Ancient Greek Religious Art Depicted Eden and the First Couple
Excerpts from the new book Genesis Characters and Events in Ancient Greek Art, by Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr.
Human history, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, begins in an ancient paradise with a serpent-entwined tree, and a first couple who partook of its fruit. The Book of Genesis doesn’t say what kind of fruit tree it was. It is from the Greek tradition that we get the idea that Eve ate an apple.
There is no Creator-God in the Greek religious system. Ancient Greek religion is about getting away from the God of Genesis, and exalting man as the measure of all things. You may think to yourself that the Greeks are exalting gods, not man; but haven’t you ever wondered why the Greek gods looked exactly like humans? The answer is the obvious one: for the most part, the gods represented the Greeks’ (and our) human ancestors. Greek religion was thus a very sophisticated form of ancestor worship. In Plato’s Euthydemus, Sokrates referred to Zeus, Athena, and Apollo as his “gods” and as his “lords and ancestors.”
The First Parents
Greek stories about their origins are varied and sometimes contradictory until their poets and artists present Zeus and Hera as the couple from whom the other Olympian gods and mortal men are descended. This husband/wife pair, the king and queen of the gods, are a match for the Adam and Eve of Genesis. Zeus and Hera are the beginning of the family of man, and the origin of the family of the Greek gods. With no Creator-God in the Greek religious system, the first couple advances to the forefront.
According to the Book of Genesis, Eve is the mother of all humans, and the wife of Adam. Since God is the Father of both Adam and Eve, some consider them to be brother and sister as well. After they had both eaten the fruit, Adam named his wife Eve (“Living” in Hebrew) and Genesis 3:20 explains why: “. . . for she becomes the mother of all the living.” In a hymn of invocation, the 6th-century BC lyric poet, Alcaeus, refers to Hera as “mother of all.” As the first wife, the Greeks worshipped Hera as the goddess of marriage; as the first mother, the Greeks worshipped her as the goddess of childbirth.
We are told in Chapter 2 of Genesis that Eve was created full-grown out of Adam. Before she was known as Hera, the wife of Zeus had the name Dione. The name relates to the creation of Eve out of Adam, for Dione is the feminine form of Dios, the genitive form of Zeus. This suggests that the two, like Adam and Eve, were once a single entity.
Hera is the single mother of all humanity, and Zeus is, according to the ancient poet Hesiod, “the father of men and gods.” The term “father Zeus” is a description of the king of the gods that appears over 100 times in the ancient writings of Homer. As the source of their history, Zeus/Adam and Hera/Eve became the gods of their history. Those without a belief in the Creator have only nature, themselves, and their progenitors to exalt.
From the Judeo-Christian standpoint, the taking of the fruit by Eve and Adam at the serpent’s behest was shameful, a transgression of God’s commandment. From the Greek standpoint, however, the taking of the fruit was a triumphant and liberating act that brought to mankind the serpent’s enlightenment. To the Greeks, the serpent was a friend of mankind who freed them from bondage to an oppressive God, and was therefore a savior and illuminator of our race. The Greeks worshipped Zeus as both a savior and illuminator; they called him Zeus Phanaios meaning one who appears as light and brings light. The light that Zeus brought to the ancient Greeks was the serpent’s “enlightenment” that he received when he ate the fruit from the serpent’s tree.
The Greeks believed the words that the serpent spoke to Eve at the tree in Genesis 3:5, “Not to die shall you be dying, for God knows that, in the day you eat of it, unclosed shall be your eyes, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Adam and Eve became the gods Zeus and Hera.
In his book Zeus and Hera, mythologist Carl Kerenyi suggests that the name Zeus, or Dios, at its deepest level, means “the actual decisive, dynamic moment of becoming light.” Thus, the meaning of the original names of the first couple, Dios and Dione, points to that time when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and first embraced the enlightenment of the serpent. The natural force, lightning, depicts who Zeus is and what he brings to mankind perfectly. It should not surprise us then that the attribute most closely associated with Zeus in ancient art was the lightning bolt. On the vase image of Zeus depicted here, he holds the lightning bolt in his left hand and his scepter in is right hand. From the Greek viewpoint, there is no more “actual decisive, dynamic moment of becoming light” in human history than the time Adam and Eve received the serpent’s enlightenment, and no more appropriate symbol for it than the lightning bolt of Zeus.
Paradise and The Tree of Knowledge
If Zeus and Hera are Adam and Eve, then the Greeks ought to have directly connected them to an ancient paradise, a serpent, and a fruit tree. They did, indeed, make such a direct connection. The Greeks remembered the original paradise. They called it the Garden of the Hesperides, and they associated Zeus and Hera with its enticing ease, and with a serpent-entwined apple tree.
The literary evidence for the presence of Zeus and Hera in the ancient Garden paradise comes to us from Apollodorus and Euripides. Apollodorus wrote that the apples of the Hesperides “were presented by Gaia [Earth] to Zeus after his marriage with Hera.” This matches the Genesis account: Eve became Adam’s wife right after she was taken out of Adam (Genesis 2:21–25), and the next recorded event is the taking of the fruit by the first couple. The chorus in Euripides’ play Hippolytus speaks of “the apple-bearing shore of the Hesperides” where immortal fountains flow “by the place where Zeus lay, and holy Earth with her gifts of blessedness makes the gods’ prosperity wax great.” Thus Euripides put Zeus in the ancient garden with the serpent-entwined apple tree, and his language affirms that this is where Zeus came from.
Some mythologists have mistaken the nymphs known as the Hesperides for guardians of the tree, but they certainly are not. Their body language, easy actions and very names serve the purpose of establishing what kind of a garden this is: a wonderful, carefree place. Above, we see the Garden of the Hesperides depicted on the bottom panel of a water pot from about 410 BC. The serpent entwines the apple tree with its golden fruit. The names of the figures are written on the vase. Two of the Hesperides, Chrysothemis (Golden Order) and Asterope (Star Face) stand to our immediate left of the tree. Chrysothemis moves toward the tree to pluck an apple. Asterope leans pleasantly against her with both arms. To our far left, Hygeia (Health) sits on a hillock and holds a long scepter, a symbol of rule, as she looks back towards the tree. To our right of the apple tree, Lipara (Shining Skin) holds apples in the fold of her garment, and raises her veil off her shoulder.
The names of the Hesperides describe what the garden is like. It is a land of gold for the taking, soft starlight, perfect health, and wondrous beauty. The Hebrew word for Eden means “to be soft or pleasant,” figuratively “to delight oneself.” The Garden of the Hesperides is the Greek version of the Garden of Eden.
The male figures to our right of the tree are Nimrod/Herakles (seated) and his nephew Iolas. The scene represents the climax of all of Nimrod/Herakles’ exploits. The hero of post-Flood humanity is there for a bite of the serpent’s apple. He has figuratively usurped the authority of Noah/Nereus and his God, returned humanity to the ancient serpent’s enlightenment, and exalted mankind as the measure of all things.
The Greek tradition insists that Zeus and Hera were the first human couple; the Judeo-Christian tradition insists Adam and Eve were the first couple. Both traditions insist that their respective first couples came from an ancient paradise with a serpent-entwined fruit tree. Thus, two opposite spiritual standpoints share the same factual basis.
Greek artists went into much more detail than this about their religion. They depicted Cain and Seth as Hephaistos and Ares, Noah and Ham as Nereus and Chiron, and Naamah (Genesis 4:22) and Cush as Athena and Hermes. Their unique depiction of the Flood matched the Genesis account in detail. Their religious temple and vase art boasted of the triumph of the way of Cain over Noah and his God-fearing offspring after the Flood.
Modern academia has yet to learn the simple lesson that, without reference to the early events described in the Book of Genesis, it is not possible to make any real sense of ancient Greek religious art. The problem for these academics is that they cannot entertain the obvious Genesis connections without abandoning their blind dedication to atheism and evolutionism. They may be called teachers and professors, but they fail to comprehend the obvious meaning of the symbolic art that our ancestors have left for us, just as they fail to recognize the handiwork of our Creator throughout the earth, and within all the life upon it. —Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr.
For more on this subject, see GenesisInGreekArt.com.