Sunday, March 11, 2012

Hesiodic Greek Appropriation of Japheth

Hesiod and Genesis: Iapetos and Japheth

Bruce Louden

Each foundational for their respective cultures, each a combination of several of the same genres of myth, Hesiod and Genesis overlap in ways that remain under-analyzed. The tradition preserved at Gen 6:2 and 4, in which “the sons of the gods” (plural in the original, often edited out of translations) mate with mortal women and give birth to a race of heroes, is unexpectedly close to Hesiod’s Bronze Age (Works 155-69; cf. Pindar Olympian 9, 53-56). Scholars have long recognized a number of Near Eastern elements in Hesiod (M. L. West: 1966, 1997), while more recent analyses (e.g., López-Ruiz: 2010) suggest Northwest Semitic ties in particular (Ugaritic, Syrian / Phoenician), the same context out of which Genesis is thought to have evolved (the Biblical Canaanites = Phoenicians). But Genesis also includes specific allusions to Greek culture (Javan) in the aftermath of the Flood myth. Noah's son Japheth, father of Javan, appears to be the same name as the Hesiodic Iapetos, a specific intersection of both traditions.

Neither has a speaking part, both serving primarily as genealogical agents, sons of parents who are more significant, who themselves marry and have sons. Genesis 9:27 uses wordplay on Japheth's name, "May God extend Japheth's boundaries," where "extend," is the Hebrew, yapht, much like Hesiod on the name Titans (Theog. 207-9: Τιτῆνας . . . τιταίνοντας). Both characters are linked to their respective Flood myths (Iapetos is grandfather of Deukalion). Pindar, at a fairly early date (468), knows a complete version of the myth (Olympian 9, 40-56), and makes prominent mention of Iapetos. In Hesiod Iapetos’ brother Kronos castrates his father Ouranos. Japheth’s brother Ham sees Noah naked, passed out from drinking, and tells Shem and Japheth. When Noah wakes he curses Ham, but directs the curse at his son Canaan (9:20-27). Here Ham is referred to as Noah’s youngest son, whereas 9:18 suggests Japheth is.

From these inconsistencies, many assume Genesis 9:20-7 is an abbreviated excerpt from a longer tale. TheTalmud (b. Sanhedrin 70a) suggests that Ham originally committed a much greater offence, that he castrated Noah, or sexually abused him (on the basis of parallels between “and he saw” also at Gen 34:2 of Shechem violating Dinah; if correct, Ham would offer unexpected parallels with the Derveni Papyrus, López-Ruiz: 139-42). In Hesiod Kronos castrates his father, but Iapetos has also committed unspecified offences for which he is punished in Tartaros (Iliad 8.479; cf. his name’s likely derivation from ἰάπτω [Chantraine]). Iapetos and his wife Klymene produce four sons (Theog. 507-616), three of whom are severely punished: Atlas, Menoitios (who seems most like Ham: Theog. 514-16), and Prometheus, referred to eight times as "Son of Iapetos." Not only are there multiple points of contact with Hesiod, but after the flood Japheth becomes the father of Javan (10:2), the same eponym as the Greek Ion (from *Ἰαϝων). Some see “extend Japheth’s boundaries”as a Hellenistic era reference to Alexander’s conquests (Wadjenbaum 101).

Based on the congruence of these motifs, the characters' occurrence at similar stages of larger creation myths, and Japheth's specific connection to Greek culture (as father of Javan) we might best see this part of Genesis as having evolvedin a dialogic relation with Hesiod’s account (cf. Louden 2011, which argues that parts of Genesis evolved in a dialogic relation with The Odyssey). There is no evidence external to the Bible for the names of Noah’s sons (Carr 162), and recent scholarship has moved the dates up for Genesis considerably (Carr passim). Elsewhere the Bible several times transposes other cultures’ divine names to human characters (Nimrod: Ninurta; Esther: Ishtar, Mordecai: Marduk). Though the resultant versions lack an exact match between the two characters (they do not occupy the same sequential position in their Flood myths), Japheth, who is absent from all other Near Eastern accounts, may well derive from Hesiod’s Iapetos.


•Carr, David M. 1996. Reading the Fractures of Genesis. Westminster.

•López-Ruiz, Carolina. 2010. When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East. Harvard University Press.

•Louden, B. 2011. Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East. Cambridge University Press.

•Wadjenbaum, Philippe. 2011. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. Equinox.

•West, M. L. 1966. Hesiod: Theogony. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

•West, M. L. 1997. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


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  1. There is much to be gleaned from this article, especially the inference that the Greek god Ouranos is to be identified with the Hebrew patriarch Noah, and that Ouranos’ castration episode originates with the Hebrew story of Noah’s drunkenness. But the last sentence of this article reveals a chronological bias of the author that it will be difficult for him to overcome; “Japheth, who is absent from all other Near Eastern accounts, may well derive from Hesiod’s Iapetos.” Here the author assumes that the writings of Hesiod are older than the account in Genesis. This is a blatant error and a very unlikely assumption.

    Even the premise, that Japheth is absent from all other Near Eastern accounts, is an unrealistic assumption. There is a strong possibility that the Persians had a tradition about Japheth. According to Herodotus (VII, 72, 450 BC.), there was a group of People who were known to the Greeks as the, "Leucosyri," or the "White Syrians," they lived in the land, that the Persians called "Cappadocia." Therefore it seems that White People are associated with, this time the Persian form of the name, Japheth. (The Hebrews say, "Japheth," the Latins say, "Gepetto," and it seems as though the Persians used a version of the name that was very much like the Latins, "Cappado,") Japheth is the famous progenitor of the White People, and as it turns out Iapetus has a connection with White People, as well. Iapetus is the father of the earliest known, and arguably the most famous, “Caucasian” who ever lived! Prometheus (As the mythical creator of mankind, we assume these men, must have been Caucasian men, for why are White folks named after the well known mountain of Prometheus, Mount Caucasia?).

    Another false assumption, inferred although unstated, is the idea that the Greek Myths did not get the names of their mythological characters from the Hebrews. However, there are dozens of examples that would argue otherwise; “Melamp-us and Phylac-us” as “Balaam and Balak,” “Salmone-us” as “Solomon,” “Sisyph-us” as “Joseph,” “Inach-us” as “Anak,” or “Phorone-us” as “Ephron” Any one of which is at least as compelling as “Iapet-us” as “Japheth.”

    A logical question to ask ones self after reading the foregoing is this; Did the writer or writers of the Biblical book of Genesis derive Japheth from the Greek Iapetus, or was it the other way around? I trust that the discerning reader will reach a better conclusion than the author of this article seems to have done.

  2. I am glad that you picked this up, John. I was going to send it to you.

    I fully agree with your comments about who influenced whom.

    Best regards
    Damien Mackey.