Sunday, March 17, 2013

TFBT: Iliad 1:393 and John 11:21

The Gospel reading at church today was about the resurrection of Lazarus.  I was struck by the similarity of Martha’s words to Jesus and those of Achilles to his mother. 

John 11:21-22 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”  Meanwhile at Iliad 1: 393 "Achilles speaking to his goddess mother Thetis says, “… Help your brave son, therefore, if you are able. Go to Olympus, and if you have ever done him service in word or deed, implore the aid of Zeus”.    I noted during the reading how both Martha and Achilles seem confident that through their divine intermediary, their prayers will be granted by the high god. 

During the sermon Father Thomas mentioned Mary, Martha’s sister,  holding Christ’s ankles and reciting the prayer that her sister prayed before.  I immediately thought of the famous painting by Ingres of Thetis kneeling at Zeus’s feet.  So, we have John 11:32 "When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Thetis similarly at Iliad 1:500 “She sat herself down before him, and with her left hand seized his knees…saying, "Father Zeus, Lord of Sky, if I ever did you service in word or deed among the immortals, hear my prayer."

In scripture; John 11: 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping; he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled."  In Iliad 1:517 "Then Zeus was much troubled and answered..."

So in summary we have both Martha and Achilles confident that through their divine intermediary, their prayers will be granted, Mary and Thetis kneeling in supplication, Thetis had to ask twice while Martha and then Mary made the same request and finally a “troubled” deity answers their prayers.    What we don’t see in scripture that we do see in the Iliad is the, “if I ever did you service in word or deed” clause.
Elsewhere I’ve shared my studies on prayer in Greek mythology  and certainly others presented better findings then mine. Laura Slatkin (The Power of Thetis page 62,) speaking on Meullner’s Meaning of the Homeric EYXOMAI says the “typical structure of prayer” in epic is; the invocation of the divine, a reminder of the reciprocal obligations between the god and man and the specific request.

Thetis uses a similar formula when asking of Zeus the favor that her son Achilles never quite finished formally; Iliad 1.498.

1.     she found the far-seeing son of Cronus sitting apart from the rest upon the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus.
2.     So she sat down before him, and clasped his knees with her left hand, while with her right she touched him beneath the chin, and she spoke in prayer to king Zeus, son of Cronus: called his name or invoked him, "Father Zeus...
3.     reminded him of their relationship, “if ever amid the immortals I gave you aid...
4.     grant me this prayer and Zeus nodded.

Likewise Martha and Mary used this formula for a request that they never actually verbalize.

1.     John 11:18-20 Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of the Jews were visiting Martha and Mary, sympathizing with them over their brother. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him and then when she told her sister, Mary left the mourners behind, she got up quickly and went to him. John 11:30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.
2.     John 11:32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him; she fell at his feet and said, Lord…
3.     John 11:1-3   A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”
4.     The sisters never specifically ask for their brother’s resurrection, but Jesus easily infers it; John 11: 23 Jesus said,Your brother will be raised up.” 

ONe more similarity I ran across.  For those that don't know, the thing that Achilles wanted, the thing his mother promised him at Iliad 9:412-13was "If I stay here and fight at the walls of the city of the Trojans, then my safe homecoming will be destroyed for me, but I will have a glory  that is imperishable."  The Gospel writer Matthew also tells the whole story of Mary massaging the Lord's feet with aromatic oils and then wiping them with her hair. of this Jesus says at 26:13 "Verily I say unto you, where so ever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done be told for a memorial of her."
In conclusion; Achilles and one of the sisters are promised endless fame. There seems to be similarity between Martha and Mary’s supplication to Jesus in John:11 and that of Achilles to his mother in the first scroll of the IliadMartha and Mary along with Achilles appear confident that through their divine intermediary, their prayers will be granted, Mary and Thetis kneel in supplication, Thetis had to ask twice as did Martha and Mary and finally a “troubled” deity answers their prayers.   The sisters use an almost “epic” formula in their request. 

I wonder if I should be looking for other examples of the formula elsewhere in the Holy Bible.


  1. The sisters could not use the “if I ever did you service in word or deed” formula because, unlike Thetis with Zeus, they had never rescued Jesus from a coup d'état.
    (I wonder, what was Thetis' motivation to interfere with the natural course of events. And did she later regret her intervention when Zeus first wanted to rape her, then, stopped by some true or false prophecy, forced her to marry a mortal she didn't like and arranged a war in which her son was to die?)
    Czech writer Karel Capek has a story about a service considered to be done by those same mortals to Jesus after, not before Lazarus' resurrection. Hearing that Jesus has been arrested and his life is in danger, Martha and Mary urge Lazarus to go to Jerusalem and see whether he could do something to save Jesus. They tell him that this is his duty because Jesus had saved his life. However, Lazarus refuses: "You are quite right, my sisters, but I just cannot do that. I am sooo afraid of dying a second time!"

  2. Maya,

    Thetis' motivation for rescuing Zeus? Wow! There's a question I never heard asked before. Being a water diety she probably had the gift of foresight. You know it was Themis/Prometheus who let the cat out of the the bag about Thetis' son being more powerful than Zeus if she "wed" a Olympian. Maybe Thetis was hoping to get knocked up by Zeus and consequently become the Queen Mother of the Universe. Maybe?