Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: PROGRAM 9
This text is a transcript of the full lecture of Prof. Frye on Oct. 21, 1980. Only the bold parts are used in this version.
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Please note: This lecture was split in two programs; the second part can be found under program 10 ‘Leviathan, Dragons and the Anti-Christ’
THE WORLD OF ANGELS
I was speaking about some of the sacrificial images in the Bible associated with its agricultural symbolism, which form part of the general table of imagery we've been dealing with. We've said that these symbols on the idealized side have both a group form and an individual form. Now in that table, all of these categories are metaphorically identical with one another, and the group form and the individual form are united by what I've been calling the royal metaphor, the metaphor which combines identity as with identity with. So that the individual and the group forms are likewise identified: the garden and the tree of life are essentially the same thing.
In the New Testament, Jesus is represented explicitly, when instituting the Eucharist, as identifying the bread and wine of the Eucharist supper with his own body and blood, as both a human and an animal victim: the shepherd giving his life for the sheep, and the sacrificial lamb, which is the antitype of the Passover. Now the statements in the New Testament are too explicit for historical Christianity to avoid, considering what these metaphors mean in that context. And of course any consideration of a principle like that in historical Christianity leads eventually to persecution and heretic-burning and everything else. But such things merely muddle the actual picture of what's going on. There have been various doctrines: the Roman Catholic doctrine, which is the pure metaphor, that the bread and wine of the host are the body and blood of Christ; and the Lutheran consubstantial theory that the bread and wine are the body and blood of God because God is universal, and so on. These are all conceptualized or rationalized translations of a metaphor into another kind of language. Unfortunately there's a very strong smell of intellectual mortality about these rationalized translations: sooner or later they disappear and we're right back to the metaphor. Nobody can deal with a metaphor except by something like Saint Patrick's shamrock expounding the doctrine of the Trinity. The actual statement is a metaphor, and the function of the metaphor is to release the imagination by paralyzing the discursive reason. It's like the koan in Zen Buddhism. The general tendency in historical Christianity is, so far as is possible, to consider these other metaphorical identifications as 'just' metaphor" That is in keeping with the rationalistic distortions of Biblical imagery, which is essentially a metaphorical structure.
The identification of the categories with one another is clear enough: the city is described as Jerusalem, the bride adorned for her husband, and consequently identified with the human category. And if all the buildings in a city are one building—a house of many mansions—it follows that all the buildings are one stone. Consequently, you find in Biblical imagery the body of Christ identified with the one stone. There's a verse in the Psalms saying, 'The stone that the builders rejected is made the head of the corner'. That's quoted three or four times in the New Testament: it obviously was a very important verse to them. But the cornerstone of the Temple is again part of this metaphorical structure. And as this is a world in which nothing can ever be dead it follows that the stones are as much alive as anything else.
In the Book of Revelation, the churches are told that 'To him that overcometh will I give… a white stone'. But the white stone there has a metaphorical connection with the man's body. We are told later on that an angel came out who was clad in what the King James Bible calls 'white linen', but 'linen', again, is a rationalized translation, because there's far better textural evidence for lithon, stone. Consequently, you have to include a dimension of symbolism in which human beings are also, as the Epistle of Peter says, lively stones.
We've already seen various identifications of the body of Christ with the tree of life, as in the word 'anointed', and various other explicit references. That gives a special importance in the Gospels to those 'I' metaphors where Jesus says 'I am the vine, ye are the branches', 'I am the door,' 'I am the Way' and so on. These 'I' metaphors are insisting on the metaphorical identification of all these categories of reality in the world that he's talking about—his spiritual kingdom.
This isn't all the universe, of course. There is also the world between God and man, the spiritual world. The group form of the spiritual world consists of angels or messengers. Now the function of angels in the Bible is of some interest and importance. In the hierarchy of existence they are above human life, but in the apocalypse, all these categories are not a hierarchy anymore: they are all interchangeable, and consequently all equal. Therefore, there are some sharp warnings in the New Testament against the dangers of worshipping angels. Angels are fellow creatures of man: their function is that of messenger, and they are not to be regarded with the feelings of adoration that one would reserve for God.
The question is, where does the imagery of angels come from? And the obvious answer is, that it comes from 'up there'. That is, the imagery of this world is derived from the categories of ordinary existence, and the categories of ordinary existence are permeated by the conceptions of up and down. You can raise all kinds of both theological and scientific objections to such a story as that of the Ascension of Christ in the first chapter of Acts, where he sails up into the air and 'a cloud received him out of their sight'. We are by no means the first generation to ask, well, where did he go from there? Did he just sail into outer space, or what? The answer is that this is the mythological universe, and there is no outer space in the mythological universe. In the universe of nature, there is no such thing as up or down: in the mythological universe, there is nothing else.
And so, the tendency to think of hell as 'down there' and of heaven as 'up there' is built into our mythological ways of thinking. I think as long as the human body has a top and a bottom it's likely to be read into the symbolism of the mythological universe that man lives in. The temple, for example, in all the nations surrounding Israel, the holy building, the ziggurat in the Mesopotamian or Persian cities, was thought of as a tower stretching from earth to heaven, and as, consequently, a connecting point between man and God. I imagine that the basis for the imagery is the basis of the human body. The spatial difficulties in the matter, of course, do give trouble in rationalizing the imagery, but as long as it remains metaphorical it doesn't have to be rationalized.
Consequently, the only place for the imagery of the angels to come from is the sky. Now there are two levels of the sky: the upper level, which is the fire level, and the lower level, or the air level. The fire level is derived from the sun and the stars, the fiery bodies in the sky. The other level is the level of clouds and the air and birds.
There are two kinds of angels mentioned in the Bible, the seraphim and the cherubim, and in later iconography they were associated respectively with tongues of flame and with birds in the sky. Later iconography got very elaborate and developed a system of nine orders of angels, but they retained those two as the spirits of love and contemplation. In medieval pictures where angels appear, you will see the seraphim colored red and the cherubim colored blue.
The seraphim come into the vision of Isaiah in Isaiah 6, where again the seraphim were associated with fire: they take a hot coal off the altar and put it on the prophet's lips to make him articulate. The cherubim are seen in Ezekiel's vision at the beginning of the Book of Ezekiel of a curious vehicle that has wheels within wheels and is drawn around by four living beings: that is, angel figures which have the forms of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. Those four living beings of Ezekiel's vision reappear in the Book of Revelation, where they are seen surrounding the throne of God.
From a Christian point of view, what Ezekiel saw was the Son or Word of God. Consequently, these living creatures that drew his chariot could be typologically identified with the writers of the four Gospels, who carried the message of Christianity all around the world. And so, if you look again at medieval pictures of Christ, you will usually see these four living beings in the corners, representing the four Gospels—Matthew the man, and Mark the lion, (as you will remember if you've ever been to Venice, which is under the patronage of Saint Mark), Luke the ox and John the eagle. The opening words of the Gospel of John, 'In the beginning was the Word', are regarded as the most sacred utterance in Christianity, and it is very largely because of that that churches still have lecterns in the shape of an eagle.
The group of angels is, of course, all one Spirit, later considered to be the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. And so there are two aspects to the imagery of the Holy Spirit also: fire imagery and a cloud, air and bird imagery. He is associated with tongues of flame descending from the sky like lightning, and also with the wind and birds, typically the dove, which has been the chosen bird just as sheep has been the chosen animal.
The dove has a reputation for chastity that I think would soon be exploded with any careful observation of them. As a matter of fact, I suspect that the reason for choosing them is precisely the opposite: doves were the birds that were sacred to Venus, and whether it's Christian love or pagan love, the dove's qualifications for being the typical bird of love are always in the foreground. We are told in the Synoptic Gospels that at the baptism of Christ, the spirit of God in the form of a dove was seen descending on him. Jesus says to Nicodemus, 'The wind bloweth where it listeth' and goes on to associate wind and spirit.
You notice that quite a lot of things happen to the four elements in apocalyptic imagery. We've already dealt with the water of life: we've said that the description of the garden of Eden seems to assume a fresh-water sea below the actual salt sea and waters above the heavens which are much higher up than the rain clouds. So the suggestion is that man is in the middle of the water of life, and that in a higher state of being, he could live in the water of life, which has a good deal to do with the fishing imagery connected with Christianity and the identification of Jesus with the fish in some contexts.
Similarly, it's a world where the inanimate no longer exists, where the stones are alive, so that earth becomes a part of a living world. It follows, therefore, that there must be a fire of life as well as a water of life, and that all of these elements can be seen as living in the fire of life in the apocalyptic vision. The fire of life is a fire that burns without burning up. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, Moses sees a bush burning, which nevertheless doesn't burn up. This puzzles him, so he turns aside to see why: it turns out to be the place of the theophany, of the revelation of the future of Israel. The burning tree is also symbolized by the candlestick so important in Jewish ritual—and in Christian too, in another context.
When John the Divine, in the Book of Revelation, has a vision of the city of Jerusalem, he sees it as glowing with gold and precious stones. He takes that from the account of the building of Solomon's Temple. The account of Solomon's Temple, by the narrator of the Book of Kings, says that nobody thought of silver in those days; they only put gold on, and several centuries later we have the Book of Chronicles where the author is using the Book of Kings as a source, but is so far away in time from what he's describing that it's become a kind of romantic fairytale. The Chronicler tells you that the Temple of Solomon, though in its dimensions a rather modest building, actually was constructed with something like twenty tons of gold. Similarly, in the Book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem is described in terms of gold, and as having twelve gates which are each one a precious stone or jewel. That in its turn is the antitype of the breastplate of the high priest Aaron, which contained the twelve precious stones for the twelve tribes of Israel. So this city, glowing with gold and precious stones, is not there because the narrators are vulgar, and it's not there solely to be the antitype of certain things mentioned in the Old Testament. The gold and the precious stones are there to suggest a city burning in the fire of life: a city which is constantly burning, but is not burning up. The fire is an image of life and exuberance and energy, but not of torment or destruction.
If you set a bird on fire, you'll get of course a phoenix, which is not in the canonical Bible except for a reference in the Book of Job, which the cautious King James translators have rendered something like 'sands'. But the phoenix comes into folklore very early, both in the books surrounding the Bible, the Pseudepigrapha, and in Classical mythology from Herodotus on, and the bird that burns and rises from it to be a bigger and better phoenix consequently becomes an image of the Resurrection. The phoenix appears on the coat of arms of Victoria College. It ought to represent the Faculty of Theology, but again the original designers were more cautious and put it there as a symbol of medicine: they knew that that at least might do you some good. There's also a wonderful poem by an Elizabethan poet, a Jesuit, Robert Southwell, who was martyred, tortured about a dozen times by the secret police, and finally killed. His poem called 'The Burning Babe' is a poem about Christmas Day, in which the rising sun is identified with a burning babe who is the newborn Christ.
I don't know how familiar you may be with Mozart's Magic Flute, which is built on a symbolism that's said to be derived from Freemasonry, but at the very end of the story the hero goes through the final ordeal, which is the ordeal of water and fire. And evidently the assumption is that he acquires, symbolically at least, the power to live in all four elements and not simply on earth and air.
I've been constructing a table of imagery in which in each category one has an idealized or apocalyptic and a demonic side. There is the paradisal imagery of trees and water, and on the demonic side the wasteland imagery of dead trees and dead water. There are angels, with their imagery derived from the fire world of heavenly bodies, and the air world of birds, and on the demonic side there are fire demons, the jack-o-lanterns, will o' the wisps over marshes, and spirits of storm and tempest.
On one side we have Christ, who is the unifying figure of the apocalyptic world, and opposite him Antichrist, the world ruler who demands divine worship. The latter is, of course, a figure that is pre-Christian: it's in the Old Testament as well. Its types are the Pharaoh of the Exodus; Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed Jerusalem, and Antiochus Epiphanes, the persecutor of the Jews just before the Maccabean rebellion. And the imagery carries on into the New Testament period, where the type of persecutor is Nero, although a predecessor of Nero, Caligula, also expressed a strong desire to place his statue in the Holy of Holies. In the animal category, there is the sheepfold, with the sheep and the lamb as the typical animals of the apocalyptic world—as in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere; and opposed to that there is the beast of prey, the sinister animal, of which perhaps the best example is the dragon. The dragon is a particularly useful demonic animal, not just because of its antisocial habits of breathing fire and eating virgins, but also because it doesn't exist, and is consequently an admirable animal for illustrating the paradox of evil, which is a very powerful moral force in human life as we know it, but in the apocalyptic world becomes simply nothingness, simply cannot exist at all. And that, perhaps, is why the author of Revelation speaks of the dragon as 'the beast that was and is not and yet is'. That last 'is' in Greek is parestai: which means, continuing for the time being.
There is a myth in which creation takes the form of a dragon-killing. The Hebrews were quite familiar with the story: they constantly employed it, and by no means always in a demonic context. They used it simply as poetic imagery, that is, not as a myth that they believed to be factual, but simply as decorative. The dragon of chaos has various names in the Bible, but the most common is the name Leviathan and sometimes Rahab.
And the leviathan is portrayed as, again, an image of chaos, of the still untreated which survives in the human world incarnate in the heathen kingdoms of Egypt and Babylon and Rome. In Ezekiel 29: 'Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh, King of Egypt the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers, which hath said, My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself. But I will put hooks in thy jaws, and I will cause the fish of thy rivers to stick unto thy scales, and I will bring thee up out of the midst of thy rivers and all the fish of thy rivers shall stick unto thy scales, and I will leave thee thrown into the wilderness, thee and all the fish of thy rivers: thou shalt fall upon the open fields; thou shalt not be brought together, nor gathered: I have given thee for meat to the beasts of the field and to the fowls of the heaven'. Now here, the prophet is prophesying to the Pharaoh of Egypt, whom he identifies with the dragon which is also the River Nile—'my river is mine own'. And remember that on the principles of metaphor, a monster in the sea is the sea. And whatever the origin of this dragon might be—a crocodile or whatever you like—still, a crocodile in the Nile metaphorically is the Nile. So that the prophet is saying that the dragon will be hooked and landed and thrown into the open fields, which is metaphorically the same thing that John is saying in the Book of Revelation when he says that in the last day there was no more sea. Because to hook and land a sea monster is metaphorically to bring up the sea as well.
In Isaiah 27: 'In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea'. The next verse seems to have no logical connection with it: 'In that day sing ye unto her, A vineyard of red wine'. But it's more logical than it looks, because the hooking and landing of Leviathan is also the destruction of the sterile and the chaotic in the world, and consequently, a great outburst of fertility would follow it. We come much closer to the center of this kind of imagery if we turn to Isaiah 51: 'Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab and wounded the dragon? Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?' Now here the prophet adopts as a poetic image the account of creation as the dragon-killing; and we'll come to verses in the Psalms that praise God for having brought Creation into existence by destroying the dragon of chaos.
Then he says that God twice won this victory over the dragon. He did it the second time at the crossing of the Red Sea, where the dragon was Egypt. And now he's calling upon God to make a third exhibition of his power, and this third is the Day of the Lord, to quote the King James version of it, which the prophets are constantly referring to as that time in the future when Israel will be restored and those who have, well, listening to the prophets will be happy, but the vast majority of people will be anything but happy. The prophecy of the Day of the Lord is in practically all the prophets, and it is here connected in imagery with the two great victories over chaos and evil, the victory at the original creation and the victory at the creation of the nation of Israel.
The most eloquent of all these prophecies of the Day of the Lord is in the prophecy of Zephaniah, which is the ultimate basis for the medieval hymn Deus Irae. It's a mad, magnificent poem, and has been incorporated into the Requiem Mass, but its origin is in these Day of the Lord prophecies.