How Yellowstone’s ‘Old Faithful’ became an Angel copulating with a woman

In 1923, American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) created the marble sculpture, “The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Men That They Were Fair”.

The sculpture depicts an unusual episode found in the Bible, narrated in Genesis 6.1-4:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them,  the Sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose…. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days — and also afterward — when the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

The ‘Sons of God’ have often been interpreted as angels, who were so attracted to human women that they came to earth to have sex with them. Daniel Chester French adopts this angelic interpretation of Genesis 6.1-4 in his sculpture, which from 1924 has been on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

According to the museum’s acquisition records, French originally saw the silhouette of an angel copulating with a human woman while staring at the ‘Old Faithful Geyser’ in Yellowstone National Park. Admittedly, there are many people who imagine that they see faces and such things in the clouds and other objects. There is even a term for this: it’s called ‘pareidolia’. So Daniel C. French’s case of pareidolia is perhaps not so unusual. And yet… I can’t say I’ve ever looked at a cloud and thought: hey, that cloud looks exactly like an angel having sex with a woman! And the same goes with the shapes of geysers that I’ve seen. Who knows, there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for Daniel C. French’s angel-erotic pareidolia. Perhaps he had very recently been reading about Genesis 6.1-4, and this image had simply been imprinted on his mind. Or perhaps he was just really into angelic-human sex, and told his lovers to dress up with feathers. Who can tell?

Side-note: Daniel C. French’s other sculptures are decidedly unsexy. French is best known for the majestic and slightly fascist statue of Abraham Lincoln (1920) at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, and also for the Four Continents at the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, New York. None of his other sculptures offer any indication that the artist had an angel fetish.

But after French’s sculpture of “The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Men That They Were Fair” was put on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, along with a notice that it had been inspired by Old Faithful, it came to the attention of photographer Frank Jay Haynes. He noticed that the sculpture not only bore a resemblance to Old Faithful, but to his own photograph of the geyser: “Old Faithful Geyser. Plume. Yellowstone National Park” (1885). The photograph had been sold for decades at Yellowstone as the main souvenir photo of the Geyser:



If you look carefully at the photograph, with the sculpture in mind, you can make out the angel’s right wing at the top left, the heads of the angel and woman at top right, the obscured left wing, the woman’s arse, and even her left leg extended on tippy-toes to reach eagerly up to her angelic lover, with the right leg crossed behind it. It’s all there, in watery geyser form. And on the left-bottom of the geyser and sculpture, you can see the cascade of water shooting up, later to take pareidolic shape as a Son of God about to copulate with a Daughter of Man.

It’s not just me and Daniel C. French seeing these things, is it?

As a result of these similarities, subsequent promotion of French’s sculpture made note that it had been modeled on Haynes’ photo of Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park.

My major source for the information about the sculpture, French, and Haynes was Peter H. Hassrick, Drawn to Yellowstone: Artists in America’s First National Park (The Autry Museum of Western Heritage in association with University of Washington Press, 2002).


Was Genesis even authoritative for the Book of Watchers? In what sense? John J. Collins

John J. Collins indicates the size of a cubit – the conventional unit of measurement for Giants

John J. Collins writes:

It should be clear that the Torah is one of several sources on which the author [of the Book of the Watchers] drew, although in this case it provides the main frame for the story. The story itself is a moral tale, illustrating the pitfalls of fornication and of illicit knowledge. The understanding of the sin of the watchers as improper revelation provides an obvious counterpart to the proper revelation of Enoch in the rest of the book. The contrast between the watchers and Enoch is spelled  out a little later, when Enoch has his audience with God in 1 En. 15. The watchers are reproached for having left the high and holy heaven and lain with human women. The mystery they revealed was worthless. In contrast, Enoch is a human being who ascends to heaven and lives like the holy ones.

Of course, the career of Enoch, which takes up the greater part of the Book of the Watchers, is itself only loosely based on Genesis. Enoch was famously said to have ‘walked with God’ (Gen 5.22). While the biblical phrase may have meant only that Enoch lived a righteous life, it inspired the story that he had ascended to heaven, even before ‘God took him’ (Gen 5.24). It is widely agreed that he was modeled to some degree on Enmeduranki, king of Sippar, who is said to have been taken up to heaven and shown the techniques of divination and the tablet of the gods. The Book of the Watchers spins a story that he was given a tour of the ends of the earth, guided by an angel. In all of this, motifs that echo the Hebrew Scriptures are freely mixed with Hellenistic and Babylonian traditions.

It is difficult to say whether or in what sense the author of the Book of the Watchers regarded Genesis as authoritative. He mainly treated it as fodder for imagination. This is the way ‘canonical’ texts work in literature: they nourish the imagination of later writers, and constrain it only to a limited degree.

    • John J. Collins, “Torah as Narrative and Wisdom in the Dead Sea Scrolls”, in Reading the Bible in Ancient Traditions and Modern Editions: Studies in Memory of Peter W. Flint, ed. Andrew B. PerrinKyung S. BaekDaniel K. Falk (Atlanta: SBL Press, November 2017), pp. 361-362 (357-380).

What do you think? Was Genesis more like Harold Bloom’s literary canon, to which Collins may here allude? Or was it ‘authoritative’ in some further sense (as Collins still entertains, while also asking “in what sense” Genesis may be regarded as authoritative for the Book of Watchers)?

It is prudent that we avoid importing later senses of ‘canonical’ and ‘authoritative’ and other more dangerous terms such as ‘inspired’ and ‘biblical’, at least in the senses in which they are employed to describe phenomena in the Common Era. But two factors, at least, occur to me that suggest Genesis was also ‘authoritative’ in some sense that exceeds its demonstrated ability to “nourish the imagination of later writers”.

First, the text appeals to the arche or origins, a move which is always, inherently an attempt to justify some present situation, institution, practice, belief, doctrine, etc – to invest our present contingent circumstances with the illusion of some fixed and immovable anchor. This quality is intrinsic to ‘the authoritative’, which always involves the claim that one is standing on the shoulders of giants – which like Quixote’s, are no more than phantoms of the imagination.

Second, we should note the importance of the role of heavenly revelation within 1 Enoch, in particular revelations of heavenly secrets of creation (beginnings) and eschatology (endings), which strongly suggests an attempt to discover the ‘deeper meaning’ of Genesis, not to mention other aNE origin stories; this is a giveaway that the author regards Genesis as authoritative, although ‘authoritative’ in a sense that both overlaps with later ideas of inspiration and contrasts with them, given that the boundaries of what counts as ‘inspired’ are expanding, and by nature are expansive, open to new revelations of heavenly secrets.

Lastly, I note that the Book of Watchers sticks closely to the wording of the verses in Genesis 6.1-4, even while expanding its (authoritative, inspired and inspirational) words in what were probably unforeseen directions. Even the words of Genesis are authoritative, but not at all with the implication that they may not be added to – quite the opposite. As supplement to Genesis 6.1-4, the Book of the Watchers is Derridean, not simply making an addition to the text, but asserting its originary lack, a lack to be filled by a plumbing of deeper origins, and (allegedly) more secret truths of origins that are at once ultimate (eschatological) endings.

Update (8 January 2018): Jim Davila answers my question above. He considers that not only was Gen 6.1-4 ‘authoritative’ for 1 Enoch, but that some earlier version of the Watcher/Giant story was also authoritative for Gen 6.1-4 (although the author of Gen 6.1-4 tried to play it down). Yet like me, Jim also states that this ‘authority’ was a long way from the later canonical authority. See what he wrote here. See also the similar views of J.T. Milik, Paolo Sacchi, Philip Davies, and Helge Kvanvig. On the other side, there are quite a few more other scholars who don’t think that Gen 6.1-4 is an abbreviation of any such story as found in 1 Enoch. Unfortunately, given the brevity of 1 Enoch 6.1-4, the issue is possibly beyond definitive resolution. I tend to think that Gen 6.1-4 is no abbreviation, and is not deliberately suppressing a form of Watcher/Giant story. For it works fine as an allusion to antediluvian heroes known for their reputation as great warriors and womanizers, and the story makes no reference to giants (that’s a much later development in the reception of Gen 6.1-4, prompted by Deut 1-3/Numbers 13, a tradition that develops and comes later than Gen 6.1-4). There is too much supposition required to make a reasonable case for dependence of Gen 6.1-4 on an earlier version of the Watcher/Giant story. On the other hand, it is an intriguing possibility…

Update 2 (9 January 2018): Jim Davila replies to my first update, and points out rightly that Nephilim did come to connote giants – at least by the time that the Bible was complete, and certainly in Modern Hebrew (based, as Modern Hebrew usually is, on the Bible read as a whole and interpreted over 2000 years). But as for whether the meaning of ‘giant’ is primary or secondary, he’s right also that this issue is a difficult one to resolve. The etymology, too, is uncertain – although I think the better etymology sees it as a reduction of the passive adjective (qaṭīl), קְטִיל, as I explained here: and so ‘fallen [heroes]’, that is, heroes fallen in battle. A third biblical text (in addition to Gen 6 and Num 13) which supports this view is Ezek 32:27, with its closely related group of gîbbōrîm nōflîm (fallen heroes). And a fourth text is the Hebrew of Sir 16:7, with its group of nsyqy qdm (“princes of old”) who also were ‘mighty’ (which Jim & I have discussed before). This all provides something short of conclusive evidence, but enough to make me favour seeing the primary meaning of the Nephilim as legendary or autochthonous heroes or princes famed for heroic deeds, maybe but not necessarily gigantic in stature.

Monster Theory in Biblical Studies

A recent article examines how “monster theory”, first developed within psychoanalysis and anthropology, has been applied to the study of the Hebrew Bible:

Brandon R. Grafius, “Text and Terror: Monster Theory and the Hebrew Bible“, Currents in Biblical Research
16, no. 1 (2017): 34–49.

Grafius discusses giants in a couple of places in the article. First, he briefly mentions Brian Doak’s description of the giants of Numbers 13-14 (from The Last of the Rephaim [2012], pp. 70-81) as typical of explorers’ accounts of their encounter with “monstrous others”. Second, Grafius discusses how “Anathea Portier-Young looks at how 1 Enoch 6–11 uses Gen. 6.1-6 in combination with the Greek myth known as the gigantomachy, in which the ‘uncivilized’ giants wage war against the gods of Olympus” (Apocalypse Against Empire [2011], pp. 18-23). For Portier-Young, according to Grafius’ summary, whereas Greeks had associated barbarian peoples with giants, the author of 1 Enoch 6-11 made the watchers “synonymous with Hellenistic culture”. This is a “critical inversion”! When 1 Enoch 6-11 portrays the giants’ “enormous size and uncontrollable appetite”, it does so as “a sharp critique of Hellenistic culture”. [Note that Grafius confuses his descriptions of the watchers (fallen angels) and their offspring (the giants) in his summary of Portier-Young: it is the giants whose “monstrous appetites cause them to devour all the people’s food, then the people, then each other” (p. 42), not the “watchers” (see 1 Enoch 7.3-5).]

Overall, the article provides a useful introduction to monster theory and its application to Biblical Studies.


Ancient misinterpretation of large bones as mythological giants

A new study provides a useful survey of ancient and early modern discoveries of large bones which were misinterpreted as the remains of giants. (They usually, in fact, belonged to mammoths and whales.)

Marco Romano and Marco Avanzini, “The skeletons of Cyclops and Lestrigons: misinterpretation of Quaternary vertebrates as remains of the mythological giants” Historical Biology (June 2017): 1-24.

The article provides a host of examples. But the short section on biblical giants on pp. 3-4 contains many errors: a quotation from Genesis 6.4 is wrongly cited “Genesis 6.3”. The term “nephilion” should be Heb. “nephilim” or Ar. “Nephilin”. The Anakim are wrongly identified as Amorites in Numbers 13, which is rather the result of a conflation with the differing account in Deuteronomy 1. It has “cube” instead of “cubit”. It confusingly alternates between arabic and roman numerals for the same biblical citations (e.g. “Deuteronomy 2, 10-11”, but “Deuteronomy II, 10”). The phrase “one the vanquished kings” should be “one of the vanquished kings”. It has Italian “Giosuè” for “Joshua”. The citation “Number XXI, 33” should be “Number[s] [XXII], 33”.

Note also earlier studies on this subject by folklorist Adrienne Mayor and biblical scholar Brian Doak.

Biblical Cats Again

The Methuselah of Biblioblogging, Jim Davila, draws attention to an article in Archaeology (19 June 2017) on the domestic cat’s origins in “Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt”.

Noting that “Israel” is included on the list, Jim mentions that the Hebrew Bible and New Testament “never once mention domestic cats”.

This is quite possibly correct. However, in an earlier post I suggested that there might be one mention of a (wild, but possibly able-to-be-domesticated) cat hidden in the pages of the Hebrew Bible. It all depends, though, on how one translates “lilith” in Isaiah 34:14 along with three other (wild) animals.

In later tradition, Lilith becomes a nocturnal demon, greatly feared at least since medieval times. But Lilith has since been reclaimed by feminists, Neopagans, and Magick practitioners, and also features in the TV series Supernatural.

Update (22 June 2017): Jim Davila responds. For much the same reasons he sets out, I only count my suggestion as a possibility at the moment, too. I haven’t seen any peer-review-published identifications of the lilith with a cat (but there may well be some), and I would need to find some other grounds to link the lilith to the domestic house cat (Felis catus) before I’d publish the idea. And the lilith is (as I noted) clearly wild rather than domesticated in Isaiah 34 – although, many cats (Felis catus) are indeed wild or feral. Maybe a future project. Cat-loving Bible-readers of the world must know the truth.

Canaanite Reconstructionism

Apparently there are Canaanite Reconstructionists! Yes, among the small number of neopagans in Israel, there are some Israelis who are trying to ‘revive’ Ugaritic and Canaanite religion. They honour or worship Asherah, Anat, or Ba’al – goddesses and gods worshiped by ancient Hebrews.

I recently discovered this in a chapter from a 2017 book by Shai Feraro, “Canaanite Reconstructionism Among Contemporary Israeli Pagans” (in Kathryn Rountree, ed., Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Modern Paganism, Palgrave Macmillan).

The chapter mentions Emily, a former Orthodox Jew, but now a devotee of the goddess Asherah. Emily points out that Asherah is a native deity of the land of Israel, unlike Yahweh, who is just a foreign invader:

She [Emily] quoted a verse from Deuteronomy (33:2) which states that: “Jehovah came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them,” in order to suggest that he was a Midianite deity that “immigrated” into the land of Canaan. She said: “He is not mine, he is not for me, he ruined my … his people destroyed my Goddess.”

She’s most likely right about Yahweh originally being foreign to the Hebrews. Most recently the Midianite origins of Yahweh have been defended in Thomas Römer’s book, The Invention of God (Harvard University Press, 2015).

There are still only a small number of Israeli neopagans who currently incorporate Canaanite religion into their practices. But Shai Feraro notes that Canaanite Reconstructionism has begun to grow in just the last 6 or 7 years. “As the local Israeli [neopagan] community matures and gains confidence, it seems that the tendency to focus on ‘home-grown’ local deities is growing.”

Foetal Dystocia resulting from Watcher-Human Sex: Eric Ondina’s Art

In a piece entitled “Fall of the Watchers”, artist Eric Ondina has managed to capture an aspect of the myth of sex between Watcher angels and human women that usually gets glossed over in renditions of the story.

Eric Ondina, “Fall of the Watchers”

The Book of Watchers tersely summarises that the Watchers “took” the women, “went into” them, and “defiled themselves with” them (7.1ab). The twenty named Watchers are contrasted with the anonymous and unnamed women who they “choose for themselves”. The Watchers act, and the unnamed women are acted upon. Their identities are suppressed, irrelevant to their function within the plot. Their reactions here are limited to their childbearing function: they “became pregnant” and “bore to them gigantic offspring” (7.2).

But what did giving birth to “gigantic offspring” do to these women? The text falls silent, in contrast to the cries of anguish which would have accompanied such extreme foetal dystocia. The birth canal is only important in the story insofar as it satisfies the Watchers’ desires – for sexual intercourse and for children.

But in Ondina’s “Fall of the Watchers”, the effect on the Women is brought to the fore in the artist’s portrayal of an evidently painful, bulging womb. But this pain is combined with a comical characterisation of the women as obsessed with the jewellery that the Watchers gave to them. The combination of extreme discomfort and vain satisfaction is, of course, absurd. And this absurdity provides a visual critique of the tendency in the Watcher myth to belittle or even blame women for the actions of the Watchers.

Ondina himself comments:

I have extracted multiple motifs from this story and melded them into a dynamic composition. The piece is painted in oil on a hand molded, cresting, reinforced plaster slab, which is bordered by a deep cradle frame. It was my intention to make a painting which mirrors this mini-epic in scale, drama and abject gruesomeness. With this in mind I decided to invoke the compositional and painting techniques found in the dynamic baroque of the 17th century while emulating the decisive moment found in 18th century Romanticism. There is also a clear reference to the Northern European Renaissance in the detail, cathedral-esque shape of the substrate, insider humor, and violence. These fuse into a style I have developed in this series which is both contemporary and historically reinforced. While my painting seeks to provide a portal into the past, I seek to do so through a modern lens, injecting subtle to sardonic satire into my subjects. This is readily apparent along the bottom of the painting; in the lower right hand corner an oblivious woman pampers herself with gold and makeup, her stomach bursting at the seams as her hulking half-angel broodling slithers out. She is a sarcastic embodiment of how our contemporary sensitivities are want to perceive this story. The Abrahamic religions are not renowned for their justice towards women, and The Book of Enoch once again exemplifies this ancient trend. Women are the seductresses and the baby factories, the intermediaries and cause of the sinfulness pressed upon the world; because of their erotic allure, mankind suffered nightmarish consequences. My painted jezebel is a mocking testimony to this ancient fear-mongering.

In portraying this extreme foetal dystocia in this manner, Ondina’s “Fall of the Watchers” has drawn attention to an aspect of the Watcher myth that has escaped many commentators, as well as critiquing that very failure to take account of the effects on women implied by the Watcher myth.