Saturday, 18 March 2017

Logical Modality in Classical Athens

The following is a sketch of a paper on an alternative reading of the understanding of logical modality in ancient Greece. It isn't yet properly annotated and referenced, and is subject to significant revision in the near future. Treat it as a working paper. It discusses an issue which surfaced in SHB, but which was explored differently there. It may also be of interest to those who have read my book on Frazer, since what follows below discusses how Plato was understood before Frazer argued that he was guilty of  'intellectual error'. 


We are accustomed to the idea that Aristotle was the first person to codify the laws of thought which have come down to us as the basis of what is now formal logic. For the most part these laws are formulations and refinements of what is essentially common sense, so we are not forced to imagine that no-one had any clue about logical thinking before Aristotle.  Plato for example, is not deficient in the logic of his thought processes because he came before Aristotle’s codification.

However there is much in ancient writing, earlier and later, and also in the pages of Plato, which is not easily intelligible as being based on the laws of thought, or even based on plain common sense. In fact the laws of thought appear to be contradicted, and often. Are these just deficiencies in clarity of thought? Or is there another logical modality present in these writings, not codified by Aristotle or anybody else, but which was understood in classical Athens?

First, it is important to be clear about what is the essence of logical thinking, as codified by Aristotle. Aristotle’s laws of thought are as follows:

The first is that a thing is itself and not something else. Which is known as the law of identity.
The second, the law of non-contradiction, states that a thing cannot be a thing other than itself, at least at the same time. Aristotle gives three definitions of the law of non-contradiction in his Metaphysics:

At the ontological level, he says that: "It is impossible that the same thing belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect" [1005b19-20]. Looked at from the psychological level, he says: "No one can believe that the same thing can (at the same time) be and not be" [1005b23-24).  Finally, in terms of logic, Aristotle claims that: "The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously" [1011b13-14].

The third is the law of the excluded middle. Meaning that a thing is either itself, or something else, not something in between.  He states it as a principle in the Metaphysics [996b 26–30], saying that “it is necessary in every case to affirm or deny, and that it is impossible that there should be anything between the two parts of a contradiction”.

This is not part of Aristotle’s manual of logical procedure, known as the Organon. The Organon codifies how the human understanding should deal with identifying and differentiating aspects of reality, reasoning, deduction, detecting false or misleading conclusions and specious modes of argument (the text on Sophistical Refutations is part of the Organon).

The Metaphysics is a text which employs the ancient practice of collection and division; of identifying the same, and what is different. We normally think of dialectic (which is the Greek term for this critical technique, perhaps most clearly illustrated in Plato’s Sophist) as what the Greeks did in the course of philosophical argument, but its original scope was much wider than that. The practice of collection and division was also used in Babylonia and elsewhere in the second millennium B.C.E. Which is why the Babylonians and the Assyrians created lexical lists of objects which had something in common, such the property of whiteness (scholars initially found the purpose of these lexical lists puzzling, and most still do). Marc van de Mieroop has recently published an intriguing study of the legal, divinatory, and literary texts, and word lists from Babylonia, which shows a strong adherence by the scholars to a logical understanding of what is the same, and what is different. Though he does not compare instances of the same and the different found in Babylonian literary texts and the word lists,  with discussion of the same and the different found in the pages of Aristotle. [‘Philosophy Before the Greeks’, Stanford, 2015].

The law of non-contradiction, as stated by Aristotle, isn’t actually provable, though he tried to demonstrate it. Many later philosophers have tinkered with the law, but its main use is as a guide to thinking, and it is useful to know, even if it is possible to give instances where it does not hold.

Plato had the concept of an inner and outer knowledge, which probably reflects something of a priestly understanding of both teaching and of reality. He referred to these grades of knowledge as ta eso and ta exo In the Theatetus. Which means that teaching operated at two levels – the exoteric and public level, and another which was esoteric in nature.

Esoteric knowledge is by definition obscure, and/or difficult to understand. Which is what the story of the prisoners in the cave in Plato’s Republic is all about. They see the shadows of reality on the wall before them, but not the reality itself. When they are released with suddenness, their reason is deranged by the experience. Instead they should have been released gradually, being shown details of reality first, without the whole of the shocking truth of reality being given to them all at once.  So Plato was engaged with both exoteric and esoteric understandings of knowledge. 
In Mesopotamia there was a similar division of the types of knowledge. We are told by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (Seventh century B.C.E.) that the common run of men are ‘deaf and blind throughout their lives’. Exoteric knowledge of divine things would consist of the names of the gods, their epithets, and stories told of the gods. This superficial knowledge could be imparted by fathers to sons, and could be taught in the schoolroom, as sometimes is said in tablet colophons. The esoteric knowledge was kept secret by the initiates and the priesthood, and tablets relating to the mysteries of the gods would state that they were not to be read by the uninitiated.

Did Plato understand a different kind of logic invoked by him to understand the nature of reality? There are intimations in his canon that he understood pretty well the laws of thought that we find in Aristotle, but I think there is another pattern of logic present, and discussed at length, which entirely cuts across the three laws, and enables a quite different picture of reality. Whereas Aristotle’s laws of thought provide guidance for understanding what exists in the world of physical existence, what Plato tells us about is an esoteric doctrine, which explains what is hidden and obscure, and relates to the gods, and what is divine. As one might expect, the rules for the gods are different.

In the Timaeus Plato refers to a principle of wholes, or totalities. It is later mentioned by the Neoplatonist Porphyry as a Pythagorean doctrine, and Pythagoras is supposed to have learned of it in a lecture in Babylon, after the fall of the city to the Persians in 539 B.C.E. Since this principle of totalities or wholes is ascribed to Pythagoras, if this ascription is correct, then the latest date of the principle is therefore the sixth century B.C.E.

It is of course, very much older. It can be detected in the Iliad, in Bk 18, where Hephaestus makes objects which, on account of their nature, can pass into the counsel of the gods, and return. The principle may have been brought back to the west by Pythagoras after his spell in Babylon and the Levant, or it may already have been part of a body of ideas already well established in Italy and in Greece. The principle might be simply put, as ‘things which are total participate in totality’, in the same way that Plato declared that ‘greatness is participation in the great.’ But it is so much more important than a statement that wholes conjoin with one another. It is the essence of the ascent from image to image to an apprehension of the Good which Plato refers to in the both the Timaeus and the Republic.

Each of these images must represent or embody an aspect of what Plato referred to as ‘the Good’. Each of the images must allow the supplicant to pass from one to the other via their essential identity (i.e., in that each image represents an image or embodiment of an aspect of the Good). What varies between them is the degree of their participation in the Good. Plato is very clear that the viewer of the images must be able to pass along the chain of images in either direction. The chain of images is not therefore purely about gaining an understanding of the Good (meaning the divine, or Being itself), either in reality or figuratively. Passage through the chain of images is about both the transcendence of images or forms, and about the descent of Being into the world of generation, as a generative power.

Each of these images is a symballō, a conjecture, based on certain agreed ideas among the sacerdotal class, and different across cultural groupings. The images are thrown or struck together in order to reduplicate and re-energise the power and presence of divine Being in the human world. For man, this might be seen as an act of worship or observance of what is holy, but it can also be understood also as a form of theurgy.

Given what we are given to understand about the differences between the patterns of the discussion of ideas in the near-east and in Greece, it may be surprising to hear that Pythagoras learned about the principles of wholes through lectures in Babylon. We know that ideas were discussed publicly in Mesopotamia, if usually in the form of a debate which explored the relative merits of one idea against another. It is possible that a lecture was the source of his knowledge of this doctrine, but it may be more likely, given the importance Pythagoras himself attached to the distinction between ‘hearers’ and ‘students,’ Pythagoras learned of the principle of wholes and totalities in some other way.
In the Timaeus  Tim 30a-b, Plato speaks through Timaeus, saying:

For God desired that, so far as possible, all things should be good and nothing evil; wherefore, when He took over all that was visible, seeing that it was not in a state of rest but in a state of discordant and disorderly motion, He brought it into order out of disorder, deeming that the former state is in all ways better than the latter. For Him who is most good it neither was nor is permissible to perform any action save what is most fair. As He reflected, therefore, He perceived that of such creature as are by nature visible, none that is irrational will be fairer, comparing wholes with wholes, than the rational….
Plato, in using the phrase ‘comparing wholes with wholes’, is referring to the principle of wholes and totalities mentioned in Porphyry’s account of Pythagoras.

It is interesting that Pythagoras is said to have associated with the ‘other Chaldeans,’ after Porphyry mentions his conferring with the king of Arabia. The current academic view is that the Chaldean dynasties were essentially Arab dynasties, and that they were in control of Babylon at this time.  This helps to confirm the reliability of some of the detail in this important passage, written so long after the lifetime of Pythagoras. 

So what did Pythagoras take from his long sojourn in Egypt, and the near-east? Is his doctrine like Plato’s? Porphyry’s account tells us that:

He cultivated philosophy, the scope of which is to free the mind implanted within us from the impediments and fetters within which it is confined; without whose freedom none can learn anything sound or true, or perceive the unsoundedness in the operation of sense. Pythagoras thought that mind alone sees and hears, while all the rest are blind and deaf. The purified mind should be applied to the discovery of beneficial things, which can be effected by, certain artificial ways, which by degrees induce it to the contemplation of eternal and incorporeal things, which never vary. This orderliness of perception should begin from consideration of the most minute things, lest by any change the mind should be jarred and withdraw itself, through the failure of continuousness in its subject-matter.

To summarise: the principle of wholes can be understood as a logical modality which connects the world of the mundane with transcendent reality. The definition of transcendent reality in Plato (articulated by Socrates) is that it is a place beyond shape, form, size, etc., and occupies no place on earth. It is however the place where knowledge has its reality (the ‘eternal and incorporeal things’ mentioned by Pythagoras). Connection with transcendent reality is possible by the likenesses to the transcendent which have existence on earth, such as things which are complete and whole, which therefore participate in the completeness and wholeness of the transcendent reality. Completeness and wholeness require (in the world of the mundane) delineation and limits, and so the limits and the extremes of things are also things which participate in transcendent reality.

The principle of ascent to the ‘eternal and incorporeal things’ is entirely a mental process, which does not involve any of the senses. It proceeds via chains of similitudes, both up and down, as a sequence of orderly perceptions. The goal is a form of communion with that which never varies, and which is always one and unchanging, as Plato tells us in the Sophist. The return from the communion with the Good delivers beneficial things, because the Good is the source of all knowledge.

Is this a logical modality? Yes it is. It is the inverse of what is implied in Aristotle’s three laws of thought, in that Aristotle is arguing that things are themselves and nothing else. And he suggests that similitude and likeness with other things is without meaning: no connection is opened to another level of reality. And that reason is only possible if the symbols we use in order to reason – words – have a one to one correspondence with the things we are talking about.

Aristotle knew his teacher’s work and views very well, and he spent many years in the Academy. So he would have been very conscious that he was contradicting Plato’s argument about ascending to knowledge via the Forms. Whether this was a serious assault on Plato, or just an argument which was intended to flush out the intelligent student, is a question which is very hard to answer.

[text correction October 1, 2017]

Friday, 3 March 2017

Ocean and the Limit of Existence

For the ancient Greeks, Ocean was imagined as a band which circumscribed the world like a gigantic river. This idea is deeply rooted in the intellectual model of the world which stretches back to the time of Homer. The Greeks did not know with any certainty that there was indeed an ocean which bounded the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but the belief that it did so bound the land was an essential part of their picture of the world.

But the Greek concept of Ocean is so much more than the idea of the world being surrounded by a massive body of water, beyond which further travel was impossible to imagine or achieve. As the entity which bounded their world, it was understood to contribute to the world those things which only the limit of their reality could contribute. To Homer the ‘generation of all’ is the river Okeanos. R. B. Onians tells us that the river ‘surrounds the earth’, and is ‘associated with ‘mother Tethys. [1] Then he makes an interesting point about the usage of ‘genesis’ by Homer – he suggests that ‘genesis’ suggests ‘the process, or, in this context, the substance rather than the agent of generation. He says ‘that Homer uses it twice of the cosmic river and not elsewhere of gods, men, or animals, which are agents, ‘fathers’, [which] can scarcely be accidental. And indeed it is not accidental. The generative properties of Okeanos are qualitatively different from those possessed by gods, men, or animals, all of which are forms.
Onians continues, saying that Okeanos ‘was believed to be a bond around the earth, apparently of serpent form even as Acheloos, the primal river or water, was conceived as a serpent with human head and horns.’ And that ‘the procreative element in any body was the psuke, which appeared in the form of a serpent’. Thus, Okeanos, ‘as may now be seen, the primal psuke, and thus would be conceived as a serpent in relation to procreative liquid… it can now be explained as the imagined primal cosmic psuke or procreative power, liquid and serpent’. Onians points out the striking similarity between this picture of the world and that found in Mesopotamia, where the earth ‘was encircled by the male element, Apsu, a serpent identified with or in water. With him was another serpent, Tiamat, ‘mother of them all,’’ referencing the Babylonian Epic of Creation. He points out that the Euphrates, thought of as a serpent, was ‘the soul of the land.’ The Mesopotamian concept of the Apsu also embraced the waters of the underworld, so it is easy to understand why among the Greeks, the ‘greatest and most awful oath for the blessed gods’ is, as Onians tells us, ‘by the water of the river of the underworld, the water, the water of Styx proper to the dead.’

It would be easy here to take a detour to explore the relationship between these ideas and the Ionian speculations which have come down to us refracted through the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and the commentators on these writings from the late classical world. There is clearly a connection between Ionian ideas of physis, or ‘as Plato interprets’ genesis, ‘generation’, in their discussions of the primary substance from which all developed. Onians reminds us that Thales argued that the primary substance was ‘water’, and that he thought that the world rested upon water, as well as being surrounded by it. He notes that Aristotle suggests that Thales reason for this view was that ‘he saw that the nourishment of all things is liquid and that the warm is born therefrom and lives thereby and that ‘the seed of all is wet by nature’; and he gives it as the opinion of some people that this view of Thales was the ‘very ancient’ view to be seen in the description of Okeanos and Tethys as ‘fathers of generation’ and in the swearing by the waters of Styx’.

We are dealing here with a very ancient body of ideas, which has strong parallels with ideas which can be found not only in Mesopotamia, but also in countries further east, in Persia and India. Onians also suggests that that the idea of Okeanos ‘is the same belief which underlies the doctrine of the Orphics [2] and of Pherekydes, [3] that the first cosmic power was Ophion or Ophioneus’ [pointing out that ophis means ‘serpent’] with his consort described as Okeanis, and that after a struggle with Kronos he dwelt in Okeanos or Ogenos.’ [4] Onians also points out that Philo derives Pherekydes’ teachings from Phoenician sources.’ As already discussed, Okeanos also appears in Homer as the border to the ‘Shield of Achilles’, as at its ‘outermost rim’. The same arrangement holds for Hesiod’s ‘Shield of Herakles.’

The snake-dragon in Mesopotamia is a prominent symbol down to the Hellenistic period. Interestingly it functions as a symbol of various gods, or as a magically protective symbol not associated with any particular deity. Snake gods of Mesopotamia, in particular Nirah, ‘seem to be the only fully animalian, non-anthropomorphic, deities.’ [5] If associated with the idea of the mythological implex of Okeanos, and consequently with the notion of generation (genesis) as opposed to mere fatherhood, one would expect the snake gods to be spoken of differently from other gods. On page 139 of Green & Black’s dictionary of Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, there is an interesting illustration, [6] which shows Gudea, prince of Lagash, (neo-Sumerian period), being introduced to the god Enki. This illustration is from Gudea’s own cylinder seal. It shows Enki holding flowing bowls, and the waters emanating from them form a circuit around him. The waters are below his feet, and cross his shoulders. There are three bowls under the seat of his throne; two flowing bowls are his footstool, and another stands behind his throne. Ningišzida has a hand on the bowl held in Enki’s right hand, and there is a lotus symbol emerging from the top of that bowl (a symbol of generation), in addition to the flow of waters. Enki is clearly immersed in the Abzu, which is the ground of Being, as is Okeanos in the Greek world. The circuit of waters is consonant with the idea of Okeanos circumscribing the world. Gudea, Lord of Lagash, is being introduced to the god Enki by his personal god Ningišzida, who holds Gudea’s left hand in his right hand, while he holds a flowing bowl held by Enki, with his left hand. Ningišzida has the serpent symbol, which in Greece is associated with Okeanos, emerging from each of his shoulders.

What does this tableau mean? It is Gudea’s own cylinder seal, so it is relaying an idea which Gudea wants to be understood abroad – at least to those able to understand the language of the image. It is difficult to establish exactly what the image means, but it seems to mean that Gudea is establishing a level of identity with Enki, so that he might be understood to have a connection with the qualities and properties of the Abzu and Enki, both of which are associated with rulership. Reading from right to left, the image is easier to understand: we have Enki, secure in the Abzu, establishing connection with the ground of Being to the god Ningišzida, who holds the hand of the supplicant ruler Gudea. Thus Enki is rewarding Gudea, mediated through Ningišzida, with the qualities of rulership, which have their source in the ground of Being.

The Akkadian name for the ‘vase with streams’ is hegallu, translated as ‘abundance’. This is a symbol which is often found in Mesopotamian iconography. Black and Green describe it as a ‘round-bodied, short-necked, flared-rim jar with streams issuing from its mouth’. The symbol is extensively used in the iconography from Mari, and in other places. The symbolism is often combined with fish swimming in the streams, and sometimes the fish stand in metonomously for the streams, so that the streams are implied rather than shown. The symbolism continued to be used into Achaemenid times. The gods Enki and Ea are often associated with this symbol, as are the various creatures of the Abzu. Black and Green note that the ‘vase with streams’ symbol does not stand for a particular god. Instead they interpret it to be ‘a general attribute of certain divine and semi-divine figures, perhaps
signifying fertility and abundance.’ This interpretation is the best possible in the absence of a proper understanding of the nature of the Abzu and its intellectual context. In fact the flowing vase is a symbol of generation and plenitude, and the latter quality enables the former property. [7] The Innin temple of Kara-indash at Uruk features relief decoration, in the form of a frieze of deities holding flowing vases. Interestingly they are recessed into the wall, so that they are in the wall, and do not project beyond the limit of the building. The whole design is a symbolic celebration of the idea of the properties of the limit. The bricks which separate the recessed figures are surmounted by the image of the flowing waters. These repeated symbols stand on stele or or kudduru [8] shaped objects which do stand proud of the wall (as do the symbols of the flowing waters). These objects are regularly used to signify ‘mountain’ (Shamash is often depicted rising above these, with the rays of the sun emanating from his shoulders). The symbol is usually referred to as ‘kur’, which can also mean a road or way. There is an illustration of two of these figures in Oates Babylon. [9] The representations of the symbol for mountain are reduplicated on the body of the figure on the right. Mountain may also be used as symbol of extreme height (the gods, if they are anywhere, are often supposed to be accessible through high places), in which case this reduplicates the idea of passing beyond a limit (in this case passing beyond the Abzu and coming into the world of existence). In Greece the idea of soul (psuke) is particularly associated with the upper body and the head, and I suggest that some such concept is indicated here. The symbols on the body of the left-hand figure may represent water in the form of wavy lines. Both figures have the upper parts of their bodies bisected by a line of brick parallel with the limit of the wall.

It is the establishment of a connection with the Abzu, which enables rulership. Without this connection, the rulership of the king is not legitimate. Connection with Okeanos is a close parallel of this form of legitimation: as the source of generation, Okeanos makes generation possible. Both Abzu and Okeanos represent the limit of reality, the point of division between the secular world and the divine world. Connection with the ground of Being, identified with this limit, is a connection with the world which is beyond this, a place conceived of as enshrining perfection and greatness. It is also therefore transcendent of this world, and in a sense contains the secular universe, though not necessarily in the same form.

Casting our minds back to Plato’s description of the Living Animal in the Timaeus, we should recall what he said about ‘soul’, which was that it was woven all through the world. We can look at this from more than one point of view. Soul appears to be a property of generated beings which has connection with the ground of Being, whether that be designated by the Abzu, Okeanos, or some other related term. It is this connection which gives generated forms their existence in the representation of reality which is the secular world. So in that sense, soul is woven through the world. But Plato has another idea in mind: Okeanos is woven through the world in that the earth is permeated by rivers, which also have the property of generating forms. In Mesopotamia, the rivers were considered to be divine, marked by the cuneiform sign DINGIR. A river would be indicated by the signs for DINGIR. ID. [10] It is likely that the notion that rivers were de facto divine in Mesopotamia derives from the assumption, vital within the intellectual model of the world, that they were connected to the Abzu, through which all things have connection with one another. [11]

1 Onians, R. B. The Origins of European Thought (about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate). Cambridge University Press, 1951.
2 Fr. 29 K.
3 B. 4 D.
4 This is of some bearing on Plato’s discussion of the Living Animal in the Timaeus, where time comes into being when the same and the different are placed at an angle to each other.
5 Black and Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, British Museum Press, 1992. p 166,
6 Op. cit. fig. 115, p139.
7 See Black and Green, Gods, Symbols and Demons of Ancient Mesopotamia. Oxford. p 184.
8 Kudduru is a form of boundary marker.
9 Op. cit. p88, figure 60.
10 These signs were used by both the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The signs are ideograms and are derived from the Sumerian lexicon. Akkadian texts are often laden with words and expressions which are written out in Sumerian textual forms, much as we might use Latin or French expressions in the course of writing or speaking.
11 The waters of the Abzu were understood to be of two kinds: the sweet and the bitter. These are easily understood as fresh water and sea water respectively.

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.