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Berossos and Chimeras

” … The point is rather that he ex­ploited convergences between Greek and Mesopotamian thought so as to present himself as the kind of man whom Hellenistic Greek audiences would have recognized as σοφός, ‘wise’, or φιλόσοφος, ‘a lover of wisdom’.

In pursuit of this goal, Berossos seems to have proceeded eclectically, one might even say, opportunistically. His account of Tiamat’s army is telling in this regard. As expected, Berossos takes inspiration from the Enūma Eliš.

But he lists many creatures that are not found in the Babylonian epic, and some at least seem specifically added to appeal to a Greek audience. What is more, Berossos fundamentally changes the tone and overall meaning of the original, transforming the list of Tiamat’s monsters into a piece of philosophical speculation in the vein of Empedocles:

(It is said that) many creatures with two faces and two chests came into being, offspring of cows, with human prows, and others again growing forth with human physique and the head of oxen, mixed beings, partly equipped with female and partly with male members (Empedocles F61 DK).

Berossos’ account offers some remarkable similarities:

There was a time, he says, when everything was [darkness and] water and that in it fabulous beings with peculiar forms came to life. For men with two wings were born and some with four wings and two faces, having one body and two heads, male and female, and double genitalia, male and female.

Other men were born, some having the legs and the horns of goats, others with the feet of horses. Yet others had the hind parts of horses, but the foreparts of men, and were hippocentaurs in form.

Bulls were also engendered having the heads of men as well as four-bodied dogs having the tails of a fish from their hind parts, dog-headed horses and men and other beings having heads and bodies of horses, but tails of fish and still other beings having forms of all sorts of wild animals.

In addition to these, there were fish and reptiles and snakes and many other marvellous creatures differing in appearance from one another. Images of these were also set up in the temple of Belos.

The parallels between Empedocles and Berossos are glaring (bull-men, two-faced crea­tures, gender confusion, etc.), but can we seriously entertain the possibility that Berossos responded to Presocratic philosophy?

The Burney Relief, Babylon (1800-1750 BCE). A portrayal of Ishtar or Ereshkigal. In line with the descriptions of Berossos, this goddess has wings and owl's feet.  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/Burney_Relief_Babylon_-1800-1750.JPG

The Burney Relief, Babylon (1800-1750 BCE). A portrayal of Ishtar or Ereshkigal.
In line with the descriptions of Berossos, this goddess has wings and owl’s feet.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/Burney_Relief_Babylon_-1800-1750.JPG

Allowing ourselves to contemplate this question can be a salutary exercise, but it need be no more than that: Berossos did not have to read Empedocles in order to learn about spontaneous generation. For that is what is at issue here: like Empedocles and others before him, Berossos presents his monsters as spontaneously sprung from primordial moisture: what was theogonic myth in Enūma Eliš becomes for him a question of physics.

And a hotly debated question at that: Empedocles always remained associated with the idea of primordial monsters, but already Aristotle built it into a much more far-reaching argument about purpose in nature.

[ … ]

A depiction of Nergal, patron god of Kutha.

A depiction of Nergal, patron god of Kutha.

Apollonius exploits the fact that early monsters were a source of ‘wonder’ (θάμβος), an idea which recalls Berossos’ emphasis on the miraculous nature of Tiamat’s creatures (τερατώδη, θαυμαστά). At a fairly basic level, this kind of thing was good box office.

A bas relief in the Louvre.  I am unsure what to make of these eagle-headed entities. Some old sources claim that they portray Asshur.  Others call them "genies," and note that they have wings, which is an indicator of divinity.  In this case the being tends to a tree of life, or tree of knowledge.  This bas relief is in the Louvre.  Primary publicationNimrud NW Palace I-24 = RIMA 2.0.101.023, ex. 189 (f) Collection	Nimrud, Iraq (a); British Museum, London, UK (b); Louvre Museum, Paris, France (c); Nimrud, Iraq (d); Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, USA (e); British Museum, London, UK; Louvre Museum, Paris, France (f); unlocated (g) Museum no.	Nimrud fragment no. 42 (a); BM 098061 (b); AO 22198 (c); Nimrud fragment no. 43 and 45 (d); DIA 47.181 (e) (photo: DIA); AO 19849 (f); unlocated (g) Accession no.	1903-10-10, 0002 (b) Provenience	Kalhu (mod. Nimrud) Excavation no.	 Period	Neo-Assyrian (ca. 911-612 BC) Dates referenced	Assurnasirpal2.00.00.00 Object type	other (see object remarks) Remarks	slab, relief Material	stone: limestone Language	Akkadian Overview at

I am unsure what to make of these eagle-headed entities. Some old sources claim that they portray Asshur.
Others call them “genies,” and note that they have wings, which is an indicator of divinity.
In this case the being tends to a tree of life, or tree of knowledge.
This bas relief is in the Louvre.
Primary publication Nimrud NW Palace I-24 = RIMA 2.0.101.023, ex. 189 (f)
Collection Nimrud, Iraq (a); British Museum, London, UK (b); Louvre Museum, Paris, France (c); Nimrud, Iraq (d); Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, USA (e); British Museum, London, UK; Louvre Museum, Paris, France (f); unlocated (g)
Museum no. Nimrud fragment no. 42 (a); BM 098061 (b); AO 22198 (c); Nimrud fragment no. 43 and 45 (d); DIA 47.181 (e) (photo: DIA); AO 19849 (f); unlocated (g)
Accession no. 1903-10-10, 0002 (b)
Provenience Kalhu (mod. Nimrud)
Period Neo-Assyrian (ca. 911-612 BC)
Dates referenced Assurnasirpal2.00.00.00
Material stone: limestone
Language Akkadian
Overview at <http://cdli.ucla.edu/projects/nimrud/index.html&gt;

Yet, we have seen that primordial monsters also had a more serious philosophical point. Apart from Aristotle, the Epicureans too grappled with the legacy of Empedocles’ idea, accepting spontaneous generation as an important part of their non-teleological account of the universe, but reject­ing some of its more extravagant implications.”

Johannes Haubold, “The Wisdom of the Chaldaeans: Reading Berossos, Babyloniaca Book 1,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 37-9.

The Priest of Bel was Actually a Greek Philosopher

“Clearly, we need to allow for the possibility that some of these apparent similarities are fortuitous, just as we also need to allow for historically grown similarities between Ancient Greek and Mesopotamian thought: after all, these two cultures had long been part of the same Eastern Mediterranean world.

But there are at least two reasons for believing that Berossos really did cast himself as a philosopher in the vein of a Zeno. First, his reading of the Enūma Eliš was not the only possible one, nor was Berossos the first to isolate cosmic principles from the poem.

A generation or so earlier, Aristotle’s pupil Eudemos of Rhodes had already had access to a Greek text of the Enūma Eliš and had taken it to encapsulate the principles of Babylonian philosophy as follows:

Among the barbarians, the Babylonians appear to pass over the idea of a single principle in silence and instead to assume two principles of the universe, Tauthe (~ Tiamat) and Apason (~ Apsu), making Apason the husband of Tauthe, and calling her the mother of the gods.

Of these was born an only-begotten son, Moumis (~ Mummu) who, it seems, brought about the intelligible universe from the two first principles.

The same parents also gave rise to another generation, Dache and Dachos (~ Lahmu and Lahamu); and yet another, Kissare and Assoros (~ Kišar and Anšar), who in turn had three sons, Anos (~ Anu), Illinos (~ Ellil) and Aos (~ Ea).

Aos and Dauke (~ Damkina) begot a son called Bel who they say is the demiurge.

Like Berossos, Eudemos reads the Enūma Eliš as an account of physics and singles out two cosmic principles, one male one female.

However, unlike Berossos he identifies these principles with Tiamat and Apsu, rather than Tiamat and Bel, and focuses on the opening genealogy of the gods rather than on tablets 4-6 of Enūma Eliš, which describe the battle among the gods and the creation of the world and man.

Tiamat and Bel-Marduk

Segell cilíndric i la seva impressió, representant una escena mitològica: Asshur atacant un monstre és aclamat per una deessa. Segles IX-VIII aC
http://ca.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asshur#/media/File:Cylinder_seal_mythology_Louvre_AO30255.jpg
British Museum 89589.
A black serpentinite cylinder seal portrays a snout-nosed, horned Tiamat as a dragon.
A bearded god, Ninurta or Bel-Marduk, runs along the reptile’s body with crossed, wedge-tipped quivers on his back. In his right hand he holds a six-pronged thunderbolt below which is a rhomb, while in his left he holds two arrows.
Behind the god, a smaller bearded god in a horned head-dress holds a spear.
On the tail of the dragon stands a goddess, to the left of her head is the eight-rayed star of Istar and the inverted crescent of the Moon God Sin.
The seal may illustrate a scene from the epic of creation in which the forces of chaos, led by Tiamat, are defeated by a god representing cosmic order, Ninurta, or Bel-Marduk.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=159863&objectId=277961&partId=1

Judging by Polyhistor’s summary, Berossos seems to have skipped over those early genealogies; or at least to have shifted the main weight of his paraphrase elsewhere. It may seem hazardous to argue from absence in a text as badly mutilated as the Babyloniaca.

However, the entire thrust of Polyhistor’s narrative, including the framing account of Oannes, seems to suggest that the primordial soup of BNJ680 F lb(6), and the monsters in it, really did come first.

There is another feature of Berossos’ narrative which sets him apart from Eudemos: he translates the names of Babylonian deities into their Greek equivalents rather than merely transliterating them. Unlike his forerunner, Berossos was clearly interested in making his account accessible — and meaningful — to a wider Greek audience.

This leads me to my sec­ond reason for thinking that Berossos was quite actively modelling himself on contemporary Greek philosophers like Zeno, and that is his method of reading myth, as encapsulated in the phrase, ‘but he says that this amounts to an allegorical account of physics’.

The phrasing here has been deemed late, though Demetrius, On Style, already uses similar language, and Zeno’s pupil and successor as head of the Stoa, Cleanthes, may have done too.

Whether or not Berossos actually said άλληγορικώζ πεφυσιολογήσθαι, the sentiment is clearly his — for he must be the one who translated Omorka/Tiamat into Greek θάλασσα, hardly a fully fledged mythological character in the Greek imagination.

More generally, the entire thrust of his reading of Enūma Eliš seems to me to be self-evidently rationalising, and, in a rather loose sense of the word, allegorising too.”

Johannes Haubold, “The Wisdom of the Chaldaeans: Reading Berossos, Babyloniaca Book 1,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 35-7.

Babyloniaca Book 1

“What, then, does it mean for Berossos to introduce himself as a Babylonian, and a priest of Bel? The question may seem odd, for it suggests a choice which prima facie Berossos did not have: was he not simply stating a fact?

And yet, I shall argue that Berossos did have a choice as to how he presented himself, and that both his profession as a priest and his self-portrayal as a Babylonian can be read as examples of carefully calibrated role play.

Let us first have a look at ethnicity. As a Babylonian, Berossos was a barbarian in Greek eyes, and broadly speaking that was not an auspicious starting point. Yet, non-Greek cultures could also carry more positive connotations.

By the Hellenistic period, Greek intellectuals had become accustomed to regard barbarian priests as commanding a privileged knowledge of history. Berossos very directly plays on that stereotype when he rejects the untruths spread by ‘Greek writers’ in Babyloniaca Book 3.

Greek readers would have appreciated that, as a priest of Bel, Berossos was in a good position to set the record straight; though the gesture would have had little resonance in a purely Mesopotamian context.

Indeed, we now know that from a Mesopotamian perspective there was no such thing as ‘a priest of Bel’ in Babylon, though there was of course a wide range of personnel associated with the main temple of Marduk, the Esagila.

Berossos, then, does not simply state a neutral fact when he introduces himself as a Babylonian and a priest of Bel. Rather, he masquerades as a figure from Greek oriental­ising lore so as to lodge a very specific claim to cultural authority: Babylonian priests (‘Chaldaeans’, as they were known), were not just seen as masters of time but also as sources of esoteric knowledge, essentially a society of proto-philosophers.

That cliche, I suggest, informs Berossos’ paraphrase of Enūma Eliš in Babyloniaca Book 1.

Battle between Marduk (Bel) and Tiamat. Drawn from a bas-relief from the Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal, King of Assyria, 885-860 B.C., at Nimrûd. British Museum, Nimrûd Gallery, Nos. 28 and 29. http://bharatkalyan97.blogspot.com/2013/06/tablet-of-destinies.html

Battle between Marduk (Bel) and Tiamat. Drawn from a bas-relief from the Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal, King of Assyria, 885-860 B.C., at Nimrûd.
British Museum, Nimrûd Gallery, Nos. 28 and 29.
http://bharatkalyan97.blogspot.com/2013/06/tablet-of-destinies.html

In his account of creation, Berossos describes the universe as being created from two main forces, Tiamat and BelTiamat provides the matter from which Bel shapes all things. She is female, he is male; she is passive, he is active; she is chaotic, dark and watery, he is orderly, active, bright and airy.

In Babylonian terms, this is not a bad paraphrase of Enūma Eliš, though it skips over the opening genealogies and radically condenses the rest of the narrative. Much of this work of condensation will be down to Alexander Polyhistor, the first-century BCE excerptor who had little incentive to preserve details of Berossos’ account that did not suit his sensationalist agenda.

British Museum 89589. A black serpentinite cylinder seal in the linear style portrays a snout-nosed, horned reptile, probably Tiamat as a dragon. The upper third of its long body rises from two front paws or hands, one of which is raised; the remainder of the body runs around the bottom of the seal and supports three figures; there are no hind legs.  A bearded god, Ninurta or Bel-Marduk, runs along the reptile's body with crossed, wedge-tipped quivers on his back. In his right hand he holds a six-pronged thunderbolt below which is a rhomb, while in his left he holds two arrows.  Behind the god, a smaller bearded god in a horned head-dress holds a spear before him.  On the tail of the reptile stands a goddess, who holds her arms open to seize the snout of the reptile.  To the left of her head is the eight-rayed star of Istar and the inverted crescent of the Moon God Sin.  The seal may illustrate a scene from the epic of creation in which the forces of chaos, led by Tiamat, are defeated by a god representing cosmic order, Ninurta, or Bel-Marduk.  © The Trustees of the British Museum http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=159863&objectId=277961&partId=1

British Museum 89589.
A black serpentinite cylinder seal in the linear style portrays a snout-nosed, horned reptile, probably Tiamat as a dragon. The upper third of its long body rises from two front paws or hands, one of which is raised; the remainder of the body runs around the bottom of the seal and supports three figures; there are no hind legs.
A bearded god, Ninurta or Bel-Marduk, runs along the reptile’s body with crossed, wedge-tipped quivers on his back. In his right hand he holds a six-pronged thunderbolt below which is a rhomb, while in his left he holds two arrows.
Behind the god, a smaller bearded god in a horned head-dress holds a spear before him.
On the tail of the reptile stands a goddess, who holds her arms open to seize the snout of the reptile.
To the left of her head is the eight-rayed star of Istar and the inverted crescent of the Moon God Sin.
The seal may illustrate a scene from the epic of creation in which the forces of chaos, led by Tiamat, are defeated by a god representing cosmic order, Ninurta, or Bel-Marduk.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=159863&objectId=277961&partId=1

But even the truncated version of Babyloniaca Book 1 which Polyhistor passed on to Eusebius still betrays signs of Berossos’ original ap­proach. What Berossos seems to have done in Babyloniaca Book 1 is to extract two cosmic principles from the jumble of divine characters in Enūma Eliš.

The resulting account of creation strikingly resembles Stoic physics as formulated by Berossos’ contemporary Zeno of Citium. For Zeno too, the universe was based on two entities, matter and god.

Like Bel in Berossos, Zeno’s god was active, male, the shaping principle that pervaded matter; and like Berossos’ Tiamat, Stoic matter was passive, female, waiting to be dissected and moulded.

Sceptics may object that this convergence between Berossos and Zeno may as well be pure coincidence; after all, there are only so many ways one can imagine a cosmogony, and the opposition between Marduk and Tiamat was of course prefigured in Enūma Eliš itself.”

Johannes Haubold, “The Wisdom of the Chaldaeans: Reading Berossos, Babyloniaca Book 1,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 34-5.

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