Tiamat’s Tale by Nancy Vedder-Shults

nancymug_3About 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.

Categories: Fiction, General, Myth

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17 replies

  1. This story is so painful I find myself unable to read through your retelling of it. And I ask, how can and could generations of students and scholars read the original and conclude “this is archetypal truth” or “this is the way civilization came to be.” Yikes!!!!


    • Thanks, Nancy, for this brave sharing of your journey into chaos and wet dreams, the turmoil of the beginnings of creation, the primeval mother, female dragons, and the enduring matrix of life.

      On dragons. In the East, when someone achieves great merit in their chosen field of endeavor they are called a “dragon” of that field, for instance, a “dragon of letters.” In the West, the image of a dragon, along with other reptiles, is aligned with the fear of nature, and usually represents something evil or negative, like the snake in the Garden of Eden. But even in the East, there is an understanding of conflicting feelings about dragons. The story is told, that there once was a woodcarver who sculpted exquisite dragons and sold them to earn a living. One day, thinking it would be much loved, a kindly dragon appeared outside the woodcarver’s window — seeing a real dragon, the woodcarver shrieked, however, and ran away.


      • Thanks for your story of the woodcarver, Sarah. It brought me to chortle. I agree about the ambivalence concerning dragons in the East (I also studied Eastern and indigenous dragons while writing this book), and I agree with it. Chaos is difficult to deal with, but it is the creative mess out of which new things are born.


    • I agree, Carol, that this story is extremely painful. Fifteen years ago, In trying to be “true” to the myth, I found it necessary to tell a war story. As I got it ready to send it to FAR, I wasn’t sure I should. But the parts of the retelling that I still like are the critique of war and domination, and the understanding that ultimately it fails.

      To answer question, I believe heroic tales — e.g. dragon-slaying myths — were a necessary part of the transition from matrifocality to patriarchy. If a person equates “civilization” with patriarchy (which most Western scholars do), then this tales demonstrates the creation of civilization from the dangerous, chaotic waters of pre-hisotyr. These tales were necessary in a second way: If you were sending young men into battle, they knew they might die and, therefore, not experience the immortality that progeny provide. So…if, as a soldier, you believed that your heroic deeds would be sung and shared with the generations after you, you could believe you had a certain type of immortality. I.e. patriarchy’s warfare necessitates such tales.


  2. Thanks, Nancy, for your post. I first read of Tiamat and Marduke in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford. As I recall, the archetypal story was presented as a sort of beginning of the patriarchy in which, for the first time, a male was revered as the creator of the universe and the Ur-Mother really was slayed, and the authors likened the story to what happens in all generations when the sons and daughters rise up to take over from the parents. But in the Sumero-Babylonian civilization, this turnabout marked the beginning of “an ever-increasing emphasis on war and conquest, leading to the growth of an empire.” (pg 279) I like your version in which the Mother remains, hidden and yet ever-present, to rise again, especially in the spring.


    • Thanks, Ann, for reminding me of Baring and Cashford’s book. It was an important one for me in the 1990s. What these authors say, and I agree, was that this myth was one of the first to invert the mythology of an earlier era so that the earlier god/desses (in this case and often, I might add, a goddess) become demons and the new gods are revered as the ones who defeat them.


  3. Apsu has wet dreams?? Love it! Love the story, too. Though I’ve never liked Smaug, I’ve generally been on the dragons’ side in those old combat stories. I think the “heroes” are mostly bullies–Putins and Rumsfelds and Crusader kings–and I hope they’re forever trembling in fear. Mother often wins in the long run, eh?

    Thanks for adding another story to the canon of this community. Brava!


  4. I found the story fascinating Nancy, and while I was glad to read it, kept thinking how much more powerful it would sound if told orally. Did you record stories on youtube or online somewhere?

    While I grieve the violence I’m also encouraged by the continual resurrection of life in Tiamat. You just can’t keep a good gal down, can yah! I’m inspired to play my recording of Helen Reddy “I Am Woman!”


  5. What about the aspect of shadow in this myth? I am just processing here. In the Grail tradition the knights of the round table had to go to the darkest parts of the forest that were most feared in order to obtain the Grail, the enlightened self, the whole self, the tantric balance of inner divine masculine and feminine. In shamanic traditions in the amazon, when you fear an animal say a jaguar, you are sent into the forest and not allowed to come back until you touch it. You must touch, make peace with that which you fear and thereby transform shadow self into conscious awareness and deeper self integration. Shadow is the disowned parts of self and Dark Mother is the one who walks with us to see in the dark with her low light ability as Clarissa Pinkola Estes would say in “Untie the Strong Woman”. Only She has the ability with Her compassion to help us see what we can’t or don’t want to see about ourselves. Marduk’s growing fear represents his inability to heal or reconcile the splitting off of his own shadow material. Tiamat is actually showing him this reality. He creates this little matrix of illusion within the reality of Tiamat. But because She is so powerful She lets him have his drama for as long as he needs to, until he can come to his senses. It will take time but Her compassion for humanity and patriarchy is actually transcending all of the dramas created by Marduk. He is only one expression in the multidimensional cosmos of Her making and Her children are all forms of manifestation. He has to learn the hard way. If he just realized he was a God Being and not separate from Her he could make his life a whole lot more pleasant. I think that is the struggle we all face. We are all God Beings and we don’t know it nor the true power we are capable of. So people go into fear consciousness instead, becoming the very opposite of what they are and making a big mess. Only through enlightenment can we get out of Marduk Matrix…


  6. I agree with much of what you say, Anahita, although I probably wouldn’t use Jungian terminology. One quibble: I don’t think we ALL face this kind of struggle. I think most of us in the West face this struggle, but not everywhere. Our (Western) cultures are founded in many ways on fear. In the United States, it has a lot to do with the Calvinist underpinnings of our society, where originally it was believed that only the “elect” would get into heaven. Secularized during the last two centuries, this belief still makes us fearful so that we try to prove ourselves worthy, but then still worry that maybe we won’t measure up. I read recently that the United States is one of the most anxious countries in the world. In contrast, in Mexico, where there’s a lot of violence, people are much less stressed out.


    • Hello, Ms. Vedder-Shults,

      I enjoyed your interpretation of the myth of Tiamat. I am just trying to understand the deeper message that these myths have and keeping in mind the distortions and re-interpretations of patriarchal culture.

      Jungian terminology, myth, Joseph Campbell, Angeles Arrien. I have been influenced by all of this and.I don’t see the problem when talking about monsters, dragons, projections and how that is often the symbolism of fear that patriarchy projects on the Divine Feminine and was expressed through “myth”. I relate to the world deeply through symbolism even though I am not trained in Jungian psychology.

      The Calvinists did make a terrible mess here but did not just reside in the US, they took their message all over the world, Indonesia, North Africa, South America etc. So if they are to blame then that has global implications, not limited to the US. I think most places in the world are dealing with stressors and fear consciousness to varying degrees or this planet would be one of peace. It is not. India might be perceived as less stressful yet they commit suttee against women whose dowries have run out. I am sure I don’t need to go on with examples of things like child prostitution and sweat shops in asia/pac, dictatorships, genocides, a girl named Malala who was shot for wanting to go to school. Is it really possible that the US is the only country that suffers from extreme fear and anxiety ? That seems difficult to fathom considering the state of the world. There is a shadow in every country and culture with few exceptions. Even tribes in New Guinea; if they don’t recognize each other while crossing paths, will kill.

      Every single human being is the split of Tiamat and Marduk. To split or not to split is the question. Because we all possess active and receptive principles, the divine masculine and feminine and the wounded masculine and feminine. I believe we all split from our totality of both divine masculine and feminine, hence “The Fall” from our God/dess Consciousness and became wounded masculine and wounded feminine separately battling it out with “other” that we are actually not separate from. I believe gay and transgender people are part of the continuum of our evolution. Eventually we will stop splitting off our masculine and or feminine aspects and own our totality however it manifest in our physical bodies. I think Marduk shows us patriarchy and what happens when you split from yourself: nothing but death and destruction.

      Regarding lower stress levels in Mexico, I just read about a woman who had to choose between her two children when she left Mexico. She took her youngest because he is a toddler and left the teenage daughter behind for a future rescue. I read about this Mother’s understandable trauma, and the church she goes to where families in similar situations are equally traumatized. Regarding the statement about people in Mexico being less stressed it would be interesting to know WHO participated in the survey (if there was one as I am not clear on your source), We have to consider sources and our media is rife with manipulation, corruption and white washing. I have no doubt the US has people full of anxiety and that is part of how the government intentionally controls the population through reinforcing fear consciousness, communicating crisis/end time themes in Hollywoood movies, news, etc. I guess that has been the government’s plan all along – pick up where the Calvinists left off.

      If we stay in fear consciousness, we can’t access the frontal lobe and all the great things as Divine beings we can do like self healing (that the government also doesn’t want us to know about) . Dr. Joe Dispenza, a neuroscientist writes about this in his book “You are the Placebo” just as an example. Indigenous people know about this phenomenon and they have access to their psychic abilities which helps them to be aligned with Mother Earth and they do live in harmony with their environment. I am sure they are less stressed, but they are starting to teach the rest of the world about shamanic traditions because they are worried about what is being done to their rain forests, and rightly so.

      I think ultimately the myth is two sides of the same coin and we all have to choose in every moment between: Tiamat=Love or Marduk=Fear/insanity/self destruction, no matter what country we live in.

      Thank you…..


      • Hi Anahita —

        Good to be in conversation with you. In response:

        “Is it really possible that the US is the only country that suffers from extreme fear and anxiety ?” I didn’t suggest that fear doesn’t exist in the rest of the world. Obviously, it does. I did say that the United States is a particularly anxious country, with more than the usual amount of fear. What I was trying to suggest is that we shouldn’t generalize on our experience here. In fact, you actually talk about some of the cultures that aren’t so anxious in the end of your response. It was indigenous cultures, especially matrifocal indigenous cultures that I was thinking about in contrast to the industrialized West, with all of its fear and anxiety. So we end up on the same page about this.

        “I think Marduk shows us patriarchy and what happens when you split from yourself: nothing but death and destruction.” I agree with you completely about Marduk and patriarchy. One of the best books I’ve read about this is _From a Broken Web_ by Catherine Keller.

        The surveys I read about were done by Mental Health America, an advocacy group for people with mental health, and another by a researcher at the University of Florida, Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola. His university website describes him as an internationally renowned expert on mental health in ethnic populations and goes on to say that he is the coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the World Health Organization’s Mental Health Survey, and coordinates the work of the National Mental Health Institute surveys in Mexico, Columbia, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica and Portugal. Dr. Aguilar-Gaxiola’s studies show Mexican immigrants to the United States are far less stressed than their American-born children and grandchildren. He says, “What we found, for example, is that people who were the second and third generation of Mexican origin, have two to three times higher rates of major depression, anxiety disorders, certainly of drug and alcohol abuse and dependence than the first generation.” And there was an AP/Ipsos poll that showed that 3/4s of people in the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea and the United Kingdom say they experience stress on a daily basis, while more than half of Mexicans said they rarely or never experience stress in their daily lives. And then WHO did a study in 2009 that showed that the U.S. was, by a wide margin, the most anxious country in the world.


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