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Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993)

by Norman Cohn

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265398,794 (3.98)3
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.… (more)
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This is a readable and well structured review of the development of thought concerning the origin and nature of the universe. The first part traces Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Vedic Indian, and Zorastrian thought. The general view is that, since the gods created the world, it was generally unchangeable. There was trouble in the world and that was variously described as and attributed to demonic forces. The concept of divine combat against the forces of chaos took shape. This concept remained until Zoroaster's novel thought that the world was moving, through constant conflict, toward a conflictless state.

The second part of the book describes thought development in the Syro-Palestinian area, beginning with Ugarit and continuing through various stages of Judaism. It traces the development of Jewish apocalyptic literature, up to and including the Qumran and Jesus sects, arguing convincingly that these movements owe much to the influence of Zoroastrian doctrine.

The flow of language and thought is brisk, and the logic credible. I recommend this book. ( )
1 vote RTS1942 | Dec 31, 2009 |
I went on a Norman Cohn binge, with Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come as the dessert. It’s a rather short book, about 230 pages, but is wide in scope. It serves as a companion piece to his more famous work, The Pursuit of the Millennium, this time focusing on the origins of apocalyptic religion, rather than its adherents.

The first half of the book examines Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indian religions, which did not have a concept of a final victory of the forces of order and good. Instead, these three civilizations saw chaos a primordial state (generally personified as a dragon) out of which the gods emerged to bring and preserve order. Generally, the chief god of the pantheon would do battle with this monster, and secure his place as chief of the gods and lord of the natural order.

Enter Zoroaster. Given Zoroastrianism’s place as the lost world religion, his influence on the future course of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is not that well known. It is not Cohn’s intention to give the details and examine in any more than a cursory way the story of Zoroaster and the details of Zoroastrianism. But what he does explain is how Zoroaster took Iranian folk religion (up until then very similar to Vedic Indian) and turned it to the dualistic faith which survives to this day. In a nutshell, the good god, Ahura Mazda, is locked into battle with Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, the evil god. One day, a climactic battle will occur between these gods and their followers, preceded by the coming of the Saoshyant, the Zoroastrian messiah, out of which Ahura Mazda will win.

Cohn’s persuasive thesis is that these elements seeped into Judaism, after the Babylonian Exile, then into Christianity (through the Essenes and such) and ultimately Islam, thus transforming civilization forever. Prior to Zoroaster, there could be no idea of progress, as time was viewed cyclically. Because of this, his influence continues to the present day, as Marxism and its derivations are based on an idea of progress, not cycles. All-in-all, an interesting work that deserves to be better known. ( )
2 vote Wolcott37 | Sep 19, 2009 |
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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.

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Yale University Press

3 editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300090889, 0300055986, 0300065515

 

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