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Tag: Omorka

Barbarian Wisdom and Berossus

“Tiamat’s monsters were characterised by a mixture of animal and human features. If my reconstruction is broadly correct, Berossos filled the void left by their demise with separate creation accounts for each of these categories of being.

The Enūma Eliš has nothing to say about the creation of animals, but does describe human creation in some detail. Berossos agrees broadly with its account of human creation, though some details differ.

Above all, Berossos claims that Bel used his own blood to create mankind whereas in the epic Marduk uses that of another god. Berossos may or may not have found this version of events in now lost Mesopotamian texts, but the question remains why he introduced it here, against the pull of his main source.

The answer, one suspects, was once again that he was keen to cater for the tastes of his Greek readers. In Enūma Eliš, as in other Mesopotamian texts, mankind descends from a rebel against the emerging order of the universe.

Among other things, that explains why we must shoulder the gods’ work and lead a life of misery. In Berossos, this typically Babylonian view of human life is developed into one that would have spoken to educated Greeks: the blood that flows in our veins is not after all that of a devil but of Zeus no less: and so it is that we are endowed with νους (‘intelligence’), and divine φρόνησις (‘understanding’).

De Breucker points out that Berossos is here elaborating on an idea which he found in the Babylonian Poem of the Flood or Atrahasis, where the god (W)ē, ‘who has intelligence’ (Akkadian tēmu) is slaughtered to create man.

This is an interesting detail, for it shows that Berossos creatively combined diverse Babylonian sources. But he did more than merely cut and paste what he found: in the Babyloniaca the ruling god himself gives of his intel­ligence.

One last time, the preferred version of the story seems chosen for its resonances with Greek, and more specifically Stoic, thought. The Stoic god is himself νους, or νοερός. The same must be true of Bel in Berossos, for as recipients of his blood we too are νοεροί.

Indeed, we are also endowed with divine understanding, φρόνησις. In allegorical terms, Athena is φρόνησις, sprung from the head of Zeus, which may explain why decapitation becomes an issue in Berossos whereas it plays no role in Enūma Eliš or Atrahasis: the story which describes Zeus giving birth to Athena / Phronesis from his head was much-discussed in Stoic circles from Greece to Babylon itself. Berossos, it would seem, alludes to it here.

There is much in the Babyloniaca that will remain forever lost to us. The extant fragments are scanty, and often do not allow us to reconstruct with certainty what Berossos wrote, or even what he intended. That is a fact which must be accepted.

But I also hope to have shown that progress can be made; and that, through careful and sympathetic reading, we can often gain a fairly good sense of what Berossos was trying to achieve. I have argued that Book 1 of the Babyloniaca was in many ways Berossos’ signature piece. It is here that he establishes his credentials as a conveyor of barbarian wisdom, one of the few subject positions that were available to a non-Greek wishing to address a Greek audience.

Already Aristotle thought that the Chaldaeans were among those who invented philosophy, so for once Berossos had a positive stereotype with which to work. He embraced the project with gusto, conjuring up the super-sage Oannes, who was equally at home in water and darkness as in daylight and air (who better to describe how these principles coalesced to form the cosmos?); and putting in the mouth of this creature a cosmogonic myth that could literally not have been more ancient: after all, Oannes appears in year one of human history.



Yet, ancient as it is, Oanneslogos becomes philosophically fresh when read through Berossos’ rationalising lens. What is on display here is both age-old barbarian wisdom and cutting-edge Greek philosophy, or rather, a pretence to cutting-edge philosophy.

Stoic el­ements are predominant, partly because Stoicism was the best-selling brand of philosophy at the time, and partly, one suspects, because it lent itself to the project of educating a king. But Berossos does far more than simply default to the Stoa. He shows that he can do Empedocles too. Above all, he throws in outrageous intellectual feats of his own, none more outrageous than his numerical equation of Omorka / Tiamat with Selene, the moon (BNJ 680 F lb (6)).

This too has sometimes been branded an interpolation, but it strikes me as quintessential Berossos, precisely the kind of thing this author would do. Book 1 of the Babyloniaca was his opportunity to shine, and he made sure he took it. Abydenos was right to summarises the contents of the book as ‘the wisdom of the Chaldaeans’ (BNJ 685 F2b). That is surely how Berossos intended it.”

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. 41-3.

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
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

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.

Parallels Between the Enuma Elish and Genesis

“The close relation existing between the Babylonian account of the Creation and the narrative in Genesis i, 1-11, 4a has been recognized from the time of the first discovery of the former, 1 and the old and new points of resemblance between them may here be briefly discussed.

According to each account the existence of a watery chaos preceded the creation of the universe; and the Hebrew word tehôm, translated “the deep” in Gen. i, 2, is the equivalent of the Babylonian Tiamat, the monster of the deep personifying chaos and confusion.

In the details of the Creation there is also a close resemblance between the two accounts. In the Hebrew narrative the first act of creation is that of light (Gen. i, 3-5), and it has been suggested that a parallel possibly existed in the Babylonian account, in that the creation of light may have been the cause of the revolt of Tiamat.

From the new fragments of the poem we now know that the rebellion of the forces of disorder, which was incited by Apsû and not Tiamat, was due, not to the creation of light, but to his hatred of the way of the gods which produced order in place of chaos 2

A parallelism may still be found, however; in the original form of the Babylonian myth, according to which the conqueror of the dragon was undoubtedly a solar deity. 3 Moreover, as has been pointed out above, 4 day and night are vaguely conceived in the poem as already in existence at the time of Apsû’s revolt, so that the belief in the existence of light before the creation of the heavenly bodies is a common feature of the Hebrew and the Babylonian account.

The second act of creation in the Hebrew narrative is that of a firmament which divided the waters that were under the firmament from the waters that were above the firmament (Gen. i, 6-8).

In the Babylonian poem the body of Tiamat is divided by Marduk, and from one-half of her he formed a covering or dome for heaven, i.e. a firmament, which kept her upper waters in place. Moreover, on the fragment S. 2,013 1 we find mention of a Ti-amat e-Zi-ti and a Ti-amat shap-li-ti, that is, an Upper Tiamat (or Ocean) and a Lower Tiamat (or Ocean), which are the exact equivalents of the waters above and under the firmament. 2

The third and fourth acts of creation, as narrated in Gen. i, 9-13, are those of the earth and of vegetation. Although no portion of the Babylonian poem has yet been recovered which contains the corresponding account, it is probable that these acts of creation were related on the Fifth Tablet of the series. 1

Berossus expressly states that Bel formed the earth out of one half of Omorka’s body, and as his summary of the Babylonian Creation story is proved to be correct wherever it can be controlled, it is legitimate to assume that he is correct in this detail also.

Moreover, in three passages in the Seventh Tablet the creation of the earth by Marduk is referred to: … “Since he created the heaven and fashioned the firm earth”; 2 the new fragment … states, “He named the four quarters (of the world)”; 3 and another new fragment … definitely ascribes to Marduk the title “Creator of the earth.” 4

That the creation of vegetation by Marduk was also recorded in the poem may be concluded from the opening lines of the Seventh Tablet, which are inscribed on the new fragment … and … ascribe to him the titles “Bestower of planting,” “Founder of sowing,” ” Creator of grain and plants,” and add that he “caused the green herb to spring up.” 1

Leonard William King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, London, 1902. pp. lxxxi-lxxxv.

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