The word abgal is likely a compound of the Sumerian words "father, elder" and "great" and thus would translate as "great elder." The Akkadians modified the pronunciation somewhat into apkallu. In Greek texts, the Abgal are known as Annedoti. The derivation of the latter word is uncertain.
Known as wise sages, the Abgal are often mentioned as a group of seven. Although mentioned in Sumerian fragments, most of what we know of the Abgal comes from Akkadian, latter Mesopotamian and Greek texts. They were said to have come from the sea, and to return there at night. The Greek texts mention specifically the Erythraen Sea. They are also portrayed in sculpture and described in the texts as part fish and part human. Enki, the Lord of the Apsu under Mt. Mashu, is also said to rule over the Abgal.
The Akkadian texts give the following names for the seven Abgal:
Adapa (Greek Oannes)
The Seven Sages were particularly associated with the Me the canon for each of the Sumerian arts, crafts and sciences. When Gilgamesh brought the boatman Urshanabi to Uruk, he asked the latter to check to verify that that city was indeed layed out according to the Me of the Seven Abgal. The Me for the temples, for example, would specify that they should be formed as rectangular stepped truncated pyramids.
In the story of Apapa, the first abgal, he is described as a fisherman who one day falls into the sea after his boat capsizes. He takes up residence with the fishes after this incidence. Stephen Oppenheimer believes such explanations and also those referring to the abgal returning to the sea at night may hint at "extreme" maritime adaptation. Sea nomads, for example, sleep on their ships at sea during the night.
The concept of fish-like beings or fishermen as teachers and priests extends far beyond Sumer in both time and space.
Dalley, Stephanie, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood,
Gilgamesh and others, Oxford Univ. Press, 1991.
Oppenheimer, Stephen, Eden in the East: Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia, London: Phoenix, 1999.
Paul Kekai Manansala