BMCR 2010.12.11

When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East

, When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2010. xii, 301. ISBN 9780674049468. $39.95.

The necessity of studying ancient Greece in relation to the Near East has long been acknowledged, and the works of Martin Bernal, albeit controversial, and of M. L. West are already established classics in this domain of inquiry, having generated a variety of different responses from different audiences. What has perhaps received less attention is what the study of ancient Greece can contribute to a more complete understanding of the ancient Near East. The present book, the most recent in a chain of works focusing on the interconnections from the perspective of a classicist, is one that has the promise of offering new interpretive insights to scholars of the ancient Near East in addition to those of ancient Greece.

The focus of the book is literature, more specifically cosmogonies, both orthodox (Hesiod) and heterodox (Orphic). However, the author, Carolina López-Ruiz, also often shows her awareness of archaeological contexts in understanding the literary interconnections within the greater ancient Near East.

The book takes a number of critical positions in an attempt to advance the study of Near Eastern elements in ancient Greek literature. Touching upon the by-now-clear pitfall of studying Greece in isolation from the Near Eastern world, López-Ruiz warns against going to the opposite extreme of seeing Greece as a mere appendage to the great cultures of ancient western Asia and Egypt, referring to such a tendency as “reverse orientalism.” The author favors greater geographic integration in the treatment of both the Greek world and the Near East, often resorting to the phrase “Eastern Mediterranean.” She proposes that what have so far been indiscriminately classified under the heading “Near Eastern” are really “Eastern Mediterranean” cultural elements in ancient Greece, which can be anchored more plausibly within a context of historical contact centered on Syro-Palestine and Cilicia as “the grand junction.”

The principal argument of the book is the key role played by the Levant as the main source of ancient Near Eastern elements in Greek cosmogonies. In her emphasis on a Levant-centered influx of Near Eastern ideas into Greek texts, López-Ruiz goes beyond seeing the Levant as an intermediary in the exchange of ideas between ancient Greece and the farther Near East, and ascribes especially to the Ugaritic and Phoenician presence in the area during the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, respectively, full-fledged cultural authority in the transmission of literary and mytho-poetic paradigms.

Considering Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and even Anatolian sources as “distant,” López-Ruiz attributes the highest importance in matters of transmission to the much-neglected Northwest Semitic, Phoenician, or Levantine literary and cultural traditions, seeing the latter as belonging more directly to the cultural koiné of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Throughout the book, there is a determination on the author’s part to keep the analysis of interconnections away from the “great cultures” of the ancient Near East, the ones that dominated the relevant discussions too much so far, especially Mesopotamia and its literary corpus. A critique of the “colonial model” underlies her agenda; Greece has often been seen as the culture “informed” by the more advanced cradles of civilization, who act as “informants.” López-Ruiz’s alternative view is that the exchange would in fact have been much more symmetrical and dynamic, involving equal partners; hence the priority given to an Eastern Mediterranean koiné and the cultures of the Levant in the Greeks’ interactions with their eastern neighbors.

López-Ruiz’s critical positions continue in her intended distance from what she calls the “inventory model” of listing and juxtaposing to one another “disconnected parallels” between the literary texts of ancient Greece and the Near East. She advocates a more selective case-study model whereby discussions could have greater depth and room for interpretation.

There are five chapters in the book. In the first, “Greeks and Phoenicians,” López-Ruiz argues for taking the Phoenician impact on ancient Greek literature much more seriously than hitherto acknowledged. Aware that no Phoenician literary texts are preserved owing to their having been written on perishable materials, she still emphasizes a distinct Phoenician culture detectable in the epigraphic and archaeological record in Cilicia and the Levant in the Iron Age. This is also the chapter in which López-Ruiz expounds her hypothesis of a less elevated mode of transmission of myth and textual elements than often assumed, one that would not exclude, for instance, a “foreign” touch in a family, “such as a slave, a wet nurse, a teacher, a friend.”

The shift to the second chapter, “Hesiod’s Theogony in Context” is somewhat abrupt; an introductory passage enabling the transition from the Phoenicians to the very specific discussion on the Muses and the enigmatic verse “But what do I care about these things concerning a tree or a stone?” from the Theogony (35) would have been helpful. Of great interest in the rest of this chapter is the discussion on the enigma of “the Tree and the Stone” and its parallels, pairing the tree and the stone or not, found in the literatures of the Levant and beyond. Understood often as a verse constituting a shift from Hesiod’s digression on his initiation by the Muses back to the recounting of the generation of the gods, it is interpreted by López-Ruiz as a line evoking “the cosmic mysteries of the universe and the origin of all things.” The comparative material pertaining to sacred or primordial trees and stones, paired or not, gathered from the Ugaritic texts, “Gold Tablets,” Hebrew Bible, and even the Gospel of Thomas and the Koran, makes the author’s interpretation quite interesting and compelling.

What comes as a surprise in relation to all these comparisons, however, is the statement that “the picture that emerges from these parallels is not one of direct relationship or dependence. Rather, what we gain is a clearer view of the common threads and features that made the fabric of these Mediterranean literatures and mythologies” (pp. 72-73). Such a statement seems to be in conflict with the author’s rather strong commitment, expressed repeatedly in the various parts of the book, to curb and delimit the comparative activity to those explicable by historically plausible cultural exchange. If the Gospel of Thomas and the Koran are part of the comparative agenda, there is no reason not to enrich this discussion with the mythical trees of the Cedar Forest episode (Tablet 3) and the mysterious “Stone Ones” of the episode of the journey to Utnapishtim (Tablet 11) from the Standard Babylonian Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Chapter Three, “Greek and Near Eastern Succession Myths,” focuses more closely on the mechanics and semantics of Hesiod’s Theogony in juxtaposition to the Ugaritic, “Hurro-Hittite,” and Babylonian cosmogonies. The cosmogony preserved in the testimony of the Phoenician author Philon from Roman times and its close parallels with the relevant Ugaritic texts is López-Ruiz’s main basis for arguing for continuity in literary traditions in the Levant from the Late Bronze Age to the Phoenicians of the Iron Age. The absence of the castration theme in the Ugaritic texts, but its presence in the Kumarbi cycle lead the author to readjust the potential source for Philon and Hesiod as “Anatolian-Phoenician,” as she contemplates why Hesiod’s theogonic scheme is clearer and simpler than that of Philon’s.

The rest of the chapter concentrates on the philosophical implications of the god Kronos as the lord over a bygone primordial era, of all time and eternity, and of the “Golden Race.” López-Ruiz considers the Canaanite god El as the closest parallel to Kronos in that he is also a venerable god ultimately marginalized by Baal, as Kronos is by Zeus. The author’s determination not to engage with Mesopotamia leaves out a potential complement to this discussion in the role of the Mesopotamian god Enki/Ea as lord over primordial waters and time, and his status in the cosmos comparable to that of Kronos.1

The question of the relation of Hesiod’s Theogony to other Greek texts of similar content makes up the material of the next chapter: “Orphic and Phoenician Theogonies.” Pointing out that the Orphic “cosmogonies-theogonies” are richer in ancient Near Eastern elements than Hesiod’s text, the author considers a variety of mythical and philosophical themes ranging from castration and male impregnation to the conception of a personified Time God, Chronos, as attested especially in Orphic texts and ultimately connected to Kronos, and conceptions of primordial time and eternity at large. The discussion here is so rich in comparative material that despite all her efforts, the author cannot help bringing up Egyptian, Iranian, and Mesopotamian concepts, but in every such instance she also manages to step back and prioritize the Levantine-Phoenician culture almost as an apology for referring to other traditions. In fact, this is the chapter in which one comes to a full realization that the intellectual content and rigor of the book is too substantive to serve the rather thin agenda of the primacy of a Phoenician or Levantine axis in the study of the Greek-Near Eastern interface.

The author’s determination to adhere to a Levant-centered sphere of intellectual exchange on the one hand, and the challenge of determining the exact label for this particular area in light of where the mythical themes dealt with are best at home result in a number of different combinations in geographic and cultural designation throughout the book: “Anatolian-Levantine,” “Cilician-Phoenician,” “Syro-Phoenician,” “Anatolian-Phoenician,” “Canaanite-Phoenician,” “the Levantine corner of Cilicia-Syria-Phoenicia,” “the areas of southern Anatolia and northern Syro-Palestine, with Cilicia and Phoenicia as nodal points,” to name a few. Were it not for the castration theme, Anatolia might not even be in the picture, and in fact, the author ascribes the relevant parallels in Hurro-Hittite myth primarily to the Hurrians, stressing their Syrian, rather than Mesopotamian, connections. It is only in passing that the “Ionic area of Lydia in Asia Minor” is mentioned in the final chapter as a region in which “Greek culture had been in close contact with Hurro-Hittite and Semitic elements already in the Late Bronze Age and certainly in the Iron Age, which, again, might explain some of the ‘orientalizing’ features of the figure of Kronos and his related rituals” (pp. 185-86).

The fifth and last chapter of the book, “Cosmogonies, Poets, and Cultural Exchange,” summarizes and contextualizes the main threads of argument in the whole book with some new content matter incorporated as well, such as the question of cosmogonies recited or performed in ritual contexts, and the phenomenon of individual authorship, found in ancient Greece, and almost absent in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Here, López-Ruiz stresses that she does not rule out influence from the ancient Near East beyond the Levant, and that she emphasizes the Levant primarily because it is by and large neglected in scholarship and because it is the cultural domain most proximate to Greece to interact with it in the most realistic and natural manner within an Eastern Mediterranean koiné.

In sum, this book is a valuable contribution to the study of ancient Greek-Near Eastern interconnections, but its main argument is asserted too strongly. By a nearly absolutist separation of Greece from the depths of the ancient Near East and confining the relevant dialogues by and large to coastal Syria and the Levant, the author often does not allow the literary and mythical parallels to speak for themselves. In doing so, she seems to be partaking of a larger tendency nowadays in scholarship to try to recast the ancient Near East in a predominantly “Eastern Mediterranean” mold, a world of which the Uluburun shipwreck is the mirror. A fear of “high culture” and a desire to familiarize the modes of transmission that now entail wet nurses, nannies, friends, and grandfathers sitting by the fire communicating their stories are not always commensurate with the complex theological and philosophical matters the author often explores masterfully both in the main text and in the footnotes. A command over the scholarly literature on both ancient Greece and the Near East being a Herculean task, the author could have benefited from more sources on related topics by scholars of the ancient Near East.2 As indicated at the beginning, one of the greatest achievements of the book is its providing new perspectives for scholars of the ancient Near East as well to understand better the traditions they work with through the window of the Greek cosmogonies.


1. See Samuel Noah Kramer and John Maier, Myths of Enki, the Crafty God (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) esp. Chapter 9: “Traces of the Fugitive God,” pp. 153-78.

2. For instance, Stephanie Dalley, ed., The Legacy of Mesopotamia (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Sanna Aro and R. M. Whiting, eds., Heirs of Assyria (Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2000); Marian H. Feldman, Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an “International Style” in the Ancient Near East, 1400-1200 BCE (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).