My book review of The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Tradition seems to have gotten a bit off track. I started out reading the book and going along well, but then several chapters in I began to realize that I was spending a lot more time researching the references in book’s chapter notes than I was actually reading the chapters. Each is so short that it can do little more than suggest interesting avenues for research, and I’ve found that the sources the chapters link me to—especially Jan M. Bremmer’s brilliant discussion of the connections between the Watchers and Greek mythology in a piece called “Remember the Titans!”—have been much more enlightening.
But I would be remiss in discussing the Watchers and the Nephilim if I didn’t draw your attention to the latest appearance of these creatures, in the new Russell Crowe movie Noah. There, the Watchers descended and had sex with mortal women, and their children are now large stone giants who guard Noah and his Ark. The movie has been blasted repeatedly for the liberties it takes with the biblical narrative, but I haven’t heard any complaints about the depiction of the Nephilim. You’d think that would raise hackles among religious conservatives since of all the movie’s liberties, this one is probably the most blasphemous of all. Although putatively based on the Genesis narrative of 6:1-4, the idea of stone giants who protect the inhabitant of the Ark comes right out of the pagan flood myth from the Epic of Gilgamesh!
When Gilgamesh seeks out Utnapishtim, the poem’s Noah figure (= Xisithrus), in Tablet X, the ale-maid Siduri tells him that he needs to seek out Urshanabi and his “stone things,” which most translators believe refer to animate stone giants, the only creatures that can cross the waters of death. Gilgamesh, in a rage, destroys these stone men and has to find another way to get across the waters to reach the place where Utnapishtim lives in immortal repose so Utnapishtim can tell him the story of the Flood and the Ark.
Surely incorporating Mesopotamian mythology into the biblical story should raise more cries of blasphemy than Noah’s veganism, which at least could be traced back to the literalist belief that the descendants of Seth tried to maintain the peaceful, vegan lifestyle of Eden before the Fall and the introduction of death (remember: no one ate animals in Eden!), in contradistinction to the sons of Cain, who embraced the sin of the post-Eden world. Somehow that fact angered conservative Christians all the more because it seems too close to modern liberalism, despite its close connection to early rabbinical and Christian interpretations of the Genesis narrative. Even the film’s condemnation of industry and technology in favor of ecological stewardship is, if not exactly biblical, entirely in keeping with the Watchers narrative from 1 Enoch, where industrial arts are specifically condemned as the product of the fallen angels and their sinful ways—especially metallurgy and cosmetics—in turn leading directly to the Flood. If the story in the movie is not precisely that of Genesis, the outline of the film’s narrative would have been close to what the early Church Fathers would have recognized, except for the pagan stone giants.
So while we’re on the subject of pagan influences, I want to discuss some interesting material that I read in The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Tradition and the sources I found through it. Anathea Portier-Young briefly addresses in her chapter the connection between the Watchers myth and Greek mythology, specifically the way that the story reverses and inverts the values of the Hellenistic culture in which it was written. Specifically, she notes that Prometheus was bound and punished for delivering the arts and sciences, which the Greeks considered good. According to the play Prometheus Bound these were, among others:
In 1 Enoch these same arts are now the gift of the demonic Watchers. The Watchers taught herbal medicine (1 Enoch 7:2, 8:3), metallurgy (8:1), astrology and astronomy (8:3), and divination (8:3). The only one of the Promethean arts not diabolized here is writing, which is reserved for Enoch the scribe, who records the true history of the cosmos.
The punishment of the Watchers, too, is a very close parallel to the punishment of the Titans, the old gods who fought against the Olympians and were chained beneath the earth, and who were very early in Greek mythology confused with the Giants, who also rebelled against the gods.
In 1 Enoch we read of how the Watchers are punished for their sins:
And I asked the angel of peace who went with me, saying: For whom are these chains being prepared? And he said unto me: These are being prepared for the hosts of Azazel, so that they may take them and cast them into the abyss of complete condemnation, and they shall cover their jaws with rough stones as the Lord of Spirits commanded. And Michael, and Gabriel, and Raphael, and Phanuel shall take hold of them on that great day, and cast them on that day into the burning furnace, that the Lord of Spirits may take vengeance on them for their unrighteousness in becoming subject to Satan and leading astray those who dwell on the earth. (1 Enoch 54:4-6, trans. R. H. Charles)
In Greek myth, the Titans are punished similarly more than once. First, their father Uranus (Sky) imprisons them, as Apollodorus relates:
After these, Earth bore him the Cyclopes, to wit, Arges, Steropes, Brontes of whom each had one eye on his forehead. But them Sky bound and cast into Tartarus, a gloomy place in Hades as far distant from earth as earth is distant from the sky. (Library 1.1.2 trans. James G. Frazer)
Although they escape and overthrow Uranus, Zeus in time will bind them again, where they remain in deepest Tartarus: “the gods overcame the Titans, shut them up in Tartarus, and appointed the Hundred-handers their guards” (Apollodorus, Library 1.2.1, trans. ).
It is widely believed that this story came to Greece from the Near East, probably via the Hittites, since the succession narrative of the gods is well known from Hittite sources. Just as in the Greek myth of Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus, a sky god is castrated and overthrown, and his son is in turn overthrown by his son, the storm god Teshub (= Zeus). Hittite texts, and Jan Bremmer tells us, strongly suggest that the older race of overthrown gods had been imprisoned beneath the earth, for once a year during the festival of reversal—equivalent to the Roman Saturnalia, named for their equivalent of Cronus—the storm god Teshub brings these gods up to the surface for a feast.
Bremmer and Portier-Young both believe that these traditions are reflected and refracted in the story of the punishment of the Enochian Watchers, who are thematically the equivalent of the elder race of gods. In late version of Greek myths, the Titans and the Giants were confused and conflated. In the opening of the Orphic Argonautica, for example, the Titans and the Giants are equivalent: “I sang of […] the destructive acts of the Giants, who spilled their gloomy seed from the sky begetting the men of old…” (my trans.), and it was this Hellenistic version that helps to explain how the Sons of God beget the Giants and heroes of old and why 1 Enoch makes the earth prosecute the giants at the court of God (7:6), inverting the rage of Gaia (Earth) on behalf of the Titans in Greek myth, causing the birth of the Giants (Apollodorus, Library 1.6), as Portier-Young points out.
We keep coming closer to the site where the Watchers came to earth. We’ve moved from Greece to Anatolia, and from Anatolia we can connect the story to the succession of the gods reported in the Phoenician cosmology of Sanchuniathon, long recognized as being closely parallel to Hesiod’s Theogony (as Philo himself notes). This is an interesting text because it is all that remains of Phoenician mythology, preserved at quite a remove from the original. We have the texts in fragments preserved by Eusebius of Caesaria in his Praeparatio Evangelica, but not directly from the original. Eusebius was quoting Philo of Byblos, a Hellenistic writer of Phoenician extraction who translated and probably rewrote the original. Philo euhemerized Sanchuniathon, turning his gods into mortals, as was common among the followers of Euhemerus, who had done the same for Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus (Praeparatio Evangelica 2.45, quoting Diodorus 6; Pseudo-Sibylline Oracles, 3.105-108). The succession of the gods is very similar here, too, with generation succeeding generation.
Down to the middle nineteenth century, Sanchuniathon was considered a reliable source, but then his veracity was doubted, with many arguing that he was an invention of Philo, his cosmology a fabrication from Greek sources. The translation of Ugaritic Bronze Age texts in the 1920s and after demonstrated that Sanchuniathon’s work contains genuine Semitic elements, and Philo’s version represents the form in which they were known at the time that the Book of Watchers, the earliest section of the Book of Enoch.
Therefore, it is with interest that we read in Sanchuniathon’s fragments a story that pretty much duplicates the story of the Watchers as given in Genesis and Enoch. As the generations of the gods (here given as mortal kings) pass, we come to the creation of giants from miscegenation between the sons of the high gods and mortal women:
From Genos, son of Aeon and Protogonus, were begotten again mortal children, whose names are Light, and Fire, and Flame. These, says he, discovered fire from rubbing pieces of wood together, and taught the use of it. And they begat sons of surpassing size and stature, whose names were applied to the mountains which they occupied: so that from them were named mount Cassius, and Libanus, and Antilibanus, and Brathy. From these, he says, were begotten Memrumus and Hypsuranius; and they got their names, he says, from their mothers, as the women in those days had free intercourse with any whom they met. (trans. E. H. Gifford)
So, the sons of the gods taught the use of fire to mortals, had sex with their women, and produced giants who were associated with the mountains of the Anti-Lebanon range, the same range where stands Mount Hermon, the home of the Watchers. The euhemerizing has turned the gods of the mountains or on the mountains to human namesakes of the mountains, but the story remains recognizable.
This is suspiciously similar.
It gets more interesting when we read that the generations of the gods were responsible for teaching various industrial arts and sciences (including, from Thoth-Hermes, writing, as well as divination, astrology, and metalworking) and still more interesting when we see that the immediate next generation built two pillars and worshiped them, much as the Watchers and/or Sons of Seth built two pillars to preserve knowledge (Josephus, Antiquities 1.2.3). In the Phoenician tradition, as with many Near Eastern cultures, the pillars of temples were inscribed with magical formulae and the deeds of the gods. Euhemerus himself drew on this tradition in creating his fictional land of Panchaea just beyond the Near East: “In the middle of the bed, is placed a great golden pillar, whereon are letters inscribed, called by the Egyptians, sacred writing, expressing the famous actions of Uranus, Zeus, Artemis, and Apollo, written, they say, by Hermes himself” (Diodorus, Library of History 5.67, adapted from trans. by G. Booth). Hermes, of course, was also identified by the Arabs with Enoch and later made the lead actor in the building of the pillars attributed first to the Watchers and and later identified with the pyramids of Egypt!
Now here things get very interesting. Although the chronology is somewhat askew, Sanchuniathon next reports on the pantheon of the gods, which Philo makes to form after the events above. This pantheon is headed by Cronus, who overthrew Uranus. This Cronus he names as Elus (El), the chief Semitic god. He is surrounded by a court called the Eloim and all the gods had a pair of wings, just like angels. These are very obviously the same as Yahweh’s court of the Elohim (Psalm 82), found also in the Ugaritic ’l-h-m, the pantheon surrounding the high god Il. These are very similar to the Sons of God/the gods (bene ha’elohim) from Genesis.
Although the order of events differs in Sanchuniathon, most likely due to the euhemerizing process, all of the elements of the Genesis narrative are here: the pantheon of gods (= Sons of God), the teaching of the civilizing arts, the mating with mortal women, the birth of giants, etc. I believe that the events of the original Phoenician story would have been in the order given in 1 Enoch because we know from the pseudo-Sibylline Oracles (3.105-108) that euhemerizing accounts in Greek placed Cronus and the Titans after the foundation of civilization (since they were, for the euhemerists mortal kings), but that the canonical Greek myths placed them long before. Therefore, it seems likely that the euhemerists similarly renovated the Phoenician version.
What we see in 1 Enoch is an enormously complex text that serves multiple purposes, both within the Jewish community and against the Hellenistic and Babylonian milieu of its age. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the tradition upon which it drew predated Jewish monotheism and must have originally been a myth like those of Prometheus and the Phoenician gods involving the origins of civilization in the teachings of the gods who came to earth and mated with mortal women (cf. Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus, husband of the first woman, Pandora) and begat the heroes of the ancient golden age. Such a story was, of course, no longer acceptable after the rise of monotheism, and it had to be reworked—however incompletely—to demonize the pagan gods for the glory of the one God. It is, in any case, an amazing story of the persistence of tradition from time immemorial down to the present day, from the Bronze Age to the new Noah movie.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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