Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):
Joseph In Greek Mythology
The usual Roman transliteration of the Hebrew name Joseph, as is evident by the name of the famed first century writer Josephus Flavius, is “Josephus.” Perhaps, however, there was a more ancient Corinthian version of the name. I can’t think of another name in all of Greek mythology that is more like the name Josephus than the name Sisyphus, spelled Sesephus by Hesychius. The Greek myths tell us that when Sisyphus founded the city of Corinth he did not call it that -- the name came later when Sisyphus called it “Ephyra.”
by John Salverda
One of the brothers of Athamus, another one of the sons of Aeolus, was a man named Sisyphus. Since Athamus has proved to share obvious similarities with a Hebrew patriarch, logic propels us to check the story of his brother Sisyphus, and see if we can find a possible origin among the Hebrew Patriarchs for him.
[For those whose knowledge of Greek mythology is limited, we include here some background information on Athamus and Aeolus. Athamus was the king of Orchomenus in Greek mythology. He was married first to the goddess Nephele with whom he had the twins Phrixus and Helle. He later divorced Nephele and married Ino, daughter of Cadmus. With Ino, he had two children: Learches and Melicertes. Athamus also had a brother, Salmoneus, who was the father of Tyro. There are three possibilities for Aeolus: (1) Son of Hellen, (2) son of Poseidon and (3) son of Hippotes. As the son of Poseidon, he had a twin brother named Boetus. When Boetus and Aeolus were born, they were raised by Metapontus; but their stepmother quarreled with their mother Arne, prompting Boetus and Aeolus to kill their stepmother and flee from Icaria. Aeolus went to a group of islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, which received from him the name of the Aeolian Islands. According to some accounts Aeolus founded the town of Lipara. Although his home has been traditionally identified as one of the Aeolian Islands near Sicily, an alternate location has been suggested at Gramvousa off the northwest coast of Crete. -- Editor.]
Sisyphus was a kind of local culture hero specific to the Corinthians, who claim him as their first king and the founder of their city Corinth. To find out more about Sisyphus will help us to know more about these Corinthians -- and where they came from. Modern archaeologists have almost unanimously identified the original Corinthians as a colony from the land of Phoenicia, a land that is otherwise known in the Scriptures (where there is no mention of the word, “Phoenicia,”) as the land of Canaan, or Israel. There are many Phoenician characteristics associated with the city of Corinth. They even had their own version of the goddess Athena, whom they called “Athena Poinike,” and the Corinthian calendar also had a month named after the Phoenicians called “Phoinikaios.” It was indeed said that the tomb of Melicertes -- who has often been recognized as the Melquart of Tyre -- was located in Corinth. Some have even suggested that the very name of the city, “Corinth,” derives from the common Hebrew word for a city, “Kiriath.”
The Corinthians were Phoenicians all right. The question is, however, could those Phoenicians have known, or possibly even have been, the Israelites? I believe that many were indeed Israelites, (Ac.18:10, Joel 3:6) but even if they weren’t, even if they were “only” Canaanites, you would still expect that a people such as the Canaanites, who fought wars, made treaties, built a Temple and intermarried, with the Israelites, would know a little something about the history of their own shared ancestors and native homeland.
Sisyphus and Joseph
Out of all the pre-Exodus patriarchs Joseph, who was buried in Shechem not Hebron like all the others, has the best chance of being remembered by the Canaanites. Certainly the Canaanites would have known most of the stories about many of the more important historic Hebrew personages -- especially Joseph. The usual Roman transliteration of the Hebrew name Joseph, as is evident by the name of the famed first century writer Josephus Flavius, is “Josephus.” Perhaps, however, there was a more ancient Corinthian version of the name. I can’t think of another name in all of Greek mythology that is more like the name Josephus than the name Sisyphus, spelled Sesephus by Hesychius.
Of course, if Sisyphus is to be identified with Joseph, then he couldn’t really have founded the Greek city of Corinth. On the other hand, the descendants of Joseph were great founders of cities among the Canaanites. Only the legend of this great founding family actual made it to Greece -- it came from Phoenicia with those who colonized Corinth. This is perhaps the reason why the Greek myths tell us that when Sisyphus founded the city he did not call it Corinth, that name came later when Sisyphus called it “Ephyra.” This name is perhaps even more suspiciously Hebrew in origin, for it is the usual Hebrew word for “fruitful” and, in it’s plural form “Ephraim,” (doubly fruitful) it is the name of a Hebrew city called after the son of Joseph. In fact, the entire House of Joseph (the northern ten tribes) was sometimes referred to as Ephraim. Another form of the word, “Ephrath,” (fruitfulness) is the name of the city where Joseph’s mother was buried, otherwise known as “Bethlehem.”
Recognizing the Corinthians as members of the house of Joseph fits well into the scriptural perspective concerning the historical migrations of the scattered ten tribes of Israel because, if this was the case, then the city of Corinth turns out to have been the headquarters of the westward migration of not merely the Corinthians, but of Ephraim. This migration -- according to the history of Corinth -- started with a colony at the Island of Corcyra, which spread the culture of Corinth throughout the Adriatic. Then they influenced Etruria and Rome from their colony on the island of Ischia off the Bay of Naples.
Let us not forget their colony at Syracuse (Syra-gaza, Syrian stronghold?) in Sicily, which was founded as a colony from Corinth in 735 and grew, within 350 years, to be perhaps the most powerful city in the world at that time. These Sicilians, as many others have already pointed out, were no doubt the same ones who have been identified as the “Sheklesh” -- a member nation of the “Sea Peoples” confederacy who are mentioned in the Egyptian chronicles as being a circumcised people.
It is noteworthy that these colonies of Corinth were all founded precisely when you would expect that the population of the city would be swelling with the exiled “Phoenicians” fleeing from the wrath of the Assyrian raids of Tiglathapiliezer.
Furthermore, it is not just a likeness between the names, and the ethnic makeup of the Corinthians that leads us to conclude the probable identification of Sisyphus with Joseph. They also share titles, and their respective stories share themes such as the assertion that Sisyphus, like Joseph, was hated by his brothers. This, of course, is not so remarkable a motif and can be seen in many Scriptural and mythical stories from the account of Cain and Abel to that of Atreus and Thyestes.
It is not so much that they each were hated, but rather why they were hated that makes the coincidence remarkable. Sisyphus was hated to the point of being given a special eternal punishment in Hades for the crime, we are told specifically in the myth, of “revealing divine secrets.” Joseph, who was derisively referred to as “the dreamer,” had a similar reason for earning the hatred of his brothers. They did not like the interpretation of his dreams, and it was his ability to decipher the meaning of dreams for which the Pharaoh of Egypt gave him the title “Zaphnath Paaneah” which, in Hebrew, means, we are told, “the revealer of divine secrets.”
The fact that Joseph was hated by his brothers would have received little attention indeed if it were not for the Christians. For Christians feel a special affinity with Joseph, and his family feud is the first attribute that they mention about him. This is because they recognize Joseph as a foreshadowing of Christ in this regard, who also was hated by his brothers, the Jews.
Even the Jews associate a Messiah with Joseph. While the Jews insist that the Messiah must come in glory and reign forever as the Messiah ben David, they also acknowledge that many scriptures do refer to a suffering Messiah whom the Jewish legends have distinguished from the royal Messiah and have called “the Messiah ben Joseph” -- otherwise known as “the Ephraimitic Messiah” who would be slain and then be resurrected. The legends not only connect this suffering Messiah to Joseph by name, but they also make Joseph’s mother Rachel foretell his advent and even make Joseph’s dreams predict this eventuality.
The suffering Messiah, Jesus Christ or not, has been associated with Joseph by both Christian and Jew. The life story of Joseph, who was rejected by his brothers and subsequently becomes the chief over them, may well have served as the origin of the enigmatic symbolism of the rock -- the chief corner stone whom the builders have rejected (Ps. 118:22). This "stone" is no doubt the same one that was referred to by Isaiah (Isa. 28:16) as the one to be established upon Mount Zion. What has this to do with the identification between Joseph and Sisyphus? Well, it has to do with the aforementioned eternal punishment that was inflicted upon Sisyphus. As is perhaps the most well known of his attributes, he was charged with establishing a certain stone upon a certain mountain, but cursed with the fact that it always gets rejected, tumbles back down, and he has to repeat the process over, and over again until the end of time or, as we say now-a-days, until kingdom comes.
Just a bit more difficult than identifying Joseph with Sisyphus is establishing a connection between "The House of Joseph" and "Christianity." As is well known Christians recognize the stone as Jesus Christ, and it is the goal of Christianity to establish Jesus as the chief corner stone upon the Temple mount [in reality, Mount Zion -- Editor], no matter that the builders of the Temple have rejected him. Having established a connection between the House of Joseph and the Corinthians, it is here to be noted that it's not possible to overstate the role that the Corinthians played in the spread of early Christianity, and leave it at that. We shall return to this motif with further identification for the mysterious "stone" shortly, but first let us continue with the Sisyphus/Joseph comparison.
Another theme that helps identify Sisyphus with Joseph, and also seems to parallel the themes used by the Christians to show that Joseph was a foreshadowing of Jesus, is the story about Sisyphus overcoming death. It is usually said that the story about Joseph surviving the pit and/or the Egyptian prison -- during which he was taken for dead by his father Jacob -- was symbolic of Jesus' resurrection from the dead.
Sisyphus also was able to survive his death. Death was sent to carry Sisyphus off to the underworld, but Sisyphus was able to outwit death long enough to instruct his relatives not to bury his body until he could return. After finally being carried off to the land of the dead, Sisyphus complained that he had not received a conventional burial. He was therefore allowed to return to the land of the living in order to have his funeral rites properly accomplished. Sisyphus promised not to tarry, but to quickly have his body interred. However, he refrained from having it done until he eventually died after living to a ripe old age. The story about the death of Joseph, who died at the age of 110, was similar in that he also instructed his relatives not to bury his body until he could be returned from the land of his supposed death -- Egypt.
Joseph, an ex-slave and a convicted criminal among the Egyptians, was given in marriage the hand of Asenath the daughter of the priest at On, one of the holiest families in all of Egypt. One wonders indeed if, at first, she was not just a bit put off by this arrangement, for the Greek myths tell us that Sisyphus was married to a goddess named Merope who was one of the stars from the constellations known as the Pleiades. Her particular star shines only dimly for it is said that she was ashamed to be the only one of the Pleiades who had married a mortal, and a criminal besides.
The Pleiades are one of the very few constellations that is named in the Scriptures, the Hebrews calling it the "Kimah" constellation. A possible link between Joseph and the Pleiades is the fact that the Pleiades are located in the shoulder of Taurus "the bull," which is the well known symbol of Ephraim and the house of Joseph. Of course Taurus the bull is more than just "the symbol" of Ephraim, for they worshipped Eloah as a bull god and considered it to be the father of "the calf" -- the famed Idol of the house of Joseph.
Furthermore, Joseph had a connection with the Greek sun god Helius for, as we have said, he had married into the priesthood, presumably of Ra, at the Egyptian metropolis of On and it was this city that was known to the Greeks as “Heliopolis.” It was the Egyptian sun god Ra that the Greeks called “Helius.” This was, no doubt, the El of Canaan and the Eloah of Israel, with the usual Greek suffix “-us” appended. It is apparent that the Egyptians had a little trouble pronouncing the letter “L” and used instead an “R” in it’s place, so that the name of the sun god, who was known to the Canaanites as “El,” was pronounced “Ra” by the Egyptians -- a mere shibboleth and not another name altogether.
This perhaps explains why the Corinthians, herein presented as the House of Joseph, worshiped Helius above all. The acropolis of Corinth, which they called the “Acrocorinth,” was considered by the Corinthians to be the sacred “high place” of Helius where he was worshiped, and claimed their dynasty of kings to have descended from him in the same way that the Egyptians considered their king to be the “son of Ra.”
The end of the book of Genesis, beginning at chapter 37, has often been referred to as the “Joseph Cycle” because it deals mostly with the deeds of Joseph, who dies in the last chapter of the book. It should also be noted that the so-called Joseph cycle is embedded within the Jacob cycle, who is also buried at the last chapter of Genesis. Regardless of popular opinion, I would like to propose that the beginning of the Joseph cycle should be moved back to the point where he was born, at the 22nd verse of the 30th chapter and that, through the editing process, the Jacob and Joseph stories have been artfully, however artificially, overlapped.
It seems only logical that there must have been a separate biography of Joseph that included his birth, as well as those stories that have been associated with Jacob that occurred after Joseph was born, and ended with his death. This theory is made evident by a study of the Greek myths that include the Grecian equivalent to Joseph, here recognized as Sisyphus. How else could practically every motif that we see in the Greek myth about Sisyphus be shared with this small portion of the Scriptures? Also the reverse is true for you can read the end of the book of Genesis, starting at the birth of Joseph, and see, one after another, the same themes that make up the myth of Sisyphus.
Having covered most of the mythology that involves the character of Sisyphus himself, we shall now turn our attention to three myths that mention Sisyphus but concern themselves mainly with three other characters whose names are Autolycus, Asopus, and Salmoneus.
Autolycus and Laban
In the Hebrew scriptures, as soon as Joseph was born there was a contest of wits between two famous thieves: Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright and Laban, who stole Jacobs wages. In the Greek myth it was the well known thief Sisyphus who played the role, not of Joseph but of Joseph’s father Jacob. Since it was Autolycus, just as well known as a thief who was outwitted, it must be him who is to be identified as a Greek version of the Syrian Laban. Sisyphus and Autolycus kept their flocks as neighbors, but Autolycus had a magic trick: he could change the appearance of cattle, from black to white, or spotted or mottled or striped, even from horned to unhorned. So he started stealing his neighbor’s cattle and changing their looks, but Sisyphus noticed that his flocks were shrinking while his neighbor’s were growing. Sisyphus marked his cattle and discovered the deception. He called upon witnesses, showed them the scam, and got back his herds.
Now, the discerning reader will argue that in the Scriptures it was not Laban, who is here identified as Autolycus, that could change the color of the cattle. However another, perhaps more precise reading of the Scriptural account, shows that it was Laban who kept changing, ten times, Jacob’s wages and that these wages were in fact the cattle. Furthermore it is Joseph who is herein identified with Sisyphus and not Jacob. But this is only a sleight discrepancy for it can rightly be said that the cattle in question did belong, at least, to the family of Joseph, who was born and was an heir to Jacob at the time.
Regardless of the ostensive role reversal, the intricate theme of someone increasing his herds by changing the color of those belonging to his neighbor, and then appropriating them for himself, did not just pop up in Greek mythology independently and without any connection to the story of Laban and Jacob. That just does not seem possible -- especially since we know that the ancient Corinthians were indeed Canaanite in origin and therefore would have been familiar with this theme.
I’m not alone in recognizing the Greek debt to the Hebrew motif in this regard, for the well known modern mythologist Robert Graves, in his famous work The Greek Myths, quite confidently states: “... Autolycus’s use of magic in his theft from Sisyphus recalls the story of Jacob and Laban.” Graves further cites, as his reason for this statement, “The cultural connexion between Corinth and Canaan, ...” Another probable clue to this identification may lay in the mythic assertion that not only was Sisyphus able to reclaim the cattle that Autolycus had taken but he, as Jacob did Laban’s daughter, also took the daughter of Autolycus.
Asopus and Jacob
A further inclusion in the Sisyphus cycle of Greek mythology was the story of a character named “Asopus.” His tale, which is also known as “the rape of Aigina,” clearly borrows, quite liberally, from the story of Jacob. Even the Greek names of the players retain their phonetic similarities to the original Hebrew cast. The name Asopus is plausibly a Greek form of the name Jacob (with a soft “c” and the usual Greek suffix “-us” appended).
Moreover the name of the daughter of Asopus, “Aigina,” is very likely a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name of Jacob’s daughter, “Dinah” -- whose story, of course, has correspondingly come to be known as “the rape of Dinah.” It was this account for which Sisyphus became famously chided, as was Joseph elsewhere, as a tattle tale because he gave a damning report for which he, it is said in the Greek myth, had earned his well known eternal punishment.
More evidence for the identification of Asopus with Jacob lies in the mythic claim that Zeus had inflicted Asopus with a permanent limp as a result of his contention with the king of the gods. Jacob, of course, limped because of a similar contention.
Now, as promised earlier, we can return to the motif of the stone. Zeus was compelled to hide from Asopus by disguising himself as a stone. We are further told that this stone was the same one that Sisyphus was eternally forced to establish, however unsuccessfully, upon the infernal mountain. As even the casual student of Greek mythology will recall, this was not the first time that the king of the gods has used a stone to conceal himself from his contender. At the birth of Zeus it was Kronos who was his contender, and Kronos would have swallowed Zeus alive but for the ruse of the young god who disguised a stone as himself -- which was swallowed instead. Thus Zeus was able to mature in safety, to return at a later date and assume the kingship in the strength of his manhood, at which time the stone was disgorged. As Pausanius (X. 24. 5.) informs us, Zeus subsequently set up the stone at Delphi where it was ritually anointed it with oil. Of course the Greeks are not the only culture where one finds the odd practice of setting up and anointing a stone (Gen. 28:18, 35:14).
From the foregoing it would appear that Kronos should be compared to Jacob. But since we have already equated Kronos first with Adam and then with Ham, it seems that the real comparison is between Kronos and the “contender,” any contender, with God. The ancient Phoenicians seemed to have understood this for as Philo of Byblos, who was quoted by Eusebius, has said: “Kronos, whom the Phoenicians called Israel...” The “Stone” is clearly what God has used as a trap in order to deceive his contender. He becomes this stone -- “a stumbling block to both houses of Israel” -- as a disguise so He can “conceal His face from the house of Jacob.” But the point is that the ancient Greeks seem to have known this intricate theological doctrine almost as well as Isaiah! (Isa. 8:13-17)
Having practically exhausted the evidences for associating the Sisyphus cycle of Greek mythology with the Joseph cycle from the Hebrew Scriptures, we are still left with the character called Salmoneus.
The enmity between the House of Joseph and the House of Judah is comparable to that between Sisyphus and Salmoneus. Sisyphus keeps trying to establish his stone upon the archetypical mountain, while Salmoneus had appropriated the worship of God exclusively to his altars.
The story of Salmoneus seems to be based, however loosely, upon the history of the House of Judah with it’s holy city at Jerusalem, which was referred to once upon a time as “Salem” and made the capitol because it’s great Temple was founded there by it’s famous King Solomon.
Tamar and Tyro
At the beginning of Judean history, is the story of Judah and Tamar. Here we have a tale that has perplexed Biblical scholars for centuries -- not so much for what it contains but rather for where it is located. Right smack in the middle of the Joseph cycle, just as he is being sold to Potiphar at the end of chapter 37, comes chapter 38 which contains the entire story of Judah and Tamar with no mention of Joseph throughout. Then, at the start of chapter 39, the narrative returns to the story of Joseph once again -- right where it left off at the selling of Joseph to Potiphar, the continuity of the Joseph cycle being completely interrupted. This apparent artificial location of the Judah story we are told, in what seems more like a stretch than an explanation, is positioned to contrast the steadfast virtue of Joseph against the incestuous unrighteousness of Judah.
Regardless of the Judah episode’s placement, studying the Sisyphus cycle of Greek mythology as it relates to the Joseph cycle in the Scriptures, testifies in favor of believing, at least, that the Judah story was already a part of the Joseph cycle -- even before the Joseph cycle was included in the book of Genesis. This is evident because the myth of Sisyphus, ostensibly a collection of the Joseph stories that was current before it’s inclusion in the Genesis narrative, already contains it’s own version of the birth of Tamar’s twins as the story of Tyro’s twins.
Before we get on with the comparison of these two stories, let us first compare the names of the two mothers. The name "Tyro," we are informed by Robert Graves, author of The Greek Myths, was the name of "...the Goddess-mother of the Tyrians..." This was, no doubt, merely a worn down version of the more well known form of the name for the mother goddess of the Canaanites, "Ashterah," omitting the prefix "Ash-" as perfunctory. Now, as is well known, the Greeks referred to the Canaanites as Phoenicians, a name that derives from the Greek name "Phoenix" and which means, in their language, "palm tree." However, in Hebrew, the word for "palm tree" is "Tamar." Thus, both women can be said to have names that associates them with the Phoenicians.
Incidentally, the mother-in-law of Tamar -- the wife of Judah -- known only as "the daughter of Shua" in the Scriptures, is identified as a Canaanitess while the wicked step mother of Tyro, whom the Greeks called Sidero, is thought to be the eponym of Sidon -- the original settlement of the Canaanites. Because, unlike the name Tyro, the name "Sidero" has retained it's prefix and is even more plausibly derived from the name of the widely known Canaanite goddess Ashterah. (Those who doubt the original identification between the two names Sidero and Ashterah should consider the two comparable English terms sidereal and astro-.)
Let us now continue with the comparison of the two stories. Of course anyone who studies the two accounts will find many differences between them. No doubt the differences are as important, if not more important, than are the similarities, which are also many and quite comparable. Both the stories of Tamar and Tyro begin with the killing of two brothers. In each case the pair of brothers die as a prerequisite to explain two things: why the respective women had no children, and why they were sent away to the place where each would eventually become pregnant with each their own set of twins. The two brothers who die in the tale of Tyro were her own children, (by Sisyphus) while those in the story of Tamar were her two husbands and represented her chance to have children. Tamar was sent away to live with her father, while Tyro was banished from Thessaly along with her father. Tamar's father-in-law Judah became a widower, while Tyro's father Salmoneus became a widower.
Each woman, in the land of their exile and desiring to become pregnant, made a plan that involved waiting at a place where they each expected their intended to pass: Tyro on the riverbank at the confluence of two rivers, the Enipeus and the Alphieus, while Tamar waited on the roadside where the road to Enaim branched off of the road to Timnah. In each case the sex act itself was intentionally deceptive because one of the partners wore a disguise so as not to be recognized. Of course, as we have said, twin boys were born in each case as a result of the deception. Furthermore, the paternity of each pair of twins came into question: Salmoneus, Tyro's father, doubted the fatherhood of her twins while Judah, Tamar's father-in-law, also had to be convinced in regard to her pregnancy. In each story, before the respective twins were born, the true father was revealed and he gave a little speech to the respective women, the intent of which was to justify their pregnancies and to legitimize the eventual progeny of it.
Another weird coincidence is the fact that both tales include a report that says the first born was marked at birth and received a colorful name as a result. The Scriptural "Zerah" was named after the "scarlet" ribbon that was tied around his wrist to mark his preeminence, while the mythical firstborn "Pelias" was named for the "black and blue" mark that he received when a horse stepped on his face at his birth. As it turned out with each set of twins, both grew up to be the founders of illustrious houses among the Aeolians and the Judeans respectively.
Salmoneus and Solomon
So much for the part of the myth of Salmoneus which has to do, however little, with Sisyphus. We shall now continue with the rest of the saga of Salmoneus.
Besides having an echo of the earliest history of the nation of Judah, these Greeks seem to have a few more details to add, such as the name “Salmoneus” itself which is an obvious Greek version of the name of that most illustrious of Judean rulers, King Solomon.
With this realization an evolution of the myth of Salmoneus can be surmised to have occurred in three steps: firstly, the story about the birth of the Judean twins Perez and Zerah whose story, as we have said, precipitated the birth myth of the Greek twins Neleus and Pelias; secondly, the addition of the city of “Salem” and the founding of the Temple by “Solomon” is ostensibly what lead to the use of the name “Salmoneus” as well as the notion that he founded a city called “Salmonia” and appropriated the worship of Zeus to his altar; and thirdly, in the end of the myths about Salmoneus we are told of the divine destruction of Salmoneus and his city, Salmonia.
This third point would appear to have been too late to have been included in Greek mythology. However, as the famous mythographer H. J. Rose has pointed out, "It is noteworthy that Homer knows nothing of any evil reputation of Salmoneus, of whom indeed he speaks respectfully” (A Handbook of Greek Mythology, p. 83). The Homeric writings are much earlier than the rest of Greek mythologies and it was probably not until the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. that an evil reputation became attached to the character of Salmoneus. The destruction of Jerusalem was looked upon by some, apparently including the Greeks, to have been an act of punishment upon the city -- brought about by God Himself. This, no doubt, gave rise to the parallel Greek myth about the destruction of Salmonia.
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