Dilmun and Punt: Two Mythical Origins for Two Early Civilizations (Part I)

Archaeology is about examining the material remains of the human past, often in hopes of learning something of the origins of civilizations in antiquity: where did they come from? why did they leave there? what motivated them to seek a new home? -these are but a few questions that archaeologists and cultural historians work with when looking at the earliest civilizations.

In this series, I’m going to examine two of the earliest civilizations of the Near East, both of which have fascinated me for some time. Specifically, I’ll look at the Sumerian and Egyptian cultures and their legends of mystical places of origin: Dilmun and Punt. In this first post, I’ll discuss the myths, legends and stories surrounding the two and I invite others to comment.

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography


Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) evidence has demonstrated the human propensity to migrate beginning at around 30,000 to 45,000 years ago, coinciding with the artifactual evidence of cultural change. In regions like the Indus Valley, Central Europe and Mesoamerica migrations and population density were influenced by climate and catastrophe and demographic reorganization in response to these pressures resulted in various instances of successes in the form of the rise of complex civilization or failures in the form of societal collapse.

It follows, then, that populations of the Near East experienced cycles of diffusion and migration as they evolved into sedentary and complex societies. It may even follow that this diffusion and migration may have had some common points of origin following the peak of the Würm glaciation around 18,000-16,000 BCE as climate changed from dry to wet conditions and sea levels began to rise as the glaciers melted, potentially displacing coastal and riverine populations. Since these migrations would have occurred prior to the advent of writing, evidence would need to be looked for by tracing artifacts to points of origin or following motif patterns that can be traced from culture to culture. But both of these could also have explanations involving trade and diffusion between adjacent cultures. Another line of evidence that could be followed might be strontium isotope analysis of human remains, which can reveal geographic regions that an individual spent time in over his life. The number of bones and teeth available to analyze become exponentially decreased the further back in time one looks, however, due to preservation problems and lower population densities, and this type of analysis only looks at the origin and travels of the individual in his lifetime not migrational trends spanning generations.

Still another line of evidence that could be examined, albeit one that is more subjective and includes more induction than deduction, is the examination of early written texts since there is some indication that the earliest accounts of myths and stories have origins in oral traditions. Among the earliest literate societies is that of the Egyptian and the Sumerian. Both have legends, myths and stories that speak of distant lands that may have been the origin of their people; lands that are considered holy and sacred; and lands that are the subject of trade and considered in high regard. Those lands are Dilmun and Punt of Sumerian and Egyptian legends respectively.

Mythical References

The earliest mythical references to Dilmun are Sumerian and found in cuneiform texts known today by the titles: Enki and Ninhursag, Enki and the World Order, Enki and Nanna-Suen, Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living, and the Myth of Ziusudra.

In the myth of Enki and Ninhursag Dilmun is referred to as:

“the pure clean and bright land of the living, the garden of the Great Gods and Earthly paradise, located eastward in Eden, was the place where Ninhursag-Ki, the Earth Mother, Most Exalted Lady and Supreme Queen, could be found.”

The same story also refers to Dilmun as being, “blessed by Enki with everlasting agricultural and trade superiority, for through its waterways and quays, fruits and grains were sold and exchanged by the people of Dilmun and beyond” and as a “holy” place. In this myth, Enki created all the canals that irrigated the crops of the people as the “Sweet Waters god.”

In Enki and the World Order, Dilmun is mentioned alongside Magan and Meluhha as trading partners with boats from Dilmun being filled with wood, suggesting that Dilmun was a place of plentiful trees. The word “kur” is used before Dilmun, which has various meanings in Sumerian and Akkadian including land, country, hill and mountain. Dilmun is regularly mentioned in Sumerian mythology alongside Magan and Meluhha, which are referred to as south of Sumer.

In one of the tablets that reveals the Myth of Ziusudra, Dilmun is referred to as “the mountain of crossing, the mountain of Dilmun, the place where the sun rises.” And Kramer (1944) attributes the “land of the living” in Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living as being Dilmun, since it is also referred to in the poem as, “land of the cedars” and “as a land whose ‘creature’ is the sun-god Utu, which Kramer feels he has demonstrated to be references to Dilmun.

Punt is similarly referred to in Egyptian texts as “the Land of God” and as a place “to the East” where expeditions could be sent for specialty goods including gold, copper, myrrh, exotic animals, and staves or rods for spears since there were few good sources for these along the Nile. It was also called the “land of beginning” and the “country of first existence,” and Breasted (1906a, p. 117) notes that the ancient Egyptians may have viewed this as their ancestral homeland. Punt is mentioned in the Tale of a Shipwrecked Sailor, which describes a sailor marooned on a mystical island where he meets a serpent that identifies himself as “the Prince of Punt.” This prince helps the sailor on his way, returning the sailor and his new found riches to Egypt in a two-month boat journey.

Both Punt and Dilmun are referred to in their respective myths as holy places and being to the east. Both are places of trade and are revered as being ancestral homelands. Both are given mystical and Utopian status and spoken of in myth with respect. And both are considered to be the “land of the god(s).” Punt, unfortunately isn’t written of nearly to the degree that Dilmun is, but its allure is, perhaps, equally mysterious and appealing to those of both antiquity and modernity.

In the next part, which I’ll post in a day or so, I’ll discuss archaeological remains associated with Dilmun and Punt in Mesopotamian and Egyptian contexts. I’ll also briefly describe the geologic considerations associated with each.

In the final part, I’ll conclude with a discussion and a bibliography of the sources I used.

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography