Cosmology, Near East
- LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0201
- LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0201
The terms “cosmology” and “cosmogony” are sometimes used inconsistently within Near Eastern studies. A cosmology is usually understood to be a conception of the world and universe, possibly thought of as a cognitive map of the Earth in relation to various celestial bodies and other features. Cosmogony, in scientific use, usually refers to any account of the origins and creation of the universe. In Near Eastern studies, cosmogonies usually take the form of mythological texts, and generally, our clearest evidence of ancient cosmology comes in the form of cosmogonies preserved in literature (see also the Oxford Bibliographies article “Myth in the Hebrew Bible”). While there is evidence of cosmology present in art and material culture, interpretations are less clear-cut. Cosmologies are distinct from anthropogonies, which are accounts of the origin (usually creation) of humans, although these separate topics are often linked (for more on biblical anthropogonies, see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Adam and Eve”). Similarly, theogonies are accounts about the origins of gods, usually primeval deities. Evidence for cosmological beliefs can also be found in some scientific texts, especially those dealing with astronomical or calendrical issues. In those instances, however, cosmological beliefs usually need to be inferred, as the ancient authors did not tend to provide extensive background descriptions for their observations. Some types of divination texts, especially astrological texts, also provide evidence for cosmological conceptions. The relationship between cosmology and religious ritual is more controversial. Scholars from the “myth and ritual” school tend to see many rituals as evocative of cosmological conceptions; other scholars heavily contest these ideas. Whatever the specific relationship between myth and ritual is or was, some religious ritual texts, such as Egyptian funerary texts, certainly preserve evidence about ancient cosmology indirectly.
Cosmology and Religious Studies
Cosmology was a topic of particular interest to those engaged in comparative religious studies at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. While many of these older analyses are outdated, some of the main arguments continue to be influential. Frazer 1968 provides an easy entry point into James Frazer’s voluminous early discussions of cosmology from an explicitly comparative perspective. Durkheim 2008 provides the famous sociologist’s important arguments about how myth functioned as the foundation for ancient science. The three works by Mircea Eliade that are listed present different aspects of that scholar’s thinking on the relationship between cosmology and religion from a cross-cultural perspective; the most important of these is Eliade 1971, where he argues that religious practice is a means through which worshippers participate in creation, and is not just a commemoration of those events. Frye 1980 provides a comparative literary perspective on cosmogony. Smith 1988 offers an updated approach to the comparative study of religion in a postmodern context, as well as examples of how the studies of cosmogonies of different cultures can help better understand biblical conceptions of the universe. Geller and Schipper 2008 provides a comparative overview of different traditions about creation from around the world, each written by a specialist in that area of study.
Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life: A New Translation by Carol Cosman. Oxford’s World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Durkheim’s influential treatment of religion (through the specific case study of Australian Aboriginal beliefs) argues that religion is fundamentally entangled with cosmology and provides the basis for scientific thinking; this edition is slightly abridged, but the introduction is very useful for first-time readers.
Eliade, Mircea. The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
An important general work that tackles the issue of the relationship between cosmogonies and history in world religions from a comparative perspective, with some discussion of creation in biblical and Near Eastern accounts.
Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History. Bollingen Series 46. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.
A seminal work for the comparative study of cosmology; Eliade argues for the “deep meanings” of various cosmogonies (including ancient Near Eastern) and suggests ways in which cosmologies are manifest in ritual practice. Most influential here has been his idea that rituals allow individuals to participate in the act of creation.
Eliade, Mircea. Gods, Goddesses, and Myths of Creation: A Thematic Source Book of the History of Religions. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
An anthology of creation accounts from various traditions. The translations offered are uniformly outdated, but Eliade’s commentary offers a cross-cultural comparison of cosmogony that includes the ancient Near East.
Frazer, James George. Creation and Evolution in Primitive Cosmogonies, and Other Pieces. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1968.
Frazer’s essay was originally published as part of a fiftieth anniversary celebration of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and although now outdated, it offers an accessible entry point for Frazer’s very influential comparative approach to ancient and “primitive” cosmologies.
Frye, Northrop. Creation and Recreation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.
A series of lectures on literary approaches to the study of creation stories. Although there is little here specific to the ancient Near East, Frye’s ruminations illustrate how other traditions have informed his own study of the Bible from a comparative perspective.
Geller, Markham J., and Mineke Schipper, eds. Imagining Creation. Introduction by Mary Douglas. IJS Studies in Judaica 5. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.
Originating as a conference, this is a collection of essays by different specialists on creation stories from various times and places, including Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, sub-Saharan African, Jewish, Slavonic, Arabic, and Lurianic cosmogonies.
Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Although the section on cosmology deals specifically with Maori cosmogony, Smith’s case-study approach to the study of religion has much to offer those interested in a comparative approach to biblical cosmology.
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