Samizdat

"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

Tag: Esagila

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.

Who Was Berossus?

“This volume is devoted to a man whose work is largely lost, whose life is shrouded in mys­tery, and whose real name we do not know.

(‘Berossos’ is a Greek rendering of an Akkadian name. Our best guess at the moment is that his fellow Babylonians would have known him as Bēl-rē ‘ûšunu (‘Bel is their shepherd’), but this is not certain; see further De Breucker’s contribution to this volume.)

What we do know is that ‘Berossos’ of Babylon was a contemporary of Alexander the Great and the first two Seleucid kings, Seleucus I and Antiochus I, and that he wrote a work about Babylonian history and culture, the Babyloniaca.

He describes himself as a Babylonian and a priest of Bel-Marduk, the national god of Babylon, though in practice this may mean no more than that he was in some way attached to the main temple of Babylon, the Esagila.

According to Vitruvius, Berossos later moved to the Greek island of Cos to open a school of astronomy.

Pliny mentions a statue which the Athenians set up to celebrate his powers of prophecy; and Pausanias makes him the father of the Sibyl. With Pausanias we are plainly in the realm of mythmaking.

Whether Vitruvius or Pliny are any more trustworthy has been debated. Whatever we make of their testimonies, it is not implausible that Berossos had connections with the astronomers of the Esagila while in Babylon, and he must certainly have had some connection with, or at least an interest in, the Seleucid court, because he dedicated his Babyloniaca to Antiochus I.

We know from a cuneiform chronicle that Babylonian religious experts acted as advisors to Antiochus I.

(R. J. van der Spek, Chronicle concerning Antiochus and the Sin temple: preliminary edition and translation, 1997.

A similar encounter is reported by Diodorus Siculus, 17.112: when Alexander returned to Babylon from India, an astronomer of the Esagila temple called Belephantes (Akkadian Bēl-apla-iddin?), advised Alexander not to enter the city.)

Excerpt from Diodorus follows.

17.112.1: After the conclusion of his war with the Cossaeans, Alexander set his army in motion and marched towards Babylon in easy stages, interrupting the march frequently and resting the army.

17.112.2: While he was still three hundred furlongs from the city, the scholars called Chaldaeans, who have gained a great reputation in astrology and are accustomed to predict future events by a method based on age-long observations, chose from their number the eldest and most experienced.

By the configuration of the stars they had learned of the coming death of the king in Babylon, and they instructed their representatives to report to the king the danger which threatened. They told their envoys also to urge upon the king that he must under no circumstances make his entry into the city; 

17.112.3: that he could escape the danger if he re-erected the tomb of Belus which had been demolished by the Persians, but he must abandon his intended route and pass the city by.

The leader of the Chaldaean envoys, whose name was Belephantes, was not bold enough to address the king directly but secured a private audience with Nearchus, one of Alexander’s Friends, and told him everything in detail, requesting him to make it known to the king.

17.112.4: When Alexander, accordingly, learned from Nearchus about the Chaldaeans’ prophecy, he was alarmed and more and more disturbed, the more he reflected upon the ability and high reputation of these people.

After some hesitation, he sent most of his Friends into Babylon, but altered his own route so as to avoid the city and set up his headquarters in a camp at a distance of two hundred furlongs. 

This act caused general astonishment and many of the Greeks came to see him, notably among the philosophers Anaxarchus.

17.112.5: When they discovered the reason for his action, they plied him with arguments drawn from philosophy and changed him to the degree that he came to despise all prophetic arts, and especially that which was held in high regard by the Chaldaeans. 

It was as if the king had been wounded in his soul and then healed by the words of the philosophers, so that he now entered Babylon with his army. 

17.112.6: As on the previous occasion, the population received the troops hospitably, and all turned their attention to relaxation and pleasure, since everything necessary was available in profusion.

These were the events of this year.”

Diodorus Siculus, 17.112.

Berossos may well have been one of them, or in any case have worked in a similar milieu.”

Johannes Haubold, “The World of Berossos: Introduction,” 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, p. 3.

%d bloggers like this: