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?
Or your anger against River,
or your rage against Sea,
When you drove your horses,
your chariots to victory?
You brandished your naked bow,
sated were the arrows at your command.
…You trampled the Sea with your horses,
churning the mighty waters. (Hab 3:8-9a, 15)
Another psalm draws all of these aspects together:
…You have laid the beams of your chambers on the Waters,
You make the cloud your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind…
…You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the Deep as with a garment;
the Waters stood upon the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
…You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth. (Ps 104:3, 5-7, 9)
Here Yahweh is none other than the storm-god in his cloud-chariot who tames the chaotic Sea by his imposition of order. Indeed, as in other combat myths, his defeat of Sea is intricately linked to cosmogony and creation. Ninurta created an irrigation system that stopped the waters from remaining upon the mountains; Marduk created heaven and earth out of Sea’s body. So Yahweh likewise keeps the waters from flooding the mountaintops and establishes an ordered, differentiated cosmos.
Until the turn of the twentieth century and the achievements of comparative scholarly studies, Yahweh’s battle with Leviathan and the raging Sea remained largely opaque—a theme seemingly scattered haphazardly throughout the Psalms or the occasional prophetic passage in enigmatic references. Even today, the idea of Yahweh battling a giant sea dragon remains quite foreign to many. But the story of Yahweh’s battles with the forces of Chaos clearly undergirds the national cultus, represented in the canon essentially by the Psalms.
In his seminal works on the psalter, Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel proposed a comprehensive interpretation for these texts. Mowinckel proposed a setting within the liturgy of a festival similar to the Babylonian Akītu Festival or the Hittite Purulli Festival. Such would have been, for the Israelites, the Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Feast of Booths and Sukkot: Israel’s (originally New Year) harvest festival. It was at this time, as the agricultural year came to its end, that infertility, death, and disorder became most salient. The forces of Chaos would assume their temporary dominance over the cosmos, and the Israelites looked to Yahweh’s autumn rains which would herald the return of fertility and life. In anticipation of such rejuvenation, and akin to other ancient Near Eastern New Year festivals, the festival celebrated (and, in Eliadean terms, enacted) Yahweh’s defeat of the raging Sea and its associate Dragon, as well as his victory over Death.
No doubt owing to its significance in cultic life, the Israelite combat myth became an extremely potent topos in Hebrew literature. It was one configuration that later prophets and writers could count as a given for their audience, be they commoners or kings. Moreover, the whole complex of almost archetypal meanings informing the myth provided an infinitely rich treasure-trove of images from which to draw. Power, hubris, victory, death, defeat, revival, celebration, triumph—all had their place in the combat myth; all could be employed to heighten the semantic and expressive levels of one’s message.
TRANSFORMATIONS OF THE COMBAT MYTH
After the fundamental significance of the Chaoskampf myth in the cult, the most important by far is the one it took in times of national persecution or disaster. In particular, concerns over renewal/restoration and the assertion of lapsed justice help to explain its relevance in moments of defeat. In such crises, the myth was invoked as part of a divine call to action.Thus, Yahweh’s past victories against the chaos-forces were consulted as the archetype for his salvific work, to which men in later times of trial could harken back. If Yahweh had defeated the enemy then, surely he could do it again.
Of all the writers to employ the combat myth in this way, one in particular demands special attention. He is the author of Isaiah 40-55 (called Second or Deutero-Isaiah), and he employs Chaoskampf traditions extensively to this end. Indeed, fundamental to his entire prophetic message is the metaphorical comparison of Israel’s impending restoration from exile with the rejuvenation which followed Yahweh’s victory over the forces of Chaos. The language used to articulate the future hope of Yahweh’s intervention and restoration could be drawn not only from the combat myth generally, but the New Year festival specifically as the cultic enshrinement of that myth. Writing during the Babylonian Exile, Deutero-Isaiah draws frequently from the festival as a powerful metaphor for Israel’s eventual renewal. Mowinckel summarizes this succinctly, writing:
Interpreters have always been aware of the close relationship between the enthronement psalms and Deutero-Isaiah…[who is] dependent on the ideology and style of the enthronement psalms. That is to say, he has consciously imitated and used them as a pregnant expression of the message he is bringing.
Just as Yahweh and his people celebrated with a feast the god’s defeat of the chaos-monsters (which re-created the world and returned it to its initial state of purity), so shall Yahweh and his people celebrate with a feast at his defeat of the Devil (which will create a new world free from all impurity).
Indeed, the New Year harvest festival itself becomes the cosmic eschatological banquet. This cosmic feast is already mentioned in the Isaianic Apocalypse when, after he has swallowed up Death,