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The intelligent and creative use of mythology and languages in Stargate are two of the things that I like most about the series. It’s no wonder, then, that ‘Fire and Water’ (S1, Ep13) is one of my favorites in this regard.
Nem: You will tell me all you know of Babylon.
Daniel: Do you know how much has been lost? Great libraries burned to the ground, cities destroyed by wars. Most of our history is buried in time.‘Fire and Water’ – S1, Ep13.
In this article, I’m only focussing on the use of Mesopotamian mythology in the Stargate SG-1 episodes ‘Fire and Water’ and ‘The Tomb’ (S5, Ep8). Most of the article will focus on ‘Fire and Water’ and the deities Omoroca/Tiamat and Belos/Marduk.
‘Fire and Water’ uses Mesopotamian mythology and mythological figures in a fascinating way, linking it to other events of Earth’s history in the Stargate universe; specifically the human rebellion against the Goa’uld. Although the Oannes Nem is the only alien being that we physically encounter throughout the episode, it’s his consort, Omoroca, and the search for her fate on Earth, that takes center stage – even in her absence.
See also: Stargate | Daniel Jackson: Why Space Needs Archaeologists by Margaret Banford
Who or what are or were (the) Oannes?
According to Mesopotamian mythology, Oannes is an amphibious, humanoid creature. Oannes is described in the Greco-Babylonian writer Berossus’ History of Babylonia (3rd century BCE) as well as the work of Greek scholar Alexander Polyhistor (1st century BCE). Apollodorus, in his compilation of myths from the 2nd century CE, describes Oannes as having the full body of a fish and that under the fish’s head he “had another head”. He also had feet, subjoined to the fish’s tail, that looked human. It’s also noted that his voice and language “was articulate and human” (Cory, 1832).
The antiquarian Isaac Preston Cory (1802–1842), in his Ancient Fragments dissertation of 1832 which collected text from Berossus and Alexander Polyhistor amongst others, also notes of Oannes:
“This Being was accustomed to pass the day among men; but took no food at that season; and he gave them an insight into letters and sciences, and arts of every kind. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge […] And when the sun had set, this Being Oannes, retired again into the sea, and passed the night in the deep; for he was amphibious.”I.P. Cory, Ancient Fragments (1832)
(The full text of Ancient Fragments is available here.)
In Stargate SG-1, Oannes isn’t just a single being, but a whole race of aliens that originally come from Nem’s planet. We find out that the Oannes Omoroca came to earth to help in the fight against the Goa’uld, but we are not told whether others of her race came as well.
The Oannes race and their technology in the Stargate universe
If Omoroca is the Oannes that taught humans “letters and sciences” as quoted above, it makes sense that cuneiform is rather an Oannes script that is taught to and subsequently used by the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, etc.
It’s a very old Earth writing. It’s Cuneiform. It’s the first kind of writing we ever found on my world.Daniel Jackson, ‘Fire and Water’ – S1, Ep13.
Nem’s underwater dwelling on his planet in ‘Fire and Water’ shows the use of advanced technology – not just in the form of force fields to keep water out of the chamber where Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) is held, but also when it comes to finding and extracting memories from Daniel’s mind later in the episode.
It can also be deduced that Omoroca’s water-dwelling on Earth may have been much the same as the one in which Nem lives on the home planet. The Oannes, therefore, had the technology to fight the Goa’uld while humans at that time did not.
It’s unclear whether the Oannes’ long lives are attributed to technology or not and they’re just incredibly long-lived. We find out, for example, that Nem is over 4,000 years old (as he’s been waiting for Omoroca for that long), but we don’t know whether he’s young, middle-aged, or elderly by Oannes standards.
See also: Stargate | Explaining the Greek Myth Behind ‘The Torment of Tantalus’ by Carin Marais
Omoroca and Tiamat in Mesopotamian mythology and the Stargate universe
Although the name “Omoroca” is seldom used in the mythological cuneiform texts that have survived the millennia, Omoroca and Tiamat seem to have become the same being, with the name changing from language to language and culture to culture (Cory, 1832). They are both killed by Belos/Marduk (another such pair) and their corpses are used to create the world (much like is done with the giant Ymir in Germanic mythology).
The fight between Tiamat and Marduk is told in vivid detail in the Enūma Eliš (The Seven Tablets of Creation), the original text of which can be seen in part 13 of Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets, etc. in the British Museum and photos of the clay tablets can be seen on the British Museum’s website.
Stephanie Dalley’s 1995 translation and telling of Tiamat’s body being used to create the world is especially striking:
He [Marduk] sliced her in half like a fish for drying:Enūma Eliš
Half of her he put up to roof the sky,
Drew a bolt across and made a guard to hold it.
Her waters he arranged so they could not escape.
Her eyes are also pierced and form the sources of the life-giving Tigris and Euphrates rivers – her death bringing life to the parched earth in this myth.
Omoroca’s death in the Stargate universe
The manner of Omoroca’s death in the ‘Fire and Water’ episode comes as a shock to the audience and the characters:
And in that place, there was Omoroca, a woman who came forth from the heavenly egg … The god Belos, came down unto Babylon, unto the place of Omoroca, and cut the woman asunder.Daniel Jackson, ‘Fire and Water’ – S1, Ep13.
Although Omoroca isn’t dismembered to create the world as in the mythology, she turns the tide in the fight against the Goa’uld in the Stargate universe by initiating an uprising against them. Again Omoroca’s death is life-giving – albeit in a different manner in Stargate. It may also very well be that Nem knows that his love’s death would not have been swift – not at the hands of a Goa’uld – and that this adds to his grief and mourning.
In Mesopotamian mythology, humans are only created after Tiamat has been killed and the world created. When humans are finally created (from the blood of Kingu), the “toil of the gods” is “heaped upon mankind” while the gods each get their place, and Babylon and the ziggurat (a pyramidal stepped temple tower) are built. James Pritchard’s 1958 translation in The Ancient Near East reads as follows:
Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.Enūma Eliš
I will establish a savage, “Man” shall be his name.
Verily, savage-man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods
That they might be at ease!
Sounds a bit like the Goa’uld, doesn’t it?
See also: Stargate | Why the Aschen are SG-1’s Most Insidious Enemies by Timothy Wier
Belos, Bel-Marduk, and Marduk in Mesopotamian mythology and the Stargate universe
Much like Omoroca and Tiamat, Belos and Marduk (sometimes also called Bel-Marduk or “Lord Marduk”) were the same being in Mesopotamian mythology and responsible for Tiamat’s murder. In Stargate SG-1’s ‘Fire and Water’, we’re told that Belos killed Omoroca/Tiamat. In the episodes with Marduk (including ‘The Tomb’), it seems clear that Marduk and Belos are also the same entity in Stargate cosmology. (That’s not always a given seeing Daniel is a little wobbly on which side of the Great Flood that Babylon could be found…)
Marduk in Mesopotamian mythology and the Babylonian pantheon
Marduk – “the wisest of the gods” – is the patron god of Babylon who grows in importance within its mythology to become the head of the gods:
“The rise and cult of Marduk is closely connected with the political rise of Babylon from city-state to the capital of an empire. From the Kassite Period, Marduk became more and more important.”Jeremy Black, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia An Illustrated Dictionary (1992)
(The Kassite Period refers to c. 1595 BCE until c. 1155 BCE, after the fall of the Old Babylonian empire, when the Kassites controlled Babylonia.)
Marduk’s role and importance are brought to the forefront in the Enūma Eliš – so much so that the piece is rather “first and foremost a literary monument in honor of Marduk as the champion of the gods and the creator of heaven and earth” (Heidel, 1963:11). Even the exploits of other (soon to become lesser) gods are attributed to Marduk as time goes on and Babylon rises in power.
In the Enūma Eliš we see that “some of the exploits of Ninurta (and) Enlil” (Tamtik, 2007:70) are now attributed to Marduk (See also Black, 1992:128). Ninurta is a Mesopotamian god and the son of the god Enlil, and is associated with farming, healing, hunting, law, scribes, and war. Enlil was associated with wind, air, earth, and storms and was the chief deity of the Sumerian pantheon. Later, however, other peoples of Mesopotamia, like the Akkadians and Babylonians also worshiped Enlil before he was replaced with Marduk.
Tamtik (2007:70) notes the manner of the fight between Marduk and Tiamat in the Enūma Eliš – using winds, dust, etc. – “may also be based on the borrowings from the earlier myths” regarding Enlil.
Heidel (1963:11) further adds “[Enūma Eliš’s] prime object is to offer cosmological reasons for Marduk’s advancement from the position as chief god of Babylon to that of head of the entire Babylonian pantheon […] Our epic is thus not only a religious treatise, but also a political one.”
Joshua J. Mark (2016) writes in the World History Encyclopedia, that:
“The golden statue of Marduk, housed in the inner sanctum of his temple, was considered a vital aspect of the coronation of kings. A new king needed to ‘take the hands of Marduk’ to legitimize his rule.”
With the statue of Marduk in Babylon being the very presence of the god, the stealing thereof by hostile nations happened more than once. When that happened “disaster was thought to be imminent … as there was no one to stand between the people and the forces of chaos” (Mark, 2016). Academic Marc van de Mieroop also notes that “the consequences [of taking the statue] were so dire that the loss of the statue merited recording in the historiographic texts”. The statue of Marduk was destroyed when the Persian king, Xerxes I, sacked Babylon in c. 485 BCE (Marc, 2016).
That Marduk was seen as a protector, on the one hand, becomes clear in texts like the 13th century BCE Ludlul bēl nēmeqi (also see Marc, 2016), which has been compared to the biblical Book of Job. Ludlul bēl nēmeqi, or The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, (Lenzi, 2019:2) opens with a stanza that reads:
I will praise the lord of wisdom, the con[siderate] god,Ludlul bēl nēmeqi
Angry at night but relenting at daybreak.
Marduk, the lord of wisdom, the considerate god,
Angry at night but relenting at daybreak.
The anger and acts of Marduk are contrasted with the consideration and mercy mentioned in the first stanza of Ludlul bēl nēmeqi. Indeed, it would seem that, in the Stargate universe, the Goa’uld who has adopted the guise of Marduk embodies primarily the harsh and unrelenting characteristics of the Babylonian Marduk at the beginning of Ludlul bēl nēmeqi (Lenzi, 2019:2). Although given the egotism of the Goa’uld, he’s probably keen to trumpet also his paternalism and largess:
His grievous punishment is immediately overbearing,Ludlul bēl nēmeqi
He shows pity and instantly becomes motherly.
He hastens to butt like a wild bull,
But like a cow with a calf, he is ever attentive.
His beatings are barbed, they pierce the body,
But his bandages mo[lli]fy, they revive the dead.
He speaks and imputes guilt,
But on the day of his offering liability and guilt are absolved.
Marduk in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘The Tomb‘
In ‘The Tomb’, we find out that the ruthlessness with which Omoroca was killed is just the beginning of a reign of terror that would finally see Marduk’s own priests rebelling against him because he was so evil.
Marduk’s priests “sealed him inside a sarcophagus with a creature that would continually consume his flesh as the sarcophagus worked to keep him alive” (Gateworld). Lovely.
The Goa’uld Marduk goes into the flesh-eating creature at some time during his captivity and is let loose by accident by a Russian SG team. During the episode we see that Marduk has lost none of his cruelty as he makes his way into some of the Russian team members, not caring if the team member dies as long as he can get his hands on the Eye of Tiamat (a piece of technology) and escape the confines of the ziggurat.
The use of Mesopotamian mythology in the episode ‘Fire and Water’ is quite brilliant – and the viewer doesn’t need to know all the ancient history or the pantheon of Mesopotamian deities to understand the episode and feel Nem’s pain. By focusing on the relationship between Omoroca and Nem, the history of the Goa’uld on Earth is expanded upon and the viewer learns much (and can deduce much) from this information.
By linking ‘The Tomb’ to ‘Fire and Water’ through Marduk, the world of Stargate SG-1 becomes ever more detailed and exciting – and reminds us just how much more there is still to see.
Stargate | How We Made SG-1’s 200th Episode
Stargate | Explaining the Greek Myth Behind ‘The Torment of Tantalus’
Carin Marais is a freelance writer by day and a genre fiction writer by night. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching her favourite shows – like Stargate – or reading the next book on her giant TBR pile. She only makes the odd trip back to reality for tea, biscuits, and more yarn for her various crochet and knitting projects.