Creation Stories of the Ancient World
Joseph Lam is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. He is the author of Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible: Metaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious Concept, as well as a number of scholarly articles in the fields of Hebrew Bible and Ugaritic studies. He teaches ancient languages beyond Hebrew, such as Akkadian, Aramaic/Syriac, and Ugaritic.
01: Creation Stories and Why They Matter
Begin by considering the nature of creation stories, as they encapsulate a culture’s self-understanding, showing how early societies made sense of the human condition. Look at the term “myth” as it will apply within the course’s inquiry. Examine three ancient Sumerian stories that have creation themes embedded in them, expressing conceptions of the cosmos and mankind’s place within it.
02: Reading Metaphor in Creation Stories
Metaphor and symbol are integral to creation stories, as they form a crucial part of the language of myth. Investigate the function of metaphor, as it constructs a similarity between two things and creates new meanings, and symbol, as it creates correlations of other kinds. Using examples from ancient stories, explore the metaphors of sexual procreation and fashioning in generating the world.
03: Mesopotamian Creation: Enuma elish
Enuma Elish, also called the Seven Tablets of Creation, is a masterpiece of Mesopotamian literature. Investigate the historical background and the cultural role of the epic. Study the narrative’s account of the creation of gods and humanity, rooted in the notion of bringing order to chaos. Look at the major themes revealed in the story, as they bear on the political context of ancient Babylon.
04: The Mesopotamian Flood: The Atrahasis Epic
Examine key Mesopotamian texts referencing a catastrophic flood which decimates humanity. Focusing on the Atrahasis Epic, trace the story, recounting the motive and the means for the creation of humanity, fashioned from clay and the remains of a slaughtered god, and the reason the gods sent the disaster of the flood. Note the epic’s reflections on the interdependence of gods and humans.
05: Egyptian Gods of Creation
Take account of funerary texts that contain allusions to the ancient Egyptian conceptions of creation. Learn about the gods who played important parts in the formation of the world, beginning with the Ogdoad and the Ennead, two groups of deities in different local traditions. Also encounter the gods Amun, Ptah, and Khnum, and note their distinct roles within the creation mythology.
06: Egyptian Approaches to Creation
Within ancient Egyptian culture, explore the means by which the gods created the world and humanity. Begin with non-anthropomorphic images of creation, such as the conception of a primeval mound emerging from a watery chaos, and the creation images of a lotus flower and a cosmic egg. Follow this with anthropomorphic images, such as a god spitting out other deities or willing them into existence.
07: The Storm God’s Supremacy in the Baal Cycle
This ancient Syrian text, though it lacks an overt description of creation, resonates with key themes of other creation stories of the ancient Near East. Study the narrative, centering on the storm god Baal, who opposes a sea god and the god of death, attaining supremacy through struggle. Grasp how Baal, patron deity of the city of Ugarit, sustains the natural world and its recurring cycles.
08: Hittite Creation in the Kumarbi Cycle
Here, encounter the Hurrians and Hittites, two lesser known but important peoples of the ancient Near East. Study two key passages from the fragmentary text of the Kumarbi Cycle, concerning the struggle for supremacy between two competing lineages of gods. Note the text’s reference to the “cutting apart” of the heavens and the earth, and to the origins of cosmic order by means of divine rule.
09: Greek Creation in Hesiod’s Theogony
Hesiod’s epic poem is Greece’s oldest account of ultimate origins. Within the text, observe how the development of the cosmos is enacted through the genealogical evolution of the gods. Follow divine conflict surrounding succession, originating between the gods Ouranos and Kronos, culminating in permanent order under Zeus, and the separation between humans and gods.
10: Seven Days of Creation in Genesis
This lecture examines the biblical creation story from Genesis 1. Grasp how the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem led to the vision of a god whose abode encompassed the entirety of the heavens and earth. Study the unique features of the text, and its conception of a single, supreme god, with human beings as the pinnacle of creation, endowed with a special status and responsibility.
11: The Garden of Eden in Genesis
The story of the Garden of Eden presents a contrasting account of creation from the seven-day creation story in Genesis 1. Study the differences between the two accounts and observe how the Eden story reflects the agrarian life of ancient Israelites. Note the different order of creation of living creatures between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and what these differences suggest for interpreting the text.
12: Creation Stories and the Present
Conclude with reflections on key themes that run through creation stories of various traditions. Among these, consider the ways in which different cultures conceived of the primordial condition of the universe before creation. Revisit the theme of the succession of kingship among the gods and grasp how these stories about the past served to express humanity’s purpose in the present.