Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Hippolytus and Phaedra


Taken from our, article:

The Lost Cultural Foundations of Western Civilisation


The story [Joseph and Wife of Potiphar], which can be read in full in Genesis 39:6-20 – probably written by Joseph himself, from personal memory – apparently became well-known in the ancient world [Astour, M., Hellenosemitica,E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1965, p. 259]: “It has already been repeatedly demonstrated that most of the motifs in the Joseph story are more or less euphemerized motifs of the Tammuz-Adonis myth”. And [ibid.,p. 258]: “In the W-S [West Semitic] world, the motif of the “chaste youth” was very widespread”, wrote Astour, a master at detecting the Semitic influence underlying Greek legends.

The woman who attempted to seduce the handsome young Joseph was the un-named wife of one Potiphar, pharaoh’s captain of the guard, who had bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites (var. Midianites?), to whom Joseph’s brothers had sold him for twenty pieces of silver (Genesis 37:28; 39:1). Joseph, though innocent, was sent to prison based on the accusation of the woman (who became Venus/Astarte in some of the later pagan legends). Astour has, like others, recognized that the story has its resonance for instance in a famous Egyptian tale [ibid.]: “After the discovery of the papyrus d’Orbiney, a quite similar plot was revealed in the Egyptian story of the two brothers … Bata, its hero, slandered by his sister-in-law and pursued by his angry brother, emasculated himself to prove his innocence”.

The Egyptian story in turn Astour believed to have been based upon Phoenician tales. E.g. the young healer-god Ešmun, pursued by the love of the goddess Astronoë or Astronome (=’Aštart-na’amã); and in Syrian Hierapolis, of Combabos, the builder of the Atargatis temple, with whom Queen Stratonice, the wife of the Assyrian king, fell in love. Notice in these Phoenician accounts the Joseph-like elements also of the young hero as a ‘healer’ and a ‘builder’. The Joseph story even has its resonance in the most famous of all Mesopotamian myths, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Thus Astour believes that the Combabos of the Phoenician tale “can easily be recognized as Humbaba… of the Gilgameš epic … [whilst] the same [Joseph] motif also appears in the Gilgameš epic, tabl. VI, where Ištar [Venus] fell in love with Gilgamešand, after having been rudely rejected by him, turned herself to the supreme god Anu with a request to punish the hero” [Astour, M., Hellenosemitica (ibid., pp. 258-259.; S.N. Kramer, The death of Gilgamesh in BASOR, Apr 1944, pp. 2-12).

Later Homer would give his own colourful account of the famous story in his conflict between Bellerophon(tes) and Anteia, King Proitos’ wife. Before recounting that tale, however, the important fact needs to be noted that Astour has rigorously identified the supposedly Greek name Bellerophonas equivalent to the western Semitic Ba’al-rãph’ôn, “Lord Physician” [ibid., pp. 225-228. The name is equivalent in meaning to that of the Sumerian god, Ninazu].

Most appropriate again for Joseph.

Now here is the account of Bellerophon as told by Homer in The Iliad [The Iliad VI: 156-170, as quoted by Astour, ibid., p. 257]:

To Bellerophontes the gods granted beauty and desirable manhood; but Proitos in anger devised evil things against him, and drove him out of his own domain, since he was far greater … Beautiful Anteia the wife of Proitos was stricken with passion to lie in love with him, and yet she could not beguile valiant Bellerophontes, whose will was virtuous. So she went to Proitos the king and uttered her falsehood. “Would you be killed, O Proitos? Then murder Bellerophontes who tried to lie with me in love, though I was unwilling”. So she spoke, and anger took hold of the king at her story. He shrank from killing him, since his heart was awed by such action, but sent him away to Lykia, and handed him murderous symbols, which he inscribed in a folding tablet, enough to destroy life, and told him to show it to his wife’s father, that he might perish.

Many Greek stories in fact carry this basic motif. For example, according to Astour [op. cit., pp. 257-258. Emphasis added]:

The Greeks told myths with the same plot about Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra, and about Peleus and Astydamia (or Cretheïs), wife of king Acastos. Bethe was perfectly right when, despite all his antipathy to Semitizing Bellerophon, he nevertheless declared that [the story-motif] … of the shy youth slandered by the rejected woman … had an Asiatic origin.



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