Yesterday I mentioned in passing the notion that the mound of Tell Babil, the ancient site of Babylon, was associated in Islamic tradition with a mighty wind that led to the confusion of tongues. While doing some unrelated research piecing together a page of fragments on the search for Noah’s Ark, I came across the mighty wind again in the fragments of Abydenus, which got me a little curious about this wind and where it came from since it is not in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. We might as well start with Abydenus since that’s where I entered into this weird rabbit hole.
Abydenus, who likely wrote his History of the Chaldeans around 200 CE (though some have placed him as far back as 200 BCE), is preserved mostly in Eusebius’s Chronicle, surviving only in Armenian translation, though the passage we are interested in appears both in the Chronicle and in Praeparatio Evangelica 9.14. Here is what he says about the Tower of Babel and its construction by the Giants:
But there are some who say that the men who first arose out of the earth, being puffed up by their strength and great stature, and proudly thinking that they were better than the gods, raised a huge tower, where Babylon now stands: and when they were already nearer to heaven, the winds came to the help of the gods, and overthrew their structure upon them, the ruins of which were called Babylon. And being up to that time of one tongue, they received from the gods a confused language; and afterwards war arose between Cronos and Titan. (trans. E. H. Gifford)
While many have argued that Abydenus drew directly on Berossus, who therefore confirms the Genesis narrative, many scholars now believe Abydenus used Alexander Polyhistor as his source, though this is not conclusive; a common source is possible. Eusebius, in the Chronicle, and Syncellus in his Chronicle, give Polyhistor’s account, composed sometime in the first century BCE:
The Sibyl says: That when all men formerly spoke the same language; some among them undertook to erect a large and lofty tower, that they might climb up into heaven. But God sending forth a whirlwind, confounded their design, and gave to each tribe a particular language of its own: which is the reason that the name of that city is Babylon. After the deluge lived Titan and Prometheus; when Titan undertook a war against Cronus. (trans. I. P. Cory)
Obviously there is a difference of opinion in that Eusebius gives Polyhistor as citing a monotheistic god. Most scholars believe that Eusebius has edited the pagan Polyhistor to make his polytheism conform more closely to Christian preference, in contradistinction to the source text Polyhistor is summarizing. Both Abydenus and Polyhistor, however, are quite clearly derived from the Pseudo-Sybelline Oracles, a Christian forgery, where in Book 3 we read the following:
When all men were of one language, some of them built a high tower, as if they would thereby ascend up to heaven, but the gods sent storms of wind and overthrew the tower, and gave every one his peculiar language; and for this reason it was that the city was called Babylon. (trans. William Whiston)
Now for the technicalities: The version I quoted here is quoted by Flavius Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 1.4; the surviving version of the Oracles, assembled several centuries later, has revised the passage to change the gods into one God. It is widely believed that this section of the Oracles is among the oldest, but how old I don’t know. When we pick up the text in the Oracles after Josephus’ quotation, the euhemerized gods Cronus, Titan, and Iapetus divided the earth among themselves.
Pseudo-Eupolemus, who wrote under the name of a Hellenized Jewish historian and who predates all of these authors in that he was cited by Polyhistor, agrees in substance with their accounts, according to Polyhistor, as cited by Eusebius in Praeparatio Evangelica 9.17: “Eupolemus in his book Concerning the Jews of Assyria says that the city Babylon was first founded by those who escaped from the Deluge; and that they were giants, and built the tower renowned in history. But when this had been overthrown by the act of God, the giants were dispersed over the whole earth” (trans. Gifford). This author, many argue, presented material from Berossus or other Mesopotamian sources with Hebraized terminology and a dash of Greek euhemarism. Thus, Pseudo-Eupolemus makes Belus (Marduk) the man who survived the Flood (in the Erra Epic Marduk causes the Flood), and he identifies him with Enoch, who learned wisdom from the angels and had commerce with the Fallen ones. Scholars are divided on whether the passage belongs to the genuine Eupolemus, who wrote around 158 BCE, or was the work of someone else.
Abydenus, Pseudo-Eupolemus, and Pseudo-Sybil agree (if in the last case only by implication) that the Tower was the work of giants of some sort, be they the Titans of Greek mythology or the Giants (Nephilim) of the Bible. This association’s origin is fairly obvious; in Babylonian myth, recorded in the Enuma Elish, the Anunnaki built the great ziggurat on which the tower was based, so it seems that our authors have tried identifying the Anunnaki with pagan and Hebraic mythic figures of similar function. But it seems like we’re getting close to the origin of the mighty wind since Pseudo-Eupolemus seems to know only an unspecified act of God, suggesting a time period for when that act became a wind.
To put a closer date on the wind, we need to start at the beginning: In Mesopotamian tradition, as recorded in the Sumerian epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, after the building of a great ziggurat to Inanna at Uruk (later the home of Gilgamesh), the king petitions Enki to make all the peoples of the earth be of one tongue so that all the princes of the earth, great in their ambition, might sing Enki’s praises. Many scholars have argued that the Hebraic account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:4-9) inverts this myth, for in the Jewish version the people of Babel, in their pride, build a great tower to be like God, and God confounds their tongues that they might not work together anymore to challenge him. Interestingly, the Genesis account says nothing about the destruction of the Tower, only that work stopped on the city of Babel, nor would it logically have done so since the ziggurat of Marduk in Babylon, the Etemenaki, was very much standing, albeit incomplete until Nebuchadnezzar restored and completed the decaying hulk. Many have suggested that the incomplete and rotting state of the tower suggested to the Jews that God had stopped its construction, leading to the inversion of a Mesopotamian myth. The Borsippa inscription suggests as much, at least to those inclined to see such connections, in describing Nebuchadnezzar’s similar restoration work in Babylon’s sister city on a ziggurat identified in the Talmud and Islamic literature as the Tower of Babel:
We say for the other, that is, this edifice, the house of the Seven Lights of the Earth, the most ancient monument of Borsippa: A former king built it, but he did not complete its head. Since a remote time people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words. Since that time, the earthquake and the thunder had dispersed its sun-dried clay; the bricks of the casing had been split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps. Marduk, the great lord, excited my mind to repair this building.… (trans. in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible)
This, however, doesn’t get us much closer to the mighty wind. We find it though when we look at the apocryphal Book of Jubilees and see that it specifies that the confounding of languages stopped work on the mud-brick tower specifically (10:24) and then destroys it with, yes, a mighty wind! “And the Lord sent a mighty wind against the tower and overthrew it upon the earth, and behold it was between Asshur and Babylon in the land of Shinar, and they called its name ‘Overthrow’” (10:26, trans. R. H. Charles). This name survived as Mujeliba (“overturned”) the local appellation of Tell Babil down to the modern era. Jubilees was likely written between 160 and 100 BCE, which helps us to narrow down the origins of the mighty wind a bit. It was not present at the writing of Genesis, around say 500 BCE, but was there by 160 BCE. If we apply some logic, we can assume that the story that the tower was destroyed could not predate the actual destruction of the tower, lest it serve as proof of the failure of scripture. Therefore, it seems most likely that the story only emerged after Alexander leveled the Etemenaki in preparation for its rebuilding and then died before he could complete the task. This would give us a range between 323 and 160 BCE for the mighty wind to have taken hold.
It looks a lot like all of the Hellenistic material claiming a mighty wind derived its claims from the Sibylline Oracles, but that Jubilees offers the first version of the claim in literature, though scholars believe that it was no innovation of the Jubilees author but rather a Jewish tradition. Of that tradition, its origin I do not know. God was sometimes seen as acting as wind (Genesis 1:2; Ezekiel 1:4; Jonah 1:4), and Biblical literature tells us that the Jews considered winds to be the method through which the angels fulfilled God’s will, literally taking the form of wind (Psalm 104:4). Certainly the early Christians understood the confusion of tongues as deriving from God’s wind, since in Acts 2:1-11 a “mighty wind” causes the Apostles to speak in tongues, which miraculously, in a reversal of Genesis 11, all could understand due to the Holy Spirit. This evidence shows that there was an active tradition that the wind itself was the act of God that confounded the tongues, the same tradition that shows up in Islam, with the Tower wholly omitted.
In pagan Arab mythology, the desert winds were the voice of the djinn, who were themselves seen as demons of the whirlwind. Is there perhaps a connection between the djinn, identified with demons and fallen angels, and the Anunnaki, whom Pseudo-Eupolemus identified with the giants, or Nephilim, the sons of the Watchers? Or was wind chosen since there are relatively few ways to knock over a tower, logically speaking?
To solve the mystery we need just a few more clues.
Russell Gmirkin, who made a strange case that Berossus was the source for Genesis, pointed out that in Berossus the ark of Xisuthrus is absurdly large, implying that just as Gilgamesh was a giant, so too did the Babylonians envision all ancient people as giants, and thus the first survivors of the Flood as survivors of that giant race. If we read the text this way and we agree that Pseudo-Eupolemus used Berossus as a source in identifying the giants as the builders of Babylon, we can see how the Jews would identify these ancient giants with their own ancient giants, the Nephilim, as seen in the Book of Giants, where Gilgamesh himself is among their number.
Further, in the myths of the Semitic peoples and also the Orphic Greeks, wind (air) is one of the great forces of creation, the ultimate progenitor of the Giants, the same Giants who allegedly built the Tower in Hellenistic myths. The Orphic texts make Aether the firstborn of creation, responsible for “destructive acts of the Giants, who spilled their gloomy seed from the sky begetting the men of old.” So, too, does Sanchuniathon tell us that for the Phoenicians the wind was the first force of creation, and in personification as Colpias, the wind was the great-grandfather of the Giants of Mt. Hermon—the same spot where the Fallen Angels begat the gigantic Nephilim, and where the Anunnaki dwelt. If for no other reason, making the wind of creation destroy the tower associated in late belief with the Nephilim-Giants was an appropriate rebuke the pagan faiths that surrounded post-Exile Judaism. Perhaps this is why Jubilees makes a wind tear down the tower at the same time that Pseudo-Eupolemus, the pretended (if not actual) Jewish historian, made the Tower of Babel the work of the Giants who were the descendants of the angel-wind.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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