Four thousand years and two thousand miles separate these images of seven-headed beasts. One is Christian, the other, Sumerian. Nevertheless, they are bound by an enduring tradition of Near Eastern religious beliefs and symbols.

The Italian fresco at right, painted in 1393 by Giusto di Giovanni Menabuoi for the Baptistery of the Cathedral of Padua, represents the fearsome Beast of the Book of Revelation 12:1–9, who will be slain by the archangel Michael:

“A great red dragon, with seven heads…stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations…And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan.”

To modern eyes, the plaque below may appear to depict the same seven-headed dragon of Revelation; the kneeling warrior, who has already severed the beast’s lowest, drooping head, would represent Michael. But the plaque predates the Book of Revelation by 2,500 years. The 1.5-inch shell inlay, which comes from Mesopotamia, dates to the Sumerian Early Dynastic period (c. 2800–2600 B.C.E.). It is believed to illustrate the Sumerian deity Ninurta slaying the seven-headed serpent, musð sag-imin. The plaque, which is housed in the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, comes from the collection of Elie Borowski.

Ninurta, son of the divine king, Enlil, was the protagonist of several Sumerian myths, which portray him as a celestial savior. The details differ, but the plot is the same: A terrible monster is taking over the world and threatening the kingdom of heaven. Nobody, it seems, can oppose the beast, until the young prince Ninurta is sent against him. Ninurta confronts the beast on a mountain and slays it. He then returns to his celestial home, where he receives a place of honor beside his father. In one of the myths, Ninurta creates a new world after his victory. Another describes his triumphal return to heaven, with the seven-headed snake among his trophies.

Mesopotamian kings emulated Ninurta as the defender of the divine world order; princes who restored order in chaotic situations were regarded as his incarnation. The enemies they fought were not just political opponents, such as rebels and wicked kings, but any enemies of the divine order—demons, diseases, vice and sins. The symbolism of the seven-headed serpent is not known, but it may have represented the Sumerian equivalent of the seven cardinal sins (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed gluttony, lust). Having completed their mission, the human saviors, like their divine paragon Ninurta, “returned” to heavenly glory; they were thought to ascend to heaven after death.

As a central component of Mesopotamian religion and royal ideology, the Ninurta myth spread throughout the ancient Near East. Several local gods, both in Mesopotamia and neighboring areas, gradually acquired features of Ninurta. The god’s fight against the seven-headed dragon is reflected in Yahweh’s fight against the Leviathan (Psalm 74), who is sometimes said to have seven heads, and the Greek hero Heracles’s fight against the many-headed Hydra.

More importantly, the figure of Ninurta lives on in the archangel Michael, “the Great Prince” of Jewish apocryphal and mystical texts. Like Ninurta, Michael was portrayed as the helper of the sick, the vanquisher of the dragon and its army, the holder of the scales of judgment and the celestial savior. The seven-headed dragon and other beasts of Revelation provide a direct link with the millennial tradition of Sumerian mythology, a tradition that has survived—although often unrecognized—until today.