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.

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One thought on “Joseph as a Fertility God

  1. Robert D. Denham

    On the matter of a “correspondence between fertility gods and parti-coloured coats,” another possible source of Frye’s making the association is Nonnos’ Dionysiaca, book 14, ll. 143 ff., where we’re told that Dionysus put on “many colored garments.” Frye owned and annotated a copy of the W.H.D. Rouse translation of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, vol. 1 (books 1–15).


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