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Mythical Monsters

1 December 2008

This post is part of a mythology synchroblog on mythical monsters and otherworldly entities. As a Christian I’ll be concentrating mainly on Christian mythology in this post.

First, it seems to be necessary to define “mythical monsters” and “otherworldly entities”.

What is “myth”?

As the Orthodox philosopher, Nicolas Berdyaev, once put it:

Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention, with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything, in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality… The creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and creative energy of the people… it brings two worlds together symbolically.

And what is a monster?

According to my dictionary, it is an imaginary animal, usually made up of various animal or human parts, or a person, animal or part with marked structural deformity, or a cruel, wicked or inhuman person, or a very large person, animal or thing.

What is an entity? (this is the one I have most difficulty with)

Again according to my dictionary, it is a thing that has real and separate existence, especially when considered apart from other things.

I have difficulty with that because mythical monsters are usually symbolic, which means that their existence cannot be separate from that of other things — and essential part of myth is that it is bigger than just the things in themselves. In myth the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and so in considering the parts separately, we lose the big picture, we can’t see the wood for the trees.

What about Christian mythical monsters?

There are many of them, and it’s not possible to deal with them all in a single blog post, but one of the first must surely be the snake or serpent in the garden of Eden that tempts man to steal from God. The serpent features in a myth to account for the presence of evil in the world. The characteristic of the serpent is not evil, but subtlety. It is one of the good creatures created by God, but it becomes evil, and in the New Testament and in Christian tradition is identified with the adversary of man, the devil or satan.

Next come the cherubim. mythical monsters borrowed from Babylonian mythology. tutelary deities that guarded the entrance to holy places, and guarded the presence of God from anything profane. They were set to guard the entrance to the garden of Eden, and represent the inhuman face of God. They were depicted sometimes as fierce and fearsome beasts, and sometimes as winged children, recalling a lost innocence that cannot be regained. In later Christian tradition they became the second of the nine orders of angels.

Then there is Rahab.

The figure of Rahab (Isaiah 51:9-11) is also borrowed from Babylonian mythology, in which the god Marduk cuts the monster Tiamat in pieces, making the heavens of one half and the earth of the other. There is just a hint here that Rahab represents one aspect of the cherub with the flaming sword — cutting Rahab in pieces makes it possible for the redeemed of the Lord to return, and come singing to Zion. The immediate context is the exile of the Jews in Babylon, and perhaps Rahab represents the Babylonian state that holds them in captivity, preventing them from returning to their homeland. In Christian tradition this foreshadows Christ’s death and resurrection and the harrowing of Hell, and this and similar passages in the Old Testament are interpreted typologically.

Then there are Leviathan and Behemoth. In the natural world these have been identified with the crocodile and hippopotamus respectively, though Leviathan is also a sea monster, and so has also been identified with the whale. In the New Testament Apocalypse there is an unholy trinity as a kind of parody of the Holy Trinity, comprising the Dragon, the Beast from the Sea, and the Beast from the Land (Revelation chapters 13 & 13). The beast from the sea represents the power of the state when it is abused, and the beast from the land represents false religion acting as the enforcer of the power of the state. As G.B. Caird puts it in his commentary on the book of Revelation:

But it must not be thought that John is writing off all civil government as an invention of the Devil. Whatever Satan may claim, the truth is that ‘the Most High controls the sovereignty of the world and gives it to whom he wills’ (Dan iv. 17). In the war between God and Satan, between good and evil, the state is one of the defences established by God to contain the powers of evil within bounds, part of the order which God the Creator had established in the midst of chaos (cf. Rom xiii. 1-7). But when men worship the state, according to it the absolute loyalty and obedience that are due not to Caesar but to God, then the state goes over to the Enemy. What Satan calls from the abyss is not government, but that abuse of government, the omnicompetent state. It is thus misleading to say that the monster is Rome, for it is both more and less: more, because Rome is only its latest embodiment; and less, because Rome is also, even among all the corruptions of idolatry, ‘God’s agent of punishment, for retribution on the offender’ (Rom. 13. iv).

As for “otherworldly entities”, I think of fictional creatures like C.S. Lewis’s hrossa, sorns and pfifltriggi of the mythical planet Malacandra, and Malacandra himself, the planetary ruler, who owes much to the Roman deity Mars of Lewis’s classical education, and also to the Christian interpetation of planetary rulers being among the angelic powers.

Lewis is significant in attempting to recall Western Christianity to its mythical and premodern past, as did his fellow Inklings Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien.

With the rise of modernity, Western man found it more difficult to think mythically. In the 19th and 20th centuries many theologians deliberately tried to “demythologise” Christianity. In part this was because of the inability to think mythologically. Myth had congealed into superstition. Perhaps one of the last of the “modern” thinkers to retain the language of myth, at least in part, was Hobbes in his Leviathan, in which he spoke of the state as the great Leviathan, “that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God our peace and defence”.

These are just a few rather disconnected thoughts on mythical monsters and otherworldly entities.

Synchroblog contributors

Other contributions to the mythology synchroblog include:

Other links will be added as they become available.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 December 2008 3:20 am

    Thanks Steve for participating in the Mythology synchroblog. I enjoyed your contribution, and it highlighted for me just how many monsters there are in the Bible.

    I like Nicolas Berdyaev’s definition of myth.

    Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept….

    I find the following a helpful definition of the function of myth:

    Religious symbols are different from signs inasmuch as symbols participate in the reality to which they point, he (Tillich) argued. Symbols and signs both point beyond themselves to something else, but symbols participate in the meaning and power of the reality for which they stand. They open up the deepest dimension of the human soul and reality, which is the ultimate power of being, and radiate the power of being and meaning of that for which they stand.
    Dorrien, Gary J, 2003, ‘The Making of American Liberal Theology’, p.503 (Westminster John Knox Press)

    Leading to what you said: “I have difficulty with that because mythical monsters are usually symbolic, which means that their existence cannot be separate from that of other things — and essential part of myth is that it is bigger than just the things in themselves.”

    The symbol of the serpent in relation to the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15), I would say symbolizes an ongoing cosmic battle in a fallen world, neither side attaining victory, that is, until later Jewish and Christian traditions make the Messiah and Jesus the ultimate victor.

    The cherubim, “represent the inhuman face of God”, as does the revolving sword of fire, which I link to the glyph of the Sun God Utu-Shamesh, which corresponds to the revolving sword of fire situated at the gate of Eden and the source of four rivers.

    Another mythical monster, though historicized, is that of the giant <a href=”http://mythology.ourgardenpath.com/2007/01/26/the-solar-giant/”Goliath, as certain motifs seem to indicate.

  2. 6 December 2008 2:00 pm

    Mahud,

    Thanks for the comments, and to the opportunity to participate in the Mythology Synchroblog.

    Concerning symbols, you might find a quote from Alexander Schmemann on the topic interesting — you can see it in my post on Eucharistic theology and witchcraft

Trackbacks

  1. Mythology Blog: Between Old and New Moons » Mythology Synchroblog 5: Who's Participating (so far)
  2. Mythology Blog: Between Old and New Moons » The Multi-Headed Serpent (Mythology Synchroblog 5)
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