“Thus it is said of Ptah: He who made all…who gave birth to the gods, and from whom everything came forth…” —the Egyptian Memphite Theology
Creation stories, found within many ancient cultures, are narrative accounts of the ultimate origins of the universe, the earth, and humanity. Often embodied as epic poetry, and told through the acts of divine beings, creation stories illuminate the values, beliefs, and creeds of the earliest civilizations.
Within the scope of the ancient world, the cultures of the Mediterranean produced a stunning wealth of literary accounts of creation. Here, we find compelling creation stories in texts from cultures such as ancient Mesopotamia, often called the birthplace of civilization, and the majestic empire of ancient Egypt, as well as lesser-known cultures such as Ugarit and the Hittite civilization, and the more familiar Greek and Israelite worlds. Within this tradition, you will look at:
- The Sumerian Debate Between Bird and Fish, which refers to four deities who “set up the divine rules of heaven and earth,” laid out the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and populated the marshes with fish and birds, instructing them with regard to divine rules.
- The Baal Cycle of ancient Ugarit, which develops a theme that recurs in other cultures of the Mediterranean: that of a storm-god who battles other gods in a struggle for universal supremacy, and who ultimately rules over and sustains the earth and the cycles of nature.
- How the creation stories of the ancient Mediterranean cultures offer distinct conceptions both of how human beings came to exist, through divine acts, as well as why, with accounts explaining human existence in terms ranging from labor for the gods to an exalted role as the pinnacle of creation itself.
In 12 dynamic and thought-provoking lectures, Creation Stories of the Ancient World offers you a penetrating look at the origin stories of the great civilizations of the Mediterranean. With the inspired guidance of Professor Joseph Lam of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you’ll delve into the creation accounts of civilizations ranging from Mesopotamia (Babylon) across the breadth of the ancient Near East to Greece in the West, and encompassing traditions from Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, and ancient Israel.
Discover Seminal Conceptions of Universal and Human Origins
Studied together, the creation texts produced in the Mediterranean shed fascinating light on the cultures they represent, and, more broadly, on the larger unfolding of human societies, offering vivid views into ancient conceptions of space, time, causality, and the forces governing the natural and human worlds.
For each culture, you’ll follow Professor Lam through excerpts from iconic texts, uncovering key themes and conceptions regarding universal origins, set against the historical and political backgrounds that produced these written accounts. You’ll also learn how the texts were understood within their cultures, and the ways in which shared thematic material between traditions indicates a high likelihood of cultural contact across the Mediterranean as these cosmologies developed.
And Professor Lam will demonstrate how creation stories served a number of interrelated purposes, from theological understanding and conceptualizing the forces of nature to the affirmation of social and political realities. These insightful lectures unpack the rich creation traditions of a pivotal region of the ancient world.
Explore the Power, Majesty, and Meanings of Ancient Creation Texts
Within the course’s richly detailed inquiry, you’ll explore origin stories in traditions such as:
- Creation Accounts of Ancient Mesopotamia—Take the measure of the Babylonian Creation Epic, Enuma Elish, which portrays the genesis of the world and humanity through a nucleus of deities, placing the city of Babylon at the center of the universe. Also study the Atrahasis Epic, with a contrasting depiction of humanity’s creation, set within the narrative tradition of the Flood;
- The Egyptian Creation Traditions—Encounter the pantheon of Egyptian gods related to creation, encompassing groups of deities and also the gods Amun, Ptah, and Khnum. Study Egyptian images of creation, from those depicting the spontaneous emergence of life from a primordial chaos to those of deities “spitting” or speaking other deities into existence;
- The Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi Cycle—In two passages from this important text named for the Hurrian deity Kumarbi, witness how universal cosmic order is established through the struggle of two entangled lineages of deities who compete for supremacy. Also study the text’s account of how the world was created, with the heavens and earth cut apart from a single whole;
- The Theogony of Hesiod—Delve into this great work of Greek epic poetry, portraying the begetting of the gods and the development of the cosmos through generations of divine conflict. Follow the story of succession from the battle between the gods Ouranos and Kronos, where an act of castration establishes the order of the world, to ultimate cosmic stability under Zeus; and
- The Judeo-Christian Genesis—Chart the contours of the seven days of creation in the biblical Genesis 1, depicting human beings as the embodiment of divine presence in the world. Grasp the contrast between this account and the portrayal of creation in the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2), which highlights humans as tillers of the soil, reflecting the daily realities of ancient Israelites.
Demonstrating a phenomenal knowledge of these traditions, and incisive interpretive skills, Professor Lam leads you in a richly layered investigation of the texts, the thematic interconnections between them, and their core societal functions. His commentary makes clear how the stories served as validation of the political orders that produced them, as reflections of the vital role of agriculture in these cultures, and as explorations of the boundaries between the human and divine worlds.
In the creation texts of the ancient Mediterranean region, we can witness how ancient peoples conceived of the creators of their world, and the natural order of that world. As such, creation stories show us how early cultures made sense of the human condition, in theological, philosophical, and political terms. This ancient perspective influenced the later cultures that would follow, meaning the stories ancient peoples used to understand their world have been woven into the larger tapestry of world history and culture, touching our lives—our art, literature, religion, philosophy, and more—even today.
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