A few weeks ago I wrote about the theory that the author of the Biblical book of Judges adapted the more ancient Greek myths of Iphigenia and Persephone (Kore) in crafting the story of the sacrifice of Japeth’s daughter. Today, let’s look at another case of the Biblical authors apparently reacting to Greek myth.
In 1995, the Jewish scholar Gildas Hamel proposed that the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale had been created with the intent of adapting and inverting the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Hamel noted that the Greek version of Jonah’s name, IONAS, was an anagram of the Greek version of Jason’s, IASON.
According to Hamel, the Biblical authors were attempting to react to the widespread artistic tradition (unrecorded in literature) that Jason had descended into the belly of a great serpent and through the intervention of the goddess Athena emerged alive from the monster to claim the Golden Fleece. This variant of the myth is recorded in the Douris cup, which I have used as the logo for my website.
But this is not the only place this image occurs. In the mirrors and medallions of the Etruscans we find the same image. Compare this Etruscan gem with a drawing of Jonah taken from an early Christian catacomb.
According to Hamel, the author of the book of Jonah saw a parallel between a hero (Jason or Jonah) being disgorged from a monster (the serpent or the sea-monster) through the intervention of a god (Athena or Yahweh). Jonah was traveling at sea, just as Jason was in legend the first to sail a large ship. Additionally, this theory would explain a strange passage in chapter 4 of Jonah where God creates the unexplained plant kikayon to shelter Jonah “from evil,” but which God destroys by creating a hungry worm. The kikayon, Hamel says, is a corruption of the kykeon, a plant-based drink sacred to the gods and used by Jason’s wife of Medea as a magical ointment to preserve Jason from evil. Jonah consumes the kikayon to purge himself of his anger at the worm, just as Jason consumes the kykeon (in Etruscan art, at least) to restore himself after emerging from the serpent. In ancient and medieval times worms and serpents were equated as larger and smaller versions of the same creature.
Thus, while Jason was a hero for the Greeks, accomplishing feats of greatness through his courage, the Jonah story reinforces the importance of Yahweh above his relatively humble and meek human prophets.
While not all of Hamel’s argument is air-tight (both stories could, for example, descend from older Near Eastern antecedents), it is an interesting way of thinking about the interplay of Greek mythology and Biblical stories.
Bonus parallel: The Jonah story takes place at Joppa (now Joffa), the same place where late versions of the Perseus myth localized his battle with the giant sea monster threatening Andromeda. The bones of the monster (probably a fossilized whale) were available for inspection in Pliny's day according to his Natural History 9.4 (having been shipped to Rome in 58 BCE), and Lycophron (Alexandra 834-42) recorded that Perseus was swallowed by the dragon and killed it from within.
Reference: Gildas Hamel, “Taking the Argo to Nineveh: Jonah and Jason in a Mediterranean Context,” Judaism 44, no. 3 (1995): 341-359.
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