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Repost: Mythology and the Table of Nations

My reading, and therefore my blogging, seems to be temporarily stuck in a holding pattern at the dawn of civilization. Rather than fight it, I thought I’d ramble on a bit more about Genesis 10. Here is another attempt to inflict some context upon some of the more outlandish claims one sometimes hears about this particular section of Scripture.

The various attempts to link pagan folklore and mythology to the Table of Nations (Gen 10) is a fascinating study. It seems, furthermore, that nearly everyone in late antiquity wanted to get in on the action.

Commandeering Genesis

On the one hand, ancient peoples, once they embraced Christianity, sought to tie their various cultural histories to the Genesis narrative. So, for example, we learn that the Ethiopian patriarch Ori is actually another name for Aram, the son of Shem, or that the Armenians are descendants of this same Aram as well as of Togarmah, a grandson of Japheth.

The farther one moves from the Near East, however, the more strained are the attempts to find a plausible link to the biblical past. Some, for example, have found a reference to Japheth in the Germanic Sceaf (pronounced approximately “shaff”), but the earliest versions of the myths about Sceaf have nothing to do with the biblical narrative. Likewise, the elaborate Irish genealogies purport to go back to Japheth, but closer inspection reveals that they are in fact likely garbled imitations of Virgil’s Aeneid. Probably not coincidentally, medieval Scandinavians also had a legend about descent from refugee Trojans, and thus connect themselves with Japheth’s son Tiras. One is tempted to wonder which mythology these recently Christianized northerners found more compelling‚Äîthe biblical or the Homeric!

Attempts like these can be relatively harmless trivial pursuits. In fact, they served an important theological purpose in earlier times by connecting the history of various nations of the world with the “salvation history” of the Bible. Another thousand-plus years of historical inquiry, however, have stripped most of these interpretations of whatever credibility they originally seemed to have. Even so, I’ll confess I would love to find mention of my earliest Germanic and Celtic ancestors in Genesis (beyond the generic association with “Japheth”), but I know they were too busy terrorizing their neighbors and going to speech therapy to work on those gosh-awful proto-Indo-European laryngeals to make an appearance on the biblical stage.

Commandeering Mythology

On the other hand, some early Jewish writers moved in the other direction. They tried to tie the Genesis patriarchs to figures known in classical mythology, arguing that those whom the pagans called “gods” were in fact mortals whose exploits were embellished over time until they became objects of worship. This approach to mythology is called euhemerism, named for the Greek writer Euhemeros, who claimed that myths about the gods grew out of earlier stories about mortals and thus that figures like Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus were in fact kings from long ago.

There is at least some justification for interpreting mythology euhemeristically, although no one today believes it is the only factor in the development of myths. Ancestor worship is not unknown among human societies, after all, and even some of the myths themselves indicate that certain figures were humans (or demi-gods) who once walked among mortals but later became deified. I’m thinking particularly of Herakles among the Greeks and the ancient Sumerian Gilgamesh in this regard. Furthermore, some societies have shown a penchant for (literally) idolizing their kings. The Egyptians had been doing this for 3,000 years when the Romans took up the habit in the first century AD.

Jews and (especially) Christians jumped on the theory of euhemerism for a couple of reasons I’ll mention below. In particular, some older historians attempted to give classical mythology a euhemeristic interpretation with respect to the biblical Flood story and the Table of Nations. For example, this page, now available only via the Wayback Machine, gives a run-down of equivalences based mainly on the sixteenth-century Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed. Similar speculations prevailed in the learned histories of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

These attempts at finding the gods of classical mythology in the book of Genesis seem to find their inspiration in the second century BC Sibylline Oracles. In one section of this Hellenistic Jewish source, certain figures of Greek myth are interpreted as deified patriarchs. Here is how the story is told in Sibylline Oracles 3:110-155 (James H. Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1 [Doubleday, 1983] 364-65):

Cronos and Titan and Iapetus reigned,
the best children of Gaia and Ouranos, whom men called
earth and heaven, giving them a name
because they were the first of articulate men.
The portions of the earth were threefold, according to the lot of each
and each one reigned, having his share, and they did not fight
for there were oaths imposed by their father, and the divisions were just.
When the full time, the old age of the father, came,
he also died, and the sons made a dire
transgression of oaths and stirred up strife against each other
as to who should have royal honor and reign over all men.
Cronos and Titan fought against each other
but Rhea, Gaia, Aphrodite who loves crowns,
Demeter, Hestia, and fair-tressed Dione
brought them to friendship, having assembled
all the kings, kindred and brothers, and other men
who were of the same blood and parents.
And they chose Cronos king to rule over all
because he was the eldest and best in appearance.
But Titan, for his part, imposed great oaths on Cronos
that he should not rear a family of male children, so that
he himself might reign when old age and fate came upon Cronos.
Whenever Rhea gave birth, the Titans sat by her,
and they tore apart all male children,
but they allowed the females to live and be reared with their mother.
But when Lady Rhea gave birth in the third child-bearing
she brought forth Hera first. When they saw
with their eyes the female species, the Titans, savage men,
went home. Then Rhea bore a male child,
whom she quickly sent away to be reared secretly and in private,
to Phrygia, having taken three Cretan men under oath.
therefore they named him Zeus, because he was sent away.
Similarly she sent away Poseidon secretly.
Further, the third time, Rhea, marvel of women, bore Pluto
as she went past Dodona, whence the watery paths
of the river Europus flowed and the water ran to the sea
mingled with the Peneius, and they call it Stygian.
When the Titans heard that children existed
in secret, whom Cronos had begotten with Rhea, his consort,
Titan assembled sixty sons
and held Cronos and Rhea, his consort, in fetters.
He hid them in the earth and guarded them in bonds.
then indeed the sons of mighty Cronos heard it
and they stirred up great war and din of battle against him.
This is the beginning of war for all mortals
for this is the first beginning of war for mortals.

The threefold division of the world among the three sons of Ouranos is suggestive of the division of the postdiluvian world among the sons of Noah, and there is a passing reference to the Flood immediately before this passage. Apparently, the author wants us to see in Ouranos and Gaia the figures of Noah and his wife, who had three sons. Iapetos is clearly Japheth (who doesn’t figure in the later drama at any rate); Kronos the firstborn is meant to be Shem, and the evil Titan stands for the accursed Ham. (NB: I’m transliterating the Greek names in a more “Hellenic” fashion, both to make this post more searchable and for my own piece of mind.) I don’t see it personally, and nothing in Charlesworth’s notes or introductory matter points in this direction. I must be missing something, however, because I’ve found this theory advanced in a number of older sources. For example, it is the interpretation Alfred Edersheim relates in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883):

[T]he Sibylline Oracles, of which the oldest portions date from about 160 B.C., come to us from Egypt. It is to these alone that we here refer. Their most interesting parts are also the most characteristic. In these the ancient heathen myths of the first ages of man are welded together with Old Testament notices, while the heathen Theogony is recast in a Jewish mould. Thus Noah become Uranos, Shem Saturn [i.e., Kronos], Ham Titan, and Japheth Japetus.

Problems

For the most part, the story parallels what Hesiod writes in the Theogony. There are, however, at least two problems. The first, which will be most glaring to those familiar with Greek religion, is that classical mythology knows of no individual by the name of “Titan.” The Titans (plural) were a race of beings, older than the Olympian gods. There is no reference to anyone named Titan in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Rather, among the first generation of the race of Titans were twelve beings, two of whom were named Iapetos and Kronos. Kronos was the father of Zeus and the other Olympians. Furthermore, he was not the eldest of the sons of Ouranos; he was in fact the last-born!

As far as I can tell, the first anyone hears of an individual named Titan is in the writings of Diodorus Siculus in the Hellenistic age, who tells of Euhemeros himself getting to the bottom of things with his discovery of the “truth” about Ouranos and his offspring on the (imaginary) island of Panchaia:

Euhemerus goes on to say that Uranus was the first to be king, that he was an honourable man and beneficent, who was versed in the movement of the stars, and that he was also the first to honour the gods of the heavens with sacrifices, whence he was called Uranus or “Heaven.”

There were born to him by his wife Hestia two sons, Titan and Cronus, and two daughters, Rhea and Demeter. Cronus became king after Uranus, and marrying Rhea he begat Zeus and Hera and Poseidon. And Zeus on succeeding to the kingship, married Hera and Demeter and Themis, and by them he had children, the Curetes by the first named, Persephon?™ by the second, and Athena by the third.

And going to Babylon he was entertained by Belus, and after that he went to the island of Panchaea, which lies in the ocean, and here he set up an altar to Uranus, the founder of his family. From there he passed through Syria and came to Casius, who was ruler of Syria at that time, and who gave his name to Mt. Casius. And coming to Cilicia he conquered in battle Cilix, the governor of the region, and he visited very many other nations, all of which paid honour to him and publicly proclaimed him a god. (Library of History 6:1:8-10)

Diodorus lived a century after the Sibylline Oracles. Apparently both were drawing on the same source material, which cannot be proven to predate circa 300 BC‚Äîthe era of Euhemeros himself. Whatever its source, this revision of the myth makes a muddle of one of Hesiod’s main themes: the war of the Olympians against the Titans. In a nutshell, Kronos was the villain of the original myth, who swallowed his own children whole lest they usurp his authority. There is no suggestion of an uncomplicated royal succession (as implied by Diodorus’ matter-of-fact report) nor of internecine treachery at the hands of any supposed brother (such as the Oracle describes).

The second problem is that establishing who precisely was Noah’s firstborn is tricky business. Some Jewish traditions make him the second born and Ham the eldest; and much of rabbinic tradition even makes Shem the youngest of Noah’s sons! A literal reading of Genesis casts serious doubt on Shem being the firstborn‚Äîand theories such as these are only advanced by the most literalistic of biblical thinkers! Comparing Genesis 5:32 with 7:6 and 11:10 would require that Shem not be firstborn, but perhaps two or three years younger than the firstborn, whoever he may be. And, in fact, the Talmud sometimes makes Japheth the eldest son of Noah (Sanh. 69b; Gen R. 26). I’ve seen arguments advanced in favor of each of Noah’s three sons actually being the eldest! Without valid birth certificates in hand, I wouldn’t put too much weight on theories that depend for their validity on nailing down the birth order of Noah’s sons!

Motives

There seem to be at least two motives behind this fascination with classical mythology.

The first motive is theological. If one assumes that humans were originally monotheists (e.g., Adam and Eve in the garden), one somehow has to account for the rise of polytheism. Depending on the spin one wants to give it, such re-interpretations of the myths can appeal either to the self-aggrandizement of wicked kings or to the superstitious hero-worship of their subjects or descendants. Neither possibility is without historical precedent.

The second motive is apologetic. It is a means of claiming greater antiquity for the Hebrew Scriptures than for the myths of the pagans, as well as a more accurate portrayal of reality. The basic points are, “We were here first” and “Our God is real; your gods are false.” William Harris explains,

If one could prove that the gods of antiquity were mere human fabrications, whether they were so constructed for bad or for good reasons, Christians can get rid of the weight of millennia of pagan thought with one swift stroke.

This maneuver would carry more weight had those who advanced it paid a bit more attention to both the content of the myths and the text of Genesis.

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