The gods and mythology of Mesopotamia, like with other cultures throughout the world, can be reflected in their location. For the Mesopotamians, their existence was precarious to say the least. Not only did they fear the flooding of the rivers that they depended on to fertilize the lands, but they were also in constant fear from hostile neighbours who threatened to invade. It is no wonder then that the myths and deities from this location tend to portray life as a constant struggle between life and death, good versus evil.
Floods are a reoccurring theme in mythology; they reflect the ambiguous nature of the relationship between humanity and water, a vital component in life, but which also threatened to destroy and devastate. In Mesopotamia, the rivers Tigris and Euphrates were the life-force of the land but flooded unpredictably. It is their fearsome nature, and the gods associated with them that are expressed in Mesopotamian mythology.
One such water deity was the Phoenician god Yamm (also spelt Yam or Jamm). He was the god of the sea and of water in general, as can be seen in his titles ‘Prince Sea’ and ‘Prince River’.
In his most famous myth, Yamm goes before the supreme god, El on the heights of Mount Saphon before an assembly of the other gods, and demanded that a house be built for himself, a request which El meekly grants, to the outrage of the goddess Astarte who insists it is was an attempt to unseat Prince Baal, heir to the throne. Yamm leaves but later sent two messengers to El demanding that Baal be enslaved to him.
To the surprise of the other gods, El agreed with the request. Baal then equipped himself with magical, divine weapons which were made by the smith gods and made ready to battle the water god. In the fight, Baal eventually won and killed Yamm, and then proceeded to scatter his remains. One translation of the myth states,
“The club swoops in the hand of Ba’al
Like an eagle from between his fingers
It strikes the pate of Prince Yamm
Between the eyes of Judge Nahar
He falls to the ground
His joints bend
His frame breaks
Ba’al would rend, would smash Yamm
Would annihilate Judge Nahar”.
There is another version in which Yamm was not killed but still defeated. In compensation, El gave him the goddess Astarte as his wife.
The myth of Yamm and Baal symbolises the chaotic forces of nature being overturned by its civilizing aspect, which ensures the fertility of the land, allowing the crops to grow once more. If stability is to be established, if creation is to take place, if the world is to be set on organization, chaos must be conquered by the power of order. The first stage of creation must, consequently, finish with the defeat of the unrestrained power of chaos, and this means the subjugation of Yamm, the personification of chaos in this myth.
Jacobsen, Thorkild (1968) The Battle Between Marduk and Tiamat, Journal of the American Oriental Society, American Oriental Society.
Starr, Omega Means (1973) A Search for the Identity of Yamm ‘Prince Sea,’ of the Canaanite Baal and Anath Cycle, Folklore, Taylor & Francis on behalf of Folklore