Herodotus and Mark

While reading the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) yesterday (ah! the joys of retirement!) I came across a curious tale in Book IX of his Histories. It concerns King Xerxes (518-465 BCE) of Persia. He was married to Amestris, but he fell in love with the wife of his brother, Masistes, and in order to get closer to her, contrived to have his son Darius marry her daughter Artaynta. (Got that?) But, fickle soul that he was, Xerxes soon transferred his affections from mother to daughter. And for some strange reason, the young girl fell for him.

            His wife Amestris had made a beautiful robe for Xerxes and he wore it one day while visiting his niece/lover, Artaynta. She happened to ‘please him greatly’ on this occasion (I wonder how?), and so he said that she could ask him for anything at all and he would give it to her. She wanted the robe, but Xerxes, scared of what his wife - who already suspected that he was up to something - might say, offered the girl ‘cities, heaps of gold, and an army (!)’ in its stead. But she was adamant. Only the robe would do. So Xerxes, bound by his promise, reluctantly gave it to her.

            His wife found out. She assumed that the girl’s mother was behind it all, and determined to have her punished. ‘She waited till her husband gave a great royal banquet, a feast which takes place once a year, in celebration of the king’s birthday’ and asked him to give her the wife of his brother as a gift. Of course, he refused, but ‘wearied by her importunity, and constrained, moreover, by the law of the feast, which required that no one who asked a boon that day at the king’s board should be denied his request, he yielded, but with very ill will, and gave the woman into her power.’

Amestris had her mutilated: ‘her two breasts, her nose, ears, and lips were cut off and thrown to the dogs; her tongue was torn out by the roots, and thus disfigured she was sent back to her home. Her husband determined to have his revenge, but before he could ally himself with Xerxes’ enemies, the king had him and all his family slaughtered.


Now, I don’t know about you, but I see more than a hint here of the story of the death of John the Baptist as it is told in the Synoptic Gospels. Here’s my translation of Mark’s version:


Herod was in awe of John because he knew him to be an upright and holy man, and he kept him safe. He would listen to him gladly although he was puzzled by what he said.

      Jesus’ reputation was growing, and a report of his activities reached King Herod who thought that these amazing things were happening because John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. Others thought that it was Elijah or a prophet like one of the prophets of old. When Herod heard of it he said, ‘John, the one I beheaded, has been raised from the dead.’ This self-same Herod had sent for John, seized him, bound him, and imprisoned him, on account of Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip, whom Herod himself had married. John had told Herod that it wasn’t lawful for him to take his brother’s wife, and so Herodias held a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him, but she wasn’t able to.

      Herodias’ opportunity came when Herod threw a party on his birthday for his court, his high ranking military men, and the leading citizens of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests so much that the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for anything you want and I’ll give it to you!’ He gave a solemn promise, ‘Even if you ask for half my kingdom I’ll give it to you!’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ Her mother replied, ‘The head of John the Baptist!’

The Death of John the Baptist, by Caravaggio
      She rushed straight back to the king and said, ‘I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter!’ The king was very sad, but because of his oaths and his guests there was no way he could refuse her. He dispatched an executioner with orders to bring John’s head immediately. He went off and beheaded him in the prison and brought the head on a platter and gave it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it they came and took John’s body and placed it in a tomb.  (Mark 6:14-29)


Did you notice the similarities?
- King infatuated with his brother’s wife/married to his brother’s wife.

- Brother’s wife’s daughter 'pleases the king greatly'.

- King’s birthday celebration.

- King’s outrageous promises, oaths and offers.

- Scheming, jealous, vindictive queen.

- King’s reluctance to comply with the requests made to him.

- Brutal, tragic end.


There's also another if you count the fact that one is about Herod and the other is by Herodotus.


What’s going on here? Some years ago, Dennis R. McDonald showed how parts of Mark’s text were influenced by Homer’s epics, and now it seems that Herodotus features too. My own book (The Gospel and the Zodiac, available for £6.99 from Amazon) demonstrates that Mark’s Gospel is structured on the signs of the zodiac.


How long are people going to continue to maintain that the Gospels are history?


  1. That is a striking similarity indeed Mr. Darlison! The biblical myth of Esther has been also linked with Herodotus’ story about Xerxes and his brother’s wife.

    So what you say here is one of the many clues given to us that the Gospels should be not read as mere historical facts but mostly as allegories and esoteric teachings.

    And in my opinion, your book “The Gospel and the Zodiac” is of great value here. It is definitely not inspired fiction -as one might assume- but a true esoteric guide to Christianity’s authentic scripture. It is something much more important than another opinion around the four Gospels’ ambivalence...it is a true discovery of Mark’s secret astrological theme, a theme that was vaguely revealed –as you have already said- by Gnostic Christian Valentinus (and speaking more generally, astrological symbols and allegories are found everywhere in the Gospels and the Apocalypse).

    The author you referred to, Dennis McDonald, seems to have made another amazing discovery by showing strong evidence that the author of Mark’s Gospel imitated the structure and story plot of Homer's Epics.

    One of the most emphatic analogies and paraphrases observed by him is the strikingly similar endings of Homer’s Iliad and Mark’s Gospel.

    This is how the Iliad ends:

    King Priam is encouraged by goddess Iris (“Zeus’ angel”, according to Homer) to go to the Achaeans’ ship and ask Achilles for the body of Hector. Halfway there, god Hermes (another “angel of Zeus”) appears to an amazed Priam in the shape of a young man. Hermes helps him to enter the Achaean’s camp in secret, by making the guards asleep. Pleading with mercy, Priam persuades Achilles to give him Hector’s body. Priam returns to Troy. Three women (Ekavi, Andromachi and Helen) mourn the dead hero, followed by the burn and burial of his body.

    And this is how Mark ends:

    Joseph of Arimathea, a respected council member, takes courage and goes to Pilate asking for the body of Jesus. After making sure he is already dead Pilatus grants the corpse to Joseph. Then Joseph wraps Jesus’ body in linen, lays him in a tomb and rolls a large stone up against its entrance. When the Sabbath had passed three women (Mary the Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome), bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. They come upon the tomb but when they look up they realize that the stone has been rolled away! And entering into the tomb, they saw a young man (a God’s angel) sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe. And they were greatly alarmed. But he says to them, "Do not be alarmed. You are seeking Jesus [the Nazarene],who was crucified. He is risen!

    Here is another similarity found by McDonald that cannot actually be pure coincidence. Odysseus and Jesus seem to have experienced the same -more or less- adventure. The difference is, according to the writer, that the author of Mark deliberately portrays Jesus as much more powerful and divine than Odysseus and the rest of the old heroes. Odysseus struggles against the forces of nature, while Jesus is something more than a hero, he is a true god, therefore he has nothing to fear!

    Odyssey 10.1-69

    1. Odysseus's crew boarded and sat down.
    2. On a floating island Odysseus told stories to Aeolus
    3. After a month he took his leave, boarded, and sailed with 12 ships
    4. Odysseus slept
    5. The greedy crew opened sack, "All the winds rushed out."
    6. The crew groaned.
    7. Odysseus woke and gave up hope
    8. Odysseus complained of his crew's folly.
    9. Aeolus was master of the winds.

    Mark 4:35-41

    1. Jesus boarded and sat down to teach
    2. On a floating boat Jesus told his stories to the crowds
    3. When it was late, he took his leave; "Other boats were with him."
    4. Jesus slept.
    5. A storm arose: "[A]nd there was a great gale of wind."
    6. The disciples were helpless and afraid.
    7. Jesus awoke and stilled the storm
    8. Jesus rebuked his disciples for lack of faith.
    9. Jesus was master of the winds and sea.


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