Two Odonata Citations in Ancient Mesopotamian Literature

by Dr. Carlos Betoret, Bonet
Valencia, SPAIN

The greek word “Mesopotamia” (land between the rivers) names the territory between the Euphrates and Tigris River. Actually the Republic of Iraq and the eastern part of the Republic of Syria bore the site of the oldest historical civilization of Sumeria. Forming a foundation for the Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, this area was occupied from approximately 3500 to 500 B.C. Mesopotamian civilizations are well known for their wonderful masterpieces of art; many of which can be seen in famous museums like the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Iraq Museum. Perhaps less well known is the extraordinary literary production of these people preserved on thousands of clay tablets discovered in archeological ruins including Uruk, Babylon, and Nineveh. Within this literature, citations of odonates (dragonflies) can be found in the Poem of Gilgamesh and the Poem of Atrahasis.

ancient mesopotamian tablet

The Poem of Gilgamesh is a summary of five older Sumerian poems compiled by Babylonian and Assyrian clerks. The Sumerian poems were named Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish, The Death of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh and the land of the living ones, Gilgamesh and the celestial bull, and Gilgamesh Enkidu and the hell. This summary also includes a Babylonian version of an older Sumerian universal flood poem. The Poem of Gilgamesh tells of the hero Gilgamesh, ruling the Sumerian city of Uruk in the 28th century B.C. The poem describes Gilgamesh and the hero Enkidu befriending and traveling to the wood of the cedars, where they kill the monster Humbaba. Ishtar, the goddess of the love, takes vengeance by killing Enkidu, and Gilgamesh, in fear of death, travels in search of the immortality. Finding the sole survivor of the great food, Utnapishtim explains how to get immortality by eating a plant from the bottom of the sea. Gilgamesh fails when a snake eats the plant of immortality and the hero returns to the city of Uruk. The citation the Odonata is contained within the speech of Utnapishtim, when he explains to Gilgamesh how it is impossible to be immortal:

Do we build for ever our houses,
and forever do we steal of properties?
Perhaps the brothers do divide their part for ever.
Perhaps the hate does divide for ever
Perhaps does the river always grow and make inundations.
Does the dragonfly leave its skin?
And its face can only see the face of the sun?

In the original text of the Assyro-Babylonian language is written “ku- li- li- ki- lip- pa.” Modern specialists believe that this means skin of the dragonfly nymph, when it leaves its pupal case to become a flying adult insect.

The incomplete poem of Atrahasis is also a summary of ancient Sumerian poems made by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The poems portray legends, gods, the origin of mankind, the flood, and other matters. The poem describes the gods fighting between themselves as they build the world, create men, and latter send a flood to destroy mankind. The poem tells of the hero Atrahasis struggling to save the men from destruction. The citation of the Odonata is in a speech by the Mother Goddess Nintu, deploring the sending of the flood. What? Do they give origin to the brave sea?

They have filled up the river
as a cloud of dragonflies
As a raft they have arrived to the limit
as a raft, they have arrived to the edge
I have seen it and I have cried by their cause;
I have finished my deploration by them.

Perhaps this part of the poem draws similarity between the river filling up with bodies and swarms of dragonflies, flying in the sky.

Both of these citations of ancient Mesopotamian literature, clearly shows that these people, regardless of their scientific awareness, were touched enough by the wonders of insects, including dragonflies, to reference them within the literature of their time.