The Etana story, probably uniquely, has both an illustration (on a cylinder seal, above left) and the text (written in cuneiform on a clay tablet, above right).

After the city of Kish was designed and built by the gods long ago, the goddess Ishtar chose Etana to be the king of Kish. An eagle and a snake lived in the branches and roots of a tree in the city of Kish. They co-operated in feeding their young until one day the eagle ate the baby snakes and flew away.

Guided by the sun-god Shamash, the snake punished the eagle by leaving it to die on a mountain path at the bottom of a deep pit. Shamash gave the eagle a chance to redeem itself by sending Etana into the mountains in search of the herb of birth. Etana was a good king but had no son. He rescued the eagle and restored it to health. The grateful eagle flew around the mountains in search of the herb of birth but without success.

‘Sit on my back,’ said the eagle to Etana. ‘I will take you to the goddess Ishtar. She is the keeper of the herb of birth.’

As they flew up into the sky Etana looked down and saw his city becoming smaller and smaller until it disappeared.

‘Take me home!’ he cried.

The eagle tossed Etana off his back three times. Three times Etana tumbled towards the earth. Three times he was saved by the eagle swooping down and catching him on the tip of its wing.

Back in Kish, Etana dreamed he flew to heaven and saw the goddess Ishtar through a window. She was sitting on a throne with lions growling beneath it. He flew in through the window and approached Ishtar. The lions jumped at him and he woke from the dream. Etana told the dream to the eagle who then took him again on his back up to heaven.

The Etana cuneiform tablets are incomplete so the story doesn’t tell if Etana found the herb of birth. However, the historical king list names the second king of Kish as Balih. He may well have been Etana’s son.

Click thumbnails to view photos:

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Finding story-clues in Room 56

Storyteller Laura Collins tells Etana

Workshop participant solo storytelling

Oud-player Mazin Emad