Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Christ as Poseidon, Christ over Poseidon

The 4th/5th century Greco-Egypto-Roman poet Nonnus of Panopolis composed a huge epic work in 48 books on Dionysus, the Dionysiaca, as well as an epic poetic paraphrase of the gospel of John, both in Homeric idiom and meter.

In his version of the famous Johannine prologue, Nonnus writes:

ἐν ἀχλυόεντι δὲ κόσμῳ

οὐρανίαις σελάγιζε βολαῖς γαιήοχος αἴγλη,

καὶ ζόφος οὔ μιν ἔμαρψε.

And in the gloomy cosmos

the radiance of the Earth-Carrier was shining with heavenly beams,

and the darkness did not lay hold of it.

The epithet used for Christ here, “Earth-Carrier” or “Earth-Upholder,” was a common epithet for Poseidon. So, for example, in Book 13 of the Iliad:

ἀλλὰΠοσειδάων γαιήοχος ἐννοσίγαιος
εἰσάμενοςΚάλχαντιδέμαςκαὶἀτειρέαφωνήν… (Iliad 13.43-5)

Howbeit Poseidon, the Enfolder and Shaker of Earth, set him to urge on the Argives, when he had come forth from the deep sea, in the likeness of Calchas, both in form and untiring voice. (Tr. A.T. Murray)

“Cultural appropriation”? Perhaps. But such was the common practice among early Christian poets, to say nothing of writers like Milton (compare the regular usage of Jupiter’s epithet Tonans, “Thunderer,” for God in Latin Christian poetry). Here the borrowing has the effect (1) of presenting Christ as the fulfillment pagan conceptions of deity; or (2) of presenting Christ contrastively to pagan conceptions of deity that parcelled out the functions of the Godhead among a multiplicity of (often conflicting) individuals; or (3) both, because of (1) and (2) in combination.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.