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929 Project: Genesis 6 – Nephilim and the Trojan War

July 22, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Genesis 6:1-4:

ויהי כי החל האדם לרב על פני האדמה ובנות ילדו להם

ויראו בני האלהים את בנות האדם כי טבת הנה ויקחו להם נשים מכל אשר בחרו

‏ ויאמר ה׳ לא ידון רוחי באדם לעלם בשגם הוא בשר והיו ימיו מאה ועשרים שנה

‏ הנפלים היו בארץ בימים ההם וגם אחרי כן אשר יבאו בני האלהים אל בנות האדם וילדו להם המה הגברים אשר מעולם אנשי השם

And it happened as humankind began to multiple over the earth and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were comely, and they took themselves wives howsoever they chose.  And the LORD said, “My breath shall not abide in the human forever, for he is but flesh.  Let his days be a hundred and twenty years.  The Nephilim were then on the earth, and afterward as well, the sons of God having come to bed with the daughter of man who bore them children:  they are the heroes of yore, the men of renown.  (HB-A)

[HB-A has extensive notes on this passage which I do not reproduce here.]

In 1987, a paper appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature from the young Ron Hendel, a scholar then in his twenties, entitled Of Demigods and the Deluge: Toward an Interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 that discussed the connections of the Nephilim with both Mesopotamian mythology and the legends of the Trojan war.  I recommend reading the full paper, but here is an excerpt with part of Hendel’s argument:

[… Where] did Gen 6:1-4 come from? I submit that the story of the mingling of gods and mortals and the procreation of the demigods was originally connected to the flood narrative and functioned as its motivation. [The story detaches the] demigods from the myth of the deluge in order to preface the flood with a more purely ethical motive:  [Divine] anger at the evil behavior of humanity. This would explain why Gen 6:1-4 directly precedes the flood narrative, and, simultaneously, why it is unconnected from its context. In order to support my surmise I will range from the Babylonian motive for the flood story in the myth of Atrahasis to the mythological motives for the Trojan War in the Greek tradition. Somewhere between Babylon and Greece, in a peculiar twist of tradition, the connection between demigods and the deluge was generated, only to survive in fragments.

The Mesopotamian motive for the deluge is an imbalance in the cosmos, namely, the overpopulation of humanity on the earth.  The noise of mankind disturbs Enlil’s sleep, so he decrees destruction for humanity, first in the form of several plagues and drought and finally in the form of the flood. The crucial passage in the Atrahasis myth reads:

The land grew extensive, the people multiplied,
The land was bellowing like a bull.
At their uproar the god became angry;
Enlil heard their noise.
He addressed the great gods,
”The noise of mankind has become oppressive to me.
Because of their uproar I am deprived of sleep.”

Like the action in the later Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, the chief god is disturbed by the noise of overabundant activity; he decrees destruction and is finally thwarted by the actions of the wily god Enki/Ea […] In the Atrahasis myth, Enki saves Atrahasis and family, so that life may be preserved. To prevent future overpopulation, the gods take several measures: they create several categories of women who do not bear children; they create demons who snatch away babies; and […], they institute a fixed mortality for mankind. […] Death, barren women, celibate women, and infant mortality are the solutions for the problem of imbalance that precipitated the flood.

In Greek tradition a different kind of imbalance appears in several of the mythological motives for the Trojan War. In order to make my comparison precise, I should emphasize that although the Trojan War is a military encounter rather than a flood, it functions in a way similar to the Babylonian deluge: it serves as the great destruction which divides the prior age from the present age, just as does the flood in the Atrahasis myth and in other Mesopotamian traditions. […] [In] Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women […]:

All the gods were divided in spirit through strife, for at that time high-thundering Zeus was planning wondrous deeds, to mingle disorder on the boundless earth, for he already was hastening to annihilate the race of mortal men, as a pretext to destroy the lives of the demigods, (so that) the children of the gods (would not mate with wretched) mortals, seeing [fate] with their own eyes, but that the blessed gods [henceforth], as before, should have their way of life and their accustomed places apart from mortal men.

The point of this fragment is to motivate Zeus’s decision to bring on the Trojan War by reference to the unseemly mingling of gods and mortals and the resulting procreation of the heroic demigods. Zeus decides to send a war “to destroy the lives of the demigods,” so that the gods would desist from mating with mortals and so that gods and mortals might live separately.  The imbalance in this case is not a general overpopulation but rather the procreation of a specific mixed category of beings, the demigods.  Zeus brings on the Trojan War to destroy the heroic demigods, so that the proper division of realms between gods and humans might be secured.

The theme of the separation of gods and mortals is prominent in another Hesiodic myth, the story of Prometheus’s sacrifice and the subsequent creation of Pandora, so it appears that the Greek pedigree of this theme is secure. The Hesiodic myth of the five ages pursues similar themes and reflects a common formulaic diction in the description of the separation of the heroic demigods from mortal men. The word used of the demigods, hemitheoi, rare in Hesiod, […] occurs only once in Homer, in a passage that describes the destruction by flood of the Achaean wall. It is interesting that the destruction is to occur after the fall of Troy. Scodel has argued that this small destruction may be a vestige of an older flood tradition which the Trojan War has largely displaced.  In support of Scodel’s argument, I would note that Poseidon, the god partly responsible for the flood of the Achaean wall, is elsewhere in the epic decidedly pro-Achaean (e.g., Iliad 13-14). The contradiction in Poseidon’s role in bringing on the destruction by flood of the Achaean wall when elsewhere in the epic he is pro-Achaean points up the anomaly of the episode and supports its likely status as a vestige of a variant pre-Homeric flood tradition.

In sum, I suggest that the Trojan War functions in a manner similar to the Semitic flood tradition and may indeed be related by way of oral tradition to the older Semitic myths.  One of the mythic motives of the Trojan War sounds very similar to Gen 6:1-4, although it retains more context. In the Greek text, the mixing of gods and mortals and the existence of the mixed-breed demigods are the direct motive for the Trojan War.  Zeus wished to separate gods from mortals and to destroy the demigods, so he decrees the Trojan War. There are other mythical motives in the Greek Trojan War tradition, including the abduction of Helen, found in both the Homeric and Hesiodic traditions and in an interesting fragment of the Cypria which describes Zeus’s decision to bring about the Trojan War as a result of human overpopulation. The similarity between this fragment and the Atrahasis myth has been often noted, though its similarity with an Indian myth in the Mahabharata raises the possibility of Indo-European origins. In any case, complexity of themes is what we should expect in a tradition of oral mythology.  […]

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 31, 2018, and backdated to July 22 for reasons explained here.)

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