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Berossus and the Creation Story

  • Paul-Alain Beaulieu EMAIL logo


This article investigates the fragments of the Babyloniaca of Berossus on creation. The following aspects are considered: the narrative structure of the book and how the account of creation is introduced, with broader implications for the cultural claims of Berossus and his peers; the relation between Berossus and previous Mesopotamian traditions, mainly the Babylonian Epic of Creation (Enuma elish), as well as possible evidence of Greek influence; and finally the view of human nature which is implicit in his account of the creation of humankind, notably the elimination of female agency and how his narrative relates to theories of human generation and the body that were current among the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Egyptians.

Corresponding author: Paul-Alain Beaulieu, University of Toronto, 4 Bancroft Avenue, M5S 1C1Toronto, ONCanada, E-mail:


Belus = Umun = Oannes

In the proceedings of the conference on The World of Berossus, M. Lang has proposed that Berossus intentionally portrayed Oannes not only as a culture bringer, but also as a figure comparable to the Platonic demiourgos: “Oannes, however, is clearly the most important: he is depicted as more than a mere culture hero but acts as something very close to a creator god himself, shaping amorphous matter and turning mindless creatures into human beings with an identity and creative intelligence. Oannes alone is responsible for the growth of human civilisation and its manifestations in history” (Lang 2013: 49). If we follow this suggestion, Berossus may have envisioned a continuous lineage from the creative act of the god Bel-Marduk at the beginning of time, through Oannes and his successors, down to himself and his peers in Hellenistic Babylon.

I would go tentatively one step further and suggest that Berossus may have been aware of a pun that could support the identification of Bel-Marduk with Oannes. The name of the god Marduk, as Bel “the lord,” is commonly written with the cuneiform sign EN (= Akkadian bēlu “lord”) and preceded with the divine determinative, often in ligature (dEN or d+EN). It is notable, however, that during the late fourth century BC, that is, during the early lifetime of Berossus, the name of the god Bel in personal names occurring in administrative texts from the Esagil temple in Babylon is usually written with the logogram UMUN, which also means bēlu “lord,” and in these cases it is not prefixed with the divine determinative.[51] Because intervocalic /m/ in late Babylonian shifted to /w/ or to a glottal stop, UMUN would have been realized phonetically as /uwun/ or /u’un/, a form very close to U’an and U’anna, and therefore to Oannes. Thus, the equation between Bel-Marduk and Oannes could be proven by a play on the writing system and the assonance of the names.[52] One must also emphasize that the basis for the pun, the writing UMUN for Bel, appears to have gained wide currency only in Babylon and only before and during the early lifetime of Berossus, making it all the more likely that some theological speculation lay behind this specific choice of orthography, or that the latter could at least have led to such speculations because of its popularity at that time. One may also object that since this is a very convoluted pun, Berossus’ intentionality is uncertain. However, an equally contrived pun has been detected in the flood narrative in Book 2 of the Babyloniaca. Berossus claims that antediluvian knowledge survived at Sippar in the form of writings which had been buried there. This is based probably on a pun on Sippar and Aramaic spr “scribe, document,” while the notion that Sippar, one of the traditional antediluvian cities, had been spared by the flood is already expressed centuries earlier in the Erra Epic.[53]


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Published Online: 2021-04-08
Published in Print: 2021-06-25

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