The Sexual Mingling of Gods and Humans

by Esteban

“Flavius Joseph noted in his Jewish Antiquities the affinities between Genesis 6:1-4 and Greek traditions: “In fact the deeds that tradition ascribes to them resemble the audacious exploits told by the Greeks of the giants.”

The sexual encounters between Greek gods and human women (and also between Greek goddesses and human men) are a common topic in Greek mythology. A work almost wholly devoted to this theme is the fragmentary Catalogue of Women, a work of the seventh or sixth century BCE, though drawing on earlier traditions. (M.L. West, The Hasidic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins, Oxford, 1985; Ludwig Koenen, “Greece, the Near East, and Egypt: Cyclic Destruction in Hesiod and the Catalogue of Women,” TAPA 124 (1994), pp. 1-34.)

It begins with an invocation to the Muses: “Sing now of the tribe of women … who unfasten their waistbands … in union with gods.” (R. Merkelbach and M.L. West, eds., Fragmenta Hesiodea (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), pp. 3-4. Fragment I)

At the beginning of this account, gods and mortals mingled and feasted together, a proximity that led to their sexual unions.

The Catalogue seems to conclude with a fragment that describes the end of this era of divine-human intimacy. Zeus conceives a plan to send a great destruction–the Trojan War–to bring to an end the easy mingling of gods and humans.

“For at that time high-thundering Zeus was planning tremendous deeds, stirring up <quarrel> throughout the boundless earth. For now he was hastening to annihilate the greater part of the human race as a pretext to destroy the lives of the demigods.”

(Merckelbach-West, Fragmenta Hesiodea, 101-2).

It is not entirely clear what Zeus’ intentions are, since it is impossible (depending on some restorations in the following fragmentary lines) that he does not actually destroy the demigods but rather removes them to an idyllic existence in the Islands of the Blessed, as happens in Hesiod’s Works and Days. (H.G. Evelyn-White, Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica (LCL: Cambridge, 1914), pp. 199-201.)

In any case, as L. Koenen observes, “he brings to an end the age of social and sexual intercourse between gods and mortal women.” (See Ludwig Koenen, “Greece, the Near East, and Egypt: Cyclic Destruction in Hesiod and the Catalogue of Women,” TAPA 124 (1994), p. 30).

This fragment, as scholars have noted, is remarkably similar to Genesis 6:1-4, particularly in the latter’s context as a prelude to the Flood story. (Ronald Hendel, “Of Demigods and the Deluge,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1987, pp. 18-20) The Greek fragment includes the details of male gods having sex with human women, propagating a race of semi divine offspring, and the high god’s decision to send a great destruction.

In this case, Zeus’ decision to destroy “the greater part (pollen) of the human race” (or perhaps “the multitudinous human race”) is motivated by his desire to destroy (or remove) the race of mixed human-divine creatures, the demigods or heroes.

These are the great warriors who fight and die on both sides of the Trojan War. A separation between the human world and the divine world is established by Zeus’ plan, preventing the further sexual mingling of gods and humans and bringing to an end the age of heroes. (Ronald Hendel, “Of Demigods and the Deluge,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1987, pp. 16-20).

R. Scodel has argued that the ideas in this fragment are in fact more suitable to a cosmic destruction than to the Trojan War:

“A war, no matter how long and how bitter, does not seem calamitous enough to have been an original form of the myth of destruction: it is, moreover, a normally human and local activity … It therefore seems likely that this aspect of the Trojan War is secondary, and that the theme has actually been borrowed from the Deluge.”

(Ruth Scodel, “The Achaean Wall and the Myth of Destruction,” HSCP 86, 1982, 42-3).

If it is plausible that this motive for the Trojan War (and there are others, including Zeus’ intent to reduce overpopulation, reminiscent of Enlil’s motive in Atrahasis) (See A.D. Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Concept of Overpopulation and Its Solution as Reflected in the Mythology,” Or 41 (1972), p. 176) is related to Near Eastern traditions, in which Genesis 6:1-4 and the flood stories are mutually implicated.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 30-2.