Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 8
THE HERO FROM ACROSS THE SEA
I've been constructing a table of imagery in which each category has both an idealized, or apocalyptic side, and a demonic side. Above the paradisal category in this table is the spiritual world, whose two angelic orders are derived from the two levels of the upper regions of the heavens. The imagery of fire spirits is derived from the sun and the stars, that of the air spirits from the clouds and wind and birds of the lower sky; and this distinction is reflected in the later iconography of the seraphim and the cherubim, which are painted red and blue, and to whom attach the imagery of tongues of flame and of wind and birds.
In the demonic parody of this situation, the spirits would again derive from the different regions of the sky. Traditionally, the demonic spirits live in a kind of prison of heat without light, and this imagery of hell as a place of fire, which is derived from the New Testament, largely again has the same kind of origin. And the air spirits in their turn are the demons of storm and tempest.
Ariel and Puck in Shakespeare are derived, not from the conception of spirits inhabiting an upper region, but from a conception of elemental spirits. There were four kinds of elemental spirits: the fire spirits are salamanders, the air spirits sylphs,the water spirits are undines, and the earth spirits, the gnomes, are the kobols. Shakespeare takes the old word 'puck' and applies it to a character in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Robin Goodfellow, the Puck. A puck, in Shakespeare's day was the kind of fire spirit that is called an ignis fatuus, that is, the phosphorescent light over marshes that people going astray in the dark would take for habitations. Ariel, as his name indicates, is an air spirit or sylph, although in earlier magic and legend the word 'ariel', which means 'lion of God', is usually an earth spirit. Puck is a mixture of fire spirit and air spirit, and Ariel is an air spirit, but they are not demons. They belong to an intermediate fairy world that is neither demonic nor apocalyptic. It is significant perhaps that these two characters in Shakespeare both act under orders from an older and more responsible person. They are mischievous but not evil.
As I said, evil spirits inhabit the upper air as well, and in astrological speculation, there are malignant planets and malignant settings, or positionings, of planets and signs, and St. Paul in Ephesians 2:2 speaks of the devil as the prince of the power of the air. All this demonic imagery, of fire spirits and air spirits, the phosphorescent lights and the ignis fatuus and the demons of storm and tempest, now survives only in the playful symbolism of Halloween—of course, there was a time when it was not playful at all. The popular imagery of witches is also derived from some such source.
In pastoral imagery there is the sheepfold, and in the parody demonic category the beasts of prey. In the manifest demonic there is more particularly the dragon, and the dragon in the form of the leviathan who is a sea serpent or a sea monster, and who is sometimes called Rahab. In the human world, you have the Antichrist and Whore figures, who are opposed to the Christ and bride figures; and just as the bride is called Jerusalem, so the Whore is called Babylon. By the principle of metaphor, the demonic categories are all identical, so that the city of Babylon, the Whore of Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar are to be identified with sinister animals like the dragon and Leviathan, or with these fire or storm demons.
The reason they are so readily identifiable is that, while all images on the ideal side can be identified in Christian imagery with the body of Christ, there cannot be a demonic divinity. No demonic principle can exist on the divine level: one may call himself a god, he may be worshipped as a god, but he can't be a god. Consequently, these sinister cosmological figures, these sea monsters and dragons, are identifiable with the rulers of heathen kingdoms, and can be identified also with the gods that the heathens worship. But their root is a political root, because the actual godhead cannot be present on the demonic side.
Thus, Biblical symbolism asserts of heathen kingdoms what many people today would claim is true of both sides, that the reality is political and that the religious is the projection. The gods of Egypt are metaphorically identical to the Pharaoh of Egypt, but the Pharaoh is the reality, though of course in Egyptian religion he in fact was the reality because he was an incarnate god.
I suggested that in this world of sinister animals, as we go further out into the manifest demonic, the desert places in the ruins which are the waste land, we begin to approach a world where we can't say where the sinister animals stop and the evil spirits begin. If we look, for example, at Isaiah 13, we are told that Babylon eventually, like Sodom and Gomorrah, will become a ruin or a waste land. In verse 21: 'But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there; and satyrs shall dance there'. Verse 22: 'And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces, and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged'.
Well, the King James translators have made a valiant effort with these words, many of which don't occur elsewhere in the Old Testament. And consequently their renderings of them are sometimes little better than guesswork. For we can't tell where the animal stops and the evil spirit begins. The doleful creatures are the tziim who are the dwellers in the tziyya, the dry places. In a parable of Jesus, the spirit passes through dry places seeking for rest and finding none. The two dead times of the year, depending on the climate involved, are the winter or the late summer after the crops are harvested, when there is no more rain: it's that time of year particularly that is thought of as presided over by the god of death—the time of the waterless places.
I said previously that in many mythologies which are older than the Biblical one, the creation takes the form of the killing of a dragon or a monster, as in the creation hymn of the Babylonians, the hymn that begins with the words, enuma elish, 'when from on high', and which tells how the god Marduk killed the monster of chaos Tiamat and split her in two, and made heaven out of half of her and earth out of the other half. I said that this conception of the act of creation as a dragon killing was known to the writers of the Old Testament, who used it as a poetic image, though not as a canonical story. And I pointed out various references to Leviathan or to Rahab in Isaiah and Ezekiel in which these monsters are identified with the power of Egypt and Babylonia.
In the Gospels, the ability of Jesus to command the raging of the waves and the storms of the sea is a point very early made about him in the Gospel of Mark. This repeats the original act of creation as the bringing of life and order and stability out of chaos. In Psalm 89:9, this process is presented in the form of the killing of a dragon named Rahab: 'Thou rulest the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, thou stillest them'. Verse 10: 'Thou hast broken Rahab in pieces, as one that is slain; thou hast scattered thine enemies with thy strong arm'. And if you look back at Psalm 74:13: 'Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters'. Verse 14: 'Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness'.
Now here again is the conception that we glanced at in Ezekiel 29, where the dragon is identified with the river Nile, the source of the fertility of Egypt. It is prophesied that in the last day, Jehovah will hook and land Leviathan and throw him into the wilderness. As the Leviathan in the form of the Nile River is the source of Egypt's fertility and therefore the source of food in Egypt, it follows that the body of Leviathan thrown into the wilderness becomes food for the nation of Israel, which is inhabiting the wilderness. And so the legend arises which is still known in Judaism, that in the day of the Messiah, Israel will have the flesh of the Leviathan to eat.
One of the oldest stories in the world is the story of an aged and impotent king who rules over a wasteland. That king has been around for hundreds of thousands of years before there was any writing. He is still there in Wagner's Parsifal, and he will keep going until the end of time. He already represents a number of metaphorical identifications: that is, he goes back to the identity of the virility of the king with the fertility of the land over which he rules; and it's because he is old and impotent that his land is a waste land. The waste land is ravaged by a sea monster, who is another symbol of sterility and waste and impotence. The sea monster demands human victims for his dinner, and the victims are chosen by lot. For a while, all goes relatively well: people don't particularly mind that one of their inhabitants is disappearing every day; but when the lot falls on the king's daughter, things begin to get serious. She nevertheless has to be tied to a rock and left there to await the monster's coming. At that point, the youthful hero arrives from the sea, kills the dragon and frees the young lady, marries her—is given her in marriage by her grateful father—and becomes the next king by marrying the king's daughter, because this story is so old that it goes back to the custom of mother-right, where inheritance is through the female line. This was the practice in Egypt, and was a great encouragement to incest, because obviously what the Pharaoh had to do to legitimize his power was to marry his sister.
Anyway, this is the story behind the St. George legend and the Perseus legend in Greek mythology. It is easy to see in it the overtones of a myth of renewal of the seasons, the old king, the wasteland and the sea monster all being images of sterility, the winter, and cessation of all life; and the young hero coming from over the sea, killing the dragon, and marrying the daughter being identified with the renewing powers of the spring. This was in fact acted as a folkplay in England. The actual choice of St. George, as the patron saint of England comes from the Crusades; but the symbolism of St. George and the dragon was already very well established: Spenser in the first book of The Faerie Queene has already identified the St. George and the dragon story with the similar patterns in the Bible.
If you turn from the New Testament to the story of Christ as recorded in later Christian art and legend, you notice that they make certain alterations, or rather additions, to the New Testament story. The general progression of events through which Christ goes in the Bible are, first of all, that he is in heaven; then that he creates the world, because in the Book of Genesis, God said, 'Let there be light', and there was light: in other words, the creative agent is the Word that speaks. Then there comes the Incarnation, or the entry into the world of flesh, and then there is the death of Christ on the cross. He descends to the lower world, and then follows the 'harrowing of hell'. He returns to the surface of the earth in the Resurrection, and after forty days ascends back into heaven.
Now, there's a considerable foreshortening of time in this sequence: an infinity between life in heaven and the creation, something like 4,000 years between the creation and the Incarnation, about 30 years between his birth and his death in this world, and three days and three nights, (that is, by our counting, two nights and one day) between his death and his Resurrection, forty days to the Ascension, and then back to eternity.
You notice also that of these eight stages, two are really not there in the New Testament. There are a few vague hints of a descent to hell, but the New Testament evidence for this motif is very weak. And the 'harrowing of hell' does not belong in the Bible at all—it was added to Christian legend by an apocryphal work called The Acts of Pilate, or the Gospel of Nicodemus, which was accepted during the Middle Ages as at least semi-canonical. According to the Gospel of Nicodemus, Jesus, after his death on the cross, descended into hell on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter; and from hell, he extracted all the souls that were destined to be saved, from Adam and Eve down to John the Baptist.
What is interesting from our present perspective about the quest of Christ is the imagery with which it is presented by painters. In pictures of the descent of Christ to hell, hell is often presented as the open mouth of a monster: Jesus walks through the open mouth of this monster, whose body is the body of hell, and then returns with the redeemed behind him. In the interests of general decorum he is assumed to be returning by the same route by which he entered. But of course other routes are possible, and one is strongly hinted at—in fact much more than hinted at—at the end of Dante's Inferno.
In any case, this iconography incorporates into the Christian legend the St. George and the dragon symbolism, where Jesus has the role of St. George, hell is the dragon, and the recreation of the world takes the form of redeeming mankind from death in hell, which is metaphorically identical with the dragon. Similarly, the heroine of the story, the king's daughter who gets rescued, is the bride of Christ, the Christian Church, corresponding to Andromeda in the Classical story. It follows therefore that the aged and impotent king who is her father is the first Adam, that is, human nature in its fallen and impotent form. Such a structure underlies T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, where a figure from the Grail romances called the Fisher King, an aged and impotent king who sits by the sea 'fishing, with the arid plain behind me' is identified as the first Adam.
Now, if we start thinking mythically and metaphorically about this story, rather than logically, the principle of metaphor will take us quite a long way. When the sea monster coming out of the sea is sterility and death and chaos, it follows that he must be the whole world, the whole scene of that story, its setting in the state of death. In other words, if we go on thinking metaphorically, we can see that Andromeda or the heroine must already have been swallowed by the monster; and in order to save her, the hero would have to walk down the open throat of the monster just as Christ is represented as doing in the 'harrowing of hell' paintings.
If you look at the book of Jonah, you'll find that Jonah is a prophet who is told to go and prophesy to Nineveh, one of the heathen kingdoms, and tell its people that if they don't mend their ways, they are in for it. Now it's all very well for Isaiah and Ezekiel to do this sort of thing when they are safe in Israel, but Jonah, if he has to go to Nineveh, might get in a lot of trouble. Jonah has no taste for martyrdom, and consequently gets a ship and proceeds in the opposite direction upon the Mediterranean Sea. Well, it's an inviolable rule of romance that if you go to sea in the Mediterranean, your ship is going to be wrecked: so Jonah's ship, before long, is subjected to a tremendous storm. The sailors draw lots to see who is responsible, and it appears that Jonah is, so they toss him overboard. And the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. He is inside the fish three days and three nights—again, it's two nights and one day by our counting—and is coughed up again onto dry land. Now, with the amount of coaching in metaphor which you have had in this course, you should be able to see that the sea and the storm and the monster and the foreign country which Jonah goes to are all metaphorically the same thing—and the same place. And what this same thing and same place are is quite explicitly stated in the book of Jonah itself. In 2:1: 'Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God out of the fish's belly, And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice'. Well, the word translated as 'hell' here is sheol, the grave: so Jonah is where he says he is, in the world of death.
Christ descending into the belly of a monster for three days and three nights following his death on the cross is the antitype of which the story of Jonah is the type; and Jesus in the Gospels accepts the story of Jonah as a type of his own Passion where he says, 'as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth'.
There is no heroine in the Jonah story. But in Psalm 87:4 says: 'I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia; this man was born there'. We can see the implications of this verse if we remember that for most of the Old Testament period, the people of Israel were living in the middle of a heathen power. It was sometimes Babylonian, sometimes Assyrian, sometimes Persian, sometimes Greek, sometimes Roman, but they were always in the middle of a heathen power metaphorically identical with the body of Rahab or Leviathan. So if we ask what corresponds to the already-swallowed Andromeda, it's the bride, the people whom the hero goes down into the monster to rescue. If we ask where we are in relation to Leviathan, the answer clearly is that we're inside him: we've all been swallowed by him. In Old Testament imagery, the primary identification of Leviathan is with the heathen kingdoms: but all kingdoms are more or less heathen. And so again, these monsters expand until they become essentially the world that we are all living in and want to be delivered from.
We begin to understand now why there is so much about fishing in the Gospels, and why Jesus is so persistently associated either with a fish or with a dolphin, which has a reputation for saving people out of water. The salvation out of water comes into the story of Peter on the Lake of Galilee, again with the same general overtones. The world in which we live is mythologically a subterranean world or a submarine world, depending on which element we choose. So from one point of view the Flood of Noah has never receded. There's an old puzzle about what happened to the fish at the time of the Flood. One of the simplest and most direct answers is that we are the fish. We didn't drown, but we have had our oxygen supply severely curtailed.
I'll wait to deal with the Book of Job later, but right now there is one thing we should look at, a long speech by God to Job, which ends with two lyric poems in praise of Leviathan and, according to tradition, another great hulking brute, Behemoth. I say 'according to tradition' because 'behemoth' is the intensive Hebrew plural of a word for 'beast'. Thus, because of that, the translators of the New English Bible think that there is only one animal involved. But traditionally there have always been two animals, a land animal and a sea animal. Likewise, there are two dragons, one from the land and the other from the sea, which appear in the Book of Revelation. Behemoth and Leviathan are also mentioned in the Apocrypha, in the Book of Esdras. These two animals correspond to the demonic world thought of either as subterranean or as submarine, though the one does not exclude the other.
In chapter 40 of the Book of Job, there is the poem on Behemoth as traditionally rendered; in chapter 41, the poet turns to Leviathan. The fact that these monsters can be pointed out to Job means that at the end of the poem, he is outside them and able to contemplate them. The implications of that statement will take us quite a while to reach, but I wish to end merely with the suggestion that these two monsters have cosmological dimensions as well as political ones, in which they represent the world as the prison of time and space that encloses us.