Drowning the Gerasene Swine: A Mock Sacrifice?

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by Tim Widowfield

Portrait of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI ...
Portrait of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI as Heracles. Marble, Roman imperial period (1 st century). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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)

Jesus Stilling the Tempest
Jesus Stilling the Tempest (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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25 thoughts on “Drowning the Gerasene Swine: A Mock Sacrifice?”

  1. I’ve come across very persuasive indications that the Gadarene Pigs fable was a revenge tale that expressed Jewish bitterness toward the legio X Fretensis, the Roman legion that had beseiged Jerusalem, raped and pillaged the surrounding area, which had been the main force that assaulted Masada in 73 CE, and which was primarily responsible for the Roman occupation of Jerusalem after the First Jewish War.

    Historically, Legio X Fretensis had been strongly associated with water and the sea. An earlier legion, founded by Julius Caesar and bearing the same name, had fought in the naval battle at Mylae during the First Punic War. A later iteration was founded by Octavian to put an end to Sextus Pompey’s control of Sicily. In 36 BCE, legio X Fretensis fought against Pompey in the Battle of Naulochus, where it earned its cognomen “Fretensis,” which refers to the fact that the battle took place near the Strait of Messina (Fretum Siculum).

    In 31 BCE, the legio fought in the one of the most famous sea battles of ancient times, the Battle of Actium against Mark Antony.

    From 67 CE onward, a newer iteration of legio X Fretensis fought in the war against the Jews under the command of Marcus Ulpius Trajanus, the father of the future emperor Trajan. Josephus wrote that after the legion destroyed Jericho on June 21, 68, Trajan took a group of Jews who could not swim (possibly Essenes from Qumran), bound and fettered them, and threw them into the Dead Sea to test its legendary buoyancy. All were drowned.

    By 70, the rebellion had been crushed, except for Jerusalem and a few fortresses, including Masada. In that year X Fretensis, in conjunction other legions, began the siege of Jerusalem, stronghold of the rebellion. From its base camp at the foot of the Mount of Olives, legio X Fretensis took part in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. It was also the main force in the epic assault on Masada in 73 CE.

    After the conclusion of the revolt, Legio X was garrisoned at Jerusalem. It was to remain in Judea for 150 years. The legion’s main camp was on the Western Hill, located in the southern half of the old city.

    Not only does the history of Legio X Fretensis provide an evidence-based explanation for the demon pigs story in the Synoptic gospels, it lends even greater credence to the scholarly consensus terminus ante quem of 70 for the writing of the Gospel According to Mark.

    In his commentary on Mark, Michael Turton notes that Myers (1988, p191) points out that this pericope is saturated with military terminology. The term agele that the writer uses for a “herd” of pigs is often used to denote a gaggle of new recruits for the military, the Greek term epetrepsen (“he dismissed them”) echoes a military command, and the pigs’ charge (“ormesen) into the lake sounds like a military attack.

    1. That’s an interesting take. However, you say: “All were drowned.”

      I just don’t see it. Do you?


      “Accordingly, when Vespasian went to see it, he commanded that some who could not swim should have their hands tied behind them, and be thrown into the deep, when it so happened that they all swam as if a wind had forced them upwards.”

      So, not Trajan, but Vespasian. And it seems they all floated and lived to tell the tale.

    2. An earlier legion, founded by Julius Caesar and bearing the same name, had fought in the naval battle at Mylae during the First Punic War.

      Wait, what? I quickly checked wikipedia, it says that it was founded by Augustus to fight at Actium in the civil war, and remarkably, its symbols where a boat, Neptune, and… a wild pig!

  2. Since there are other arguments for Greek literature influencing Mark, I invoke “multiple attestation” from
    various scholars mentioned in posts here who support your hypothesis.

    Commenter Tom Kelly busted out some knowledge as well; Vridar’s comment threads are valuable to me.

    My take? we assume that mentions of “demons” should automatically be tied to “Satan”, and therefore a
    possession like we see in entertainment media about “demons”; but the rubric of high context language
    as a filter for interpretation should be an invitation for anyone curious about “what Mark is friggin’ saying”.

    My semi-relevant tangent? The phenomena of sacrifice is understated in how modern scholars/clergy seek
    to make Judeo-Christian doctrine more palatable. However, we cannot escape the brutal nature of cultures
    from antiquity, and this means theology/doctrine cannot be swerved away to promote Western civilization
    as morally superior to ancient cultures from the 3rd world. Sacrifice is fundamental to the whole
    story of religion and cannot be taken out of it’s original “high” context:

    Abrahamic religions cannot claim to be “peaceful” when their roots are soaked in blood to begin with, so
    linking Mark with Homer is recognizing a common theme underlying ancient mythology.

  3. I like your theory, Tim.

    Here is some other commentary in Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction By James L. Resseguie, pp. 114-120.

    The last few paragraphs of this section, beginning with “What is the point of this story?”, show the allusion to Roman imperialism by Horsley and Myers, and then Resseguie discusses why these “interpretations are less convincing when all the aspects of narrative analysis are considered.”

    1. I agree that we need to understand how the narrative hangs together and why (we think) Mark is telling his story in particular ways. For those reasons, it always seemed to me a waste of time trying to figure out where it “really happened.” Well, it happened in Mark’s “story-space.”

      Resseguie too quickly calls the herd of pigs a MacGuffins. It suggests that they just happen to be there, and have no real bearing in the story. I think it’s important, from a narrative perspective, what that imagery meant to early readers/listeners.

      1. Tim, I agree that the herd of pigs is likely not a MacGuffins. And you provide explanation for the imagery of the pigs.

        I also think Mark might have chosen location carefully for his story, not only for the symbolic reasons mentioned by Resseguie, but also to provide a setting where pigs likely might be found. Even in a fictional story, authors often provide realistic settings with which the readers can identify:

        “Many New Testament manuscripts refer to the ‘Country of the Gadarenes’ or ‘Gerasenes’ rather than the Gergesenes. Both Gerasa and Gadara were cities to the east of the Sea of Galilee. They were both Gentile cities filled with citizens who were culturally more Greek than Semitic; this would account for the pigs in the biblical account.” — Wikipedia

        In other words, it would not be unusual to find pigs in an area where Gentiles were not forbidden to eat pigs.

        So, why pigs, though? Just because they were handy? I like that you go deeper into that explanation, Tim. And I think it can work with Resseguie’s analysis. Why not have different levels of interpretation?

        1. pearl: “. . . but also to provide a setting where pigs likely might be found.”

          Yes, I think that’s an important point.

          pearl: “Why not have different levels of interpretation?”

          I’m thinking there are multiple layers of interpretation in most of Mark. When I was a young fundie, I didn’t think much of Mark. I was involved in a thing called Bible Quiz at our church, and we studied Luke, Romans, Acts . . . I think at the time, the second gospel was a kind of abbreviated oddball. But the more I read it, the more it seems that the author of Mark was a whole lot craftier than it appears at first glance, and that he had a lot to say.

      2. I think Mark liked to mix in some OT verses, especially for descriptions.

        Isaiah 65:4
        who sit inside tombs,
            and spend the night in secret places;
        who eat swine’s flesh,
            with broth of abominable things in their vessels;

        Psalm 107:10
        Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
            prisoners in misery and in irons,

        The Isaiah verse brings in the pigs to the discussion.

        I first read about MacDonald at Review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Richard Carrier. What convinced me the most was when I read The Oddysey passage and saw the name “Polyphemus”. The “poly” reminded me of “for we are many”. I looked up the name and saw that “phemus” means “speech” as in “blasphemy, so Polyphemus means “famous”, or literally, “Many speak of”.

        When I looked at the Greek for Mark 5:9, I saw that “polys” was translated to “many”. But the Latin word “Legio” meant many soldiers and it was immediately preceded by the Greek word “lego” for “said”. It looks like Mark put “LEGOLEGIO” together so his Greek-reading audience would recognize it as an allegory to “POLYPHEMUS”. (Capitalized with spaces removed to imitate how it would be written in the original and copies.) When I read MacDonald’s book, I was disappointed that he did not have that.

    1. “5:9 And he asked him, What is thy name? And he saith unto him, My name is Legion; for we are many.”

      In the original greek “Legion” was “Λεγιὼν”, i wonder if it had the same military meaning of the latin “Legio”.

    2. “there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, 5:3 who had his dwelling in the tombs: and no man could any more bind him, no, not with a chain”

      Wow… i didn’t get this one before… “dwelling in the tombs”… According to Josephus during the Jerusalem siege Legio X Fratensis was the one stationed on the mount of Olives, which was an ancient jewish cemetery!

    3. Ok, now i get it. Mark 5 is talking about the relationshipt between romans/gentiles and the jewish people, particolarly those in Jerusalem during the siege ( Geraseme is probably some word play with Jerusalem ), that’s after all the major theme of the entire book.

      They were fearful of the romans, but they didn’t have to be, because the gentiles could become followers of the Lord too (as the naked man proved, he become sane and clothed, wanted to follow Jesus and was sent spreading the news of the wonders performed by the Lord). Instead they rejected both the naked man and at the end Jesus, who was the only one that could save them (they couldn’t tame all by themselves the demoniac/roman army).

  4. Assuming the priority of Mcn, I describe a possible reason behind the allusion to ‘Legion’ in gerasene episode.

    Follow this link precisely:


    Note that if I’m right, the polemical target of Mcn were not the proto-catholics (as thinks for example Stuart), but the Judaism in general and the militant Jewish messianism in particular.

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