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Founding Gods, Inventing Nations

Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam

William F. McCants
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Founding Gods, Inventing Nations
    Book Description:

    From the dawn of writing in Sumer to the sunset of the Islamic empire,Founding Gods, Inventing Nationstraces four thousand years of speculation on the origins of civilization. Investigating a vast range of primary sources, some of which are translated here for the first time, and focusing on the dynamic influence of the Greek, Roman, and Arab conquests of the Near East, William McCants looks at the ways the conquerors and those they conquered reshaped their myths of civilization's origins in response to the social and political consequences of empire.

    The Greek and Roman conquests brought with them a learned culture that competed with that of native elites. The conquering Arabs, in contrast, had no learned culture, which led to three hundred years of Muslim competition over the cultural orientation of Islam, a contest reflected in the culture myths of that time. What we know today as Islamic culture is the product of this contest, whose protagonists drew heavily on the lore of non-Arab and pagan antiquity.

    McCants argues that authors in all three periods did not write about civilization's origins solely out of pure antiquarian interest--they also sought to address the social and political tensions of the day. The strategies they employed and the postcolonial dilemmas they confronted provide invaluable context for understanding how authors today use myth and history to locate themselves in the confusing aftermath of empire.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4006-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    In the ninth century AD, Abū Maʽshar, an Iranian Muslim astronomer from Balkh (in modern-day Afghanistan), wrote that Adam and his grandson Hermes had founded the arts and sciences before the biblical Flood. Fearing that the coming Flood would eradicate “all the arts,” Hermes inscribed knowledge of them for posterity in temples he built in Egypt. After the Flood, a second Hermes from Babylon retrieved this knowledge, and, through his student Pythagoras, it passed to the Greeks.¹ Prefacing this account, Abū Maʽshar explained that the Hebrews equated the first Hermes (a god in Greek mythology) with the biblical Enoch; that...

  5. ONE Gifts of the Gods: The Origins of Civilization in Ancient Near Eastern and Greek Mythology
    (pp. 10-28)

    To see how the Greek, Roman, and Arab conquests of the Near East shaped the conqueror’s and conquered’s understanding of the origins of civilization, I begin with a survey of the region’s ancient mythologies before the conquests: Mesopotamian, Iranian, Egyptian, Greek, and Hebrew (the surviving Hurrian, Hittite, and Canaanite texts do not treat the subject). In Mesopotamian, Iranian, and Egyptian myths, gods create civilization ex nihilo and give it to humans, sometimes through special human or semihuman interlocutors. The arts and sciences they create are almost always beneficial, and their point of origin is usually associated with cities, not with...

  6. TWO The Beneficent Sky God: Cultural History in the Qur’an
    (pp. 29-56)

    When the arabs conquered the Near East, they shared with their subjects (mainly Jews and Christians) the notion that civilization had arisen as a consequence of Adam’s fall. But in contrast to the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an portrays the rise of civilization positively and makes God its prime mover, much like the gods of ancient Near Eastern myths. There are at least two reasons for this difference. First, Muhammad draws on noncanonical biblical scripture and storytelling that link God, angels, and chosen human interlocutors to the development of beneficial arts and sciences.¹ These scriptures and stories were written after Alexander’s...

  7. THREE Who Was First? Protography and Discovery Catalogs
    (pp. 57-84)

    The arab conquest of the Near East in the seventh century spurred intensive writing about cultural milestones, formalized in lists of “firsts” (Ar.awā’il) in the ninth century, establishing an Arabic genre of the same name. Although the Muslims may have been indebted to the Greeks and Romans for the form of these lists, they did not preserve any Greco-Roman lore in them, drawing instead from Judeo-Christian, Arab, and Iranian legends. Nevertheless, the social dynamics that led to the rise of the genre in Greece and its maintenance in Rome—intense cultural innovation, borrowing, and competition—were also found in...

  8. FOUR Inventing Nations: Postconquest Native Histories of Civilization’s Origins
    (pp. 85-119)

    A century after the Arabs conquered the land of Iran, Iranians began writing histories of their pre-Islamic Iranian kings in Arabic. In most of these histories, the first kings are depicted as inventors of the arts and sciences of civilization.

    Something similar happened after the Greek and Roman conquests of the Near East, when native elites wrote histories of their forefathers’ contributions to civilization in the language of the conqueror to instill a sense of national pride in past accomplishments after being conquered by a foreign power and to remind the conquerors of their cultural dependence on the conquered people.¹...

  9. FIVE “The Sciences of the Ancients”: Speculation on the Origins of Philosophy, Medicine, and the Exact Sciences
    (pp. 120-144)

    In addition to encouraging Iranians to record the history of their ancient kings, the move of the capital of the Islamic empire to Baghdad in the mid-eighth century AD had a second major consequence for the Muslim debate about the origins of culture: the translation of Greek scientific texts into Arabic. The new dynasty, the ʽAbbāsids, styled themselves as model Iranian kings, and since being a good Iranian king meant supporting the translation of scientific texts, they patronized the translation of Greek scientific texts into Arabic.¹ The choice of texts was guided by the practical considerations of the ruling elite—...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 145-148)

    The greek, roman, and Arab conquests of the complex civilizations of the Near East created social and political dilemmas for both the conquerors and the conquered because they brought together and destabilized the hierarchies of competing elites and their learned high cultures, which were tied to their status and legitimacy. Various groups addressed these dilemmas by writing culture myths in the language of the conquerors that encoded their visions of the cultural orientation of the empire and their place in it. This impulse often lies behind three kinds of protographical literature we surveyed: catalogs of firsts, native histories of civilization,...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 149-166)
  12. Index
    (pp. 167-179)