Orthodox Patristic “Cryptozoology” and Medieval Bestiaries

NOTE: Many of the Orthodox Church Fathers believed in the existence of mythological creatures. Some even wrote about their existence and described them in detail. The following article is by no means a complete index of Orthodox Patristic “cryptozoology,” which is quite an exhaustive subject: 

http://bestiary.ca/index.html & https://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/

Also see: https://scottnevinssuicide.wordpress.com/2015/03/11/epistle-on-dragons-st-john-damascene/

https://scottnevinssuicide.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/cynocephali-in-the-ancient-christian-tradition/

SOME CHURCH FATHERS WHO WROTE ABOUT IMAGINARY CREATURES

St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397): His commentary on the fourth day (creation of birds and fish) and fifth day (creation of land animals) [in the Hexameron] influenced the later writers of the bestiaries, who occasionally quote from him directly. Ambrose’s stature as a Father of the Church ensured that his account of the creation of animals would be accepted as true.

St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430): In City of God, Augustine discusses the monstrous races of humans, giving the reports of their existence cautious acceptance. With the respect Augustine had in the Middle Ages, his opinions were taken seriously. His acceptance, though cautious, of some of the beast tales could only have made them more acceptable to later writers.

Isidore of Seville (d. 7th century): Book 12 of the Etymologies is about animals. Isidore took much of his information from Aristotle and Pliny, who also wrote about real and imaginary animals. Isidore, as usual, accepted whatever his sources told him; observation of the real world has little part in his “zoology.”

Hrabanus Maurus (d. 856): De rerum naturis (On the Nature of Things), also known as De universo, is an encyclopedia in 22 books, covering a large range of subjects. It was written between 842 and 847. Hrabanus’ stated intent was to compile an encyclopedic handbook for preachers. He drew on earlier sources for his information, particularly the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, but the organization of the material was his own invention.

Book 8 is on animals. It is divided into seven chapters: De bestiis (“beasts”, mostly mammals); De minutis animantibus (small animals); De serpentibus (serpents, reptiles); De vermibus (“worms”, mostly insects); De piscibus (fish); De avibus (birds); De minutis avibus (small birds).

St. Photius the Great (d. 893): The most important of the works of Photios is his renowned Bibliotheca or Myriobiblon, a collection of extracts and abridgements of 280 volumes of classical authors (usually cited as Codices), the originals of which are now to a great extent lost. The work is especially rich in extracts from historical writers. It contains Ctesias’ Indica, which describes various mythological creatures.

ORTHODOX PATRISTIC “CRYPTOZOOLOGY”

Amphisbaena: The amphisbaena is a two-headed lizard or serpent. It has one head in the normal position, and another at the end of its tail. It can therefore run in either direction. Its eyes shine like lamps, and has no fear of cold. The name “amphibaena” is now given to a legless lizard that can move either forward or backward, though this is a relatively modern use of the name.

The amphisbaena has an extra head on its tail, allowing it to quickly run in either direction.
The amphisbaena has an extra head on its tail, allowing it to quickly run in either direction.

The amphisbaena has two heads, one in the proper place and one in its tail. It can move in the direction of eaither head with a circular motion. Its eyes shine like lamps. Alone among snakes, the amphisbaena goes out in the cold. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 4:20)

A two headed amphisbaena looks at itself.
A two headed amphisbaena looks at itself.

Ant-Lion (Μυρμηκολέων)

There are two interpretations of what an ant-lion is. In one version, the ant-lion is so called because it is the “lion of ants,” a large ant or small animal that hides in the dust and kills ants. In the other version, it is a beast that is the result of a mating between a lion and an ant. It has the face of a lion and and the body of an ant, with each part having its appropriate nature. Because the lion part will only eat meat and the ant part can only digest grain, the ant-lion starves.

The ant-lion story may come from a mistranslation of a word in the Septuagint version of the biblical Old Testament, from the book of Job (4:11). The word in Hebrew is lajisch, an uncommon word for lion, which in other translations of Job is rendered as either lion or tiger; in the Spetuagint it is translated as mermecolion, ant-lion.

A large spider-like ant-lion (right) faces an eight-legged ant.
A large spider-like ant-lion (right) faces an eight-legged ant.

“But in the translation of the seventy interpreters it does not say “the tiger” but “the ant-lion perished because it had no prey.” The ant-lion is a very small animal, enemy of the ant, which hides itself under the sand and kills ants carrying bits of grain, and then eats the ants. Ant-lion is said in Latin to be either “lion of ants” or at least, more precisely, “both ant and lion.” It is rightly said to be both ant and lion, because by comparison to flying things, or to other small animals, it is an ant, but to the ants it is a lion. It devours them like a lion, but it is devoured by the other animals like an ant. When therefore Eliphaz says, “The ant-lion perished,” what is he attacking in blessed Job under this name if not both fear and boldness? As if to say openly: ‘You have not been struck unjustly, because you are timid against the strong, but bold against the weak.’ As if to say openly: ‘Against the clever, fear restrained you, but against the simple, cockiness puffed you up. But the ant-lion does not have its prey because your timid pride is beset by blows and kept from wounding others.’ But because we said the friends of blessed Job stood for heretics, it is important for us to say how these words of Eliphaz can be interpreted allegorically. … (Section 43): This beast spotted with such diversity is rightly called a tiger, though called by the seventy interpreters as we said before, an ant-lion. That animal hides in the dust, as we said, to kill ants carrying bits of grain. So also the apostate angel, cast down on earth from heaven, ambushes the minds of the just as they prepare for themselves nourishment on the path leading to good works. And when he defeats them from ambush, he is like an ant-lion unexpectedly killing ants bearing grain. But he is rightly called an ant-lion, that is lion-and-ant: for he is a lion to the ants, but to the birds a mere ant, because to those who yield to him the ancient enemy is strong, but to those who resist him he is feeble. If his suggestions find assent, he is as unstoppable as the lion; but if they are resisted, he is stepped on like an ant. To some therefore he is a lion, to others an ant. Minds devoted to the flesh can scarcely endure his cruelty, while spiritual minds step on his weakness with the foot of virtue. So heretics, because they take pride in their presumed holiness, say as if rejoicing, “The ant-lion,” or at least, “The tiger perished, because he had no prey.” As if to say openly: ‘The old adversary does not have prey in us because for our purposes he already lies beaten.’ So he is mentioned again with the name of ant-lion or tiger because he had already been said to be trampled on in the roar of the lion: for whatever is said out of joy is often repeated.” (St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, Book V, chapter 20, section 40)

“The ant-lion is so called either because it is equally lion and ant, or because it is the lion of ants. It is a small animal that is hostile to ants; it hides in the sand and kills other ants that are carrying grain. In this way it is like a lion to ants though it is like an ant to other animals.” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 3:10)

 220px-Antlion_doodles

Asp [The Haemorrhois, Prester and Hypnalis are other varieties of asp]: “…they are like the deaf adder that stops her ear; which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely” (Psalm 58:56).

To avoid hearing the charm being spoken by the magician, the asp presses one ear to the ground and blocks the other with its tail.
To avoid hearing the charm being spoken by the magician, the asp presses one ear to the ground and blocks the other with its tail.

“As indeed of asps it is said, that when they are lured by incantations, in order that they may not be drawn from their caves they press one ear to the ground, and use their tail to stop up the other, and yet the enchanter can bring it forth…). This appears to be the first time this method of blocking both ears was described.” (Augustine of Hippo, Sermo 316:2 – In Solemnitate Stephani Martyris; Duri Iudaei in Stephanum)

To avoid the sound of the enchanter's voice, the asp presses one ear to the ground and blocks the other with its tail. This asp seems to be breathing fire, perhaps to show its venomous nature.
This asp seems to be breathing fire, perhaps to show its venomous nature.

“The asp (aspis) kills with a venomous bite, and from this it gets its name, for the Greek word for poison is ios (as). When an enchanter calls an asp out of its cave by incantations and it does not want to go, it presses one ear to the ground and covers the other with its tail, so it cannot hear the enchantment. There are many kinds of asp, but not all are equally harmful. The dipsas is a kind of asp, called in Latin situla because one bitten dies of thirst. The hypnalis is a kind of asp that kills in sleep, as Cleopatra was freed by death as if by sleep when bitten by one. The haemorrhois is called an asp because anyone bitten by it sweats blood; for the Greek word for blood is haima. The prester (or praester) is a kind of asp that always runs with its steaming mouth open; one bitten becomes distended for rot follows the bite. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 4:12-16)

The asp blocks its ear so it can't hear the song of the enchanter.

Basilisk: The basilisk is usually described as a crested snake, and sometimes as a cock with a snake’s tail. It is called the king (regulus) of the serpents because its Greek name basiliscus means “little king”; its odor is said to kill snakes. Fire coming from the basilisk’s mouth kills birds, and its glance will kill a man. It can kill by hissing, which is why it is also called the sibilus. Like the scorpion it likes dry places; its bite causes the victim to become hydrophobic. A basilisk is hatched from a cock’s egg, a rare occurence. Only the weasel can kill a basilisk. Some manuscripts have separate entries and/or illustrations for the basilisk and the regulus, possibly because the basilisk account in Isidore has three sections, one each for the basilisk, the “kinglet” (reguli), and the sibilus. Where the regulus is treated separately, the bite of the basilisk causing hydrophobia is generally ascribed to the regulus.

The basilisk is half cock and half serpent.
The basilisk is half cock and half serpent.

“The basilisk is six inches in length and has white spots; it is the king (regulus) of snakes. All flee from it, for it can kill a man with its smell or even by merely looking at him. Birds flying within sight of the basilisk, no matter how far away they may be, are burned up. Yet the weasel can kill it; for this purpose people put weasels into the holes where the basilisk hides. They are like scorpions in that they follow dry ground and when they come to water they make men frenzied and hydrophobic. The basilisk is also called sibilus, the hissing snake, because it kills with a hiss.” (Isidore of Seville,Etymologies, Book 12, 4:6-9)

This basilisk is drawn as a legged serpent with a cock's head and feet. Its glance will kill a man.
This basilisk is drawn as a legged serpent with a cock’s head and feet. Its glance will kill a man.

Centaur: The centaur has the lower body of a horse and the upper body of a human.

The centaur has the lower body of a horse and the upper body of a human.
The centaur has the lower body of a horse and the upper body of a human.

St. Jerome’s version of the Life of St Anthony the Great, the hermit monk of Egypt, written by Athanasius of Alexandria, was widely disseminated in the Middle Ages; it relates Anthony’s encounter with a centaur, who challenged the saint but was forced to admit that the old gods had been overthrown. The episode was often depicted; notably, in the The Meeting of St Anthony Abbot and St Paul the Hermit by Stefano di Giovanni called “Sassetta”, of two episodic depictions in a single panel of the hermit Anthony’s travel to greet the hermit Paul, one is his encounter along the pathway with the demonic figure of a centaur in a wood.

The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, Master of the Osservanza, 15th century
The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, Master of the Osservanza, 15th century

St. Jerome ends the story with an authenticating claim that, during the reign of Constantine:

“A living man of this kind was brought back to Alexandria and shown as a great spectacle to the people; afterwards, its lifeless body, to prevent its dissolution in the summer’s heat, was salted, and carried back to Antioch to be seen by the Emperor.” (St. Jerome, The Life of St. Paul, The First Hermit).

St. Anthony with the centaur.
St. Anthony with the centaur.

“Centaurs are fabulous animals that are part man and part horse. Some say that this idea came from the horsemen of the Thessalians, because in battle on horseback they appear to be one body, horse and man.” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 11, 3:37)

“I am a mortal being and one of those inhabitants of the desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord and ours, who, we have learned, came once to save the world, and 'whose sound has gone forth into all the earth.'”
St. Anthony with the Satyr.

Cerastes: The cerastes is a snake with horns like a ram’s on its head; from this it gets its name, for the Greeks call horns kerata. It has four horns, which it displays as bait, and instantly kills the animals it attracts. It covers itself with sand, leaving exposed only the part with which it catches allured birds and animals. It is so flexible that it seems to have no spine. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 4:18)

The cerastes, a very flexible snake with horns.
The cerastes, a very flexible snake with horns.

Corocotta: The Leukrokottas (or Leucrocotta, Corocotta) was a fantastic creature with the body of a stag, a lion’s neck, cloven hooves, and a wide mouth with a sharp, bony ridge in place of teeth. It had the ability to imitate the voices of men to lure prey. The creature was probably derived from travellers’ accounts of a type of hyena.

Leucrocota, Aberdeen Bestiary manuscript  c. 1200, Aberdeen University Library
Leucrocota, Aberdeen Bestiary manuscript
c. 1200, Aberdeen University Library

“In Aithiopia (Ethiopia) there is an animal called Krokottas (Crocotta), vulgarly Kynolykos (Cynolycus, Dog-Wolf), of amazing strength. It is said to imitate the human voice, to call men by name at night, and to devour those who approach it. It is as brave as a lion, as swift as a horse, and as strong as a bull. It cannot be overcome by any weapon of steel.” (Ctesias, Indica, summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 72)

Crocotta, as illustrated in a medieval bestiary
Crocotta, as illustrated in a medieval bestiary

Dragon: The dragon is the largest serpent, and in fact the largest animal on earth. Its name in Latin is draco, derived from the Greek name drakon. When it comes out of its cave, it disturbs the air. It has a crest, a small mouth, and a narrow throat. Its strength is in its tail rather than its teeth; it does harm by beating, not by biting. It has no poison and needs none to kill, because it kills by entangling. Not even the elephant is safe from the dragon; hiding where elephants travel, the dragon tangles their feet with its tail and kills the elephant by suffocating it. Dragons live in the burning heat of India and Ethiopia. (Book 16, 14:7): Dracontites is a stone that is forcibly taken from the brain of a dragon, and unless it is torn from the living creature it has not the quality of a gem; whence magi cut it out of dragons while they are sleeping. For bold men explore the cave of the dragons, and scatter there medicated grains to hasten their sleep, and thus cut off their heads while they are sunk in sleep, and take out the gems. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 4:4-5)

There is considerable variation in the illustration of dragons, but they usually have two or four feet, long tails, and at least one pair of wings. Fire-breathing dragons are rarely depicted; the dragon in British Library, Harley MS 3244 appears to be breathing fire. The most common scenes show the dragon attacking an elephant or threating the female elephant giving birth; the dragon held at bay by the peridexion tree; and the dragon trying to hide from the panther.
Fire-breathing dragons are rarely depicted; the dragon in British Library, Harley MS 3244 appears to be breathing fire.

Griffin: The griffin is a winged, four-footed animal. It has the body of a lion, but the wings and head of an eagle. It is born in the Hyperborean mountains, or perhaps in Ethiopia; some say it lives in the Indian desert, which it leaves only to find food. Griffins are the enemy of the horse. A griffin will tear a man to pieces or carry him to its nest to feed its young. Griffins are strong enough to carry away an entire live ox. They are also known for digging gold from mines.

The griffin, a powerful hunter, has caught a sheep.
The griffin, a powerful hunter, has caught a sheep.

The griffin is both a feathered animal and a quadruped; its body is like that of a lion, but it has wings and the face of an eagle. Griffins are hostile to horses and attack any man they see.” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 2:17)

A griffin rampant, in heraldic style.
A griffin rampant, in heraldic style.

“There is also gold [in India], not found in rivers and washed, as in the river Paktolos, but in many large mountains which are inhabited by Grypes (Griffins). These are four-footed birds as large as a wolf, their legs and claws resembling those of a lion; their breast feathers are red, those of the rest of the body black. Although there is abundance of gold in the mountains, it is difficult to get it because of these birds.” Ctesias, Indica, summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 72)

A knight attacks a griffin, which has killed his horse.
A knight attacks a griffin, which has killed his horse.

The Hippoi Monokerata: The Hippoi Monokerata were the swift-footed unicorns of the East. They were magnificent snow-white equines with a single, brightly-coloured horn rising from the middle of their foreheads. The Greeks also referred to them as Onoi Monokerata (One Horned Asses). The fabulous unicorn of Medieval bestiaries was derived from this creature of Greek legend.

“The unicorn received one horn from nature” (Ps. 91:10 LXX). “The unicorn is the beast which is invincible on account of the sharp horn upon his forehead, by which he kills all other beasts” (Ps. 77:69 LXX). (St. Athanasius the Great, Commentary on the Psalms)

A monocerus, a fierce beast with a long horn, often confused with the unicorn.
A monocerus, a fierce beast with a long horn, often confused with the unicorn.

“In India there are wild asses [the Monokerata, Unicorns] as large as horses, or even larger. Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and they have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length. The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red. Those who drink out of cups made from it are proof against convulsions, epilepsy, and even poison, provided that before or after having taken it they drink some wine or water or other liquid out of these cups. The domestic and wild asses of other countries and all other solid-hoofed animals have neither huckle-bones nor gall-bladder, whereas the Indian asses have both. Their huckle-bone is the most beautiful that I have seen, like that of the ox in size and appearance; it is as heavy as lead and of the colour of cinnabar all through. These animals are very strong and swift; neither the horse nor any other animal can overtake them. At first they run slowly, but the longer they run their pace increases wonderfully, and becomes faster and faster. There is only one way of catching them. When they take their young to feed, if they are surrounded by a large number of horsemen, being unwilling to abandon their foals, they show fight, butt with their horns, kick, bite, and kill many men and horses. They are at last taken, after they have been pierced with arrows and spears; for it is impossible to capture them alive. Their flesh is too bitter to eat, and they are only hunted for the sake of the horns and huckle-bones.” (Ctesias, Indica, summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 72)

A monocerus with a very long, curved horn and cloven hooves, drawn much as described in the text.
A monocerus with a very long, curved horn and cloven hooves, drawn much as described in the text.

Indus Worm: The Indus Worm from Medieval bestiaries was a giant, white, carnivorous worm that lived in the Indus River.

“In the river Indos (Indus) a worm is found resembling those which are usually found on fig-trees. Its average length is seven cubits, though some are longer, others shorter. It is so thick that a child ten years old could hardly put his arms round it. It has two teeth, one in the upper and one in the lower jaw. Everything it seizes with these teeth it devours. By day it remains in the mud of the river, but at night it comes out, seizes whatever it comes across, whether ox or camel, drags it into the river, and devours it all except the intestines. It is caught with a large hook baited with a lamb or kid attached by iron chains. After it has been caught, it is hung up for thirty days with vessels placed underneath, into which as much oil from the body drips as would fill ten Attic kotylai. At the end of the thirty days, the worm is thrown away, the vessels of oil are sealed arid taken as a present to the king of India, who alone is allowed to use it. This oil sets everything alight–wood or animals–over which it is poured, and the flame can only be extinguished by throwing a quantity of thick mud on it.” (Ctesias, Indica, summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 72)

“In regard to the river Indos, he [Ctesias] says that, where it is narrowest, it is forty, where it is widest, two hundred stades broad . . . He also mentions a worm found in this river, the only living creature which breeds there. Beyond India there are no countries inhabited by men. It never rains there, the country being watered by the river.” (Ctesias, Indica, as summarized in Photius, Myriobiblon 72)

Manticore: The Mantikhoras (or Manticore) was a fabulous man-eating Persian monster with the body of a lion, the face of a man, and a spike-tipped arrow-shooting tail. The name “Manticore” was reputedly derived from a Persian word meaning “man-eater.”  The Manticore also appeared in Medieval bestiaries, derived from the Greek and Roman writers.

A manticore with a somewhat human face, a lion's body, and a scorpion's tail.
A manticore with a somewhat human face, a lion’s body, and a scorpion’s tail.

“He [Apollonios of Tyana] also asked them [the Brahmans of India] . . . if they had among them a four-footed animal called a Martikhoras (Manticore), which had a head like that of a man, but rivals a lion in size, while from its tail projects hairs like thorns a cubit long, which it is accustomed to shoot out like arrows at those who hunt it . . . [and] Iarkhas said that they never had existed at all.” (Eusebius, Treatise Against Hierocles 21)

A manticore: lion body, human face.
A manticore: lion body, human face.

“The Martikhora (Manticore) is an animal found in this country [India]. It has a face like a man’s, a skin red as cinnabar, and is as large as a lion. It has three rows of teeth, ears and light-blue eyes like those of a man; its tail is like that of a land scorpion, containing a sting more than a cubit long at the end. It has other stings on each side of its tail and one on the top of its head, like the scorpion, with which it inflicts a wound that is always fatal. If it is attacked from a distance, it sets up its tail in front and discharges its stings as if from a bow; if attacked from behind, it straightens it out and launches its stings in a direct line to the distance of a hundred feet. The wound inflicted is fatal to all animals except the elephant. The stings are about a foot long and about as thick as a small rush. The Martikhora [a Persian word meaning man-eater] is called in Greek Anthropophagos (Man-Eater), because, although it preys upon other animals, it kills and devours a greater number of human beings. It fights with both its claws and stings, which, according to Ktesias (Ctesias), grow again after they have been discharged. There is a great number of these animals in India, which are hunted and killed with spears or arrows by natives mounted on elephants.” (Ctesias, Indica, summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 72)

An orange manticore grins with nasty teeth.
An orange manticore grins with nasty teeth.

Pard: The pard, a beast of many colors, is very swift, likes blood, and kills with a leap. The adulterous mating of the pard with a lion (leo) produces degenerate offspring, the leopard. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 2:10-11)

A male and female pard attacking a sheep.
A male and female pard attacking a sheep.

Phoenix: There are two similar versions of the account of the phoenix. In the first, it is a bird that lives in India. When it reaches the age of five hundred years, it flies to a frankincense tree and fills its wings with spices. In early spring a priest at Heliopolis covers an altar with twigs. The phoenix comes to the city, sees the altar, lights a fire there and is consumed by it. The next day a small, sweet-smelling worm is found in the ashes. On the second day the worm has transformed into a small bird, and on the third has the form of the phoenix again. The bird then returns to its place of origin.

After 500 years of life, the phoenix burns itself and rises renewed from the ashes.
After 500 years of life, the phoenix burns itself and rises renewed from the ashes.

The second version says that the phoenix is a purple or red bird that lives in Arabia. There is only one living phoenix in the world at any time. When it is old, it builds a pyre of wood and spices and climbs on to it. There it faces the sun and the fire ignites; it fans the fire with its wings until it is completely consumed. Some say it is the sun that ignites the fire; others say that the phoenix starts it by striking its beak against a stone, or that stones gathered with spices in the pyre rub together to create a spark. A new phoenix rises from the ash of the old.

Other versions of the story combine parts of the above accounts. The tale of the phoenix is very old and was widely known throughout antiquity, with many variations.

The phoenix on its funeral pyre, which was lit by the rays of the sun above.
The phoenix on its funeral pyre, which was lit by the rays of the sun above.

“The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, which gets its name from its purple (phoeniceus) color; or because it is singular and unique in the world and the Arabs call singular and unique phoenix. It lives for 500 years or more. When it sees that it has grown old it builds a pyre for itself from spices and twigs, and facing the rays of the rising sun ignites a fire and fans it with its wings, and rises again from its own ashes.” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 7:22)

A medieval depiction of the Devil
A medieval depiction of the Devil
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Hanging and Hanging God (John Eric Killinger, 2014)

NOTE: This article is taken from the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, pp. 768-771:

41

Deriving from two Old English words hangian and hon, and supported by the Old Norse hengja/hanga, “to be suspended,” hanging is also influenced by the Sanskrit sankata, “hesitate,” and the Latin cunctari, “to delay, defer, suspend.” Despite the fact that the terminology “hanged” is usually reserved for legal language, the word has also extended into metaphoric usage (e.g., I’ll be hanged, hang-up, and hanging out). There are affinities in Hebrew ( לה , ta¯laˆ, “hang up, let down, dangle, put to death by hanging,” Genesis 40:22, 2 Samuel 21:12; Esther 9:14) and Greek kremamai and kremannymi (κρέμαμαι in the LXX (Septuagint), but seven times as Kremάnnumi (κρεμάννυμι) in New Testament, referring to dependence on the entire law and the prophets (Matthew 22:40), execution of the two crucified with Jesus (Luke 21:39), and specifically to “crucifixion” in Galatians 3:13, even though it is derived from the Deuteronomic code (,לױולא ta¯laˆ ’al in Hebrew for “hanging after execution”)). With the prepositions around and on, this Greek usage also literally meant hang, as in the millstone hung around one’s neck (Matthew 18:6) and the snake that bit Paul on the hand (Acts 28:4), respectively. Hanging upside down, as St. Peter reputedly suffered, is a mark of humiliation and derision, a reversal of what the person stood for prior to being hanged. Such a method of hanging was called “baffling” (Spenser 1978, p. 956).

Crucifixion

Hanging was, according to the Old Testament, allowed but seems to have occurred after a person was executed. In compliance with Deuteronomic law, the body was to be removed before nightfall so as not to pollute the land given by God as an allotment. Even as early as the story of Joseph in Egypt, hanging consisted primarily of beheading followed by the displaying of the decedent’s head on a pike. King David’s eldest son Absalom caught the long locks of his hair in the low branches of an oak tree during his flight and was left hanging “between heaven and earth.” Disregarding the order to spare the king’s son, Joab, David’s chief general, kills Absalom with three spears to the heart (2 Samuel 18:9–15).

Death of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:9–15).
Death of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:9–15).

A liminal feature occurs in hanging. This is particularly true with regard to hanging gods such as Jesus the Nazorean who claims oneness with God, Odin the Norse All-father, Attis, and Osiris, who prior to his Dionysian dismemberment hung like Jesus for 3 days. According to Frazer (1914/1936, 1922/1996), the Phrygian satyr of Lydia, Marsyas, along with Adonis, Artemis, and even the fair Helen, ought to be included in this list of hanging gods. We might ourselves include Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab who had a crucifixion in his face (Melville 1967, p. 111) and the twelfth card of the Major Arcana in Tarot known as the Hanged Man. This liminal feature is intermundia, a state of being suspended between worlds suffused with death and rebirth – it is the presence of the absence of ananke, or necessity. It is not-space space and not-temporal temporality in much the same way as the alchemists called the lapis philosophorum the not-stone stone, or lithos ou lithos (λίθος oύ λίθος). Cicero (2000), in his De natura deorum, translates Epicurus’ term intermundia as metakosmios (μετακόσμιος), the place wherein he consigns the Greek pantheon. Metakosmios is derived from the verb metakosmeo (μετακοσμέω), rearrange, modify, and changed in aspect. Metaphorically it is a new arrangement, a change of condition, even a change of character, indicating its transformative aspect.

Dionysus hung on tree with sacrament of loaves of bread and jars of wine.
Dionysus hung on tree with sacrament of loaves of bread and jars of wine.

Hanging, this pathos of the god, even human hanging, often occurs outside the city wall. Jesus was crucified on the green hill of Golgotha outside of Jerusalem. Odin underwent hanging on the windswept World Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, away from human and divine contact, yet rooted to all and none. Osiris was encased in Set/Typhon’s beautifully wrought sarcophagus that became hung up and further entombed in the trunk of a tamarisk tree after floating down the Nile, which is also “up” as it would be northward, for as above, so below. Attis, who in alchemy is synonymous with the Egyptian god Osiris, performs his self-mutilation under a sacred pine tree and, in accordance with later ritual, is portrayed in effigy and hung on the pine tree as the officiating leader of the Attis-Cybele rite sheds his own blood to promote the fertility of the crops for the coming year. The Attis-Cybele myth is linked to the Artemis-Actaeon myth (and that of Isis-Osiris) and those of the respective fragmentations of Dionysus and Orpheus, whose misogynistic “madness” causes the Thracian maenads to tear him apart. The spirit of union not yet extracted is still part of the greatest dilemma of human beings today, according to Schwartz-Salant (1995). This is the “conclusion” to the problem and recognition that fragmentation, rather than repression, has a greater significance for development and pathology. Thus, being wounded to the point where one is branded a heretic or even an apostate necessarily moves the soul to action.

Hanged Man Tarot, Effigy of Dionysius on Stake, Attis on a Stake

Prayers and other cultic acts carried out in the hope of fertile land and crop abundance occur in the rites of Tammuz. Ezekiel 8:14 refers to the lamentation of the women over the death of Tammuz ( תּמּזוּז , Θαμμούζ) as an abomination to the Lord in the kingdom of Judah. Tammuz, or Dumuzi (whose name means “proper son [or child]”), was the Sumerian shepherd who married Inana, died, and was resurrected by her. Even Inana must be executed and hung like a piece of rotting meat in the underworld. When she ascends, she gives up Tammuz in her place. He escapes, then is captured, only to be freed by the love of Inana. Like Persephone, Tammuz is to spend half the year in the underworld, the other half upon the earth. The mythology of Inana-Tammuz is reckoned to date back to 3000BCE and encroached upon ancient Palestine, being given some recognition in various circles of the culture of Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s astonishment is at seeing the lamentations of the Tammuz cult infringe upon the sacred center of Jewish religion. Despite such lamentations being viewed as supplementary to the worship of YHWH, the abomination of it lies in its being an insult to the “living God” and nothing short of apostasy.

Inanna on the Ishtar Vase French museum Louvre
Inanna on the Ishtar Vase
French museum Louvre

Tammuz is related to Osiris and also to the mythology of the Phoenician Adonis, whose origins are not of the Greek classical period but semitic. According to Zimmerli (1969/1979), the lament of the death of Adonis (the Phoenician vegetation god type) is also attested in the Septuagint versions of 1 Kings 14:13 and Jeremiah 22:18 (242). Adonis’ name derives from adon אדװ) ), meaning “master, ruler, lord.” Ado¯n is the aleph and tav, alpha and omega, the one who was, is, and is to come. The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) uses Adonai to refer to the tetragrammaton YHWH, and this would connect Tammuz/Adonis/Osiris with Jesus in this respect. Not only this, it freights the reading of Ezekiel 8:14 with difficulty, imbuing it with a kind of fundamentalist repression, for example, “If you are not with me, you are against me.”

Etruscan Statue of Adonis, Semitic God that Dies and Resurrects Every Year
Etruscan Statue of Adonis, Semitic God that Dies and Resurrects Every Year

The liminal state involved in hanging may be long or short. The unusual swiftness of Jesus’ execution, which only lasted a matter of hours, comes as both a surprise and astonishment. Performed as a deterrent against rebelliousness, many Roman crucifixions lasted as long as 3 days. Jesus was forced to carry the patibulum, or crossbeam (also “dungeon,” “torture”), probably several hundred meters to the execution site where the seven-foot-tall stipes (vertical beam) would have been erected and awaiting him. Curiously, the vertical pole, called stipes in Latin, means both “tree trunk” and “instrument of torture.”

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The chronicling of Osiris the great Egyptian god of resurrection, found primarily in Plutarch (1936), had nine watchers and nine mourners, aligning it with Odin’s nine whole nights and nine songs. Like the division of the uroboros in the Pistis Sophia into twelve aeons, Osiris’ night realm was divided into twelve parts. In Kabbalah, the number twelve represents the philosopher’s stone. Twelve also is represented by the Hebrew letter lamed ( ל). Lamed is the heart and central letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Because it towers over the other letters, it represents the King of kings, an attribute also given to the Hanged Man, the twelfth trump of the Tarot’s Major Arcana. The poles of this Tarot card could refer to the Egyptian two-finger amulet that was placed either in the swaddling of the mummified remains of the deceased or loose in the coffin. These amulets represented the two fingers of the god who helps Osiris ascend the Ladder of Re¯.

The resurrection of Osiris, from a bas-relief carving in the temple of Sethos I at Abydos, Nineteenth Dynasty c. 1300 BC.
The resurrection of Osiris, from a bas-relief carving in the temple of Sethos I at Abydos, Nineteenth Dynasty c. 1300 BC.

The Norse god Odin’s hanging lasted nine whole nights, according to the Ha´vama´l of the Poetic, or Elder, Edda. Like Jesus, Odin suffered impaling with a spear, screamed as he reached for the runes, which might perhaps have been tinged with the horror of forsakenness (as he received no bread or drink-filled horn), and sacrificed himself to himself. In the process, he learned nine powerful songs. As his wisdom grew he came to know 18 powerful charms or runes, the twelfth of these, curiously, concerning the freeing of a hanged man for conversation. This death of god to become god is not unlike the death of Jesus on the cross. It is the death of God effected in God, the breaking of old patterns that bind, limit, or restrict one’s nature – the interface of religare (religion as tied or bound back to a previous state of existence) punishing religere (religion as embodiment of reflection and connection) or remembering versus unforgetting, as in the alchemical representation of the winged and wingless birds forever attached to one another. Odin, like Teiresias, goes through a purgation through suffering in token of new insight. Thus the metaphor of hanging as transformative act demonstrates that the hanged god moves through a transition from knowing about to becoming being, as in the movement from knowledge/curiosity to unknowable ultimate reality (K! O).

Odin hanging on the World Tree.
Odin hanging on the World Tree.

Like Odin, the Hanged Man card of Tarot’s Major Arcana is often depicted with his head deep in the earth, seeing its secrets as Odin saw the secrets of Yggdrasil. With the card turned upside down, the hanged man appears to be dancing in the abyss over which he had been suspended. This curiously links Odin with trickster associations. Connected with this is the sense of eutony (eu´tone_o, eutoneo¯), meaning “having or possessing faculties.” Its shadow aspect includes the meaning “distension.” Kestenburg (1978) describes eutony as a stretching out, “transsensus.” Characterized as breathful flowing, eutony/transsensus is similar to the diaphragmatic breathing practiced in yoga and tai chi, as well as choral and opera singing, and the playing of wind instruments that spiral us back to the Phrygian satyr Marsyas and the vanity of his musical challenge of Apollo. As a follower and comforter of Cybele following the death of Attis, he was renowned as a flautist, and because of his fame, he provoked Apollo into a musical contest. Marsyas would have won had not Apollo dared Marsyas to play his pipes upside down. Marsyas lost the duel, with the result that Apollo hung and flailed him upon a pine tree.

The Torment of Marsyas (Le Supplice de Marsyas), Louvre Museum, Paris.
The Torment of Marsyas (Le Supplice de Marsyas), Louvre Museum, Paris.

Such suffering, then, is helpful to us. It can indeed, as Moltmann (1974) asserts, be spiritually healthy. Despite being vulnerable, afraid, and alone, we wait for what will come and we are on the verge of something greater than we can know or about which we can think or attain through action. That is beginning to experience a new level of consciousness without preventing the advent of what can come, if indeed it is on its way.

Sarcophagus from 200’s or 300’s of Dionysus pole being lifted at Spring Festival
Sarcophagus from 200’s or 300’s of Dionysus pole being lifted at Spring Festival

Bibliography

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  • Frazer, J. G. (1996). The golden bough: A study in magic and religion (Abridged ed.). London: Penguin. (Original work published 1922).
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Mosaic from “The House of Dionysus” in Paphos, Cyprus, dated 300s A.D. A halo of light surrounds Dionysus’ head similar to popular Christian iconography
Mosaic from “The House of Dionysus” in Paphos, Cyprus, dated 300s A.D.
A halo of light surrounds Dionysus’ head similar to popular Christian iconography