Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come

Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come

by Norman Cohn

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All over the world people look forward to a perfect future, when the forces of good will be finally victorious over the forces of evil. Once this was a radically new way of imagining the destiny of the world and of mankind. How did it originate, and what kind of world-view preceded it? In this engrossing book, the author of the classic work The Pursuit of the Millennium takes us on a journey of exploration, through the world-views of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, through the innovations of Iranian and Jewish prophets and sages, to the earliest Christian imaginings of heaven on earth.

Until around 1500 B.C., it was generally believed that once the world had been set in order by the gods, it was in essence immutable. However, it was always a troubled world. By means of flood and drought, famine and plague, defeat in war, and death itself, demonic forces threatened and impaired it. Various combat myths told how a divine warrior kept the forces of chaos at bay and enabled the world to survive. Sometime between 1500 and 1200 B.C., the Iranian prophet Zoroaster broke from that static yet anxious world-view, reinterpreting the Iranian version of the combat myth. For Zoroaster, the world was moving, through incessant conflict, toward a conflictless state—“cosmos without chaos.” The time would come when, in a prodigious battle, the supreme god would utterly defeat the forces of chaos and their human allies and eliminate them forever, and so bring an absolutely good world into being. Cohn reveals how this vision of the future was taken over by certain Jewish groups, notably the Jesus sect, with incalculable consequences. 

Deeply informed yet highly readable, this magisterial book illumines a major turning-point in the history of human consciousness. It will be mandatory reading for all who appreciated The Pursuit of the Millennium.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300177190
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/11/2001
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 735 KB

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Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come

The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith

By Norman Cohn


Copyright © 2001 Norman Cohn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-17719-0




Cosmos, in the sense of all-embracing, all-pervading order, was taken for granted in the Ancient Near East: everything in heaven and earth, in nature and in society, had been established and set in order by the gods and was still watched over by the gods.

Not that cosmos was undisturbed. There were chaotic forces, restless and threatening. And here too gods were at work. If some gods were benign, others were not — and some gods could be now benign, now destructive. Every Near Eastern world-view showed an awareness not only of order in the world but of the instability of that order.

Nevertheless the ordered world was imagined as essentially unchanging. Changes were of course seen to occur, technological advances were made — but none of this gave rise to expectations of a future that would be radically different from anything known in the present or in the past: as things had been, so they would remain. At the heart of every Near Eastern world-view was a sense of immutability.

Elaborated by priests and theologians, these world-views were adopted happily enough by those belonging to the upper strata of society: for monarchs and administrators and scribes they served to justify a social order that brought such manifest benefits to the privileged. But that does not mean that they were repudiated by the common people. After all, the concern with order and chaos reflected a very general experience of the way things were. Ordinary folk knew very well how easily all their plans could be upset and all their work undone: each garden and field might be endangered by flood or drought, each herd and flock might be seized by some predatory band from outside the society and by common thieves within it. For succour people relied on the state — which was almost always a monarchy. Oppressive as it was, the state nevertheless stood for order. Vigilance in upholding the law and in frustrating and punishing crime, vigilance also in warding off foreign enemies and when appropriate defeating them in battle — all this not only enabled the state to survive but affirmed and strengthened the ordered world. The regular and effective functioning of that great defender, the state, and of its supreme embodiment, the king, belonged to the same all-embracing order as the movements of the sun and the moon and the stars, the rotation of the seasons.

Because they were rooted in everyday reality the interpretations offered by priests and theologians were generally accepted even by those who had only a vague understanding of them. And because they were not abstract philosophical systems but religious worldviews, they were able to condition not only the behaviour of individuals but the political, social and economic life of society.

And of course these world-views were all totally ethnocentric: always the society concerned was placed firmly at the centre of the ordered world.


Awareness of cosmos and of what threatened it was nowhere more highly developed than in Egypt.

The very life of Egypt has always depended on the Nile. Most of the country is desert and rainfall is inadequate to support crops or livestock. Agriculture is possible only in a narrow strip of land on either side of the great river, and never could have been practised but for the annual inundation that flows northwards for some 600 miles between late June and late September. Ancient Egyptians were deeply impressed by the contrast between the 'Black Land', as it was called after the deep black mud deposited by the inundations, and the 'Red Land', the desert, fearful and deadly. And then there was the erratic behaviour of the Nile itself. Until modern technology enabled dams to be built, the river might overflow one year, fall too low the next — and either meant famine. All this helped to generate a sense of a world perpetually endangered. And so did the contrast, always so dramatic in Egypt, between day and night: bright day, when the sun, splendid, omnipotent, creator and sustainer of life, sailed high over the land, and the night that so abruptly swallowed up the sun — a time full of menace, when life was suspended.

By the Early Dynastic or Archaic Period danger had taken on a further meaning. Like many other parts of the globe, Egypt had been populated for tens of thousands of years by tiny, isolated groups of hunters. During the fourth millennium small, scattered settlements of farmers spread along the Nile valley, and in the second half of that millennium chiefdoms or small states began to form. By c.3050 BC warfare between these proto-kingdoms had resulted, by a process whose course is still being debated, in the creation of a unified kingdom embracing the whole of Egypt. But political security was gone for ever. From then on existence was perceived largely in terms of conflict, actual or potential.

The course of Egyptian history was less tranquil than is often supposed. It is true that Egypt — protected by desert to the west, by the Mediterranean to the north, and to the east by the Red Sea — was less exposed to invasion than most Near Eastern states. Nevertheless Egypt too went through periods of political turmoil. If the Archaic Period and the Old Kingdom (c.3050–2160 BC) witnessed a great flowering of civilisation, they were followed by the two centuries of weak rule, civil war and economic collapse known as the First Intermediate Period (2160–1991). If the Middle Kingdom (1991–1786) saw a restoration of peace and prosperity, that was followed by the Second Intermediate Period (c.1786–1540), when Egypt, split into two kingdoms, was culturally and politically dominated by foreigners. Under a strong line of native kings the New Kingdom (1540–1070) became the centre of an empire extending from Nubia to Asia Minor — but only at the cost of ever-recurring wars. And after the New Kingdom came a slow and this time irremediable decline, during which Egypt was conquered first by the Persians, then by Alexander the Great, before being absorbed into the Roman empire in 30 BC. Naturally the Egyptian world-view was affected by these convulsions. It was all too clear that, however strong the Egyptian state might seem, it was never absolutely secure. The ordered world, identified with that state, was always at risk.


Egyptians did not believe that the world had been created out of nothing: material of some kind had been there always. They imagined the original creation as a shaping of that formless material into an ordered world.

There were many versions of how that happened — the most influential, from the third millennium onwards, being associated with the great religious centres at Heliopolis (originally called On), Memphis and Hermopolis. There was agreement on essentials. The world had not been shaped by a god who had existed for ever and ever — what had existed for ever and ever was chaos. Often that chaos is described in negative terms: it cannot be explained, it is not like anything, it is the negation of the present, existing world. It is what existed 'before the sky existed, before earth existed, before men existed, before the gods were born, before death existed'. Yet chaos was not imagined as immaterial: it was a boundless ocean, called Nun. Darkness was on the face of the deep, for there was as yet no sun. But within that dark, watery abyss lay, in a latent state, the primal substance out of which the world was to be formed. Also submerged somewhere within it was the demiurge who was to do the forming. But the demiurge too existed only as potentiality, not yet aware of himself or of the task that lay ahead.

About the first step in the making of the world there was also widespread agreement. At a certain moment — it was known as 'the first time' or 'the first occasion' — a tiny island rose out of the water: the primordial hillock. This notion surely reflects the experience, repeated each year, of the inundation and reflux of the Nile — the spectacle of a land almost submerged and then emerging from the waters renewed, covered with fresh soil, and soon green, full of living creatures, fertile, ready for cultivation: an annual genesis. Perhaps — as some scholars have suggested — there were even vague recollections, handed down from generation to generation of peasants, of a time when most of Egypt was swamp, flooded by a Nile that had not yet carved out its bed, with only scattered islands emerging. However that may be, there were not many places of any importance that did not claim to be built upon or around it. Memphis, Heliopolis, Hermopolis, Thebes, Esna, Edfu, Dendera, Crocodilopolis were only a few of the centres where the ordered world was supposed to have begun.

The Nun was there before any god, was even sometimes called 'father of the gods', but it was not an active force. The organising, ordering of the world had to be carried out by the demiurge. But what did this involve? It did not, for Egyptians, involve conflict: the demiurge does not appear, in the hymns addressed to him, as fighting against chaos or chaos monsters. His significance is quite other. The original chaos was an undifferentiated, unitary state, and the demiurge embodied the process of differentiation and definition. Whereas the original chaos was boundless, there were bounds to the ordered world that began to emerge with the demiurge. Again, the demiurge brought light where there had been primordial darkness — and in the light things could exist separately. Through the demiurge oneness was transformed into multiplicity. If the original state is described as the time 'when two things had not yet come into existence', the demiurge is called 'the One, who makes himself into millions'.

The theologians of Heliopolis and Hermopolis held that the demiurge was the sun-god Ra, those of Memphis that he was the earth-god Ptah. All agreed that he came into full existence at a moment when the primordial hillock emerged. While in the Nun he had been in a state of 'somnolence' or 'inertia', but as he became aware of himself he transformed himself. Not begotten of any father, not conceived by any mother, of his own volition he gave himself a body and entered upon active existence.

The demiurge in Memphite doctrine, Ptah, was also called Tatenen, 'the earth rising up' — which linked him both with the primordial hillock and with the soil emerging from the annual inundation. Ptah made the world, he created the gods, their temples and their images. He was the master of matter. He founded the provinces and cities of Egypt. Food and drink, the material sustenance of life, were his gift. He was the founder of all arts and crafts, patron of building, sculpture, metallurgy. It was he who set the heavens in their proper place and kept them there, and the sun was his creation and subordinate to him.

But the most influential theology was the Heliopolitan. By the middle of the third millennium the sun-god Ra (or Re) had become the great god of the city of Heliopolis, and he soon became identified with the ancient tribal god of the Heliopolitans, Atum (meaning 'the Completed One'), with the scarab-god Khepri ('he who comes into existence'), with the falcon-god Horus, with the god of horizons Akhti. Indeed, in the course of Egyptian history Ra became identified with most of the deities who were worshipped as supreme gods in the various cities — who thereupon shed their original attributes and acquired the dignity of sun-god and self-creating demiurge. So the obscure Amun, god of Thebes, became the mighty Amon-Ra when, with the beginning of the New Kingdom, Thebes became the capital of the ruling dynasty.

None of this diminished the supremacy of Ra, or his all-importance as demiurge. Nor was his stature diminished in the theologies, such as those of Hermopolis or Esna, which maintained that Ra came not directly from the Nun but was created by demiurges who had come out of the Nun. Indeed, as priests struggled to reconcile the various theologies the sun-god became a truly universal presence. His only serious rival was the god Osiris — of whom more later. And it was only very late — in the Graeco-Roman period — that the cult of Osiris finally ousted that of Ra.

How the demiurge first became manifest was a subject for imaginative elaboration. According to texts in the temple at Edfu, he came flying out of the primordial darkness in the form of a falcon and settled on a reed at the water's edge. The Hermopolitan priests were still more imaginative. According to them, immediately after 'the first occasion' eight primitive deities, some frog-like, some serpent-like — and all of them, therefore, closely related to the watery chaos — created a lotus-flower in the temple lake at Hermopolis; from this Ra emerged as a child. The Hermopolitans also told of a cosmic egg that hatched on the hillock. But iconography favoured yet another version, of Heliopolitan origin. Weary of floating in the Nun, the demiurge climbed on to the hillock in human form, already equipped with eyes, mouth, tongue, hands, heart, arms, legs, penis.

The first creations of the demiurge were the god of the air Shu and a goddess, probably of moisture, called Tefnut; he created them, in one version, by masturbation, in another, by spitting. These were Heliopolitan versions. Memphite theology was subtler: Ptah conceived in his heart the gods he intended to create, then gave his ideas concrete existence by means of his tongue, i.e. by speech. It was generally agreed that, once created, Shu and Tefnut produced the earth — imagined as a flat platter with a corrugated rim — and the sky, imagined as an inverted pan, resting on supports to hold it safely away from the earth. Earth and sky mated and produced two divine couples. With the appearance of these deities a gradual process began which in the end populated the world with gods, human beings and animals. Here the potter-god Khnum played a major part, moulding each embryo on his wheel and then placing it in the mother's womb.

Egyptian gods had much in common with human beings. It is true that in prehistoric times Egyptians, like many primitive peoples, gave animal forms to most of their deities; but already in the Archaic Period and the Old Kingdom more and more gods were given human or partly human forms. More importantly, the gods had some of the limitations of human beings. Except for the demiurge they were neither omniscient nor omnipotent: events could take them by surprise, and they were not always able to influence them. Nor did the gods even enjoy eternal life. Not only had they all, except the demiurge, been created by earlier gods — they could grow old and die. There are myths that describe the sun-god himself as ageing, withdrawing from active rule and installing another god as his representative. At Thebes, Edfu and Hermopolis there were even tombs of gods who were supposed to have lived and died in the remote past. All this emphasised the kinship between gods and human beings.

That is not to say that there was no gulf between them. The gods lived beyond the limits of the earth — in the heavens or in the netherworld — and human beings had no direct contact with them. Yet they operated on earth, and very powerfully. A field of force surrounded each deity, magical power radiated from each, to affect whatever claimed his or her attention. Moreover, diverse though they were, gods and goddesses formed a community, almost a family: their parental, filial, marital and other relationships, together with their various personalities and functions, constituted the hidden dynamics of the universe. It was an awe-inspiring notion, and Egyptians were in fact awed by the might and majesty of their deities — how deeply may be sensed even now in the colonnaded chamber at Karnak, with its 134 giant columns ranged in sixteen rows.

But awe was combined with love; as one hymn puts it, 'I prostrate myself in fear of thee, I look up to thee in love.' As Egyptians saw it, men and women were not created to serve the gods as their slaves but for their own sake, like the gods themselves. Indeed they were convinced that when the demiurge organised the world he delighted in adjusting it, with its sunlight and its plants and animals — and its gods — to suit human needs. His example set the tone for the other gods: almost all of them were benign. To be dependent on such beings was no hardship.

Excerpted from Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come by Norman Cohn. Copyright © 2001 by Norman Cohn. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Foreword to the New Edition....................     viii     

Foreword....................     ix     

Acknowledgements....................     x     

PART ONE: The Ancient Near East and Beyond....................          

1 Egyptians....................     3     

2 Mesopotamians....................     31     

3 Vedic Indians....................     57     

4 Zoroastrians....................     77     

5 From Combat Myth to Apocalyptic Faith....................     105     

PART TWO: Syro-Palestinian Crucible....................          

6 Ugarit....................     119     

7 Yahweh and the Jerusalem Monarchy....................     129     

8 Exile and After....................     141     

9 Jewish Apocalypses (I)....................     163     

10 Jewish Apocalypses (II)....................     176     

11 The Jesus Sect....................     194     

12 The Book of Revelation....................     212     

13 Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians....................     220     

Afterword....................     232     

Appendix....................     234     

Notes....................     240     

Index....................     277     

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