loose in her face. Because her mouth is open in a scream, she ingests the wind, it fills her belly, distending it a deadly parody of pregnancy. As she opens her mouth wide, Marduk shoots an arrow between her lips and it tears Tiamat apart. He then constructs “the cosmos from her oceanic carcass (Keller, 107).”

She who gave birth to them all becomes the martyr for their continued existence. Out of her slaughtered body becomes all that is. The narrative turns the concept of creation ex nihilo on its head. There are some striking similarities that give us pause. The formless void, in Hebrew tovo va bohu may well refer to Tiamat’s slain body. Some claim that the “wind from God”—ruah in Hebrew—that swept across the face of the deep is the imhullu used by Marduk to slay Tiamat. Keller reminds us, however, that the ruah (God’s spirit or breath) of the Hebrew bible is never viewed as evil, but as life-giving, life-forming, feminine, and good. Tiamat and tehom are both feminine words. And so is ruah.

Keller claims that the evocation of Tiamat, embedded in the Hebrew tehom, indicates a crafty parody of the Babylonian creation from chaos. Her insights are worth recounting at length:

In Tiamat’s “heart-pondering,” may we not receive a clue for a hermeneutics that would let her live: her, the primal creativity, where children run wild, where the new is granted a costly permission by its antecedents; the body of all that is silenced or slaughtered so that the new order need not negotiate its claim? Such a tehomic hermeneutic, haunted by the dead goddess but not worshiping her, would not find the chaos waters always pacific. It would tune its texts to a universe that puts up with a lot of painful noise. It would teach its insecure traditions that turbulence, though it may have ill effects, cannot be excluded without murder…If we read the layered deep of Genesis 1.2 as a cunning parody of the Babylonian creation from chaos, we might regain the peacemaking Tiamat and expose the warrior. He has occupied the Abrahamic traditions in her absence (Keller, 122).

Who knew that embedded in the traditions that have often forsaken women, using this same creation narrative from Genesis to marginalize and oppress them, was this brave and wild goddess? Who knew that lurking within the creation story Jews and Christians cling to, claiming dominion over this chaotic earth, was the Babylonian earth goddess Tiamat? Interestingly, Keller offers a slight critique, or at least a need for expansion, in the heteronormative dalliances of the female Tiamat and male Apsu. But a queer reading of Genesis 1 might do the subverting for us.

The masculine imhulu wind may have “impregnated” Tiamat in the Babylonian narrative, but the wind from God—ruah—that sweeps over the face of the deep, the face of Tiamat, is also feminine. In these ways, the sexual imagery is female and female. Out of this chaotic and windy union of two feminine beings, the world springs forth. Hetero-dalliances are nowhere to be found. Instead, it is the folding and unfolding of the feminine chaos between Tiamat/tehom and ruah that birth the world.

Keller states that tehomic love means that “to love is to bear with the chaos (Keller, 29).” Bearing with this churning chaos, Tiamat teaches us that much lies beneath the surface of a text if one does not implore a deeper reading, a reading of the depths. So, out of Tiamat’s oceanic womb, the earth is in the process of being born in my icon.



As I canonize Tiamat into holiness, her protective arms spread wide, covering all the earth, and all her children therein. Her hair flies wildly and her heart cries out to us:

From the depths of her inner chaos
She groaned
And birthed the world into being…
Out spilled all the earth
Folding and unfolding life and love
For all eternity

Not only does Tiamat teach us that much lies beneath the surface, hidden in the folds, washed over by the very breath of god(dess). She also reminds us that life and love and flourishing dwells, not outside of chaos, not by conquering chaos, but within chaos. “The answers are out there in the drowning deep,” the singer Vienna Tang reminds us. In the womb of the earth, in the salty waters of chaos, in the drowning deep, we find life and love and eternity. Forever.


Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, and Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit:


Categories: Art, Bible, Christianity, General, God, Goddess, Herstory, Judaism, LGBTQ, Love, Myth, Poetry, Textual Interpretation

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7 replies

  1. Interesting new reading.

    I am certain Apsu was a late-comer on the scene.

    I hope you are not making the slaying of Tiamat “necessary” in some archetypal way. If you aren’t maybe you want not to use phrases such as “must be slain.” And always be sure to preface the Genesis story and the Enuma Elish with phrases such as “According to the patriarchal myths” known as Enuma Elish and Genesis. As you may know Jungians use phrases like “must be slain” telling us that the myths reflect eternal truths, when in fact they are justifying patriarchal domination of both women and nature.

    Tiamat was the salt waters (sometimes mis-translated bitter waters), in other words she probably was Mother Sea. In that case the myth like a contemporary Goddess song and the science of evolution, may be telling us “All life comes from the Sea.”

    I don’t think the sea is any more chaos than cosmos, any more irrational than rational. I know Keller is trying to redeem the natural world from the notion of creation as rational male dominance and control, which is the point being made in many traditional readings of Genesis. But she too may still be a bit under the sway of Jungian theories that identify the feminine with the unconscious and the masculine with the conscious. A Creator Goddess is not sheer chaos.

    In today’s world where violence against women is rampant and sometimes viewed as justified, we need to be very careful not even to imply that “myth” tells us it was necessary for the female to be killed, slain, sacrificed, martyred, or whatever.

    These are stories rooted in and justifying male dominance attained through violence and the fear of violence. Rape of captive women was and is an ordinary part of war and war is an ordinary part of patriarchy and women who do not submit can be killed, often with impunity. Siggghhhhhh….

    Have a great day with your lecture.


  2. Thanks for these thoughtful comments, Carol. I think you raise some incredibly important points. My intention was to point out how, according to patriarchal writers, Tiamat must be slain. But I can certainly see how this original point wasn’t clear. I don’t think think that Tiamat had to be slaughtered in order for the world to be created; I think that, much like Lilith and other powerful holy women, her presence was maligned by early writers afraid of her power. The connection between violence against Tiamat and violence against women today is important; I’ll keep this connection in mind the next time I’m writing or speaking about her.


    • As well as the connection of violence against Tiamat and against women, I see also a connection with our violence against our earth, ourselves, and all of creation. Lots to think about in your post, Angela.

      One of the “creation stories” I’ve heard locally involves one of the “heavenly women” leaning over a cloud to see the watery planet below. Her curiousity leads her to lean too far and she falls, kaplunk, into the water. Turtle goes to her rescue, bearing her on her shell, and so the earth is formed in the waters. The story is of course, much more detailed and interesting than my short memory tells it, and has variations. North America is known to First Nations people as “Turtle Island”.

      I found one of the “tellings” here!


  3. I find that “life and love and flourishing dwells, not outside of chaos, not by conquering chaos, but within chaos.” Yes, I agree, we need to be able to work outside the box, so that we can transform the freedom of that disorderliness into creativity and loving playfulness.


  4. I love the words you chose to use with your painting!

    My work with birth has me firmly convinced that most creation stories were originally more “normal” birth stories, but became twisted and subverted with patriarchal inversion of the value and role of birth-giving and women.


  5. What an absolutely fascinating article I look forward to many more



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