In the Beginning: Biblical Creation Myths vs. Others Around the Mediterranean

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We often read ‘In the beginning…’ but there are actually several beginnings told throughout the Bible, many of which have interesting relationships to other Mediterranean creation myths from Greece, Egypt and the Ancient Near East. So I want to explore some of those relation, the comparisons and contrasts. Frankly this could, and I’m sure does somewhere, make up an entire book series. So lets look at some of the basics.

The Old Testament contains at least a dozen creation “stories”.  Two of these stories are told in Genesis 1 and 2, in addition to the creation story in Job 38 and the fragment in Job 26:7-13 among others. These stories are not always consistent with each other, so some will hold similarities to contemporary creation myths, while others contain contrasts.

One major point of comparison between Biblical creation myths and other creation myths is the idea of separation as a key component in the creation process.  The idea of separation is seen several times throughout Genesis.  Genesis 1:4 reads, “God saw light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness,”[1] indicating the creation of night and day.  The idea is also in Genesis 1:6, “God said, let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”[2]

Separation of Sky from Earth in Egyptian Creation Mythology

Egyptian mythology also has separation themes; telling of the separation of the god of the earth and of the sky as a major part of the creation process.[4]  Though these creation aspects are represented as deities in Egyptian mythology, the idea remains; the separation of the earth and the heavens to create a place in between, to be inhabited.[5]  The idea of separation is also seen in the Mesopotamian creation myth the Enuma Elish. The god Marduk ‘separates’ Tiamat (primeval waters), splitting her in half, placing one half above the other, forming heaven and earth..[6]  As in the Biblical myths, the act of separation is used as a key aspect of creation.  Hesiod’s Theogony illustrates this idea was also an accepted part of Greek creation mythology.  Hesiod explains that Gaia (Earth) was ‘separated’ from Ouranos (sky) through a scheme resulting in Ouranos detaching from Gaia, separating earth from the heavens.[7]

Another similarity is the idea of chaotic water being a primal substance.[8]  The first account of Genesis refers to chaotic water being present at the time of creation.  Genesis 1:2 states “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”[9] This idea of chaotic water is witnessed in the Enuma Elish as Tiamat and Apsu both represent forms of chaotic water, and it is out of them that creation results.  In all accounts of Egyptian creation the idea of chaotic water is apparent.  The Heliopolis version of Egyptian mythology tells of the primeval matter ‘Nun’, the watery chaos from which all is created.[10] In contrast, the creation myth of Job 38 is almost methodical: “Who marked off [Earth’s] dimensions? … who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set…?”

Greek mythology doesn’t seem to directly refer to water as the primal substance, but Hesiod explains the first god was ‘Chaos’, resembling the watery chaos of the other myths, representing the same ideas of a void from which all was created.  Hesiod’s understanding of Chaos contrasts however Ovid’s, who defines it as an “anarchic dark matter that preceded the formation of the universe.”[11]

The creation myths of Genesis share another common feature of Near Eastern, Egyptian and Greek accounts: they have a cyclical theme.  Boadt indicates that this cyclical theme can be seen in Genesis as each of the first three days of creation parallels the next three days.[12]  Genesis’ Priestly account shows the creation of light and darkness on the first day is parallel to that of day and night on the fourth day.[13]  Whereas, the creation of waters and sky on the second day parallels the creation of sealife and life of the air on the fifth.[14]  This pattern is continued in with the third and sixth days.[15]

Tiamat, the Watery Chaos, on Babylonian Seal

This cyclical theme is seen in the Enuma Elish and Greek creation.  However, the cyclical acts of these mythologies are based more on the violent processes which do not appear in the Genesis. This is a point of uniqueness.  The Enuma Elish shows a cyclical theme in the overthrowing of Apsu by Ea in parallel to the overthrowing of Tiamat by Marduk.[16]  Hesiod also expresses this theme in Greek creation with the overthrowing of Ouranos by his son Kronos and then the defeat of Kronos by Zeus.[17]  The cyclical theme is also seen in Egyptian accounts as they believed in the idea of the first occasion and that life was part of a continuous process.  For example, the rising and falling of the sun was imagined as a cyclical process repeating every day, rising and returning to Nun.[18] However, the account in Job 38 is not cyclical; instead it is more of a process.

Biblical creation can also be compared and contrasted in relation to the formation of the god/s and the elements of nature.  Genesis indicates that creation resulted from the divine word of a monotheistic god. Sproul asserts that this form of creation is not completely reflected in other mythologies.[19]  Hesiod explains that Greeks believed the first acts of creation were the result of sexual procreation by the gods Chaos and Gaia.[20]  Sexual procreation as a primary means of creation is also seen in the Memphite versions of Egyptian mythology, though the gods are the product of  both asexual reproduction (Shu and Tefnut) and divine word in some accounts such as the Heliopolis (Re rising out of Nun).[21]  Near Eastern mythology also includes sexual procreation in creation, “…from Apsu and Tiamat in the waters gods were created.”[22]  From these accounts we see  Biblical creation as fairly unique as it never includes an act of procreation within Genesis, however, Egyptian accounts do share a relation in including creation by divine word.  Job, while not including procreation, does parallel it in 38:8 where it reads: “Who shut up the sea behind doors, when it burst forth from the womb.”

All four cultures’ accounts can be viewed as nature myths as they share a reaction to the power of nature and the creation of human life, even though humans have a limited role in Egyptian mythology.  The Biblical accounts and the Enuma Elish both have cultic functions.  The Enuma Elish displays cultic functions of kingship, and the Biblical Priestly cults feature the day of rest, both corresponding with ritual theories.[23]  Harris and Platzner explain Etiological theories of myths are attempts to explain origins.[24] This theory, seen in all of these mythologies, shows Biblical creation is not unique as a prescientific attempt to justify the creation process.[25]

Enuma Elish on Tablet

Biblical and other creation myths show contrasts in relation to the role and creation of humans.  The creation of humans in Biblical myth is more important in the J account than the Priestly account.  In both, humans are created in the image of god, whereas in Near Eastern myth they are created to serve the gods, but are divinely related as they are moulded from divine blood, “blood to bone I form, an original thing, its name is Man.”[26]  Hesiod’s accounts don’t include human creation, but Aristophanes relates that males were created from the sun and females from the earth.[27]  Some versions of Egyptian myth recount human creation by Khumn from clay, as do Near Eastern myth with the creation of man by Nintu from clay and blood.[28]  Greek, Egyptian and Near Eastern accounts are similar to the J version of Genesis as  all refer to creation of man from the earth/clay.

Genesis is in part different because it saw creation not as the act of divine slaughter and violence, but as the divine word of god.  Harris and Platzner assess that this is unlike Mesopotamian and Greek creation mythology which “features violent conflict between different generations of gods.”[29] Hesiod describes the conflicts between the generations of gods creating order from chaos.  The same idea appears in the Enuma Elish as the violence between generations creates  ultimate order to chaos. Genesis, however, refers to a creation of divine word alone, reshaping older myths of “a primordial watery chaos to fit a monotheistic concept.”[30]  It would be wrong to say that Biblical accounts are purely non-violent. In Job 26:12-13, ‘By his power he churned up the sea, by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces, by his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent.’

We also see that the Biblical myth is different because it contains the only creation myths encompassing monotheism.  All other creation accounts are based on polytheism. The Egyptian creation myths start with one god of many, such as Nun (the primeval waters), [31] Ptah in the Memphite versions and Atum in the Heliopolis versions.[32] Greek and Mesopotamian creation myths recount creation in polytheistic terms as the result of several generations of gods, each representing a creation component. Biblical myths do, however, include the trinity within creation. In John1:1-4, ‘In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made.’

The Biblical creation myths then do not stand out generally as unique. They contain themes that run through numerous creation myths from civilisations in direct contact and under similar influences to the Biblical cultures. And that my friends is ancient history for you! It is very difficult to be unique when it has all been done before. Any PhD student knows…

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[1] Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Genesis 1.3, p.3

[2] Ibid., Genesis 1.6, p.3

[4] Pinch, G., Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Goddesses and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 2004), p.65

[5] Allen, J. P., Genesis in Egypt (Connecticut, 1988), p.9

[6] The Enuma Elish in Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.92

[7] Hesiod, Theogony in Harris, S.L., and Plarzner, G., Classical Mythology: Images and InsightFourth Edition (New York, 2004), p.89, lines 160-190

[8] Harris, S.L., and Plarzner, G., Classical Mythology: Images and InsightFourth Edition (New York, 2004), p.66

[9] Holy Bible, op.cit., Genesis 1.2, p.3

[10] Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.80

[11] Harris and Platzner, op.cit., p.68

[12] Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament (New York, 1984),  p.111

[13] Holy Bible, op.cit., Genesis 1

[14] Ibid., Genesis 1

[15] Ibid., Genesis 1

[16] Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.123

[17] Hesiod, op.cit., lines 160-190

[18] Pinch, G., op.cit., p.68

[19] Sproul, B. C., op.cit., p.123

[20] Hesiod, op.cit., lines 110-120

[21] Shaw, I., and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003), p.284

[22] Enuma Elish, op.cit., p.92, lines 1-10

[23] Sproul, op.cit., p.91 – The Enuma Elish’s main purpose was to praise Marduk’s divine supremacy and to honourBabylon.

[24] Harris and Platzner, op.cit., p.40

[25] Greek, Egyptian, Near Eastern and Biblical myths are all an attempt to explain creation in a non-scientific way (Eg. The sky, sea, earth and life itself) which reflects the primitive understanding of the world and its creation.

[26] Sproul, op.cit., p.104

[27] Arisphanes in Plato’s Symposium

[28] Sproul, op.cit., p.114

[29] Platzner and Harris, op.cit., p.70

[30] Ibid., p.70

[31] Pinch, op.cit., p.58 – explanation of the first god rising out of Nun, the primeval waters, due to differing accounts this god is ascribed as being Amun, Ra or Ptah depending on the version understudy

[32] Shabako Stone, king sha-bak, 700BC, 25Dyn

Poetic License: An Introduction to Greek (and Latin) Meter

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The study of Greek poetry is not easy without at least a basic understanding of the Greek meter. Annis (2006) rightly states that scholars have a tendency to become over focused on the meter within a poem but for the those beginning their study of Greek poetry it is an essential point of comprehension. By understanding the meter of Greek poetry one can also appreciate the creation of the text and the art of the poets involved.

The Poet Sappho

First of all there are a few words that must be defined:

Prosody: Prosody is the study of the elements of a poem including meter, rhythm and intonation.

Meter: Meter is the definitive pattern established fir a verse.

Greek Meter

Unlike in English poetry, the Greek meter is based on patterns of long and short syllables.

A long syllable is represented by a macron “―”

A short syllable is represented by a “U”

A syllable which can be long or short is represented by “U

The length of a syllable is most easily identified in Epic verses. Note that syllable length in meter is determined by the line not the word.

When discussing Greek poetry one must comprehend the basic unit of time, which is in this case a mora. Shorts syllables are one mora and long syllables are two morae. Beyond two morae the one divides them up in a number of ways which form time division patterns forming the fundamental blocks of Greek verse. These are called feet. For instance:

3 Morae

iamb  =           U― (eg. describe or include)

trochee =      ―U (eg. picture or flower)

tribrach =     UUU

4 Morae

spondee =     ― ― (eg. enough)

dactyl =         ―UU (eg. an-no-tate)

anapest =      UU― (eg. com-pre-hend)

5 Morae

cretic =          ―U―

bacchius =    U― ―

6 Morae

choriamb =  ―UU―

ionic =           UU― ―

Some Common Meters

The Hexameter

The Hexameter is the oldest of the Greek Meters. In epic hexameter two short syllables can be replaced by one long syllable but not the other way round. For more information regarding replacement see Halporn et.al (1980).

There are too many variations and rules to include in an introduction so let us look at two of the more common and simpler meters to get an idea of the use of morae, feet, syllable length and use.

Dactylic Hexameter

Also known as heroic hexameter, the dactylic hexameter is traditionally association with epic poetry in both Greek and Latin. It was hence considered the Grand Style of classical poetry. It is used in both of Homer’s works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in Virgil’s Aeneid. It also appears in Hesiod’s works.

Works and Days of Hesiod

Dactylic Hexameter is made up of six dactyls ―UU with the last foot appearing as an anceps syllable (a syllable which can appear either short or long). A dactyl never appears in the last foot. The last foot hence takes the form of a spondee ―― or a trochee ―U. It appears as:

―UU ―UU ―UU ―UU ―UU ―X

A caesura occurs in the middle of the hexameter within the third foot, either after the first long or short syllable. A caesura is a break where a word ends in the middle of a foot. It occurs as a naturally falling slight pause. It is generally indicated by a bar, |. So the third foot will appear as ―|UU or ―U|U. For more information on the Caesurae and Bridges I suggest reading Annis 2006.

Here is an example of Dactylic Hexameter in the  Odyssey 1.1:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ

―   U  U ― U U ―  U  |  U  ―   U  U ―   U  U ―  ―

Iambic Pentameter

The Iambic Pentameter is commonly used in traditional verse and drama. The word Iambic refers to the type of foot being used (U―). Pentameter indicates that there are five of these feet. In English we see these Iambic morae in words like trapeze where the stress is laid on the last syllable. So a typical Iambic Pentameter would look like this:

U― U― U― U― U―

Poets have had a tendency to vary their use of the iambic pentameter but keeping the iamb U― as the most common foot.  However the second foot is almost always U―. The first foot though often changes through the reverse of syllables to become ―U. We see examples of this inversion in modern languages like in Shakespeare’s Richard III 1.1:

Now is the winter of our discontent

―    U   U  ―  U  U ―   ―  U  ―

Further Reading:

Halporn, J.W. et.al The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry (1980)

Dale, A.M. Lyric Metres of Greek Drama (2010)

If you are interested in a detailed study of Greek  scripts and how to learn them, have a look at THESE RESOURCES.

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War Minus the Shooting: Ideals behind the Ancient Olympic Games

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‘War Minus the Shooting’, is what Orwell in Spivey’s ‘The Ancient Olympics’ states as being what serious sport amounts to.  But, can this be said to be the sole idea behind competition at the Olympic Games in the seventh and eighth centuries BC, or did competition amount to more?

Competition at the Olympic Games was not just about ‘war minus the shooting’ especially since one of its key bases was in religion.  By competing, athletes were attempting to become closer to the gods.  Spivey asserts that in Greek Myth all the events that appeared at the Olympic Games during the eighth and seventh centuries BC were first participated in by gods or heroes.[1]  This suggests that by participating in these competitions, the athletes were striving to reach what those gods associated with those events, represented. Spathari explains that the competition and training was essentially an attempt to attain and evolve physical, intellectual and spiritual powers.[2]  In striving to perfect their physical and spiritual wellbeing the Ancient Greeks believed that they would follow the path which led to the divine.

Tampa 86.35. chariot race. Photograph courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art

Excavators have uncovered evidence of altars in and around the sanctuary of Zeus in the form of ashy deposits, which could be attributed to the seventh and eighth centuries, along with a number of votive offerings.[5]  The Olympic Games were primarily a religious festival and the competition was a way of worshipping the gods: primarily Zeus who came to Olympia in the tenth century with the Eleans.  It is also argued by such as Sansone that “all sport is a ritual sacrifice of bodily energy”[6] suggesting that the competitor and competition at Olympia doubled as both a dedicator and a dedication.

Early competition in the Olympic Games also held associations with the heroic ideal.  Competition at Olympia was in part a means to gain attributes of the heroic ideal as set out by Homer.  Tyrrell assesses that one of the most important aims of competition at the Olympic Games was to become the best of men.[7]  Tyrell’s assessment is backed up by Homer’s statement “always to be best and superior to others”[8] (Iliad VI 208), which was transformed into an idea that became the essence of competition in the Ancient Greek World.  It became a purpose of competition to achieve this superior status amongst your fellow competitors.

Heroic poetry had a very significant role in competition in Ancient Greece and in particular at the Olympic Games.  The competitive ethos within these texts influenced the people’s ideas of what was important in life and how these ideals could be achieved.  This heroic poetry expresses that fame, honour and glory are the most important things to strife for, and this was an idea internalised by ancient Greek society to the extreme.  Competition at events such as the Olympic Games was the only way one could achieve the glory only otherwise gained in war.[9]  In this way the Olympic Games could be viewed as “war minus the shooting,”  but not in the sense which Orwell refers to.  Spivey notes that Homer can be assessed as a great influence on competitive ethos throughout the whole of society due to becoming a “set text for school children, a poet whose lines were widely known and often quoted.”[10]

Tyrrell explains that the ancient Greeks admired and “strove to emulate the values of the Homeric warrior,” [11] chief among these values being his arete, his valour. The Iliad and the Odyssey illustrate the shame culture in Ancient Greece and the Homeric values of honour and fame.  This competitive ethos was internalized from the heroic poetry, and competitions such as at the Olympic Games were a means of achieving what all Greeks desired, kleos (κλέος) and arete (ἀρετή).  Homer’s account of the funeral games of Patroclus demonstrates the quest for kleos (fame/glory) and arete (valour) though athletic competition.[12] When Menelaos and Antiochos are arguing over the prize of second place in the chariot race, essentially they are arguing for their kleos and to retain their arete.  Homer’s account of this event illustrates the importance of these values to Greek society in the ferocity of the arguments of these two characters.[13]

Tyrell asserts that the “study of Greek athletes begins with the warrior’s arete because in many ways his values continued to impel men to pursue through athletics the glory no longer obtainable in war.”[15]  During the eighth and seventh centuries BC the quest for individual honour was forced out of war by the introduction of the hoplite form of fighting.  This suggests that the quest for honour moved to other “competitive areas”[16], among them the athletic contest.

Good strife being born of “a coupling between Zeus and the night, encouraged mortals to make the most of their brief time on earth…nurture desires for wealth and fame.”[18]   Due to the popularity and influence of this idea worded by Hesiod, it can be asserted that competition at the Olympic Games was not only about “war minus the shooting,” but a means to create this good strife.  Spivey assesses that Homer and Hesiod “established and exemplified the principle of positive strife”[19] and promoted contests and challenges as the “necessary trials of all creative endeavour.”[20]

Discobolus (Discus Thrower), Roman copy of 5th C Greek statue from the British Museum

Orwell believed that competition was bound up with “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.”[21]  Though in many ways competition in the Olympic Games does reflect the acts of warfare, it was also about friendship and unity of states and a reflection of the individual and society. Eusebius asserts that Iphitus consulted the Delphic oracle and introduced the Olympic festival in response to the concern for wars, and he proclaimed a truce for those involved in the Olympic Games.[22]  Homer in ‘The Odyssey’ demonstrates that rivalry ceased to be hostile and became friendly competition as the character of the Odyssey’s games is the same as that attributed to the Panhellenic games.[23]

An assessment of competition at the Olympic Games suggests that spectators did not just see competitions as mindless violence, but as a reflection of themselves and their emotions.  This idea can be seen clearly in the ancient term ‘Olympiakoi Agones’ (Ολυμπιακοί Αγώνες) meaning the ‘Olympic Games’.  Agon which is the Greek word for contest is related to the English word ‘agony’ and is hence a reference to the contest being a reflection of one’s emotions in relation to Olympic competition.

The idea of “war minus the shooting” though is by no means unprecedented in relation to competition at the Olympic Games in the seventh century BC at least. [24]  Spivey states that sport was a “sublimated form of human aggression, a channelling of the biological instinct to fight.”[25]  In other words, though the competition’s main purpose was the quest for honour and glory, the desire for which was the result of the internalisation of competitive ethos from heroic poetry, the platonic essence of athletics was an act of mimicry of fighting.  This relation to the mimicry can be seen in eighth century black figure pottery where the sports illustrated, such as wrestling and hand to hand combat,[26] can be rationalised as a set of drills for “infantry fighting” in later centuries.[27]

From the analysis of the Olympic Games in the seventh and eighth centuries BC we see that competition did not just amount to “War Minus the Shooting.”  Competition was not only the mimicry of war acts but was seen as a religious dedication and was concerned with trying to achieve a status close to the gods and divinity by trying to be the best of men and participating in events associated with the gods. Though later on in the seventh century, competition did reflect many of the acts of warfare, it was first and foremost a quest to gain and retain honour and hence considerably more than “War Minus the Shooting.”

[1] Spivey, N., The Ancient Olympics (Oxford, 2005), p.4

[2] Spathari, E., the Greek Spirit of Competition and the Panhellenic Games, in 1000 Years of the Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000), p.16

[3] Vergil, The Aenied, Penguin Classics (Trans. W. F. Jackson Knight), (Oxford, 2006), Book VI

[4] Ibid., Book VI

[5] Raschke, W.J., The Archaeology of the Olympics (Wisconsin), p.21

[6] Golden, M., Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1998), p.17

[7] Tyrrell, B., The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture (Illinois, 2004), p.4

[8] Homer, Iliad, Translated by A.T. Murray, 1924, Book VI 208

[9] Tyrell, B., op.cit., p.2

[10] Spivey, op.cit., p.15

[11] Tyrell, op.cit., p.2

[12] Homer, op.cit., Book VI – Presentation of the prizes for the chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus

[13] Ibid., Book VI 208

[15] Tyrell op.cit., p.2

[16] Ibid.,  p 8

[18] Spivey, op.cit., p.3

[19] Ibid., p.5

[20] Ibid., p.5

[21] Ibid., p.1

[22] Eusebius, Chronicle, p 193

[23] Homer, Odyssey 8.97-253 – Odysseus in the tenth year after the Trojan war stays with the Phaeacians and participates in athletic contests as a guest of the Phaeacians.

[24] Eusebius chronicle – shows that events that emulated war like activities only start to occur around 708BC with introduction of wrestling and the pentathlon later followed in the early seventh century BC by chariot and boxing competitions.

[25] Spivey, op.cit., p.2

[26] 1000 Years of the Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000), p.18

[27] Spivey, op.cit., p.3

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If you liked this post you may like to read The Fall of the Ancient Olympics: The Theodosian Code