Two New Years’ Eves ago, I came to the realization that I did not need to watch the television countdown to ring in midnight and begin the New Year. I had always watched the show with my family as a child, and even while it made me feel curiously bad, I still somehow felt like it was an obligatory component of the day, right up there with kisses, well wishes, blowers, horns, and sparkling wine. Since we seldom went to an actual New Year’s party, it was a way of connecting with the world. I gave it up, though, when I ultimately deemed the musical guests and hosts to be unviewable.
I was not looking to make a new tradition per se that year when I decided to light a hunk of myrrh in the fireplace. The myrrh had come to me as a gift in a Three Kings Christmas set. It made a pretty decent blaze because I had placed it atop a bed of shallow candle wax from an old votive candle. Let me say, while it smelled lovely and burned a long time, I do not recommend doing this – the fire became alarmingly vigorous for a little while. Anyway, I spread a cloth on the floor and set out some food, calling my family together to sit in a circle by the hearth. We dimmed the lights, and by fire I read the Epic of Gilgamesh (with some tasteful PG 13 edits) from 11:00 pm until 1:00 am. I had been reading great epics to the kids, and it seemed somehow appropriate to return to Babylon that year. We did not mark the New Year at a precise moment but rather sailed into it on the tides of an ancient tale. It was a revelation to us all, mostly because we were reclaiming that night from the media usurpers who had defined it for us for most of our lives.
This year, we intended to do something similar until we ended up throwing an impromptu party for some friends and their children. I knew they would all have limited interest in my second annual fire reading, so we just fed them and eventually counted down the final moments of 2014 on my watch. But, after they left, we returned to the myth, this time reading the Babylonian Epic of Creation. We hit the mark, as the story itself was ritually performed at each New Year. It carried us deep into the first day of 2015 and was also a great revelation.
If you have not read it, or only read it in fragments, or if you have only read about it, I do recommend doing this– that is, reading the story for yourself (even without the fire!). You will find the story of the creation of the gods, the attempted murder of the noisy youngsters that provoked the wily Ea to patricide, and the subsequent turn of Tiamat to avenge the slaying of Apsu. As I recited these events, my mom dutifully played the part of the chorus, recanting the cast of Tiamat’s army, comprised of irrationally formed and hybrid creatures, serpents, and fearsome dragons, all of which were fashioned by the great Mother Hubur (meaning, perhaps, “river”). We were struck by the fact that the woman’s army seemed to be a composite force of formal irrationality matched only by its own fearlessness and power. Such a force bespoke natural energy beyond control, the strength of which evoked awe, dread, and rage. The rational army’s response was to destroy it; to kill it. We all gasped at the persistent vitriol directed at Tiamat by the young gods and by Marduk, their champion.
The anger at the divine Mother was not lost on my nine-year old son, who immediately understood that her slain body was a usurpation and a gendered dethroning – she was now the stuff of the earth on which mortals performed the tiresome and unwanted labor of the gods. After Tiamat is dismembered (Tablet V), all the gods come together to have a big party and praise Marduk’s manliness. In the end, the text turns to a long litany of Marduk’s names, representing all the qualities of human civilization over which the God-King rules as steward, master, and judge. The list is agrarian, tame, inclusive, and structured, and it could be swapped out with a praise litany for God as understood in the Abrahamic traditions with hardly anyone’s noticing.
After a few hours of reading, I felt truly breathless. I was deeply surprised; for I had merely traded media. Reading Marduk by fire, a patriarchal creation story with gynocidal force, was not so unlike watching television, another media conveyor of patriarchal creations with gynocidal force. More or less, I knew what I was reading, but I was surprised by how, well…, how mundane the whole thing seemed. I took away two messages. 1) Females are scary and out of control but useful if restrained and purposed. 2) God is invoked to legitimize and regulate the economic relationships, property claims, and resource distributions among men. Both of these claims, I realize, are not hereby demonstrated merely because I have perceived and mentioned them. A worthy study would be the content analysis of mediatized storytelling and creation myths to see where and how often these themes emerge.
I have been since pondering whether these tellings are some sort of anthropological constant or whether we can or might change them by design. What alternative models might divinely legitimize new or reclaimed modes of relating, working, owning, co-existing, and would alternatives be (here’s the rub) broadly desirable? I have challenged myself this year to write my own creation story to share on December 31, 2015, and I will ask my children to do the same. Perhaps by our own revisioning we might eek out some small spark of insight on how to close the book on that same old story.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.