About 15 years ago, I was writing a book entitled Embracing the Dragon: A Myth for our Times. In it I critiqued the so-called heroic myth, which I call the dragon-slaying myth. My research led to the discovery of many Western dragon tales, which I retold from the dragon’s perspective. “Tiamat’s Tale,” transcribed below, was one that I offered orally – as a storyteller.
“The ocean is the beginning of the earth. All life comes from the sea.” And at the outset Her name was Tiamat. Tiamat, the watery womb where all is amorphous and malleable. Tiamat, the primeval cauldron where one thing shapeshifts into another in the eternal whirlpool of creation. Tiamat, the unfathomable abyss. Before Her there was nothing. Without Her there is nothing. And after Her there will truly be nothing.
Those who learn to trust Her, discover Tiamat’s bliss, the creative ebb and flow of Her salt flood. Foremost among these was Apsu, Tiamat’s husband and lover, for he was the first to issue from Her tidal wave. His sweet waters mingled with Her salty brine, and together they brought forth gods and goddesses as silt precipitates from a stream or sand washes up on a shore. Tiamat’s undulations and Apsu’s wet dreams stirred the ardor of their children in turn, and soon there were many generations of gods and goddesses.
Unlike their fluid elders, some of these new deities longed for limits or desired dominion. Ea was one of these. He thought to elevate himself above the other gods and goddesses by killing his grandfather Apsu and stealing his kingdom. Ea considered himself wise, and he surely was wily, for he devised a sleeping potion for Apsu, and when Apsu lay unconscious before him, Ea slew him while he slept, claimed Apsu’s crown as his own and named himself King of the Deep. There the other gods bowed down before him, praising his power and his might. And there he raised his son Marduk and groomed him for battle.
But having taken power, Ea feared its loss. He was afraid that Tiamat would rage at him for killing Apsu and stealing his kingdom. Instead Tiamat recycled Apsu’s body, forming from him sleek serpents and dragon daughters, a new generation of gods and goddesses. When Ea saw Tiamat’s powerful new children, he feared that they were Her legions, armed to do battle with him in revenge. And so he cowered in his kingdom and waited until his son Marduk reached maturity.
Now Marduk was a haughty lad. He sneered at his father’s cowardice and swore from a young age to kill Tiamat, the Ur-Mother, now made menace by the gods’ fear. After years of youthful war games, he prepared himself for battle. He forged a mace for his right hand and a net for his left. Then filling himself with thunder and lightning, he called forth the destructive winds to aid him, the whirlwind and the hurricane, the cyclone and the tempest. Once he had done this, he mounted his chariot, yoked with a team of four — the swift, the trampler, the relentless and the killer — and then they drove to the parade grounds.
There he gathered his army about him, first assembling the chariots, fine wagons adorned with lightning bolts and driven by the lesser gods. Then he mustered his bowsmen, their weapons rattling as they marched into the camp. And finally he marshaled his spearsmen, their bodies glistening in the noonday sun. Together at last the great army advanced towards the coast with Marduk at its head.
“Tiamat,” he screamed, swinging the net in his left hand. “You have stirred up trouble among the gods.” This he said although the gods had fought among themselves with no help from Tiamat.
“Tiamat,” he yelled, shaking the mace in his right hand. “You have stolen power from us and set one generation of the gods against the next.” This he said although it was his father Ea who had killed his grandfather Apsu and stolen his kingdom.
“Tiamat,”he shouted finally, hurling his voice like a spear, “great destroyer, chaos dragon, come forth and meet Marduk, slayer of monsters.” This he said although it was Marduk himself who sought to destroy Tiamat.
Still in one thing he was right. Tiamat is and was and ever shall be the chaos from which all proceeds. But like a wave lapping on the shore, Marduk could not see the ocean that was Tiamat, could never imagine Her vastness, and so he cut himself off from Her power and Her strength.
But having been raised for lordship, Marduk believed he could recognize the mighty Tiamat. So when he saw a throng of Tiamat’s dragon daughters approaching, he assumed it was Tiamat surrounded by Her troops.
“I challenge you to single combat,” he shouted. “Come forth alone, and leave your forces where they stand.”
When a huge dragon separated herself from her sisters, Marduk was certain it was Tiamat who drew near and readied himself for single combat. But he was unprepared when the dragon roared and the blast toppled several of his chariots. And he was even less prepared when her legs shook and many of his bowsmen dropped their weapons. But most surprising of all was when the dragon lashed her tail in a great arc and Marduk’s spearsmen scurried for cover. Having cleared the field, the dragon spread her mouth wide and lunged towards him.
But Marduk had been schooled in war from his youth and evaded her attack. Then he laughed like a bezerker lusting for blood, and this enraged the dragon before him so that she swung her tail round again and slapped him from his chariot to the ground. No longer laughing, Marduk took a different tack, as he crawled back to his feet. He approached her cautiously, sidling towards her with the net in his hand. As she passed, he ensnared her in the netting, but not before the dragon had scored the entire length of his body with her claws. Marduk, bellowing in pain, then loosed one of his evil winds and filled her like a pig’s bladder. At once he sent a thunderbolt into her mouth, exploding her from within and killing her instantly.
But this was not the end of Marduk’s danger, for the dragon’s massive carcass thrashed from side to side as it fell, almost engulfing him in her death throes. Once she had stopped moving, Marduk jumped upon the corpse, appearing for all the world as a boy who had won King of Mountain.
Then standing astride the body, he thought to prove his dominion by splitting the corpse in two. Placing one part of the carcass beneath him, he said, “From this half of Tiamat’s dead body, I create the earth.” This he said, although earth is but one small planet in Tiamat’s vast space.
Then placing the other piece of the dragon’s remains above his head, he said, “And from this half of Tiamat’s dead body, I fashion the firmament.” This he said, although he had scarcely enough material to create the vault of heaven that surrounds earth.
When he had finished, Tiamat continued to surround Marduk as She does all of us, even to this day. But he could not see Her as he focused on his newly-won power.
Still slowly over time he began to feel Her presence, to sense Her energies, especially as spring approached. With this dawning awareness his father’s fears began to overtake him. He was afraid that Tiamat would seek vengeance, as Marduk would have done in Her place. He was afraid that She would kill him, as he had tried to kill Her. He was afraid that Her living waters would engulf his kingdom, spawning monsters and creating chaos.
And so Marduk gathered his armies and went in search of Tiamat again, finding a huge dragon instead, one of Her serpentine daughters. And once again he killed what he thought was the Ur-Mother and recreated what he thought was the universe, only to be haunted by Tiamat’s all-encompassing presence in the months after, so that when spring came round again he began his preparations anew, in constant fear that released itself in renewed bloodshed.
Every spring Marduk killed again, trying to impose his order on what he thought was a chaotic world. And every year Tiamat continued, as She has from the beginning, the fluid matrix of all life. Marduk was King of the gods for many years, but only Tiamat will live forever. For She is the primeval mother. Before Her there was nothing. Without Her there is nothing. And after Her there will truly be nothing.
Nancy Vedder-Shults, Ph.D., is the thealogical columnist for SageWoman magazine as well as a Wiccan blogger for Tikkun Daily. She has offered ecofeminist and spiritual growth keynotes, workshops, and classes since 1987. Nancy honed her speaking and workshop skills teaching in the emerging field of Women’s Studies from 1975 – 1991. In the early 1990s her muse nudged her out of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to record Chants for the Queen of Heaven, a CD of goddess songs from around the world, and become the musical consultant for the Unitarian Universalist goddess curriculum Rise Up and Call Her Name. She is currently writing a book entitled The World is Your Oracle. Check out her website at http://www.mamasminstrel.net.