Greek and Canaanite Mythologies: Zeus, Baal, and their Rivals

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Abstract

Hesiod's Theogony is normally read as a ‘hymn to Zeus’, praising the victory of the Greek Storm God over the previous generations of gods (Ouranos, Kronos, and the Titans). The backbone of the Theogony is the so-called Succession Myth, widely accepted by scholars as an adaptation from the Near Eastern theme of the cosmic struggle between generations of gods, leading to the victory of the Storm God. The Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, the Hurro-Hittite Song of Kumarbi, and less explicitly the Ugaritic and Biblical texts all reflect versions of this type of divine conflict. Behind the neat pattern of the succession, however, Greek sources contain scattered references to stories where even the power of Zeus is occasionally threatened. Through these allusions, we can reconstruct an ‘alternative’ motif of divine instability in Greek mythology. This essay will show that Greek and Northwest Semitic mythologies in particular converge in this less canonical picture of divine kingship, especially if we look at the concerns surrounding Baal's ascension to power in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle and his seemingly fragile position as the new ‘king in heaven’. The mythological representation of the dynamics among the gods, in turn, correlates with different perceptions of kingship among societies in the eastern Mediterranean. These shared theological concerns exemplify a phenomenon latent in many aspects of Greek ‘orientalizing’ literature and art, namely, a more direct and intense contact with the Northwest Semites (Canaanites, later Phoenicians, and others) than is usually granted. This brief overview will remind us of some of the methodological problems that challenge the study of comparative religion and mythology.

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