In Appian of Alexandria’s The Mithridatic Wars, we read that in preparation for the third war against Rome, Mithridates VI of Pontus performed sacrifices to Zeus Stratius “in the usual manner.” Then he propitiated the god of the sea by sacrificing “to Poseidon by plunging a chariot with white horses into the sea.”
Adrienne Mayor, author of The Poison King, embellishes upon Appian’s laconic narrative. [Note: Both spellings, Mithradates and Mithridates, are commonly found in the literature. The first is more common in Greek inscriptions, while the Romans preferred the latter.]
Four snow-white horses pulled the golden chariot, encrusted with gems flashing in the sun’s first rays. There was no driver. The beautiful horses galloped at full speed across the windswept cliff and plunged into the sparkling sea below.
Mayor, Adrienne (2009-09-28). The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Kindle Locations 4605-4607). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Mayor recounts how this startling image captivated peoples’ imaginations over the centuries.
Some five hundred years later, for example, the early Christian writer Sidonis Apollinaris described a splendid castle in Gaul adorned by a dramatic painting of Mithradates’ sacrifice. In 1678, the English playwright Nathaniel Lee pictured Mithradates sending “a chariot, all with emeralds set, and filled with coral tridents, [and] a hundred horses, wild as wind” over the precipice.
Mayor, Adrienne (2009-09-28). The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Kindle Locations 4610-4612). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
While reading Mayor’s book over two years ago, I immediately began to wonder whether this act of Mithridates might have been on Mark’s mind when he wrote the story of the Gerasene demoniac. Off and on since then, I’ve half-heartedly searched for scholarly articles that might link the two stories, but so far to no avail.
The ancient Greeks associated Poseidon with the sea, horses, and earthquakes. In one variation of the myth of the naming of Athens, Poseidon gave its citizens a horse, so perhaps the act of drowning them in the sea was thought to be an appropriate return of the favor. We can probably safely assume that Mithridates was imitating Alexander in this case, as he did in other ways, frequently invoking his ancestor’s image.
Robin Lane Fox writes in Alexander the Great:
After dark the rest of the army turned about and headed for the Syrian-Cilician border which they duly reached at midnight. Pickets guarded the camp, with the Mediterranean seashore below them to their left, and the troops took a cold but well-earned rest on the hillside around the Gates. By the light of torches, Alexander is said to have conducted certain sacrifices and in one late narrative history, of which only a few short sentences survive on papyrus, these sacrifices are specified: ‘In great anxiety. Alexander resorted to prayers, calling on Thetis, Nereus and the Nereids, nymphs of the sea and invoking Poseidon the sea-god, for whom he ordered a four-horsed chariot to be cast into the waves; he also sacrificed to Night.’ (Fox, 1974/2004, p. 212, emphasis mine)
In chapter 5 of Mark’s gospel, we read that the many demons inside the poor chap from the country of the Gerasenes begged Jesus not to send them out of the country.
11. Now there was a large herd of swine feeding nearby on the mountain.
12. The demons implored Him, saying, “Send us into the swine so that we may enter them.”
13. Jesus gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea. (NASB)
Recall that in the previous pericope (Mark 4:35-41 — The Stilling of the Storm), Jesus rebuked the wind and said directly to the sea: “Silence! Be muzzled!”
The chapter ends with the disciples wondering among themselves.
4:41 They became very much afraid and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (NASB)
I suggest that it is no accident that Mark put the story of Jesus’ mastery of nature just before an inappropriate sacrifice to Poseidon. Recall as well that the horror of Anitiochus IV Epiphanes’ abominable sacrifices (167 BCE) still loomed large in Jewish memory.
4. For the temple was filled with debauchery and reveling by the Gentiles, who dallied with harlots and had intercourse with women within the sacred precincts, and besides brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit.
5. The altar was covered with abominable offerings which were forbidden by the laws.
6. A man could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the feasts of his fathers, nor so much as confess himself to be a Jew. (2 Maccabees 6:4-6, RSV)
According to Josephus, Antiochus defiled the Temple by sacrificing a pig on the Altar of the Lord.
Now Antiochus was not satisfied either with his unexpected taking the city, or with its pillage, or with the great slaughter he had made there; but being overcome with his violent passions, and remembering what he had suffered during the siege, he compelled the Jews to dissolve the laws of their country, and to keep their infants uncircumcised, and to sacrifice swine’s flesh upon the altar; against which they all opposed themselves, and the most approved among them were put to death. (The Wars of the Jews, Book 1, 1:2, emphasis mine)
While Antiochus offered a single pig to Yahweh, Mark’s Jesus offered 2,000 demon-infested swine to Poseidon. The message is clear: To Jesus, the sea is nothing more than a beast to be muzzled, and its false god is worthy only of abominable offerings.
At any rate, that’s my working theory. What do you think?