Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.11.05

Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr., Athena and Kain: The True Meaning of Greek Myth.   Annapolis, MD:  Solving Light Books, 2003.  Pp. 224.  ISBN 0-9705438-2-4.  $14.95 (pb).  



Reviewed by Wm. Blake Tyrrell, Michigan State University (tyrrell@msu.edu)
Word count: 1034 words

Athena and Kain is a silly book with a pernicious message. It seeks to rob the ancient Greeks of their uniqueness, to taint their contribution to the formation of western culture, and to replace both with a fundamentalist cant that does no service to Genesis. Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr. founds his exposition of the meaning of Greek mythology upon the premise that the book of Genesis is true and that its truths hold for all humanity. Since the Greeks belong to humanity, truths such as Eden and the flood must be recorded in their myths (vii). This is to say, the Greeks in telling of Zeus and Hermes are remembering biblical myths. The reader merely needs "skeptiosity," a "combination of skepticism and curiosity," to discern what their myths really mean. Johnson offers no evidence independent of his own assertions to back up this claim or definition of what he means by truth. In any case, the "truth" of Genesis is a matter of faith, not rational discourse, and consequently this review of Athena and Kain may well end here with the addendum that the book is nicely made. But Johnson claims far-reaching consequences for his peculiar view of Greek myths: "the entire formidable framework of ancient Greek society seems virtually nothing without reference to those [biblical] events"(203). It is worthwhile, therefore, to look more closely into how he seeks to empty Greek mythology of its individuality and degrade Greek culture to a shadow of the Book of Genesis.

Greek religion, Johnson contends, originated in the garden of Eden (16) when Zeus and Hera, Greek counterparts of Adam and Eve, reprised the encounter with the serpent. What for Adam and Eve brings about the fall from the Creator, for Zeus and Hera initiates a movement toward enlightenment. Johnson identifies Hera with Eve through the word Dione which he asserts is an early name for Hera and, as the feminine form of Dios (Zeus), suggests "the creation of Eve out of Adam" and a remembrance of the "single bisexual entity" that Zeus and Hera, like Adam and Eve, once were (26). Support comes from juxtaposing Albrecht Dürer's Adam and Eve (date: 1507) with a wooden figurine from seventh-century Samos (26-27). Whereas Dürer depicts a discretely naked couple in the garden, the Samian artist carved two fully clothed figures. Johnson further sees in Dios, interpreted as "Light" or "moment of lighting up," a meaning quoted from Carl Kerenyi, a memory of the time when the Greek first couple "ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and first embraced the enlightenment of the serpent" (26). Eve gives this knowledge to Adam in the form of a fruit, and Hera to Zeus in the form of a lightning bolt. Johnson finds evidence in a fifth-century vase painting identified only as "Beazley archive": a seated Zeus holds a lightning bolt and faces a seated female who is reaching out to it with her right hand. Johnson maintains that the scene depicts Hera's sharing the serpent's knowledge in the form of lightning, but he must assume the act of giving. Zeus, not the female, is holding the lightning. The lighting symbolizes the serpent's knowledge that moved the Greeks on the path away from the God of Genesis. Greek civilization and its legacy thus become the products of the serpent's way, one of transgression of God's commands and shame before Him.

Johnson identifies figures of Greek mythology with those of Genesis by asserting relationships in similarities. Cain returns from wandering and has descendants who are coppersmiths and blacksmiths; therefore, the Greek Cain must be Hephaestus, a smithy who returns to Olympus from banishment. Accordingly, Aphrodite represents Cain's wife, and Ares, his brother Seth. Seth's descendants are the Centaurs whose name centauros Johnson suggests means "hundred" as in Latin kenturion. Accordingly, Seth's descendant Noah heralds the coming of the flood for a hundred years (67-68). Since the line of Seth that ends with Noah is a "'strange branch' of humanity" (69), Centaurs are shown in vase paintings carrying symmetrical branches. Johnson proceeds in this manner, affirming ties that he attempts to prove by further assertion, to find Nereus the counterpart of Noah, the Nereids of Noah's daughters, Hermes of Cush and Herakles of Nimrod.

A clear instance of Johnson's methodology comes with his explanation of how the Greeks portrayed the murder of Abel in the metopes of the south side of the Parthenon (51-53). Johnson reproduces the drawings of the four metopes of Centaurs made by Jacques Carrey in 1674. Scholars, who generally fare badly in this book as regurgitators, are said to offer no help because they are mystified. Johnson reveals the two men in the first metope, one taller than the other, to be, respectively, Kain (taller because older?) and Abel. The second metope, that of a naked man before a woman, becomes the expression of Kain's disquiet over "a sacrifice his wife is planning to offer," a clue for Johnson that the "dispute with Abel had affected Kain's domestic life." The third shows a man behind a pair of horses that is supposed to be a startled Abel and his horses, as if the Hebrew or Greek farmer plowed his field with expensive horses. The last metope of a man standing over another who had fallen, perhaps scene of a slaying, can only be the murder of Abel by Kain.

Then there is the title. Scholars who have "translated" Kain as Cain have disguised the fact that Kain and Kaineus, a name found on the François vase, are the same person (viii; 80). Athena, born from Zeus's head, represents the reborn Eve and as the goddess of wisdom, she embodies in Greek guise the wisdom of the serpent. What would Athenians have thought of the suggestion that their beloved goddess embodied Eve, a female formed from the rib of the first man of another culture, reborn after the flood and that her wisdom was the knowledge of the serpent that once again leads them down the way of sin and from subjection to the God of Genesis?

This book does not contribute to the understanding of Greek myths or Genesis. I do not recommend it.

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