This post complements my previous one about the Ham “seeing his father’s nakedness” story developing in three stages:
- Originally the story was an adaption of the myths of the youngest son castrating his father (the motive: to maintain an inheritance)
- Then it was more delicately shifted to a story of illicit sex
- And finally most bashfully of all the story left readers wondering if all Ham did was “have a look”.
Philippe Wajdenbaum (whose book, Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, I have discussed a few times before) gives a more detailed comparison between the Ham-Noah narrative and the Greek myth.
Recall that a number of scholars — Wajdenbaum among them — argue that Genesis was written relatively late, even as late as the second century by which time the Greeks had spread throughout the Near East. Such a late date opens a window for another perspective on how the story found its way into the Bible.
First recap the Genesis narrative — Genesis 9:20-27 (KJV)
20 And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
24 So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. 25 Then he said:
“Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brethren.”
26 And he said:
“Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Shem,
And may Canaan be his servant.
27 May God enlarge Japheth,
And may he dwell in the tents of Shem;
And may Canaan be his servant.”
Japheth is to be enlarged. That is, expanded — even into the tents of Shem. Hence the argument that this prophecy reflects a time after Alexander the Great’s conquests and the Hellenization of the Near East.
Now we have more justification to compare the Greek myth as found in Hesiod’s Theogony. (I suspect Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, our authors discussed in the previous post, were less enthusiastic about the comparison with the Greek version of the myth if they embrace a more traditional date for Genesis.)
Here is Hesiod’s account of the birth of the youngest son who was destined to castrate his father, Uranus (Heaven), and his older brother Iapetus:
And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love.
But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.
But we want to read how the evil deed was done and the curse placed upon Cronos.
(ll. 147-163) And again, three other sons were born of Earth and Heaven, great and doughty beyond telling, Cottus and Briareos and Gyes, presumptuous children. From their shoulders sprang an hundred arms, not to be approached, and each had fifty heads upon his shoulders on their strong limbs, and irresistible was the stubborn strength that was in their great forms. For of all the children that were born of Earth and Heaven, these were the most terrible, and they were hated by their own father from the first.
And he used to hide them all away in a secret place of Earth so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light: and Heaven rejoiced in his evil doing.
But vast Earth groaned within, being straitened, and she made the element of grey flint and shaped a great sickle, and told her plan to her dear sons. And she spoke, cheering them, while she was vexed in her dear heart:
(ll. 164-166) `My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.’
(ll. 167-169) So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:
(ll. 170-172) `Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.‘
(ll. 173-175) So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot.
(ll. 176-206) And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her.
Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him.
And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, and Philommedes because sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, — the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.
(ll. 207-210) But these sons whom be begot himself great Heaven used to call Titans (Strainers) in reproach, for he said that they strained and did presumptuously a fearful deed, and that vengeance for it would come afterwards.
What a beautiful story. So that’s how a certain personification, the goddess of “sweet delight and love and graciousness” was born!
Prudish Plato was scandalized. Such stories were not fit for public consumption. Wajdenbaum suggests that the authors of Genesis agreed with Plato. Some revision was called for. So the castration was slightly modified to “seeing his father naked”.
And as we read in the previous post, so Wajdenbaum alerts us to the tradition of the castration being preserved in the Jewish midrashim (Midrash Rabba).
Wajdenbaum sees other adaptations of the Greek myths in Genesis, too, but they will have to wait for future posts.
What is interesting here is that gods in other cultures were rewritten as humans in the Jewish one. Or rather, as a special type of human who lived an extraordinarily long time, so we might think of them as a species appropriate to fill the gap between gods and us normal humans. We know Euhemerus rationalized the myths be arguing that the gods were originally tales about great humans. The monotheistic (more or less) biblical authors took the same route and changed the gods into humans.
But back to the Ham story.
Canaan is cursed, for Israel, descended from Shem, is to possess the land. The proof that the biblical story is indeed inspired by Hesiod lies in the retention of the name Japhet, homonym of the Titan Iapetos. In both texts, the youngest son commits a shameless act against the father, and has a brother called Japhet.
This deliberate ‘fingerprint’ is furthermore the heralding of the coming of the Greeks.
One should mention how the Sibylline Oracles, a text of the Roman era, strangely confused the Japhet of the Bible with that of Greek tradition (Sib. Or. III, 105-13). This text considers the Greek gods to have been famous humans. . . . (Argonauts of the Desert, p. 108. My formatting)