Thursday, May 26, 2016


Pascale Derron (ed.), Cosmologies et cosmogonies dans la littérature antique: huit exposés suivis de discussions et d'un epilogue. Entretiens sur l'Antiquité classique, 61. Vandœuvres: Fondation Hardt pour l'étude de l'Antiquité classique, 2015. Pp. x, 355. ISBN 9782600007610. CHF 75.00.

Reviewed by Carolina López-Ruiz, The Ohio State University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The Geneva-based Fondation Hardt has once again produced an excellent collection of papers. The topic of this volume of Entretiens is cosmologies and cosmogonies in ancient literature, ranging from the early first millennium to Late Antiquity, and from ancient Mesopotamia, Iran, and Israel to Greece, Alexandria, and Rome. This diachronic and interdisciplinary spectrum is crowned by a set of reflections by theoretical physicist Ruth Durrer. Her closing contribution, and the speakers' visit to CERN, the largest particle accelerator, accentuates the persistence of these questions from Hesiod's chaos and the biblical tohu-wa-bohu to the Big Bang theory: How did the universe start? Did it appear in a vacuum or was there some matter or energy preceding it and propelling it? How can we describe its composition and dynamics? What is the place of human beings in it?

The essays, all of great quality, keep the big questions in sight, with different emphases, while displaying great expertise in the study of ancient texts and their respective philological, methodological, and historical problems. Instead of summarizing the chapters (the Introduction does so well enough), or stirring the ontological and theological pot of cosmogony further, I will highlight some interesting threads that connect the studies in this volume. Each reader will find many other intersections and particular points of interest in these rich, informative, and thought-provoking articles.

In the Introduction, Therese Fuhrer and Michael Erler ask whether we can reconcile the goals and preoccupations behind ancient and modern cosmogonies/cosmologies. As Ruth Durrer reminds us in the Epilogue, there are, after all, big questions about the universe still unresolved by modern physics, for instance, what is the kind of energy (so-called "dark energy") that accounts for the universe's constant expansion? While ancient questions are still relevant, most agree that the rift between "their" cosmogonies and "ours" is most evident in the ancient emphasis on religious agency and on the human role in creation. For Durrer, modern science has proposed its own answers to the old cosmogonic questions of when, what, and how, while it stays away from the more subjective ethical questions (why? what for? ). This is also why Rémi Brague proposes in the volume's last chapter (Chapter 8) that we should make a distinction between the narratives about origins ("cosmogony"), which describe the development and organization of the universe (what we might also call "cosmography"), and the task of drawing an all-encompassing view of the universe including the moral place of humanity in it, a "cosmology." But, as participants asked in the discussion, is this neat division adequate? Ancient cosmogonic writing did not often separate the creation and description of the world from an explicit or implicit discourse (logos) about our place in it. Unlike Brague, they did not use different terms either, so I too use "cosmogony" as a generic term. In fact, most of the studies here show how cosmogony and anthropogony (the creation of humankind) were usually interlocked in antiquity, and that cosmogony ultimately reflects on or presupposes the world- order that each ancient text navigated, even when human creation is not present or central to its narrative. As for the modern side of the equation, it is important for us to acknowledge the coexistence of scientific and religious explanations. Regarding the ethical dimensions, in turn, we should at least recognize current concerns regarding our planet and our responsibility towards it, whether as part of a religious program or in a purely scientific way, or driven by self-preservation.

The political dimension of early cosmogonies stands out as well, especially in the Babylonian Enuma Elish and Hesiod's Theogony. Both poems narrate the birth and succession of gods (theogonies), culminating in the victory of the Storm God (Marduk, Zeus) and connecting order to kingship. Although we do not have the political context for Hesiod's works, Zeus' "political" maneuvering sets a clear example for human kings, whose role Hesiod highlights in the Theogony and Works and Days. As Stefan Maul shows (Chapter 1), the Enuma Elish recitation was directly connected with royal rituals (the Akitu festival) and imperial power (e.g., the Assyrian versions in which Marduk is Assur), establishing human kingship as a reflection of divine kingship and the king as the keeper of order and justice below.

After Hesiod, however, it is the natural philosophers who take up the task of enquiring about cosmic origins in terms of natural elements (which Hesiod anticipates), while other heirs of this cosmogonic genre, such as Parmenides and Empedocles, seem more concerned with exploring different ways of accessing divine knowledge. Jenny Strauss Clay (Chapter 3) focuses on how these authors grapple with authority, especially in the proems of their works.1 The apparently ambiguous statement by Hesiod's Muses that they can choose to tell truths or lies (Th. 27) spoils the flow of these ideas about human beings' access to truthful divine knowledge of the cosmos. But is that necessarily so? In Bruce Heiden's persuasive reading,2 the Muses' statement means that the truth can be equally taught or transmitted either through clear ("dogmatic") statements or through a form of poetry that we might call "fiction." Their puzzling statement acquires a fresh meaning: "we (the Muses) know how to tell many false things that are like truths, and we know, whenever we want, how to sing out truths." Rather than posing an obstacle to the integrity of the transmission of knowledge, they infuse poetry and fiction (what we might call mythology) with the authority to convey meaning through stories (and isn't this what Plato's myths do too?).

The inter-cosmogonic dialogue highlighted by Clay is also evident in later poets who continue to use hexametric verse following Hesiod: Parmenides, Empedocles, and the Orphic cosmogonies (not mentioned here). Just as Hesiod built on the thematic and formal authority of older Near Eastern traditions, subsequent Greek authors and thinkers respected the poetic form of the genre even if to pour new content into it, each according to his times and needs. So Lucretius' strange combination of hexametric Latin verse and Epicurean philosophy, explored here by Gordon Campbell (Chapter 4), produces a novel, yet authoritative account. Campbell highlights the paradoxical coexistence in Epicureanism of religiosity and enlightened philosophy: Lucretius' authority cannot come from the gods or the Muses, and yet his scientific-philosophical cosmology is not devoid of divine agency (e.g., Venus as an ever-present impulse) and of a certain oracular quality.

The Genesis accounts of creation lie outside this tradition. Konrad Schmid (Chapter 2) places emphasis on their ethical and theological dimensions, rather than on the question of where their authority comes from (although the authorial voice of Moses is implied, making him a sort of Hesiod without Muses). The main Hebrew innovation vis-à-vis Near Eastern precedents, Schmid contends, is situating God outside the created universe and an idea of evolution of creation towards an orderly and stable world. One could argue for the reverse, however: that the Eden passage and the Flood story mark a turn to a more chaotic situation for mankind, one that requires explicit and cumbersome regulation. A rupture occurs between the human and divine spheres not unlike those rehearsed in ancient Near Eastern and Hesiodic myths (e.g., in Atrahasis, the Prometheus and Pandora episodes, and the "Five Races" story).

Going back to versified cosmogonies, Katharina Volk (Chapter 7) deals with Aratos, a Hellenistic writer who composed a verse synthesis of the authoritative astronomic work of Eudoxos. As Volk shows, Aratos' astronomic cosmology (or cosmography?) had an impressive reception. It not only consolidated the "two-sphere" view of the universe that predominated throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, but the Phaenomena was translated and adapted by authors such as Cicero, Germanicus, and Avienus. Through these Latin "Aratea," Aratos influenced the Latin poetic and philosophical language at a crucial time. More importantly for our topic, Aratos foreshadowed Lucretius in using "the didactic 'manner of Hesiod'" to create a canonical version of the new science of his day (257).

If Aratos and Lucretius turned cosmogony into deliberately intellectual enterprises, Mani was the first truly interdisciplinary "scholar of ancient religion." Jason David Beduhn (Chapter 6) presents Mani as "the first religious innovator who undertook his mission in full consciousness of religious pluralism" (219). As a kind of Walter Burkert of antiquity, Mani researched and collected information from ancient Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and even Anatolian "mythology" and sought the truths in all those "fictions" (as per Hesiod's Muses). He systematized them into his own world-view, emphasizing the inescapable duality between the dark and light forces that govern the universe and human existence. This third-century work deliberately turns an intellectual enterprise into cosmology, so effectively so that it begot the long-lasting and influential Manichaean religion.

Finally, many of the papers separately emphasize the importance of location and the cultural-historical specificity that it entails: Jerusalem, Babylon, and Alexandria emerge as important settings for innovative cosmogonic exercises. Although the Athens-Jerusalem polarity is also evoked to represent traditional binaries ("East-West/Greek-Semitic/classical- biblical"), we cannot really attach early Greek cosmogonies to Athens or a single Greek area (Boiotia, Ionia, and Southern Italy were all hot spots). Instead, it is Babylon and Alexandria that stand out most prominently in several papers, as melting pots where Greek, Mesopotamian, Jewish, and early Christian traditions interacted. This combination is the topic of David T. Runia's essay (Chapter 5), who discusses the trajectory of Platonic cosmogony of the Timaeus among Jewish and early Christian intellectuals in Alexandria. As he shows, the translation of Genesis into Greek in the Septuagint was a crucial conduit for the introduction of Platonic vocabulary and concepts into Alexandrian Jewish philosophy (Philo) and early Christian theology (Origen). As for Babylon, the influence of its cosmogonic traditions (Atrahasis, Enuma Elish) can be traced not only through Canaanite, Hittite, and Greek myth, but also in Genesis and Mani's writings. This true crossroads of ancient wisdom was conceivably more crucial than Jerusalem in the process that produced the version of Genesis we know; the long hand of its influence moved Mani (221), and may in general have been the ground-zero of cosmogony and theogony as an authoritative poetic genre.

This volume makes it clear that cosmogonies constituted a genre in their own right, with conventions passed on for millennia, among them using traditional poetic forms, claiming a more or less mediated access to divine knowledge, and demonstrating quasi-prophetic knowledge of "that which is and that which was and will be" (which Clay wittily makes the definition of Hesiod's "cosmos": 147). The editor and organizers deserve praise for the conception and careful edition of these papers and the discussions following them. The Q/A transcription is of great value, not only helping to clarify and challenge aspects of the essays, but drawing important connections among them. Seven color illustrations and several indexes also add value to the volume. Specialists and students of religion, mythology, philosophy, and history of science will find this collection an important point of reference for decades to come. These studies expand the range of recent discussions on ancient cosmogonies across ancient Mediterranean cultures, complementing nicely the collection edited by C. A. Faraone and B. Lincoln, Imagined Beginnings: Ancient Cosmogonies, Theogonies and Anthropogonies in the Eastern Mediterranean, Journal of Near Eastern Religions 12/1 (2012), where the focus lies on ancient Mesopotamian, Anatolian, and early Greek texts.

Table of Contents

Preface (P. Ducrey)
Introduction (T. Fuhrer and M. Erler)
Ch. 1. "Kosmologie und Kosmogonie in der antiken Literatur: Das sog. babylonische Weltschöpfungsepos Enûma eliš" (S. Maul)
Ch. 2. "Von der Gegenwelt zur Lebenswelt: Evolutionäre Kosmologie und Theologie im Buch Genesis" (K. Schmid)
Ch. 3. "Commencing cosmogony and the rhetoric of poetic authority" (J. Strauss Clay)
Ch. 4. "Oracular cosmology in Lucretius" (G. Campbell)
Ch. 5. "Cosmos, logos, and nomos: The Alexandrian Jewish and Christian appropriation of the Genesis creation account" (D. T. Runia)
Ch. 6. "Apparatus of salvation: formation and function of the Manichaean cosmos," (J. D. Beduhn)
Ch. 7. "The world of the Latin Aratea" (K. Volk)
Ch. 8. "Dans quelle mesure peut-on parler d'une cosmologie dans l'Antiquité?" (R. Brague)
Epilogue (R. Durrer)
Table des illustrations – Illustrations – Index


1.   For more on this topic across Greece and the Near East, cf. C .López-Ruiz, "How to Start a Cosmogony: On the Poetics of Beginnings in Greece and the Near East," Journal of Near Eastern Religions 12 (2012): 30-48.
2.   B. Heiden, (2007) "The Muses' Uncanny Lies: Hesiod, Theogony 27 and its Translators," AJP 128: 153–175.

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