Garden of Eden Depicted in Ancient Greek Religious Art
If the early chapters of the Book of Genesis present a true account of human origins, then ancient secular human history must connect in significant ways to that account.
In fact, ancient Greek religious art connects in very significant ways with Genesis. While Genesis describes the early events and people in humanity’s past, the Greeks depicted those same events and people – except from the point of view that the serpent enlightened, rather than deluded, the first couple in paradise.
The Greeks remembered the original paradise, calling it the Garden of the Hesperides, always depicting it with a serpent-entwined apple tree. The Book of Genesis doesn’t say what kind of fruit it was: It’s from the Greek tradition we get the idea that Eve ate an apple.
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Oil Jar (lekythos) with the serpent-entwined apple tree in the Garden of the Hesperides. Greek made in Paestum South Italy 350-340 BC Terracotta. (Mary Harrsch/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Zeus and Hera – the Original Occupants of the Garden
Both the ancient commentator Apollodorus and the Greek playwright Euripides describe Zeus and Hera as the original occupants of the Garden of the Hesperides. To the Greeks, they were the first couple, a match for the Adam and Eve of Genesis.
Zeus and Hera, the first couple according to the Greeks, seated together on the east frieze of the Parthenon, from about 435 BC. (Author provided)
The Judeo-Christian tradition considers Adam as the father of all humanity. The term “father Zeus” is a description of the king of the gods that appears over 100 times in the ancient writings of Homer. According to the ancient poet Hesiod, Zeus is “the father of gods and men” – the gods being deified ancestors.
Genesis 3:20 describes Eve as “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.
Both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Greek religious tradition insist that their respective first couples came out of an ancient paradise with a serpent-entwined fruit tree. Two opposite spiritual standpoints—the former looking to the Creator as the source of truth, and the latter looking to the serpent for it—share the same factual basis.
Names of Hesperides Describe The Garden
The Hesperides, the nymphs who tend to the ancient garden, its tree, its apples, and its serpent, get their name from Hespere in Greek, which means evening, signifying the West where the sun sets.
This matches the Genesis account which describes civilization developing to the east of Eden. A return to Eden would mean traveling west. The Greeks put the Garden of the Hesperides in the Far West.
The Garden of the Hesperides was depicted on the lower panel of a water pot from about 410 BC. In this representation, 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 the immediate left of the tree.
The Garden of the Hesperides depicted on the lower panel of a red-figured hydria from about 410 BC. (Author provided)
Chrysothemis moves toward the tree to pluck an apple. Asterope leans pleasantly against her with both arms. To the left of them, Hygeia (Health) sits on a hillock and holds a long scepter, a symbol of rule, as she looks back towards the tree. To the 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’s a land of soft starlight, gold for the taking, perfect health, and wondrous beauty.
Apollodorus, writing in the 2nd-century BC, gives four different names for the Hesperides: Aegle (Dazzling Light), Erythia (Red Land), Hesperia (Evening Star), and Arethusa (Water Fountain).
The sound of a water fountain is one of the most peaceful sounds. What an enchanting and delightful place! 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.
Herakles Goes for the Apples
The seated man on the vase to our right of the tree is Nimrod/Herakles. The goal of Nimrod/Herakles in the post-Flood world was to push Noah and his God out of the picture, dispatch those who disagreed with his own mankind-exalting rule, and get back to the ancient garden for another bite of the serpent’s apple, its anti-Creator “enlightenment,” and the promise of immortality without God.