Zeus and Hera – A Match for the First Couple of Genesis?
There is no Creator-God in the Greek religious system. Ancient Greek religion gets away from the God of Genesis and exalts mankind 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.
Genesis names the first couple in the ancient garden Adam and Eve . . . the Greeks called them Zeus and Hera. Left: Adam and Eve in Paradise by Jan Gossaert, 1527. Right: Zeus and Hera by Josef Tautenhayn, Austrian Parliament Building, Vienna (Public Domain).
The Greek word for gods is theoi, literally meaning placers. The Greek gods are deified human ancestors who put their man-centered religion in place.
In Plato’s Euthydemus (at 302d), Socrates referred to Zeus, Athena, and Apollo as his “gods” and as his “lords and ancestors.” 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.
Zeus and Hera from the east frieze of the Parthenon, 430 BC. (Public domain)
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. In a hymn of invocation, the 6 th 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 Hesiod, “the father of men and gods.” The term “father Zeus” is a description of the king of the gods which 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 promise 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 Dios, the genitive form of Zeus, at its deepest level, means “the actual decisive, dynamic moment of becoming light.” Thus, the meaning of the names of the first couple in the genitive case, Dios and Dione, point 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 many of the vases on which he is depicted, Zeus displays the lightning bolt in his right hand.
On this vase from about 470 BC, Zeus holds his scepter of rule in his left hand and his lightning bolt in his right. (Public Domain)
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.
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 Greek Version of Eden
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 body language of the Hesperides, their easy actions and their very names serve the purpose of establishing what kind of a garden this is: a wonderful, carefree place.
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The Garden of the Hesperides with the serpent-entwined apple tree depicted on the bottom panel of a water pot from about 410 BC (Public domain)
The central figures viewed from a flattened perspective – with their names as they appear on the vase. (Author Provided)
Two of the Hesperides, Chrysothemis (Golden Order) and Asterope (Star Face) stand to the immediate left of the tree. Chrysothemis moves toward the tree to pluck an apple. Asterope leans pleasantly against her with both arms. To their left, 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 the garden as 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.
On the above vase from about 430 BC, the Hesperid to the left feeds the serpent as the other tends to the apple tree. The Book of Genesis doesn’t say what kind of fruit tree it was. It’s from the Greek tradition we get the idea that Eve ate an apple. (Public domain)
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.
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 come from an ancient paradise with a serpent-entwined fruit tree. Two opposite spiritual standpoints share the same factual basis. The Greek identities of Cain and Seth offer further evidence of this truth.
Cain and Seth Deified by the Greeks as Hephaistos and Ares
According to Genesis 3:4-5, after Cain killed Abel, Adam and Eve had another son named Seth: “And knowing is Adam Eve, his wife, again. And pregnant is she and bearing a son. And calling is she his name Seth, saying, ‘For God has set for me another seed instead of Abel, for Cain kills him.’”
Thus, Adam and Eve had two primary sons who, in turn, each had offspring: Cain, the eldest, and Seth. Zeus and Hera also had two sons between them with offspring: Hephaistos, the elder, and Ares.
Left, Cain/Hephaistos, on a plate from about 420 BC, works at his forge. Right, Seth/Ares kneels on a section of the famous Francois Vase created in about 565 BC. (Public domain)
In the Scriptures, the line of Seth is the line of Christ. The Book of Matthew traces the lineage of Christ through David to Abraham; and the Book of Luke further traces the lineage of Abraham to Adam through his son Seth. This is often referred to as the line of belief in the Creator-God or the line of faith. On the other hand, the Scriptures define the line of Cain as one of unbelief in the Creator-God. According to I John 3:12, “Cain was of the wicked one,” a reference to “the ancient serpent called Adversary and Satan, who is deceiving the whole inhabited earth” (Revelation 12:9).
The Greeks deified Cain as Hephaistos, god of the forge. They deified his younger brother, Seth, as Ares, the troublesome god of conflict and war. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Cain is the evil one whose way is to be shunned. In the Greek religious system, the opposite is the case: Ares, the Seth of Genesis, is the traitor and the one who causes ruin and woe.
By his Roman name, Vulcan, we associate Hephaistos, the deified Cain, immediately with the forge and the foundry. According to Genesis 4:22, the members of Cain’s family were the first to become forgers “of every tool of copper and iron”. These surely included the hammer, the axe, and the tongs—the tools most often associated with Cain/Hephaistos in Greek art.
Hephaistos’ banishment from, and return to, Olympus (where the Creator is excluded from the pantheon) is a “myth” which constituted an essential element of Greek religion. It appeared painted, sculpted and bronzed throughout the Archaic and Classical periods. In the Greek religious system, the banishment and return of Hephaistos to Olympus corresponds, in Genesis, to Cain’s being commanded to wander the earth by God, and his defiant return to establish the first city (Genesis 4:9-17).
Zeus loved his son Cain/Hephaistos, who performed an indispensable and appreciated function as armorer of the gods. On the other hand, Zeus considered his youngest son, Seth/Ares, to be worthless. In Homer’s Iliad, Zeus called him “hateful,” “pestilent,” a “renegade” and “the bane of mortals.” The only reason Ares has a place in the Greek pantheon is that he is the son of Zeus; that is, he is one of the two actual sons of the first couple, Adam and Eve, of whom Zeus and Hera are deifications. According to Homer, Zeus hates Ares, but accepts responsibility for siring him: “[F]or thou art mine offspring, and it was to me that thy mother bare thee,” and then rails at this son of his, telling him that if he were born of any other god, he would have been “lower than the sons of heaven” long ago.
Some scholars say Greek religion is anthropomorphic; that is, gods take human form. That’s backwards. What happens is that real human ancestors retain their original identities and take on godlike qualities. Ares, as a deification of Seth, is trapped by the historical framework. His father, Zeus, had to hate him, and after the Flood, the Greek hero, Herakles, was expected to kill Ares’ descendants. While the scriptural viewpoint defines Seth/Ares as the God-believing, or spiritual son, Greek religion defines him as hated by, and antagonistic to the ruling gods who are part of the serpent’s system. Likewise, while Zeus-religion considers Cain/Hephaistos as the true and devoted son, the scriptural viewpoint defines him as part of the wicked one’s system.
Jews and Christians dislike and shun the line of Cain, but they can’t get rid of him or his line without altering their spiritual standpoint and history itself. Cain is part of the Scriptures, and he is there to stay. Zeus-religion has the same kind of situation. It hates the line of Ares, but it cannot eliminate the line from its history because the basic achievement of Zeus-religion, its grand celebration even, is the triumph of the way of Cain over the way of Seth. Seth/Ares is part of Greek sacred literature and art, and he is there to stay.
Top image: A seated Zeus reaches out for the hand of Hera on the temple of Hera at Selinus, c. 530 BC. Inset: Adam and Eve, oil and paper, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1517. (Public Domain)
Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr. is the author of The Parthenon Code: Mankind’s History in Marble (translated into French and Greek) and Noah in Ancient Greek Art. His latest book is the full-color Genesis Characters and Events in Ancient Greek Art. His websites: www.genesisingreekart.com, www.solvinglight.com