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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.