Category Archives: Myths

From Adapa to Jesus

Adapa Sumerian deity of healing, with healthy catch of fish
Creative Commons Attribution

That the gospels recycled themes, motifs, sayings, can be found across the Middle East from Mesopotamia to Egypt and stretching back millennia to before the Neo Babylonian empire and even before the time of any Jewish Scriptures will be of no surprise to anyone who has read The Messiah Myth by Thomas L. Thompson.

Of the myth of Adapa and the South Wind “the earliest known version is a Sumerian text from Old Babylonian Tell Haddad”, made available by Cavigneaux in 2014. I have part translated, part paraphrased the opening section of Cavigneaux’s French translation of the often broken Sumerian text, and added a distinctive note on one comment that I found particularly interesting.

In those distant days …

After the Flood had swept over,

and brought about the destruction of the land …

The world is reborn

A seed of humanity had been preserved …

Four legged animals once again widely dispersed …

Fish and birds repopulated the ponds and reedbeds …

Herbs and aromatic plants flowered on the high steppe …

The state is born

An and Enlil organized the world …

The city of Kish became a pillar of the country …

Etana becomes king

Then the elected shepherd …

Founded a house …

The South Wind during his reign brought blessings …

Humanity without a guide

Humanity did not have a directive …

[Nobody knew how to give or follow orders]

The Story of Adapa begins

[A loyal devotee of Enki he goes fishing in the quay to supply his master’s temple in Eridu.]

In later exorcistic texts … the quay (Akk. kārum) is a trope for the liminal space between worlds.

At the New Moon he went up to go fishing

Without rudder he let the boat go with the flow

Without pole he went up the stream

On the vast lagoon …

[He is capsized by the South Wind]

He curses the South Wind …

And broke the wings of the South Wind …

Jesus stills storm. Interestingly the South Wind was said to be beneficial; it appears to me that Adapa’s technology, apparently directed by the power of his words, was being frustrated by the South Wind.

The narrative is thus a reference to the destruction of the old world and the restoration of the new, through a Flood or through water bringing about the end of one world and nourishing the emergence of the new. As Thompson observes in The Mythic Past new worlds emerge through parting waters (Creation, Noah, Exodus, Elijah-Elisha, Jesus’ Baptism/heavens divided).

Adapa has a special gift. Though mortal, he has power over words, or rather his words have power over the world. Adapa will become the great mythical sage of scribes, of all who can with the magic of words change the face of the earth and the organization of society: engineers, architects, legislators, ….

We are familiar with astronomy and astrology being all one branch of knowledge in these times; similarly magic and medicine were indistinguishable at this stage. The skills of the scribes, the amazing feats they accomplished with words, appear to have been supernatural gifts.

After Adapa by merely speaking causes the wind to cease the supreme god is astonished and invites him up to heaven. Adapa’s personal god, however, warns Adapa not to accept certain gifts [bread, drink, a coat] that will be offered to him there but to only accept an anointing. The chief god laughingly tells Adapa that he has just refused the gifts that would have given him eternal life.

And so forth.

We see here a story opening with the water, a flood, separating the old and the new. We see the wise hero wielding power over the elements, even stilling a “storm”, by his mere commands. Others are amazed at his ability. In this case, it is the gods who are amazed.

The plot of the story begins with the sage “going fishing”, a scene that is found to have mythical or metaphorical significance of life and death, entering a space between two worlds.

I find such literary comparisons interesting. I’m not saying the evangelists were adapting the myth of Adapa, of course. I am thinking about the way certain mythical tropes have been recycled and refashioned through changing human circumstances and experiences.


Cavigneaux, Antoine. 2014. “Une Version Sumérienne de La Légende d’Adapa (Textes de Tell Haddad X).” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 104 (1): 1–41. https://www.academia.edu/26276183/Une_version_sum%C3%A9rienne_de_la_l%C3%A9gende_d_Adapa_Textes_de_Tell_Haddad_X_

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 42


 

An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths

This post is a follow up from Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness. I may come to see this attempt to compare the structures of the myths as a sad misadventure but till then, let’s see what happens.

Detail from the Santa Maria sarcophagus (late second century?). Was Jesus depicted as a child because the myth declared him to be a child at this point or is he depicted as a child to merely symbolize the beginning of a new life beside the aged John the Baptist representing the old?

We begin with the “gnostic myth” of the advent of an illuminator or saviour figure that was announced by the second kingdom:

1. A prophet is said to be the beginning of the saviour figure who is presented as a child.

2. A bird takes the saviour to a mountain, presumably a wilderness setting

3. The bird nourishes the child saviour in the mountain

4. Presumably after the child has become an adult an angel appears to declare the saviour figure now has power and glory

5. The figure comes to the water.

The image below attempts to illustrate that particular structure. (For the understanding of coming “upon” water as an expression relating to power and submission see the previous post.)

Next, look at a similar myth in the Book of Revelation, though we will simplify it for starters. This structure is illustrated in the middle column.

1. The prophet John is writing, or announcing, the advent of the child saviour figure from the time he is born.

2. An angelic voice declares that great power and glory has now come into being, presumably a proleptic announcement concerning the child. (The mother and child are separated; the mother will be a proxy for those who follow the saviour-child).

3. A bird (eagle) carries the mother of the child to the wilderness

4. The woman is nourished and cared for in the wilderness (by….?)

5. The water of chaos, a flood, attempts to destroy the woman but she is protected by the wilderness earth.

The larger structure is essentially the same as the gnostic myth but the middle two steps are reversed. This reversal appears to be a function of the splitting of the child from its mother (and rest of her seed).

The structure the previous two myths is completely inverted with the Gospel of Mark. Coming to the water or facing the water is now moved to the beginning, along with the prophet, and is no longer the culmination of the story. In this gospel the water has become a symbol of baptism which is a figure of the death of the old man (as per Paul). In the Gospel of Mark we have the narrative bookended by narratives of death and emergence from death, first symbolically in the water, then finally through the cross.

1. The prophet announces the advent of the man saviour.

2. The saviour figure comes to the water and as he emerges from it.

3. The saviour figure is addressed as a sacrificial victim — the inverse of the power and glory we saw in the other two myths. For “my beloved son” as a signal of a son to be sacrificed see Jon Levenson’s studies on the Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. But the power and glory is still latent because the saviour figure is still the son of God.

4. The spirit (identified as a bird, in this case the dove) drives or propels the saviour figure into the wilderness.

5. The saviour figure is nourished by angels in the wilderness. (Matthew and Luke add the mountain.)

The angels and the bird take on inverted meanings. The angels feed and nourish the saviour in the wilderness, thus doing enough merely to keep him alive after his long fast and encounter with Satan. There is no roaring declaration of the saviour being imbued with power and glory.

The bird has changed from an eagle to a dove. The eagle had the power to rescue and carry a person in flight. The dove drives the saviour figure into the wilderness but has already come to him at the moment he is declared to be the beloved son (for sacrifice).

The Gospel of Mark may be thought of as inverting the rival myths of a messiah or saviour coming with great power. The water has become a means of symbolic death and birth as a “beloved son” destined to be sacrificed.

The earlier myth of power is not completely displaced, however. We see the saviour figure in the wilderness nourishing his followers by the thousands; he then ascendes a mountain before returning to walk upon the water to his disciples. Several details of this narrative indicate it is to be understood as a theophany, or perhaps even originally a post-resurrection appearance. The myth of power is not completely replaced but it is supplemented by an inverted form of the myth to take place first.

 

How an executed war criminal became a mythic national hero

Breaker Morant

Years ago I walked out of a movie theatre enraged. Thousands throughout Australia at that time did the same. People talked about it for months afterwards, asking “How could they do it!” The “they” were the British colonial masters led by Lord Kitchener; the “it” was the execution of two Australian soldiers as scapegoats to protect the international image of Great Britain. The film was Breaker Morant, based on historical persons and events in the Boer War at the turn of the last century. Morant, nicknamed the Breaker, was a national hero few of us at the time had even heard about. The film revived memories from the early twentieth century that the Breaker was very much a national hero and a sacrificial victim to the British overlords.

Morant has gone not so much into history as into legend. He followed the admired track of other Australian folk-heroes — Ned Kelly, Moondyne Joe, Captain Starlight. They were all men against authority; good bad men or bad good men, always with enough human appeal to disguise the fact that they were outside the law, that they robbed and killed and were brought to book. Behind them all are the near-mythic figures of Hereward the Wake and Robin Hood, of William Tell and the outlaws of the Old West. People prefer to think of them all as bold and brave individuals, self-reliant and strong, defiant against great odds. Morant, in the popular mind, has joined their company.

(Denton in Closed File, cited by Walker, pp. 18f )

Here are the facts about Morant according to Shirley Walker’s article ‘A Man Never Knows His Luck in South Africa’: Some Australian Literary Myths from the Boer War. I list them first so you can begin to wonder how such a figure was able to acquire the status of an Australian mythic hero.

  • His name was Edwin Henry Murrant, son of the Master and Matron of the Union Workhouse, Bridgewater, Somerset.
  • He lied about his age to marry Daisy O’Dwyer, soon afterwards deserting her and eventually remarrying as a bigamist
  • “A young English scapegrace consigned to the colonies for some youthful escapade”
  • He had a reputation for defaulting on debts
  • A “womanizer”. His nickname Breaker referred to both his breaking in of horses and his breaking of women’s hearts
  • A horse thief
  • A regular drunkard
  • In the Boer War he shot prisoners, including a number who entered his camp under the white flag.
  • He also had witnesses to these crimes, including a missionary, murdered.
  • On being caught he was tried and executed by firing squad.

There was a positive side:

  • He was “well known throughout Australia (i.e. the colonies) as a rough rider, a polo and steeplechase rider”
  • a bush poet published in the leading magazine, The Bulletin, under the pen-name “The Breaker”

How does one make a Hereward the Wake or Robin Hood type hero out of raw material like that?

First, one needs the right soil for any seed to germinate. Or, to change the metaphor, one needs a mold by means of which to cast the person to become the hero.

In other words, the ideas of the myth are “out there”, in the minds of an audience who are prepared to love the idea of finding exemplars to fit those ideals. read more »

Myths of Salvation Among Greek Gods and Heroes

Chiron sacrifices himself for Prometheus

If you are open to sceptical questions about Christianity and are not very familiar with ancient Greek literature and mythology you may find the few notes below of interest.

When I first read the following passages (quite some time ago now) I was struck by the way motifs that later became central to Christianity are woven throughout the mythical tales.

After Prometheus had saved mankind from Zeus’s plan to destroy him, Zeus bound him to a rock and ordained an eagle to eat from his liver every day, with the wound healing overnight ready for a fresh dinner the next day — forever.

But a son of Zeus, Heracles, was eventually destined to release Prometheus from his torment.

The poet Hesiod from the 8th or 7th century BCE wrote:

And ready-witted Prometheus he bound with inextricable bonds, cruel chains, and drove a shaft through his middle, and set on him a long-winged eagle, which used to eat his immortal liver; but by night the liver grew as much again everyway as the long-winged bird devoured in the whole day.

That bird Heracles, the valiant son of shapely-ankled Alcmene, slew; and delivered the son of Iapetus from the cruel plague, and released him from his affliction — not without the will of Olympian Zeus who reigns on high, that the glory of Heracles the Theban-born might be yet greater than it was before over the plenteous earth. . . .

The fifth century BCE playwright Aeschylus explained in more detail why Prometheus had to suffer:

PROMETHEUS:

However, you ask why he torments me, and this I will now make clear. As soon as he had seated himself upon his father’s throne, he immediately assigned to the deities their several privileges and apportioned to them their proper powers. But of wretched mortals he took no notice, desiring to bring the whole race to an end and create a new one in its place.

Against this purpose none dared make stand except me—I only had the courage; I saved mortals so that they did not descend, blasted utterly, to the house of Hades. This is why I am bent by such grievous tortures, painful to suffer, piteous to behold. I who gave mortals first place in my pity, I am deemed unworthy to win this pity for myself, but am in this way mercilessly disciplined, a spectacle that shames the glory of Zeus.

But Prometheus knew a secret. He knew that Zeus himself was destined one day to be overthrown from his position as chief of the gods. (That particular hero, we elsewhere learn, was destined to be the semi-divine Achilles. But that’s another story.) The mortal Io (who was later to become the mother of the line that produced Heracles) is talking with Prometheus in his misery: read more »

Five Foundation Myths of Cyrene

The “historical” founder of the colony of Cyrene was a Greek named Battus (an unlikely founder since he spoke with a stutter) who is said to have ruled in the years leading up to 600 BCE.

Contemporary archaeologists agree: Cyrene, the Greek colony in Libya, had its beginnings in the second half of the seventh century B.C. The presence of some objects dated to the Late Helladic III A and B periods on the site clearly points to more ancient contacts between Greece and the Mediterranean coast of Africa; nothing, however, before the middle of the Archaic period indicates the development of a city in the Greek sense of the term. Such is the interpretation of the archaeologists . . . (Calame, Claude. Myth and History in Ancient Greece: The Symbolic Creation of a Colony, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 2003. p. 35)


The ancient myth of the founding of the Cyrenian kingdom comes to us from a number of sources, including several of Pindar‘s poems (in particular the Pythian Odes 4, 5, 9), the history by Herodotus, (book 4), the epic poet Apollonius of Rhodes who wrote about Jason and the Argonauts, and the Cyrenian poet Callimachus.

Herodotus, writing as a “historian” presents us with a rationalised version of how Cyrene was founded as a Greek colony. He eschews in this context tales of gods and demigods and myths. But the other sources mentioned above are more willing to leave us the popular legends of how this great ancient Greek colony of Libya came to be.

Pindar gives us two stories: one begins seventeen generations before our stuttering founder Battus; but another begins even earlier, back in mythic time when only gods “made history”.

Pindar’s accounts of the foundation stories

read more »