In the annals of fringe history, the Watchers loom large. These are the Sons of God of the Bible, the Watchers of 1 Enoch and the Fallen Angels of Judeo-Christian lore—the creatures who mated with human women and taught the forbidden sciences of metallurgy, astrology, and cosmetology (yes, makeup). Among ancient astronaut theorists, these beings are often identified with the Anunnaki and assumed to be space aliens who genetically engineered humanity and taught science. For the “Nephilim research community,” the scant biblical reference to the Sons of God and their giant sons in Genesis 6:1-4 launched a global dragnet for the physical remains of these antediluvian beings. Even some lost civilization speculators take these creatures as evidence that an Ice Age civilization spread its high technology across the ancient Near East.
For such reasons, I was very excited yesterday to receive a review copy of The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Tradition, a new anthology of academic essays for the non-specialist collected by Angela Kim Harkins, Kelly Coblentz Bautch, and John C. Endres and published last month by Fortress Press. Before I start my discussion, let me note that I received an electronic review copy through Adobe Digital Editions, so I am not able to provide page number references to the print edition. With that out of the way, I have to note that the book is less than 250 pages long, and with 14 essays plus an introduction, each of the chapters is by necessity rather short, more so since about a quarter of the space is given over to end notes.
The essay I was most interested to read was the first, “Mesopotamian Elements and the Watchers Tradition” by Ida Fröhlich, a scholar at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Hungary specializing in Judaism and ritual purity. As many readers will recall, I previously analyzed the Watchers tradition and discussed its relationship to and reinterpretation of Near Eastern semi-divine hero myth, and I was quite intrigued to see what an expert had to say on the same subject.
Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed by the article, which is a somewhat undercooked summary of the author’s voluminous earlier work on the subject.
My expectation going into the chapter was that Fröhlich would provide a clear discussion of the similarities between the Watchers tradition and specific aspects of Mesopotamian beliefs. However, while Fröhlich displayed an admirable expertise in citing Jewish texts of all stripes, she did not bring into the discussion a similarly detailed discussion of Mesopotamian material.
But to take first things first. Fröhlich makes many assertions that she has far greater confidence in than I do. First, she asserts that the Jews encountered Mesopotamian material primarily during the Babylonian Captivity, and therefore aspects of Jewish belief that parallel Mesopotamian sources date from that time and no earlier. I find this less certain. Homer’s Odyssey contains motifs drawn from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which may in turn have come into the Odyssey from a still earlier version of the Argonautica, as M. L. West has shown. Orientalizing influences from Mesopotamia can be seen in Greece in the seventh century, but even in Jewish history we know that the Neo-Assyrians had used Judah as a client state for almost a century before the Babylonian Captivity, so I’m not sure we can assign a specific date for the transfer of a motif.
Fröhlich also believes that the figure of Enoch was inspired during the Babylonian Captivity by Enmeduranki, the seventh and last antediluvian king of Sumer, but does not say why. In another article (from which this one seems to be a condensation given the repetition of ideas and language—yet a third article, with much more detail on the Watchers as astrological symbols, is here), she had previously made the same assertion but never quite describes the usual case others have proposed: Enmeduranki was the seventh king on the Sumerian king list, as Enoch was the seventh patriarch. Enmeduranki was associated with the sun-city of Sippar, while Enoch lived 365 years, one for each day of the solar year. Enmeduranki and Enoch were both taken up to heaven, and were shown books of knowledge, particularly astrological knowledge. Her earlier article was actually much more what I was hoping to see—a more detailed discussion of how the Enochian tradition, particularly the Book of Giants, reflects a Jewish re-interpretation of Mesopotamian source material, particularly the underworld divinity of Gilgamesh, who appears as an evil character in the Book of Giants. However, both articles have a very notable lack of primary Mesopotamian sources even when discussing Mesopotamian characters and motifs.
Anyway, Fröhlich sees the Watchers as parallel to the Seven Sages of Mesopotamian lore, best known today from Berosus’ late version where they appear as the civilizing fish-men led by Oannes, in combination with various Mesopotamian demons.
But here the primary focus isn’t on the transmission of myth (which, indeed, she takes to be a given) but rather on concepts of ritual purity, her primary research interest. Thus, the majority of her article (in both versions) is devoted to exploring how the Jews interpreted purification and how various magical arts lead to impurity. In so doing, she reduces the question of the Watchers to a series of propositions stated more definitively than I would like, since many of these questions are still open. She says in the main text that the Watchers of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are not an attempt to amplify the narrative of Genesis 6:1-4 but rather that the Genesis account is an independent tradition from the same background, even though the extant texts of both 1 Enoch and Jubilees use the language of Genesis 6:1-2 to introduce the story. (Her end notes contain more nuanced discussion.) It’s possible, of course, that both derive from an older version of Genesis, before the final redaction. Others, like Józef Milik and Matthew Black, hold that the Genesis tale at 6:1-4 was inserted into Genesis in response to 1 Enoch. But I think I would probably agree with scholars like Pierluigi Piovanelli, who wrote in 2007 that the Enoch narrative presupposes and requires familiarity with Genesis, and the two need to be seen as in intertextual conversation.
Because Fröhlich believes the two narratives are distinct, she sees no reason to try to situate the Enochian Watchers within a broader Near Eastern context. Had she viewed them as related, she might have explored the concept of the Sons of God in terms of its Near Eastern parallels—and not just Mesopotamian ones. For example, the Sons of God (bene ha’elohim) might be cognate with or parallel to the Ugaritic godly council, the bn ’il the sons of El, the chief god. These beings’ children, the Nephilim or giants, are described as the heroes of old, the men of renown (Gen. 6:4), and the Book of Giants places the hero Gilgamesh among them. I expected to see Fröhlich touch on the widespread mythology of the semi-divine hero, the powerful human born of a god and a human mother, found across the Near East. This would seem to be relevant to understanding the concept of the divine birth of ancient heroes, but because it does not fit easily into a narrative of ritual purity, it does not enter into Fröhlich’s discussion.
A more helpful title for her article might have been “Reflections of Mesopotamian Ritual Practice in Enochian Purity Narratives.” It would also have been nice if the editors’ introduction hadn’t set up expectations that the article would discuss the wider Mesopotamian origin of the Watchers story rather than just ritual purity.
There are elements in Fröhlich’s article that are really interesting, but I had hoped to learn about how Mesopotamian myths influenced the Jewish legend of fallen angels and their giant offspring. Instead, I read a discussion of Jewish purity beliefs and how they might reflect Jewish disapproval of Mesopotamian magical practices. While interesting on its own terms, it tells us rather little about the actual origin of the idea of the Sons of God or their semi-divine offspring. After all, the condemnation of Babylonian magic could have been inserted during the Babylonian period into a preexisting myth.
That this might be the case shows up in Fröhlich’s earlier work on astrology in the three books of Enoch. She showed that the rebel angels in 1 Enoch reappear in 3 Enoch as guardians of the sky, that is to say, as astrological agents akin to their Mesopotamian counterparts, the gods and spirits that inhabit the stars, the planets, and the gates in the sky that keep them running in order. Marduk, as Nibiru-Jupiter, the ruling star, is foremost among them. She concluded that the myth of the fallen angels was a revision of an astrological description that associated stars with spirits, and thus, if we might expand on her thoughts a bit, the passage of some constellations below the horizon during the year (or perhaps over longer periods due to axial precession) might suggest a myth that some star-angels had “fallen” into the underworld. This I find very interesting, and it’s a shame that she stops her analysis before quite explaining how this would have worked. From another writer, Kelley Coblentz Bautch, I learn that the Seven Stars of 1 Enoch 18 were quite possibly the Pleiades, which were also associated in Mesopotamia with the underworld god Enmesharra’s rebellious sons. Marduk captured Enmesharra and his sons and bound them to the Pleiades, just as the Seven Stars in 1 Enoch 21:6 are bound. Coblentz Bautch offers full references to Mesopotamian texts to support her argument.
All of this is even more interesting and another suggestion of a deep connection between the Enochian Watchers and the gods and monsters of Mesopotamia.
Oh, and selfishly: All of this supports my new book Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, where I discuss the Near Eastern idea of the gate of the underworld on the eastern horizon and its association with the place where the sun rises. Kelley Coblentz Bautch notes that this is the place where witches were imprisoned in Mesopotamian myth, and that’s exactly where we find the witch Medea, at the land of Aea-Colchis in the farthest east, where the sun emerges at the dawn.
I probably won’t be reading every chapter of The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Tradition, but I do plan to at least review the chapter on the Watchers and Greek mythology. That one should be fun!
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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