Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Gospel According to Hermes

Paul and Barnabas at Lystra - Jacob Pynas (Dutch, Amsterdam 1592:93–after 1650 Amsterdam (?))

A few months ago, I wrote about some interesting allusions to the priest-poet Epimenides in the New Testament. I’d like to continue exploring non-scriptural literary influences and connections in the Bible with a look at a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Publius Ovidius Naso was a Roman poet who lived from 43 BCE to about 17 of the Christian era. He wrote epic poetry in Latin, and his works have become a major source of information on Greco-Roman mythology. His magnum opus was Metamorphoses, a work spanning 15 books and containing some 250 mythic stories that encompass all of history, from creation to the death of Julius Caesar, within a frame narrative.

Hither Came Jupiter in the Guise of a Mortal…

What I am interested here is the story of Philemon and Baucis in Book VIII. A brief summary is as follows:

The gods Jupiter and Mercury visit Phrygia disguised as human travellers. They go from house to house in search of food and lodging, but are refused a thousand times. At last they come to the cottage of old Baucis and Philemon, who show the two visitors their finest hospitality despite their poverty. They prepare the finest meal they can muster, and are astonished at one point to see the wine replenishing itself. Realizing that their guests are divine, they attempt to offer their only goose as a sacrifice, but Jupiter and Mercury stop them. The two gods then pronounce judgment on the region for its wickedness, but make an exception for Baucis and Philemon. They lead the couple over to a nearby mountain and then watch while the entire countryside is flooded and their own house is transformed into a magnificent temple. The two gods then offer to grant Philemon and Baucis whatever they want, and the couple asks to serve as priests of the temple and to have their lives end at the same time. Years later, when the two die, they are immediately transformed into two sacred trees: an oak and a linden tree.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669 ), Philemon and Baucis, 1658, oil on panel transferred to panel, Widener Collection

Rembrandt van Rijn, Philemon and Baucis, 1658

This tale, well-known in the ancient world, forms the basis for an episode in Acts. In chapter 14, Paul and Barnabas visit Lystra, a Roman colony not far from Phrygia. Paul heals a cripple, and when the crowds see it, they cry out that the gods have visited them, calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes. They attempt to offer sacrifices in honour of the visitors, but Barnabas and Paul angrily put a stop to it, insisting that they are mortals.

Zeus, of course, is the Greek name for Jupiter, and Hermes for Mercury. The basic idea, then, seems to be that the townsfolk of Lystra know the famous story about Jupiter and Mercury (Zeus and Hermes) travelling in the guise of mortals, and they jump to conclusions when they see Paul’s miracle. After all, they certainly don’t want to meet with the fate that the inhospitable villagers did in the story of Philemon and Baucis! But while Ovid’s visitors reveal their divine nature and accept hospitality, our two apostles reveal their mortal nature and refuse hospitality.

All commentaries agree on that much, more or less. There’s a bit more to it, however. Luther H. Martin in a paper published in New Testament Studies (see bibliography below) makes some important observations that most people miss. He notes that many commentators, “focusing on facticity rather than narrativicity,” fret over the difficulties of verse 11, which explicitly has the crowds speaking in Lycaonian. How did uneducated Lycaonian-speaking peasants communicate with the foreign apostles, and how likely is it they would have used the names Zeus or Hermes if they weren’t speaking Greek? (p. 153 n. 8)

Wrangling over such difficulties misses the point, however. Martin sees the author of Acts as a sophisticated writer with a “classical” perspective — and we have already seen his adroit use of the Epimenides legend. Acts was written to address a Greek audience, and their familiarity with traditions about Zeus and Hermes is all that really matters here. The parallels between Acts 14 and Philemon and Baucis go beyond a simple case of mistaken identity by the superstitious locals.

For starters, it is important to understand that Zeus and Hermes were “guarantors of emissaries and missions” in Greek tradition. (Cf. Plato, Leg. 941A.) It was considered a sin against Hermes and Zeus to deliver a false message. As Martin puts it, “Hermes guarantees that what is to be spoken is not ‘false messages’ but ‘good news’.” One of Zeus’s epitaphs was “giver of glad tidings”, while that of Hermes his messenger was “bringer of glad tidings”. (p. 155) It is no surprise then, that it is Paul who is made out to be Hermes because he is the main speaker and message bearer, delivering the Good News.

(Side note: There is also a problem if we ascribe the identification of Paul with Hermes to the Lystrans rather than to the author of Acts. Though inscriptions attest to the veneration of Zeus and Hermes in that area, these were apparently secondary names applied to a pair of local Luwian deities — Tarhunt, a weather god, and Runt, protector of wild animals — who did not possess the functions of king and messenger that are relevant to the author’s point. The actual residents of Lystra are unlikely to have made such a connection. See Versnel p. 42 for more on the subject.)

Another important parallel is the theme of hospitality. Just as Jupiter and Mercury visit a thousand homes before they find one that welcomes them, the hospitality offered by the Lystrans comes after Barnabas and Paul have been rejected at Antioch and Iconium. Zeus and Hermes are particularly relevant, as they were seen as patrons and protectors of travellers in foreign lands. (See Martin, p. 155 for numerous classical references.)

Thus, although the passage is ostensibly an entertaining account of mistaken identity, the author of Acts is actually placing his story “in the context of classical Greek tradition”, reinforcing the legitimacy and truth of the Christian mission to the Gentiles and reminding readers of their obligations regarding hospitality when receiving Christian missionaries. At the same time, the story reinforces a sharp contrast between the pagan and Christian views of deities. (p. 156)

Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1637) Saint Paul and Saint Barnabus at Lystra

Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Saint Paul and Saint Barnabus at Lystra, 1637 (Source: Princeton University Art Museum)

Other Possible Allusions in the New Testament

While Acts 14 provides the only near-certain reference to Philemon and Baucis in the New Testament, there are other allusions to the popular motif of “entertaining gods/angels”. The clearest example is in Hebrews 13:2:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Paul himself makes an odd statement in Galatians 4:14 that could be construed along these lines:

Though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God.

(In fact, that’s just what happens in Acts 14: Paul is welcomed as Hermes, a messenger or “angel” of Zeus. Was the author of Acts inspired by this remark?)

Another possible reference is in Matthew, although it is an analogy rather than a literal case of divinity in disguise:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matt. 25:34–36)

Arent de Gelder, God and the Angels visit Abraham, c. 1680 - 1685

Arent de Gelder, God and the Angels visit Abraham, c. 1680–1685 (Source: Art and the Bible)

The Miraculous Births of Orion and Isaac

Although I’ve been focusing on the New Testament here, there is a parallel with an Old Testament passage that deserves mention. But for background, another poem by Ovid must be included: Fasti, Book V.

This poem tells a story similar to that of Philemon and Baucis. Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury are on a journey together, and as the day winds down, they find themselves at the farmhouse of old Hyrieus, who invites them in as a matter of hospitality, not realizing they are gods. He cooks them a meal, and the gods, revealing their identities, offer the man whatever he wants. His only wish is for a son, so the gods cover an ox hide with dirt, and the child Orion is born ten months later.

Between this story and the one in Metamorphoses, we have many key elements of the story in Genesis 18–19. Abraham is camped by some sacred oak trees when three strangers show up. Unbeknownst to him, one of the men is Yahweh in disguise, and the other two are angels. Abraham offers them his best hospitality — food, water for washing up, and so on. In return, they promise that elderly Abraham and barren Sarah will have a son. The two angels continue on to Sodom, where they have a chance encounter with Lot. Lot shows them his best hospitality, offering them food and lodging, while the rest of the city demonstrates its barbaric inhospitality. The next morning, the two angels — their true nature revealed — urge Lot to flee to the hills with his family before they destroy all the cities of the plain. Lot asks for one favor — to spare the city of Zoar and let him flee there. The angels acquiesce, and the other cities are destroyed in a rain of fire.

Even at a glance, the parallels between Gen. 18-19 and Ovid’s two “gods in disguise” stories are obvious. Alan Griffin (1991) identifies some 20 elements the Genesis story has in common with Philemon-Baucis alone. When we include the story from Fasti, there are even more parallels — not least of which is the miraculous birth of a son (Isaac in Genesis, Orion in Fasti) to an elderly man.

Further analysis of the possible literary connection between these stories are beyond the scope of this piece and will have to wait for another time.

Bibliography

  • Luther H. Martin, “Gods or Ambassadors of God? Barnabas and Paul in Lystra”, New Testament Studies, Vol. 41, No. 01 (Jan. 1995), pp. 152–156.
  • H. S. Versnel, Coping with the Gods: Wayward Readings in Greek Theology (RGRW 173), Brill, 2011.
  • Alan H. F. Griffin, “Philemon and Baucis in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’”, Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Apr. 1991), pp. 62–74.

4 thoughts on “Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Gospel According to Hermes

    • Hm, the Wedding at Cana didn’t even occur to me, but I’ll look into it. However, I considered mentioning the two miracles of the replenishing oil by Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament. The replenishing-jug motif is very similar; whether there is any connection to Philemon and Baucis specifically is hard to say. Turning water into wine (as opposed to making a wine jug replenish itself) is a slightly different kind of miracle, and we might find better connections elsewhere.

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      • Yeah, its a bit of a stretch but it jumped out at me when I read the summary. Wasn’t sure if the fact that it is only in John meant anything in the sense that it was part of a larger theme for the “inspiration” of material that is unique to John.

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