Thursday, 2 March 2017

Oannes and the Instruction of Mankind


The Babylonian writer Berossus (possibly a Greek form of the name Bēl-uşur), took up residence in Athens, after having been a priest of Bel in Babylon in the late 4th century/early 3rd century B.C.E. He wrote a three volume work, Babyloniaka, unfortunately now lost, which was a study on the culture and history of Babylonia. Alexander Polyhistor made an abridgement of this work in the first century B.C.E., also lost. However this abridgement was available to the christian writer Eusebius (4th century C.E), and also Josephus in the first century C.E. The passages which they quoted from Polyhistor and a few other authors survive. As Black and Green write, “Akkadian mythological and historical texts found in modern excavations have largely confirmed the authenticity of the tradition represented by Berossus.”  [1]  This includes the tradition of the Seven Sages, preserved in the account by Berossus (in his first book) of the eight creatures, beginning with Oannes and concuding with Odakon, which emerged from the sea bringing to man the civilising arts, including agriculture. His second book covered the history of Babylonia from the ‘ten kings before the flood’, through the Flood itself.

The Babylonian tradition is indeed that seven apkallu or sages lived before the flood. Their names are given in Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian ritual texts, as well as the seven cities from which they are supposed to come, though there are differing traditions within Mesopotamia about the sages and their origins which are difficult to reconcile.

Apollodorus has preserved a fragment of Berossus, which tells us that the first of the Chaldean Kings was Alorus of Babylon, followed by Alaparus and also Amelon who came from Pantibiblon, followed by Ammenon the Chaldean. In the reign of Ammenon, the sage Oannes appeared from the sea.  [2]  Polyhistor gives us detail drawn from Berossus about this appearance, after Berossus describes the Babylon of those times as: a great resort of people of various nations, who inhabited Chaldaea, and lived without rule and order like the beast of the field’:

In the first year there made its appearance, from a part of the Erythraean sea which bordered upon Babylonia, an animal endowed with reason, who was called Oannes. (According to the account of Apollodorus) the whole body of the animal was like that of a fish; and had under a fish’s head another head, and also feet below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish’s tail. His voice too, and language, was articulate and human; and a representation of him is preserved even to this day.

The fishtailed images found upon the slabs of Assyrian Palaces and on cylinder seals are representations of this first sage, preserved even until our own much later day. The appearance of Oannes in ritual contexts with the King or the Sacred Tree, or both together, tells us that the earliest days of mankind are being recalled, and that an element of re-enactment or revitalisation is being invoked in these images.

Polyhistor’s account of Berossus’ first book continues:

This Being in the day-time used to converse with men; but took no food at that season; and he gave them an insight into letters and sciences, and every kind of art. He taught them to construct houses, to found temples, to compile laws and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and shewed them how to collect fruits; in short, he instructed them in every thing which could tend to soften manners and humanize mankind. From that time, so universal were his instructions, nothing material has been added by way of material improvement. When the sun set it was the custom of this Being to plunge again into the sea, and abide all night in the deep; for he was amphibious.

Creatures which were amphibious were of interest in antiquity because they could inhabit more than one world, as Oannes does here. Not only can he live and breathe under water, and converse with man in the daytime, but he is equipped with what is clearly divine knowledge – the knowledge of writing and of various sciences and arts, house-building, the founding of temples (and implicitly the worship of the gods), law, geometry, botany. The order of the sciences and arts is interesting here, in that house-building comes before the founding of temples, and knowledge of the law comes after the knowledge of the founding of temples. This reflects a conflation of a likely sequence – men will have built houses before they embarked on temples and the development of law and geometry – with a theoretical sequence of the founding of temples and the worship of the gods, the knowledge of whom will have given rise to the knowledge of law and its importance, and the application of the idea of law to the measuring and demarcation of space using the techniques of geometry. The development of botanical knowledge, and the division of the parts of nature, represents the application of the idea of demarcation to the world of plants, as the precursor to agriculture.

The softening of manners is not the thing of principal importance here, but something which is absolutely necessary – it is impossible to have an organised population, subject to reason and the law, able to build houses and temples, and most importantly worship the gods, if they are not free of the daily struggle for survival, in which they are not distinguished in any significant way from the beasts of the field.

The instructions which came from Oannes are described as ‘so universal’, that nothing of any significance ‘has been added by way of material improvement’. These instructions are clearly divine and the product of divine knowledge, and came from the gods by way of the Sage Oannes, who rests in the sea. Recalled here is the shrine of the god Ea/Enki, the ‘broad-eared’ one of wide learning, which is at the bottom of the Apsu, among the sweet waters. The image of the obverse of our world is doubled by associating the return of Oannes to the deep at sunset, where the sun leaves our world in darkness. The human race is illuminated only when Oannes is on land, and conversing with us. It is also of some significance that the point is made that Oannes does not eat ‘at that season’, but receives his sustenance at some other time – implicitly while he is below the waters of the deep, in the place of Ea/Enki, in the Abyss, where all good things which may be had have their ultimate origin.

Polyhistor’s account also tells us that ‘Oannes wrote concerning the generation of mankind; of their different ways of life, and of their civil polity’. Berossus gives the purport of what he said:

There was a time in which there was nothing but darkness and an abyss of waters, wherein resided most hideous beings, which were produced of a two-fold principle. Men appeared with two wings, some with four and with two faces. They had one body but two heads; the one of a man, the other of a woman. They were likewise in their several organs both male and female. Other human figures were to be seen with the legs and horns of goats. Some had horses’ feet; others had the limbs of a horse behind, but before were fashioned like men, resembling hippocentaurs. Bulls likewise bred there with the heads of men; and dogs with fourfold bodies, and the tails of fishes. Also horses with the heads of dogs: men too and other animals, with the heads and bodies of horses and the tails of fishes. In short, there were creatures with the limbs of every species of animals.

Here Berossus describes the properties of the Abyss. It is unilluminated and full of waters which contain beings whose characteristics and properties are not defined by any of the rules which apply on the earth – men have the feet of horses, some have wings, some have two heads, male and female. Bulls have the heads of men, horses have the heads of dogs, etc. These are not ‘seeds of the earth’, but of a realm in which the demarcations and separations in the animal kingdom of the earth are collapsed together and mixed to an infinite degree. In some ways the situation can be paralleled with the disorder in the life of man before the appearance of Oannes from the waters of the sea: the fact that this description follows on immediately from that account suggests this quite strongly. And as the beasts of the field were the precursors of a humanized mankind, so the Abyss is the precursor of another creation, in which order is given to the ‘seeds of the earth’. Berossus says that these creatures, plus ‘fishes, reptiles, serpents, with other wonderful animals…..assumed each other’s shape and countenance’  my emphasis . This is an image of a dynamic chaos, in which everything is intermingled; all possibility is here, and nothing is absolutely separate from anything else.

This is the abyss from which Oannes emerged. And emerging from this, he instructed mankind. This implies some kind of connection between the state of the abyss and the knowledge of the sciences and the arts, and of the nature and worship of the gods. Berossus concludes this passage by saying that ‘Of all these were preserved delineations in the temple of Belus at Babylon’, so there was obviously some constructive point to the contemplation of these composite animals, and the condition and properties of the abyss. Unfortunately this temple was taken to pieces by Alexander during his brief stay in the city, so we cannot look at these images in particular.  [3]  We should not forget that Oannes is himself a composite creature, with the head of a fish and the head of a man, the body and tail of a fish, and the feet of a man – the body and head of a fish mark him as an inhabitant of the sea and the abyss, which is a reflection of his access to the knowledge of the sciences and the arts. He has the voice of a man, and so can communicate with the inhabitants of the earth.

Why should the abyss be accounted the source of knowledge about the sciences and the arts? If the abyss is an approximation, another image of the telos, of the final nature of reality in which all things are contained, and from which all things unfold (even if through the mediation of a copy, a moving image of eternity), then it is all too obvious why the sciences and arts should be associated with the abyss. Ultimately everything which the human race wishes to know and to understand is already present in potential form in the primary reality. Access to it is the question, not whether or not it exists.

This is one of the principal reasons why the teleological perspective on the world has held such a fascination for the powerful and the educated throughout history. The concept of the telos suggests that all things are possible, and that all knowledge is accessible to man, through ritual, through contemplation, and through study. It also suggests that knowledge and understanding can be formalised (a concept with which we are now estranged), so that it is possible to determine the will of the divine, and to arrange the world according to a divine order.

It is also worth pointing out that not only is this understanding that human knowledge is the result of communion with the divine through repeated and enhanced access to the cause of causes, the telos, but the account of the gift of the sciences and the arts which Berossus gives is itself an image which, through the act of its contemplation, amplifies access to the telos.

[1]   ‘Berossus,’ in Black, Jeremy, and Green, Anthony - Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, British Museum Press, 1992. The text of Berossus can be found collected together in I. P. Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 2nd edition, 1832.
[2] The passage is lexically interesting: Berossus says that in the time of Ammemnon… ‘appeared the Musarus Oannes the Annedotus from the Erythaean sea.’ ‘Musarus’ and ‘Annedotus’ do not appear to be Greek words.
[3] It was Alexander’s intention to rebuild it, but he died before the rebuilding began.

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