Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth


In recent notes on the Book of Revelation (the visions of chapters 13-17), we have had occasion to explore the “Sea” as a symbol. In my view, within the visionary language of Revelation, it rather clearly represents the dark and chaotic forces of evil that are at work in the world. This symbolism derives largely, and primarily, from ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth. The ancient cosmology, widespread throughout the Near East, extending to Greece in the West and India in the East, can be summarized as follows:

In the beginning there was only a great (and dark) mass of water. The universe came to take shape within the midst of these primeval waters, like a bubble surrounded by water. This space effectively separated the water ‘above’ from the water ‘below’, even as the heaven/sky above would be separated from the earth (and underworld) below in the developing universe. The universe itself was geocentric (very different from our modern understanding of the universe) and spherical (or hemispherical) in shape; only the spherical shape of the upper half is definite, since it was much harder to be sure of the shape of things below the earth. The “earth” in its narrow sense was generally viewed as a flat disc or cylinder, with a hemispheric ‘dome’ above, and a similar (or roughly comparable) space below. The waters above manifested themselves primarily through rain and snow, etc, while the waters below by way of underground springs, and so forth. There were also waters (rivers, lakes, etc) on the surface of the earth. In some cosmologies, the earth/universe was also surrounded by a ring of water, related to primitive conceptions of the great oceans. Only a few brave souls would have ventured out into the oceans far enough to realize the lands and peoples beyond; for most the oceans represented the boundary of the known world.

Thus the “Sea”, as the primeval waters, was central to the ancient cosmology. An important related concept had to do with the creation of the universe in terms of establishing an order within the natural world. This order is reflected and expressed several ways, one of the most fundamental being that of separation—dividing and arranging the universe into distinct shapes, regions, livable domains, etc. By contrast, the primeval waters represent the opposite of order—the condition of things before the natural order of creation was established. The waters are now generally outside of the created order, manifest and breaking through only at its boundaries (above, below, and the oceans beyond). When it does ‘break through’ often chaos and destruction is the result (i.e. through rain-storms, flooding, tidal waves, etc), endangering life on earth. To make human life, in particular, sustainable requires that these primeval forces be controlled and regulated—i.e. rain and flooding in its proper season, and limited in scope.

To the ancient mind, there were many powers and forces in the universe, easily observable and manifest to human beings. Simply put, this is the basis for the widespread polytheism in the ancient world (and still characteristic of many traditional societies even today). Creator deities established the initial order of the universe, controlling and regulating its processes, which are also governed by many local “gods” or intelligent powers. Stories were told in an attempt to describe all of this, and we may refer to these as cosmological myths—tales meant to explain how the universe came to be, and how/why it operates as it does.

The religion of ancient Israel represented a distinctive break from this common polytheistic worldview. The earliest forms of Israelite monotheism were not as stark or absolute as its later, more developed forms, but still required a very different way of expressing the ancient cosmology. Vestiges of ancient cosmological myth are preserved in the Old Testament, but sublimated under the idea of the Creator El-Yahweh as sovereign over all things.

This brings us back to the primeval waters, the “Sea”, in ancient Near Eastern myth. In establishing the natural order of the universe, the Creator deity was seen as having to gain control over the waters. This was often expressed in stories of conflict, military action or battle by a great hero-figure—i.e. conflict with the Sea. This was a mythic story-pattern that was truly widespread, with variations and versions of it as far afield as Greece and India. Some scholars theorize that these specific conflict-myths—especially those which involve a heroic deity doing battle with a sea-creature—derive from the Semitic world.

Marduk and the Babylonian Creation Epic

Perhaps the best known of the surviving texts is the Babylonian “Epic of Creation” (also known by a transliteration of its opening words En¥ma eliš). The tablets date from the time of the great Babylonian and Assyrian empires in the 1st millennium B.C., but they doubtless contain traditions and poetic elements that are centuries earlier, into the 2nd millennium, perhaps as far back as the kingdom of Hammurabi (mid/late-19th century). At some point, the epic poem was recited at the New Year’s festival in Babylon, ritually signifying the ‘renewal’ of creation (and the created order).

Following the basic ancient Near Eastern cosmology (cf. above), in the beginning there was a great mass of water, depicted as a pair of beings joined together—Apsu (male, fresh water) and Tiamat (female, salt water). The creation of the universe within this water is narrated in terms of a great family conflict that turns into a military battle, pitting children against their parents. It begins with a disturbance in the belly of the ‘mother’ Tiamat; eventually the ‘father’ Apsu is slain by one of ‘sons’ (Ea)—this is a common feature in ancient theogonic myths, in which a new generation must take the place of the old as the universe develops and comes into being. With the ‘death’ of Apsu, the gods come into prominence. Tiamat then rages against them, producing monstrous beings (including a horned serpent and fierce dragons) to fight for her. Ultimately the gods choose Marduk as their champion, who will lead the battle against Tiamat on their behalf. The great battle ends with the ‘death’ and dismemberment of Tiamat, and the establishment of Marduk’s rule as supreme deity; out of Tiamat’s ‘body’ (i.e. the primeval waters), the universe as we know it is formed, along with the natural order of the world. This is all narrated in the first four tablets (I-IV) of the standard imperial version of the Epic.

Marduk was the patron deity of the city of Babylon, who gained in prominence when the city-state became a larger regional empire. He was primarily associated with farming and the establishment of agriculture; this, of course, meant the need to control and regulate the waters—rain in its season (and in the right amounts), flooding of the rivers, etc. Marduk appears to have been more or less identified (and assimilated) with the Sumerian deity Ninurta, who played a similar role in governing agriculture, including control of storms, etc. Ninurta was considered the “son” of En-lil, one of the supreme deities in Sumerian religious thought. The name En-lil is usually translated as “Lord Wind” or “Lord Air”, indicating a domain that governs the ‘world’, the atmosphere, etc, that comes in contact with the earth below (governed by a different deity En-ki). The precise etymology is disputed (in terms of the meaning of the word lil); however, Ninurta as the “son” of “Lord Wind/Air” would certainly fit his association with the storm and the fertility of the land that results from rainstorms, etc. Marduk’s battle against Tiamat is similar in many respects to that narrated of Ninurta in the Anzu epic. Ninurta battles Anzu, a hybrid bird-figure (also known as Imdugud), associated with the winds and storms and a guardian for En-lil. By conquering the Anzu, Ninurta establishes control over the storms; he is also said to have slain a seven-headed Serpent (cf. below) and the “bull-man” of the Sea.

Other Ancient Versions of the Conflict-Myth

There are other Near Eastern myths in which a heroic deity, associated with the storms (wind and rain, etc), battles a hybrid monster who represents, in some fashion, the Sea and its primeval waters. There are, for example, relatively simple myths from Hittite (or Hattian) sources in Anatolia (Asia Minor), in which the “Storm God” battles (and kills) the Serpent-being Illuyanka, usually connected with the Sea, though this is not always clearly indicated in the tale. The episode played a role in the Purulli festival (about which little is known), even as the Epic of Creation featured in the Babylonian New Year festival.

These stories contain clear ritual elements in them, much more so than we find in the developed Epics. In particular, the Storm deity (Hittite Tar—una, Hurran Teshub) requires the assistance of a human being to defeat the Serpent. Similarly, in tales of the “disappearance of the Storm God”, ritual formulae are included within the narrative, performed by a human priest-figure, to appease the deity and bring him back, thus restoring/ensuring the fertility of the land. In all likelihood these Serpent-conflict myths spread westward into Anatolia, where they were inherited (and adapted) by the Indo-European Hittites.

The mythic-pattern spread even further west, among the Greeks, where there are several notable examples, such as Apollo’s slaying of the Python-figure at Delphi; however, in that tradition the Serpent is more of a chthonic Earth-being, rather than connected to the Sea. Closer to the Near Eastern cosmological myth is the episode made famous in the Theogony of Hesiod. Dating from c. 700 B.C., Hesiod’s work is a compendium of ancient Greek cosmological tradition, some of which, almost certainly, was inherited from the Near East (via the Greek colonies on the Anatolian coast, etc). The poem begins with the initial creation—which does not follow the Near Eastern cosmology (cf. above)—and climaxes with the establishment of Zeus’ rule over the universe as king of the gods. His battle with the Typhoeus (Tufweu/$, also called Typhon, Typhos), a multi-headed Serpent-creature, is narrated in lines 820-885, after which Zeus is declared “king” of the gods (886). Zeus (Zeu/$) is the Greek reflex of the Indo-European high deity associated with the Sky (dyeus), especially in its bright and shining aspect; the ancient derivation is preserved in the form Dio/$ (in Latin as Deus). Zeus took on traditional characteristics of the storm theophany—i.e. the deity manifest in storms—making use of thunder and lightning, winds and rain, etc, especially when exercising his authority or engaged in battle.

Even further afield, from the Indo-Aryan regions of India, are mythic traditions associated with the figure of Indra, a deity similarly connected with the storm (he had the title “wielder of the thunderbolt”). In one set of ancient tales, Indra slew the serpent being Vr¤tra (“restrainer”), who holds back (“restrains”) the waters need for the fertility of the earth. In slaying Vr¤tra, Indra releases the waters (locked up on the mountains, presumably in the form of snow). In other tales it is the demon Vala who had held back the waters (“seven rivers”, also depicted as cows). These traditions are clearly quite ancient, as they go back to the Rg¤ Veda (c. 1200-900 B.C.)—cf. 1.32; 2.12; 10.124.6ff.

The Canaanite Epic of Baal

Perhaps the clearest ancient version of this conflict-myth, and the one most relevant to the Old Testament and Israelite tradition, is the so-called Baal Epic. This work is preserved on six tablets (and other fragments) uncovered at the site of Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit). They date from the mid-14th century B.C.; however, as an extended epic poem, the Baal Epic is almost certainly the product of centuries of development, during which time various traditions, poetic elements, and even shorter individual tales, were brought together to give shape to the text as we have it. There is still some question whether all six tablets belong to a single composition; in particular, the place of the first tablet (CAT 1.1) is quite uncertain. Due to the fragmentary nature of the tablets, requiring reconstruction based on parallel passages, it is not possible to discern all the details of the narrative, but the basic outline is clear enough.

The central character is Baal-Haddu—the deity Haddu (Hadad/Adad) who controlled the weather and personified the storms needed to give life and fertility to the land. He was thus the prominent deity among farming societies in Palestine and Syria, in many ways supplanting the Creator god °El in importance. The title “Baal” (Heb lu^B^) means “lord, master” (cf. my earlier article), and is thus an honorific that could be applied to any deity. There is some indication that this title had once been used for YHWH in Israel; however, in the face of the danger of syncretic assimilation of Canaanite religious elements (esp. worship of Haddu), such use soon disappeared, the title being reserved for the pagan/false deity Baal-Haddu. In Israel, YHWH was more or less identified with the Creator °El (“Mighty One”), though very different in character than the °El portrayed in many of the Canaanite myths. With Baal-Haddu, the situation was different; a sharp conflict arose between adherents of exclusive worship of the Creator El-Yahweh (i.e. Yahwists), and those willing to adopt (and assimilate) Canaanite religious beliefs and practices (e.g. “Baal-worship”). The agricultural fertility rites practiced among Canaanites (and devoted to Baal-Haddu) were especially problematic for devout Yahwists. This conflict is well-attested in the earlier Old Testament Prophets and the Deuteronomic History (Samuel–Kings), as also in the book of Judges.

The Baal Epic itself is clearly cosmological—that is to say, it deals with the universe and the natural order established in creation. As with the other myths cited above, the Epic centers around a conflict; actually there are two great conflicts which serve to structure the poem: (1) between Baal and the Sea (Yamm = Heb <y`), and (2) between Baal and Death (Mot = Heb tom). The first conflict relates to the establishment of the created order; the second relates to the cyclical nature of the current order (i.e. life-death-rebirth). As in the Babylonian Creation Epic (cf. above), the storm-bringing deity (Marduk / Baal-Haddu), following his conquest of the Sea (the primeval Waters), becomes king and ruler over the created order. The “Sea” is conquered and dismembered (or cut up), which allows for the waters to enter into the natural world safely, on a limited basis (i.e. scattered as rain), and in different locations (rivers, with local flooding, etc). Baal’s rule (over these waters) is marked by the construction of a great palace—the palace symbolizing his domain over the natural world.

The conflict between Baal and the Sea is narrated in the second tablet (II, CAT 1.2), the construction of his palace extends over the third and fourth tablets (III-IV, CAT 1.3-4). At the end of tablet IV (column 8) Baal’s kingship is announced to Mot (i.e. Death personified), which sets the stage for the conflict in tablets V and VI. Interestingly, in III.3.38-40, the deity Anat (= Heb tn`u&) speaks as though she were the one who defeated the Sea (Yamm), contrary to what is narrated in II.4.11-31. This can perhaps be explained by the complex relationship between Baal and Anat, who are said to be brother and sister. As a deity-figure Anat is difficult to define; she is depicted as an adolescent (virginal) maiden, but also as a fierce warrior. It is probably best to view her as a kind of personification of battle. This makes her similar in many respects to the Greek Athena, the Hindu Kali/Durga, and the savage hilds of Germanic myth. The episode in III.2, where Anat ‘hosts’ a bloody battle between two (human) armies, does not appear to be integral to the narrative; rather, it is a symbolic scene that establishes the setting for her character (conflict/battle), along with the peace that must follow warfare (III.3.4-31). Thus, in Baal’s doing battle with Yamm, his ‘sister’ Anat is also present; after the battle, he comes to her directly to set forth peace in the world (cf. the beautiful lines III.3.14-31, repeated as a refrain throughout the poem).

Along with the defeat of the Sea by Baal/Anat, mention is made of the defeat of other monstrous creatures which apparently were allies of the Sea (like the creatures of Tiamat, cf. above). In III.3.38ff, these include a great serpentine Sea-monster (tnn), a similar being called “Twisting Serpent” (b¾n ±qltn), and another referred to as “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm). The last two are also mentioned in V.1.1-3, along with Litan (ltn) also called “Fleeing Serpent” (b¾n brµ). All four of these mythic beings are mentioned in the Old Testament, but in conflict with YHWH, rather than Baal-Haddu (cf. below).

The Old Testament and Israelite Tradition

Only vestiges of the conflict-myth are preserved in the Old Testament, the Canaanite-style myths being generally incompatible with Israelite monotheism. The ancient cosmology (cf. above) is quite clearly present in the Genesis 1 creation narrative, but shorn of nearly all mythological features. The primeval waters are divided and the created order established simply by the command of God, without the slightest sense of conflict. The situation is different in Old Testament poetry, where the mythic language and imagery is better preserved. However, even in those passages, they have been detached from their earlier (mythological) context, floating as vivid and colorful references to El-Yahweh’s sovereign power and control over the created order.

First, it must be noted that YHWH is often described in storm-theophany imagery that would similarly be associated with Baal-Haddu in Canaanite tradition. This includes all aspects of control over meteorological phenomena—wind, rain, thunder, lightning. The “voice” (loq) of YHWH is thunder (cf. above). YHWH’s control over the ancient, primeval waters is clearly expressed in poetic declarations such as Psalm 29:3 and 93:3-4; He is seated above the flood-waters, signifying His dominion over them (Ps 29:10), and exercises control over them at will (Job 26:5ff; 28:25; Psalm 33:7; 104:3; 136:6; Prov 8:29; 30:4, etc). This cosmological imagery was applied to the episode at the Reed Sea in the Exodus narrative (cf. especially the poetic references in Psalm 77:16ff; 78:13).

As far as depicting YHWH’s control in terms of the conflict-myth pattern, there are two main passages where this is preserved: Psalm 74:13-14 and Isaiah 27:1. Consider each of these:

Psalm 74:13-14:
“You broke apart the Sea [<y`] with your strength,
you broke in pieces the monsters [<yn]yN]t^] upon the waters;
you crushed (completely) the heads of Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!],
you gave him as (something) eaten by the people (dwell)ing in (the) desert!”

Isaiah 27:1:
“In that day YHWH will oversee (the judgment) with His sword, great and hard, upon Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!] (the) fleeing [j^r!B*] serpent, even upon Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!] (the) twisting [/otL*q^u&] serpent, and He shall slay the monster [/yN]T^h^] that (is) in/on the sea [<y`].”

To this may be added Job 26:12-13:

“With His power He stilled the (raging) Sea,
with His skillfulness He shattered Rahab;
with His breath He made the Sea clear,
with His hand He pierced the fleeing Serpent.”

The italicized words all refer to mythic beings, associated with the Sea, that also were mentioned in the Baal Epic (cf. above). Clearly we are dealing with very ancient cosmological traditions, which survived even in the context of Israelite monotheism. Isaiah 27:1 brings together four of the names and expressions; though, in all likelihood, they are meant to refer to a single mythological creature, the Liwy¹t¹n (/t*y`w+l!, “Leviathan”), Caananite L£t¹n¥, a serpentine Sea-monster also called by the more general term tannîn (/yN]T^). This creature has the parallel labels “fleeing serpent” (j^r!B* vj*n`) and “twisting serpent” (/otL*q^u& vj*n`), just as in the Baal Epic. The reference to the “heads” (plural) of Liwy¹t¹n in Psalm 74:14 suggests that a seven-headed creature may be in view, corresponding to the “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm) in the Baal Epic, and similar ancient traditions (cf. above). It is probably best to see all of these expressions as relating to a single multi-headed serpentine Sea-creature—the very image that is utilized in the book of Revelation for the Dragon and its Creature from the Sea.

Isaiah 27:1 is also significant for the way it utilizes these elements of ancient cosmological myth—the conflict with the Sea—in an eschatological setting. Apocalyptic literature, with its colorful imagery, tended to recycle older/archaic elements, setting them within a new context. The immediate precursors of Jewish apocalyptic lie in the Old Testament Prophets, with passages such as Isa 27:1. In a way, the use of cosmological myth was appropriate for eschatological narrative, to express the end of things in terms of their beginning. Just as a battle with the Sea marked the beginning of creation, the start of the current Age, so another kind of conflict with the “Sea” would characterize the end of the Age. This is very much the dynamic we see at work in the book of Revelation.