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Joel Hoffman is blogging today about unicorns and other mythological creatures in the Bible—or at least in the King James Version. As he usually does, Dr. Hoffman raises an intriguing question about how the original Hebrew words the KJV rendered as “dragon,” “unicorn,” and so forth should be handled. Did the original writers intend their readers to understand these as real-world creatures (e.g., as serpents, rhinoceroses, etc.) or did they mean to depict creatures of fantasy? He writes,
More generally, I think the real translation question with all of these creatures is whether they were intended to be mythic or — for want of a better word — real.
Even if they were intended to be real, “dragon” and “unicorn” may have been right once. It seems that people thought that both existed. (As late as the 17th century, scholars in Europe argued that griffins were real, and the only reason we didn’t see them was that, quite naturally, these magnificent creatures tended to stay away from people who would steal their gold). But now those translations wrongly take the real and turn them into fantasy.
On the other hand, if they were not meant to be real, then attempts to identify the exact species may be misguided, and maybe we should stick with “dragon” and “unicorn” and so forth.
Hoffman deals mainly with “unicorns” (re’em) and “dragons” (tannin), although he makes passing reference to a possible merperson in the character of Dagon, the god of the Philistines.
Along these same lines, I would suggest that there are a handful of possible reference to fairies in the Bible—at least if the rabbis of the medieval period were interpreting these passages rightly.
Two Hebrew words are of interest: shedim and se’irim, both translated daimonia (“demons”) in the Septuagint. Shedim only appear twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the plural (although the singular form would be shed). Psalm 106:37 says, “They sacrificed their own sons and daughters to demons!” (CEB). In a similar context, Deuteronomy 32:17 says,
They sacrificed to demons, not to God,
to deities of which
they had no knowledge—
new gods only recently on the scene,
ones about which your ancestors
had never heard.
Shedim are therefore obviously bad news in the Bible. Oddly enough, the term seems to be related to the Akkadian shedu, a benevolent or protective spirit, perhaps something we might think of as a guardian angel. Then again, people around the world have made offerings to various local protective spirits to secure their goodwill. The biblical writers were obviously interested in discouraging such a practice. Thus, in the Bible, they are depicted not as helpful minor spirits but as false gods to be avoided.
The next word is se’irim (singular se’ir), meaning “hairy beings” or “shaggy beings.” In the KJV, the word is translated “satyrs.” There are a few more references to se’irim than there are to shedim. According to Leviticus 17:7, “The Israelites must no longer sacrifice their communal sacrifices to the goat demons that they follow so faithlessly. This will be a permanent rule for them throughout their future generations.” The LXX renders se’irim as mataiois, “to empty or vain things.”
Se’irim dwell in the desolate wilderness and are apparently fond of dancing. According to Isaiah 13:21,
Wildcats will rest there;
houses will be filled with owls.
Ostriches will live there,
and goat demons (LXX, daimonia) will dance there.
And again in Isaiah 34:14:
Wildcats will meet hyenas,
the goat demon will call to his friends,
and there Lilith will lurk
and find her resting place.
I saw you wondering about Lilith in that verse. We’ll come back to her in a minute. It should be noted, that the Septuagint translation removes Lilith from the picture but possibly gives us a completely new mythological creature. My fairly wooden translation of the Greek is as follows:
Demons will meet onocentaurs
and they will shout one to the other,
There onocentaurs will rest
for they found a resting place for themselves.
If you’re not up to speed on medieval bestiaries, let me quickly explain that an onocentaur is part man, part ass. (And please refrain from any comments about half-ass blog posts. Thank you.)
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the se’irim are “are satyr-like demons, described as dancing in the wilderness…identical with the jinn of the Arabian woods and deserts.” Azazel, the goat-like wilderness demon (Lev 16:10ff) and Lilith (whom we already encountered in Isa 34:14) are said to be of the same class of beings. Further, it should be noted that some see in Lilith a prototype for later vampire legends. The Jewish Encyclopedia also raises the possibility that “the roes and hinds of the field” (gazelles and wild deer in the CEB) in Song of Songs 2:7 and 3:5 are “faunlike spirits similar to the se’irim, though of a harmless nature.”
How does all this apply to fairies? Thomas Keightley argued in The Fairy Mythology (1870) that the prototypes of European fairy legends were to be found not only in the nymphs and satyrs of Greco-Roman mythology but also in Near Eastern stories of jinns and peris (or jinn and parian, to use the correct Arabic and Persian plurals). He even argued that our English word “fairy” derives ultimately from Persian pari (or peri). This linguistic argument may or may not hold, but anyone who looks at Persian peri-stories will find many parallels to what was believed about fairies in rural Europe until fairly recent times.
If Keightley is correct, then the European conception of fairies owes a good deal to the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world(s) in which the Bible was written. It therefore would not be unusual to find references to the such creatures in biblical and other early Semitic materials.
After tracing the fairy mythology throughout northern Europe, Keightley makes quick reference to Jewish legends about similar creatures found in the rabbinic corpus. These beings are in fact called shedim and seirim (although Keightley transliterates them shedeem and shehireem). Another term, maziqin (or mazikeen in Keightley’s transliteration), is Aramaic and applies specifically to a malevolent spirit. According to rabbinic tradition, all these beings are in fact directly analogous to the jinn of Arabic folklore. Keightley writes,
It has long been an established article of belief among the Jews that there is a species of beings which they call Shedeem, Shehireem, or Mazikeen. These beings exactly correspond to the Arabian Jinn; and the Jews hold that it is by means of them that all acts of magic and enchantment are performed.
The Talmud says that the Shedeem were the offspring of Adam. After he had eaten of the Tree of life, Adam was excommunicated for one hundred and thirty years. “In all those years,” saith Rabbi Jeremiah Ben E’liezar, “during which Adam was under excommunication, he begat spirits, demons, and spectres of the night, as it is written, ‘Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begat children in his likeness and in his image,’ which teaches, that till that time he bad not begotten them in his own likeness.” In Berasbith Rabba, R. Simon says, “During all the one hundred and thirty years that Adam was separate from Eve, male spirits lay with her, and she bare by them, and female spirits lay with Adam, and bare by him.”
These Shedeem or Mazikeen are held to resemble the angels in three things. They can see and not be seen; they have wings and can fly; they know the future. In three respects they resemble mankind: they eat and drink; they marry and have children; they are subject to death. It may be added, they have the power of assuming any form they please; and so the agreement between them and the Jinn of the Arabs is complete.
As with dragons and unicorns, there are probably some who will pounce on “rational” or “scientific” explanations for fairies. Some do, in fact, attribute European fairy-lore to dim memories of diminutive tribes driven underground—and ultimately to extinction—by later invaders with the advantage of iron weapons (in both Europe and the Middle East, iron is a potent weapon against the Fair Folk).
In my experience, however, I think most interpreters would see shedim and se’irim as terms intended to describe supernatural or otherworldly beings and not merely misidentified pygmies or “wild men”—whether or not they judge such creatures to be “real.”
Chuck Huckaby discusses several resources for incorporating the Psalms into one’s daily devotions, with emphasis is on the metrical psalmody of the Genevan Psalter.
Ever wanted to know what Psalm 89 would sound like sung in the original Hebrew and accompanied by a banjo?
(H/T: The Genevan Psalter)
David Ker is uncomfortable with the passages in the Old Testament that seem to revel in thoughts (and actions) of vengeance against one’s enemies. So am I—and it would be deeply troubling to meet someone who wasn’t. There are some awfully graphic, bloodthirsty places in Scripture. David notes in particular a couple of psalms. Psalm 63:9-10 says:
But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals.
Perhaps most famously, Psalm 137 ends with these blood-curdling words:
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
What is a believer to do with this sort of material? David suggests, and I think he is right, that verses like this may need to be omitted from the public reading of Scripture if there isn’t going to be an opportunity for a teacher or preacher to set them in some kind of context. Some of the people who show up at public worship have little or no framework for understanding such texts. Reading an unbowdlerized version of Psalm 137 with “little ones” present may prove problematic—especially if those little ones are paying attention, love to ask questions, and don’t have a parent with formal theological or biblical training!
Even so, there must be some forum in which these words are brought to the surface of our Christian consciousness and owned as Holy Scripture. As John Hobbins reminds us, latching only onto the parts of the Bible that suit us was precisely the heresy of Marcion. We can’t ultimately “fix” these texts by sweeping them away, and in fact these texts have played an important, positive role in the history of Christian spirituality.
In Chanting the Psalms, Cynthia Bourgeault observes that the vengeance passages in the Psalter have an important purpose in contemplative prayer. In that setting, the Psalter’s “shadow material” makes it possible to talk about the darkness humans carry with them and provides a means of letting go of it. She states,
What I believe happens when we introduce the psalms into our consciousness—and even more so into our unconscious—through the practice of contemplative psalmody is that they begin to create a safe spiritual container for recognizing and processing those dark shadows within ourselves, those places we’d prefer not to think about. There are times in the spiritual journey when anger is a very real part of our live, just as jealousy, abandonment, helplessness, rage, and terror are. All of these emotions are in us, and they’re all in the psalms. Perhaps we’re not terribly pleased with ourselves when we find ourselves praying, “Destroy all those who oppress me, O Lord,” but most of us have felt that way. (43)
In other words, the vengeance passages confront us with the darkness in our own souls so we can deal with it in a spiritually healthy way. (I have discussed Bourgeault’s “therapeutic” approach to the psalms elsewhere, and the remainder of this post is mostly a re-post of that material.)
In the past, I have found Bourgeault’s approach to be a helpful jumping-off point for teaching mature Christians about the imprecatory psalms. The key for me is to identify accurately the “enemy” one is asking God to destroy. Relying on the traditional triad, “the world,” “the flesh,” and “the devil,” I tend to see three possible ways to redeem these psalms for Christian use:
- The Psalms as Vehicles for Emotional Catharsis (the enemy = the world). This is the model Bourgeault develops. By means of this sort of reading, I confess that I have real enemies, flesh and blood people who delight in doing me wrong. My feelings for them are not entirely Christlike, and I need to own up to that fact and seek God’s transformation.
- The Psalms as Vehicles for Self-Mortification (the enemy = the flesh). Bourgeault alludes briefly to this model at the end of the chapter, where someone explains understanding these psalms as prayers for God to destroy in oneself those sinful attitudes that prevent spiritual growth and holiness. This reading allows me the opportunity to admit that I am often my own worst enemy. I need God’s refining fire to do away with those parts of me that are at cross-purposes with God’s will.
- The Psalms as Vehicles for Spiritual Warfare (the enemy = the devil). I believe this was also suggested by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who of course understood themselves to be “soldiers of Christ” doing battle with the forces of evil in the wilderness. This reading recognizes that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces that must be brought into subjection to the will of God.
Similar approaches can help us with some of the other vengeance passages in the Old Testament. This material is difficult, to be sure. But they remain a part of the Bible for both Jews and Christians. Therefore it is important for us to find ways to navigate their turbulent content and come out for the better on the other side of them.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart….
You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening. (Ps 104:14-15, 19-23)
My father-in-law, who is in his eighties, still gets up with the sun every morning, fixes himself and his wife some breakfast, puts some wood in the furnace, and tinkers around in his garden. He has spent his life working on farms in southern Kentucky and will one day probably be buried in his Dickey work clothes. Whenever I think about “honoring life’s rhythms,” I can’t help but think of him and others of his generation.
All of Psalm 104 praises God as Creator. Verses 14-23 describe the natural rhythms of life in an agricultural society: enjoyment of the fruits of creation (vv. 14-15), the natural ebb and flow of the seasons (v. 19), and the cycle of day and night (vv. 20, 22).
In this context, our normal human rhythm of work and rest (v. 23) is a natural corollary. God didn’t make us machines that stay on the go twenty-four hours a day. Nor did God make us a race of lotus-eaters destined for a life of ease. (Even in the garden of Eden there was work to be done!). A healthy life requires a balance of meaningful work and restorative leisure. We disregard this balance to our detriment.
One of the characteristics of Old Testament faith that a lot of Christians have trouble with is the often brutal honesty of many texts about their anger or frustration with God. The psalmists can forthrightly describe how they feel that God has abandoned them. Jeremiah and other prophets can reveal their anger at God for calling them to a task that seems too hard. Job can question God’s justice and demand he appear to give an account of himself.
Last night I was teaching at church about how the Psalms in particular can convey the whole range of human emotion, including those darker aspects of ourselves we prefer to keep under wraps — especially at church! But there is great wisdom in finding the freedom to express to God what we really feel and not be constrained to merely repeating pious platitudes.
The book of Lamentations is one of those texts that is sometimes shocking in its honesty. The author perceives God as Israel’s enemy and wonders if there is any reason for hope. He closes with a prayer for God to restore the people, but then adds, “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (Lam 5:22).
What do you do with passages like that? After church, a friend and Mercer colleague told me he has sometimes had students respond to such texts by saying, “But you shouldn’t talk to God that way!” And yet, many of the Bible’s heroes of faith did just that. We’ve somehow hypnotized ourselves into thinking that God won’t be able to handle it if we tell him how we really feel, or that it is somehow a sign of lack of faith to feel what we do. Personally, I’m grateful God is big enough to deal with me when I’m at my ugliest. Honesty before God creates an environment in which my faith can grow.
technorati tags: lamentations
The final chapter of Chanting the Psalms by Cynthia Bourgeault is called “Dancing before the Ark.” It is a fitting summary to what she has endeavored to teach her readers about the nature of psalm-chanting. Since I prefer not to end this extended review on a sour note, I’ll discuss the end of the chapter first.
Bourgeault concludes by speculating about whether humankind is on the verge of a new era of consciousness such as broke forth in the “axial period” of ca. 800-200 BC. Such a new consciousness would be “less grounded in the mental egoic perception that sustains our usual sense of selfhood; less dualistic and boundaried; more attuned to a new collectivity where each of us (like individual snowflakes) derive our full meaning and splendor from the whole (the snow)” (208).
In all candor, this strikes me as the sort of gobbledygook I would expect to hear on Oprah. For all the strengths of this book—and there are many—Bourgeault can sometimes sound like every negative stereotype a traditional Christian ever had of the liberal-progressive Episcopal priest that she is. I appreciate the psychological and spiritual insights she brings to the table, and I have no qualms about drawing phenomenological comparisons to similar chanting practices in other world religions, but she sounds in places like someone not entirely at home within the Christian tradition and perhaps longing for something she believes she cannot find in it. Isn’t there a story out there about a Buddhist or Hindu wise man who turned away a western spiritual seeker by telling him first to master his own spiritual tradition (i.e., Christianity) before looking elsewhere for enlightenment? And yet, Bourgeault is interested in the Dalai Lama and Sufi zikr chants, even though she gives no evidence of exploring her own tradition in terms of Christian psalmody and chanting prior to the rise of monasticism: she has literally nothing to say about the place of the psalms in the New Testament period (among either Jews or Christians), the practice of “jubilation” as an improvisational chant-form, its possible connections with “singing in the spirit,” etc. This is the chapter I would have liked to have read. It would have been far more useful in an introductory book on Christian psalmody than these speculations.
With that little bit of unpleasantness behind us, let me tell you what I liked about this chapter. Bourgeault offers an intriguing insight into the story of David dancing before the ark of the covenant (2 Sam 6) as a metaphor for the spiritual effects of psalm-chanting. David is acclaimed as the author of many of the psalms—and over the centuries tradition added even more psalms to his repertoire! While this ascription is only partly true historically, Bourgeault asserts, “it is one hundred percent true emotionally, for his spirit throbs through the songs, and this vivid incident before the ark is esentially an icon of all I’ve been saying about the psalms throughout this book” (204). She finds three points of comparison:
Passion. David in this story is passionate, and so are the psalms. They give expression to all the feelings human beings are capable of. “For nearly three thousand years,” Bourgeault writes, “the psalms have held up the mirror to the sacred reality of our human journey with all its seething untidiness…. They encourage us to engage honestly and fully with the power and profundity that is life itself. Like David, they are a life force calling us to the dance” (205).
Creativity. David’s response to God involved creativity: “When moved to the core, he doesn’t just yell and jump; he dances. The passion of his heart is transformed into a sacred art form that gives shape and direction to his emotions” (205). The psalms seem to have a “catalytic” effect, calling for a variety of creative responses, from the illuminated psalters and breviaries of the Middle Ages to the legends of seafaring Saint Brendan to the great medieval cathedrals and the continuing experimentation in the artistry of Taizé and Gouzes chant.
Vulnerability. Just as David stripped off his royal robes to dance dressed only in his loincloth, the psalms “strip away our psychological battle armor and invite (in fact, impel) us to dance naked before God, revealing our shadow and wounds: our undigested anger, self-pity, and vindictiveness, those dark places we would prefer to keep hidden” (206).
Chanting the Psalms is a valuable spiritual resource. It is a great practical introduction to Christian psalmody, and those who know more about music and music history than I do may well find it an even greater treasure. Reading it has certainly inspired me to take a fresh look at the psalms and renew my commitment to spending much time with them in my own devotions.
In the eleventh century, Saint Romuald wrote, “The psalms are your path; never leave it” (207). Bourgeault’s book unpacks a bit of what Romuald meant and invites Christians today to begin to take his lesson to heart.
The final section of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms deals with some radically new experiments in Christian chant. In chapter 14, “Is There Chanting beyond the Psalms?” Bourgeault reminds us that classic Christian psalmody “is an art of high intelligibility requiring focused attention and a willingness to engage with the images and emotions that the psalms offer up as the working laboratory for personal transformation” (163). As such, it is fundamentally different than the chanting traditions of most other world religions in classic spiritual terminology, it is a cataphatic practice (i.e., engaging the faculties or reason, memory, feeling, etc.) rather than an apophatic one (i.e., transcending into “formless or unboundaried selfhood,” 165). In classic Christian spirituality, it is meant to lay the groundwork for contemplation by “purifying the passions and awakening the heart’s capacity to feel deeply about spiritualities” (164). It is not intended to evoke the contemplative state itself.
Where, then, does that leave those of us who do not have the time, resources, or inclination to join a monastery in order to devote ourselves to the rigorous discipline that traditional psalmody requires? One solution, explored in great detail in chapters 7-13, is in the direction of simplification: opting for simple, uncomplicated psalm tones or for an increasing use of refrains for the choral parts. Even in simplified settings, however, psalm chanting takes a great deal of diligence.
Another, far more radical, option is presented in the chapters to follow. This option is more of a fundamental revision of the spirituality of Christian chant, bringing it more in line with how chant functions in other religious traditions: as “a primarily apophatic practice intended to transcend ego consciousness rather than purify it” (168). In chapters 15-17, Bourgeault briefly describes four current experiments in just this sort of Christian chanting.
Chapter 15 deals with perhaps the most widely known example of the revision of the spirituality of Christian chant, “Taizé Chant.” Bourgeault defines the chant tradition of the Taizé Community as a form of “ostinato chant” which has been elevated to a whole new art form. As she describes it,
A traditional ostinato is a simple tune or harmonic progression repeated continuously throughout a composition. Typically, it’s found in the bass line (usually played instrumentally by an organ or a cello); its major purpose is to serve as the harmonic foundation for a more complex musical expansion in the upper voices. Like a cinder block foundation, it is useful but not terribly appealing in itself.
But Berthier’s use of the ostinato form [at Taizé] essentially stood tradition on its head. In Taizé chant, the ostinato becomes the center of interest, the main place where both the action and its deeper meaning unfold. The entire congregation sings the simple, repetitive melody (usually in two- or four-voice harmony or in canon), while optional vocal and instrumental soloists add the musical variety and expansion. (171-72)
Chapter 16, “Songs of the Presence,” describes a form of spontaneous, improvisational singing based, as at Taizé, on the repetition of a simple text: “Rather like a flock of birds all swooping together in flight, this is an experiment in spontaneous presence to a guiding intelligence deeper than the mind” (184). This form of chant has been popularized by Lynn Bauman, director of the Praxis Retreat and Learning Center in Elwood, Texas. According to Bourgeault,
Like Taizé chant, this new body of chants works on the principle of repetition. A short phrase or sentence is sung continuously, creating the ostinato chant effect of drawing the prayer deeper. Unlike Taizé, however, the Songs of the Presence are intentionally improvisational. The chant tune is a simple melody set within an implicit harmonic pattern. The full realization of the chant’s potential depends on each group hearing the harmonic possibilities and unfolding them spontaneously in the synergy of the moment. Every chant is its own unique and unrepeatable event. (186)
This strikes me as in some ways similar to the ancient practice of jubilation, and I wish Bourgeault had helped connect the dots between the two forms of improvised singing.
Finally, in chapter 17, Bourgeault deals briefly with “Iona Chant and Gouzes Chant.” While chapters 15 and 16 dealt with experiments in a more apophatic approach to chanting, in the approaches discussed here, we are firmly back in cataphatic territory.
“Iona chant” is, technically speaking, a misnomer, as the Protestant Iona Community understands its music to be songs, not chants. Still, this new musical genre has an obvious contemplative spirit. Bourgeault describes it as follows:
Iona chant tends to be much more rhythmic than Taizé, in keeping with its African and Latino influences. Dotted and syncopated rhythms abound, and frequent use is made of a call-and-response format, both between cantor and congregation and within the musical voice parts themselves…. While the songs are not primarily contemplative in their intent, they have earned a place in the hearts of contemporary contemplatives because of their profound musical and mystical beauty (195-96)
Finally, Gouzes chant is classic psalmody, yet in a distinctly different form. Gouzes chant originated in France within the Fraternités monastiques de Jérusalem (FMJ), one of the fastest growing young monastic orders in Europe. The form takes its name from André Gouzes, a Dominican priest and composer. Again, I’ll let Bourgeault describe this form of chant in her own words:
On a first hearing, Gouzes chant can sound deceptively straightforward, as if the choir is merely singing simple harmonic progressions. But one soon realizes that these “simple” progressions do not emanate from a northern European harmonic base (as with Taizé). Instead, they echo the modal system of Byzantine chant and the pentatonic flavor of much of Near Eastern and Islamic chant; in fact, they sometimes echo them simultaneously, for Gouzes can marry these two distinct musical color palettes with astonishing effectiveness. The most striking musical signature of Gouzes chant is that the voice parts tend to operate in close harmony, with frequent accidentals and dissonances. (199)
Gouzes chant is still largely a Francophone phenomenon, but its “musical genius” is already well attested in Europe.
Next: Part 12