The concepts of myths in ancient societies dealt with the difficult aspects of human existence such as death, despair and defeat. However, besides being etiological in content they also had a strong purpose as charter myths, validating authority or unifying dispersed peoples. This essay will explore how the emergence of creation from an abyss, humanity’s quest to be like the gods and their subsequent defeat are the basic elements of all the creation myths from this part of the world.  But also, although influenced by the older Babylonian myths, how the Hebrew concept of God in Genesis was particularly different to the concepts of divinity in the Ancient Near East and Greece.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”[1] The creation myth of the Hebrew bible was written around 1000 BC and is founded on a monotheistic god. There is no explanation of the origin of Yahweh however he is strictly male in his personification[2]. In contrast, the creation myths of the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and the Greeks are all polytheistic. The much older polytheistic system of the Mesopotamian religion developed into from the Sumerian “Atrahasis Myth”, where the sky-god Anu was considered ‘father of the gods’ and ruled over an inner circle of lesser gods.[3] For the ancient Egyptians it is Atum: “Hail Atum!- who made the sky, who created what exists;” who is the origin of all the forces and elements of nature. In an act of spontaneous creation he produces the first couple Shu (air) and Tefnut (fire)[4]. Gaia, the earth, was for the archaic Greeks the first of four primordial gods that emerges from the primeval Chaos.[5] Her first child was Ouranos (heaven) with whom she produces many children.[6]

It is the concept of creation from a void which is a similarity between all these creation myths. Genesis 1 states: “The earth was without form, and void: and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”[7] However, the Hebrew Yahweh is present before this void whereas the other mythic gods emerge from the void. The Babylonian creation epic the Enuma Elish has the initial lines: “When on high the heaven had not been named, Firm ground below had not been called by name”[8], giving an account of an unknown primeval chaos.[9] This emergence of divine beings is also reflected in Egyptian and Greek mythology where Atum emerges from the Primeval Waters of Nun[10] and Gaia emerges from the primeval abyss or Chaos.[11]

The concept of a primal male deity is confined to both the ancient Egyptian’s Atum and the Hebrew Yahweh. The “Enuma Elish” has the original source of creation being the vast anthropomorphic body of Tiamat, female of a pair of primordial gods[12]:  “Naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter, And Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all”.[13] For the Greeks, the influence of this Babylonian myth shows in the depiction of the primeval goddess Gaia from whose body the second generation of gods and goddesses emerge.[14] However, these primeval female deities are soon overthrown by their male children and lose their place of power within the universe.

For the Hebrews, Genesis was a series of concrete creations such as grass, trees, fish, birds and animals[15], whereas the Egyptians lived in a universe not of things but of beings consisting of a distinct individuality. For example, the myth of the sky being the goddess, Nut, who conceives the sun at night and gives birth to it in the morning.[16] This was also true of the abstract concepts in creation of Hesiod, such as Night giving birth to Doom and Death, Misery, Retribution and Strife, and to Sleep and Dreams, also to Deceit and Affection.[17] The two deities in the “Enuma Elish” represent sweet fresh water and bitter salt water. It was the mixing of these two deities that allowed the creation of the Babylonian civilization: “Their waters commingling as a single body”.[18] The Egyptian creation myth and the Mesopotamian creation myths do not refer to the creation of animals or other life as Genesis does.[19]

The creation of humanity is the climax in Genesis: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life:”.[20] God makes man in his own image and gives him dominion and responsibility of the earth, freedom of choice and the ability to attain happiness.[21] In the “Enuma Elish mankind is made from the blood of Kingu, the second consort of Tiamat: “Out of his blood they fashioned mankind. He [the god Ea] imposed the service and let free the gods.”[22]For the Mesopotamians, man was created to serve the gods, whereas in ancient Egypt it was not the creation of humanity that was an essential part of the creation myth but its association with the office of the pharaoh. For example, when the Pharoah Hatshepsut wrote: “I have made bright Maat which he (Re- the later substitution of Amun) loves…I am a likeness from his limbs, one with him,”[23] she was establishing her authority. Hesiod’s “Theogony” does not give an account of the creation of humanity but simply introduces mortal man at line 317 to establish a myth about the Titan, Prometheus, and his rivalry with the chief of the Olympian gods, Zeus: “That happened when the gods and mortal men were negotiating at Mekone.”[24]

Another similarity between all these creation myths is their depiction of an initial period of peace and harmony. The garden of paradise depicted in Genesis was an element taken from Sumerian poetry[25]: “The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” In the “Enuma Elish” there is an initial period of peace where Tiamat and Apsu beget children. It is when these children begin to grow and create too much commotion that there begins a conflict in the universe.[26] For the Egyptians the beginning of time is an object of perfection until order is disturbed by a plot against Re.[27]  For Hesiod, each development in the Greek creation is marked by savage violence[28] however, in “Works and Days” he depicts the first age of mankind as a golden age: “And they lived like gods, not a care in their hearts”.[29]

A consistent similarity between all these myths is the conflict between man and God or between the deities themselves. It is as though, through myth, order needed to be established over the constant threat of disorder for the development of cohesive societies. In the book of Genesis, it is the creation of woman that brings trouble and conflict between God and man. It is humanity’s desire to be like God, the vanity of woman and her persuasion of man that explains how evil came to be present and how they had to leave Eden to toil and labor upon the earth.[30] This conflict between god and man is also reflected in Egyptian mythology in the “Book of the Heavenly Cow”, which explains how humanity became separated from the gods and how misery came upon the earth.[31] In “Theogony”, it was mankind’s alliance with Prometheus that brought the retaliation of Zeus. In punishment he had created the race of women: “A great infestation among mortal men”.[32] The main contrast between Babylonian creation mythology and Genesis is that humans are to blame for their lack of immortality. The Babylonian mythology has the gods keeping immortality from humans so that they would not be a threat to the divine order.[33]

The Yahwist authors of Genesis were intent on giving an account of creation that was significant to the viewpoint of ancient Israel explaining the Hebrew traditions and evolution as a people. Its purpose was to underline God’s faithfulness to humanity. The later Priestly version of Genesis held the important feature of a genealogical account of the Hebrew nation which would give a sense of authority, stability and strength to the tiny nation of Israel.[34] Hesiod’s “Theogony” is primarily a charter myth that supported the political and military leaders of the Archaic period[35]. In a society as dispersed as archaic Greece, the ultimate authority of the Olympic family, in particular Zeus as the supreme father god, was an important source of unification. These stories then became part of an exceptionally narrative culture. The ancient Egyptians also used the myth preserved in the temples of the New Kingdom to establish the divine descent of the pharaoh. It served to legitimize the kingship by the divine will of Amun-Ra and the kingship’s dominion over the world. It was written in about the 5th Dynasty and allowed the pharaoh the official title of ‘Son-of-Ra’.[36]  The creation stories of Mesopotamia, particularly the supremacy of the god Marduk, were also used to codify authority. The Sumerian people who founded cities such as Ur and Uruk in 3500 BC needed these myths to turn semi-nomadic pastoralists into a four-tier heirarchal system that could be called cities. The belief structures protected the newly acquired wealth and power in these societies and allowed the authority of single kings to gain power and establish large tracts of population to support their palaces and entourage.[37]

Therefore, although many of these myths contain the same patriarchal and misogynistic elements, it is the Hebrew concept of a single god who creates the world out of goodness and makes humanity in his own image that is the fundamental difference between the Biblical creation myth and the other myths discussed in this essay. Furthermore, this singular God does not have to contend with other competing deities but only the rebellious spirit of humanity. Unlike the gods of the other Near Eastern and Greek myths, the God of Genesis is surprisingly interested in this humanity that he has created and yet has to continually contend with. Yahweh is continually involved in a cycle of perpetual creativity, rebellion, punishment and redemption and it is this underlying theme that preserved the faith of the Hebrew people, allowing them to overcome adversity. In the Hebrew creation myth, humanity is both the culmination and intent of Genesis.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Allen J.P., (1998) , “The Elements of Creation”  in Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts, New Haven
  2. Assman J., (2001),  “Myth” in Search for God in Ancient Egypt, Cornell University Press, Ithaca
  3. Beall E. F., (1991),  Hesiod’s Prometheus and Development in Myth, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. II No. 3
  4. Boadt L., (1984), The Old Testament: An Introduction, Paulish Press, New York
  5. Boardman J., Griffin J., & Murray O., (1991), The Oxford History of the Classical World, Oxford University Press, Oxford
  6. Crawford H., (1991), Sumer and the Sumerians, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  7. Dalley S., (1991) Extracts in Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others, , Oxford University Press, Oxford
  8. Dowden K., (1992), “The World of Myth” in The Uses of Greek Mythology, Routledge Press, London
  9. Frankfort H., (1978), “The Power of the Sun: Creation” in Kingship and the Gods: A study of Near Eastern Religions as the Integration of Society and Nature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  10. Gantz T., (1993), Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources Vol.1, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
  11. Harris S. L. & Platzner G., (2008), Hesiod’s “Theogony” in Classical Mythology: Images and Insights 5th Ed., California State University, Sacramento

[1] Genesis 1, (1982)

[2] Boadt (1984: 109-111)

[3] Leick (2003: 101-02)

[4] Allen, (1988: 9)

[5] Boardman, Griffin & Murray (1991: 88)

[6] Hesiod, Theogony, (2008: 91)

[7] Genesis 1– (1982)

[8] Enuma Elish– Tablet 1, (1969: 60-72)

[9] Leick (2003: 11-12)

[10] Allen (1988: 9)

[11] Harris & Platzner (2008: 61)

[12] Leick (2003: 12)

[13] Enuma Elish– Tablet 1, (1969: 60-72)

[14] Hesiod, Theogony, (2008: 91)

[15] Genesis 1- (1982)

[16] Allen (1988: 8)

[17] Boardman, Griffin & Murray, (1991: 89)

[18] Enuma Elish– Tablet 1, (1969: 60-72)

[19] Dalley, (1991:  4)

[20] Genesis 2- (1982)

[21] Boadt, (1984: 112)

[22] Enuma Elish- Tablet VI, (1969: 60-72)

[23] Frankfort, (1978: 158)

[24] Hesiod, Theogony, (2008: 95)

[25] Boadt, (1984: 119)

[26] Enuma Elish– Tablet 1, (1969: 60-72)

[27] Assman, (2001: 113)

[28] Harris & Platzner, (2008: 87)

[29] Hesiod, Works and Days, (2008: 132)

[30] Boadt, (1984: 119)

[31] Assman, (2001: 115)

[32] Hesiod, Theogony, (2008: 96)

[33] Boadt, (1984: 121)

[34] Ibid: 103

[35] Harris & Platzner (2008: 66)

[36] Assman, (2001: 118)

[37] Crawford, (1991: 13)