The story of Etana starts with a dispute between two members of the animal kingdom.
The eagle and the snake
There used to be a tree that formed a home for both a snake and an eagle. Eagles and snakes are natural enemies, and this was not different many years ago. Yet, the eagle and the snake both like the tree so much, that they were willing to overcome their differences.
They asked Utu, the sun god, to act as a mediator between them. He made them sign a pact, swearing peace with Utu as their witness. This made it possible for both of them to live in the tree they loved so much. For years, the two lived in peace. They both found partners and produced offspring. Yet one day, the eagle breaks the pact by eating the snake’s children. The snake, horrified that his friend eats his kids, calls on Utu to get justice.
Never eat your friends
Utu informs him that there is a dead bull lying close by, and tells the snake to hide in the cadaver. When the eagle lands on the cadaver to feed on it, the snake is able to capture him.
In some versions, the eagle is stripped of his wings and talons by Utu and the snake. In others, they only cast him down into a pit. Whatever version, the ending is the same. The eagle is trapped in the pit and is sentenced to die from thirst and famine.
Aside from settling animal disputes, Utu is asked for help by Etana, who is the King of Kish. Just like any Mesopotamian King, Etana is an extraordinary human, who is rumored to have ruled over Kish for 1560 years. But even extraordinary Kings need the help of the Gods sometimes, as Etana is still in need of a son and heir.
The plant of fertility
Utu listens to Etana’s plea for help and decides to make a deal with the King. He explains that Etana needs to rescue the eagle from the pit, so that he can take the King to the Plant of Birth. Most likely, this plant would have special properties to help him get his son. This is an interesting event, as it was Utu who helped punish the eagle in the first place. Utu further explains that the eagle will help Etana find the Plant of Birth in the heaven of Anu, the supreme god.
And so Etana rescues the eagle from the pit. Grateful for his help, the eagle tells him to hop on to his back and beats his wings to take the two of them up into the sky. They keep ascending further into the clouds until Etana is unable to see the Earth’s surface below. Frightened, he tells the eagle to take him back down.
Back on Earth, Etana falls asleep and dreams of the heaven of Anu. He dreams of many different places, as the heavens are divided into different regions for the different gods that live up there. He sees himself bowing for the gods, together with his new friend, the eagle.
Unfortunately, this is where the story ends. The rest of the story has been lost as the tablets on which this story was written down have been severely damaged.
One must wonder, however, that Etana most likely did get back on the Eagle after waking up. They must have had a legendary journey through the heavens, maybe even encountering a couple of the gods. They must have succeeded at finding the Plant of Birth successfully, before descending back to Earth. And probably, after making a sacrifice to Utu, the eagle must have taken off to become a vegetarian, swearing to never eat his friends’ kids again.
Why do we think that this is the most likely outcome of the story? For the simple reason that Etana did end up having a son. After ruling for 1560 years, he was succeeded by this son, Balih, who ended up ruling for 400 years.