Damascius on the Barbarian theogonies

Category: Neoplatonism > Orphic & Other Theologies

1 Introduction

At the very end of his Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, the Neoplatonic philosopher Damascius (6th century CE) gives brief summaries of what different theological/mythological traditions say about the first principles, or first gods. He includes both Greek and non–Greek accounts, the latter of which he calls barbarian; this was, for him, not a negative term, as he was himself not Greek but Syrian.

His primary source seems to be the Peripatetic philosopher Eudemus (4th century BCE), nearly a millennium earlier, but both Eudemus and himself transmit their information faithfully, so that it is essentially accurate. The Neoplatonic interpretations inserted into the accounts are advertised fairly clearly by phrases like “I believe” and the repetition of comparative terms (like “first principle”, the “two principles” after it, the “Intelligible”, etc.).

2 The Babylonians

Damascius writes, “Of the barbarians, the Babylonians have seen fit to pass over the one first principle of all things in silence, and to have two (first principles), Tauthé and Apasṓn; they make Apasṓn the husband of Tauthé, and call her the Mother-of-Gods. Mōÿmís is begotten by them as their onlyborn child – who I believe is the intelligible cosmos, brought forth from the two principles. And from the same (two), another generation came forth, Dakhḗ and Dakhós, then from these in turn Kissarḗ and Assōrós, from whom were born three, Anós, Íllinos and Aós; and from Aós and Daúkē, a son Bêlos was born, who they say is the demiurge.”

This account derives from the Babylonian creation myth Enūma Eliš, certainly not directly (as cuneiform literacy had been lost by Damascius’ time), but probably through few intermediaries. Damascius has added two interpretative comments, (A) that before the two first gods, Tauthé and Apasṓn, a single original principle is implied (this because he believes in a single principle), and (B) that Mōÿmís is the intelligible cosmos. Both are based in his Neoplatonic philosophy, and have nothing to do with the Mesopotamian tradition of exegesis. Damascius has probably also omitted some narrative detail still present in his source.

But as far as the genealogy goes, this is an accurate summary of the Enūma Eliš, and the names are faithfully adapted from Late Babylonian pronunciation (apart from the accentuation, which is puzzling to me):

  • Tauthé represents Tâmtu, ‘Sea’, (better known as Tiˀāmat), pronounced Tawtu. Short –e for –u indicates vowel reduction; this is the only one of the names not given a Greek ending. As the progenitor of all gods, she is rightly called Mother-of-Gods.
  • Apasṓn represents Apsû, ‘Deep (Fresh) Water’, with the insertion of an epenthetic vowel and assimilation of the –û to the Greek ending –ōn.
  • Mōÿmís represents Mummu, ‘knowledge(?)’, with the ending –u adapted into a Greek ending, –is. The vocalization suggests a pronunciation closer to Mowmə(?).
  • Dakhḗ and Dakhós, perhaps misspellings for Lakhḗ and Lakhós (with ΛΑΧ mistaken for ΔΑΧ), or perhaps not, represent Lakhamu and Lakhmu, with the latter parts of the names replaced by Greek endings that clearly mark their gender as feminine and masculine, respectively.
  • Kissarḗ and Assōrós represent Kišar and Anšar, ‘Whole Earth’ and ‘Whole Heaven’, with the addition of gendered Greek endings. More precisely, Damascius’ account seems to reflect the Assyrian recension of the Enūma Eliš, in which Anšar is replaced by Aššur (the god of the city Aššur after which the Assyrians are named) – otherwise we would expect –sar-, as in Kissarḗ.
  • Anós is Anu, ‘Heaven’, with the final –u adapted into a Greek masculine ending.
  • Íllinos is Enlil, or more precisely Illil in Akkadian, with dissimilation of the latter l and addition of a masculine ending.
  • Aós is Ea; apparently Ea has become drawn together into a single vowel, Â, and a Greek ending added to it.
  • Daúkē is Damkina, pronounced Dawkina in Late Babylonian; –ina is replaced by the Greek feminine ending –ē.
  • Bêlos is Bēl, i.e. Marduk, who appears as Zeus Bêlos already in Herodotus. The Greek philosophical concept of the demiurge seems to be influenced to some degree by the role of Marduk in the Enūma Eliš, or at any rate converged with it later.

Note that, as with Hesiod’s Theogony, many of the gods in this genealogy have little importance outside of myth; in the An = Anum god list, Lakhmu and Lakhamu as well as Kišar and Anšar are equated with Anu, ‘Heaven’, and his spouse, Antu.

3 The Magi

“Of the Magi and the entire Areian¹ people, since Eudemus also describes this, some call the entire Intelligible and the Unified ‘Place’, others ‘Time’,² from which either the Good God and the Evil Daemon³ are separated out, or else Light and Darkness before them,⁴ as some say. So, these too make there be a separate twofold series of Greater Beings after the inseparable nature, and the one is led by Ōromásdēs,⁵ the other by Areimánios.”⁶

1: Cognate with Aryan, but in Greek, the word is formed as if derived from Ares. This passage is about the Iranian Mazdaean religion, better known as “Zoroastrianism” (after the Greek form of the name of its most important prophet, Zaraθuštra). It proposes a dualism of two opposed original spirits (sg. mainyu), but Damascius here seeks to show that they too accept a single original principle.
2: Probably Θwāša and Zurvān, although the idea of either preceding the two spirits as if superior to them is controversial to say the least. A good overview of the debate, and to my mind a sensible conclusion regarding the problem, can be found in Albert de Jong, Traditions of the Magi, 1997.
3: God and Daemon do not correspond 1:1 to Iranian words, but the same division between a Good God (=Ahura Mazdā) and Evil Daemon (=Angra Mainyu) is also found in other Greek writers about Mazdaean religion.
4: Light and Darkness are more an abstract way of speaking about the two spirits than distinct entities prior to them.
5: From Middle Persian Ohrmazd or a similar form, from Avestan Ahura Mazdā. Sometimes equated with Zeus.
6: From Middle Persian Ahriman, from Avestan Angra Mainyu. Sometimes equated with Hades.

4 The Sidonians

Translated separately in A Sidonian Theogony and Mochus of Sidon.

5 The Egyptians

“Of the Egyptians, Eudemus does not record anything very specific, but the Egyptians who have become philosophers in our own times have published their arcane truth, which they have discovered in certain Egyptian accounts (lógoi),¹ to the effect that the one principle of all things is hymned as an unknowable Darkness by them – and it is pronounced as such three times.²

“The two principles are Water and Sand, as Heraïscus says, but as his elder Asclepiades says, Sand and Water.³

“From these, the first Kamēphís⁴ was born; then the second one from him; and frim him, the third; with these, they complete the entire intelligible order. Thus Asclepiades.

“But the younger Heraïscus says that the third, who is called Kamēphís after his father and grandfather, is the Sun,⁵ and he is surely the intelligible Intellect.

“The details about these things must be grasped from them, but one should at any rate know this about the Egyptians, that they always subdivide things subsisting in unity, as they have divided even the intelligible into characteristics of many gods, as one can learn from their writings, which are to hand for those who are interested in them – I mean the Record of the General Egyptian Teaching (lógos), which was written to Proclus the philosopher; and the Concordance of the Egyptians with the Other Theologers which Asclepiades began to write.”⁶

1: These lógoi were likely older Egyptian writings in Coptic and Greek, and to some extent oral teaching, synthesized by the 5th-century CE Egyptian Neoplatonists Heraïscus and Asclepiades. As such, in this one case, the Neoplatonic elements are not introduced by Damascius, but already by his Egyptian sources.
2: Darkness is Egyptian kkw, usually (mis)vocalized as Kek, and/or kkt, the feminine form of the word. They are transliterated as Khō (kk) and Khoukh (kkt) in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM 13.789). The name also appears in the Greek Magical Papyri in various other forms, with tripled vowels (Khōōōkh), doubled with triple vowels (Khōōōkhōōōkh) and tripled with double and triple vowels (Khōōkhōōōkhōōkh, PGM IV.1067).
3: Water is Hýdōr and Sand, Psámmos. The former represents Nun/Naunet (Noun and Nauni in PGM 13.789–790, translated as Ōkeanós and Ōkeánē and equated with Oceanus & Tethys in Diodorus Siclus 1.12.5). The latter is the “primordial mound”.
4: Kamēphís is km-ꜣt=f, Coptic Kmēph, adapted to Greek phonetics.
5: Hḗlios = Egyptian (‘Ra’), Coptic or, with the definite article, Prē (whence hellenized Phrē, which commonly appears in the Greek Magical Papyri).
6: So, this work of Asclepiades’ remained unfinished, while his younger brother Heraïscus (who predeceased him) did complete his own treatise. Unfortunately, both are lost, although what we have here is enough to show that their works were both connected to earlier (Greco-)Egyptian tradition and original.