Sisyphus and Joseph

 by John R. Salverda

Brit-Am Background:
John R. Salverda shows parallels between the Greek hero known as Sisyphus and Joseph the Patriarch. Sisyphus was a king punished in Tartarus by being cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity. Strabo pointed out a parallelism between Tartarus, world of the dead, and Tartessos in Spain facing the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean area in general. He says that the ancient placed Tartarus in this region. The British Isles became identified as the Place of the Dead. This was a Green and Roman concept but the Gauls also believed it as mentioned by Julius Caesar. The idea in fact may have originated in Ancient Assyria where it was applied at first to Habor (a place of Ten Tribes Exile cf. 2-Kings 17) then to the Isles of the West ("Zeitschrift Fur Assyriologie", Berlin and Leipzig 1929, Strasbourg 1909).

Sisyphus as Joseph

One of the brothers of Athamus, another one of the sons of Aeolus, was a man named Sisyphus. Since Athamus has proved to share obvious similarities with a Hebrew patriarch, logic propels us to check the story of his brother Sisyphus, and see if we can find a possible origin among the Hebrew Patriarchs for him.

Sisyphus was a kind of local culture hero specific to the Corinthians, who claim him as their first king, and as the founder of their city Corinth. To find out more about Sisyphus it will help to know more about these Corinthians, and where they came from. Modern archaeologists, have almost unanimously identified the original Corinthians as a colony from the land of Phoenicia, a land that is otherwise known in the Scriptures, (where there is no mention of the word, 'Phoenicia,') as the land of Canaan, or Israel. There are many Phoenician characteristics associated with the city of Corinth, they even had their own version of the goddess Athena, whom they called 'Athena Poinike,' and the Corinthian calendar also had a month named after the Phoenicians called, 'Phoinikaios.' It was indeed said that the tomb of Melicertes, who has often been recognized as the Melquart of Tyre, was located in Corinth. Some have even suggested that the very name of the city, 'Corinth,' derives from the common Hebrew word for a city, 'Kiriath.'

The Corinthians were Phoenicians all right, the question is, could those Phoenicians have known, or possibly even have been, the Israelites' I believe that many were Israelites, (Ac.18:10, Joel 3:6) but even if they were not, even if they were 'only' Canaanites, you would still expect that a people, such as the Canaanites, who fought wars, made treaties, built a Temple, and intermarried, with the Israelites, would know a little something about the history of their own shared ancestors and native homeland. Out of all the pre-Exodus patriarchs, Joseph, who was buried in Shechem, not Hebron like all the others, has the best chance of being remembered by the Canaanites. Certainly the Canaanites would have known many of the stories about many of the more important historic Hebrew personages but especially Joseph. The usual Roman transliteration of the Hebrew name Joseph, as is evident by the name of the famed first century writer, Josephus Flavius, is 'Josephus,' however, perhaps there was a more ancient, Corinthian version of the name. I can not think of another name in all of Greek mythology, that is more like the name Josephus, than the name Sisyphus, spelled Sesephus by Hesychius.

Of course, if Sisyphus is to be identified with Joseph, then he could not really have founded the Greek city of Corinth, on the other hand, the descendants of Joseph were great founders of cities among the Canaanites. Only the legend of this great founding family actual made it to Greece, it came with those who colonized Corinth from Phoenicia. This is perhaps the reason why the Greek myths tell us, that when Sisyphus founded the city he did not call it Corinth, that name came later, Sisyphus called it, 'Ephyra.' This name is perhaps even more suspiciously Hebrew in origin, for it is the usual Hebrew word for 'fruitful,' and in it's plural form, 'Ephraim,' (doubly fruitful) it is the name of a Hebrew city called after the son of Joseph, and, in fact, the entire House of Joseph (the northern ten tribes) was sometimes referred to as, Ephraim. Another form of the word, 'Ephrath,' (fruitfulness) is the name of the city where Joseph's mother was buried, otherwise known as, 'Bethlehem.'

Recognizing the Corinthians as members of the house of Joseph, fits well into the scriptural perspective concerning the historical migrations of the scattered ten tribes of Israel, because, if this was the case, then the city of Corinth turns out to have been the headquarters of the westward migration of, not merely the Corinthians, but of Ephraim. This migration, according to the history of Corinth, started with a colony at the Island of Corcyra, which spread the culture of Corinth throughout the Adriatic, then they influenced Eturia and Rome from their colony on the island of Ischia off the Bay of Naples, and let us not forget their colony at Syracuse (Syra-gaza, Syrian stronghold') of Sicily, which was founded, as a colony from Corinth in 735, and grew within 350 years to be, perhaps, the most powerful city in the world at that time. These Sicilians, as many others have already pointed out, were no doubt the same ones who have been identified as the 'Sheklesh,' a member nation of the 'Sea Peoples' confederacy who are mentioned in the Egyptian chronicles as being a circumcised people. It is noteworthy that these colonies of Corinth were all founded precisely when you would expect that the population of the city would be swelling with the exiled 'Phoenicians' fleeing from the wrath of the Assyrian raids of Tiglathapiliezer.

Furthermore, it is not just a likeness between the names, and the ethnic makeup of the Corinthians, that leads us to conclude the probable identification of Sisyphus with Joseph, they also share titles, and their respective stories share themes, such as the assertion that Sisyphus, like Joseph, was hated by his brothers. This, of course, is not so remarkable a motif and can be seen in many Scriptural and mythical stories, from the account of Cain and Abel, to that of Atreus and Thyestes. It is not so much that they each were hated, but rather why they were hated, that makes the coincidence remarkable. Sisyphus was hated to the point of being given a special eternal punishment in Hades, this was for the crime, we are told specifically in the myth, of 'revealing divine secrets.' Joseph, who was derisively referred to as 'the dreamer,' had a similar reason for earning the hatred of his brothers. They did not like the interpretation of his dreams, and it was his ability to decipher the meaning of dreams for which the Pharaoh of Egypt gave him the title 'Zaphnath Paaneah,' which, in Hebrew means, we are told, 'the revealer of divine secrets.'

Joseph, an ex-slave and a convicted criminal among the Egyptians, was given in marriage, the hand of Asenath, the daughter of the priest at On, one of the holiest families in all of Egypt. One wonders indeed if, at first, she was not just a bit put off by this arrangement, for the Greek myths tell us that Sisyphus was married to a goddess, named Merope, she was one of the stars from the constellations known as the Pleiades, her particular star shines only dimly for it is said that she was ashamed to be the only one of the Pleiades who had married a mortal, and a criminal besides. The Pleiades are one of the very few constellations that is named in the Scriptures, the Hebrews called it the "Kimah" constellation. A possible link between Joseph and the Pleiades, is the fact that the Pleiades are located in the shoulder of Taurus, "the bull," which is the well known symbol of Ephraim, and the house of Joseph. Of course, Taurus the bull is more than just "the symbol" of Ephraim, for they worshipped Eloah as a bull god, and considered it to be the father of "the calf," the famed Idol of the house of Joseph.

Joseph furthermore, had a connection with the Greek sun god Helius, for as we have said, he had married into the priesthood, presumably of Ra, at the Egyptian metropolis of On, and it was this city that was known to the Greeks as 'Heliopolis.' It was the Egyptian sun god Ra that the Greeks called 'Helius,' this was, no doubt, the El of Canaan and the Eloah of Israel, with the usual Greek suffix '-us' appended. It is apparent that the Egyptians had a little trouble pronouncing the letter 'L' and used instead an 'R' in it's place, so that the name of the sun god who was known to the Canaanites as 'El,' was pronounced 'Ra' by the Egyptians, a mere shibboleth and not another name altogether. This perhaps explains why the Corinthians, herein presented as the House of Joseph, worshiped Helius above all, the acropolis of Corinth, which they called the 'Acrocorinth' was considered by the Corinthians to be the sacred 'high place' of Helius where he was worshiped, and claimed their dynasty of kings to have descended from him in the same way that the Egyptians considered their king to be the 'son of Ra.'

Having covered most of the mythology that involves the character of Sisyphus himself, we shall now turn our attention to three myths that mention Sisyphus but concern themselves mainly with three other characters whose names are, Autolycus, Asopus, and Salmoneus.

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 pop up 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 am 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's 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.

A further inclusion in the Sisyphus cycle of Greek mythology, was the story of a character named, 'Asopus,' his tale, which is also known as, 'the rape of Aigina,' clearly borrows, quite liberally, from the story of Jacob. Even the Greek names of the players retain their phonetic similarities to the original Hebrew cast. The name Asopus is plausibly a Greek form of the name Jacob, (with a soft 'c' and the usual Greek suffix '-us' appended,) moreover, the name of the daughter of Asopus, 'Aigina,' is a very likely Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name of Jacob's daughter, 'Dinah,' whose story, of course, has correspondingly come to be known as, 'the rape of Dinah.' It was this account for which Sisyphus became famously chided, as was Joseph elsewhere, as a tattle tale, because he gave a damning report for which he, it is said in the Greek myth, had earned his well known eternal punishment. More evidence for the identification of Asopus with Jacob, lies in the mythic claim that Zeus had inflicted Asopus with a permanent limp, as a result of his contention with the king of the gods. Jacob, of course, limped because of a similar contention.

Now, as promised earlier, we can return to the motif of the stone. Zeus was compelled to hide from Asopus by disguising himself as a stone, we are further told that this stone was the same one that Sisyphus was eternally forced to establish, however unsuccessfully, upon the infernal mountain. As even the casual student of Greek mythology will recall, this was not the first time that the king of the gods has used a stone to conceal himself from his contender. At the birth of Zeus it was Kronos who was his contender, and Kronos would have swallowed Zeus alive but for the ruse of the young god, who disguised a stone as himself, which was swallowed instead. Thus, Zeus was able to mature in safety, to return at a later date and assume the kingship, in the strength of his manhood, at which time the stone was disgorged, and, as Pausanius (X. 24. 5.) informs us, Zeus subsequently set up the stone at Delphi where it was ritually anointed it with oil, of course, the Greeks are not the only culture, where one finds the odd practice of setting up and anointing a stone (Gen.28:18, 35:14). From the foregoing it would appear that Kronos should be compared to Jacob, but we have already equated Kronos, first with Adam, and then with Ham, therefore it seems that the real comparison, is between Kronos and the 'contender,' any contender, with god. The ancient Phoenicians seemed to have understood this, for as Philo of Byblos, who was quoted by Eusebius, has said, 'Kronos, whom the Phoenicians called Israel...' The 'Stone' is clearly what God has used as a trap in order to deceive his contender, He becomes this stone, 'a stumbling block to both houses of Israel,' as a disguise so He can, 'conceal His face from the house of Jacob,' but, the point is, that the ancient Greeks seem to have known this intricate theological doctrine, almost as well as Isaiah! (Isa.8:13-17).

For more articles by John R. Salverda on the Hebraic Connections of Greek Mythology, see:
"Helleno-Yishurin. The Hebrew Origin of Greek Legends"

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