Legends of Babylon and Egypt

Author: Leonard William King


In these lectures an attempt is made, not so much to restate familiar facts, as to accommodate them to new and supplementary evidence which has been published in America since the outbreak of the war. But even without the excuse of recent discovery, no apology would be needed for any comparison or contrast of Hebrew tradition with the mythological and legendary beliefs of Babylon and Egypt. Hebrew achievements in the sphere of religion and ethics are only thrown into stronger relief when studied against their contemporary background.

The bulk of our new material is furnished by some early texts, written towards the close of the third millennium B.C. They incorporate traditions which extend in unbroken outline from their own period into the remote ages of the past, and claim to trace the history of man back to his creation. They represent the early national traditions of the Sumerian people, who preceded the Semites as the ruling race in Babylonia; and incidentally they necessitate a revision of current views with regard to the cradle of Babylonian civilization. The most remarkable of the new documents is one which relates in poetical narrative an account of the Creation, of Antediluvian history, and of the Deluge. It thus exhibits a close resemblance in structure to the corresponding Hebrew traditions, a resemblance that is not shared by the Semitic-Babylonian Versions at present known. But in matter the Sumerian tradition is more primitive than any of the Semitic versions. In spite of the fact that the text appears to have reached us in a magical setting, and to some extent in epitomized form, this early document enables us to tap the stream of tradition at a point far above any at which approach has hitherto been possible.

Though the resemblance of early Sumerian tradition to that of the Hebrews is striking, it furnishes a still closer parallel to the summaries preserved from the history of Berossus. The huge figures incorporated in the latter’s chronological scheme are no longer to be treated as a product of Neo-Babylonian speculation; they reappear in their original surroundings in another of these early documents, the Sumerian Dynastic List. The sources of Berossus had inevitably been semitized by Babylon; but two of his three Antediluvian cities find their place among the five of primitive Sumerian belief, and two of his ten Antediluvian kings rejoin their Sumerian prototypes. Moreover, the recorded ages of Sumerian and Hebrew patriarchs are strangely alike. It may be added that in Egypt a new fragment of the Palermo Stele has enabled us to verify, by a very similar comparison, the accuracy of Manetho’s sources for his prehistoric period, while at the same time it demonstrates the way in which possible inaccuracies in his system, deduced from independent evidence, may have arisen in remote antiquity. It is clear that both Hebrew and Hellenistic traditions were modelled on very early lines.

Thus our new material enables us to check the age, and in some measure the accuracy, of the traditions concerning the dawn of history which the Greeks reproduced from native sources, both in Babylonia and Egypt, after the conquests of Alexander had brought the Near East within the range of their intimate acquaintance. The third body of tradition, that of the Hebrews, though unbacked by the prestige of secular achievement, has, through incorporation in the canons of two great religious systems, acquired an authority which the others have not enjoyed. In re-examining the sources of all three accounts, so far as they are affected by the new discoveries, it will be of interest to observe how the same problems were solved in antiquity by very different races, living under widely divergent conditions, but within easy reach of one another. Their periods of contact, ascertained in history or suggested by geographical considerations, will prompt the further question to what extent each body of belief was evolved in independence of the others. The close correspondence that has long been recognized and is now confirmed between the Hebrew and the Semitic-Babylonian systems, as compared with that of Egypt, naturally falls within the scope of our enquiry.

Excavation has provided an extraordinarily full archaeological commentary to the legends of Egypt and Babylon; and when I received the invitation to deliver the Schweich Lectures for 1916, I was reminded of the terms of the Bequest and was asked to emphasize the archaeological side of the subject. Such material illustration was also calculated to bring out, in a more vivid manner than was possible with purely literary evidence, the contrasts and parallels presented by Hebrew tradition. Thanks to a special grant for photographs from the British Academy, I was enabled to illustrate by means of lantern slides many of the problems discussed in the lectures; and it was originally intended that the photographs then shown should appear as plates in this volume. But in view of the continued and increasing shortage of paper, it was afterwards felt to be only right that all illustrations should be omitted. This very necessary decision has involved a recasting of certain sections of the lectures as delivered, which in its turn has rendered possible a fuller treatment of the new literary evidence. To the consequent shifting of interest is also due a transposition of names in the title. On their literary side, and in virtue of the intimacy of their relation to Hebrew tradition, the legends of Babylon must be given precedence over those of Egypt.

For the delay in the appearance of the volume I must plead the pressure of other work, on subjects far removed from archaeological study and affording little time and few facilities for a continuance of archaeological and textual research. It is hoped that the insertion of references throughout, and the more detailed discussion of problems suggested by our new literary material, may incline the reader to add his indulgence to that already extended to me by the British Academy.



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Chicago: Leonard William King, "Preface," Legends of Babylon and Egypt, trans. Weber, Gottfried in Legends of Babylon and Egypt Original Sources, accessed March 24, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKINZP8EZ4878ZS.

MLA: King, Leonard William. "Preface." Legends of Babylon and Egypt, translted by Weber, Gottfried, in Legends of Babylon and Egypt, Original Sources. 24 Mar. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKINZP8EZ4878ZS.

Harvard: King, LW, 'Preface' in Legends of Babylon and Egypt, trans. . cited in , Legends of Babylon and Egypt. Original Sources, retrieved 24 March 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKINZP8EZ4878ZS.