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date: 16 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

This entry concerns mythological narratives that developed in ancient times in lands extending from the eastern Mediterranean seaboard as far as Central Asia. Whereas the term Near Eastern applies to a range of different cultures—including Mesopotamian, Elamite, Hittite, Canaanite, Hebrew, Urartian, Phoenician, and Egyptian—the expression Old Iranian is used only of ancient Iranian culture as evidenced primarily in the texts of the Avesta, and in certain Old Persian inscriptions and iconography. From the early 1st millennium onwards, as ancient Iranians moved across the plateau into Mesopotamia and beyond, so Iranian culture, including its mythology, interacted with that of the Near East. The ensuing worldviews continue to impact the religions that evolved within the region, specifically, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

Mesopotamian myths comprise the earliest literature committed to writing. Alongside the discovery of archaeological sites in which some of the myths are set and of material objects relating to those myths, these texts provide insight into the general ethos, ritual activity, and social structure of the pertinent cultures of Mesopotamia—notably, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian. The contemporary ancient Egyptians present a similar richness of material and literary culture. In contrast, the Old Iranian myths of the Avesta endured within an oral context until about the 6th century ce, with only cursory allusion to a cosmogony in Old Persian inscriptions, Achaemenid reliefs, and stamp seals. It is the Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts of the late Sasanian/early Islamic period in Iran that provide a systematized cosmology and attendant mythology, and the New Persian national epic, the Šāhnāme, that develops many of the characters and events of Old Iranian text within its dramatic re-telling of Iranian history.

Keywords: Near East, Iran, myth, cosmogony, cosmology, eschatology, divinity, divinities, hero

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