A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")

Ovid and the Hebrew Bible on Creation (and Giants)

Artist's representation of Ovid's creation account.

In preparation for beginning my new PhD program in Classical Studies at Columbia, I have been taking intensive Latin courses. In twelve weeks we will have covered two full years of Latin. Westminster did a similar thing with Hebrew–one year in a summer. This is much much worse. I’m grateful for it because in a few short weeks I should be able to actually digest Virgil’s Anneid or Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but the course is so consuming that I wonder whether it’s even ethical to offer it. But like I said, I’m grateful, especially since I’ll have a Latin reading requirement for my PhD.

Anyway, we’re using a new textbook: Learn to Read Latin by Keller and Russel, which also comes with a very helpful workbook. One of the purposes of the book is to introduce students to “real Latin” early and throughout because the shock of encountering “real Latin” after finishing the intro grammars is one of students’ common complaints. It’s great though I do have some criticisms of the book–particular, it’s incredibly verbose, uses footnotes poorly, doesn’t have enough examples or tables and uses them inconsistently, doesn’t do enough internal cross-referencing, and isn’t thoroughly presented in outline form like other grammars–but I hope it’ll accomplish its purpose nevertheless.

One of the passages we were assigned to read earlier in the book was a selection from the Augustan author Ovid’s Metamorphoses (late 1st, early 2nd c. CE), a collection of 250 poems on the change of forms, beginning with the creation of the world. This account has a striking set of similarities to the Biblical account in Genesis 1. The poem is quite long, but I’ve quoted it in full below (in English of course)

Before the ocean and the earth appeared–
before the skies had overspread them all–
the face of Nature in a vast expanse
was naught but Chaos uniformly waste.
It was a rude and undeveloped mass,
that nothing made except a ponderous weight;
and all discordant elements confused,
were there congested in a shapeless heap.

As yet the sun afforded earth no light,
nor did the moon renew her crescent horns;
the earth was not suspended in the air
exactly balanced by her heavy weight.
Not far along the margin of the shores
had Amphitrite stretched her lengthened arms,–
for all the land was mixed with sea and air.
The land was soft, the sea unfit to sail,
the atmosphere opaque, to naught was given
a proper form, in everything was strife,
and all was mingled in a seething mass–
with hot the cold parts strove, and wet with dry
and soft with hard, and weight with empty void.

But God, or kindly Nature, ended strife–
he cut the land from skies, the sea from land,
the heavens ethereal from material air;
and when were all evolved from that dark mass
he bound the fractious parts in tranquil peace.
The fiery element of convex heaven
leaped from the mass devoid of dragging weight,
and chose the summit arch to which the air
as next in quality was next in place.
The earth more dense attracted grosser parts
and moved by gravity sank underneath;
and last of all the wide surrounding waves
in deeper channels rolled around the globe.

And when this God –which one is yet unknown–
had carved asunder that discordant mass

Then poured He forth the deeps and gave command
that they should billow in the rapid winds,
that they should compass every shore of earth.
he also added fountains, pools and lakes,
and bound with shelving banks the slanting streams,
which partly are absorbed and partly join
the boundless ocean…

At His command the boundless plains extend,
the valleys are depressed, the woods are clothed
in green, the stony mountains rise…

…And scarcely had He separated these
and fixed their certain bounds, when all the stars,
which long were pressed and hidden in the mass,
began to gleam out from the plains of heaven,
and traversed, with the Gods, bright ether fields:
and lest some part might be bereft of life
the gleaming waves were filled with twinkling fish;
the earth was covered with wild animals;
the agitated air was filled with birds.

But one more perfect and more sanctified,
a being capable of lofty thought,
intelligent to rule, was wanting still
man was created!
Did the Unknown God
designing then a better world make man
of seed divine? or did Prometheus
take the new soil of earth (that still contained
some godly element of Heaven’s Life)
and use it to create the race of man;
first mingling it with water of new streams;
so that his new creation, upright man,
was made in image of commanding Gods?

…and so it was that shapeless clay put on
the form of man till then unknown to earth.

Ok, that was still long. But lets summarize some of these neat parallels:

*Ovid’s earth was formless and void
*it didn’t initially have light
*Ovid’s god separated the waters from the waters
*the earth arose from the waters, collected, and solidified in one place
*Ovid’s god carved into a world of hills, plains, lakes, and rivers
*the god then created animals
*he then created humans from clay and made them in the image of the gods.
*man is intelligent and is fit to rule the earth
*man was also put on earth to till the ground.

Another interesting parallel comes in third of Ovid’s poems: on the “Gigantes,” giants. Those who know the Hebrew of Gen 6 and the history of Biblical interpretation also know that at some point after the creation, the “sons of god” had sex with the “daughters of man,” whose offspring were understood by the ancients to be giants. Though Ovid’s story doesn’t share the origin of these giants with ancient Bible interpreters, he nevertheless does assume they were present in primordial history. And it is worth bearing in mind that the presence of these giants goes far further back in the Greek and Roman west than the 1st c. CE: it’s present already in the days of Homer and Herodotus, back around the centuries with Gen 1-3 were probably penned.

…More later if I have time.

June 11, 2007 - Posted by | Bible, Classics

1 Comment »

  1. extremely interesting! Thank you for posting this!

    that latin course is going to be murder…but i’ll eventually have to take something very much like it.

    Comment by Ryan | June 12, 2007 | Reply

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