The Apkallu and the Bīt Mēseri Ritual



“The study of F.A.M. Wiggermann on protective spirits has contributed considerably to the understanding of the apkallus in Bīt Mēseri.


(Wiggermann, Mesopotamian Protective Spirits; Wiggermann deals with Bīt Mēseriespecially on p. 105f. The connection between the apkallus and prophylactic rituals was already noticed by Oliver Robert Gurney, “Babylonian Prophylactic Figures and their Rituals,” Annals of Archeology and Anthropology 22, Liverpool University Press, 1935, pp. 35-96.)




Bird-Apkallū statuettes in characteristic poses, right hands on their breasts, banduddu buckets in their left hands.


In Bīt Mēseri it is clear that there is already a sick man in the house. The ritual prescribes both how paintings of protective figures and small statues of them should be placed in the room of the sick man, and what incantations should be used. The ritual should be performed by the āšipu, the magician or exorcist operating against evil spirits causing diseases.

Three kinds of apkallus are also represented in Bīt Mēseri: ūmu-apkallus, fish-apkallus, and bird-apkallus. The designation ūmu can mean both “light” and “day;” Wiggermann opts for the second solution; they are “day-apkallus.”




Fish-Apkallū statuettes of the type that were buried in the foundations of buildings. The so-called purādu-fish apkallū were the seven antediluvian sages of Sumeria.

The fish-apkallus and the bird-apkallus are bīnūt apsê, “creatures of apsû.” They have divine origin.


Nothing similar is said about the day-apkallus. They seem to be of human descent. Nevertheless, Wiggermann considers them to have their origin from the antediluvian period as well.

The instructions concerning the invocation of the apkallus are introduced in the following way in Bit Meseri:

“To the seven figures of carp apkallus, painted with gypsum and black paste that are drawn at the side of the bedroom at the wall. To the seven figures of apkallus of consecrated cornel; they stand in the gate of the bedroom nearest the sick man at the head of the bed. To the seven figures of apkallus of tamarisk, kneeling, that stand at the foot of the bed.”

Thus, protective spirits surrounded the sick man. The first group is fish-apkallus, which is explicitly mentioned; the second is day-apkallus, on the basis of the material used; most likely the third is the bird-apkallus.


This well-preserved bas relief retains incredible detail. The daggers carried in the Umu-Apkallu’s waistband are clear, as is the rosette styling on his wristbands. The earrings are more distinct than most other examples, and the headdress appears to be of the horned-tiara type. The umu-apkallu appears to wear bracelets on his upper arms. Tassels are apparent on the fringes of his robe, as well as behind the neck.

The list of seven and the subsequent four apkallus that we have been dealing with come after the first invocation. We therefore notice that these apkallus are fish-apkallus, which also is apparent in the description of them in the list. There is, however, an incongruity between the invocation and the list.

The invocation deals with seven apkallus; the list has in total eleven. This seems to indicate that the list is adapted into the ritual from another source.”

Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, p. 131.


“As we have seen, the fragments B and D then continue the story in different ways, although there is one common trait before they diverge: in both places Adapa is offered, and accepts “garment and oil” (Amarna fragment B rev. 60-5; Nineveh fragment D rev. 1-3).

We think Izre’el is right here pointing out that there is a difference between the “food and water” that Ea denied Adapa, and the “garment and oil” that he allowed Adapa in his instruction before Adapa went to heaven.




A bas relief in the Louvre. In this case the bird-apkallū tends to a sacred tree. Considering the mullilu in his right hand and the banduddu in his left, (tree cone and water bucket), he is engaged in a water ritual intended to sanctify the sacred tree. This is a common motif in Sumerian and Neo-Assyrian idols.



This bas relief is in the Louvre. Primary publication Nimrud NW Palace I-24 = RIMA 2.0.101.023, ex. 189 (f) Collection Nimrud, Iraq (a); British Museum, London, UK (b); Louvre Museum, Paris, France (c); Nimrud, Iraq (d); Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, USA (e); British Museum, London, UK; Louvre Museum, Paris, France Museum no. Nimrud fragment no. 42 (a); BM 098061 (b); AO 22198 (c); Nimrud fragment no. 43 and 45 (d); DIA 47.181 (e) (photo: DIA); AO 19849 Accession no. 1903-10-10, 0002 (b) Provenience Kalhu (mod. Nimrud) Period Neo-Assyrian (ca. 911-612 BC)


“Food and water” symbolize eternal life, while “garment and oil” symbolize wisdom.

(Izre’el refers here to clothes as the distinctive marker of human civilization, as seen for instance in the myth about the creation of Enkidu, Schlomo Izre’el, Adapa and the South Wind: Language Has the Power of Life and Death, Eisenbrauns, 2001, pp. 122-3.)

Thus, according to both versions, the wisdom Adapa already has is confirmed in heaven. Then Adapa, according to fragment B, returns to the earth and his wisdom is confirmed, but he has lost the possibility for eternal life.

Fragment D continues:

Adapa, from the foundation of heaven to the summit of heaven, looked at it all and saw his (Anu’s) awesomeness. At that time Anu estab[lished] Adapa as watcher. He established his freedom from Ea. [An]u se[t] a decree to make glorious his lordship forever: [ … ] Adapa, seed of humankind, [ … ] he broke the South Wind’s wing triumphantly, (and) ascended to heaven, —so be it forever! (Nineveh fragment D rev. 7-14).

The scene is a scene of inauguration. Immediately before, as we have seen, Adapa is given a new garment and is anointed. In light of what comes next, this is in D not only a confirmation of the wisdom Adapa already has; it is the preparation for introducing Adapa to the highest office any human was given.

Adapa, belonging to primeval time, and being the chosen one of Ea, already had a wisdom that superseded ordinary human wisdom, according to Fragment A. His broad understanding did, however, not include insight in the heavenly domain.

In our text Adapa is first equipped with the proper attire for the inauguration and then comes a description of the new insight he is given. Now his eyes are opened to the whole spectrum of divine understanding. If he previously only had insight into earthly matters, he now got what he was missing, full insight into the whole of Anu’s domain: “Adapa, from the foundation of heaven to the summit of heaven, looked at it all and saw his (Anu’s) awesomeness.”


Against the background of this new perception of the whole coherence, the proclamation of Adapa’s new status is given. He is inaugurated into massartu, “the office of being a watcher.” The expression has two contexts. On the one hand it refers to the cosmic order, which he now has received full insight into; on the other hand it refers to his magical competence, which is clear from the references dealing with illness that follow the inauguration.




Ishtar receives the worship of an Amazon. Ishtar stands on a lion, holding a bow with arrows at her back. Her eight-pointed star is atop her head. Lusty antelopes rear on the right side, perhaps signifying the god Ea. The portrayal of the tree is somewhat problematic, as it differs from the iconic depictions of the sacred tree common in Neo-Assyrian art.

There is no contradiction between these two competences; the one who has insight into the hidden divine realm is also the one who is capable of fighting the evil demons causing misery on earth.


The sentence, “[An]u se[t] a decree to make glorious his lordship forever,” can be interpreted in two ways. The bēlūssu, “his lordship,” can refer to Anu; through this act Anu establishes his lordship. This seems a bit odd, since nowhere in the myth is Anu’s lordship challenged. It seems more likely that the pronoun refers to Adapa. The lordship refers to Adapa’s role as watcher, since he broke the South Wind’s wing so triumphantly.

This is the version of the myth lying behind the first apkallu in Bīt Mēseri. The name of this apkallu is U-an, “the light of An.” This is simply a naming according to what takes place in the inauguration.


He was the one who could complete “the plans of heaven and earth,” because he was the heavenly watcher who had seen everything, from the foundation to the summit of heaven. On the other hand, the seven apkallus occur in a special setting in Bīt Mēseri; the apkallus were invoked to protect human beings from diseases caused by demons.

In a similar context, the incantation series “to block the foot of evil into a man’s house” (cf. below), the apkallus are repeatedly called massarū; they are the watchers of health and life. As already stated, there is no contradiction here, because the insight in the divine real is the precondition for fighting demons.


Thus we have reached the conclusion that the different versions of the Adapa Myth are reflected in two ways in Bīt Mēseri. The apkallu who went up to and down from heaven is the Adapa from fragment B; the apkallu who had the name “Light of An” was the Adapa from fragment D. This explains the curious twin roles between the first and seventh apkallu. It also explains the double name Uandapa, simply expressing this is the first Adapa, named Uan.

And it is to be noted that even though we must assume that this quibbling with versions, roles, and names was Assyrian, it is through the name Uan that the first apkallu is known both in Berossos and in the Uruk list in the Babylonian environment.”

Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, pp. 126-9.


“Reiner numbers the lines 1’-31’, which covers the lines 9-31 in Weiher’s edition. Borger knew Weiher’s work on the Uruk recension of Bīt Mēseri when he translated the text, even though Weiher’s final edition was published afterwards. We will return to the different aspects of the text later.

  • 1-2: Incantation: Uanna, who completed the plans of heaven and earth;

  • 3-4: Uannedugga, who is given broad understanding;

  • 5: Enmedugga, to whom a good fate is decreed;

  • 6: Enmegalamma, who was born in a house;

  • 7: Enmebulugga, who grew up on a river-flat;

  • 8: Anenlilda, the purification priest from Eridu;

  • 9. Utuabzu, who ascended to heaven;

  • 10-11: the pure carps, the carps from the sea, the seven,

  • 12-13: the seven apkallus, born in the river, who keep in order the plans of heaven and earth.

  • 14-15: Nungalpiriggaldim, the apkallu of Enmerkar, who brought down Ištarfrom heaven into the sanctuary;

  • 16-17: Piriggalnungal, born in Kiš, who angered the god Iškur / Adad in heaven,

  • 18-19: so he allowed neither rain nor growth in the land for three years;

  • 20-23:Piriggalabzu, born in Adab / Utab, who hung his seal on a “goat-fish” and thereby angered the god Enki / Ea in the fresh water sea, so that a fuller struck him with his own seal;

  • 24-25: the fourth, Lu-Nanna, two-thirds apkallu,

  • 26-27: who expelled a dragon from É-Ninkiagnunna, the temple of Ištar and Šulgi;

  • 28-29: the four apkallus, of human descent, whom the Lord Enki / Ea has endowed with broad understanding.

(Bīt Mēseri III, 1’-29’).




Now compare this Nimrud bas relief from the Louvre: an ummânū sprinkles water with a mullilu cone in his right hand, holding his banduddu bucket in his left. This ummânū wears bracelets with a concentric circular design, and rosettes are not apparent. This ummânū also wears the common horned headdress of Anu, but with three stacked layers of horns.

As noted elsewhere, this headdress is surmounted by an object that resembles a partial fleur de lis.

From Nimrud, capital of king Ashurnarzipal. Louvre, AO 19845


We have a stable tradition extending over several hundred years about the names and order of the seven apkallus living before the flood. The list in Bīt Mēseri is the oldest one, and is Neo-Assyrian; the list in Berossos is from around 290; the Uruk list is dated to 164 / 165.

It is, however, clear that the Greek text of Berossos’ Babyloniaca is in no way part of a line of transmission. In this respect Berossos is of interest because his list is a witness to a cuneiform textual tradition that existed in Babylon at this time.

It shows, together with the Uruk tablet and the Babylonia recension of Bīt Mēseri, that the list of antediluvian sages did not only belong to the Assyrians, but was adopted by the Babylonians in later centuries.


The names of the apkallus are not as old as the names of the antediluvian kings. They have similarities with the names of known literary works.

(cf. W.W. Hallo, “On the Antiquity of Sumerian Literature,” JAOS 83 (1963): 167-76, 175f.)

Moreover, three of the sages have names constructed of en-me. Three of the kings in the lists have similar constructions: Enmenluanna, Enmegalanna, Enmeduranna(Enmeduranki). These three names can tentatively be translated as follows: “Lord of the me, man of heaven; Lord of the great me, of heaven; Lord of the me, band of heaven.”

(Cf. Kvanvig, Roots of Apocalyptic, 193, note 109 for a suggested translation of the whole Antediluvian King List, based on D. O. Edzard, “Enmebaragesi von Kiš,” ZA(NF) 19 (43) (1959): 9-26, 18.)

Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, pp. 108-10.




“There are known three lists of apkallus, two cuneiform and the one in Berossos. The first known cuneiform list of seven apkallus was published by E. Reiner in 1961, and then reedited with new pieces added by R. Borger in 1974.


Already Reiner suggested that the broken tablet belonged to the Neo-Assyrian incantations series Bīt Mēseri, “protected house.” Borger made clear that the list belonged to the third tablet in this series, and that there are traces of two more lists of a similar kind.

(E. Reiner, “The Etiological Myth of the ‘Seven Sages’,” Orientalia (NS) 30 (1961): 1-11. Borger, “Die Beschwörungsserie Bit Meseri,” 192-3.)



The three types of apkallū are portrayed, with the human ummânū at far left, the bird-apkallū type in the middle, and the antediluvian purādu-fish type at far right. The human ummânū is attested in the Uruk List of Kings and Sages, while other references to bird-apkallū are legion, as documented in Wiggermann and other authorities. The purādu-fish apkallū is principally attested in Berossus, though other authorities confirm them, as well.


There are found two copies of of the apkallu list from Bīt Mēseri in late Babylonia. A. Cavigneaux published a tiny little fragment in 1979. In 1983, E. von Weiher published the transliteration of the full list as part of an Uruk recension of Bīt Mēseri.

The tablets were found in the house of what was most likely a priest specializing in astrology and divination. They can be dated to the 4-3 century, which means about the same time as Berossos wrote his Babyloniaca.


That there existed a Babylonian recension of the apkallu list in Bīt Mēseri is important, because it demonstrates that the tradition contained in this list was not an isolated Assyrian phenomenon.


As already stated, the Antediluvian King List from Uruk, W 20 030, 7, published by van Dijk in 1962, contained both seven kings and seven parallel apkallus. Berossos also paralleled kings and apkallus, but unlike the Uruk tablet it has one apkallu parallel to the first king, a=one to the fourth, four to the sixth, and one to the seventh.


Fish-Apkallū statuettes of the type that were buried in the foundations of buildings. The so-called parādu-fish apkallū were the seven antediluvian sages of Sumeria.

The names of the apkallus and their successions are identical in Bīt Mēseri and the Uruk tablet, with small variations in spelling. We render the names in the Sumerian form they have in the Uruk tablet:

  • Uan

  • Uandugga

  • Enmedugga

  • Enmegalamma

  • Enmebulugga

  • Anenlilda

  • Utuabzu

There is a correspondence to the Greek names in Berossos, but it demands both scholarly quibbling and a bit of creative imagination to explain how exactly the Sumerian words were transformed to Greek ones. We have to bear in mind that it is far from certain that we have Berossos’s own spellings. His text has gone through many hands.

In Bīt Mēseri the list of the seven apkallus is succeeded by a list of four apkallus and built into an incantation. For the sense of convenience we bring here an English translation based on Reiner’s English edition of a part of the list and Weiher’s German edition of the full list.”

Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, pp. 107-8.

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