1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Works Cited
  4. Biography

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.

The ancient Greeks poured into their myths ideas about their gods' relations, which reflected views about the order of the universe and, inevitably, about the human condition. The first can be glimpsed in cosmogonic and theogonic poems, while the second make up the heroic and tragic stories of drama and epic. These categories, however, are never completely separate, and motifs about cosmic order (and disorder) appear across literary genres. An overview of Greek motifs will show that in some important ways their divine rivalries fit more easily within Northwest Semitic mythological patterns (specifically in the Canaanite literature of Ugarit), than within the better-known Mesopotamian and Hittite counterparts. Furthermore, I will propose that mythological representation of the more or less conflictive dynamics among the gods correlate with different perceptions of kingship among societies in the eastern Mediterranean.

During the past century, thanks to the discovery and publication of the new texts, our knowledge of nonclassical ancient Mediterranean cultures and their literatures have increased dramatically, and with it our awareness of the interconnectedness of their mythologies and religious systems. This line of study has been on the rise especially since the 1980s (Bernal 1987, 1991; Burkert 1979, 1987, 1992, 2004; West 1997; etc.), after a period of stagnation during the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. During those difficult decades in European history, essentialist arguments about racial distinctions obstructed the dialogue between the disciplines that studied the Greek and Roman worlds (Classics) and the Semitic world (Assyriology, Biblical studies, etc.). The parallel development of Indo-European linguistics widened the gap. While it brought invaluable insights into the history of this major family of languages from which both English and ancient Greek and Latin sprang (among many others), it was, and still is, liable to exacerbate the divide between the Greek and the Semitic languages and cultures (a complex issue treated extensively by Said 1978 and Bernal 1987; see Arvidsson 2006; López-Ruiz 2010, Introduction). But the geographical and historical context in which ancient Greek culture developed tells a different story. The cultural makeup of the Greek-speaking world was shaped much more by the West Asiatic and North African cultures that surrounded it in historical times than by its prehistoric Indo-European past. As comparative inquiry has unquestionably shown, the mythologies of the eastern Mediterranean peoples, including the Greeks, are interwoven in multiple and complex ways. Centuries of proximity and cultural contact resulted in the cementing of ‘shared taxonomies’ (Noegel 2007), which allowed for the creative adaptations and transformations of common motifs that we can detect in the surviving texts (monographs on Greek and Near Eastern parallels include Burkert 1992, 2004; West 1997; Bremmer 2008; López-Ruiz 2010; Lane Fox 2008; Louden 2011; see López-Ruiz forthcoming a for more bibliography).

This trail of Near Eastern motifs is especially conspicuous in the Theogony of Hesiod. In its roughly 900 verses, this poem offers a view of the beginnings of the universe (a cosmogony) and of the origins of the gods and their generations (a theogony). In an undefined first space or ‘opening’ called ‘Chaos’ there appear certain primordial entities, not generated by anyone: Gaia, Tartaros, and Eros. From these are born other gods that represent aspects of nature (Darkness, Night, Aether, Day, etc.) (Th. 120–153); then, Hesiod gradually moves from this cosmogony into a story of the struggle for power among the generations of gods (Th. 154 ff). The basic plot can be summarized as follows: Earth (Gaia/Ge) and Sky (Ouranos) beget several groups of children (the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the Hundred-Handers). Sky has power over the universe, and fears that his children will replace him, so he prevents them from being born, keeping them inside Earth. Earth plots with her children to overcome their father, and the youngest, Kronos, castrates Sky with a sickle (Th. 174–182). Kronos is now king in the universe, and the story repeats itself: in fear of being overthrown, he swallows his own children as they are born. Rhea, his wife, hides the youngest, Zeus, deceiving Kronos into eating a rock instead. Zeus grows strong, and soon Kronos regurgitates the swallowed children, whereupon Zeus becomes the leader of this generation, after liberating his defeated allies the Cyclopes, who give him thunder and lightning as weapons (Th. 453–504). But in order to secure his power, Zeus still faces several challenges: a war against the Titans (the generation of Kronos), which he wins with the help of the Hundred-Handers (Th. 617–720), and a fierce battle against monstrous Typhon, his last opponent (Th. 820–868). Zeus is ‘encouraged’ by the gods ‘to be king and rule’, and thus he establishes a new order (Th. 880–885).

This scheme of succession and those found in the epics of the Near East offer many parallels (López-Ruiz 2010, ch.3). The most salient common feature, in brief, is that the Storm Gods (Mesopotamian Marduk, Hurro-Hittite Teshub/Tarhunt, and Canaanite Baal) are celebrated as the new champions of the gods in epic stories in which they confront older and contemporary generations of gods. The closest story by far is in the opening of the Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi Cycle (also known as ‘Song of Kumarbi’ or ‘Kingship in Heaven’, but probably originally called ‘Song of Birth’, Bachvarova, 2014, p. 140). In this story, the Sky god (Anu) is castrated by his opponent Kumarbi, who, in turn, is overthrown by the Storm God Teshub (recent translation in Bachvarova 2014). The castration motif and the scheme of succession (Sky – Kumarbi/Kronos (grain gods) – Storm God) are identical to the Greek version. In the Babylonian poem Enuma Elish, which celebrates the beginnings of the universe, the Storm God Marduk becomes king of the world after a fierce battle against primordial gods headed by the water-goddess Tiamat.

In contrast, in the Late Bronze Age Ugaritic epic known as the Baal Cycle, the Storm God Baal holds a more delicate position and is presented as an insecure deity, who needs to dethrone an established ruler (Yam), and whose power over rain and thunder (hence fertility) does not suffice to defeat his peer the Death God (Mot). Let us take a closer look at this ‘deviant’ story about the Storm God, before turning to similar motifs in Greek myth. The West Semitic Storm God, unlike Marduk and others, is not ascribed absolute power but a limited and always imperiled victory, for which the aid of other deities is emphasized. Even after Mot (Death) is smashed by Baal's sister Anat and Baal rises up from death, there is a second confrontation between Mot and Baal, which comes to a draw. Only after the old god, ‘father El’, intervenes by using Shapshu (the Sun) as a mediator does Mot renounce his pretensions and openly accept Baal as king, at which point the poem ends. Here is the relevant final section:

  • “They eyed each other like seasoned worriers; Death was strong, Baal was strong.

  • They collided like wild bulls; Death was strong, Baal was strong.

  • They bit like serpents; Death was strong, Baal was strong.

  • They grappled like swift competitors; Death fell, Baal fell.

  • Up above, Sun called out to Death: ‘Listen well, Death, son of El! How can you engage in battle with the mighty one, Baal? How will your father, bull El, not hear you? He will certainly remove the supports for your enthronement, overturn your royal throne, and smash your scepter of judgment’.

  • El's beloved son, the champion Death, began to fear and became terrified. At the sound of her voice, Death rose, raised his voice and cried out: ‘Let Baal be enthroned on his royal throne, his resting place, the seat of his dominion’.

(Baal Cycle, CAT 1. Tablet 6. col. VI, translation by Meier 2014, p.177)

The Thoegony of Hesiod stands quite far from this scheme of divine rule. The Greek poem is generally seen as a celebration of Zeus' success, as the culmination of a story that starts at the very creation of the world. Compared with the similar narratives from the ancient Near East, Hesiod's stands out for its linear generational succession and its clear hierarchical order. The Theogony is in fact closest to the Hittite myth, which includes the castration of the Sky God, only ‘neater’, since the Hittite myth does not follow a linear father–son succession. Unfortunately, it is impossible to ascertain just how innovative Hesiod's theogonic scheme was within Greek tradition, since we have no other contemporary literature of its kind. We can be sure, however, that multiple variant traditions regarding origins of the world and the gods coexisted. As I have argued elsewhere, even in Hesiod's neat narrative, Zeus' victory does not erase the shadow of the older gods (e.g., Gaia and Typhon), or the fear of a possible successor (see below). Kronos too looms over Hesiod's narrative as a defeated but not obliterated rival and in other literary and magical texts he will preserve an important role as an ancestral deity belonging to the ‘old order’ (López-Ruiz 2010, pp. 115–125). Moreover, the unnatural conceptions and births in the Theogony (including Ouranos obstructing the birth of his children, Kronos swallowing his, and Zeus swallowing his pregnant wife Metis) are designed to prevent or reverse the birth of potential successors. This pattern, which recurs in Orphic cosmogonies and the Hittite Kumarbi Cycle (López-Ruiz 2010, pp. 91 ff.; Bernabé 1989; Boardman 2004), expresses the theological anxiety of an always-potentially threatened order, even in the ‘times of Zeus’. Arguably, in Hesiod and other sources, these are only minor cracks on an otherwise unquestionable robust victory. If one pays attention, however, counter narratives about the threats to the established divine order resurface quite resiliently. These mythological ‘alternatives’, in turn, offer a glimpse into the network of ancient Mediterranean traditions and how they are interconnected in unexpected ways. Comparative mythology, in other words, is not a search for meaningless parallels but rather ‘it increases for our consideration the number of realizations of a mythic idea’ (Mondi 1990, p. 144). In what follows, I present the most salient examples of these underrepresented views of divine competition, which will help us further the comparative study of Greek and Northwest Semitic mythologies.

Nowhere is Zeus more powerful than in Homer's Iliad, where the turns of events, the fates of heroes, and the dynamics among gods revolve around his will (Heiden 2008). Moreover, Homer is not concerned with cosmogonic myth. And yet, when such allusions appear, they take us quite far from the image of balance and stability otherwise dominant in Homer's Olympos and from the Succession myth in Hesiod's Theogony. The Iliad, indeed, seems to be drawing on a divine hierarchy subtly different from Hesiod's. First, Ocean and the Sea Goddess Tethys are said to be the ‘origin of the gods’ (Il. 14.201, 246, 301), which points to a different cosmogony altogether (West 1997, p. 282 calls it the ‘Cyclic cosmogony’). Then, the cosmos is divided into three realms governed by the three brothers Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, who received equal parts of it in a distribution by lot. Poseidon reminds Zeus of this order of things, after receiving a threatening and arrogant order to stop helping the Achaeans in the Trojan War (Il. 15.187-193, cf. Hymn to Demeter 85-87). The Sea God obeys, but not without reminding Zeus that he is a primus inter pares (‘first among peers’) and nothing more. This implied triumvirate of the gods of Storm, Sea, and Death, strikingly mirrors the configuration of gods struggling for power in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, where Baal fights his competitors, Sea and Death, and depends on the assistance of his sister Anat and the patriarchal figure El. The equivalence of Canaanite El to Greek Kronos in different sources throughout antiquity reinforces these structural similarities (López-Ruiz 2010, pp. 158–167). The scenes in both epics are made more similar by the use of messages sent back and forth and repeated verbatim, as is typical of the epic genre, expressing the rivalry and clash of egos among the sons of Kronos (even if watered down in Homer to a game of threats).

The theme of divine battle between the Storm God and the serpent-like Sea God passed down into later Canaanite lore. It even survived the onset of monotheism in Israelite religion, in the imagery of Yahweh fighting the sea and the ‘twisting serpent’ Leviathan (Psalm 29, Psalm 74, and Isa. 27.1). The idea of the Storm God as a ruler who shares his domain also lived on in Phoenician mythology, according to Philon of Byblos (1st to 2nd cents. CE), for whom Baal (Zeus/Adad) and Ashtart ruled ‘with the consent of Kronos’ (i.e., El/Ilu) (P.E.1.10.31). On the Aegean side, the linear succession of gods and uncontested kingship of Zeus became the mainstream ‘theology’. The Greeks, however, were not bound by a canon of sacred texts that would unify their religious views, as these alternatives show, which explains why some of these views of divine order might have been closer to the Canaanite ones represented in the Ugaritic texts.

There are many other aspects that illustrate this point. In passing allusions, we hear about instances where Zeus faced revolt from his own Olympian family. Achilles mentions how his mother Thetis helped Zeus to prevent a coup in which the gods intended to chain him (Il. 1.396–405), ‘even Hera and Poseidon and Pallas Athena’. At that time, Thetis summoned Hundred-Hander Briareos whose presence deterred the Olympians (cf. their role in Hesiod). A similar event seems to be contemplated when Zeus assures the gods that they will not be able to chain him if they tried (Il. 8.19). The Greek war-goddess Athena, in turn, had a special role in safeguarding the stability of Zeus's throne. The Athena of the Iliad, it has been noticed, shares attributes and functions with Ugaritic warrior-goddess Anat (Louden 2006, ch. 7). This perception is clear even in Ares' resentful comments about her privileged treatment by Zeus in the Iliad (5. 877–880) and in early tragedy, when she boasts to be the only god to have the key to Zeus' house, where his thunder is stored (Aeschylus’ Eumenides, 827–828). The ambiguous position of Athena in terms of the succession goes back to the story of her birth. Her mother Metis, the first wife taken by Zeus, is pregnant with the potential successor of Zeus (or so a prophecy had announced), and therefore the monarch gulps down the pregnant consort. Instead of a son, Zeus himself gives birth to a maiden, dressed in full panoply. She cannot be the prophesized son, but her special place next to him is a reminder of a succession that could have gone differently. In response to this ‘extramarital’ (or rather parthenogenic) birth, Hera begets Hephaistos by herself (Th. 886–929), another ambiguous character to whom we will return. In the Hymn to Apollo (305–352), however, she reacts by begetting a true cosmic enemy, the monster Typhon (in the Theogony a creature of Gaia and Tartaros), and threatens to create yet another child who might excel all the gods (i.e., Hephaistos). Hera thus plays out the role of the powerful sibling and consort who threatens the established rule. She also has the power to deceive Zeus (most famously in Iliad 14) and to use blackmail as leverage (in Il. 8.482–484 she threatens to go to the Underworld in protest, a passive–aggressive tactic used by Zeus' sister and consort Demeter in the Hymn to Demeter).

The stories about Prometheus also revive the old menace of the Titans (for he was the offspring of Kronos' brother Iapetos). But Prometheus also represents the threat of an increasingly skillful humankind, whom he helps to come out of primitive darkness, with fire and other technologies as ‘means to mighty ends’ (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound (henceforth PB) 111, cf. 477–506). Zeus is here a tyrannical new ruler, whose power is expected to be challenged by another champion (e.g., PB 148–151, 160–167, and 224). Prometheus is presented as a betrayed old ally who had helped Zeus against the Titans (PB 199–229), which again, deviates from Hesiod's story. Ironically, Prometheus now holds the secret of the identity of this challenger who will strip Zeus of ‘his scepter and his honors’ (PB 168–179). This prophecy was given to Prometheus by his mother Themis (equated here with Gaia, PB 211–215) following an old tradition linked with divine succession (cf. the prophecies given by Gaia and Ouranos to Kronos and Zeus respectively in the Theogony). We leave for a more complete study the challenges that human beings pose to the gods. Suffice it to mention the account of human heroes harming the gods in Iliad 5 (cf. Od. 11.308 ff.), and the prophecy given to Zeus by none other than Prometheus to the effect that Thetis (Achilles' mother) would bear to him a child greater than his father (Pindar, Nemean 5.34–37, Isthmian 8.26–47, and Aeschylus PB 755–768). Both Poseidon and Zeus had coveted the sea nymph, but Zeus avoided the union by marrying her off to the mortal Peleus.

Finally, Zeus finds potential challengers among his male siblings and descendants. Hephaistos in particular provides a cornerstone in this story of threatened authority. Many aspects of this figure are irregular (Bremmer 2010). As mentioned above, he is born to Hera alone, in ‘revenge’ for Zeus’ begetting Athena (a motif first attested in Hesiod's Th. 924–929). While for Homer he is the son of Zeus (Il. 1.578, 14.338, Od. 8.312), he is hurled down from Olympos by Hera herself, disappointed at the birth of this imperfect child and ally (Il. 18.395–397) and again by Zeus for siding with Hera (Il. 1.590–594). He retaliates by ‘sticking’ his mother to a throne until he is persuaded by Dionysos (with alcohol) to liberate her (e.g., Alcaeus 349 LP, Pindar fr. 283 SM, cf. Pausanias 1.20.3). We may also note how in Prometheus Bound 18–20 he is reluctant to follow Zeus' orders to chain the rebel, and how some Attic-vase paintings of the god walking toward Olympos led by Dionysos to liberate his mother (the ‘return’ motif) show him walking on foot, as a dignified and empowered figure (Fineberg 2009). The fact that Thetis and Eurynome hid him and protected him as a baby (after he was exposed) resonates with both the role of Thetis as a helper of Zeus (see above) and the hidden infancy of Zeus in Crete before returning to overthrow Kronos (Theogony 477–484). Thetis' role, however, could be read as more ambiguous, as fostering the survival of a potential rival of Zeus. Arguably, the god of fire-working and metal-working is as instrumental as Prometheus in enabling human progress, which, added to his dubious genealogy, make him a potential rival of Zeus. In a sense, his position as an often ridiculed and sweaty god (Il. 1.595–599 and 18.372), and his representation as a handicapped figure (‘the lame one’) who rides a donkey or a mule, can be read as compensation for the threat that the unruly blacksmith posed. Following up our comparison to Near Eastern mythologies, Hephaistos finds a close counterpart in the Ugaritic and later Phoenician craftsman deity Kothar-wa-Hasis, who is instrumental in helping Baal attain his position and (like Hephaistos) builds palaces and weapons for the gods (Handy 1994, pp. 133–135; Kitts 2013, pp. 104–105; Bremmer 2010, pp. 194–195). The seemingly strange marriage between Hephaistos and Aphrodite (Od. 8. 326–332), who cheats on him with Ares, not only confirms his place amongst the top tier of gods, but also invokes deeper Near Eastern connections: In Cyprus, the prehistoric fertility goddess (later identified with Greek Aphrodite and Phoenician Astarte) is associated with the cult to a copper-ingot god, seemingly forming a primordial divine couple (Karageorghis 1982, pp.103–104). Aphrodite was central to the religious life of the eastern Mediterranean island, as reflected in her names ‘Kypris’ and ‘Kyprogeneia’. Her other hypostasis, Kythereia, explained by Hesiod in connection to the island of Kythera, might instead point to an early association with the Northwest Semitic god of metals, Kothar (López-Ruiz forthcoming b). If this network of connections can ever be closed with some certainty, Hephaistos or some version of him might have occupied a position of main deity in some local pantheon(s), thus allowing for narratives in which he is a more direct equal and rival of the Storm Gods (Zeus and Baal).

Yet another mythological appearance of Hephaistos makes him a player in divine contests: in Iliad 21, there is a battle between Achilles and the Trojan river Skamandros. At some point, Hephaistos, representing fire, ends up taking the place of Achilles and fighting against the waters. Far from an impossible or comical threat against Zeus's supreme power (Louden 2006, pp. 213–14), the battle belongs to the cosmogonic subgenre of Chaoskampf, in which Hephaistos acts as a surrogate of Zeus in defense of his linear descendant Achilles (grandson of Aiakos, son of Zeus) (Kitts 2013).

Among the children of Zeus, Apollo and Dionysos also pose potential threats. At least in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the young god causes terror among his peers: ‘the gods tremble at him when he enters the house of Zeus, and all leap up from their seats when he comes near’ (H.Ap. 2–4) (Clay 1989, pp.19–27). Even if this threat never materializes as a challenge to his father's throne, the son emulates the father's cosmic struggle when he slays the monster-serpent Pytho, joining the group of ancient gods who defeat serpent monsters (Teshub/Tarhunt, Marduk, Zeus, Baal, and Yahweh) (Bachvarova forthcoming). The episode is framed as a doublet of the Zeus-Typhon conflict, and in this version it is Hera herself who challenges the Storm God by creating the monster and praying to Earth and Sky (Gaia and Ouranos) that he be ‘superior (to Zeus) as much as broad-sounding Zeus (is) to Kronos’ (H.Ap. 339) (Typhon was created by Gaia in the Theogony). As for Dionysos, the son of Zeus and either divine Persephone or mortal Semele, suffice it to say that in Orphic cosmogony the wine god was positioned as a rightful successor of Zeus. In turn, the Orphic myth of his death and return to life (known as the Zagreus myth), his marginalization by gods and men (cf. Euripides' Bacchae), and his association with Persephone (his mother in Orphic myth) made him a favorite intercessor between the dead and the living and the central figure in widespread mystery cults (Graf and Johnston 2013, pp. 66–93). His characterization as an alien, or rather alienated god who suffers and ‘returns’, also resembles the ambivalent aspects of Hephaistos, with whom he is represented in the above mentioned ‘return to Olympos’ scenes.

Skipping over other threats to Zeus in later literature, we should at least mention the satirical manipulation of cosmogony in Aristophanes' comedy. When he postulates that a new god, Vortex, has overthrown Zeus (Clouds 381–382) and presents Plutos (Wealth) as a god who can also dethrone him (Plutos 1–252, cf. 1171–1209), he plays on the idea of an instable pantheon as a means to offer social commentary on the rise of natural philosophy and the rule of sophistry in a wealth-driven society.

What do these representations of divine politics and power games tell us about the different perceptions of kingship in the cultures that cultivated these traditions? To recapitulate the basic distinctions, the Mesopotamian and Hittite victories of the Storm God are presented as the culmination of the succession of gods leading from the past tyranny and chaos to the ‘current world order’. This pattern of ‘succession myth’ is absent from the Ugaritic Baal Cycle. While Hesiod, as we mentioned, does follow this trajectory in the Theogony, other mythological narratives in circulation in archaic and even classical times left the issue of succession much more open-ended, approximating the more ambivalent dynamics of divine power in Ugaritic epic and later Northwest Semitic traditions.

Now, it has been argued about the Baal Cycle that the status of divine monarchy may reflect anxieties about the legitimacy and stability of monarchy down on earth. By contrast, in the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish ‘kingship finds its foundation in the structure of the cosmos, in an original mythic act that defeated chaos and established order (…) The present king ensures the continuance of order because his kingship is a continuation of Marduk's chaos-defeating kingship’ (Tugendhaft 2012a, p. 147; 2012b, pp. 368–369). In fact, mirroring their theological views, kingship was treated as neatly passed from one city-state to another in the Mesopotamian chronicles and king lists (Glassner 2005, pp. 55–56), in a culture where ‘the break between the spheres of myth and legend and history was never quite achieved’ (Glassner 2005, p. 3). Like in Mesopotamia, in the Hittite world ‘the histories of the divine and human worlds were linked into a single master narrative by the middle of the second millennium BC’ (Bachvarova 2012, p. 97). The direct influence of Mesopotamian traditions about famous antediluvian (and postdiluvian) kings cannot be underestimated here. In the Hittite succession or ‘Kingship in Heaven’ myth (originally entitled ‘Song of Birth’), the gods are kings in Heaven whose dethronement comes by way of a political coup by their cupbearer: Alalu is dethroned by Anu and Anu by Kumarbi. Hittite records prove the position of cupbearers as high court officials who occasionally seized the throne (Bryce 2002, 23; Van de Mieroop 2007, p. 120), but the dialog with the Sumerian Sargon Legend is also evident, as the famous king was represented as a cupbearer in that tradition (Bachvarova 2012, pp. 102, 113; for other myths where banqueting is at the center of power struggles, see López-Ruiz 2013). Moreover, Alalu (the first ‘king in Heaven’) might be an adaptation of Alulim, the first king mentioned in the Sumerian King List (Bachvarova 2012, pp. 112). Finally, it has also long been noticed that the Hittite succession is not linear (father to son, as Hesiod's), but seems to reflect the merging of two rival dynastic lines (that of Anu and that of Kumarbi) in the figure of Teshub, since he is born from Kumarbi's body but is ‘genetically’ the seed of Anu. Although it is not easy to match this theogony with specific political history, it is significant that the Hittites mapped their own political-ideological idiosyncrasies onto their depictions of divine kingship, which in turn functioned as validating frameworks for the earthly order of things.

The Hesiodic narrative also presents a linear trajectory from chaos to order that connects the beginning of the universe with the current monarchic rule of Zeus. The Canaanite model, on the contrary, treats Baal as one among equals, employing a language used in the political documents of the time between vassal kings and their suzerain, that is, the superior kings of the Hittites, Egypt, Babylon, and Mittani. Baal acts and speaks as one who is rebelling against a political superior (Yam, then Mot) in an ongoing struggle among his own generation, not as one who is legitimately overturning a cosmic predecessor such as Tiamat or Kronos (Tugendhaft 2012a, pp. 153–154, 2013, pp. 196–198). His fear and questionable claims to the throne would resonate with the audience of a region where city-state kings were far from absolute rulers outside their walls and perhaps not even within them. The ‘alternative’ views of Zeus' position, similarly, present kingship as vulnerable and the succession as open-ended. These rare allusions offer an interesting counterpoint to Hesiod's worldview, in which Zeus' victory is accompanied with reflections about the divine inspiration of noble (‘good’) human kings (e.g., Th. 434–438). These different theologies might indeed reflect political views. Where Hesiod's Theogony supports a conservative defense of the legitimate monarch, Homer's Olympos reflects a world of loose alliances between competing chiefs, subject to coups and threats, even if supervised by an authoritative (but not necessarily invulnerable) Zeus. This dichotomy was expressed already in the ancient traditions about the two poets, in which Hesiod and Orpheus were associated with kings, in contrast to Homer, perceived as a poet of ‘the people’ (Nagy 2010, pp. 345). Athenian drama, in turn, questions the authoritarian rule of the god-king, as Aeschylus and Aristophanes criticized tyranny amidst a thriving democracy. Yet other cosmogonies confirm that the genre was flexible and adjusted to evolving philosophies and theologies. Orphic writers manufactured for Zeus a position even stronger than that postulated by Hesiod, where Zeus (like a Greek Marduk) became a recreator of the universe. The Orphic view, less concerned with divine or human politics and more with philosophy, sought the one divine principle that would explain the multiplicity of the universe. And still at another level of Orphic theology, Dionysos became the intermediary between the divine and human worlds and the successor of Zeus (Graf and Johnston 2013, pp. 66–93).

This overview illustrates several methodological points. ‘Greece’ and ‘the Near East’ are not sufficiently useful categories for literary/mythological comparison. Neither of these labels captures the infinitely subdivisible realities that lie behind them. Multiple civilizations flourished in the ancient Near East, which produced unique literatures in different languages and reflected different idiosyncrasies, even when it came to the shared genre of cosmogonic poetry. Hence, we need to explore the intersections with the Greek materials on a case-by-case basis, and only then build up broader patterns of comparison. Similarly, Hesiod's Theogony, with its own set of parallels with various Near Eastern motifs, is not the sum total of the cosmogonic ideas circulating in Greece in his time or later. Other cosmogonies in the Greek-speaking world differed in details and overall focus. These, in turn, present their own set of parallels with other sets of Near Eastern myths. Finally, the need for this ‘refined search’ by genre (or subgenre) and by culture (or subculture) is inseparable from the question of cultural exchange. The evidence suggest an intense contact with the Northwest Semites and warns against the general inertia to privilege more prestigious and massive bodies of literature such as the Mesopotamian and Egyptian over the more fragmented corpora of Anatolia and the Levant.

Works Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Works Cited
  4. Biography
  • Arvidsson, S. (2006). Aryan Idols. Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science. Chicago-London: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bachvarova, M. (2012). From ‘Kingship in Heaven’ to King Lists: Syro-Anatolian Courts and the History of the World, Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, 12, pp. 97118.
  • Bachvarova, M. (2014). Hurro-Hittite Narrative Song: Kumarbi Cycle. In: C. López-Ruiz (ed.), Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation, pp. 13963. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Works Cited
  4. Biography
  • Carolina López-Ruiz is Associate Professor of Classics at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. She studied at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain (Classics), the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Chicago (PhD 2005, Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World). López-Ruiz has published articles on Greek and Near Eastern literatures and mythology and the Phoenician presence in the Iberian Peninsula. She is the coeditor of Colonial Encounters in Ancient Iberia: Phoenician, Greek, and Indigenous Relations (University of Chicago Press, 2009, with M. Dietler), the author of When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East (Harvard University Press, 2010), and the editor of Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is currently preparing a monograph on the pre-Roman culture of Tartessos in ancient Iberia (with coauthor S. Celestino, Oxford University Press).