Tuesday, July 05, 2005


Potiphar's Wife

Gabriel Laguna at Tradición Clásica discusses the story of Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39.7-20). For those who skipped Sunday School, Potiphar's wife tried to seduce Joseph. When Joseph rebuffed her advances, she falsely accused him of rape. Or maybe that's the kind of story kids don't study in Sunday School. Laguna has some pictures showing what Joseph missed out on.

An Egyptian papyrus in the British Museum (10183) tells a similar story, known as The Tale of Two Brothers. The two brothers were Anubis and Bata. Anubis' wife falsely accused Bata of beating her when she refused his advances, although she was really the one who tried to seduce him. A translation by Miriam Lichtheim in Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, volume II (The New Kingdom), pp. 203-211, is available on the Web here.

There are also several classical parallels to the story of Potiphar's wife. First is Bellerophon, falsely accused by Proetus' wife Anteia (in some versions Stheneboea). Homer tells the story (Iliad 6.152-165, tr. Samuel Butler):
There is a city in the heart of Argos, pasture land of horses, called Ephyra, where Sisyphus lived, who was the craftiest of all mankind. He was the son of Aeolus, and had a son named Glaucus, who was father to Bellerophon, whom heaven endowed with the most surpassing comeliness and beauty. But Proetus devised his ruin, and being stronger than he, drove him from the land of the Argives, over which Jove had made him ruler. For Antea, wife of Proetus, lusted after him, and would have had him lie with her in secret; but Bellerophon was an honourable man and would not, so she told lies about him to Proteus. 'Proetus,' said she, 'kill Bellerophon or die, for he would have had converse with me against my will.'
Perhaps the best known classical parallel to Potiphar's wife is Hippolytus, falsely accused by his stepmother, Theseus' wife Phaedra. Euripides and Seneca both wrote plays on the subject which survive. Apollodorus gives a summary at Epitome 1.18-19 (tr. J.G. Frazer):
Phaedra, after she had borne two children, Acamas and Demophon, to Theseus, fell in love with the son he had by the Amazon, to wit, Hippolytus, and besought him to lie with her. Howbeit, he fled from her embraces, because he hated all women. But Phaedra, fearing that he might accuse her to his father, cleft open the doors of her bed-chamber, rent her garments, and falsely charged Hippolytus with an assault.

Theseus believed her and prayed to Poseidon that Hippolytus might perish. So, when Hippolytus was riding in his chariot and driving beside the sea, Poseidon sent up a bull from the surf, and the horses were frightened, the chariot dashed in pieces, and Hippolytus, entangled in the reins, was dragged to death. And when her passion was made public, Phaedra hanged herself.
Apollodorus (3.13.3, tr. Frazer) also tells a similar story about Peleus, falsely accused by Acastus' wife Astydameia:
Astydamia, wife of Acastus, fell in love with Peleus, and sent him a proposal for a meeting; and when she could not prevail on him she sent word to his wife that Peleus was about to marry Sterope, daughter of Acastus; on hearing which the wife of Peleus strung herself up. And the wife of Acastus falsely accused Peleus to her husband, alleging that he had attempted her virtue.
In other versions Astydamia is called Hippolyta or Cretheis.

Cretheus' wife Biadice (or Demodice) falsely accused Phrixus. Hyginus, De Astronomia 2.20, tells the tale:
Moreover, Cretheus had a wife Demodice, whom others called Biadice. She was entranced by the body of Athamas' son Phrixus and fell in love with him. But she could not entice him to have his way with her, and so compelled by necessity she began to accuse him before Cretheus, claiming that he nearly raped her. She said other things of the same sort, as women are wont to do. Whereupon Cretheus, as befitted a king and an uxorious fellow, was deeply moved and persuaded Athamas to exact punishment from Phrixus.

Crethea autem habuisse Demodicen uxorem, quam alii Biadicen dixerunt. hanc autem Phrixi Athamantis filii corpore inductam in amorem incidisse, neque ab eo, ut sibi copiam faceret, inpetrare potuisse. itaque necessario coactam, criminari eum ad Crethea coepisse, quod diceret ab eo vim sibi pene allatam, et horum similia mulierum consuetudine dixisse. quo facto Crethea ut uxoris adamantem et regem decebat, permotum, Athamanti ut de eo supplicium sumeret persuasisse.
Finally, Cycnus' wife Philonome (or Phylonome) falsely accused Tennes (or Tenes), according to Pausanias 10.14.2 (tr. W.H.S. Jones):
Philonome, daughter of Cragasus, fell in love with Tennes. Rejected by him she falsely accused him before her husband, saying that he had made love to her, and she had rejected him. Cycnus was deceived by the trick, placed Tennes with his sister in a chest and launched it out to sea.

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