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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Frank Moore Cross: Theogony, Cosmogony and Philosophy

Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic


We have previously had occasion to note the distinction that Cross draws between two types of creation myths: theogony and cosmogony. Cross first addressed this distinction in his classic Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (CMHE, 1968). Cosmogonic myths are those that deal with the establishment of the world order, and the cosmogonic gods are those that feature in cultic worship (the Olympian gods, for example). In the ancient Middle East, from Egypt to Mesopotamia—but also including the Greeks--cosmogonic myths took the characteristic form of a struggle in which a young generation of gods overcame the “olden gods” and as a result of this victory established the world order, and most especially kingship both among the gods and among men. (The relation of the cosmogonic creation myth to Eliade's archaic ontology is clear.)
El and the God of the Fathers


In Chapter Two, “El and the God of the Fathers,” Cross reviews the victory of the young storm god, Ba'l, over the olden gods, Sea and Death. Typically these olden gods come in pairs, such as Heaven and Earth, Day and Night. Ba'l's wars, of course, occur in the course of cosmogonic myth. The theogonic myths, on the other hand, are concerned with the origins of the olden gods, who propagate and succeed one another in disorderly fashion by incest and patricide,  Cross notes the close parallels between ancient Middle Eastern and Greek theogonic thought:
The particular wars of El are to establish his headship in the family of the gods. His wars are against his father Shamem, Heaven, in behalf of his wronged mother Ars, Earth; the two, Heaven and Earth are the last of the theogonic pairs. The parallels with the Theogony of Hesiod are close: Earth by her firstborn Heaven gave birth to the great gods, among them Rhea and Kronos. It is Kronos who, in defense of his mother Earth, emasculates Heaven. Zeus the son of Rhea and Kronos went to war against his parents and defeated them, casting them into the nether world. (40)
As we have seen, El was the original god of the people who became Israel, and Ba'l was also widely worshiped in Israel (Judges 8:33, 9:4,46).

The Song of the Sea and Canaanite Myth


In Chapter 6, “The Song of the Sea and Canaanite Myth,” Cross adds detail, noting the influence that the Canaanite myth of Ba'l's battle with the Sea dragon had on the Mesopotamian creation epic Enuma Elish as well as the Greek myth of Typhon (cf. Hesiod's Theogony and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo). The Canaanite myth opens with Yamm/Sea sending to El, the father of the gods at his council at the sources of the cosmic mountain, to demand that El turn his son Ba'l over as a captive and that El acknowledge Yamm as overlord. El gives in. But Ba'l obtains magic clubs from the craftsman of the gods, with which he slays Yamm/Sea/River.
Ba'l returns to the cosmic mountain, Mt. Sapon, in triumph and has a palace built. But a second conflict develops with another olden god, Mot/Death, lord of the underworld, and this time Ba'l is swallowed by Mot. However, Ba'l's consort Anat confronts Mot, slices him open to release Ba'l and scatters the pieces of Mot to fertilize the earth.
There are also mythic accounts of Ba'l and Anat doing battle with the Sea dragon Lotan (Leviathan in the Israelite scriptures, also known as Rahab—personification of Chaos). The dragon of Canaanite myth has seven heads, as does the dragon in Enuma Elish, and the Greek dragon Typhon is also many headed. The Israelite accounts make it clear that there is “full identification” (120) between Yamm/Sea and the dragon:
In that day the Lord will punish,
With His great, cruel, mighty sword
Leviathan the Elusive Serpent--
Leviathan the Twisting Serpent;
He will slay the
Dragon of the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)
It was you that hacked Rahab in pieces,
That pierced the Dragon. (Isaiah 51:10)
Cross concludes the first part of Chapter 6 with this summary of findings (emphasis added):
We have distinguished above two ideal forms of “creation” myth, one the theogony, the other the cultic cosmogony. The theogonic myth normally uses the language of time; its events were of old [in illo tempore]. The cultic cosmogony may or may not use time language. Yet the myth always delineates “primordial” events, that is, events which constitute the cosmos and, hence, are properly timeless or cyclical or “eschatological” in character. It appears to us that the myths of combat with Yamm, Mot and Lotan are indeed cosmogonic myths, primitive in that there is no reference to the beginning, that is, no explicit time language. The Ba'l cycle relates the emergence of kingship among the gods. The tale of the establishment of a dynastic temple and its cultus is a typical subtheme of the cosmogony and its ritual and is found also in Enuma Elish and, as we shall see, in the Bible.
For our purposes we will not examine Cross' discussion of the Song of the Sea. We have already seen that the cosmogonic myth was an integral part of Israelite religion, and was often expressed in connection with the royal ideology, the establishment of kingship—the victory over the 'olden gods,' Sea and River, the council of the gods, etc. And Cross notes, in connection with Israelite kingship and its associated Temple cult, that in psalms that are associated with the Royal ideology and the cult the cosmogonic myths appear “unsullied by historicizing, for example, by reference to” the Exodus – Conquest narrative. (144). He cites in that regard Psalms 29, 93 and 89B (6-19):
Ascribe to Yahweh, O gods,
ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength.
Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due his name;
bow down to Yahweh, majestic in holiness.
The voice of Yahweh is over Waters,
the God of glory thunders,
Yahweh, over the mighty waters. (Psalm 29:1-3)
Your wonders, Yahweh, are praised by the heavens,
your faithfulness, too, in the assembly of holy beings.
For who in the skies is equal to Yahweh
who is like Yahweh among the heaven born,
a god greatly dreaded in the council of holy beings,
held in awe by all around Him?
Yahweh, god of the divine armies [hosts],
who is mighty like you, Yahweh?
Your faithfulness surrounds you;
You quell the swelling of Sea;
when its waves surge, you still them.
You crushed Rahab, split him like a carcase;
with your powerful arm you scattered your enemies. (Psalm 89:6-11)

Assimilation of Israelite Foundational Narratives to the Cosmogonic Myth


In the second half of Chapter 6 Cross provides several examples of the way in which, in later times, Israel's putative history was assimilated to the cosmogonic myth of Ba'l and the Sea/Dragon—that is, in Cross' view the Exodus story of the passage through the Sea is assimilated to the cosmogonic myth, featuring Yahweh as the warrior storm god in place of Ba'l. For example, Psalm 77 clearly concerns the Exodus-Conquest, and we read (in Cross' translation):
The Waters saw you, Yahweh,
The Waters saw you and writhed;
Yea the Deeps shuddered.

The Clouds streamed water,
The Heavens roared,
Your bolts shot back and forth.

Your thunder was in the Tempest,
Lightning lighted the world,
Earth shuddered and shook.

Your way was through the Sea, Yahweh,
Your path in the Deep Waters,
Your tracks beyond our understanding. (Psalm 77:17-20)
Here we see the theogonic gods in their classic pairings, Waters, Deeps, Heaven, Earth—and Waters “writhes” as a dragon or serpent. Again, in Isaiah we read, in reference to the Exodus-Conquest:
Was it not you who smashed Rahab, the writhing dragon?
Was it not you who dried up Sea, the waters of the great deep?
Did you not make a way in the depths of the sea for the redeemed to cross?
The ransomed of Yahweh shall return and enter Zion with a shout. (Isaiah 51:9-11)
As Cross notes, “in these passages the main theme is the 'Way' which splits through the Sea(-dragon) along which Yahweh leads his people ...” (137) Yahweh's saving action is assimilated to the cosmogonic myth of Ba'l overcoming the “olden gods” of theogonic myth (heaven/earth, sea/river, mountains/hills). A further example, from Psalm 114, features the assimilation of the crossing of the Jordan to the formulaic theogonic pairing of River and Sea (River is the flow of water from the sources beneath the cosmic mountain):
When Israel went forth from Egypt,
The house of Jacob from an outlandish nation,
Judah became his sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
The Sea saw and fled,
The Jordan turned back,
The mountains danced like rams,
The hills like lambs.
What ailed you, O Sea, that you fled?
You, Jordan, that you turned back?
The mountains danced like rams,
The hills like lambs,
Before the lord of all the earth,
Before the god of Jacob,
Who turned rock into a pool of water,
Flint into fountains of water. (Psalm 114:1-8)
A similar parallelism between Sea and River is found in the "Psalm of Habakkuk" (Chapter 3), with Yahweh featured as the young Warrior Storm god, the Cloud Rider, driving his chariot at the head of the lesser gods in his retinue:
Was not your wrath against River, Yahweh,
Your anger against River,
Your ire against Sea,
When you drove your horses,
The chariot of your salvation? (Habakkuk 3:8)
In post exilic times this tendency to associate Yahweh's saving deeds in history with the cosmogonic myths turns in a new direction, becoming “the archetype of a new Exodus. The old Songs of the Wars of Yahweh were transformed into descriptions of eschatological battle. The ancient royal festival became a future 'Messianic banquet.'” (144) In Isaiah 34 and 63 we find Yahweh the warrior wading in blood and gore, very much like Anat and Ba'l, exulting in battle and the slaughter of those who oppress his people. At Yahweh's eschatological banquet on the holy mountain Mot (Death) will be “swallowed up”:
On this mountain Yahweh will swallow up the shroud
That is drawn over the faces of all the peoples
And the pall that is spread over all the nations:
He will swallow up Death forever.
Yahweh Elohim will wipe the tears from every face
And will put an end to the reproach of his people from all the earth. (Isaiah 25:7-8)

From Epic to Canon

In 1976 Cross returned to the topic of cosmogonic and theogonic myths in an article that was later published in the collection From Epic to Canon (FEC, 1998): “The 'Olden Gods' in Ancient Near Eastern Creation Myths and in Israel.” The title is somewhat misleading, in that Cross is concerned in this article with broader issues of both the relation between cosmogonic and theogonic myths as well as the further development in history of the theogonic myth. In keeping with this theoretical approach, Cross keeps Greek thought—which he had alluded to in his earlier work on the subject--very much in mind throughout this article.

The Role of Cosmogonic Myth in the Official Cult


Cross begins by clearly distinguishing the two types of creation myth: “theogony, the birth and succession of the gods, especially the old gods,” and “cosmogony, characterized by a conflict between the old and the young gods out of which order, especially kingship, is established in the universe.” The theogonic myth purports to pertain to “primordial events,” those which took place in illo tempore, but points toward “'eternal structures.'” The cosmogonic myth pertains to the great gods of the official cult. (73)

In theogony the gods, and reality, are described as coming into being through sexual generation, and thus the 'olden gods' often appear in pairs of opposites: heaven and earth, fresh water (rivers and springs) and salt water (sea, the abyss), light and dark, air/wind and clouds, mountains and hills. (74) Particularly striking for our purposes are the highly abstract Egyptian gods: Inertness (which refers to the sea), Unbounded, Darkness, Invisibility (the air or wind), Nothingness. Cross briefly notes that the Greek Chaos belongs in this category as well. Throughout the region—in Egypt, Canaan, Mesopotamia, among the Hittites and Greeks--all of these olden gods are, following the victory of the young gods of the cosmogonic myth, confined to the underworld. (74-75)

The character and significance of the cosmogonic myth is succinctly summarized by Cross:
The great cosmogonic myths of Mespopotamia and Canaan were associated with the central rites of the cult and as such are of greater importance than the theogonic myths for our understanding of ancient, mythopoeic religion. The cosmogonies recount the warfare between the olden god or gods and the young god, or gods, a conflict out of which emerges victory for the young god and the establishment of kingship among the gods, and an orderly cosmic government. Kingship and its hierarchical institutions are thus fixed in the orders of creation, and human kingship, patterned after the cosmic government, gains religious sanction. (78)
The Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish is typical of the cosmogonic myths. In it, the young storm god Marduk, riding his cloud chariot and armed with lightning bolts (like Zeus, Ba'l, Yahweh), battles the Dragon of the Deep (here Tiamat):
With his irresistible weapons he slays the ancient dragon. He splits her carcase to form the heavenly ocean and the nether sea, and the bubble of order in between becomes the ordered universe. The climax of the cosmogony comes with the return of the divine warrior in triumph and his enthronement as king. (79)
All of this is familiar to the critical reader of the Israelite scriptures, and the significance of the cosmogonic myth is transparent as examples of Eliade's archaic ontology:
...the political and propagandistic features of the cosmogonic myth emerge clearly. The cosmic state of the gods and the political community of Babylon [Phoenicia, Israel, Judah's Davidic dynasty, etc.] are institutions fixed in eternity. (79)
We have already seen that the theogonic gods survive in Israelite thought through their role in the cosmogonic myth, which flourished under the Davidic kingship and later was transformed in an increasingly eschatological and even an apocalyptic direction. It is of interest to note that the theogonic gods also retained an “attenuated” function in the “covenant lawsuit” of some of the Israelite prophets. In the lawsuit form the olden gods of the theogony are invoked as witnesses:
Hear, O Mountains, the lawsuit of Yahweh,
and give ear, O foundations of the Earth! (Micah 6:2a)

Listen, O Heavens,
give ear, O Earth! (Isaiah 1:2a)

Be astonished, O Heavens, on this account,
be greatly appalled, O Mountains! (Jeremiah 2:12)
Greek Thought: From Theogony to Cosmology


In contrast with this “attenuated” survival of the olden gods in Israelite thought, the pairs of theogonic gods played a central role in Greek thought in the rise of the type of thought that we now call philosophy. We have already noted the abstractness of some of the theogonic gods in Egypt and Phoenicia:
Inertness (which refers to the sea), Unbounded, Darkness, Invisibility (the air or wind), Nothingness. Cross briefly notes that the Greek Chaos belongs in this category as well.
Cross now notes:
It is not by chance that in the proto-philosophical speculations of the pre-Socratics of the Milesian school, lists of opposites played a fundamental role. One thinks particularly of the pairs cold (wind/air) and hot (fire), wet (water) and dry (earth), which separate out of the substratum 'the Unbounded' (apeiron) in the thought of Anaximander. The abstraction vividly reflected in the theogonic genre of gods no doubt gave impetus to philosophical abstraction and classification. In any case, the linkage and continuity between theogonic speculation and cosmological speculation of the Milesian school is difficult to deny. As for the substratum of Thales (primordial water [Chaos]), of Anaximander (the Unbounded [apeiron]), and of Anaximines (air-wind-vapor), all are found in the theogonies of Phoenicia and Egypt. (81)
It is hardly surprising that the Milesian thinkers should turn to the thought of their forebears to seek enlightenment regarding the nature of the cosmos—this is essentially the Aristotelian procedure, to begin with an historical or genealogical survey of prior opinions. What is new is that the Milesians believe that they can shed further light on the nature of the cosmos by applying human reason to the materials provided by the theogonic myths. It is too early to call this approach an application of logic to the concepts of myth, but the movement in that direction seems clear. As Cross notes, “Enuma Elish, the Theogony of Hesiod and the third theogony of Sakkunyaton all reflect impulses to systematize the divine powers.” (80) Milesian thought is unquestionably a step beyond even these other early efforts at systematization.

Greek and Late Israelite Thought: Parallels and Divergences


Cross concludes by contrasting (83) what he terms the Greek “transformation” of theogony into cosmology with the Israelite transformation of theogony into the “monotheistic creation story of Genesis 1.” We have already followed Mark Smith's account of how Israelite thought progressively collapsed the West Semitic hierarchy of the gods until Yahweh stood alone, having absorbed all divinity into himself. When it came time to provide a prologue to Israel's own historicized version of a cosmogonic myth—the “historical” writings of the Israelite scriptures—it was natural for that prologue to use the imagery of the theogonic myths that had served as prologues to the cosmogonic myth that late Yahwist thought had displaced. True, the generations of the olden gods are gone—God has only to speak to bring into being, but the survivals of the theogonic gods remain in the ancient pairings:
we are told that the earth was chaos and disorder: tohu wa bohu, Sakkunyaton's Baau, Hesiod's Chaos. Darkness was on the face of the Deep, tehom, Babylonian Tiamat, Egyptian Nun, and the divine wind (ruah elohim) soared over the surface of the waters of the deep, the primordial wind of Sakkunyaton and Anaximines.
And, Cross notes:
the olden gods are here natural pairs, abstracted like the elements of the Ionian cosmologists. (83)
The difference between the two—for there is a difference and it is a great difference—is that Israelite thought led in Christianity to a focus on the very being of these realities, their act of existing, whereas Greek thought focused on their conceptual content. In this sense, as Eliade wrote, Plato truly remains the great philosopher of archaic ontology, a profoundly conservative figure, whereas Thomas Aquinas is the thinker who develops the latent tendencies of Israelite thought to their fullest potential.

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