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The Sexual Mingling of Gods and Humans

“Flavius Joseph noted in his Jewish Antiquities the affinities between Genesis 6:1-4 and Greek traditions: “In fact the deeds that tradition ascribes to them resemble the audacious exploits told by the Greeks of the giants.”

The sexual encounters between Greek gods and human women (and also between Greek goddesses and human men) are a common topic in Greek mythology. A work almost wholly devoted to this theme is the fragmentary Catalogue of Women, a work of the seventh or sixth century BCE, though drawing on earlier traditions. (M.L. West, The Hasidic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins, Oxford, 1985; Ludwig Koenen, “Greece, the Near East, and Egypt: Cyclic Destruction in Hesiod and the Catalogue of Women,” TAPA 124 (1994), pp. 1-34.)

It begins with an invocation to the Muses: “Sing now of the tribe of women … who unfasten their waistbands … in union with gods.” (R. Merkelbach and M.L. West, eds., Fragmenta Hesiodea (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), pp. 3-4. Fragment I)

At the beginning of this account, gods and mortals mingled and feasted together, a proximity that led to their sexual unions.

The Catalogue seems to conclude with a fragment that describes the end of this era of divine-human intimacy. Zeus conceives a plan to send a great destruction–the Trojan War–to bring to an end the easy mingling of gods and humans.

“For at that time high-thundering Zeus was planning tremendous deeds, stirring up <quarrel> throughout the boundless earth. For now he was hastening to annihilate the greater part of the human race as a pretext to destroy the lives of the demigods.”

(Merckelbach-West, Fragmenta Hesiodea, 101-2).

It is not entirely clear what Zeus’ intentions are, since it is impossible (depending on some restorations in the following fragmentary lines) that he does not actually destroy the demigods but rather removes them to an idyllic existence in the Islands of the Blessed, as happens in Hesiod’s Works and Days. (H.G. Evelyn-White, Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica (LCL: Cambridge, 1914), pp. 199-201.)

In any case, as L. Koenen observes, “he brings to an end the age of social and sexual intercourse between gods and mortal women.” (See Ludwig Koenen, “Greece, the Near East, and Egypt: Cyclic Destruction in Hesiod and the Catalogue of Women,” TAPA 124 (1994), p. 30).

This fragment, as scholars have noted, is remarkably similar to Genesis 6:1-4, particularly in the latter’s context as a prelude to the Flood story. (Ronald Hendel, “Of Demigods and the Deluge,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1987, pp. 18-20) The Greek fragment includes the details of male gods having sex with human women, propagating a race of semi divine offspring, and the high god’s decision to send a great destruction.

In this case, Zeus’ decision to destroy “the greater part (pollen) of the human race” (or perhaps “the multitudinous human race”) is motivated by his desire to destroy (or remove) the race of mixed human-divine creatures, the demigods or heroes.

These are the great warriors who fight and die on both sides of the Trojan War. A separation between the human world and the divine world is established by Zeus’ plan, preventing the further sexual mingling of gods and humans and bringing to an end the age of heroes. (Ronald Hendel, “Of Demigods and the Deluge,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1987, pp. 16-20).

R. Scodel has argued that the ideas in this fragment are in fact more suitable to a cosmic destruction than to the Trojan War:

“A war, no matter how long and how bitter, does not seem calamitous enough to have been an original form of the myth of destruction: it is, moreover, a normally human and local activity … It therefore seems likely that this aspect of the Trojan War is secondary, and that the theme has actually been borrowed from the Deluge.”

(Ruth Scodel, “The Achaean Wall and the Myth of Destruction,” HSCP 86, 1982, 42-3).

If it is plausible that this motive for the Trojan War (and there are others, including Zeus’ intent to reduce overpopulation, reminiscent of Enlil’s motive in Atrahasis) (See A.D. Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Concept of Overpopulation and Its Solution as Reflected in the Mythology,” Or 41 (1972), p. 176) is related to Near Eastern traditions, in which Genesis 6:1-4 and the flood stories are mutually implicated.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 30-2.

Flood Traditions

“Another point of connection with Mesopotamian traditions concerns the relationship between Genesis 6:1-4 and the flood story. Since Genesis 6:1-4 occurs immediately prior to the flood story, it is possible that the stories were more richly connected in other versions of these stories, whether oral or written.

One such possibility would be a version of the flood story in which the deeds and / or existence of the mixed breed demigods provoked God to destroy them in a great cataclysm–the flood. This possible story is not told in biblical or Mesopotamian texts of the flood, but an intriguing Greek text about the Trojan War (see below) raises the possibility of this combination of motifs.

Library of Ashurbanipal / The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet Date15 July 2010 Current location: British Museum Link back to Institution wikidata:Q6373 Source/Photographer	Fæ (Own work) Other versions	File:British Museum Flood Tablet 1.jpg British Museum reference	K.3375 Detailed description:	 Part of a clay tablet, upper right corner, 2 columns of inscription on either side, 49 and 51 lines + 45 and 49 lines, Neo-Assyrian., Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood. ~ Description extract from BM record. Location	Room 55

 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Library_of_Ashurbanipal_The_Flood_Tablet.jpg

Library of Ashurbanipal / The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet
Date 15 July 2010
Current location: British Museum Link back to Institution wikidata:Q6373
Source/Photographer Fæ (Own work)
Other versions File:British Museum Flood Tablet 1.jpg
British Museum reference K.3375
Detailed description:
Part of a clay tablet, upper right corner, 2 columns of inscription on either side, 49 and 51 lines + 45 and 49 lines, Neo-Assyrian., Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood. ~ Description extract from BM record.
Location Room 55


https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Library_of_Ashurbanipal_The_Flood_Tablet.jpg

In the versions of the flood recounted in Mesopotamian and biblical texts, the motives for the flood are several:

  • Old Babylonian Atrahasis: the “noise” (rigmu) of overabundant humans makes it impossible for Enlil to sleep. The flood is an extreme and, as Enki points out, morally repugnant method of population reduction.
  • Standard Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. Tablet XI and the flood tablet from Ugarit: the flood was sent for reasons impenetrable to humans: it is a “secret of the gods” (pirišta ša ili. XI.10).
  • The J flood story of Genesis: the evil of the human heart makes Yahweh regret that he created humans, and so he resolves to destroy them with a flood (Genesis 6:5-7).
  • The P flood story of Genesis: the violence of humans has corrupted the earth, and so God resolves to destroy them with a flood (Genesis 8:11-3).

None of these motives directly requires the existence of mixed-breed demigods or the sexual mingling of gods and humans. In its context as a prologue to the flood, Genesis 6:1-4 serves as one of several illustrations of human evil or corruption, but is not itself a necessary or sufficient cause of the flood.

Cuneiform tablet with the Atrahasis Epic, Babylonian, about 17th century BC  From Sippar, southern Iraq  A version of the Flood story  The story outlines the structure of the universe according to Babylonian beliefs. Heaven is ruled by the god Anu, the earth by Enlil and the subterranean sweet water by Enki.  The text then explains how the minor gods work in the fields but then rebel. As a result, humans are made from clay, saliva and divine blood to act as servants of the gods. This does not prove a perfect solution, as the humans reproduce and their noise disturbs Enlil's sleep.  He decides to destroy them with plague, famine, drought and finally a flood. However, each time Enki instructs one of the humans, Atrahasis, to survive the disasters.  The god gives Atrahasis seven days warning of the flood, and he builds a boat, loads it with his possessions, animals and birds. He is subsequently saved while the rest of humankind is destroyed.  However, the gods are unhappy as they no longer receive the offerings they used to. There is a gap in the text at this point but it does end with Atrahasis making an offering and Enlil accepting the existence and usefulness of humans.  Copies of this story have survived from the seventeenth to the seventh century BC showing that it was copied and re-copied over the centuries. This is the most complete version.  There are clear similarities between this Flood story and others known in Mesopotamian literature, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh.  T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1988)  S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press, 1991)  W.G. Lambert and A.R. Millard, Atra-hasis: the Babylonian story (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969)  http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cuneiform_the_atrahasis_epic.aspx

Cuneiform tablet with the Atrahasis Epic, Babylonian, about 17th century BC
From Sippar, southern Iraq
A version of the Flood story
The story outlines the structure of the universe according to Babylonian beliefs. Heaven is ruled by the god Anu, the earth by Enlil and the subterranean sweet water by Enki.
The text then explains how the minor gods work in the fields but then rebel. As a result, humans are made from clay, saliva and divine blood to act as servants of the gods. This does not prove a perfect solution, as the humans reproduce and their noise disturbs Enlil’s sleep.
He decides to destroy them with plague, famine, drought and finally a flood. However, each time Enki instructs one of the humans, Atrahasis, to survive the disasters.
The god gives Atrahasis seven days warning of the flood, and he builds a boat, loads it with his possessions, animals and birds. He is subsequently saved while the rest of humankind is destroyed.
However, the gods are unhappy as they no longer receive the offerings they used to. There is a gap in the text at this point but it does end with Atrahasis making an offering and Enlil accepting the existence and usefulness of humans.
Copies of this story have survived from the seventeenth to the seventh century BC showing that it was copied and re-copied over the centuries. This is the most complete version.
There are clear similarities between this Flood story and others known in Mesopotamian literature, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh.
T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1988)
S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press, 1991)
W.G. Lambert and A.R. Millard, Atra-hasis: the Babylonian story (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969)
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cuneiform_the_atrahasis_epic.aspx

But it is in the nature of oral and mythological traditions that stories and myths can be combined and recombined–this is what Claude Lévi-Strauss (The Savage Mind, Chicago, 1966, pp. 16-22) calls the “bricolage” of myth making, and what Albert Lord (Singer of Tales, 2d ed., Harvard university Press, 2000,) calls the multiformity of oral narrative traditions.

It is possible that the birth and proliferation of the demigods signified a kind of chaotic disruption of the cosmic order that required a global destruction. But to find an example of such a combination of motifs, we must turn from Mesopotamia to Greece.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 29-30.

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