The Phoenician Cosmogony of Sanchuniathon

Turned archaeologist in the third century B.C., Sanchuniathon copied the texts of the stelae of the cities and mountains of Phoenicia. Thanks to these documents, he was able to reconstruct the Phoenician cosmogony of the creation of the world and Lebanon, as well as the nature of the Phoenician deities.

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on February 25, 2023. The original can be found here.

By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union–Tur Levnon

In the third century BC, during the era of the Seleucids (312-64 BC), a Phoenician by the name of Sanchuniathon was met with a preponderance of Greek culture and civilization. Like most of the Phoenicians of his time, Sanchuniathon was Hellenized. He, however, could not come to terms with seeing his history and heritage disappear. Overwhelmed by a sense of patriotism, he tried to reconstruct the fragments of his heritage and to put them in writing in order to be able to pass it on.

The Phoenician stele of Yehawmilk, king of Byblos, dedicated to Baalet Guebal, 450 BC., Louvre Museum. Picture from Wikipedia.

A Phoenician Renaissance

Paradoxically, it was in contact with the increasingly dominant and widely assimilated Greek culture that the Phoenicians felt the need to assert their identity. It provoked somewhat of a renaissance. For Sanchuniathon, it was essential to trace back Phoenician origins and defend its version of history, mythology, cosmogony and religion.

However, faced with the lack of libraries in a country that had given the world the alphabet, Sanchuniathon went on to become an archaeologist and an historian. He set about copying the texts inscribed on the sacred stelae in all the cities and mountains of Phoenicia. These documents and the few orally transmitted stories allowed him to reconstruct the eight cosmogonies that deal with the creation of the world and Lebanon and the nature of the deities. And, at a time when Aramaic and Greek were prevalent, Sanchuniathon deliberately wrote his work in the Phoenician language.

The original version has unfortunately not survived, as has its translation into Greek by Philo of Byblos. It was Ernest Renan who succeeded in restoring the text of the eight cosmogonies by resorting to the extracts that have come down to us through the philosopher Porphyry of Tyre (3rd century) and bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (3rd/4th century). In 1858, Renan presented this reconstruction in his book L’Origine et le caractère véritable de l’histoire phénicienne qui porte le nom de Sanchoniathon (Académie des inscriptions et Belles-Lettres).

The recourse to different ancient texts becomes clear from the repetition of certain phrases and by the repetition of the same concepts at the beginning of each cosmogony. That is why Renan considers Sanchuniathon a compiler who omits nothing of the data that the Lebanese archaeological sites offered him. This becomes particularly clear from the contradictions in the eighth cosmogony where certain facts seem to ignore the preceding chapters.

Philo of Byblos

The original work was further altered when, in the time of Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138), another Phoenician, Philo of Byblos, translated it. Philo too was overcome by a sense of patriotism, and like many of his countrymen he harbored a certain envy of the Romans whose culture eventually eclipsed that of Phoenicia. This state of mind applied to the entire East and recalls the circumstances in which Philo the Jew also wrote historical accounts to affirm the value of his people against the Hellenistic world.

The desire to praise his civilization, coupled with a lack of mastery of his Phoenician language, is reflected in the work of Philo of Byblos revealing his Greek culture. Nevertheless, in spite of the few errors that the latter has grafted onto the account of Sanchuniathon, his Greek work remains quite faithful to the Phoenician original. In fact, it is of the level of form that Philo made the Phoenician story lose a certain Semitic archaism. As for the content, if it does not allow us to appreciate the intellectual atmosphere of Phoenician Antiquity, it does remain a precious witness of late Phoenicia, strongly Hellenized and Romanized.

In spite of the numerous alterations that the original text underwent, the Canaanite spirit remains omnipresent. Many ideas and interpretations only made sense to Ernest Renan when rendered into Syriac, Phoenician or a related language such as Hebrew. Moreover, the content is very indicative of the Semitic or Oriental mindset in general and reveals strong similarities between the Phoenician cosmogony and the genesis of the Hebrews, notably in the principle of Euhemerism which divinizes patriarchs and kings.

Stelae from Tire (no. 188 and 189) and Sidon (no. 190), featuring the winged disc of Helios, emblematic of Phoenician stelae and temples. ©Mission of Phoenicia, Calmann-Lévy, 1864; drawings by Édouard Lockroy.

Porphyry and Eusebius

For Renan, “it is because of the religious controversy, so lively in the 3rd and 4th centuries, that we owe the preservation of this monument, to which our poverty, much more than its intrinsic qualities, gives so much price.” During these two centuries, there were polemics between pagans and Christians. Thus, to discredit the Mosaic history, Porphyry referred, while underlining its authenticity, to “a Phoenician mythology attributed to Sanchuniathon and translated into Greek by Philo of Byblos”.

Ironically, says Renan, bishop Eusebius of Caesarea was going to use this same source legitimized by his adversary, to counter the arguments of Porphyry and to disprove paganism and its immorality.

The Phoenician religion

The Phoenician religion seems almost identical to that of Mesopotamia. For Renan, it could almost be perceived as a western version of the Babylonian civilization. The Triad constitutes the main element of the beliefs of these two civilizations, and the sacred prostitution of certain priestesses remains one of their rather characteristic practices. To come to the connection between the Phoenician and Egyptian mythologies, we must point to the expressive presence of Thoth. This god, borrowed from Egypt, is the one who writes history to bequeath it to the following generations.

The cultural exchanges with the Greeks seem to be even more defining. It is under the influence of Greece that the Phoenician history was written. It is Greece that gave the people of Lebanon the name of Phoenicians, and Guebal the name of Byblos. The legend of Europa is nothing else than the mythological reflection of the Greco-Phoenician complementarity. Europa, daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre, gave her name to the continent, after she, her brother Cadmus, bearer of the alphabet, and Adonis were adopted into the Greek pantheon.

For Renan, the Phoenician cosmogony keeps, despite everything, a fundamentally Semitic flavor. It is even closer to Chaldean Mesopotamia, with which it shares a scientific spirit, whereas the genesis of the Hebrews is rather characterized by a high degree of “spiritualism and simplicity”. But independently of these nuances, Renan denotes that among all the traditions of the ancient East and until the first centuries of Christianity, we observe a “syncretism of Greek, Egyptian, Persian, Babylonian, Phoenician mythologies, and Hebrew traditions”.

Selected excerpts from each of the eight cosmogonies of Sanchuniathon

First cosmogony

In the beginning was Chaos, and Chaos was dark and troubled. The Breath hovered over Chaos.

And Chaos had no end, and so it was for ages upon ages.

And the Breath loved its own principles. It made itself a mixture, and this mixture was called Desire.

And Desire was the principle of the creation of everything. And the Breath did not know its own creation.

Second cosmogony

In the beginning was chaos.

And the breath hovered over the chaos.

And the breath and the chaos mingled, and Môt was born.

And from Mot came every seed of creation, and Mot was the father of all things.

And Mot was shaped like an egg.

And the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the great constellations shone.

And there were living beings deprived of feeling, and from these living beings were born intelligent beings, and they were called Zophesamin.

And the men, male and female, began to move.

Third cosmogony

In the beginning was Chaos.

And the Breath hovered over Chaos.

And the Breath engendered the North, South, East and West Wind.

And Chaos and the West Wind united, and they gave birth to Ulom and Kadmon.

And of these were born Tholedeth and Moledeth, men and women.

And they lived in Phoenicia first, and they worshiped Beelsamin.

Fourth cosmogony

Oulom and Kadmon fathered sons who were called Light, Fire and Flame; and these invented the use of fire.

And they had sons who were called Casius, Lebanon, Anti-Lebanon and Tabor, and they were giants on the earth.

And from these were born Samemroum and Uso.

And Samemrum dwelt in the isle of Tyre.

And Samemrum had sons and daughters, and from him was born Sidon, who invented fishing and hunting, and was the father of the Sidonians.

Fifth cosmogony

Chusor establishes order and harmony in the world.

From him are born Kain and Adam.

Sixth cosmogony

And from them were born titans and giants.

And from them were born Amine and Mag, who invented agriculture.

And from them were born Misor and Sydyk.

And from Misor was born Thoth who invented letters.

Seventh cosmogony

Elion and Baal-Berite, supreme god.

He produced Adam and the race of men.

They first lived in Byblos.

Eighth cosmogony

Elion the Most-High produces Heaven and Earth.

Heaven and Earth engender El, Bethel, Dagon, Atlas, adultery of Heaven.

El, by the advice of Athenaeus and Thoth, invents the harp and the spear.

El builds the city of Byblos.

The Sky tries to seduce El by means of his three daughters, Astarté, Rhéa and Baalti, then by Imarméné and Hora.

Heaven invents the Bétyles, living stones.

Dagon invents the cultivation of wheat and the plough.

From Sydyk and one of the Titanides is born Eschmoun.

The 32ᵉ year of his reign, El mutilates the Sky, whose blood stains the rivers and the fountains.

El gives the city of Byblos to Baalti, Beryte to Posidon, Sidon to the Cabirs.

Thoth invents the images of the gods, the sacred characters, the religious emblems, and creates the insignia of the royalty of El.

The seven Cabirs and their brother Eshmoun write all these things by the order of Thoth.

Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur LevnonAmine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2

For the article in Spanish see Maronitas