How a Biblical Tale Could have Emerged from a Greek Myth

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by Neil Godfrey

Derek Lambert of the MythVision program dedicated a program to something he found on “yours truly” blog outlining aspects of Philippe Wajdenbaum’s case for linking Abraham’s (near) sacrifice of Isaac with the Greek myth of Phrixus:

Standard definitions

Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past. They are accepted on faith; they are taught to be believed; and they can be cited as authority in answer to ignorance, doubt, or disbelief. Myths are the embodiment of dogma; they are usually sacred; and they are often associated with theology and ritual. Their main characters are not usually human beings, but they often have human attributes; they are animals, deities, or culture heroes, whose actions are set in an earlier world, when the earth was different from what it is today, or in another world such as the sky or underworld. . . .

Legends are prose narratives which, like myths, are regarded as true by the narrator and his audience, but they are set in a period considered less remote, when the world was much as it is today. Legends are more often secular than sacred, and their principal characters are human. They tell of migrations, wars and victories, deeds of past heroes, chiefs, and kings, and succession in ruling dynasties. In this they are often the counterpart in verbal tradition of written history . . .

Folktales are prose narratives which are regarded as fiction. They are not considered as dogma or history, they may or may not have happened, and they are not to be taken seriously. . . .

Bascom, William. “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives.” The Journal of American Folklore 78, no. 307 (January 1965): 3. https://doi.org/10.2307/538099. p.4

At the time I wrote those blog posts I was struggling to understand how to apply a Lévi-Straussian structural analysis to the myths related to Phrixus as well as to the Genesis narrative of Abraham and Isaac, and I still am. I feel somewhat vindicated in my failure, though, by an Alan Dundes article —

  • Dundes, Alan. “Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Lévi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect.” Western Folklore 56, no. 1 (1997): 39–50. https://doi.org/10.2307/1500385.

— which notes that Lévi-Strauss fails to acknowledge the “standard genre definitions of myth, folktale and legend”. This failure may be more than a technical one since Lévi-Strauss insists that all variants or adaptations of a myth are essentially the “same myth” — not “legend” or “folklore”, given that myths (in his understanding) are told in a different linguistic/psychological registers from other kinds of narratives. So, if we follow Claude Lévi-Strauss’s reasoning, how could a biblical drama with more in common with a folktale or a legend be an adaptation of a myth?

Further, Levi-Strauss explained variants of myths among different tribes in South America as the product of different social customs and structures. One example:

Finally, we can note one striking inversion: in [Myth 7], the eggs were changed into stones; in [Myth 12], a stone is changed into an egg. The structure of the Sherente myth (M12), therefore, contrasts with that of the other versions — a fact that is perhaps to be explained in part by the social structure of the Sherente which, as we have seen, differs sharply from that of the other Ge tribes. (The Raw and the Cooked, p. 77)

In 2011 I failed to identify that kind of explanation for the differences between the Greek myth of Phrixus and the Genesis “Akedah” (the binding of Isaac). Since then, I have read Russell Gmirkin’s studies of the possible influence of Plato’s thought in his Laws on the Pentateuch. Wajdenbaum had addressed this notion earlier but Gmirkin’s work seemed (to me, at least) to strengthen that likelihood. I have now given up attempting a Lévi-Straussian explanation for the biblical account and have fallen back on a “Platonic” adaptation of the Phrixus myth.

If Lévi-Straussian approaches cannot explain how this biblical episode emerged out of a Greek myth, can an interest in applying Plato’s ideals succeed?

In the following I use the word “myth” in Plato’s simpler sense of a mere fabrication.


If the idea that Plato’s thoughts underlie much of the Pentateuch seems preposterous to you, I invite you to have a look through the earlier discussions relating to this question:

In nuce, the starting point for this post is the hypothesis that early in the Hellenistic era (third century B.C.E.), the priestly and scribal litterati of Samaria and Judea, possibly in close working relationship with the resources in Egypt’s Great Library of Alexandria, created the “historical” narratives that were to become the foundational literature of a new ethnic and cultural identity. The raw materials that these elites reshaped were the stories they had inherited from their home regions (Canaan, Syria, the Levant) along with new Greek epic, poetry, drama, historiography and philosophical writings. Guided by the ideals they imbibed from Plato, they aimed to construct new “foundation myths” that surpassed the ethics of their Greek overlords and thus asserted the superiority of their regional Yahwism over Hellenism. If Hellenistic culture can be defined as a blending of Greek and Asian ideas and expressions, the Pentateuch became a Hellenistic document par excellence — ironically, given that it was the ideological document that underlay subsequent Judean resistance against the Hellenistic rule of the Seleucids. Think of the regular experience of the colonized embracing the culture of their conquerors and using it against them.

My aim here is to try to explain how the Greek myth of Phrixus could have been transformed into the biblical narrative about the binding of Isaac.


As is well-known, Plato had no time for the follies of deities and humans in the Greek myths.  Gods should always be presented as epitomes of the highest morality and heroes as ideal exemplars of god-fearing thought and behaviour. Plato further argued the ideal target audiences of such myths should be a heterogenous population settled from various regions into a new collective. (Should we note in this context the diverse “records” of the twelve tribes of Israel hailing from diverse places — Mesopotomia, Egypt, Canaan?) The myth should assure a people that their ancestral origins were both divinely guided and true. Although the first generation would naturally resist such notions the succeeding generation would be less prone to resist the new teaching.

Plato wrote that ideal laws and the mythical tales in which they were embedded should inculcate the most honourable fear of all, the fear of God, or utmost reverence.

Now let’s refresh our memories of the highlights of the myth of Phrixus and reflect on the possibility of their “Platonic foils”.

1. The king of Boeotia, Athamas, married a cloud goddess with whom he fathered twins: Phrixus and Helle. That cloud goddess, whose name was Nephele, was in fact a special creation by Zeus to look exactly like his wife Hera so she could deceive “a drunken, degenerate king” (Ixion) to goad him into punishment for behaving inappropriately towards Hera. That was before she married Athamas.

2. Athamas, frustrated with his superior wife’s haughtiness, rejected her and married instead the mortal Ino.

Immediately we can sense Plato’s displeasure. How much more noble to have a hero in a stable marriage, if not to a goddess at least to a woman who even in her old age was the desire of kings! Even better if her name can sound like “Princess”. Certainly not a “hero” married to a cloud that was created for the purpose of deception!

3. The second wife of Athamas (Ino) rejected her stepchildren so plotted to have them removed so that her own child could inherit the kingdom. The first step in her plan was to secretly parch the seed that was necessary to feed his people. Athamas was at his wits end not knowing how to overcome the “natural” calamity.

We can see core motifs here that may have been adapted into the Genesis narrative: Sarah rejecting the first born of Abram whose mother had been the slave (not a goddess), and forcing its departure from her household. Of course there is also the theme of barrenness transplanted from the ground to the persons of Sarah and Abram. In this context it is of interest to note that the earlier Hittite myth from which the Greek tale appears to have been borrowed spoke of barren land as well as animals failing to reproduce and even humans unable to have children.

Therefore barley and wheat no longer ripen. Cattle, sheep, and humans no longer become pregnant. And those already pregnant cannot give birth. (Hittite Myths, p. 15)

But in the biblical account the barrenness is not part of a wicked human plot (or in the Hittite myth the consequence of a god deserting his responsibilities in a childish pique) but appears as a condition that God is using to prove that the child to be born is not a natural offspring but a genuine divine gift. That’s another detail that a pure “Platonic” mind would find most fitting.

4. Athamas sought the advice of the god Apollo but Ino bribed his messengers to lie and report to the king that the god wanted him to sacrifice his first born son, Phrixus.

A human sacrifice prompted by a devious lie? Most emphatically utterly inconceivable in Plato’s world!

By now one might wonder why a “biblical” author might select such an unpromising myth as raw material to begin with. The answer to that question was set out in my earlier post, Greek Myths Related to Tales of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and the Promised Land. As in the larger biblical narrative, the episode of a would-be human sacrifice called off by last-minute divine intervention and the sudden introduction of a sheep (“out of nowhere”) was a prelude to a grander narrative of national inheritance and deliverance.

But let’s continue.

As noted above, Plato believed that an ideal community needed to value above all the fear of God. Abram, renamed Abraham, is a perfect demonstration of such a fear and reverence by his willingness to sacrifice his son in response to the divine command. Different versions of the Phrixus myth paint Athamas in a contrary light. In one early version of the myth he is driven mad and it is in that mental state that he carries out the sacrifice.

Fear of God is only commendable, of course, if God himself is perfect. Hence in the story world of the Bible God was in his perfection only testing the perfection of Abraham while simultaneously in his perfection keeping his promise that Isaac would be Abraham’s heir and progenitor of vast multitudes and kings. A modern psychotherapist might have a different evaluation of both God’s and Abraham’s characters but we have to adhere to the “story as told”.

5. Either Zeus or Nephele sent a golden winged ram to rescue Phrixus at the last moment by carrying him away.

In Genesis we read instead of a rational dialogue between Abraham and the divine agent and the “natural” appearance of a ram caught in a thicket nearby to be sacrificed as a substitute. We are removed here from the “far distant other world” of flying and talking golden sheep. On the contrary, we are in the “present world” and in “narrative historical time” that will be linked by named generations to the founding of the nation of Israel. Plato insisted that the myth had to be historically believable.

6. Phrixus sacrificed the ram as a thanksgiving offering for his rescue and hung its golden fleece on a tree. From there it was known as a token to bestow abundantly prosperous kingship to its possessor.

In the earlier Hittite versions what was hung in the tree branch was sheepskin containing tokens of natural abundance and prosperity.

Before Telipinu [son of the Storm God whose disappearance and return were marked by barrenness and plenty respectively] there stands an eyan-tree (or pole). From the cyan is suspended a hunting bag (made from the skin) of a sheep. In (the bag) lies Sheep Fat. In it lie (symbols of) Animal Fecundity and Wine. In it lie (symbols of) Cattle and Sheep. In it lie Longevity and Progeny. (Hittite Myths, p. 18)

The sheep caught in the thicket in the Abraham and Isaac tale appears when the God announces his great promise to Abraham and his son:

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. . . . The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed . . . (Genesis 22:13-18)

One other detail I bypassed here is the death of Phrixus’s sibling, Helle, who was said to have also been carried away by the flying sheep only to fall off its back and drown in the sea below (the Hellespont). If there is any relevance here it may be tied to the rejection of the other son of Abraham, Ishmael. But that is only an incidental and a most tentative observation. The theme of deities choosing a younger progeny to be an heir over an older one was known in Canaanite mythology long before biblical times.

It may be that the original form of the myth related to the literal sacrifice of a king — or of a child sacrifice by the king — who was deemed to be losing his power to sustain the abundance of the natural order. If so, that does not appear to be related to the Genesis episode — unless the Judean and Samaritan authors did have genuine historical memories of such a human sacrifice.

Leaving that possibility aside, I suggest that the above comparative interpretation of the Biblical mini-saga yields for us an explanation for how it might have been crafted from a Greek myth by a scribe guided by Plato’s ideals.


Bascom, William. “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives.” The Journal of American Folklore 78, no. 307 (January 1965): 3. https://doi.org/10.2307/538099

Dundes, Alan. “Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Lévi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect.” Western Folklore 56, no. 1 (1997): 39–50. https://doi.org/10.2307/1500385.

Hoffner, Harry A., and Gary M. Beckman, eds. Hittite Myths. 2nd ed. Writings from the Ancient World, no 2. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. Translated by John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.


Greek Myths Related to Tales of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and the Promised Land

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey


The classical Greek myths related to the founding of the colony of Cyrene in North Africa (Libya) are worth knowing about alongside the biblical narrative of the founding of Israel. This post is a presentation of my understanding of some of the ideas of Philippe Wajdenbaum found in a recent article in the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, and that apparently epitomize his thesis, Argonauts of the Desert.

My recent post drew attention to the following mythemes in common to both the Phrixus and Isaac sacrifice stories. I’m not sure if my delineation of them is guilty of slightly blurring the edges of a strict definition of a mytheme, but they are certainly common elements.

  1. the divine command to sacrifice one’s son
    • real in the case of Isaac,
    • a lie in another in the case of Phrixus – P’s stepmother bribed messengers to tell the father the god required the sacrifice
  2. the father’s pious unquestioning submission to the command
  3. last-minute deliverance of the human victim by a divinely sent ram
    • direct command to the father in the case of Isaac
    • direct command to the sacrificial victim in the case of Phrixus
  4. the fastening of the ram in a tree or bush
    • before the sacrifice of the ram in the case of Isaac
    • after the sacrifice of the ram in the case of Phrixus
  5. the sacrifice of the ram
    • as a substitute for Isaac
    • as a thanksgiving for Phrixus

What is significant is that these narrative units in common to both stories exist at a level independent of the particular stories. They can be inverted and reordered to create different stories.

The question to ask is: Are these units similar by coincidence or has one set been borrowed from the other?

That particular detail about the ram in the tree or thicket is certainly distinctive enough to justify this question in relation to the whole set.

Firstly, given that it is no longer considered “fringe” (except maybe among a large proportion of American biblical scholars where the influence of ‘conservative’ and even evangelical religion is relatively strong) to consider the Bible’s “Old Testament” books being written as late as the Persian or even Hellenistic eras, and given the proximity of Jewish and Greek cultures, the possibility of direct borrowing cannot be rejected out of hand.

Secondly, the chances of the Jewish story of the binding of Isaac being influenced by the Greek myth is increased if both stories are located in a similar structural position within parallel narratives.

Both near-human sacrifice narratives serve as the prologues to larger tales of:

  1. divine promises of a land to be inherited by a hero’s descendants
  2. a special divinely chosen people
  3. a pre-arranged time schedule of four generations before the land would be inherited
  4. deliverance through a leader who initially protests because he stutters
  5. an additional delay because of human failure to hold fast to a divine promise
  6. a wandering through the desert with a sacred vessel
  7. guiding divine revelations along the way

Not only are both tales of escape from human sacrifice prologues to these larger comparable narratives, but they also serve as a reference point in both. They hold the respective longer stories together by serving as the origin point of the divine promises that guide the subsequent narratives of journeying to a promised land, and that origin point is referenced by way of reminder throughout the subsequent narratives.

The Biblical narrative is about much more than the way the children of Abraham inherited the land of Canaan, and here is where Philippe Wajdenbaum, in his 2008 doctoral thesis Argonauts of the Desert — Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, draws attention to the extensive similarities between Plato’s writings and the Bible’s narratives. Both contain a general flood being the beginning of a new era in civilization, with a patriarchal age following, the rise of cities and kingship, and the development of laws and a description of an ideal state. The laws in the Pentateuch are often remarkably alike the laws proposed by Plato:

  • laws that require a central religious authority,
  • of a need for pure bloodlines (especially for priests),
  • laws that condemn homosexuality, witchcraft, magic,
  • laws of inheritance, boundary stones,
  • laws allowing slaves to be taken from foreign peoples only,
  • laws against the need for a king,
  • laws governing involuntary homicide,
  • laws regarding rebellious children,
  • laws against usury, against taking too much fruit from one’s fields,

and quite a few more, and often found listed in the same order between the Greek and Hebrew texts.

The ideal state, moreover, is divided into twelve lots of land given to twelve tribes. The king, it is warned, is subject to the vices of love, and this will lead to oppressive tyranny. One might think here of the sins of David and Solomon.

Wajdenbaum applies the structural analysis of myths as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss to the Bible, and one can see his coverage is much more extensive than can be covered in a few blog posts. Here I am focussing only on structural place of the Phrixus/Isaac “sacrifices” in their respective wider narratives.

The Phrixus episode serves as the introduction to the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, and this set of adventures functions as an explanation of the founding of the Greek colony of Cyrene in North Africa (Libya).

The Argonaut epic and the Bible narrative

I had earlier written a series of six posts on resonances between the Argonautica as told by Apollonius of Rhodes (they are found by starting at the bottom of this Argonautica archive) but this post is addressing Wajdenbaum’s thesis.

The full Argonaut epic is found in Pindar’s Fourth Pythian Ode. It had earlier been referenced in Homer’s Odyssey, XII, 69-72, in Hesiod’s Theogany, 990-1005, and in Herodotus (the foundation of Cyrene and the interrupted sacrifice of Phrixus). Euripides wrote two plays titled Phrixos, now lost to us. And of course Apollonius of Rhodes wrote the epic poem in imitation of Homer, The Argonautica.

The main sources for this epic relate it to the founding of Cyrene. (Pindar’s ode is even dedicated to the king of Cyrene.) This compares with the early Bible narrative from Abraham to Moses relating to the settling of Canaan.

Jason, leader of the Argonauts, belonged to the same extended family as Phrixus, all being descended from Aeolus.

Zeus was angry with the descendants of Aeolus over the attempted sacrifice of Phrixus by his father, and to appease his divine wrath Jason embarked in the Argo with a band of followers (the Argonauts) to retrieve the golden fleece. (This was the fleece of the ram that had saved Phrixus at the last moment from being sacrificed.)

Triton, son of the sea-god Poseidon, appeared in human form and gave one of the Argonauts, Euphemus, a gift of a handful of Libyan soil as a token of a promise that his descendants would return and colonize the land. Had Euphemus succeeded in keeping the soil to plant appropriately in his own home area, his descendants would have returned to colonize only four generations later. But since the soil was washed overboard and its particles landed on the island of Thera instead, seventeen generations would have to pass and Cyrene would have to be colonized by the descendants of the Argonauts after first settling in Thera.

This is the reverse of the order in which we read of the “sacrifice” and the promise in the Biblical narrative. There, Abraham is promised the land and afterwards prepares to sacrifice Isaac. The Argonauts seek to appease Zeus’s anger of the attempted sacrifice of Phrixus by retrieving the fleece of the ram that saved him, and the promise of the land of Cyrene for the descendants of the Argonauts is made afterwards.

Generations later, after the descendants of the Argonauts had settled on Thera, a direct descendant of Euphemus was commanded through the Delphic Oracle to lead his people to settle and establish Cyrene in fulfilment of the promise made at the time the Argonauts were retrieving the fleece of the ram that had saved Phrixus.

This descendant was known as Battus (a name that means “stutterer”). He argued against the divine command on the grounds that he was not a great warrior and that he had a speech impediment. But the Delphic oracle refused to listen to reason and made him do as he was told anyway.

Herodotus tells us that Battus ruled Cyrene for the familiar forty years.

We are reminded of the promise to Abraham that his descendants would settle in Canaan after four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. Egypt serves as a delaying detour on their way to their destiny as Thera was in the Greek myth.

God commands Moses to lead his people to Canaan by invoking his promise to give it to the fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses at first refuses by pleading that he stutters. If Battus ruled the Argonauts for forty years, Moses (also once called a king and known as a king in Philo), led his people for forty years also.

This narrative structure joining Abraham to Moses echoes with accuracy the promise made to Euphemus and its fulfilment by his descendant Battus. Both Moses and Battus invoked their trouble speaking in order to avoid their divine mission and both ruled over their people during forty years. Therefore, the similarities between the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac and that of Phrixos appear as part of a similar narrative structure. It seems as though Abraham plays two different characters from the Greek epic: King Athamas who almost sacrificed his son (Phrixos) — an episode from the beginning of the epic; and the Argonaut Euphemus who received the promise of land for his descendants — an episode from the ending of the epic. The order of the episodes has been reversed. In the same way, the detail of the ram hung on a tree after the sacrifice in the Greek version appears inverted to the account of the ram stuck in the bush before the sacrifice in Genesis. (p. 134, my bold)

To repeat a few lines I quoted in my earlier post, but this time without the omissions:

Parallelisms must not be analysed in an isolated way, but one must try to find out the possible narrative structure that links the similarities together. In other words, the similarity between Phrixos and Isaac is not sufficient by itself to speculate about any possible borrowing. But, when placed in the wider framework of the epic of the Argonauts and the foundation of the colony of Cyrene, it allows us to question a likely influence of the Greek mythical tradition on the writing of the OT. (p. 134)

Philippe Wajdenbaum notes that his thesis supports the one advanced by Jan-Wim Wesselius’s in The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as the Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible that the narratives in Herodotus have influenced the biblical narrative.

But there is one significant clue thus far missing, Wajdenbaum remarks. What might the founding of a colony in Cyrene in Herodotus have to do with the settlement and kingdom established in Canaan by Israel? Wajdenbaum points to an answer:

We must investigate the writings of another famous Greek writer to find the description of a State meant to be a colony. A State that would be divided into twelve tribes and ruled by perfect god-given laws — the ideal State imagined by Plato in his Laws. (p. 134)

And that is the topic of future blog posts.

Island of Thera — today called Santorini. Image from Wikimedia


The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors: Isaac and Phrixus

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Phrixos and Helle
Image via Wikipedia

When I wrote a series of posts on resonances between the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes and several features of Old Testament narratives, I confessed I did not know how to understand or interpret the data. But someone else does. Philippe Wajdenbaum in 2008 defended his anthropology doctoral thesis, “Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible.” He applies the structural analysis of myths as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss to the Bible, something Lévi-Strauss himself never got around to doing, although he did eventually encourage biblical scholars to do so. This post looks at one detail of a detail-rich article in the 2010 Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament (Vol. 24, No. 1, 129-142), “Is the Bible a Platonic Book?” (After a few more posts on this my next project will be to see if the same type of analysis can be used to suggest origins of the Gospel myths.)

Lévi-Strauss and structural analysis of myths

In Wajdenbaum’s words,

For Lévi-Strauss, a version of a myth is always derived from an existing adaptation, originating most of the time from a different culture and language. A myth must always be analysed in comparison to its variants within the same cultural area where contacts between populations are proven. (p. 131) Continue reading “The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors: Isaac and Phrixus”