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Repost: The Nimrod Myth

Euhemerism, the view that the gods are merely humans deified by the passage of time, is an inadequate theory to account for the supposed relationship between the Table of Nations and the mythologies of the ancient world. But does that mean there is no connection between the two?

The Mighty Hunter

To answer that question, let’s turn to Nimrod, another figure in Genesis 10 whose shadowy history has proved fertile ground for those who have sought to find the origins of pagan religion in the biblical patriarchs. In many older works, Nimrod is identified as the “man behind the myth” of the dying-and-rising god featured in all of ancient mythology: Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, etc. In the 1850s, Alexander Hislop wrote a spectacularly wrongheaded piece of anti-Catholic propaganda based on the figure of Nimrod and his wife/mother (traditionally called Semiramis) as the fountainhead of all pagan mythology and, eventually, the Roman Catholic Church! (He also has some rather unflattering opinions of people of African descent.) Others have seen Nimrod as a key figure in the development of world mythology, with or without the racism and anti-Catholicism added in.

But could Nimrod have had ties to ancient mythology—of which the Bible is silent? Perhaps. Some believe, for example, that the name Nimrod (n-m-r-d) may be somehow related to the name of the god Marduk (m-r-d-k), the patron deity of Babylon. Others point to the Ninurta, another Sumero-Babylonian fertility god. Deifying monarchs was certainly a longstanding tradition in the ancient world. One of the earliest was Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk after the Flood, who is but one of a small multitude of ancient Mesopotamian rulers some scholars point to as possible inspirations for the biblical account of Nimrod.

In both Jewish and Muslim tradition, Nimrod was a wicked king, contemporary with Abraham, who led his people into idolatry. His reputation as a “hunter” is sometimes interpreted in terms of “spiritual hunting,” i.e., leading people away from God. In Genesis Rabbah, to be “like Nimrod” is to be like those “who ensnared people by their words.” In the Zohar, Rabbi Eleazar is quoted as saying,

Nimrod used to entice people into idolatrous worship by means of those garments [of Adam, used as a kind of magic talisman—D.P.], which enabled him to conquer the world and proclaim himself its ruler, so that mankind offered him worship.

Furthermore, Nimrod’s traditional association with the Tower of Babel (nowhere explicitly stated in Scripture) seems to suggest Nimrod’s involvement with Mesopotamian astrology. My preferred theory about the identity of the “historical” Nimrod makes an even more overt claim that he introduced a new form of worship among his subjects, and if anyone is interested I may discuss it in a later post.

To the extent that these later speculations remain grounded in the actual text, they may have some degree of plausibility. Genesis 10 does portray Nimrod as a tyrant, and if‚ following the unanimous testimony of classic Jewish and Christian exegesis‚ he was indeed the king who presided over the building of the Tower of Babel, the force of his name (coming from a Hebrew verb meaning “rebel”) would naturally suggest rebellion against God, i.e., false worship.

The Queen of Heaven

The mythical story is not complete, however, without Nimrod’s wife (and sometimes mother), Semiramis. Now, before you start thumbing through your Bibles, you should know from the start that you won’t find any reference to Nimrod’s wife anywhere in there. Her story first appears in the works of pagan historians like Diodorus Siculus and Ctesias of Cnidus and of gnostic Christians like Justinus. She was the wife of Ninus, the legendary founder of Nineveh, who is sometimes equated with Nimrod (Josephus, for example, draws this connection). She is sometimes conflated and/or identified with Shammuramat, wife of Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad V (9th century BC).

The legends concerning Semiramis portray her as a goddess walking the earth, associated in various ways with the ancient goddess of love and fertility known variously as Atargatis, Ishtar, or Inanna. Unfortunately, all we have of her are legends, and nothing that would conclusively connect her with Nimrod at all. And frankly, without the Semiramis tie-in, I’m hard-pressed to find any evidence for more than the most general connection between Nimrod and world mythology.

That is not to say, however, the Nimrod was not worshiped as a god or married to a woman his people worshiped as a goddess, as we shall eventually see.

The Cold Water of Reality

On the basis of these late speculations, Christians (mostly Protestants, apparently) in the early modern period went to town with theories about Nimrod being the fountainhead of all things pagan. The one thing these interpretations have in common is that they follow a euhemeristic reading of Genesis 10 and never even consider that other interpretations may be possible.

In fact, there seems to be one decisive factor against the euhemeristic theory that Nimrod was the earthly template from which the gods of the ancient world were created: he comes too late in history. The Bible states that Nimrod came four generations after the Flood (Noah – Ham – Cush – Nimrod). Without getting derailed on side issues, let me simply state my assumptions about the Flood and chronology:

  • I think the Genesis Flood was an event in history, regardless of whatever theological (or mythological) interpretations later accrued to the story.
  • This was the same Flood that lay behind the various Mesopotamian flood myths, of which there are two possible candidates based on the archeological evidence. The earlier flood took place in the late Ubaid period (conventionally 4000 BC or a bit later); the second toward the end of the Jemdet Nasr period (conventionally about 2900 BC).
  • Both biblical and extrabiblical sources date the Flood to a time after the founding of the first cities/large market towns (see Gen 4:17) and the rise of metalworking (see Gen 4:22).

In short, whatever theological or etiological points the writer(s) of Genesis wanted to make us about the Flood and its aftermath, in historical terms the “core” Flood event needs to be dated to the late Neolithic Age at the earliest (i.e., c. 4000 BC). The problem for Nimrod is that the mythology of a dying-and-rising god who was consort to Mother Earth is well attested in the iconography of the earliest Neolithic. It is found, for example, in the Anatolian site of Çatal Hüyük, usually dated to circa 7000 BC, give or take half a millennium. (For Neolithic goddess-worship, see here and here. See also Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology [Penguin, 1964] chs. 1-2.) If paleolithic “Venus figures” are precursors to this mythology, you can add another twenty thousand years or so onto that!

If you take the Bible at face value (and we wouldn’t be having this conversation except that some of us do!), there is no way to push the Flood back before the advent of cities and metalwork. If you take the archeological record, especially the mythic iconography, at face value (and it is rather compelling), the earliest version of the figure eventually known as Tammuz, Osiris, Dumuzi, Adonis, etc., was revered long before Nimrod was born. The chronology makes the euhemeristic Nimrod theory impossible.

A Mythic Rebirth (More or Less)

Another interpretation is possible, however—and far more plausible. I am speaking of what Joseph Campbell calls “mythic inflation.” Campbell points to Sargon I as an early example of this process. In his biography, this first king of the dynasty of Agade appropriates to himself features of longstanding mythology:

My mother was of lowly birth; my father I knew not; the brother of my father is a mountain dweller; and my city, Azupiranu, lies on the bank of the Euphrates.

My lowly mother conceived and bore me in secrecy; placed me in a basket of rushes; sealed it with bitumen, and set me in the river, which, however, did not engulf me. The river bore me up. And it carried me to Akku, the irrigator, who took me from the river, raised me as his son, made of me a gardener: and while I was a gardener, the goddess Ishtar loved me. (73)

Here, Campbell asserts, we see Sargon taking to himself a legendary biography that echoes many basic motifs of longstanding myth. These include:

  1. a modified virgin birth (father unknown, or deceased)
  2. a vestigial suggestion of the father as a mountain god (his brother a mountaineer)
  3. exposure on the waters (water-birth: compare Greek Erichthonius, Hindu Vyasa, Hebrew Moses)
  4. rescue and fosterage by an irrigator (theme of fosterage by simple folk, frequently by animals, viz. Romulus and Remus: here the water theme is again stressed)
  5. hero as a gardener (fructifier of the goddess)
  6. beloved by the goddess Ishtar (Semitic counterpart of Inanna, Greek Aphrodite)

These factors hearken back to a time when the function of kings was more sacral than secular. The king was the consort of the goddess; he played a ritual role in maintaining the cultic cycle of fertility through periodic “sacred marriage” (hieros gamos) to the priestess who was the goddess’s earthly manifestation. After ruling for a certain number of years, the king was apparently ritually slain—either in fact or through a surrogate such as the Apis bulls of Egypt. Evidence for ritual regicide is found in cultures as distant as Sudan, southern Arabia, and India. Some theorize that something similar lay behind the myths of the Cretan minotaur. All of these, Campbell maintains, had their origins in Neolithic southern Mesopotamia.

It is not that the king was seen to be a god, but that in Nimrod’s supposed era every king was seen as a god, but only to the extent that he represented the god in the ritual enactments of fertility myths and thus fulfilled an important civic function in assuring the well-being of his city.

With Sargon, however, things are different. (And it is perhaps worth noting that Sargon is yet another candidate for identifying the “historical” Nimrod.) Rather than extinguishing the ego by being taken up into the image of the god (what Campbell calls “mythic identification”), we now have

precisely the opposite: an exaltation of ego in the posture of a god (mythic inflation), which has been a chronic disease of rulers ever since the masters of the art of manipulating men contrived to play the role of incarnate god and yet save their necks from the double ax. The effect of this chicane … was to release royalty from the overrule of the priesthood and stars, transform the state from a religious (hieratic) to a political (dynastic) establishment, and open the age when the chief concern of kings might become the conquest not of themselves but of the world. (74)

“Exaltation of ego” seems to fit well with what little the Bible tells us of Nimrod, “the first on earth to become a mighty warrior,” the father of empire-builders, and the driving force behind the disastrous Tower of Babel. Nimrod may have been the first person to claim the titles and trappings of divinity, but he was certainly not the last. It is not, after all, a terribly big jump from “god’s representative” to “god,” especially if you’ve got a royal court egging you on.

Furthermore, taking full consideration of the Bible’s complete and utter silence on any of this, it is far more prudent to suggest that these mythic associations may have largely come into being after the “historical” Nimrod was long in the grave.

Nimrod could have tinkered with the prevalent mythology of kingship (much as Sargon did) in order to advance his imperial ambitions. But this doesn’t make him the inspiration for Dumuzi. At worst, it makes him an autocrat who took his honorific titles too literally, and there are plenty of those around today as well! Or, he may have been a revered leader whose personality cult endured long after his death and gradually became encrusted with a host of mythic elements. Here as well, we could point to contemporary examples. Whether in life or in death, he represents an early episode in the long transition of kingship in the Mesopotamian city-state from a ritual-cultic to a political-dynastic arrangement.

The inevitable next step in this myth-making process, Campbell asserts, is to project this same royal inflation back onto the king of the gods. A transference of metaphors takes place. Since the king is like a god, if the nature of kingship changes, so must the theology. Thus, it is not that the man came first and then the myth, but that the myth came first, then the man—and then the man (or his followers) revised the myth in his (or their) own interests!

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting. I usually learn something when I visit.

    If the Genesis flood has a historical basis, it must be “local”–i.e., the “world” flooded has to be the world known in ancient Mesopotamia. Because, young earthers to the contrary, there is no geologic evidence for a truly global flood–and much counter-evidence.

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  2. Darrell Pursiful says:

    Thanks, Michael. You’ll get no argument from me on the “global-versus-local” issue. In fact, I’ve blogged about how Sumerian documents shed light on a possible dating for the (local) Genesis Flood in a previous blog post.

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