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.

Ben Dov – Haaretz article on influence of Mesopotamian Texts and Images on the Watcher Myth

Since my last post on Jonathan Ben-Dov’s theory that Mesopotamian texts and images influenced the composition of the Watcher myth, Jim Davila noted Ben-Dov’s Haaretz article on the same topic, “Turning to the angels to save Jewish mythology” (18 October 2013).

I’ve found that the article is available in full at this url.

In the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees, we read a description of a stone inscription in an unclear language, which the writer understood as a manual of divination according to the sun, the moon and the stars. There is an amazing similarity between the fantastic description in the Book of Jubilees and actual stone inscriptions created by Babylonian kings, which have been preserved to this day in Jordan, Arabia and mainly Lebanon. The kings Nebuchanezzar and Nabonidus engraved their images on rock, and topped them with symbols of the sun, moon and stars − the protective deities of the neo-Babylonian dynasty. The scenes were accompanied by a long cuneiform text praising the king’s enterprises.

We, therefore, encounter a rare instance of coordination between a fantastic literary description and a material find that has survived to this day. In the absence of a chain of transmission, the explanation of the mysterious pictures etched in the rock was left to imagination. While the older traditions about the origin of knowledge persisted, they now found a new iconographic garb.

The Jewish writer of the Book of Jubilees considered the inscriptions vestiges from the time before the Flood, because he had no way of knowing that the inscriptions preceded him by about four centuries at most. The sun and moon appearing above the inscriptions are, as he understands them, the subjects of the scientific wisdom carved on the rock.

Accordingly, the giant figure engraved in the rock ‏(originally either Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus‏) is no more than the “Watcher,” the primordial angel who descended from heaven and bequeathed wisdom to human beings.

Aramaic writings thus preserved a historical memory of Mesopotamian kings in two ways. While the more direct channel was expressed in the legends of the Book of Daniel, the second, more oblique, channel came by means of the myth of the Watchers, transmitted mainly in the book of Enoch. Here, the ancient angels were portrayed as mythological giants, judging by their artistic representation on the rock reliefs.

In particular, Ben-Dov finds that the type of images found at the site of Brisa, in Lebanon, may have influenced some of the elements of the Watcher tradition:

Yet another confirmation of the connection with Lebanon is an additional, common motif in the literature of the watchers, one that until now was not completely understood. These books often describe dreams, all of which include a scene of a forest, usually of cedars, which is either cut down or destroyed by flood or fire. Such scenes appear repeatedly: In the Book of Giants ‏(also an Aramaic text from Qumran, with its own surprising transmission history‏), in Daniel 4 and in an Aramaic midrash (apocryphon) on Genesis from Qumran. The ancient authors repeatedly invoke the forest scene, always in a dream account. Particular attention should be given in this regard to Nebuchadnezzar’s stone engravings and reliefs from the site of Brisa in the northern Lebanon valley. Although the reliefs were discovered as early as the mid-19th century, they were not properly documented until recently. This turned out to be most unfortunate, since in subsequent years the reliefs were repeatedly damaged.

When they were photographed and published in 1906, the ensuing assyriological research dealt mainly with the text of the rock inscriptions from Brisa rather than with the reliefs. Recently, Catalonian scholar Rocio Da Riva returned to Lebanon and discovered that the reliefs had suffered heavy damage from shooting, so that almost nothing remains of them today. Nonetheless, she was able to improve on the reading of the inscriptions.

These are large monuments, each one approximately 2.5 meters in height. On one relief, Nebuchadnezzar is described fighting a lion, and opposite it, on the opposite cliff of the riverbed, Nebuchadnezzar is seen standing in solemn pose, next to a large tree with multiple branches. The tree is erect and bare, as though created to fulfill its role in the eyes of Babylonian kings: to provide wooden beams for the temples in Mesopotamia. The tree bears no fruit, nor does it offer shade. The cuneiform inscriptions were not understood already in Antiquity, while it was the image alone that remained to work its effect on the collective memory.

The figure of the giant standing next to the tree threatening to cut it down comprises a frequent scene in generations of literature on the Watchers, such as Daniel 4:10-11 and in the Book of Giants. While the Aramaic source of the latter was preserved only partially, translations of it survived until the medieval period in various sundry versions, from Hebrew to Turkish. In the Hebrew version preserved in Midrash Bereisheet Rabati ‏(Provence, 11th century‏), we read the dreams of two giants. Quite surprisingly, the content of the dreams in this midrash gives a very reliable description of one of the Brisa inscriptions. The text is as follows: “ These two sons of Shemhazai, Hiwwa and Hiyya by name, dreamed dreams. The one saw a great stone which covered the earth, and the earth was marked all over with lines upon lines of writing. An angel came, and with a knife obliterated all the lines, leaving but four letters upon the stone. The other son saw a large pleasure grove planted with all sorts of trees. But angels approached bearing axes, and they felled the trees, sparing a single one with three of its branches.

In the first dream, the rock is covered with many rows of writing, as the angel descends with a knife in hand to erase them. The second dream draws a scene in a forest, with the angel descending with an ax to cut down its trees, until only one remains.

In the Brisa relief, the middle of the figure had already been destroyed in 1906, and therefore there is no way of knowing whether or not the king carried an ax ‏(the text in fact reports that Nebuchadnezzar cut down the trees with his “pure” hands, rather than an ax‏). There is no certainty as to whether the Aramaic text describes this particular inscription or similar inscriptions in Lebanon, but the resemblance is nonetheless quite strking.

Two things become clear, in any case: first, that the Aramaic authors cite the stone engravings and convey them in the form of a dream, for that is their way of giving epistemological validity to the mysterious reliefs. And second, the reliefs were interpreted as a message of divine punishment, represented by the erasure of the writing and the chopping down of trees. The relief in which the king is fighting a lion ‏(which also appears at another site in Lebanon, outside of Brisa‏), is also echoed in the Watchers tradition: both in a description of the violence of the watchers against wild animals (1 Enoch 7: 5, cp. Habukkuk 2: 17‏), and in Daniel 4:12-13, where the king is expelled from the shelter of the tree and sent to confront wild animals.

Read the full article here.

Is the Watcher/Fallen Angel Myth a reinterpretation of Mesopotamian inscriptions?

Jonathan Ben-Dov (University of Haifa) has developed a very interesting theory about the origin of the early Jewish tradition of the Fallen Angels and Giants. He presented it at Boston College on November 20, 2013, in a paper entitled “Iconography and Myth: From Nebuchadnezzar to the Fallen Angels”.

Ben-Dov’s theory is that the Watcher tradition derives, at least in part, from an attempt to interpret the gigantic iconography of great Mesopotamian kings on Assyrian, Babylonian, and Achaemenid monuments and reliefs. This was carried out in the third or second century BCE, long after the inscriptions were made, by which time they were not properly understood.

In his presentation, Ben-Dov examines many of the elements shared, on the one hand, by Mesopotamian inscriptions and monuments and, on the other hand, by Jewish literature such as 1 Enoch, the Book of Giants, Jubilees, etc.


In one part of his presentation, Ben-Dov discusses this interesting passage from Jubilees, which provides an example of a later generation (mis)interpreting an ancient inscription as referring to the Watchers:

And he [Kainam] found a writing which former (generations) had carved on the rock, and he read what was thereon, and he transcribed it and sinned owing to it; for it contained the teaching of the Watchers in accordance with which they used to observe the omens of the sun and moon and stars in all the signs of heaven. And he wrote it down and said nothing regarding it; for he was afraid to speak to Noah about it lest he should be angry with him on account of it. (Jubilees 8.3-4)

Ben-Dov also discusses inscriptions left by Nebuchadnezzar in Lebanon, studied recently by Rocío Da Riva.

Ben-Dov’s theory is well worth consideration, as identifying one of the concrete contributing causes of the Watcher tradition. I don’t know, due to the nature of the evidence, whether his theory could ever be conclusively established, but I do think it is at least plausible that the reliefs and inscriptions contributed to the construction of the Watcher myth. Have a watch of his lecture here.

Note also Brian Doak’s discussion of depictions of gigantic figures in ancient Near Eastern iconography in his The Last of the Rephaim, pp. 14-16.

Update (10 January 2016): Jim Davila notes that Ben-Dov’s theory was also set out in an article in Haaretz on October 18, 2013, “Turning to the Angels to Save Jewish Mythology” (subscription required).

The assured results of Son of Man scholarship

“Virtually certain”:

“Personally I think it is highly likely that the tradition of Jesus referring to himself as the ‘son of man’ does indeed go back to Jesus himself…. The probability in this case is so high that it can be regarded as virtually certain.”

– James D.G. Dunn, “The Son of Man in Mark”, p. 24

“A probability bordering on certainty”:

“Alle Worte vom kommenden Menschensohn stammen mit einer an Sicherheit grenzenden Wahrscheinlichkeit nicht vom historischen Jesus”

“No saying about the coming Son of Man, with a probability bordering on certainty, comes from the historical Jesus.”

– Philipp Vielhauer, “Gottesreich und Menschensohn in der Verkündigung Jesu”, p. 71