The Akkadian word tiˀāmtu means ‘Sea’. Either in its normal form, often shortened to Tâmtu, or in the status constructus Tiˀāmat (also shortened to Tâmat), it can also refer to a primordial goddess. According to the Enūma Eliš, the Babylonian epic of creation, she and Apsû (the underground fresh water) were the first beings, and all other gods trace their origin back to them. The world as it is now is the result of Marduk’s killing Tiˀāmat and creating the cosmos from her body. This was done at the behest of the other gods, who had been oppressed by her, and in return for his deed, Marduk was granted rulership over all things.
Tiˀāmat is thus one of a whole class of dead or defeated gods of primordial times who play a role in cosmogony, but as W.G. Lambert notes, evidence for worship of the Sea as a goddess is very scant, and even in mythology, there is little precedent for the role of Tiˀāmat in the Enūma Eliš, except for two incidental Sumerian references to “Sea (Aˀabba), the mother of the gods (ama dingirreneke)”, once translated into Akkadian as Tâmtu, ummi ilāni (W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths, p. 237–238).
However, the Babylonian epic was so influential in the 1st millennium BCE that it gave rise to scholarly speculation about her nature among Mesopotamian scholars. Let us begin with its description: “In the Epic, Tiāmat is prominent as the primaeval sea, the monster of monsters, and the one whose body was split to form heaven and earth. The author’s concept of her varies from time to time. Now she is a body of water, now a corporeal monster with animal limbs” (Lambert, p. 236).
2 Ancient interpretations
In the exegesis of the kettledrum ritual (O 175), the pair Tiˀāmat and Apsû are identified, and Tiˀāmat in turn with Ereškigal, queen of the underworld: “Apsû = Tâmtu. Tâmtu = Ereškigal”. In another passage, the same text also identifies her with another dead god, Asakku (sum. Asag).
In an astrological text, we read: “Scorpio (sum. Girtab) = Išḫara = Tâmtu (spelled tam-tim)” (V R 46, line 31 in Weidner, Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie, p. 52). Išḫara was a goddess primarily worshipped in Syria, especially the city of Ebla, but also Ugarit and Mesopotamia; her character is complex, but perhaps the identification with our goddess is due to connections with the underworld, parallelling that with Ereškigal.
In the Mystical Miscellanea, it is said: “Ištar of Nineveh = Tiˀāmat (ti-amat). She is the wet nurse of Bēl. She has [four eyes] and four ears. Her upper parts are Bēl; her lower parts are Mullissu.” The four eyes and four ears are a feature of Marduk (Bēl) in the Enūma Eliš.
The same compliation says that the dromedary (spelled as “donkey of the sea” in cuneiform) is the ghost of our goddess, mutilated by Bēl “so that she might not be forgotten.”
Berossus (see in full here) explains the goddess through four names: “Over all these (primordial monsters) ruled a woman whose name was Omórka (sum.-akk. amarukku) This (name) is Thamátth (akk. Tâmat) in the Chaldaic language, but in Greek it is translated as Thálassa, ‘Sea’, or, by isopsephy, Selḗnē, ‘Moon’.” Isopsephy is the conversion of letters into numbers; by this method, using Greek letters, Omorka and Selene are equivalent.
- Apsû = Tâmtu. Tâmtu = Ereškigal.
- Scorpio = Išḫara = Tâmtu.
- Ištar of Nineveh = Tiˀāmat. Her upper parts are Bēl; her lower parts are Mullissu.
- Dromedary = ghost of Tiˀāmat.
- Amarukku = Tâmat = Thalassa = Selene.
- Tâmtu = Mother-of-Gods.
These interpretations hardly show a consistent tendency, except for a tendency of esoteric exegesis. But this in itself tells us something about what attracted ancient intellectuals to this goddess.