Indo-European Creation Myth in Hebrew and Phoenician

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The Indo-European myth of creation or Primal Cow Creation Myth was borrowed into some of the Western Semitic Languages at a very early time. The similarity has been noticed before by a number of authors, but the connection to the Primal Cow Creation Myth was perhaps overlooked. This article shows that this Proto-Indo-European Myth has been borrowed into the Semitic languages, and appears in the Bible, and may possibly be the source of the creation myth in Genesis.

Ram's skull from the Sistine Chapel There are three main sources of information about the west Semitic creation myth in which a being called Yam (or Yama or Ymn in some dialects) is dismembered and the world is created from his body. From the Ras Shamra tablets, written in the Ugaritic language (an early form of Phoenician), comes the story of the conflict between Baal and Yam. From late classical Greek sources comes a series of creation stories, actually genealogies of the Gods, as they are attributed to the Phoenicians. However these stories are told in Greek and most of the actual Phoenician forms of the names of the Gods are not given. And finally, in the Hebrew of the Old Testament of the Bible, the speaker of Psalm 74 praises a god (“Elohim” in this case) by describing how he overcame Yam and perhaps some other beings and fed them either “to the sharks” or “to the people in the wilderness” depending on the translation (which varies widely). The Psalm then goes on to describe the creation of the world. A more detailed discussion follows here.

A Phoenician Myth in the Ugaritic texts of the Ras Shamra tablets
In an early Canaanite myth, the God Baal kills Yam and scatters his body, according to J. C. L. Gibson in Canaanite Myths and Legends. One of the major sources of Phoenician or Canaanite myth is the collection of tablets found at Ras Shamra, written in a cuneiform of only 30 signs. Although the signs are fairly easy to make out, the text is not because it is written without vowels, so the exact words cannot be determined with certainty. The Ras Shamra tablets date to between the 15th and 12th centuries (experts vary). This myth is often said to describe a battle between Baal and the Sea, however the translation by J. C. L. Gibson clearly describes the slaughter or a cow or other domestic animal, although Gibson does not say so. The conflict between Baal and Yam (2, i, iv) is described on page 44-45. In this text, judge Nahar (nahr ‘river’) is another name for prince Yam (yam ‘sea’ or ‘lake’);

lines 23 - 26
And the club danced from the hand of Baal,
[like] an eagle from his fingers.
It struck the crown of prince Yam,
between the eyes of judge Nahar.
Yam collapsed and fell to the earth;
his joints quivered
and his form crumpled.

lines 30 - 31
And .... mightiest Baal scattered him.

This seems to clearly describe the slaughter of an ox or other large domestic animal, and it can most certainly not be a description of what anyone could do to the sea, since no one can hit the ocean between the eyes, and if they did, it would not crumple to the earth, nor could it be “scattered.” After this, the tablet is broken, so if there is any description of Baal creating the world out of the body of Yam, or if there is not, we cannot tell. The word Yam is understood to mean ‘sea’ in this language, since “Prince Sea” parallels “Judge River.” Yam is often compared to Tiamat in the eastern Semitic myths (Gibson, p. 7), since both are killed but if Yam represents the sea, Tiamat does not. However, the fact that Tiamat is thought to be a reptilian creature (sea creature = sea) is apparently close enough for comparative religionists.

Phoenician Creation Myths in Greek
Philo of Byblos, writing in the Phoenician History in the 2nd century CE, quotes extensively from what he says is ancient Phoenician lore. His work has not survived but some excerpts were quoted by Eusebius, a hostile Christian. These give euhemerized accounts of the Genealogy of the Gods and of the development of human culture which was “invented” by various people. Many of the Gods and culture heroes in these accounts are recognizable as older Semitic Gods, although many of them are referred to by the names of Greek Gods which perhaps corresponded in some way (according to an interpretatio Graeca). There is no direct reference to Yam or the Gemini in these texts, nevertheless it seems that the Greek God Poseidon may correspond to a Phoenician sea-god, and further that the Dioskuri (usually called the Gemini in Latin) also corresponded to Phoenician sea-gods since they are said to have invented boats. Poseidon was the ruling God of the city of Beirut according to the coinage, and although the name Poseidon is usually thought to be Greek, it may have been Phoenician in origin. Baumgarten recognizes a similarity to the conflict between Baal and Yam in the wars between Poseidon and Demarous (p. 236, The Phoenician History of Philos of Byblos), but what little information that is available on that topic does not show any close correspondence with other forms of myths associated with Yam.

The Indo-European Myth of Creation in the Bible in Psalm 74
The Hebrew word “yam” simply means a body of water, and in the Old Testament/Tanakh or Hebrew part of the Bible, this word appears in the names of various lakes and seas such as Yam Suph “Reed Sea” (usually called in English the Red Sea). That is the way the word is normally interpreted or translated in Psalm 74, lines 13-17. However, it may be better to consider these lines to be a retelling of the Ugaritic myth in which Yam is killed, and divided into pieces. Further, the Psalm continues in the same poetic meter to describe the creation of the world although there is no explicit statement that the world is created from the body of Yam. Here is a translation of these lines given from a website that gives both the Hebrew and an English translation. The poet is here addressing a God by the name of Elohim:

13. Thou didst break the sea [translating Yam] in pieces by Thy strength; Thou didst shatter the heads of the sea-monsters on the waters.
14. Thou didst crush the heads of leviathan, Thou gavest it to be food to the folk inhabiting the wilderness.
15. Thou didst cleave fountain and brook; Thou driedst up ever-flowing rivers.
16. Thine is the day, Thine also the night; Thou hast established luminary [moon] and sun.
17. Thou has set all the borders of the earth; Thou hast made summer and winter.

These lines are often interpreted by Christian theologists as another example of the Christian god overcoming the devil in the form of a monster or serpent (see for example the relevant notes in The New American Bible). This is in accord with Christian dualism, eschatology and the Christian theological doctrine that events in the New Testament of the Bible are prefigured or prophesied in the Old Testament, but this particular text does not support this belief. In fact, the misinterpretation of this text in accord with Christian belief may be contributing to the misinterpretation of the older Ugaritic texts. Not all authors interpret this myth as a combat between a God and the sea anyway; others who disagree include van der Toorn in the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, see p. 869. [fuggle26]

These stories may provide an origin for the story of Creation in Genesis, in which the sea is divided in two and then the world is created from it. It seems possible that the word Yam(a), the name of a bovine called *Yama in the Indo-European Languages was misinterpreted as meaning “sea” when the story was borrowed into some west Semitic languages. A theoretical alternative is that the name of Yam was misinterpreted as the name of a bovine creature when the story was borrowed into the Indo-European languages. On balance, the first possibility seems more likely because the early descriptions in Phoenician and in Hebrew (Psalm 74) clearly describe the slaughter of an animal, which is then divided into pieces. Whatever one may say about the applicability of a folktale or metaphor in which the world is made from the body of a slaughtered animal, it simply is not possible to imagine anyone, human or divine, breaking the sea into pieces and distributing them.

References for Creation Stories in West Semitic Languages
The Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos, commentary and translation with texts, by Albert Baumgarten, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1981.
Canaanite Myths and Legends, by J. C. L. Gibson, T & T Clark Ltd., Edinburgh, 1977.
The New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Co., NY, c. 1970.
Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible ed. by Karel van der Toorn, et al., William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999.

A version of this article was originally published at but Yola was hacked in Nov. 2011 and they could not salvage their servers. It is now published here with many revisions based on continuing research.

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