Daily Archives: December 18, 2009

The Northrop Frye Journal & The Robert D. Denham Library

The Robert D. Denham Library, under construction

The Robert D. Denham Library, under construction

Just in time for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, we are pleased to announce, at long last, the launch of our journal dedicated to Northrop Frye.

We are even more pleased to announce that the journal will not be a separate entity, as we initially planned, but will be incorporated into the blog site.

If you look to the top of our Widgets menu to the right, you’ll see the Journal.  Gaining access to it as simple as hitting the links.  We are retaining our original plan, which is to publish both “Articles of Interest” and “Peer Reviewed Scholarship.”  We’ve posted a sample article just so that you can see how it’ll work.  But the journal is now officially open for business, so send your submissions to fryeblog@gmail.com

We are also very pleased to announce the opening of the The Robert D. Denham Library, the first fully public virtual Northrop Frye library collection in the world.  I think you’ll all agree that it is only fitting that Bob’s name be attached to it.  It too has its own Widget link in the upper right of our site menu.  It will soon be filled with goodies, and, as of today it is the permanent home for Bob’s Northrop Frye Newsletter, the first issue of which is now posted, so please feel free to go in and browse. We’ll update regularly about new acquisitions and additions to our collection, which will expand quickly in the new year.

Joseph as a Fertility God


Item. “The assignment of fertility god imagery to the coat of many colors seems altogether arbitrary. Is there really a documented correspondence between fertility gods and parti-coloured coats?” ––Robert Alter.

Item. “I expect my main problem with Frye is the way he free-associates (or should I say frye-associates) in ways that I simply cannot follow (e.g., Joseph’s “coat of many colors” suggests to Frye that Joseph is a fertility god). Maybe I’m dim but I don’t see the connection, and whether it would disappear if we were to translate ketonet pasim correctly.” ––David Richter

Frye’s associating Joseph with fertility gods, as I indicated in an earlier post, goes back a long way. He makes the connection three times in essays he wrote while a student at Emmanuel College in the 1930s. It would have been helpful if Frye had provided a source for this link in his papers and in The Great Code. He didn’t, so we can only speculate. We know, first of all, that the dream interpreting priests of Bablyon were identified by their multicolored garments, and that might well be connected to Joseph’s coat of many colors. What seems more likely is that Frye picked up the association from the biblical scholarship of the time. Beatrice A. Brooks, for example, speculates that the Septuagint’s rendering of kĕthoneth pac, which changed the meaning to “coat of many colors,” might well have been a conscious editorial decision because such coats “suggested a fertility cult functionary” (“Fertility Cult Functionaries in the Old Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 60, no. 3 [September 1941], 250–1). W.E. Staples maintains that Joseph’s garment is “suspiciously like the veil worm by the virgin goddess Ishtar” (“Cultic Motifs in Hebrew Thought,” American Journal of Semitic Languages 55 [1938]: 47). Earlier William Foxwell Albright, the esteemed biblical archaeologist, had concluded that it was relatively certain that Joseph was worshipped at Shechem as a fertility god (“Historical and Mythical Elements in the Story of Joseph,” Journal of Biblical Literature 37, nos. 3–4 [1918], 115).

Such studies indicate that Frye was not making an arbitrary connection and that it’s easy enough to see how he might have derived the idea from the biblical scholars of time.



David Richter thinks that Alter has “skewered” Frye because Frye says that hebel or “vanity” in the KJV sometimes means “dense fog.” In the passage Alter has in mind Frye says, “We see by means of light and air: if we could see air we could see nothing else, and would be living in the dense fog that is one of the roots of the word ‘vanity’” (The Great Code 124). But there is nothing here that attributes the sense of “dense fog” to the author of Ecclesiastes. The point Frye is making has to do with mist or vapor, not density. He asks to us imagine a world in which we could see the air. The image for such a world would be fog or mist or vapor.

Shortly before this Frye has said, “This word (hebel) has a metaphorical kernel of fog, mist, or vapor, a metaphor that recurs in the New Testament (James 4:14). It thus acquires a derived sense of ‘emptiness,’ the root meaning of the Vulgate’s vanitas. To put Koheleth’s central intuition into the form of its essential paradox: all things are full of emptiness” (123). What is it here, in a passage that Alter conveniently ignores and that says nothing about density, that calls for skewering? It is well established that the literal meaning of hebel is “breath, breeze, vapor.” Tremper Longman III indicates that the word is usually used in a metaphorical way, signifying primarily either “meaningless” or “transitory” (The Book of Ecclesiastes [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1998], 62). Frye’s “emptiness” (vanitas in the Vulgate) appears to me to embrace both primary meanings. A great deal of ink has been spilt over what the author of Ecclesiastes meant by hebel, including the claim that the word refers primarily to “nothingness” (J.E. McKenna, “The Concept of Hebel in the Book of Ecclesiastes,” Scottish Journal of Theology 45 [1992]: 19–28).

Some biblical critics agree with Alter that one of the primary meanings of hebel is “insubstantiality.” See, for example, Douglas B. Miller, Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet’s Work (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002) and André Barucq, Ecclésiaste (Paris: Beauchesne, 1968), 55–6. But not all agree. According to Michael V. Fox and Bruno Pennacchini, hebel means “absurd” (Fox, “The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet.” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 [September 1986]: 409–27; Pennacchini, “Qohelet ovvero il libra degli assurdi.” Euntes docete 30 [1977]: 491–501). According to Edwin M. Good it means “incongruous” or “ironic” (Irony in the Old Testament [London: SPCK, 1965], 176–83). The point is that the literature on the meaning of hebel is extensive, and it illustrates that Alter’s confident assertion about wispiness is open to debate––which is why it has been translated in so many different ways: vain, vanity, emptiness, nothing, futile, futility, meaningless, incomprehensible, incongruous, ironic, nothingness, and transitory, among others.

I think Michael Happy is right in saying that to focus on minutiae is to miss the point, but even the minutiae need to be fairly assessed.