The New Year and the Origins of Apocalypse

How the 'End of the World' Came from the End of the Year, Why Satan is a Dragon, and Other Curious Transformations


In Genesis 1, Creation is presented as a series of differentiations, each one more minute than the last, until our own familiar world is, as it were, whittled into being from the formless, cosmic tohu wa-bohu. So God makes Order out of Chaos, and sense out of confusion—a process of paramount importance to human communities from the creation of Genesis to today. Indeed, to compare great things with small, the modern scholar engages in a similar task when approaching the disparate, sometimes bewildering, but ever fascinating texts which have come down to us from the ancient Near East. To make sense of them likewise requires differentiation: separating similar sorts from the whole, and forming categories of like types. When we do so, the dizzying blur is focused somewhat and we can see, if only a bit more clearly, through the eyes of the peoples who produced them.


The genre of “combat myth” is one such type or category, into which scholars place those ancient stories sharing the same basic plot of battle between two supernatural adversaries. In rudimentary terms, such myths narrate a god’s fight with a monstrous villain who threatens order and life in the cosmos. The champion “divine warrior” is invariably the storm-god, while his destructive adversary typically takes the form of a dragon or sea monster. After a struggle for dominance in which the dragon initially proves victorious, the divine warrior ultimately vanquishes his foe, thereby ensuring order and fertility in the cosmos. For this he is granted kingship and, his triumph festively celebrated, the storm-god processes to his newly-constructed palace (i.e., temple) for enthronement as king.


Versions of this myth are attested throughout the ancient Near East in Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Ugaritic, Hurro-Hittite, Assyrian, and Israelite texts. To the west, its variations appear in such Greek tales as the battle of Zeus with Typhon, and Apollo with Python; further east, it underlies the Indian tale of Indra’s battle with Vritra.


An interpretation with nearly universal acceptance among scholars holds that most combat myths reflect the transitions of the agricultural calendar, its narrative progression mirroring seasonal changes and their effect on fertility. In this sense, the divine warrior is principally the god of the storm and rainfall, and thus the bringer of fertility, sustenance, and life itself. Conversely, the enemy of the divine warrior represents sterility and death: the forces of destruction and Chaos embodied as a monstrous creature such as a dragon or serpentine beast. Every year these cosmic forces—fertility/sterility, the growing season/the barren summer—battle for supremacy. The lack of rain and relative dearth of summer signaled the temporary victory of the chaos-monster, but fall rejuvenation heralded the ultimate success of the storm-god, whose autumnal rains then came to revive the land yet again.


Linking the mythic narrative to agricultural realities allows us to appreciate the actual material contexts of the myths themselves, since most seem to have had a cultic context in a New Year festival. As a celebration of new life and the return of fertility, it is not surprising that such a setting occasioned the myth’s chief cultic realization (given the basic agricultural interpretation just considered).


Yet the relationship of the combat myth to the New Year is still more fundamental. Indeed, because the combat myth is essentially about order and the imposition of order onto Chaos, the creative act lies at the heart of the myth. For this reason, the combat myth is often a cosmogony, the victory of the divine warrior resulting in the actual Creation of the world. Since Creation provided the paradigmatic model for the New Year festival—the “Beginning” as archetype for the new beginning—the role of the combat myth at the festival is further elucidated.


However, to say that Creation provided the archetype for the New Year is not to suggest that the first was a kind of metaphor for the second, or that the New Year was somehow “modeled” on Creation. Rather, the New Year was Creation: each New Year was a new Creation. As Mircea Eliade has shown, ritual activity in ancient religious cult did not merely recall sacred deeds of the primordial past—it re-created them. Thus, ancient Near Eastern New Year festivals were celebrated as a return to the beginning of time itself; indeed, each New Year was a re-Creation of the cosmos. This “eternal return” helps to explain one chief concern of ancient New Year ceremonies: purification. Eliade writes:


Since the New Year is a reactualization of the cosmogony, it implies starting time over again at its beginning, that is, restoration of the primordial time, the “pure” time, that existed at the moment of Creation. This is why the New Year is the occasion for “purifications,” for the expulsion of sins, of demons, or merely of a scapegoat. For it is not a matter merely of a certain temporal interval coming to its end and the beginning of another (as a modern man, for example, thinks); it is also a matter of abolishing the past year and past time. Indeed, this is the meaning of ritual purifications…

In terms of specific rites, however, the notion that these festivals were fundamentally re-creations and not simply recollections or commemorations elucidates why the combat itself is thought to have been ritually reenacted at such New Year festivals, as well as why the texts of these myths were recited as part of the celebrations. Through these enactments, participants in the cult actually helped facilitate the new Creation.


Eliade’s notion of eternal return may also shed light on the key cultic activity of these ancient Near Eastern New Year festivals. For central to all was the festal procession of the storm-god’s idol, which was taken from its temple and ceremonially paraded with majestic pomp and fanfare before the people as it traveled to some different cultic site(s). Since sheltered for the rest of the year within its holy precincts, out of sight, this was the god’s chief presentation before the people—that is, his chief epiphany. The New Year was the time when the god revealed himself in all his glory. The presentation of the deity concluded, the god returned through the city gates to his great temple in the main city. With the reinstallation of the idol, the cultic rites of the New Year festival were essentially concluded.


A very compact version of the combat myth has survived from the Hurro-Hittite tradition. It relates the conflict between the Storm God and the Serpent, also known as Illuyankas. The text goes back to at least the Old Hittite Period (c. 1750-1500 BCE), but our surviving copies date to sometime between 1500 and 1190 BCE. For the account we have of this Hittite combat myth is prefaced by a note explaining it as “the text of the Purulli (Festival).” This Purulli Festival was the annual New Year’s festival that celebrated the regeneration of life and re-confirmed the kingship.


The Enûma Eliš is another combat myth to survive from the ancient Near East. Composed in the latter part of the second millennium BCE, it recounts the battle between the storm-god Marduk and the serpentine goddess Tiamet. Like the Hittite combat myth’s connection with the New Year Purulli Festival, recitation of the Enûma Eliš was a key liturgical element in the Babylonian Akītu Festival: the twelve-day Babylonian New Year festival celebrating agricultural rejuvenation. Marduk’s victory over Tiamet was assured, and his reign meant the renewal of the world.


Similarly, the Canaanites had their own version of the combat myth, in which their storm god Baal battled the draconic Sea (Yamm) and his helper River. However, we lack definitive archeological evidence that this story was recounted during a New Year festival.



GOD VS. DRAGON

As a kingdom in the ancient Near East, Israel had its own combat myths and associated cultic traditions. In the Hebrew version, Yahweh is the storm-god warrior who subdues the Sea and its associate dragon. Like Baal, Yahweh’s chief enemy in the Hebrew combat myth is Yam, the raging Sea. As a representative of Chaos, Sea must be defeated if order and fertility are to be secured in the cosmos. So we read, in scattered allusions from the Psalms and Prophets, how the Israelite storm-god battles the chaos-enemy. One text reads:


Was your wrath against River, O Yahweh?