[The AMAIC considers the Middle East – West comparisons of John R. Salverda as interesting, with some of them we think being very likely. But we do not necessarily agree with all of the following]
The Council of the gods
The contention here being that Greece was colonized largely from Israel, let us look among the Israelites for the origin of the Olympian concept. We won't have to search Israelite theology for long to find such a thing as the Greek "Olympus," the idea of a heavenly council of the gods, who spoke with one voice from a certain sacred mountain, these concepts surely did not originate in Greece. Not only did the Israelites have such a mountain based heavenly council of the gods, but they even called it by the same name! The term that was used among the Israelites for "the gods," was "Ha Elohim." The Greeks borrowed the Hebrew word, and it wasn't just the word that they borrowed.
In the Hebrew scriptures, the gods are not called the Olympians, they are the Elohim, but to the Greeks Olympus was more than just the gods, it was the kingdom of the gods, the Heavenly Kingdom itself. The actual circle of the heavens is naturally divided into its twelve sections by the number of months in a year, because animal shaped gods have been assigned to each section of the sky, it has been called the Zodiac (zoo-dial). Accordingly, the Greeks have twelve members of their heavenly kingdom, Olympus (like the Hebrew tribes, the list of Olympians sometimes changes, but the number always stays at twelve). The nation of Israel is also known as the Kingdom of Heaven, thus there is also the requisite twelve part division, the tribes. Many have made this connection between the tribes and the Zodiacal signs already, (with varying degrees of failure and success,) by conveying a sign of the Zodiac to each of Jacob's inheritors using the poetic language of each individual tribal blessing, (Gen. 49) where indeed it can be said that some animal comparisons are drawn (Judah is a lion, Issachar is an ass, Dan is a serpent, Naphtali is a hind, Benjamin is a wolf.). The point is, that the Olympian gods were like the tribes of Israel, not only in that there happen to be twelve of each, but also because they share the same reason for being so divided, they each stood for the dozenized Kingdom of Heaven. Both groups of twelve were the children and grandchildren of a single patriarch, Israel for the tribes, and Kronos for the Olympians. Kronos and Israel have been identified elsewhere.
Both kingdoms were divided amongst the siblings by lot. Also, it is not insignificant to note, that in each case, the twelve are set up so that one of them is king over the other eleven. The gods of Olympus, like the Elohim of Israel, spoke with one voice, it can therefore be said, that for the Greeks, "Olympianism," was an obvious step toward monotheism. The same thing could be said about the effects of "Elohimism" on Israel, for the term obviously retains its original plural form. It is not unreasonable therefore, to conclude that the Greek term, "Olympus" derives directly from the Hebrew word Elohim, (appending the usual Greek "-us" of course,) meaning, "the gods." Another correlation that becomes apparent when we compare the Hebrew Elohim, with the Greek Olympus, is the fact that they both shared the same serpentine antagonist.
The Idea that there was a great dragon/serpent opponent to the Most High is not foreign to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Biblical dragon, was named "Rahab," and this was apparently the same monster that was also called, "Leviathan." The Hebrew name Rahab, means "storm," and it is perhaps worth mentioning that storm is also what the name of the Greek dragon "Typhon" means. The name Typhon probably derives directly from the Hebrew name of a mountain called "Baal-Tsephon," that was located at the Red Sea crossing, where the Pharaoh met his death (Ex.14:9). There is also extrabiblical evidence for equating Tsephon with Typhon for the name can be recognized amongst the Ras-Shamra texts that were found at the site of ancient Ugarit. There we find that Mount Tsephon is the place from where Baal rushes out to defeat his serpentine foe, whose name we also recognize even in its Canaanite form "Lotan." The name Leviathan, was probably known as well to the Greeks, although altered slightly in form. The name "Python," of the contender with Apollo, if it did not derive from the usual Hebrew word for a cobra, "pe'then," is probably just a clipped version of the Hebrew name, Le-"viathan," (There is also "Phaethon," who was likewise shot down by Jove amidst a similar traumatic geological upheaval, he was not a dragon, but he was, like the Pharaoh of Egypt, the son of the Sun god Helios, after whom the Egyptian city of Heliopolis gets its name.) the Greeks also had the serpent Ladon. The Greek Ladon was a many headed serpent that guarded the way to the tree of the valued fruit in the ancient garden of Hesperidies, the Greek Typhon too, was many headed. According to Psalm 74, verses 13 and 14, the Biblical serpent, there called Leviathan, also has several heads. We learn something more from Psalm 74, for the Arabic Targums here use the phrase, "the strong ones of Pharaoh," in the place where, "the heads of Leviathan," usually appears.
Obviously the Hebrews did not believe in real dragons, the story of God's battle against the great dragon was typical Hebrew poetic symbolism, and in this case it was used in association with the exodus of the twelve tribes from Egypt. The Targums also substitute the phrase, "the Egyptians," for the name "Rahab," at Psalm 87 verse 4. Isaiah even symbolizes the Pharaoh and his Egyptian army as the great serpent Rahab, at chapter 51 verses 9 and 10, also at Isa. 30:7. Well, most of us know what the Bible says, but did you realize that the Greeks and Romans probably did not believe in real dragons either, and that they knew that their great dragon contender with god was, in reality, named after an actual ancient Pharaoh of Egypt? So says the Roman Pliny in book 2, section 91, of his great work, written in 77 AD, and entitled "Natural History." Now, how many ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, who were symbolized as a great dragon, and had a battle with the highest G/god, were there? Surely these two stories were referring to the same event.
The heavenly twelve were in the land of Egypt at the time that Zeus battled Typhon, they had, according to the myth, fled there to hide from the dragon, and while the twelve tribes had gone to Egypt merely to avoid a famine, in each case it was a forced exile with the hope of finding haven among the Egyptians. The twelve had to remain in their Egyptian exile, until the final defeat of the serpentine antagonist by G/god, at which time, both groups of twelve, the Olympians and the tribes, were able to come up out of the land of Egypt.
The Greek variant that mentions the Egyptian exile of the heavenly twelve, has considerable antiquity and has been attributed by others to a lost work by Pindar, a Greek who wrote as early as about 500 BC. Herodotus wrote a book that wasn't lost, in his "Histories," near the beginning of book three, written almost as long ago, about 450 BC., he locates the burial place of Typhon, under the water of a great lake (called Lake Serbonis) at the Syrian border with Egypt. Herodotus also notes that these "Syrians," the Syrians of Palestine as he calls them, wore the sign of the circumcision. Take note, that this is not simply in the same geographical area, but just as the Scriptural Pharaoh of the Egyptian Exodus lies buried under water, so lies this Typhon in the Greek myth about the Olympian exodus from Egypt. That area of the world was well known in ancient times as the location of Typhon's defeat, the Greek geographer Strabo, in book VII of his, "The Geography," even refers to the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea as "Typhonia." Apollodorus and Ovid both tell this story of the Olympian's Egyptian sojourn, the story was fairly well known and wide spread, but the most recent versions of the myth, always seem to mention one weird detail of the story, namely, that the gods took on the shapes of animals while they were in Egypt.
Much of the Greek myth conforms nicely to the Hebrew story of the Exodus, but the Idea that the, usually human shaped, gods had a metamorphoses into animal shapes, seems too crass for a rational explanation. Modern scholars have called this part of the story an etiology, a clumsy attempt, they say, by later mythographers, to explain the origin of the animal shapes in the zodiac. These emphasize that Pan became Capricorn the fish-goat, and that Venus and Cupid became the two fish of Pisces. Others claim that the myth is an attempt to explain the animal companions that attended many of the Greek gods, these cite the raven of Apollo for example, or the goat of Dionysus. Still others say, that the story shows how the animal headed gods of Egypt originated, these point out that Zeus became a ram and then equate Zeus with Ra-Ammon, and also, that Hera became a cow and then equate Hera with Hathor or Isis. I consider the last of these three theories to be the most accurate, however, I don't think that the "animal gods" part of the myth was a later addition, but rather, that it was as ancient as, and was part of, the original story, for the Hebrew scriptures, which I believe has a source in common with the Greek myth, includes a very similar tale.
Human sacrifice was widely practiced in the pre-Exodus times, and also after that, Abraham, the grand patriarch of Israel, had preached against sacrificing the son of man, the image of God, and in favor of animal substitutes, such as, the Abrahamicly authorized ram. It is certainly no mere coincidence that the main god of the Egyptians, Ra-Ammon, was zoopomorphized by them, as the same animal that was suitable for an Abrahamic sacrifice, the ram. It won't surprise us to find that the Egyptians, having lived with the Israelites for several generations, and having witnessed the lessons of the Exodus first hand, should have learned something about the practice of the true religion. Accordingly, Herodotus tells us that the Egyptians didn't engage in human sacrifices, he says that even for the animal sacrifices, which they did perform, the sheep and bulls, first had to be rigorously inspected by the priestly class, having to pass certain tests for cleanness.
The eminent mythologist, Sir James George Frazer shows, in his most renown work entitled, "The Golden Bough," that the sacrificial victim of those ancient rites, was originally meant to represent "the god himself" (Ch.XLIX,4,Pg.551). Perhaps the idea that the highest God would accept animal substitutions for human sacrifices was at first ridiculed by some, as changing the "image" of god. Thus the introduction of the Abrahamic religion into Egypt may have given rise to the Greek myth, a lampoon as it were, where, in Egypt, the gods took on the shapes of animals. Still, it was no lampoon to the Egyptians themselves, who, most reverently it seems, assigned an animal head to practically every god they had. An even closer parallel to the Greek myth can be drawn from the story of the Hebrews themselves. Consider this, the twelve members of the Kingdom of Heaven (the tribes not the Olympian gods,) had an anthropomorphic God when they went into Egypt, while there, they took up representing Him as an animal, thus the calf god. They stayed in Egypt until God "crushed the heads of Leviathan," where upon they came up out from the land of Egypt and abandoned their bovine image of God. Now, read the Greek "myth" about the divine metamorphoses again and wonder no longer as to its origin.
Numerous Biblical scholars, examining the use of the name "Elohim" in the Pentateuch, have concluded that the source of this, "Elohimism," was an author, or authors, who lived during the Omri dynasty about 850 BC., in the area of Samaria the capitol of the northern ten tribes. Elohimism, so say these scholars, was the theological point of view of the house of Israel, as opposed to the house of Judah. With this, I must concur, but only partially. I do find it very likely that the Elohimistic view was, at least codified at that time and place, perhaps even by King Omri himself, who as we know from the Scriptures, (Mic.6:16) wrote at least one work, therein referred to as, "The Statutes of Omri." However, the religious system of Israelite Elohimism had its origin long before the days of Omri. A study of the Greek myths will make it evident, that Elohimism was most likely set up back in the days when Moses and Joshua destroyed the Amorites, at which time it directly superseded the older Amorite religious system, for the error of the Amorites had come to completion (Gen.15:13-16).
To the Greeks, the battle between god and the dragon, their Zeus verses Typhon, was the religious turning point of the Greek religion, it was the establishment of Olympianism. The Olympians had to defeat the giants, whom they called "the Titans" before they could establish their own suzerainty, and Typhon fought on behalf of the giants. The battle between Zeus and Typhon, was considered by some to be the final defeat of the giants. The fact that the Greeks have many names for the giants, (besides the Titans there were the Earthborn, and the Aloeids) and several versions of their final defeat, should not deter the biblical scholars from an identification between the Greek giants and the Hebrew giants, on the contrary, this apparent confusion is just another thing that both sources have in common. The Scriptures have, the Nephilim, the Rephaim, the Zamzammim, the Emim, and the Anakim; the first were destroyed in Noah's flood but apparently not entirely. The Rephaim, the Zamzammim, and the Emim were wiped out by the Elamite King Chedorlaomer in the days of Abraham at the battles of Ashtoroth-Karnaim, Shaveh-Kiriathaim, and Ham (Gen.14:5), except for Og (and apparently his brother Sihon) who was called the last of the Rephaim when he was killed by Moses seven generations later. The Anakim were destroyed by Caleb after the death of Moses, and yet there were still a few giants left in the days of David for him to him to earn the Messianic attribute of giant killer. Enumerating the Greek confusion in this regard is equally as complicated; the Titans, like the Nephilim, were confined to Tartarus but were released and then re-confined. The Earthborn Giants revolted against Olympus on behalf of the Titans, their brothers, but were summarily defeated. Then Typhon was born in order to avenge the giants on the Olympians but he was killed as well. The Aloeids were a pair of gigantic brothers, like Og and Sihon, but the Olympians thwarted their rebellion also. Suffice it to say that, in both cases, the war against the giants lasted many years and involved several battles before Olympianism, or in the case of the Israel, Elohimism, could be firmly established.
Furthermore, the Greek kingdom of heaven was represented by a mountain, in much the same way that Israel is represented by Mount Zion. To say that Olympus is like Zion is to emphasize the obvious, and may seem to be an insignificant point, after all they were both mountains and many diverse nations had holy mountains. Perhaps an ancient memory of Mount Ararat is responsible for such a wide dispersal of the "holy mountain" motif. Mountains are awe inspiring, they are closer to the heavens and therefore seem "sacred" automatically, especially to worshippers of the god of heaven. But beyond this, the Scriptures tell us much more about the intricate theological symbolism connected to Mount Zion. It’s not just a mountain, it's God's abode, it's His people, it's their city, it's the bride of God, and she even has a daughter. Its location is no less ethereal than its symbolism is esoteric. There is a Heavenly Zion as well as an Earthly one, the prophets have it rising above all other mountains in the latter days, while the evangelists have it coming down from the Heavens to establish itself at the end times. Mount Zion had a cosmogonical existence as well as an apocalyptic one. God had a "Holy Mountain" even before David established it at Mount Zion. The Garden of Eden was in God's Holy Mountain, there was Mount Sinai, and Mount Moriah, even the Amorites had their own holy mountain, which the Hebrews called, "Mount Herman," but others, perhaps even the Amorites themselves, called it Mount "Sion."
We know a bit less about Mount Olympus, but what we do know is no less enigmatic. It was the abode of the gods, the bronze floored mansion of Zeus, the mansions of the Muses and all the "shining mansions of the gods" were imagined to be upon the snowy peak of Olympus. Of course, the Greeks knew that there were no real mansions on the actual mountain that they called Olympus, the concept of "Olympia" was not confined to a mere mountain. In Homer, Zeus threatens to pull Olympus up with a golden chain and hang Heaven and Earth from it. Homer usually had the gods living upon the mountain but sometimes he locates them in the sky, which he often distinguishes from Olympus. The concept of Olympus was an abstraction, like the concept of Zion, the literal mountain was only a symbol. Many nations, in order to justify their suzerainty, claimed their own Mount Olympus. There were rivals to Zion as well, and it is apparent that the direct prototype for the Greeks was not Mount Zion at Jerusalem itself, (Athens was already named after Zion,) but a more direct predecessor to Olympianism was the Elohimism from one of the famous rivals to Mount Zion, Mount Gerizim at Shechem.
Nothing in all of Israelite history resembles the Greek story, about the establishment of Olympian order over the Titanic chaos, quite like the account of the convocation at Joshua 8:30-34. Moses directed Joshua to assemble the twelve tribes at Shechem for the convocation, a kind of ceremony of confederation, where blessings for obedience were read to six of the tribes who were gathered together upon Mount Gerizim, and curses for disobedience were read to the other six who were gathered upon Mount Ebal. The spectacle of the twelve tribes taking their places at the Shechem mountains, from which they could look North and see the mountain of the defeated giants, the Amorite's Mount Herman, has everything that the Greek myth needs. Shechem became the capitol of Israel at least four generations before King David captured the Jebusite stronghold of Salem. However, the Shechemites incurred the malediction that was outlined in the very same "convocation of the tribes," that argues for their precedence. (Deut. 11:29; 29:26-28) The Shechemites worshipped foreign gods, and not only Baal-Berith either. A study of the Greek myths about the establishment of Olympianism makes it evident that the Israelites of Shechem had set up a system whereby each of the twelve tribes of Israel was represented by a god, or a goddess, and all agreed to abide by the word of one voice.
Like the Hebrew city/mountain of Zion, there was a Greek city also that was named after their mountain and called "Olympia," while this city wasn't in the vicinity of any mountain, it was none the less, founded to portray the abode of the gods. Here was the Temple of Zeus, with its famous statue by Phidias, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Here too the Olympian games were celebrated, this was due largely, we are told in the Greek myths, to the efforts of Pelops himself, after whom the whole "Peloponnesus" was named. The Achaeans of Pelops, these were the champions of Olympianism in ancient Greece.
-John R. Salverda
For more articles by John R. Salverda on the Hebraic Connections of Greek Mythology, see:
"Helleno-Yishurin. The Hebrew Origin of Greek Legends"