The Bible and English Literature by Northrop Frye - Full Lecture 4

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Robert Fysh (2008)
Jane Widdicombe

Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani

Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University




Every image in the Bible has both an apocalyptic (or ideal) and a demonic context. The demonic needs two forms, in order to account for the prosperity of the heathen kingdoms. The parody demonic represents the prosperous appearance of those kingdoms; the manifest demonic is the deadly reality they will eventually become. The paradisal images of the tree and water of life have as manifest demonic counterparts the tree and water of death, whose parody demonic forms in history are the 'world tree' of heathen mythology and the rivers of the great empires.

Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts

  1. The two kinds of demonic: parody demonic, reflecting the successful facade of the heathen kingdoms; manifest demonic, or you-just-wait demonic.
  2. Parody demonic image of water: the Nile (Egypt), Tigris (Assyria) and Euphrates (Babylon) of history. These parody the four rivers of Eden, with the Ganges or Indus suggested by Josephus as the fourth.
  3. Parody demonic image of trees: the 'world tree' or 'axis mundi' of heathen mythology.
  4. Manifest demonic image of water: the water of death. Exemplified by Dead Sea, Red Sea, Noah's flood.
  5. Manifest demonic image of trees: the tree of death. Exemplified by the tree of knowledge, the cross, the barren fig tree.
  6. Two corollaries of the principle of metaphor. One: an image may be ideal in one context yet demonic in another: the Red Sea was an image of life to the Israelites. Two: when identified with human and divine categories, tree imagery produces the image of the Messiah, the 'anointed one'.

Biblical Passages Cited

Psalm 1:3.—'A tree planted by the rivers of water'.

Ezekiel 31:3-18.—Oracle against Egypt using Assyria, 'a tree in Lebanon', as example.

Ezekiel 26:14.— Oracle against Tyre: a rock that shall sink into the sea.

Isaiah 45:1.—Cyrus called 'Messiah'.

II Samuel 18:9-14.—Absalom hanged on an oak.

The Teacher's Perspective

The Bible does not directly give the reader an argument about good and evil: rather, it gives him a set of contrasting images of the ideal and the demonic. The teacher may ask the class why it thinks the Bible refuses to give an answer to the 'question of evil' except by pointing to a set of concrete images. Isn't that a bit primitive, or even childish, after all? Isn't the ability to work with abstract concepts and 'universals' what makes the adult's mind more mature than the child's? And are the images even relevant: who lives amidst desert and oasis any longer? Should we abide by terms appropriate for a primitive tribe of nomadic desert dwellers, or should we attempt to interpret those images as standing for concepts?

The teacher might even choose students to represent both sides of this argument in a debate. If they are beginning to assimilate the thematic organization of this course, they will probably decide that the firmer one's grasp of the symbolic language of myth and metaphor, the more powerfully and less confusedly one is able to think within the nonsymbolic language of fact and logic. The Bible's revelation is not an argument, but the reader with the help of its illumination, will be able to turn through the fog of generalities in discussion, and to tell a hard fact from a mental block.

One reason for this is that metaphor is nondualized language. It does not artificially split reality in the manner of ordinary language: as Prof. Frye puts it, the world of metaphor is not a world of nouns getting kicked around by verbs. Nonmetaphoric language has an inherent weakness for falling victim to one or another kind of dualistic fallacy. If it overemphasizes the mental world of the subject it becomes abstract and disembodied; if it overemphasizes the material world of the object, it becomes atomistic and reductive. In fact, the demonic may be defined as the state in which this split has become absolute: the demonic is thus a world of complete alienation of subject from object, man from nature, energy from form. It is consequently a condition of complete unreality.

The teacher may explain this concept of dualism and alienation, then pass to an examination of the demonic imagery that expresses it. Once again, we focus in this program on the paradisal images of trees and water because they are the containing images of the Bible, as we saw in the previous program. The chart on p. 167 of The Great Code gives a slightly condensed version of the categories Prof. Frye puts on the blackboard in this program:

manifest parody      
water of death (Red Sea, Dead Sea, Deluge)

Nile, Tigris,Euphrates.

paradisal oasis tree of life water of life
tree of death (tree of knowledge, cross) world tree      

Other biblical references to the water of death may be found below in Supplementary Reading. But the teacher may point out one form of demonic water imagery not found in the Bible because of its historical-geographical context: that of snow. The winter snows in the midst of which Christ is born in northern tradition are a form of the waters of death, and the connection of the manger with the arks of Noah and Moses is glanced at in The Great Code, pp. 177-78. Also notable is the idea of false reflection, connected with the demonic in general and especially, for obvious reasons, with imagery of water. This is a concrete expression of the phenomenon of splitting-apart and alienation already discussed: another version of it is the false reality of a mirror image. As Paul says, in the fallen world we see 'through a glass, darkly'. (An ideal form of it might well be the 'double mirror' discussed by Prof. Frye in Program 12). Additional variants include images of blood, like the Great Whore's cup full of the blood of martyrs and the mixture of blood and water that poured from Christ's side on the cross; of drowning, as in Milton's Lycidas, Eliot's The Waste Land with its drowned Phoenician sailor, or Hopkins' 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' of intoxication; and of poison. As the fallen sexuality of Adam and Eve was connected with a deadly tree, the fatal love of Tristan and Isolde was connected with a love potion (the words 'potion' and 'poison' are etymologically connected).

With the imagery of trees, it is easier to show directly the idea of ideal and demonic counterparts. An explicit version of this is Yeats' 'The Two Trees', which also contains the image of the mirror. Yeats has probably been influenced by Blake's phrase 'the Vegetable Glass of Nature', which sums up the imagery of demonic trees and water perfectly. In older sources, one of the extraordinary poems of English literature is the Old English 'The Dream of the Rood', in which Christ's cross miraculously speaks of its agony and shame at becoming a tree of death, its glory in heaven as a tree of life. Finally, in Donne's 'Hymne to God My God, In My Sicknesse', these images of trees and water (or blood) are focused into one concentrated stanza:

We thinke that Paradise and Calvarie , Christs Crosse, and Adams tree, stood in one place; Looke Lord, and find both Adams sweat surrounds my face, May the last Adams blood my soule embrace.

Supplementary Reading

1. Biblical Passages.

Daniel 4:10-27.—Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a 'mighty tree'.

Deuteronomy 21:22.—'And thou hang him on a tree'.

I Galatians 3:13. —'Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree'.

Genesis 2:9.—The tree of life and the tree of knowledge.

Genesis 7:11.—The Deluge.

I Peter 3:19-21.—Noah's flood as a type of the sacrament of baptism.

I Corinthians 10:2.—The Red Sea crossing as a type of baptism.

Matthew 21:19.—The barren fig tree.

2.    Corresponding Passages in The Great Code

Chapter Six. Metaphor II.

p. 140. Two types of demonic imagery.

pp. 144-50. Paradisal imagery of trees and water: demonic forms.

Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions

  1. How has concern for ecology and consciousness of the environment given a new context for the demonic images of trees and water, waste land and oasis? (Consider forests devastated by industry, toxic wastes in drinking water, the Dust Bowl in Steinbeck's Biblically-titled The Grapes of Wrath). Is there a connection between destruction of the natural environment and a nation's tendency to become an imperialistic empire? Is the tendency to see such a connection derived from the Biblical tradition?
  2. The demonic gives us our literary modes of irony and satire. Find some additional examples of the imagery we have been talking about and discuss. (Examples include the story of Narcissus, Odin's sacrifice of himself on a tree in the Elder Edda, Plato's myth of Atlantis, Alice in Wonderland for mirror imagery and parody, and of course Eliot's The Waste Land).
  3. The Great Code, p. 147: In one aspect of the symbolism, the flood has never receded and we are all fish in a symbolically submarine world of illusion.' Analyze Robert Lowell's 'For the Union Dead' and Dylan Thomas' 'Ballad of the Long­Legged Bait' in light of this statement.





I was speaking about the structure of imagery of the Bible, and was saying that the imagery tends to split into two opposed categories. One I'm calling the apocalyptic or the ideal, the one that's associated with the garden of Eden, with the Promised Land, with Jerusalem and the Temple, with Jesus' spiritual kingdom. The other I am calling the demonic: it's what is associated with the heathen kingdoms of tyranny—Egypt and Babylon, and, in the New Testament, Rome.

Now that means that the whole of Biblical imagery tends to fall into these two sharply opposed categories, and that there is no image in the Bible which does not have both an apocalyptic and a demonic context: or at any rate, which may not have both. There is no image in the Bible which is necessarily always demonic or always ideal. In other words, there is no natural image. A serpent, for example, is usually a sinister image in the Bible because of its role in the garden of Eden story, but it's a quite genuine symbol of wisdom in most of the religions and mythologies of the world, and is used that way by Jesus as well—'Be ye wise as serpents'. Therefore, whether an image belongs to one category or the other depends on the context: but that context is never very difficult to determine.

I was dealing with the various levels of imagery, and we'd started with the paradisal. I said that the great symbol for that was the oasis, which has, in particular, two images—the tree of life and the water of life, which we traced through the Bible. If you look at the Book of Psalms, for example, the very first Psalm applies the same image to the private and individual life. The righteous man, we are told, shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water. The same images recur through the New Testament as well. As we tried to show, they contain the entire action of the Bible, being the first things that man loses at the opening of the narrative and the last things that he regains at the end of it.

It follows therefore, that these paradisal images would also have to have their demonic counterparts. The complication here is that there are two kinds of demonic imagery in the Bible. In the first place, there is the odd paradox of a fact that the only kingdoms that are consistently successful and prosperous are the evil kingdoms. It is Egypt and Assyria. and Babylon and Tyre which have the kind of power and prosperity that Israel itself desperately longed to have, and would have regarded as a mark of divine favor if it had had it So the prosperity of the heathen kingdoms forms a category of imagery that we can call the parody demonic, which has all the qualities of the real thing except permanence. There is also the manifest or the you-just-wait demonic, which is what all this prosperity and success will eventually and inevitably turn into sooner or later.

We saw that the water of life was associated with four rivers, two of which were the Euphrates and the Tigris of Mesopotamia. The third is usually identified with the Nile in Egypt, and the fourth possibly, as Josephus suggests, with India (the Ganges or the Indus). Clearly, their parody demonic images would be the Nile, the Euphrates and the Tigris as they came to be in history. They are the rivers that gave prosperity and success and fertility to Egypt, to Babylonia and to Assyria. Nineveh is on the Tigris and Babylon is on the Euphrates. To that you could add the commerce and shipping in the Mediterranean and the Persian gulf, which increased the success and prosperity of the Mesopotamian kingdoms and also of Phoenicia. Phoenicia occupied the northwest part of Israelite territory, and in contrast to the Israelites, who never consistently held a port on the Mediterranean, they were great sea­farers and traders. And so these rivers of history are the water of life for these heathen kingdoms. They sustained their prosperity and their commercial prestige and their fertility, which is an important recurring image of a slightly different category.

There's been a great deal of work done on the Bible and its relationship to comparative folklore and mythology. The general underlying assumption is that there's nothing in the Bible that can't be found in some form—or to which some analogy cannot be found—in some mythology or folklore elsewhere. But we could reverse the axiom and say that there is nothing really essential in the folk­lore or mythology of any civilization whatever that cannot be found in some form in the Bible. If we do reverse the axiom in that way, we'll find a great many images in the Bible which are parody images of very wide­spread myths. One of these is the 'world tree'.

The' world tree' is sometimes the same thing as the tree of life, and as such, it belongs to mythologies far older than the Bible. As it develops in mythology, it comes to be a form of what is called the axis mundi, the vertical aspect of existence. Its roots form the lower world below this one, and its fruits and branches are in an upper world above this one. The surface of this world has usually been, in mythology, a middle earth, with an upper world in the sky and a lower world underground. The axis mundi or world tree extends all through these three worlds, and in more sophisticated developments, the planets are the fruits hanging from its branches. You'll find it practically everywhere you look, from Norse mythology, where it is called Yggdrasil, to nursery tales like Jack and the Beanstalk.

So we're not surprised to find that when the prophets start denouncing the apparent prosperity of Egypt or Assyria or Babylon, they will use an image of this kind in a parody context. If you look, for example, at Ezekiel 31: this is an oracle against Egypt which applies to Egypt the same image that is applied to Assyria. The story of Assyria was a particularly dramatic one for the Old Testament writers. Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was the greatest city of the ancient world, and according to the book of Jonah, it was a three-day's journey to cross it from its western suburb to its eastern one. And yet, quite suddenly, Nineveh just vanished. It disappeared under the sands, where it remained until the middle of the nineteenth century. Almost immediately after it was destroyed, it was impossible for anybody else even to find the site of the world's greatest city. So the suddenness with which heathen power could vanish almost overnight was naturally a favorite theme of prophecy.

Ezekial says, in 31:3: 'Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs ... Therefore his height was exalted above all the trees of the field, and his boughs were multiplied, wad his branches became long because of the multitude of waters when he shot forth'. Now, here is a parody description of a world tree, identified it the Assyrian power, which is nourished by the water of life fertilizing its roots. And in verse 8: 'The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him: the fir trees were not like his boughs, and the chestnut trees were not like his branches; nor any tree in the garden of God was like to him in his beauty. I have made him fair by the multitude of his branches: so that all the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God, envied him'. But, of course, the Assyrian kingdom falls with a great crash. In verse 16, there's a significant comment: 'I made the nations to shake at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down to hell with them that descend into the pit: and all the trees of Eden . . . shall be comforted in the nether parts of the earth'. The great Assyrian tree has fallen to the level of the vanished garden of Eden before the beginning of history.

There is probably a fairly specific allusion there to Assyrian mythology, because you find the world tree on Assyrian monuments. In the much later Book of Daniel there's a very similar tree associated with Nebuchadnezzar and the power of Babylon. The language used about that tree is even more explicitly a description of a world tree, an axis mundi. In Daniel 4:20: 'The tree that thou sawest, which grew, and was strong, whose height reached unto the heaven, and the sight thereof to all the earth: Whose leaves were fair and the fruit thereof much, and in it was meat for all; under which the beasts of the field dwelt ... It is thou, O King, that art grown and become strong: for thy greatness is grown, and reacheth unto heaven, and thy dominion to the end of the earth'. The world tree is here explicitly said to reach to heaven and to be visible from all over the world.

That is the image, then, of temporary prosperity, and it is contrasted with the manifest demonic, which is the more direct parody of the ideal image. What we get, then, as the main units of the manifest demonic, are the tree of death, and the water of death.

Now as I said earlier, the most obvious and dramatic image of the water of death is the Dead Sea, because it is quite literally dead water in which nothing lives—too much salt in it. And traditionally, though not explicitly, the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire from heaven and sunk under the Dead Sea. Similarly, the Red Sea is also an image of the water of death, largely for political reasons. At the time of the Exodus, the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, but the Egyptian army was drowned in it, so that symbolically and metaphorically Egypt is sunk under the Red Sea, as Sodom and Gomorrah are under the Dead Sea.

Ezekiel directs an oracle against Tyre, the great commercial city of Phoenicia, and says that eventually Tyre will turn into a rock. The words 'Tyre' and 'rock' are very close together in Hebrew—they make a pun—and the rock will be, again, sunk under the sea. So the image of the kingdom sunk under water, which is what happened of course to the whole of the earth in the time of Noah's flood, is an image of the demonic water of death.

Now, remember that metaphorical thinking is not logical thinking. What you are dealing with when you are thinking in metaphors is not a world of solid blocks or obstacles, not a world of nouns that can be kicked around by verbs: it's a world of metaphors, and metaphorical imagery is a world of forces and energies which often modulate into one another. And so that the tree of life in the garden of Eden before the Fall may be thought of as a tree in a garden, or it may be thought of as all the trees in the garden, or it may be thought of as the body of the unfallen Adam himself. And that imagery of the divine man, or the man with the divine destiny who is metaphorically identical with the tree of life, runs all through the Bible, and accounts for a very central metaphorical expression. That is the Hebrew word 'Messiah', of which the Greek equivalent is 'Christ'. And what that word means is 'the anointed one', the person who has been confirmed as a royal figure by an anointing ceremony which symbolically and metaphorically identifies him with the tree of life. That is, assuming that something like olive oil or a vegetable oil or a tree oil of some kind would be used in the anointing ceremony, because I doubt that they would use petroleum in such an instance.

The identification of the Messiah with the tree of life remains fairly constant throughout the New Testament. I say New Testament, because in the Old Testament the word 'Messiah' simply means a legitimate ruler, whose right to rule has been confirmed by some anointing ceremony, whether real or assumed. King Saul, who was rejected, is still called the Lord's anointed, the Messiah, and once, a person outside the Israelite community altogether, King Cyrus of Persia, was called the Lord's anointed by Isaiah. But by the time of Jesus, with the Maccabean victory still fresh in the Jewish mind, there was a good deal of speculation about a figure called the Messiah, and that figure is of the type that theologians call eschatalogical: that is, a figure concerned with the ending of history and the evolution of man out of time into some other kind of existence entirely.

Thus came the question, who is the Messiah? And that, of course, is still the question that divides Judaism and Christianity. But what I'm concerned with at the moment is not that, but the metaphorical identification with a tree of life.

In the story of the Exodus, the water of death has two aspects. It is in the first place the water that drowns the Egyptians, and in the second place the water from which the Israelites escape, becoming a nation by doing so. Similarly, the flood of Noah is an event in which everybody gets drowned except the family of Noah, which escapes by floating on top of the flood with the ark. That is carried over into the Christian symbolism of baptism, where again the same ambiguous imagery occurs: symbolically and metaphorically, the person who is baptized dies in one world and is reborn in another.

If we apply such a principle to the imagery of trees, the tree of death would be represented by such a thing as the barren fig tree that would later crucify Jesus at the time of the Passion. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is clearly a sinister tree as far as the results of eating it are concerned. And this tree of knowledge quite clearly has something to do with the discovery of sex as we know it That is, as soon as they ate of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve knew that they were naked. This inspired a feeling of shame, which meant that the present, rather frustrating experience we know as sexuality came into the world when man fell into a lower state of being. And so, if Adam before his fall was metaphorically a tree of life, then after his fall, he would metaphorically be a tree of death, or of moral or sexual knowledge.

We find as one of the laws written in the Book of Deuteronomy, for example, in Deuteronomy 21:22: 'And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God'). And again, the symbol of the tree of death, which is under the curse of God, like the barren fig tree cursed by Jesus, is here associated with a hanged criminal.

Now, what is true of the word 'sea', which is both a symbol of death and a symbol of renewed life, depending upon whether one is looking at it from the Egyptian or the Israelite point of view, is true also of the cross, which is a tree of death insofar as it expresses the human reaction to God, and a tree of life for members of Christianity. So we're not surprised to find, perhaps, that Paul quotes this law of Deuteronomy and applies it to the Crucifixion. In Galatians, 3:13: 'Christ path redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree'. This is all part of symbolism that is consistent in the New Testament of the Messiah or Christ figure as simultaneously a figure of triumph and transcendence and also a victim , a scapegoat figure.

As we'll see later, there are many Old Testament prototypes (as Christianity interpreted them) of the Jesus of the Gospels. One of them is King Solomon, the king who built the Temple and was traditionally the teacher of wisdom. Solomon, however, was only one of David's many sons. David had another son called Absalom, who rebelled against his father. His manner of death is described in II Samuel 18:9: 'And Absalom met the servants of David. And Absalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away. And a certain man saw it and told Joab, and said, behold, I saw Absalom hanged in an oak. And so David's general, Joab, came up to him and thrust darts into his side and killed him while he was hanging on the tree. Well, Absalom's curious helplessness in what seems a relatively easy situation to get out of perhaps indicates a certain ritual element in his death. Traditionally, he was hung from the tree by his beautiful golden hair, reminding one of certain cults connected with the oak tree and the mistletoe, where a human sacrifice would be initiated by cutting the mistletoe, the golden emblem from the branches of an oak. But however that may be, the symbolism of Absalom hanging on a tree and having darts thrust into his side is something as essential to the story of Jesus as the aspect of the 'King of kings and Lord of lords'.

Well, then we find that Israel goes through the three stages that I mentioned earlier, the pastoral stage, the agricultural stage, and the urban stage. These are all images of a nature which is transformed by human effort and energy into something with a human shape and a human meaning. What man really wants is what his work shows that he wants, whenever he gets a chance to work, and doesn't have to waste his life making war or feeding a parasitic class. When he gets a chance to work, he is transforming the animal world into a world of flocks and herds; the vegetable world into a world of crops, of harvest and of vintage; and the world of stones and minerals into a world of cities and buildings and highways.

Let us take for example the pastoral world. The Bible invariably uses the sheep as the typical apocalyptic or ideal animal. I suggested in one of my books that the reason for that is that sheep societies are perhaps more like human societies than those of any other animal: because the sheep is gregarious, stupid, and easily stampeded. It is consequently the appropriate animal to describe in pastoral metaphors—words like 'pastor' and 'flock' still survive in language about the church. But as far as pure metaphor is concerned, there's no earthly reason bulls and cows should not be as appropriate images as sheep.

Here we have to consider the importance and influence in the Bible of what one might call negative ritual: the fact that the Israelites are so frequently forbidden to do things quite obviously because their neighbors did them. For example, we are told many times in the Mosaic code: Thou shah not seethe (i.e., boil) a kid (i.e., a baby goat) in his mother's milk. That is the basis for the Jewish kosher rule about not mixing milk and meat dishes. But boiling a kid in his mother's milk is not something that would occur to anybody off the top of his head: so it looks as though it must have been a fertility rite on the part of the neighboring Canaanites, from whom the Israelites more required to separate themselves.

Similarly, the bull was a favorite fertility image in neighboring countries, and for that reason is regarded with some suspicion as an appropriate emblem for the faithful and obedient Christian. In the Old Testament, for example, there is a story in the Exodus that while Moses was absent conversing with God on Mt. Sinai, his brother Aaron, the high priest, led the tribes of Israel into idolatry by making a golden calf as an idol. 'Calf' there means bull. That is a type of the later split in the kingdom between the ten tribes of Northern Israel and the tribe of Judah, when the king of Northern Israel, Jeroboam, set up local shrines with the emblem of a golden calf, again meaning a bull, as indicating departure from the line of religious orthodoxy. And in New Testament times, the great rival of Christianity through the Roman Empire was the religion of Mithraism, where the chief event of the year was a celebration of the birthday of the sun on December 25. Mithraism went everywhere with the Roman Empire: a Nazi bomb falling in London exposed a Mithraic temple during the war, and if you go to Rome, one place that you should definitely not miss is the church of San Clemente, where there is a series of four or five churches of different periods, and a Mithraic temple lying at the very bottom of the whole structure. The great emblem of Mithraism was the bull, and its great rite was the sacrifice of the bull, which was a repetition of an original creation myth, and forms again an exact parallel of the Christian sacrifice of a lamb who is, according to the Book of Revelation, slain from the foundation of the world. It is this affinity of the bull with heathen kingdoms that knocks it out as a normal image of a pastoral world; and in effect, one can a­most class it as a parody demonic image.