It’s unknown when exactly the Poem of Erra was written, but probably sometime between 1124BC to 652BC in response to one of the Sutian aggressions against Babylon. A lot of the introduction is devoted to arguing that this should not be called the Epic of Erra. The hero of the poem doesn’t fit the profile of a hero found in other epics, it’s too short to be an epic, etc.
The poem was widely distributed throughout all of Mesopotamia in a short period of time, so it was probably a religious text. We also know that it was used as an amulet to ward off evil and was used in exorcisms. Unfortunately, much of the poem is lost.
Erra is presented as a malevolent god who becomes a benevolent god by the end when Išum manages to change his mind. It’s unknown if Erra is meant to be the same god as Nergal since the two are sometimes equated, but sometimes talked about as if they are two different gods. Marduk is portrayed as an old senile god who is easily tricked by Erra.
The Sibitti, the fierce weapons of Erra, are 7 wicked gods which act as a singular unit. We’re told “their breath is death” (I.25) Also,
The first has no equal in spreading terror.
The second burns like a fire.
The third has a lion-like aspect. He dies who looks at him.
The fourth can raze a mountain to the ground with his weapons.
The fifth blows like the wind, can disrupt the orbit of the world.
The sixth strikes both upper and lower classes, sparing nobody.
The seventh kills all that live with viper venom.
Erra is urged to use the Sibitti to punish humanity for refusing to serve the gods. “May the herds of men shake and be turned into clay again.” (I.74) The Sibitti urge Erra to stop being lazy and battle humans for not worshipping him. “Cobwebs are spun upon our war equipment.” (I.88) “Through lack of slaughter our sword has put on rust.” (I.91) Gods love deathly silence so they can sleep, but the humans are making too much noise.
Erra is convinced and asks Išum to lead the way. Išum tries to talk him out of it. Erra won’t listen. “On earth, I am the lion.” (I.109) “In the reed thicket, I am the fire.” (I.113) He goes to see Marduk.
Marduk’s attire (the decorations and jewelry on his statue) is dirtied. The statue of a god is seen as the god himself. (When a statue is stolen by an enemy, the people thought the god was no longer protecting them.) Marduk refers to the time he rose from his seat and caused the deluge because men had allowed his attire to dim. “I got angry. I rose from my seat and contrived the deluge.” (I.132) “And the sky, lo!, it shook. The stations of the stars in the sky were altered, and I did not bring them back to their positions.” (I.134)
The waters will swell and devastate the country.
The shining day will turn into deep darkness.
The storm will rise and blot out the stars in the sky.
The malign wind will blow and obscure the eyesight of men.
Marduk wants his statue refurbished, but lacks the materials. Erra offers to obtain them. Marduk says chaos will occur if he leaves his chair to purify his garments. Erra offers to rule during this time and keep everything under control. Marduk agrees.
Marduk goes to the underworld where his attire is cleansed. Meanwhile, Erra plans to destroy the world.
I shall quench the glory of the beams of the sun.
In the night, I shall cover the face of the moon.
(Tablet II, Fragment C, 14-15)
Remove the clouds, do away with snow and rain.
To Marduk and to Ea I shall bring the news.
He who extolled himself on the days of plenty will be buried on a day of drought.
He who came water-borne will be forced to go back on a dusty road.
(Tablet II, Fragment C,17-20)
In Tablet III, Išum rebukes Erra. Erra defends his actions. He’s just punishing humans who deserve it like Marduk did when he caused the flood. The footnotes provide extra information to the references that get made. For example, (An)zu is a bird with a lion’s head. A hierodule is a kind of temple prostitute. Throughout the poem, humans are referred to as “dark-headed people.” (Does this mean they thought of the gods as blond?) I like a lot of the imagery and poetry such as when Išum says Erra holds the nose-rope of heaven, guiding it like a bull.
In Tablet IV, Išum upbraids Erra for destroying Marduk’s city Babylon, which is the knot of the universe holding the world together. Išum accuses him of wanting to take Marduk’s place.
He who knows nothing of weapons, his sword is unsheathed.
He who knows nothing of shafts, his bow is tensed.
He who knows nothing of fighting, does battle.
Destruction continues to be recounted in a poetic way such as this passage concerning drought:
Even if one departs from the pier, may he cross on foot.
Even if the cistern is a cord deep, may not a single man slack his thirst.
In the expanse of the broad sea, water for a double hundred hours, may they propel the fisherman’s boat with the pole.
Ištar makes a cameo appearance to destroy a city by flooding. “Ištar was angered and was wrathful against Uruk.” (IV.61) She roused the enemy and swept away the country like grain on the surface of the water.
I want breasts to so dry up that babies won’t survive.
I want to silt up springs so that the little canals will not carry the water of abundance.
Finally, with Erra’s blessing, Išum destroys the real villains, the Sutians.
He destroyed the cities and turned them into deserts.
He leveled the mountains and slaughtered their herds.
He convulsed the seas and made their yield vanish.
He devastated reed and rush thickets and burned them like fire.
He cursed the herds and turned them back into clay.
In Tablet V, Erra admits he got carried away, slaying both good and evil alike. Išum’s words finally appease him. Erra wants Bablylon to grow strong again and overthrow the Sutians. In the epilogue, the author, Kabti-ilāni-Marduk, identifies himself. He claims the poem came to him in a dream directly from Erra himself and he promises good fortune to all who distribute it. So basically, this is a three-thousand-year-old chain letter. I loved the poetry of it, though.