Losing Their Religion: Odysseus' Crew on Thrinakia and the Rebellious Israelites in Exodus 32

Bruce Louden (University of Texas, El Paso)

The crew's revolt on Thrinakia, the climax of the Odyssey's first half, is unique in several respects. Heubeck notes its overtly religious tone (1989: 132-33), "The episode as a whole is more closely related to religious beliefs. Divine commandments against use of that which properly belongs to the gods, and fearful punishments for men who transgress divine taboos are rooted in ancient belief." It features one of the only references in Homer to Greeks building a temple (12.346-47). The rebellion on Thrinakia not only explores issues more typical of the concerns of Old Testament myth, it can be broken down into the same components that Exodus 32 employs to depict the Israelites' rebellion in Exodus 32, with a homology for all the key players and their functions. The close parallels suggest both narratives are different instantiations of the same traditional subgenre of myth, each version providing a context to help interpret the other.

Both episodes are set within a larger parallel narrative: a group in the middle of an arduous, multi-year trek to their home, each group delayed by a divine wrath. En route, both groups chafe at having to stay in the same locale for a month (forty days for the Israelites), unable to continue their trek. Each group has a leader, Odysseus and Moses, who has a closer relationship with god, respects the god's commands, goes off apart from the others to communicate with god (Od. 12.333-7), and does not take part in the improper ritual.

Eurylochus and Aaron, leaders of the offensive ritual that provokes a divine wrath, are both relatives of the protagonists. In other episodes both men lead their respective peoples in sacrifice. Eurylochus promises to build a temple to Helios (12.345-47), rich in agalmata. The Odyssey elsewhere (Od. 3.274) specifies two categories of agalmata, golden and woven items. Golden agalmata would clearly include images of the gods, as in the Israelites' rebellion.

Both myths threaten apocalyptic destruction but then contain it through the same structure, a divine council at which the wrathful god is persuaded to accept a lower level of destruction than he initially seeks. But the adapted form of divine council that mediates Yahweh's terrible wrath (Ex 32: 7-14) has two surprising innovations. Helios and Yahweh are the offended deities who in their wrath want to destroy all mortals in the vicinity (in his threat to shine in Hades, Helios implicitly threatens a full apocalypse), but the parallel reveals that Yahweh is cast in the role of the angry lesser god, as is Helios, whereas Moses, a mortal, is cast in the role usually filled by the main god, Zeus in Odyssey 12. Moses and Zeus mediate the wrathful gods' concerns and persuade them to accept a lower level of destruction: only those who have committed the offense, the perverse ritual, will die. Old Testament myth elsewhere employs this same innovation (a mortal mediating Yahweh's wrath in an adapted divine council) in Abraham's dialogue with Yahweh at Genesis 18:22-33.

The (adapted) divine council that concludes each myth (Ex 32: 7-14) clearly derives from a fully polytheistic tradition. The Gilgamesh epic has the earliest instance of the subtype of divine council, between Anu and Ishtar at Gilgamesh VI: iii-iv (cf. Poseidon and Zeus at Od. 13.125-62, and Il. 7.442-63). Since recent studies have undermined claims for historicity in the Exodus narrative (Propp, W. 2006. Exodus 19-40: The Anchor Bible: 735-53), and argue that it is shaped around events in the Babylonian captivity (David Clines, cf. Finkelstein), and given that Greek culture and language were far more widespread than their Israelite counterparts, the rebellion on Thrinakia offers a more traditional form of the presumed traditional mythic subgenre than does Exodus 32.

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