“Of the many neglected aspects of Berossos’ work, his account of cosmogony in Babyloniaca 1 is easily the least well understood. The outlines of the narrative are of course well known: after an ethnographic introduction, Berossos reports how the super-sage Oannes emerged from the Southern Ocean in year one of human history, and how he taught mankind the arts of civilisation.
Nothing new was discovered since that time. Berossos then proceeds to give a taste of Oannes’ teachings by recounting the history of the world and, probably, much more beside. How much more has been subject to debate.
Some scholars have argued that Oannes covered astronomy in Book 1 of the Babyloniaca, and that many of our so-called astronomical fragments belong in that context. Others disagree.
There can be no disagreement about the cosmogonic parts of Oannes’ teachings because here we have Berossos’ Babylonian source text, the so-called ‘Epic of Creation’ or Enūma Eliš. Berossos adheres closely to this source, which is why Book 1 has always mattered to those scholars interested in Mesopotamian literature and its reception.
Beyond that, however, the book has not elicited much interest. Unlike Book 3, it contains no historical information; and unlike Book 2 it tells us little about Mesopotamian myth and literature that we did not already know from elsewhere.
As a consequence, one third of Berossos’ work tends to be ignored, or simply forgotten. With my chapter I aim to reverse this trend. I argue that Babyloniaca Book 1 forms a crucial part of Berossos’ overall project, his signature piece, no less.
I start with a simple question: why did Berossos see fit to open his work with the teachings of Oannes? Why have Book 1 at all? There are several ways of answering that question: we might, for example, point to the fact that Enūma Eliš was a staple of Babylonian scribal culture in Hellenistic times.
It was also crucially important to Babylonian religion, and to kingship as an institution: Babylonian kings answered very directly to the divine king Bel-Marduk at the New Year’s Festival, where the Enūma Eliš was solemnly performed on a regular basis.
In as much as the Babyloniaca was about kingship — and there can be little doubt that it was centrally concerned with this issue — it also had to be about Marduk and the story of how he gained control over the universe.
Berossos, then, was bound to touch on the Enūma Eliš at some point in his work. For similar reasons he was also bound to mention Oannes. Oannes was a famous Mesopotamian sage, and the author of important texts, though not, as far as we know, the Enūma Eliš.
Berossos may have done a bit of creative tweaking here, perhaps because Oannes — or Adapa, as he was also known — was firmly associated with the art of legitimate kingship. Beate Pongratz-Leisten, (1999, 309-20), has shown that the Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal systematically claimed the wisdom of Oannes-Adapa for themselves.
Later, under the Babylonian king Nabonidus, Oannes became the focus of heated debates regarding proper royal behaviour: texts favourable to Nabonidus show him as an expert reader of Oannes’ supposed main work, the astrological omen collection Enūma Anu Ellil.
Hostile sources, on the other hand, allege that Nabonidus boasted to know better than Oannes and that he introduced a perverse cult unknown to the great sage. As Berossos himself points out, there is nothing of value that could be have been unknown to Oannes (BNJ F 1(4)).
So, by casting him as an internal narrator, Berossos shows that his work is far more than merely a handbook of Babylonian history and custom: it is meant as a Fürstenspiegel, a full-blown introduction to the art of legitimate kingship.
These are important considerations when it comes to determining the significance of Babyloniaca Book 1, but they leave one question unanswered: how, if at all, did Berossos cater for the tastes of his Greek readers?
Do we simply assume that he asked them to swallow Babylonian literature neat, with no regard for their potentially very different horizons of expectation? That seems prima facie unlikely, given that Berossos did after all write in Greek, not in Aramaic or Akkadian or ‘Chaldaean’ (whatever that might mean) — which raises the question of what his Greek readers were supposed to gain from the experience, and how Berossos went about selling himself and his culture to them. That, it seems to me, is precisely where the cosmogony of Book 1 becomes important.”
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. 31-2.