Legends of Babylonia and Egypt

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Legends of Babylonia and Egypt

By Leonard W. King


In these lectures an attempt is made, not so much to restate familiar
facts, as to accommodate them to new and supplementary evidence which
has been published in America since the outbreak of the war. But even
without the excuse of recent discovery, no apology would be needed for
any comparison or contrast of Hebrew tradition with the mythological
and legendary beliefs of Babylon and Egypt. Hebrew achievements in the
sphere of religion and ethics are only thrown into stronger relief
when studied against their contemporary background.

The bulk of our new material is furnished by some early texts, written
towards the close of the third millennium B.C. They incorporate
traditions which extend in unbroken outline from their own period into
the remote ages of the past, and claim to trace the history of man
back to his creation. They represent the early national traditions of
the Sumerian people, who preceded the Semites as the ruling race in
Babylonia; and incidentally they necessitate a revision of current
views with regard to the cradle of Babylonian civilization. The most
remarkable of the new documents is one which relates in poetical
narrative an account of the Creation, of Antediluvian history, and of
the Deluge. It thus exhibits a close resemblance in structure to the
corresponding Hebrew traditions, a resemblance that is not shared by
the Semitic-Babylonian Versions at present known. But in matter the
Sumerian tradition is more primitive than any of the Semitic versions.
In spite of the fact that the text appears to have reached us in a
magical setting, and to some extent in epitomized form, this early
document enables us to tap the stream of tradition at a point far
above any at which approach has hitherto been possible.

Though the resemblance of early Sumerian tradition to that of the
Hebrews is striking, it furnishes a still closer parallel to the
summaries preserved from the history of Berossus. The huge figures
incorporated in the latter's chronological scheme are no longer to be
treated as a product of Neo-Babylonian speculation; they reappear in
their original surroundings in another of these early documents, the
Sumerian Dynastic List. The sources of Berossus had inevitably been
semitized by Babylon; but two of his three Antediluvian cities find
their place among the five of primitive Sumerian belief, and two of
his ten Antediluvian kings rejoin their Sumerian prototypes. Moreover,
the recorded ages of Sumerian and Hebrew patriarchs are strangely
alike. It may be added that in Egypt a new fragment of the Palermo
Stele has enabled us to verify, by a very similar comparison, the
accuracy of Manetho's sources for his prehistoric period, while at the
same time it demonstrates the way in which possible inaccuracies in
his system, deduced from independent evidence, may have arisen in
remote antiquity. It is clear that both Hebrew and Hellenistic
traditions were modelled on very early lines.

Thus our new material enables us to check the age, and in some measure
the accuracy, of the traditions concerning the dawn of history which
the Greeks reproduced from native sources, both in Babylonia and
Egypt, after the conquests of Alexander had brought the Near East
within the range of their intimate acquaintance. The third body of
tradition, that of the Hebrews, though unbacked by the prestige of
secular achievement, has, through incorporation in the canons of two
great religious systems, acquired an authority which the others have
not enjoyed. In re-examining the sources of all three accounts, so far
as they are affected by the new discoveries, it will be of interest to
observe how the same problems were solved in antiquity by very
different races, living under widely divergent conditions, but within
easy reach of one another. Their periods of contact, ascertained in
history or suggested by geographical considerations, will prompt the
further question to what extent each body of belief was evolved in
independence of the others. The close correspondence that has long
been recognized and is now confirmed between the Hebrew and the
Semitic-Babylonian systems, as compared with that of Egypt, naturally
falls within the scope of our enquiry.

Excavation has provided an extraordinarily full archaeological
commentary to the legends of Egypt and Babylon; and when I received
the invitation to deliver the Schweich Lectures for 1916, I was
reminded of the terms of the Bequest and was asked to emphasize the
archaeological side of the subject. Such material illustration was
also calculated to bring out, in a more vivid manner than was possible
with purely literary evidence, the contrasts and parallels presented
by Hebrew tradition. Thanks to a special grant for photographs from
the British Academy, I was enabled to illustrate by means of lantern
slides many of the problems discussed in the lectures; and it was
originally intended that the photographs then shown should appear as
plates in this volume. But in view of the continued and increasing
shortage of paper, it was afterwards felt to be only right that all
illustrations should be omitted. This very necessary decision has
involved a recasting of certain sections of the lectures as delivered,
which in its turn has rendered possible a fuller treatment of the new
literary evidence. To the consequent shifting of interest is also due
a transposition of names in the title. On their literary side, and in
virtue of the intimacy of their relation to Hebrew tradition, the
legends of Babylon must be given precedence over those of Egypt.

For the delay in the appearance of the volume I must plead the
pressure of other work, on subjects far removed from archaeological
study and affording little time and few facilities for a continuance
of archaeological and textual research. It is hoped that the insertion
of references throughout, and the more detailed discussion of problems
suggested by our new literary material, may incline the reader to add
his indulgence to that already extended to me by the British Academy.

                                                           L. W. KING.



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