visit to Egypt may be a late invention,18 but this does not mean that he may not have been influenced by Egyptian cosmogonic views. Miletus was the largest city of Ionian Greece, and, being a port city near the mouth of Meander, it conducted an extensive trade with Egypt where the Greeks founded Naukratis. Surely, not only goods were transported but information about Egyptian religion as well.

For the Egyptians, the earth is a flat platter with a corrugated rim, and so Thales considers the earth to be flat and floating upon water, which is, according to Aristotle, the oldest theory (De caelo 294a28–30 = A14). This is not a Greek view. The Greeks thought that the earth was surrounded by water, not floating on it. This fact was strongly stressed later by Xenophanes who considered the earth to extend downward infinitely (21B28). Waters on which the earth floated the Egyptians called Nun. Most importantly, Nun was the primordial waters from which life first came and from which everything else was generated, beginning with the sun-god Ra.

Also Mesopotamian mythology gives waters a pre-eminent role in cosmogony. Sumerian Enki (lord of the soul) or Akkadian Ea (god of the deep) are gods of the waters that nourish the earth. Moreover, Enuma elish in its description of the beginnings of the world, presents three primordial deities: Tiamat, a watery chaos and the sea; Apsu, the sweet waters underground; and Mummu, probably representing clouds and mist. The three deities mingled their waters together, from which everything else gradually originated, beginning with gods Lahmu and Lahamu.

The Greeks also acknowledged the importance of water in their mythology in the view that Okeanos “flows round the whole earth” (Herodotus 4.8) and “all rivers and all seas and all springs and deep wells” flow from it (Il. 21.196–197). However, Homer also states that Okeanos is the “origin of gods” (14.201, 302) and even “the origin of all” (246). This is an isolated ascription of such a prominent role to Okeanos. Nevertheless, it is there, and both Plato (Theaet. 152e, Crat. 402b) and Aristotle (Met. 983b30–31) quote Homer on this. Finally, we should also mention the Orphics. One of the Orphic theogonies preserved by Hellanicus and Hieronymus posits water and matter, from which the earth solidifies, at the beginning of the world from which emerges a dragon (δράĸων) called unaging Chronos and Heracles.19 “What else does this dragon mean as a comparison of the world with a living being, with an animal, whose body has life, soul, and motion?” asks Dörfler rhetorically.20

The mythologies just briefly presented have at least one factor in common, namely the importance ascribed to water as the starting point of the universe in general and life in particular. A mind was needed that treated such religious explanations seriously to abstract in the ecumenical spirit what is common in these mythological cosmogonies. And this is a step made by Thales. As phrased by Kirk, in stimulating the Milesian philosophy, “the crucial factor was the comparison of Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek versions [of myths], which first became possible … in the late seventh and early sixth centuries in Ionia, especially Miletus.


18 Dicks, ‘Thales’, p. 306, but cf. Theodor Hopfner, Orient und griechische Philosophie (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1925), p. 17.

19 Damascius, De principiis 123 bis; Athenagoras, Pro Christianis 18.20 = 1B13.

20 Dörfler, ‘Die kosmogonischen Elemente in der Naturphilosophie des Thales’, p. 310.