Taken from John R. Salverda’s
Sisyphus, the “Joseph” of Greek Myth
Autolycus as Laban
In the Hebrew scriptures, as soon as Joseph was born, there was a contest of wits between two famous thieves, Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright, and Laban, who stole Jacobs wages. In the Greek myth, it was the well known thief Sisyphus who played the role, not of Joseph but of Joseph’s father, Jacob, and since it was Autolycus, just as well known as a thief, who was outwitted, it must be him, who is to be identified as a Greek version of the Syrian Laban. Sisyphus and Autolycus kept their flocks as neighbors, but Autolycus had a magic trick, he could change the appearance of cattle, from black to white, or spotted or mottled, or striped, even from horned to unhorned. So he started stealing his neighbor’s cattle and changing their looks, but Sisyphus noticed that his flocks were shrinking while his neighbor’s were growing. Sisyphus marked his cattle and discovered the deception, he called upon witnesses, showed them the scam, and got back his herds. Now, the discerning reader will argue, that in the Scriptures it was not Laban,who is here identified as Autolycus, that could change the color of the cattle. However, another, perhaps more precise, reading of the Scriptural account shows that it was Laban who kept changing, ten times, Jacob’s wages, and these wages were in fact the cattle. Furthermore, it is Joseph who is herein identified with Sisyphus, and not Jacob, but this is only a sleight discrepancy for it can rightly be said that the cattle in question did belong, at least, to the family of Joseph, who was born and was an heir to Jacob at the time. Regardless of the ostensive role reversal, the intricate theme of someone increasing his herds by changing the color of those belonging to his neighbor, and then appropriating them for himself, did not just popup in Greek mythology independently, and without any connection to the story of Laban and Jacob, that just does not seem possible, especially since we know that the ancient Corinthians were indeed Canaanite in origin and therefore would have been familiar with this theme. I’m not alone in recognizing the Greek debt to the Hebrew motif in this regard, for the well known modern mythologist, Robert Graves in his famous work, “The Greek Myths,” quite confidently states, “… Autolycus’ use of magic in his theft from Sisyphus recalls the story of Jacob and Laban.” Graves further cites as his reason for this statement, “The cultural connexion between Corinth and Canaan, …” Another probable clue to this identification may lay in the mythic assertion that not only was Sisyphus able to reclaim the cattle that Autolycus had taken but he, as Jacob did Laban’s daughter, also took the daughter of Autolycus.