Saint Jerome’s obscene gesture for fellow theologian Jovinian

Saint Jerome as institutionalized scholar

Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, commonly known as Saint Jerome, was born in 347 in an obscure provincial town of the Roman Empire.  His family was neither wealthy nor prominent nor Christian.  Apparently ambitious and intellectual capable, Jerome received in Rome the finest education available in the Roman Empire.  There, probably in his late teens, he chose to be baptized as a Christian.  Jerome went on to become a highly learned scholar: “one of the most accomplished polymaths in all of Latin antiquity.”[1]  He is famous for translating the Christian bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.  Jerome’s translation, called the Vulgate, become the standard biblical text across western Europe in the Middle Ages.  In addition to that great achievement, Saint Jerome deserves to be more widely recognized for his vituperative skill and astonishing use of an obscene gesture.

In his treatise against Jovinian, Jerome mocks and censures his fellow theologian Jovinian.  Jerome describes Jovinian as “slippery as a snake” and his thoughts, “hissing of the old serpent.”  He disparages Jovinian’s name (“derived from that of an idol”) and suggests that Jovinian was “seized with madness and ought to be put into the strait jacket which Hippocrates prescribed.”  According to Jerome, Jovinian “with his usual stupidity” overlooks important passages and interprets others “with a shamelessness to which we have now grown accustomed.”  Jerome declares of Jovinian:

To understand him we must be prophets. We read Apollo’s raving prophetesses.  We remember, too, what Virgil says of senseless noise.  Heraclitus, also, surnamed the Obscure, the philosophers find hard to understand even with their utmost toil.  But what  are they compared with our riddle-maker, whose books are much more difficult to comprehend than to refute?  Although (we must confess) the task of refuting them is no easy one.  For how can you overcome a man when you are quite in the dark as to his meaning?  But, not to be tedious to my reader, the introduction to his second book, of which he has discharged himself like a drunk after a night’s debauch, will show the character of his eloquence, and through what bright flowers of rhetoric he takes his stately course. [2]

Returning to the figure of Jovinian vomiting “like a drunk after a night’s debauch,” Jerome subsequently declares that Jovinian is “the slave of vice and self-indulgence, a dog returning to his vomit.”[3]

One issue of dispute between Jerome and Jovinian is the relative merits of virginity and marriage.  Jerome thinks that as Christians “while we honor marriage, we prefer virginity.”[4]  Jovinian thinks that marriage and virginity are equally propitious for living the way of Christ.  Jerome’s arguments against Jovinian include an exegesis of Paul of Tarsus’s teachings to the early church at Corinth.[5]  Jerome also draws upon teaching across the Christian Old and New Testaments and examples of non-Christians from the history and literature of the Greco-Roman world.  While an advocate of ascetic living, Jerome makes voluminous, wide-ranging arguments from cosmopolitan learning.

Jerome sets the tone of his treatise against Jovinian with an outrageous declaration that more rigidly pious, more narrow-minded scholars have failed to appreciate.  Jerome declares:

Virginity is to marriage what fruit is to the tree, or grain to the straw.  Although the hundred-fold, the sixty-fold, and the thirty-fold spring from one earth and from one sowing, yet there is a great difference in respect of number.  The thirty-fold has reference to marriage.  The very way the fingers are combined—see how they seem to embrace, tenderly kiss, and pledge their troth either to other—is a picture of husband and wife.  The sixty-fold applies to widows, because they are placed in a position of difficulty and distress.  Hence the upper finger signifies their depression, and the greater the difficulty in resisting the allurements of pleasure once experienced, the greater the reward.  Moreover (give good heed, my reader), to denote a hundred, the right hand is used instead of the left: a circle is made with the same fingers which on the left hand represented widowhood, and thus the crown of virginity is expressed. [6]

Jerome’s reference to the different yields from sowing alludes to the parable of the sower in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark:

the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. [7]

Yet Jerome’s gestural figure is much more than just an allegory built upon a biblical parable.  Jerome signals explicitly, “give good heed, my reader.”  Immediately following his gestural figure, Jerome expresses misgivings:

In saying this I have followed my own impatient spirit rather than the course of the argument.  For I had scarcely left harbour, and had barely hoisted sail, when a swelling tide of words suddenly swept me into the depths of the discussion.  I must stay my course, and take in canvas for a little while; nor will I indulge my sword, anxious as it is to strike a blow for virginity.

This correctio describes hoisting and swelling, leading to the comic declaration “nor will I indulge my sword, anxious as it is to strike a blow for virginity.”  Sword seems to function here as a figure for Jerome’s penis.  In a thorough critical study of one of Jerome’s letters, a leading scholar of Jerome noted “his dirty mind” and “the note of prurience that pervades the work.”[8]  Earthy sexual plays are plausible in Jerome’s work.

Saint Jerome's obscene gesture in Adversus Jovinianus

In light of Jerome’s transgressive urbanity, Jerome’s description of finger gestures is best understood as representing his view of placing marriage/widowhood alongside of virginity.  Marriage is the index and middle finger, held up together, two as one.  The widow is the index finger (upper finger) hold alone.  On the other hand, the index finger wrapped in a circle represents virginity.  Holding these finger gestures next to each other suggests a contextually meaningful interpretation.[9]  Jerome represents Jovinian’s position with respect to virginity as an obscene gesture.  One should turn away from it.

Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum was too much for Jerome’s contemporaries.  It encountered a “universally hostile reception”:

The Roman priest Domnio sent him {Jerome} a letter with an attached list of controversial statements made in the work that he wanted Jerome either to clarify or to correct.  The senator Pammachius, Paula’s son-in-law and Jerome’s long-time acquaintance from his student days in Rome, also was put off by the writing and demanded that his old condiscipulus explain or retract portions of it. … As far as most of his contemporaries were concerned, Jerome had stepped over the line in Adversus Iovinianum, and they accordingly set out to correct some of the more outlandish assertions he had made in it. [10]

Pammachius personally attempted to remove all available copies of Adversus Jovinianum from circulation.  The issue wasn’t substantive.  A synod in Rome condemned Jovinian.  When Jovinian fled to Milan, the Bishop there also condemned him.[11]  Contemporary readers turned away from Adversus Jovinianum not because of its substance, but because of its tone and expression.  At least at the level of Adversus Jovinianum as whole, contemporary readers perceived Jerome’s obscene gesture.

Jerome became famous and revered as a saint in the European Middle Ages.  Yet many readers have not fully appreciated Jerome’s expansive mind and expressive creativity.  Saint Jerome’s obscene gesture indicates his under-appreciated brilliance.

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Notes:

[1] Cain (2013) p. 407.  Jerome’s “immense erudition … was unrivalled, by a wide margin, in Latin Christian antiquity.” Id. n. 3.

[2] The previous quotes in this paragraph are all from Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892), with a few minor clarifications:  2.21 (p. 886, snake); 1.4 (p. 782, hissing); 2.38 (p. 907, idol); 1.3 (p. 781, madness); 1.25 (p. 811, stupidity); 1.26 (p. 813, shamelessness); 1.1 (p. 780, prophets).  Virgil describes senseless noise: “insubstantial speech … sound without mind.” Aeneid 10.640.

[3] Id 1.40.  p. 837.  A dog returning to his vomit is a figure from Proverbs 26:11 and 2 Peter 2:22.

[4] Id. 1.3 (p. 781).

[5] 1 Corinthians 7.  On the theological and institutional aspects of the dispute between Jerome and Jovinian, Hunter (2007).

[6] Adversus Jovinianum, 1.3, trans. Freemantle (1892) pp. 781-2.

[7] Matthew 13:23.  Cf. Matthew 13:8, Mark 4:8.  The parable of the sower was included in the eighth-century Arabic life of Buddha.

[8] Adkin (2003) pp. 230, 17.  Jerome’s gesture plausibly represents copulation.  In the context of interpreting 1 Corinthians 7, Jerome declares:

Here our opponent goes utterly wild with exultation: this is his strongest battering-ram with which he shakes the wall of virginity.

Adversus Jovinianum, 1.12, trans. Freemantle (1892) pp. 795.  Here too Jerome seems to be evoking sexual ardor.

[9] Jerome seems to have enjoyed his gestural representation so much that he reproduced it nearly verbatim in his Letter 48 (To Pammachius), s. 2.  An abbreviated form occurs in Jerome, Letter 123 (To Ageruchia) s. 9.  At the former occurrence, Freemantle (1892) notes:

From this passage compared with Ep. cxxiii. 9, and Bede De Temporum Ratione, c. 1. (De Loquetâ Digitorum), it appears that the number thirty was indicated by joining the tips of the thumb and forefinger of the left hand, sixty was indicated by curling up the forefinger of the same hand and then doubling the thumb over it, while one hundred was expressed by joining the tips of the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. See Prof. Mayor’s learned note on Juv. x. 249.

Juvenal x.249 refers to a person with a long lifespan counting years with his right hand.  In the context of a technical presentation of “calculating or speaking with fingers,” the English monk Bede, writing about 700, quotes Jerome and interprets his gestures as representing numbers.  Wallis (1999) pp. 9-10.  In a technical context, finger gestures for counting are plausible.  That’s not the relevant context for the finger gesture in Adversus Jovinianum.  Bede had much more institutionally disciplined rhetoric than did Jerome.  Bede not recognizing Jerome making an obscene gesture is plausible.

[10] Cain (2009) pp. 138-40.  Paula was a a close friend to Jerome.

[11] Id. pp. 136-7.

[image] Saint Jerome in the scriptorium, Master of Parral, c. 1485, Spain. Museum of Lazaro Galdiano, inv. 2797.  Thanks to Museum of Lazaro Galdiano, Google Cultural Institute, and Wikipedia.

References:

Adkin, Neil. 2003. Jerome on virginity: a commentary on the Libellus de virginitate servanda (Letter 22). Cambridge: Francis Cairns.

Cain, Andrew. 2009. The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford University Press.

Cain, Andrew. 2013. “Two allusions to Terence, Eunuchus 579 in Jerome.” Classical Quarterly. 63 (1): 407-412.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hunter, David G. 2007. Marriage, celibacy, and heresy in ancient Christianity: the Jovinianist controversy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wallis, Faith trans. 1999. Bede. The reckoning of time. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

system, not signals, for biological analysis of communication

The world is filled with animals communicating.  Just listen:

It is early summer in the temperate zone, with concerts at dawn and at dusk. In the morning, a babble of sparrows, finches, starlings and warblers greets the early riser. The rich tapestry of sound woven around a late evening stroller is no less palpable: the eerie whine of katydids, the gentle chirping of crickets, the visceral croaking of frogs. [1]

Male birds and other male animals predominately generate those songs and sounds.  The males are seeking mates.  Females, in other words, generate those songs and sounds.

geese displaying wings

Symbolic communication involves a constructed relation between signifier and signified.  Humans pervasively engage in symbolic communication, e.g. speaking, reading, writing.[2]  Determining the meanings of symbols has been central to human understanding of human communication.

Study of animal communication has treated animal signals like symbolic communication, but simpler.  Signals can be understood as communication in which signifier and signified are rigidly and organically bound.  Animals pervasively engage in signaling.  That has created scholarly confusion:

there is widespread and often unrecognized confusion about the kinds of signals that exist, the mechanisms responsible for their evolution, and the terms to be used to describe them. [3]

Animal communication is often described as “animal signals,” and theoretical study of communication between animals, “signaling theory.”[4]  That’s an information-theoretic understanding of communication.

Communication among animals often consists of ongoing, highly interactive behavior.  Mate-seeking provides circumstances for such communication.  A study of mating communication in cowbirds reported:

We found that the non-singing females displayed two rapid responses to song, wing stroking and gaping.  Wing stroking is a rapid and silent response to song in which the female flicks her wing away from her body: when gaping, a female arches her head and quickly opens and closes her beak. … Females do other things as well, most noticeably, showing no change in behavior when a male sings, thus ignoring his overtures….  Males become very excited when the female departs from this demeanor and does something even so small as turning her head.  We have found that even brief wing strokes or gapes can lead a male cowbird to levitate off his perch, hop excitedly toward the female, and sing whatever song elicited the female’s movements.  Thus, the contrapuntal use of acoustics and visual signals between males and females may serve to orchestrate the sustained kinds of interaction necessary to each sex to profit from the encounter. [5]

Focusing on determining the meaning and reliability of particular signals can obscure systemic communicative effects.  A single signal in mating communication cannot be understood apart from the ongoing signals to which it is related.

Communication does not depend on organisms having highly developed brains.  Formal models demonstrate that information transfer and decision-making can occur “in the absence of explicit signals or complex mechanisms for information transfer.”[6]   Despite very small brains, tandem-running ants engage in teaching.[7]  Single-cell bacteria engage in communication:

Over the past two decades, our view of bacteria has dramatically changed.  Bacteria have often been studied as populations of cells that act independently, but it now seems that there is much interaction and communication between cells….

The realization that bacteria can communicate, cooperate and alter their behavior, according to changes in their social environment, has led to an explosion of research in this area….  Most studies have focused on the molecular aspects of cell-cell communication, and much less attention has been paid to the ecological context of why bacteria produce signaling molecules and respond to both intraspecific and interspecific signals. [8]

The literature on bacterial communication shows some concern to define what types of signals count as communication.[9]  Categorizing signals by their intentions or effects is not likely to be the best approach to understanding communication.  Communication between organisms typically involves ongoing interactions of a particular formal type.  A time frame of analysis, a form of behavior, and the organisms’ sets of feasible, conditional state transitions within those bounds provides a reasonable scope for analyzing communication among organisms from bacteria to humans.[10]

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Notes:

[1] Balaban (1994) p. 243.

[2] Some non-human animals, e.g. apes, are capable of symbolic communication.  Some appear to engage in such communication in the wild.  See Arnold & Zuberbühler (2006).

[3] Maynard Smith & Harper (2003) p. 1.

[4] Id.  Id., pp. 11-2, recognizes some major limitations of this perspective.

[5] West, King & Goldstein (2004) pp, 377, 378.  Such communication can evolve through pair interactions involving different partners over time and does not depend on the congregation of conspecifics.

[6] Couzin et al. (2005) p. 515.

[7] Franks & Richardson (2006).

[8] Keller & Surette (2006) p. 249.

[9] E.g. id. pp. 252-3; Redfield (2002).

[10] On a systems approach to animal communication, Owings & Morton (1998), Shanker & King (2002), and West, King & Goldstein (2004).

[image] White Fronted Geese.  Public domain image from the U.S. Fish and Wild Service National Digital Library.

References:

Arnold, Kate and Klaus Zuberbühler. 2006. “Language evolution: Semantic combinations in primate calls.” Nature 441: 303.

Balaban, Evan. 1994.  “Sex differences in sounds and their causes.”  In Balaban, Evan, and Roger Valentine Short, eds. The differences between the sexes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Couzin, Iain D., Jens Krause, Nigel R. Franks and Simon A. Levin. 2005. “Effective leadership and decision-making in animal groups on the move.” Nature 433: 513-516.

Franks, Nigel R. and Tom Richardson. 2006. “Teaching in tandem-running ants.” Nature 439: 153.

Keller, Laurent and Michael G. Surette. 2006. “Communication in bacteria: an ecological and evolutionary perspective.” Nature Review | Microbiology 4: 249-258.

Maynard Smith, John and David Harper. 2003. Animal signals. New York, Oxford University Press.

Owings, Donald H. and Eugene S. Morton. 1998.  Animal vocal communication: a new approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Redfield, RJ. 2002. “Is quorum sensing a side effect of diffusion sensing?” Trends in Microbiology 10(8): 365-370.

Shanker, Stuart G. and Barbara J. King. 2002. “The emergence of a new paradigm in ape language research.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25: 605-656.

West, Meredith J., Andrew P. King and Michael H. Goldstein. 2004. “Singing, socializing, and the music effect.” In Marler, Peter, and Hans Willem Slabbekoorn. 2004. Nature’s music: the science of birdsong. Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic.

al-Farazdaq realized Imruʼ al-Qays’ poetic revelation

In early Arabic ʻUdhrī poetry, Bedouins were associated with chaste love.  ʻUdhrī poets were liars.  They passed on only what they heard.  They did not write poetry about what was actually done.  Imruʼ al-Qays, the leading poet of the pre-Islamic divisive age, told the truth.  Imruʼ al-Qays’s poetic revelation in his famous Muʻallaqah can be understood only through fearlessly, poetically, and faithfully entering hellfire with this most poetical of poets.[1]

Equating the persona in a poem with the biography of the poet betrays poetry and the poet.  Imruʼ al-Qays and his famous Muʻallaqah have been betrayed.  Leading Umayyad poet al-Farazdaq lamented society’s frivolous sacrifice of poetry.  Al-Farazdaq told a fellow poet:

Poetry was once a magnificent camel.  Then, one day, it was slaughtered.  So Imruʼ al-Qays came and took its head.  ʻAmri ibn Kulthum took its hump, Zuhayr the shoulders, al-Aʼsha and al-Nabigha the thighs, and Tarafa and Labid the stomach.  There remained only the forearms and offal which we split among ourselves.  The butcher then said, “Hey you, there remains the blood and impurities.  See that I get them.”  “They are yours,” we replied.  So he took the stuff, cooked it, ate it and excreted it.  Your verses are from the excrement of that butcher. [2]

The only proper way to honor the sacrifice of poetry is to separate true poetic imagination from excrement.

egg for lovely woman

The Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays describes the reality of sex beneath the officially endorsed social construction of gender in a status-obsessed, fiercely tribal society.  The Muʻallaqah begins with the poem’s persona stopping with two companions at a desolate, abandoned home site.  The persona laments the personal loss of “one beloved.”  He enacts that personal loss by remembering his love affairs with the mother of al-Huwayrith and her neighbor, the mother of al-Rabāb.  Having sex with your own mother is mythic.  Having sex with two mothers next door is mundane reality, then and now.  The poetic persona recalls to himself, “Did you not have many a fine day from them?”[3]

The poetic persona then recounts a series of other sexual memories.  The first is specified only superlatively: “and best of all the day at Dārat Juljul.”  The second sexual memory was sacrificing his camel for girls who enjoyed playing with their food, and probably playing with the poetic persona, too:

And the day when, for the virgins,
I hocked my mount,
– What an amazing sight!  — they made off
with her saddle and its gear!
Then through the day the virgins
tossed her meat,
And her fat like twisted fringes
of white Damascus silk.

The third sexual memory was the day he jumped into ʻUnayzah’s howdah.  ʻUnayzah repeatedly told the poetic persona to withdraw as the howdah moved with their weight.  The persona responded:

Keep going, I said to her,
slacken his reins,
But don’t drive me away from your
twice-to-be-tasted fruit!
Then many a woman like you, pregnant and nursing,
have I visited by night,
And distracted from her amuleted
one-year-old.
When he cried from behind her, she turned
her upper half toward him,
But the half that was beneath me
did not budge.

That sexual memory has within itself another embedded, enacted sexual memory, that of outrageous sex with a pregnant, nursing mother.  A leading scholar of early Arabic poetry has observed:

In light of the pre-Islamic belief that sexual intercourse with a nursing mother is harmful to the nursling, she is endangering her children, born and unborn, as well as betraying her husband, the father, or pater putativus at least, of her nursling and unborn child.  These details enhance the illicit and antisocial aspect of the liminal erotic encounter. [4]

That day at Dārat Juljul has tended, among readers, to roll together these distinct sexual memories.

The danger of revelation is emphasized in the persona’s further sexual memories.  Conflating many females with a single female, the persona brags that “many … whose tent none dares to seek,” he took pleasure with, unhurried.  The nature of the danger is then immediately described:

I stole past guards
to get to her, past clansmen
Eager, could they conceal it,
to slay me.

Yet the poetic persona gets the girl.  He led her forth from her tent.  Her silken gown dragged on the ground and obscured their tracks.

Al-Farazdaq attempted to honor in life Imru’ al-Qays’s poetic revelation.  He repeatedly told the story of his experience.[5]  One day al-Farazdaq found some mule tracks heading out of Basra, where he lived.  Motivated by the thought that the riders surely carried food and drink, al-Farazdaq followed their tracks on his own mule.  He came across girls bathing in a pond.  He said to them, “I have never seen anything like today, not even the day of Dārat Juljul.”[6]

By al-Farazdaq’s time, a story of Dārat Juljul had arisen about the day at Dārat Juljul in Imruʼ al-Qays’s poem.  Imruʼ al-Qays was in love with his cousin ʻUnayzah.  One day ʻUnayzah’s clan moved.  Imruʼ al-Qays followed them.  ʻUnayzah and other girls of her clan stopped to bath in a pond.   After telling their slaves to move away a distance, the girls undressed completely and submerged themselves in the pond.  Imruʼ al-Qays sneaked upon them.  After seizing their clothes, he proclaimed:

By God, I won’t give a single one of you girls her clothes, not though she stays in the pond all day, until she comes out of the water naked and takes her clothes herself. [7]

The girls resolutely remained in the pond until the day was well advanced.  Then one by one they surrendered, except for ʻUnayzah.   She implored Imruʼ al-Qays in the name of God to release her clothes to her in the pond, but he would not compromise.  Finally, ʻUnayzah surrendered and came out of the pond, naked.  He looked at her, front and back, and then laid down her clothes.  After his siege and their surrender, the girls lamented:

You’ve certainly punished us, keeping us here your prisoners and starving us! [8]

Imruʼ al-Qays offered them a feast of reconciliation:

He said, “what if I were to slaughter my camel for you, would you eat of it?” “Yes,” they shouted.  So he drew his sword and hamstrung the beast, then he slaughtered it and stripped off its flesh.  The servants collected a great pile of brushwood and kindled up a mighty fire, and he set to hacking off the choicest pieces for them and throwing the meat on the glowing embers.  The girls ate, and he ate with them, and drank the remainder of the wine he had with him, singing to them between-whiles and flinging to the slaves some of the roast meat. [9]

When time came to depart, each girl carried a piece of Imruʼ al-Qays’s gear, except for ʻUnayzah.  Imruʼ al-Qays declared that ʻUnayzah would carry him.  He thrust himself into her howdah and rocked it.  That’s the story of Dārat Juljul, the story about the day at Dārat Juljul in Imruʼ al-Qays’s poem.

Al-Farazdaq said to the girls bathing in the pond, “I have never seen anything like today, not even the day of Dārat Juljul.”  He then modestly turned away from them.  He did not then capture and hold their clothes.   That wasn’t the end of the story:

they called out to me {al-Farazdaq}: “Hey you, you with the mule, come back, we want to ask you something!”
So I turned back, while they were still up to their necks in the water.
“Come on,” they said, “you must tell us the story of Dārat Juljul!” [10]

Like the heroine in the fourteenth-century Old French petticoat fable, al-Farazdaq not only told the story, but also enacted it.  When al-Farazdaq got to the point in the story where Imruʼ al-Qays seized the girls’ clothes, al-Farazdaq jumped down from his mule and seized the girls’ clothes.  He declared:

… and {Imruʼ al-Qays} said to them, just as I say to you:  “By God, I shall not give any of you girls your clothes, even if you stay in the pond all day, until you come out naked.”

One of the girls, a saucy one, interjected:

That man was in love with his cousin; are you in love with one of us then?

Al-Farazdaq responded unartfully:

No, by God!  I am not in love with any of you, but I do find you attractive.

The girls were amused and responded guilefully:

they shouted and clapped their hands, and said, “Go on with your story, since you won’t leave before you’ve got what you want!”

Al-Farazdaq continued the story of Dārat Juljul.  When he finished that story, the saucy girl said:

Well, well, that was a damn good story, very nice indeed! Who are you mister?

Al-Farazdaq humbly demurred.  She insisted.  She guessed his identity and asked him directly whether he was al-Farazdaq, the famous poet.  Al-Farazdaq confessed to his actual identity.  She declared:

If you are he, then I think you won’t part with our clothes unless you’ve had your way.

Al-Farazdaq acquiesced.  She then ordered him: “Turn away for a second!”  She whispered to her friends.  Then all the girls dived down.  They came out of the pond with their hands filled with mud:

They approached me, menacingly.  They smeared my face with mud and slime, filling my eyes and covering my clothes.  I fell on my face and while I was distracted by the dirt in my eyes they grabbed their clothes and absconded with them.  The saucy one sat on my mule and left me flat on my face, in the worst possible state, covered in shame: {the saucy girl said,} “That bloke thought he could fuck us!”

“Fuck us” is a general folk metaphor for “treat us badly.” It’s far from the poetry of the sexual exploits in the Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays.  The difference is not just between informal speech and the written word.  The girls returned al-Farazdaq’s mule along with a written message:

Your sisters say to you: “You tried to get something from us that we would not give, but we hereby give you back your wife; now fuck her all night! Here are a few pennies for the public bath in the morning!”

Al-Farazdaq married at least four times.  He made no original effort to seduce the girls.[11]  The girls’ urging him to have sex with a mule, described as his wife, is unrighteous vindictiveness in the form of a crude insult.

The Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays is about social regulation of sexuality, not the life of Imruʼ al-Qays.  Biographical stories about Imruʼ al-Qays tell of him allying with the Byzantines and dying from betrayal far from home.[12]  Despite Imruʼ al-Qays’s unpropitious biography, the Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays has been one of the most revered poems in Arabic for more than 1400 years.[13]  It ends with a massive natural storm and two final verses pairing images of renewal and destruction:

As if, early in the morning,
the songbirds of the valley
Had drunk a morning draught
of fine spiced wine,
As if the wild beasts drowned at evening
in its remotest stretches
were wild onions’
plucked-out bulbs. [14]

Outside the most poetical of poetry, the acts of the poetic persona and the mothers who had sex with him in the Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays mainly generate violence against men.  Through its theatrically enacted bi-narrative, al-Farazdaq’s story of the girls overturns the biographical story of the day of Dārat Juljul.[15]  The girls in that story represent vicious social disparagement of male sexualityCrude misandry is as much of a social problem as is the illicit sexuality in the Muʻallaqah.[16]  Civilizing human nature, sexually distinctive like male stallions and female whisperers, requires truthful recognition of what women and men actually do.  Truthful, hellish views are necessary to have renewal rather than destruction.

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Notes:

[1] Cf. Qurʼan, Surat Ash-Shu‘arā (26), v. 221-227.  According to a hadith, Imruʼ al-Qays was “the most poetical of the poets, and their leader into Hell-fire.”  Trans. Arberry (1957) p. 40.  Similarly, Stetkevych (1993) p. 285, citing ibn Qutaybah, Al-Shiʻr wa al-Shuʻarāʼ 51.

[2] From Qurashi, Jamhara, trans. Khalidi (1994) p. 98.   The poets listed are seven associated with the famous hanging odes (Mu‘allaqāt).  Some sources exclude al-Aʼsha and al-Nabigha from this group.  That both were famous poets isn’t contested.   Imruʼ al-Qays taking the head represents a widely held view that he was the leading pre-Islamic poet.  Jamhara cites Abu ʻUbayda saying, “Poetry was launched by Imruʼ al-Qays and ended with Dhu al-Rummah.”  The latter died c. 735.  Id. p. 98, n. 27.

[3] Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays, l. 10 (part), from Arabic trans. Stetkevych (1993) p. 250.  Id., p. 263, attributes this line to the poetic persona’s companions, but it seems to me to work as a self-voiced question.  Stetkevych translates an Arabic verse as four lines of English text, with alternate lines indented.  Because of technical challenges, I have not indented alternate lines in quoting from id.  The translation of F. E. Johnson and Faiz-ullah-bhai, from Horn (1917), is available online. All subsequent quotations of the Muʻallaqah are from Stetkevych (1993) pp. 250-2; specifically , l. 10 (part), ll. 11-12, ll 15-17, l. 24.

[4] Stetkevych (1993), p. 265.  Id. p. 262, n. 30 observes:

The offspring of an illicit affair with a married woman would be reckoned to the paternity of her husband, according to the old Arab precept that lies behind the Islamic precept that the child is reckoned to the bed on which he is born (al-walad lil firāsh).

Underscoring the continuing relevance of the Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah, the same long-established principle remains in U.S. paternity law.

[5] That story is given a bushy isnād:

ʻAbd Allāh ibn Mālik related to us: Muḥammad ibn Mūsā related to me: al-Qaḥdhamī related to me: one of our friends related to me, on the authority of ʻAbd Allāh ibn Zālān al Tamīmī, the rāwī of al-Farazdaq, that al-Farazdaq said:

From Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, al-Aghānī, XXI:340-3, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 123.  An isnād is usually a linear chain.  The last sentence of the story, the meta-comment, “Whenever he told this story….” indicates that the story was told repeatedly.

[6] Id.  I consistently use the term “girls” to refer to the young, sexually mature, unmarried females in the stories.  In many cultures, such females are commonly distinguished from other women.

[7] From Arabic trans. Arberry (1957) pp. 33-4.  Stetkevych (1993), p. 264, n. 33, states that Arberry’s translation is from ibn Qutaybah, Al-Shiʻr wa al-Shuʻarāʼ 49-50.  Al-Farazdaq died in Basra c. 728.   Ibn Qutaybah died in Baghdad in 885.  Al-Iṣfahānī died in Baghdad in 967.

[8] From trans. Arberry (1957) p. 34.

[9] Id.  I’ve made some insubstantial changes in the quotation for consistency.

[10] From al-Iṣfahānī, trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 123.  Subsequent quotes are from id., pp. 123-6, unless otherwise noted.

[11] In the beginning of al-Farazdaq’s story, he heads out from Basra into the desert to follow persons that he thinks are carrying food and drink.  Surely many more persons had food and drink within Basra.  Al-Farazdaq going out into the desert to get food and drink seems to me meant retrospectively to raise skepticism about his desire for sex.  Moreover, al-Farazdaq turns away from the girls in the pond after his declaration about the day at Juljul.  Only at the girls’ urging does he tell and enact the story of that day.  When the girls bluntly ask, “are you in love with us?”, al-Farazdaq, quite unlike ardent, poetic Arabic lovers, declares comically, “No, by God!  I am not in love with any of you, but I do find you attractive.”

[12] Stetkevych (1993), Ch. 7, discusses these stories and analyzes the Muʻallaqah in light of them.  Id. p. 283 notes, “The relation of Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah to his akhbār is such as to undermine the working premise of this entire book.”  I don’t find the subsequent rationalization compelling.  More generally, structural concepts such as rites of passage seem to me to be too abstract and too deterministic to address the complexity of personal development.  They also tilt interpretation in favor of biography over social structure.

[13] Arberry (1957), pp. 39-40, declares:

The fame of Imruʼ al-Qays was widespread during his lifetime; after his death he gained even greater renown.  …  It is no exaggeration to say that his Muʻallaqah is at once the most famous, the most admired and the most influential poem in the whole of Arabic literature.

By the tenth century, children were being taught Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah in Islamic elementary schools (kuttāb).  Kister (1969) p. 36.  In a fictional, eleventh-century Arabic tale filled with realistic details, a believing jinnee declares:

you, race of humans, are rapturous about Imruʼ al-Qays’s poem, “Stop, let us weep for the remembrance of a loved one and dwelling place,” and make your children learn it by heart at school.

Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Risālat al-ghufrān, trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 271.  In my view, that’s astonishing testimony to learned critical blindness.

[14] ll. 81-81, trans. Stetkevych (1993) p. 257.

[15] The story ends with meta-text:

Whenever he told this story, he would say, “I have never again met their like.”

Trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 126.  The girls, like the poetic persona in Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah, are encountered only in the story or poem.

[16] Without little appreciation for the truth of ordinary men’s lives, Jones (2011),  p. 338, observes of the sexual exploits in Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah:

I have no doubt that the appeal of this section to the male Arab psyche has added much to the poem’s general popularity over the centuries.

Do you think that the same is true for the female Arab psyche?  And what about the children?

[image] House of Fabergé, Rose Trellis Egg;  In 1907, Russian Tsar Nicholas II presented this egg to his wife, Alexandra Fedorovna, to commemorate the birth of their son.  Image thanks to Wikipedia and the Walters Art Museum.

References:

Arberry, Arthur  J. 1957. The seven odes: the first chapter in Arabic literature. London: G. Allen & Unwin.

Gelder, Geert Jan van. 2013. Classical Arabic literature: a library of Arabic literature anthology. New York: New York University Press.

Horne, Charles Francis. 1917. The sacred books and early literature of the East with an historical survey and descriptions, vol. V. New York: Parke.

Jones, Alan. 2011. Early Arabic poetry: select poems. Reading: Ithaca Press.

Khalidi, Tarif. 1994. Arabic historical thought in the classical period. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Kister, M.J. 1969. “The Seven Odes: Some Notes on the Compilation of the Muʿallaqāt.” Rivista degli Studi Orientali 44: 27-36.

Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. 1993. The mute immortals speak: pre-Islamic poetry and the poetics of ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Heber the Kenite sped to the marriage bed

Heber the Kenite sped to marriage bed

A figure of media in medieval Andalusan literature is an old woman go-between.  In Judah al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni, Heber the Kenite encountered a go-between:

a crone, prune-face, features and limbs and what-not-else displaced, came apace, a wispy veil drawn over her face, foulness to perfection, incarnate evil: Fate must have hauled her straight up from the Devil. [1]

The go-between flattered Heber’s self-esteem.  Then she offered him a dream:

rise from the dust to a nubile, doe-eyed maiden faint with lust.  She is supple, her body warm and moist, well-spiced, glistening like amethyst, pure, holy, blest.  Her eyes are two lions, her teeth strung pearls, each breast a trembling fawn.  On, sir, on!  Feast your eyes on each succulent part and feel your senses fall apart; ah me: thou shouldst go mad at the sight of thine eyes that thou shouldst see.  Oh, happy the man who clasps her to his side, who mounts this chariot to ride; oh trebly sweet the lot of him who bows, falls down, and lies between her feet. [2]

That account is full of deceit.  The go-between pulled a marriage switch for an ugly old witch.  So also earlier told Judah ibn Shabbetai about the dismay of Zerah.  Heber, disabused after the nuptial execution, abusively recounts the outrages he suffered.[3]

Al-Harizi’s text draws meaning from citations and allusions to the Bible.  They would have saved Heber from his delusion, if he had been keenly discerning.  The man who lies between a woman’s feet in the biblical book of Judges is the general Sisera.  He doesn’t experience joyful sex in the wedding bed.  The wife of Heber the Kenite hammers a tent peg through his skull, and he falls dead between her feet.[4]  Heber claims to have delivered blows to his new wife and then fled for his life.  The teller of the tale said:

Hearing Heber the Kenite’s misrepresentations, his mad concoctions, his ludicrous fabrications, I laughed my fill, then bade him goodbye, and off went I; and off went he — dreams, wit, and wondrous falsity. [5]

The reality of women’s guile and prevalent violence against men made for laughter that medieval culture allowed.  Now even men’s dreams are disavowed.  How can men still be sped to the marriage bed?

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Notes:

[1] Judah al-Harizi, Tahkemoni, Gate 6, from Hebrew trans. Segal (2001) p. 74.  Go-betweens figure prominently in Pamphilus and Libro de buen amor.  Id. transcribes the trickster as Hever the Kenite.  The transcription Heber the Kenite seems more common, so I’ve used that.

[2] Id. pp 74-5.  The go-between proposes a 2000 coin price for Heber the Kenite to wed the maiden.  The italicized text quotes Deuteronomy 28:34, which is a curse.  That curse thus foreshadows the bride that Heber the Kenite will receive.

[3] Heber the Kenite, unlike Jaume Roig, resolved from his bad womanly experience to avoid marriage:

By all the prophets’ lives, he shouted, not a word of wives, though you bore a command stamped by God’s own hand!  One horror will suffice: never twice!

Id. p. 73.

[4] Judges 5:27.  Jael is the wife of Heber the Kenite.

[5] Tahkemoni, trans. Segal (2001) p. 80.  Concluding his analysis of this gate (chapter), Segal states:

One might well see in this gate a quintessential example of literary coarseness towards women as women, call it chauvinism or what you will.  One might have good reason.  The definition of womanhood here is that of subservient wife and sexual partner.  She must be beautiful.  She must have means.  She may be beaten.

Some {those bad men} may laugh; others {good men who love their mothers} will not.

Id. p. 458.  This is similar male rhetorical posing to that of Lacy in considering the fabliau La Dame Escoilliee (see note [4]).

[image] Marginal miniature of a couple embracing, Book of Hours, Use of Maastricht (‘The Maastricht Hours’); Netherlands, S. (Liège); 1st quarter of the 14th century; f.143, British Library Manuscript Stowe 17.

Reference:

Segal, David Simha, trans. and ed. 2001. Judah al-Harizi. The book of Taḥkemoni: Jewish tales from medieval Spain. Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

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cleric-scholars’ Latin lyrics long for bodily action

When you had a boo-boo, and your mother kissed it and made it better, you were innocent of the outrageous satire.  In twelfth-century Christian courts of western Europe, cleric-scholars wrote Latin love lyrics lamenting that they would die without a young woman’s kiss.  According to the Christian gospel, Judas betrayed Jesus to death with a kiss.[1]  The cleric-scholars sought a kiss in literary Latin lyrics seeking sex.  At least one acknowledged that his deeds would bring grief in punishment to come.[2]

The cleric-scholars knew what they were doing with literary figures.  Ovid, lamenting his heartbreak in exile, wrote to a friend attempting techniques of consolation:

A doctor can’t always cure a person that’s ill;
a bad condition sometimes trumps all learned skill. [3]

A twelfth-century cleric-scholar substituted a single word in Ovid’s couplet to describe curing lovesickness:

A doctor can’t always cure a person that’s ill;
a caressing touch sometimes trumps all learned skill. [4]

The author substituted for an abstract word a word for a specific body part.  Reason or carnal love, being a student of Athena or of Venus, were alternatives considered at length in other closely related songs.[5]  Following the couplet declaring the failure of the doctor’s learned skill, another couplet elaborated on the human body’s value:

Power of faith and eloquence of mind makes a wise man,
and with a fully vibrating voice he offers pleasure. [6]

In the ancient novel Apollonius of Tyre, a medical student resurrected an apparently dead, but very beautiful girl.  He used erotic medical technique.  The cleric-scholars may have studied Apollonius of Tyre or similar literature.

The cleric-scholars’ Latin lyrics express longing for natural bodily action.  One song describes a shepherdess, carrying newly shorn wool, going out at dawn with her flock of three pairs of animals.  She sees a scholar sitting in the grass and says to him:

What are you doing there, sir?  Come and play games with me. [7]

A scholar sitting in the grass might as well be singing a dirge for his bookishness.  The shepherdess and animal pairs evoke erotic tones like those of Daphnis and Cloe.  This song, which scholars categorize as pastoral, seems also elegiacal.

Human beings long for bodily sense and bodily activity.  Popular Christianity in twelfth-century Europe offered awe-inspiring art and architecture, liturgical worship filled with bodily movements, incense, and singing, journeys of pilgrimage and battle, touching relics and shrines, and the taste of communion.  Nonetheless, some cleric-scholars with learned literary technique sought sex.  Perhaps their study over-emphasized Christian contrasts between spirit and flesh.[8]  In any case, cleric-scholars professionally tend to be immobile.  They have a hazardous occupation.

bike racing beats studying

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Notes:

[1] See, e.g. Mark 14:44-45.

[2] Carmina Burana, no. 139 (“Mutatis temporibus…”), trans. Walsh (1993) p. 165.  Id. helpfully provides the Latin lyrics and a fairly literal English translation for sixty love lyrics from the Carmina Burana.  Parlett (1986) provides a broader selection of songs translated into English verse.  That work does not provide the Latin lyrics.

[3] Ovid, Epistolæ ex Ponto, 1.3.17.  The Latin text is “Non est in medico semper relevetur ut aeger; / Interdum docta plus valet arte malum.” The above translation is mine in some specifics, but consistent with widely available English translations.  Epistolæ ex Ponto is freely available online in English translation via Poetry in Translation.

[4] Carmina Burana, no. 176, stanza 1.  Id. substitutes “manus” for “malum” in Ovid’s couplet.  Here are the Latin lyrics from the Carmina Burana.  Classen (2010), p. 482, indicates that this couplet can be read sexually.  I think that’s the right way to read it.

[5] Carmina Burana, nos. 56 (“Differentem omnibus…”) & 108 (“Vacillantis trutine…”), trans. Walsh (1993) pp. 1-2, 137-8.  The later song declares that Reason “thinks to console me with the scholar’s exile.”  Ovid’s “scholar’s exile” was the heartbreak that motivated him to write the above couplet in Epistolæ ex Ponto.

[6] Carmina Burana, no. 176, stanza 2.  The above is my free poetic translation.  A professional translation of this couplet into English doesn’t seem to be available. The Latin lyric is “Vim fidei menti facundia dat sapienti, / Cum resonat plene prolatio vocis amene.”

[7] Carmina Burana, no. 90 (“Exiit diliculo…”), trans. Walsh (1993) p. 100.  Id. notes scholarly controversy over whether the third stanza, which is the source of the above quote, is spurious.  The broader understanding above suggests it’s not.  The defective rhymes and rhythms of the third stanza may be a deliberate travesty of Latin learning.  Such would elevate the life of the shepherdess and depreciate that of the scholar.  A leading scholar of Latin lyrics has described their distinguishing characteristics as “pervasive wit” and “innocence.”  With respect to innocence, he stated:

As far as I know, {in Latin lyrics} there are none of those astonishing moments in which a poet can at times see through himself, watching his own movements of thought and feeling and behaviour with a kind of vulnerable detachment.  Whether in their poetry they are suffering or successful lovers, joyously sensual or worshipping from afar, they are innocents in that essentially they do not question themselves, never momentarily step back to observe themselves critically in their own attitudes.

Dronke (1996) p. 143.  While that may be true in general, it doesn’t seem to be the case for the specific Latin lyrics considered above.

[8] E.g. Rom. 8:5-6, Gal. 5:16-17.  Christians believe in Christ, the incarnation of God, the Son of God, the word made flesh among persons of this world.  Paul exhorts Christians to put on the new clothes of Christ.  Central Christian beliefs thus closely relate physicality and spirituality in a transformative way.  Hostility to the body within Christianity needs to be explained, not taken for granted.

References:

Classen, Albrecht. 2010. “The Carmina Burana: A Mirror of Latin and Vernacular Literary Traditions from a Cultural-Historical Perspective: Transgression is the Name of the Game.” Neophilologus. 94 (3): 477-497.

Dronke, Peter.  1996.  The medieval lyric. 3rd ed.  Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK ; Rochester, NY, USA : D.S. Brewer.

Parlett, David. 1986. Selections from the Carmina Burana: a verse translation with notes and introduction. London: Penguin.

Walsh, Patrick Gerard. 1993. Love lyrics from the Carmina Burana. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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Christian icons in Islamic world during Byzantine iconoclasm

Within the Byzantine Empire, iconoclastic emperors prescribed religious use of images between 726 and 787, and between 813 and 842.  That action had little effect on Christians beyond the Byzantine Empire.  Christians in Syria and Egypt had a long tradition of religiously active images (icons).  Icons were ubiquitous in Christian churches and monasteries in the Islamic world about the year 800.

St. Sergius & Bacchus icon, early 7th century

Sometime between 800 and 812, Theodore Abu Qurrah, a Christian bishop in Harran, Syria, wrote a polemical treatise supporting prostration to icons.  Abu Qurrah was living within the Islamic world and writing in Arabic.  He declared:

nothing is more prevalent in the church than the icons.  What country is there, by my life, in whose churches there are no icons of the saints?  If their ubiquity does not prove that they have come down from the beginning, then one is on the verge of disapproving everything else, the ubiquity of which is commonplace [1]

While Abu Qurrah’s arguments in support of prostration to icons could be challenged in many ways, his observation of current Christian practice is credible.  Christian use of icons was readily observable.  If Abu Qurrah had greatly exaggerated icon use, his opponents could have easily discredited him.

Icons were prevalent in Christian churches and monasteries in the ninth-century Islamic world.  In a literary story set about 830, the narrator and Caliph al-Ma’mun “entered an old church in Syria which had marvelous paintings/sculptures.”  A different narrator recounted that he and Caliph al-Mutawakkil, probably about 858, saw in a monastery in Homs, Syria, “marvelous pictures.”  In another account, probably from about 900, the narrator describes going into a Christian church in Syria “to see things in it that I had heard praised.”  He reports seeing pictures.[2]  An Arabic-Egyptian poet who died in 830 wrote of a wine party in a monastery:

Cup by cup we drank to the glory of the images; an icon holds both heart and glance spellbound, in silence it moves us, it supplants both lute and torch. [3]

Caliph Yazid II in 721 ordered that icons be removed from churches and monasteries.[4]  That order was not effective, at least after less than a century.

Christian images generated claims of special powers and extraordinary origins.  Muslim sources in the Islamic world reported:

Dayr al-Ba’uth had an ancient icon whose colours had not dimmed with the passage of time.  A monastery near Jusiya on the road from Homs to Damascus possessed carved reliefs of the prophets and an icon of the Mother of God whose eyes always looked at the beholder, wherever he stood.  In Dayr al-Qusayr there was an icon of the Mother of God with Christ which people came specially to see. The Tulunid ruler Khumarawayh {ruled 896-904} liked it so much that he used to install himself in the monastery in a room from where he could look at it while he was drinking. [5]

The renowned Mandylion of Edessa (a portrait of Christ) was first described in the fifth century as having been painted by King Abgar of Edessa’s emissary to Jerusalem.  By the end of the sixth century, the Mandylion of Edessa was described as a miraculous portrait not made by human hands (acheiropoieton).[6]  In a Syriac polemical text probably set in Iraq in the 720s, a Christian monk declared:

We make prostration and we pay honor to his {Christ’s} image because he has impressed it with his countenance and has given it to us.  Every time we look at his icon we see him.  We pay honor to the image of the king, because of the king. [7]

How Christ had impressed the image with his countenance isn’t stated.  Images made by human hands and acheiropoieta probably weren’t distinguished by humans at the time of image production.  Acheiropoieta are more reasonably understood as religious images that succeeded in attracting popular attention and claims for extraordinary powers within an image-making process that also produced many other images made by human hands.[8]

Veneration of icons in Syria preceded Islam.  John Moschus, a Christian monk born in Damascus and who died in Jerusalem in 619, described a demon confronting an anchorite monk in Jerusalem:

“Stop venerating this icon,” the demon said, “and then I will stop attacking you.”

Now this icon consisted of a lifelike painting of our holy lady Mary the birthgiver of God carrying our Lord Jesus Christ. [9]

The description of the icon and the practice of venerating it seems historically realistic.  Al-Biruni, a Muslim scholar in central Eurasia, reported that icons to which Christians prayed for intercession were brought from Syria into Arabia before Islam.

Spiritual use of images is common human practice across religions, cultures, and peoples.  The Greeks and Romans honored gods through paintings and sculptures.  Christians’ spiritual use of images doesn’t need to be explained by Greco-Roman influence or contamination.  Spiritual leaders in Africa, Hindus in India, Buddhist in China, and many other groups around the world have used images similarly.  Particular historical, religious, and cultural circumstances are needed to explain rejecting spiritual use of images.  Byzantine iconoclasm was an unusual development in Christian history of image use.  Byzantine iconoclasm was also an unusual development in the broad human history of image use.

statue of Hindu goddess Parvati

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Notes:

[1] Abu Qurrah, Treatise on Veneration of the Holy Icons, Ch. VII, trans. Griffith (1997) p. 42. Byzantine iconoclasm is not mentioned in Abu Qurrah’s treatise.  Abu Qurrah’s treatise is directed against Muslims’ and Jews’ criticism of Christians’ prostration to icons, and to the effects of these criticisms on Christians: “many Christians are abandoning prostration to the icon of Christ our God,” because “anti-Christians … are reprimanding them for their prostration … and they sneer at them.” Id. p. 21. Abu Qurrah’s treatise seems to be aimed at boosting the status of prostration to icons in inter-religious public discourse.  As political inferiors in the Islamic world, Christians would have been sensitive to such criticism.

[2] Kitab adab al-ghuraba’, attributed to Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, trans. Crone & Moreh (2000) pp. 21, 59, 70 (secs. 1, 51, 60).

[3] Muhammud ibn ‘Asim, quoted in Griffith (1992) p. 135.  Id. passim provides other examples.  Wine, song, and seduction in monasteries was a motif in early Abbasid literature.

[4] Id. p. 129.

[5] Kilpatrick (2003) p. 25.

[6] Brock (2004) p. 48.

[7] From Diyarbekir Syriac MS 95, trans. Griffith (2000) p. 46.   This dispute is set in a monastery in Bêt Halê and occurs with “an Arab notable in the entourage of the emir Maslama.”  The text’s setting seems to be in the 720s at “the site known as Dayr Mār ‘Abdâ near Kufa and Hirā in Iraq.” Id. p. 42.

[8] Brubaker & Haldon (2011) ch. 1 claims that icons prior to 680 were acheiropoieta.  But id. doesn’t provide a reasonable account of the development of acheiropoieta.  Christians understand the Bible to be God’s word, but most believe that it was written by human hands.  A process like the canonization of scripture, but more decentralized, plausibly explains what came to be recognized as acheiropoieta.

[9] John Moschus, Leimonarion (Pratum spirituale / Spiritual Meadow) Ch. XLV, trans. Benedict Baker.

[images] First image: St. Sergius and St. Bacchus.  Encaustic icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai.  City Museum of Eastern and Western Art, Kiev, no. 111.  Thought to date from the early seventh century.  Fowden (1999) p. 31. Saints Sergius and Bacchus also appear on a silver flask thought to date to the mid to late sixth century (from the Kaper Koraon treasure, Syria; the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, no. 57.639).  Id. p. 30.  Second image: the Hindu goddess Parvati, 12th century.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.90.153).

References:

Brock, Sebastian. 2004. “Transformations of the Edessa Portrait of Christ.” Journal ofAssyrian Academic Studies 18, 1: 46–56.

Brubaker, Leslie, and John F. Haldon. 2011. Byzantium in the iconoclast era (c. 680-850): a history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crone, Patricia and Shmuel Moreh. 2000. Abu al-Faraj al-Iṣbahani. The book of strangers: mediaeval Arabic graffiti on the theme of nostalgia. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers.

Fowden, Elizabeth Key. 1999. The barbarian plain: Saint Sergius between Rome and Iran.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Griffith, Sidney H. 1992.  “Images, Islam and Christian Icons: a Moment in the Christian/Muslim Encounter in Early Islamic Times,” in P. Canivet & J. –P. Rey-Coquais (eds.), La Syrie de Byzance à l‟Islam VIIe-VIIIe siècles. Actes du Colloque International Lyon-Maison de l‟Orient Mediterranéen, Paris – Institut du Monde Arabe, 11-15 Septembre 1990, Damascus: Institut Français de Damas, 1992, pp. 121-138.

Griffith, Sidney H. 1997.  A treatise on the veneration of the holy icons written in Arabic by Theodore Abu Qurrah, Bishop of Harran. Louvain: Peeters.

Griffith, Sidney H. 2000. “Disputing with Islam in Syriac: The Case of the Monk of Bêt Hãlê and a Muslim Emir.”  Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 3,1:29-54.

Kilpatrick, Hilary. 2003.  “Monasteries through Muslim Eyes: The Diyarat Books.” Pp. 19-37 in David Thomas, ed. Christians at the heart of Islamic rule: church life and scholarship in ʻAbbasid Iraq. Woodbrooke-Mingana Symposium on Arab Christianity and Islam.  Leiden: Brill.

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Dunhuang visualization shows media lever for cultural assets

At the Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang in northeastern China, murals and sculptures created from the fifth to the fourteenth centuries fill hundreds of caves.  The murals show thousands of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, as well as musicians, dancers, and patrons.   Their costumes and instruments for spiritual advancement, pleasure, and battles with demons provide an extraordinary visual record of a vibrant, cosmopolitan culture.

Media for experiencing and sharing culture significantly affect a culture’s influence and generativity.  The murals on the walls of the Dunhuang caves are difficult to access, share, organize, analyze, augment, transform, and adapt into other cultural works.  The imperative of long-term preservation requires carefully controlled physical access.  Under these media circumstances, the cultural wealth of Dunhuang has had relatively little influence on the creation of new cultural works around the world in the past century.

The Sackler Gallery’s current installation, “Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang,” immerses visitors in a life-sized, high-fidelity, three-dimensional visualization of one of the Mogao caves.  The guided, immersive experience focuses on a large mural representing a sutra of the Medicine Buddha Bhaisajyaguru’s Eastern Pure Land:

The Bhaisajyaguru sutra tells of the twelve great vows of the Buddha, relating to the provision of food, drink, clothing, medicine, and spiritual aids.  In the painting, the seven forms, or emanations, that Bhaisajyaguru can assume as a healer stand in a row on lotus platforms above a pool, with dancers accompanied by a group of musicians.

The realistic visualization is augmented with selectable magnifications, colorations, animations, and sound effects.  Without traveling to Dunhuang and without causing any risk to the physical artifacts, an unlimited number of persons can richly experience with this visualization the aesthetic wonder and spiritual drama of a Dunhuang cave.

Dunhuang visualization in Sackler Gallery installation, "Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang"

This high-tech installation showcases great opportunities to create new value and new understandings from China’s ancient cultural wealth.  Big-data technologies are driving high-tech industries.  Digitization of Dunhuang caves creates big, creative data from ancient culture.  The technological platform for the Dunhuang visualization suggests future directions for high-resolution display technology, big-data image-processing technology, and broadband communication networks.  More importantly, the Dunhuang visualization shows how cultural wealth can be multiplied.  Adapted, augmented, and shared, vibrant Dunhuang imagery, audience-proven across a millennium of Silk Road travelers, could transform global culture.

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The free Sackler Gallery installation, “Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang,” is open to the public through Dec. 9, 2012.  Timed, same-day tickets for the 15-minute guided immersive experience are available daily, on a first-come, first-served basis, in the Sackler Pavilion.  Support is being sought to include this installation long-term in the Sackler’s new International Center Gallery.

The installation was conceived and designed by the Applied Laboratory for Interactive Visualization and Embodiment (ALiVE), City University of Hong Kong, in partnership with the Dunhuang Academy and the Friends of Dunhuang.  Here are descriptions of other ALiVE projects.  Another ALiVE Dunhuang cave visualization uses visitor-directed iPads as magic windows within a background visualization.  The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Lab (EVL) is working on technology similar to ALiVE’s.  EVL’s CAVE2 is being used to create a three-dimension visualization of Star Trek’s spaceship Enterprise.  That EVL application seems to me neither as good, nor as advanced, as ALiVE’s Dunhuang Pure Land visualization.

The quoted text above is from the visitor brochure for the Sackler exhibit.

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spiritual use of images in ancient Chinese Christianity

Spiritual use of images helped to communicate Christianity across ancient Asia.  Within three centuries of Jesus’ death, Christianity probably had spread across Asia to western China.[1]  Christianity surely had reached the Chinese capital by the early seventh century.  In 638, the Chinese Emperor declared:

Bishop A-lo-pen of the Kingdom of Ta-ch’in, bringing with him the Sutras and Images, has come from afar and presented them at our Capital.  Having carefully examined the scope of his teaching, we find it to be mysteriously spiritual, and of silent operation.  Having observed its principal and most essential points, we reached the conclusion that they cover all that is most important in life, and that this Teaching is helpful to all creatures and beneficial to all men.  So let it have free course throughout the Empire.[2]

This imperial edict presents both text and images (“Sutras and Images”) as authoritative communication of Christian teaching.  The variously translated phrase “mysteriously spiritual, and of silent operation” possibly indicates a contrast between the spiritual work of paintings and that of sound-making spiritual instruments common in Buddhism.[3]

Avolokitesvara, a male Buddhist diety who became Guanyin in Chinese Buddhism

Christians in China in 638 appreciated images’ spiritual potency.  As part of welcoming Christianity to his realm, the Emperor ordered the construction of a Christian monastery in the Chinese capital city.  The capital city was Xi’an, modern-day Chang’an.  Twenty-one Christian priests lived in the newly constructed monastery.  The Emperor contributed to this monastery his own intermediating portrait:

Immediately afterwards {after “proper authorities” had constructed the monastery}, the proper officials were again ordered to take a faithful portrait of the Emperor, and to have it copied on the walls of the monastery.  The celestial beauty appeared in its variegated colours, and the dazzling splendour illuminated the Luminous portals.  The sacred traces conferred great blessings, and illuminated the holy precincts for evermore. [4]

The above text is not a non-Christian Chinese description of the Imperial portrait’s effects.  The text is inscribed in Chinese on the Xi’an stele that Christians erected in the Chinese capital city to proclaim their history in China.  The description of the Imperial portrait’s effects probably parallel Christians’ understanding of the effects of Christian sacred paintings.  Even if the description was a conventional Chinese description, the Imperial portrait’s claimed effects apparently did not offend the Christians’ spiritual sensibilities.  They chose to include that description in their proclamation of Christian history in China.[5]

Other evidence indicates that Christians’ spiritual use of images made by human hands existed across Asia before Islam.  Al-Buruni, writing in the early eleventh century among highly learned central-Asian scholars, indicated that icons were imported into Arabia from Syria prior to Islam.[6]  Early in the seventh century, Gabriel of Beth Qatraye in north-eastern Arabia declared that an icon is required at the height of the Christian liturgy:

The Cross and the Gospel are placed on the altar, and above them the icon of our Lord, amidst which the awesome Mysteries are consecrated: these fulfil the place of the person of our Lord …  Accordingly it is not at all permitted for the Holy Mysteries to be consecrated without the proximity of the Cross, the Gospel and the icon of our Lord.[7]

In a manuscript setting forth answers to 23 liturgical questions, Ishoʿbarnun, Patriarch of the Church of the East from 823 to 828, described an extraordinary use of icons:

Question 10 (f.371b), concerns the case of a priest who, in an emergency, has to baptize his own child when there is no one else apart from the mother — his wife — available to “receive” the child (that is, act as godparent). Isho’barnun’s solution to this dilemma is to say that the child should be placed on an icon instead, the person portrayed thus acting as godparent.  Specific reference is made here to an “icon of our Lord” (yuqneh d-Maran) if the infant is a boy, and an “icon of the Blessed” (Mary), if it is a girl.  Later on in the questions there is a passing reference to “icons of the saints” (Question 21, f.373b).  [8]

The question is like those of Roman rhetorical displays.  The rhetorically challenging aspect of the question is a priest having to baptize his own child with no one other than the child’s mother — his wife — present.  Those are highly unusual circumstances.  The solution is an unusual use of icons.  That solution implicitly suggests that icons had well-establish use in usual circumstances.

Religious competition across Asia encouraged Christian spiritual use of images.  Asia about 600 was religiously diverse.  Different religions engaged in decentralized competition for adherents.[9]  Images were an advantageous media of spiritual communication.  In central Asia early in the eleventh century, al-Biruni reported:

as common people will only acquiesce in pictorial representations, many of the leaders of religious communities have so far deviated from the right path as to give such imagery in their books and houses of worship, like the Jews and Christians, and, more than all, the Manichaeans. [10]

The Manichaean prophet Mani (lived c. 216-276) gained renown as an extraordinary painter.  A Manichaean holy book, the Arzhang or Artang, featured many painted images.  Al-Biruni quoted “the following words of Mani”:

The other religious bodies blame us because we worship sun and moon, and represent them as an image.  But they do not know their real natures; they do not know that sun and moon are our path, the door whence we march forth into the world of our existence (into heaven), as this has been declared by Jesus. [11]

In the late third century, the Zoroastrian prelate Kirder declared that throughout the Sassanian Empire (centered in present-day Iran) he had advanced Zoroastrianism and assailed other creeds:

And Jews and Buddhists and Brahmans and Aramaic and Greek-speaking Christians and Baptizers and Manichaeans were assailed in the land.  And images were overthrown, and the dens of demons were {thus} destroyed, and the place and abodes of the yazads {Zoroastrian fire-temples} were established [12]

Kirder declared that he helped to preserve Zoroastrian fire-temples in Syria, Anatolia, and up through Armenia and Georgia, including in the major Christian cities Antioch, Tarsus, and Caesarea.[13]   However, doctrine and leaders opposed to the spiritual use of images created a competitive disadvantage.  Without offsetting advantages such as those of Islam, such doctrine and leaders were less likely to endure.

While the Byzantine Empire had a marginal position in Asia, spiritual use of images in Byzantium was probably similar to the spiritual use of images among Christians across Asia.  Recent work on Byzantine iconoclasm argues that the Islamic challenge to the Byzantine Empire increased Byzantine demand for spiritual communication and spurred Byzantine spiritual use of images made by human hands.[14]  A claim that Byzantine failures and Islamic successes prompted a spiritual crisis in Byzantine is plausible.  However, a trans-Asian perspective suggests that sufficient demand for the use of images made by human hands existed before Islam among Christians in Byzantium and across Asia.  Within the Roman Empire, Christian writers’ polemics against “pagan idolatry” probably represent particular elite problems and conflicts, not a stark Christian-pagan divide in common practices of spiritual communication.[15]

For understanding spiritual use of images in ancient Christianity, the broadly competitive visual-spiritual circumstances of ancient China provide better insight than the circumstances of Byzantine iconomachy.  Giovanni Marignolli, a Roman Catholic papal envoy to China, traveled across Asia and through southeastern China from 1339 to 1347.  He observed:

The Jews, the Mongols, and the Muslims, consider us {Roman Catholics} to be the worst of idolators, and this opinion is not confined to the pagans {non-Christians} only, but is held by some of the Christians.  For although those Christians show devotion to pictures, they hold in abomination images, carved faces and alarmingly life-like sculptures such as there are in our churches. [16]

Marignolli’s claim of Roman Catholic visual leadership, reflected in the self-consciously ironic expression “worst of idolators,” isn’t convincing.   Christians in Asia outside the Roman Empire didn’t use crucifixes or cultic images in the round, but they did use icons and other figurative religious images.  No evidence exists of them attacking three-dimensional images.  Mongolian Buddhists commonly used images and sculptures in spiritual communication.  Richly illuminated caves and manuscripts found around Dunhuang indicate the vibrant visual, figurative culture of Central-Asian Buddhism dating from the fourth century through the next millennium.

Spiritual use of images did not readily distinguish Chinese Buddhists, Christians, and Manichaeans.  Consider the curious report of Marco Polo.  Marco Polo reported that he gained the trust of a secret group of Chinese believers in southern China about 1292.  He discovered that this group was reading Psalms and had in their temple paintings of three apostles. They revered and celebrated those apostles through those images.  The group said that they had preserved their faith for seven hundred years.  They now lacked priests and knowledge of their faith’s chief beliefs.  The combination of some holy text and some sacred images, however, had been sufficient for them to persevere in their faith.

Marco Polo concluded that the Chinese believers were Christians.  He urged them to declare themselves to the Emperor, who would be sympathetic to their faith.  Whether the group were Christians or Buddhists became a matter of dispute in the Emperor’s court. That such a dispute occurred suggests considerable similarities existed in general religious practices among Chinese Christians and Buddhists.  Moreover, while Giovanni Marignolli bragged that in fourteenth-century China, Roman Catholics were considered “the worst of idolators,” Marco Polo consistently and distinctively referred to Chinese Buddhists as “idolators.”  The Emperor gave the believers that Marco Polo identified the choice of declaring themselves to be Christians or Buddhists.  The group chose to declare themselves to be Christians.  Marco Polo estimated that those Christians numbered 700,000 households in southern China.[17]

Marco Polo’s identification of the believers as Christians is far from convincing.  Most scholars think that at least a large share of the believers were actually Manichaeans.  Recent study of tombstone inscriptions in Zayton strongly indicates that some Chinese Christians preserved their faith through centuries to Marco Polo’s time.[18]  The believers that Marco Polo identified could have included some Chinese Christians.  At least one ancient Manichaean shrine with a large figurative Manichaean sculpture became a Buddhist shrine and an object of Buddhist worship.[19]  Distinguishing Buddhists from Manichaeans or Christians in practice apparently was rather difficult.

Chinese Christians in church at Qoco, perhaps Palm Sunday, late 9th century

Christianity in Tang-era China was called “the way” and “the luminous religion.”  The name “the way” directly corresponds to the central, distinctive Christian proclamation that Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life.”  The term “luminous religion” could apply to Buddhism or Manichaeism as well as Christianity.[20]  In Asia, spiritual images played an important role in Buddhism, Christianity, and Manichaeism.  The story of Jesus, not its media of communication, distinguished “the way” in Asia.

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Notes:

[1] From at least 2500 years ago, mobile pastoralists in the Eurasian steppe have connected Persia to China.  Roman men in the first and second centuries complained about the immodesty of Roman maidens’ rage for diaphanous silk dresses, and they treasured silk scrolls.  Christianity could have moved across Asia to China as easily as silk traveled westward.  Christians lived in Gilan, southwest of the Caspian Sea, and Bactria, in present-day Afganistan, about 196.  More than twenty bishoprics existed in northern Mesopotamia and Persia in 225, including in the city of Forat, along the Tigris River just north of the Persian Gulf, and in the city of Beth Qatraye, in north-eastern Arabia.   See Mingana (1925) pp. 298, 301, 302; Seray (1997) pp 207-8.  By 500, about 30% of Christians in the world lived in south-central Asia.  Calculated from Johnson & Chung (2004) Table 2.  The earliest Chinese Christians were probably Jews in China who heard and believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

[2] Imperial Edict of the Emperor T’ai-Tsung, trans. Saeki (1951), App. No. II, p. 450, apparently from official records.  The edict was also recorded on the Xi’an Stele, with one additional clause.  See id. pp. 57-8.  The Xi’an Stele is alternatively called the Nestorian Stele or Nestorian Tablet.  Christian presence in China before 638 is historically documented:

it is recorded in Chinese History that even in 587 A.D, already a great Nestorian {eastern Christian} family of Mar Sargis immigrated from the Western Lands to Lin-t’ao, Kan-su.

Id. p. 86.  Moreover, as described in the previous note, that Christians were in China centuries earlier is plausible.

[3] For “mysteriously spiritual, and of silent operation,” the Horne (1917) translation has “purely excellent and natural” and the Charbonnier (2007) translation (p. 30), “mysterious and transcendent nonaction.”

[4] Xi’an Stele, trans. Saiki (1951) p. 58.  I’ve adapted the translation slightly using the translations of Horne (1917) and Charbonnier (2007).  The Xi’an Stele indicates that Chinese Emperor Hsuan-tsung (712-755 GC), who was surnamed “the Perfection of the Way,” supported the Christian monasteries against Buddhist attacks:

In the early part of the period T’ien-pao {742}, he gave orders to his general Kao Li-shih to carry the faithful portraits of the Five Emperors and to have them placed securely in the {Christian} monastery, and also to take the Imperial gift of one hundred pieces of silk with him.  Making the most courteous and reverent obeisance to the Imperial portraits, we feel as though “we were in a position to hang on to the Imperial bow and sword, in case the beard of the Dragon should be out of reach.”  Although the solar horns {the Imperial portraits} shine forth with such dazzling brilliance, yet the gracious Imperial faces are so gentle that they may be gazed upon at a distance of less than a foot.

Id. p. 60.  Eastern Christians in ancient China perceived great power in images of Chinese emperors.  That they also perceived such power in sacred Christian figural images is also highly probable.

[5] The Xi’an Stele itself attributes its erection, with a Syrian-language attribution, to “Lord Yazedbouzid, priest and chorepiscopus of Kumdan, the {Chinese} Royal city.”  Id. p. 68.  Yazedbouzid was the son of a church leader in the central-Asian city of Balkh.  The spiritual power that early Christians in China attributed to images was probably representative of Christians’ beliefs across Asia.

[6] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910), vol. 1, p. 123.   Al-Biruni is probably referring to Marian icons imported from Syria to Arabia before Islam.

[7] Gabriel of Qatraye, Commentary on the Liturgy, sec. 45-6, trans. Brock (2003) pp. 211-2.

[8] Brock (2003) pp. 200-1, describing the contents of the unpublished manuscript Vatican Borg. Syr. 81.

[9] Religious competition in China about 600 was particularly diverse and vigorous.  Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Manichaeism all competed for adherents.  Jews also lived in China.  Moreover, within these individual conventional labels of religions were many competing groups of believers.

[10] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910), vol. 1, p. 111.

[11] Id. vol. 2, p. 169.  The Shahnameh, written from 980 to 1010 in the Central-Asian Samanid and Ghaznavid empires, describes Mani as a “painter’ and “image maker” who was a “man from China.”  In the Shahnameh, the chief (Zoroastrian) priest of King Shapur Zu’l Aktaf says to Mani:

You love images; why do you foolishly strive with God in this way … Why do you put such trust in images, ignoring the advice of the prophets?  Images are multiple, but God is one, and you have no choice but to submit to him.  If you could make your images move, then you could say that this is a demonstration of the truth of what you say.  But don’t you see that such a demonstration would fail?  No one is going to believe your claims.

Shahnameh, trans. Davis (2007) p. 598.  The Zoroastrian priest speaks here as a good Muslim.  The concern about making images move suggests that Mani or his followers made such claims about images.

[12] From the inscription of Kirder on the Ka’ba-yi Zardusht (composed under Vahram II, 276-293 GC), trans. Boyce (1984) pp. 112-3.  The inscription itself describes Kirder in various ways, including Kirder the Mobad of Ohrmazd, and Kirder the Herbad.

[13] Id.

[14] Brubaker & Haldon (2011), esp. pp. 58-60, 777.

[15] See, e.g. Tertullian’s De idolatria (On idolatry).

[16] Travel notes of Joannes de Marignolis, ed. and trans. Yule & Cordier (1913), vol. III (no. 37) p. 264.  The underlying Latin text describing the offending items is “abhominantur larvas, facies, et horrendas sculpturas sicut sunt in ecclesiis.”  The term “larvas,” translated above as “images,” is probably better translated in this context as “crucifixes.”

[17] Marco Polo, The Description of the World, trans. Moule & Pelliot (1938) pp. 349-350 (Ch. 156, “Here he tells of the city of Fugiu {Fuzhou}”).  The story of the Chinese crypto-Christians is found only in the fourteenth-century Latin Z manuscript, discovered in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932. Scholars regard that story as authentic to Marco Polo.

[18] Lieu (2012) p. 34.  Id states:

Undoubtedly, there were very large numbers of foreign Christians, especially members of the Church of the East, in China under the Mongols, but some of the surviving material from Quanzhou, especially inscriptions on simple tombstones which are entirely in Chinese, is inexplicable in the context of a religion predominately adhered to by foreigners.

A Christian monk who identified himself with the city of Najran traveled in India and China from 980-987 at the order of a Christian bishop.  Reporting his personal conversation with the monk in late tenth-century Baghdad, al-Nadim wrote:

{The monk said that} the Christians who used to be in the land of China had disappeared and perished for various reasons, so that only one man remained in the entire country. He mentioned that they had had a church there which was destroyed. He said, “When I saw that there were none to whom I could give support in their religion, I returned in less time than I had gone.

Al-Nadim‘s Fihrist, trans. Dodge (1970) v. 2, p. 837.  The monk’s statement shouldn’t be interpreted literally.  The monk probably traveled only to Xi’an, the historic center of Christianity in China.  Under persecution, Christians plausibly would have deserted Xi’an and moved elsewhere in China.  A sutra-stele discovered at Luoyang in 2006 dates itself to 829. It has flying figures of angels flanking a cross on a lotus flower.  The continuity between that iconography and the iconography of Christian tombstones in fourteenth-century Zayton (Quanzhou) indicates continuous Chinese Christian culture from the ninth century to the fourteenth century.  On the art at Quanzhou, see Parry (2012).  For recent scholarly discussion of the Jingjiao Stone Pillar from Luoyang, see the program of the 3rd International Conference on the Church of the East in China and Central Asia, June 4-9, 2009, Salzburg, Austria.  The program photo shows only the cross, not the flying angels.  The flying angels have iconography similar to a Buddhist flying apsara from Dunhuang.

[19] The Cao’an Temple on Huabiao Hill in Jinjiang City, Fujian, is a rare surviving Manichaean temple currently used for Buddhist worship. It includes a large statute of Mani worshipped as the Buddha of Light.  This informative article includes photos of the Cao’an Temple on Huabiao Hill and the Mani Buddha of Light sculpture.

[20]  The imperial edict of 638 giving Christians freedom in China names Christianity as “The Way.”  The imperial edict of 745, which renamed Christian monasteries from “Persian monasteries” to “Roman monasteries” (Da Qin or Ta-Ch’in) names Christianity as the “Luminous Religion” (Jingjiao).  Source texts, trans. Saiki (1951), App. II & III, pp. 456-7.  The phrase “the way, and the truth, and the life” is from John 14:6.  Christian Chinese documents from the Tang era use the name “Roman Luminous Religion” (Da Qin jingjiao).   Tang administrators often used the term “Roman religion” (Qinjiao) when referring to the Church of the East.  Lieu (2012) pp. 27-8.  Tang-era Chinese Christian texts described Christianity with terms and concepts closely associated with Taoism and Buddhism.  Raguin (2002).  For detailed discussion of historical usage of the terms “Da Qin” and “jingjiao” in China, see Lieu (2009).

References:

Boyce, Mary. 1984. Textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books.

Brock, Sebastian P. 2003. “Gabriel of Qatar’s Commentary on the Liturgy.” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, vol. 6.2, pp. 197-248.

Brubaker, Leslie, and John F. Haldon. 2011. Byzantium in the iconoclast era (c. 680-850): a history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Charbonnier, Jean. 2007. Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000. San Francisco, Calif: Ignatius Press.

Davis, Dick, trans. 2007. Firdawsī.  Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings. London: Penguin.

Dodge, Bayard Dodge. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Horne, Charles F., ed.  1917.  The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East.  New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb; Vol. XII, Medieval China, pp. 381-392 (Xi’an Stele translation).

Johnson, Todd M., and Sun Young Chung. 2004. “Tracking Global Christianity’s Statistical Centre of Gravity, AD 33 – AD 2100.” International Review of Mission. 93 (369), pp. 166-181.

Lieu, Samuel N.C. 2012. “3. The Church of the East in Quanzhou.” In Lieu, Samuel N. C. 2012. Medieval Christian and Manichaean remains from Quanzhou (Zayton). Turnhout: Brepols.

Lieu, Samuel N.C. 2009.  “Epigraphica Nestoriana Serica.”  Iranica: Herausgegeben von Maria Macuch, Band 17.  Harrassowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden.

Mingana, Alphonse. 1925. The early spread of Christianity in central Asia and the Far East: a new document. Manchester: University Press.

Moule, A. C. and Paul Pelliot. 1938. Marco Polo. The Description of the World.  2 vol. G. Routledge & Sons: London.

Parry, Ken. 2012. “11. The Art of the Christian Remains at Quanzhou.” In Lieu, Samuel N.C. 2012. Medieval Christian and Manichaean remains from Quanzhou (Zayton). Turnhout: Brepols.

Raguin, Yves. 2002. “Jesus-Messiah of Xi’an.” Tripod, v. 22., no. 124.

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Saeki, Yoshiro. 1951. The Nestorian documents and relics in China. Tokyo: Toho Bunkwa Gakuin: Academy of Oriental Culture, Tokyo Institute.

Seray, Hamad Bin. 1997. “The Arabian Gulf in Syriac Sources.”  Pp. 205-232 in Smart, J.R., G. Rex Smith, B.R. Pridham. Majallat Al-dirāsāt Al-ʻArabīyah Al-jadīdah. New Arabian studies 4. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Yule, Henry and Henri Cordier, trans. and eds. 1913. Odorico, Rashīd al-Dīn Ṭabīb, Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, Joannes de Marignolis, Ibn Batuta, and Bento de Góis. Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society.

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Galen analogized godly man to Hermes herm

herm of Demothenes, but similar to those of Hermes

Humans have long heroically aspired to connect levels of knowledge from molecules to man to cosmology.  In the second century, Galen produced a huge corpus of scholarly work ranging from detailed material concerns about medicinal substances to highly abstract cosmological reasoning.  Holding together all that knowledge wasn’t a clear Galenic theoretical consilience.[1]  Although obscured within enlightened scholarship, Galen’s appreciation for poetic form seems to have structured his wide-ranging knowledge.[2]  In one fascinating and sophisticated passage, Galen conceptualizes and moralizes a classical fable about a Hermes statue to connect material to spirit.

Galen recites the fable about the Hermes statue in an expository work on dispositions.  This book survives only in an Arabic translation.[3]  The book generally concerns behavioral effects of a tripartite soul’s governance.  Galen explicitly disavows philosophical-linguistic precision in the analysis:

I have shown there {in another of Galen’s books} that man possesses something that is responsible for thought, something else that is responsible for anger and a third thing that is responsible for desire.  It makes no difference how I refer to these three things in this book, whether as separate souls, as part of the one human soul or as three different faculties of the same essence.  I shall, in fact, in this book, call that which is responsible for thought “the rational soul” and “the cogitative soul,” whether it be a separate soul, a part or a faculty; I shall call that which is responsible for anger “the passionate soul” or “the animal soul” and that which is responsible for desire “the appetitive soul” or “the vegetative soul”. [4]

The best disposition results from the rational soul instructing the passionate soul to subdue the appetitive soul.  To be good, a man should form his soul to have that order.

Although a man’s soul is tripartite, the essence of a man, according to Galen, is the rational soul.  Galen argues that the body is only an instrument.  If a man’s hands and feet are cut off, he is still a man.  So too, according to Galen, if he is stripped of other bodily members and even deprived of his whole body.  Taking the argument further, Galen argues that the man remains even if he sheds his passionate and appetitive souls:

If, being freed from these two souls at the same time as you are freed from the body, you are able to be intelligent and understanding, as clever philosophers claim for man’s state after death, you must know that your way of life after your release from the body will be like that of the angels.  Even if you are not convinced that the intelligence that is in you does not die, you should, nevertheless, in no way slacken your efforts, as long as you live, to make your way of life like that of the angels. [5]

In the above Galenic text preserved in Arabic under monotheistic Islam, the word “angels” surely represents the word “gods” in the original Greek.  Gods, according to Galen, despise worldly pleasures and do not need to eat and drink.  While not staking a position on immortality of the (human, rational) soul, Galen urges humans in earthly life to imitate gods by restricting themselves “to what is absolutely necessary for the life of the body.”[6]

In this exhortative context, Galen invokes the fable about the Hermes statue.  Galen places a tendentious dichotomy immediately before the fable:

You have a choice between honoring your soul by making it like the angels {gods} and treating it contemptuously by making it like the brute beasts.[7]

Galen introduces the fable with the generic attribution “It is said….”[8]  Here is what is said:

two men simultaneously went to a seller of idols and bargained with him for the same idol representing Hermes.  One of them intended to set it up in a temple, in honour of Hermes, and the other intended to erect it over a tomb, in remembrance of a dead man.  They could not come to an agreement about buying it that day and so they postponed the business until the next.  The seller of idols dreamt that night that the idol said to him: “O excellent man, I am now something that you have made.  I have taken on a likeness that is attributed to a star, and I am now no longer called ‘a stone’ as I used to be, but I am called ‘Hermes’.  You must choose now whether to make me a memorial to something that does not decay or to something that has already decayed.[9]

Galen provides his own epimythium immediately following the fable:

This is what I say to those who seek to investigate their own souls; their decision, however, is greater than in the case of an idol, since no-one else has any jurisdiction over them, for they are free and masters of their will.  It is right that someone who is in this situation should place his soul in the highest rank of honour; there is no honour greater than that of imitating God, so far as is possible for a human being.  This is achieved by despising worldly pleasures and preferring the Beautiful.

The fable itself is nearly identical to a fable attributed to Aesop and included in an early Greek fable collection.[10]  In the Galenic text in Arabic under Islam, the word “star” surely represents “god” in the original non-Christian Greek; the word “idol” surely a less monotheistically freighted word such as “statue”; and “seller of idols” probably referred without opprobrium to a figurative sculptor working commercially.  Moreover, in ancient Greek hermes means both the god Hermes and a herm, a sculpture with a torso or head attached atop a lengthwise-standing rectangular base.  Use of the ancient Greek homonym hermes (stone/god) adds wit and poignancy to the phrase “I am now no longer called ‘a stone’ {herm} as I used to be, but I am called ‘Hermes’.”[11] Galen’s prefatory dichotomy and his epimythium make clear the right choice for the sculptor: sell the stone statue to the man who wants to make it part of a temple of the god Hermes.

Galen makes broad conceptual use of the fable about the Hermes statue.  The speaking Hermes statue is a piece of stone, but also more than a stone.  It is like a rational soul in a physical human body.  The choice for the deployment of the statue is more than a choice among different uses of a stone memorial, for the stone itself speaks.[12]  In the fable preserved in Greek, the Hermes herm declares to its sculptor:

Well, my fate hangs in the balance: it is up to you whether I will become a dead man or a god! [13]

Galen explicitly relates that choice to a man’s choice in ordering his tripartite soul to be like a “brute breast” or a god.  The brute beast, the dead man, and the decaying human body in a tomb figure a person with a badly ordered soul.  Placing oneself in a godly temple means ordering one’s soul to become like a statue consecrated to Hermes, with one’s rational soul imitating the god Hermes associated with the material statue.  The idea is like the Christian claim that a Christian’s body is a temple of the holy spirit.[14]  Centuries of philosophical battle have created opposing fronts of materialism and dualism.  For Galen, no such battles occur within what today would be called a fable of conventional pagan idolatry.

Galen had little regard for poetic innovation.  Galen favored among poets the classical poet-dramatists Euripides and Aristophanes.  Galen produced a dictionary of words from Old Comedy and forty-eight large books on words from classical prose works.  Galen’s lexicons were intended clarify the meaning and use of words, including technical terms.[15]  Hellenistic poetry, in contrast, Galen scarcely mentioned across all his work.  He seems to have implicitly ridiculed Hellenistic love elegy.  Galen valued poetic form as an existing feature of the world.  He valued little inspired poets stretching words into new, unclear uses.[16]

In his deployment of the Hermes fable, Galen implicitly challenged the poetic legacy of the pioneering and celebrated Alexandrian scholar-poet Philitas of Cos.  Philitas compiled a book of “unruly tongues”: anomalous meanings, words from the margins, and exotic lore.[17]  That project worked at an opposite scholarly pole from Galen’s massive work on lexicons and Galen’s concern to avoid ambiguity in language.  Philitas had a reputation as a scholar so engrossed in his work that he would forget to eat and drink.  A Greek rhetorician and grammarian writing about the time of Galen exploited Philitas’ enduring reputation for abstruse learning and emaciation to tease another:

Ulpian, you always refuse to take your share of food until you’ve learned whether the word for that dish is ancient.  Like Philitas of Cos, therefore, . . . you risk withering away some day.  For he became utterly emaciated through these studies and died, as the epigram in front of his memorial makes clear:
“Stranger, I am Philitas. The deceiving word caused my death,
and the evening’s thoughts extended deep into the night.” [18]

Galen urged rational control of the appetitive soul.  He did not intend that a person with a well-governed soul would be the butt of thin jokes and die from starvation.[19]  Galen’s invocation of the fable about the Hermes statue contrasts with an early Hellenistic epigram about a statue honoring Philitas:

Hecataeus made this bronze like Philitas in every way,
   accurate down to the tips of his toes
in size and frame alike describing this investigator
   on a human scale. He included nothing from the physique of heroes.
No, with the straightedge of truth and all his skill he cast
   the old man full of cares.
He seems about to speak — how fully his features are elaborated! —
   alive, though of bronze, this old man:
I stand here dedicated by Ptolemy, god and king at once,
   for the sake of the Muses, the Coan man. [20]

In this epigram, men become like gods through being a great political leader (Ptolemy), or through a great political leader’s recognizing a great poet (Philitas) for the sake of other gods.  Galen the scholar-physician did not celebrate such persons.  Unlike the Hermes herm, the statue of Philitas is full-length and accurately depicts the deceased man.  Galen, in contrast, instructed persons on how to reform themselves to become like a god in soul rather than in physique.  Both the statues of Hermes and Philitas speak.  Statues coming alive and speaking was a well-established literary convention in Hellenistic epigrams.  In the Hermes fable, the statue spoke in a dream.[21]  Galen didn’t admire the Hermes fable as inspired poetic imagination.  He valued it as an ancient popular poetic form for instructing readers in the connection between universal human nature and a godly man’s soul.

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Related posts:

Notes:

[1] Singer (1997), p. 526, noted that Mario Vergetti described:

a clear discrepancy {in the Galenic corpus} between the anatomical-physiological model of a body functioning perfectly and in accordance with its divine nature, and the humoral-pathological model of a body composed of a mixture of elements and continually susceptible to illness.

Id.  inquired:

do the different kinds of Galenic text entail different – conflicting or incommensurable – physical theories, or are they to be explained as manifestations of a single underlying theory, the differences arising from context?

Id., p. 541, tentatively concluded that, with respect to levels of analysis, Galen exhibits “constant, inquisitive inconclusiveness.”

[2] The importance of rhetoric and poetry in scientifically styled works, e.g. E. O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge and The Social Conquest of Earth, is greatly under-appreciated.

[3] Hunayn ibn Ishaq translated the book into Arabic before 842.  Stern (1956) comprehensively describes the Arabic sources.  Mattock (1972) is an English translation.  In Arabic transliteration the book is known as Kitab al-akhlaq, in Greek Περὶ ἠθω̑ν, transliterated, Peri Ethon; in Latin, De Moribus or De Indole Animae (Sachau’s translation of al-Biruni’s attribution); and in English, On Traits of Character, The Ethics or On Ethics, or On Dispositions.  Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, HP p. 189, records an Arabic translations of Galen: “‘On Morals,’ in four chapters, describing different moral defects, their causes, symptoms and ways to counteract them.”  This description probably refers to Peri Ethon, which is in four chapters.

[4] Galen, Peri Ethon, trans. Mattock (1972) p. 237.  The other book is Galen’s The Views of Hippocrates and Plato.

[5] Id. p. 248.   The word “angels” is probably an Islamic replacement for the underlying Greek term “gods.”  The eleventh-century Muslim scholar Al-Biruni noted, “We have already mentioned that they {Greeks} called the angels gods.”  He also recorded and noted:

Johannes Grammaticus says in his refutation of Proclus : “The Greeks gave the name of gods to the visible bodies in heaven, as many barbarians do. Afterwards, when they came to philosophise on the abstract ideas of the world of thought, they called these by the name of gods.”

Hence we must necessarily infer that being deified means something like the state of angels, according to our notions.

Trans. Sachau (1910) vol. 1, pp. 95, 36.  See in subsequent quote above an example of the replacement of “god” with “star” in the Arabic translation of the Greek.

[6] Id. p. 248-9.

[7] Id. p. 249 (including previous two quotes).

[8] Galen often explicitly marks verbatim quotation.  He frequently does so with the phrase kata lexin (in these words).  Totelin (2012), p. 310.  “kata lexin” is a plausible Greek source phrase for “it is said” above.

[9] Galen, Peri Ethon, trans. Mattock (1972) p. 249.  Al-Biruni’s Indica quotes the fable from Galen, but doesn’t include Galen’s epimythium.  See trans. Sachau (1910) v. I, pp. 123-4.   In Galen, metaphor is “conspicuously associated with linguistic, scientific, communicative, and moral failure,” yet Galen frequently uses metaphors. von Staden (1995) pp. 500, 504-5, 517.  Peri Ethon includes many metaphors, including unusual animal metaphors for a tripartite soul’s functioning.  Galen favored historical linguistic study and “traditional, ordinary, literal usage.”  Id. p. 516.  The Hermes herm as a metaphor for the soul and man has the Galenic merit of being derived from traditional, popular moral teaching (Aesop).

[10] Laura Gibb’s wonderful Aesopica website provides the fable, entitled “Hermes, the Sculptor and His Dream,” in English translation (in conjunction with Gibbs (2002)) and in Greek and Latin source texts.  Babrius, the earliest source text (Greek), is dated between the third century BGC and the third century GC.   Galen’s use of the fable suggests that it has classical-era origins, or earlier.  Honoring statues of Hermes is a motif that appears in four other fables attributed to Aesop:  Hermes and the Statues, Hermes and the Dog, The Statue of Hermes and the Treasure, and The Man and the Statue of Hermes.  The Aesop fable The Donkey Who Carried the God concerns an unidentified carved image of a god.

[11] In On Sophisms in Diction (De sophism), Galen explicitly itemized and deplored homonymies as one of seven sources of “lexical and sentential ambiguity.”  von Staden (1994) p. 514.   Just as for metaphors, Galen seems willing to use a homonym if it is associated with traditional, popular language.   The statue’s homonymic statement isn’t in Babrius’ transmission of the Aesop fable.  It may well be a Galenic insertion serving Galen’s implicit thrust against innovative Hellenistic epigram and elegy.  Id., p. 515, notes in Galen “a dense texture of historical intertextuality — an intertextuality which often, though far from always, is strongly agonal.”

[12] Walzer (1954), p. 250, in a remarkably tendentious reading of Galen’s Hermes fable, declares:

The hand of a philosopher, of the Porch or the Academy, is also to be noticed in a small but significant detail in the fable as reported by Galen. The idol of Hermes is to be a ‘memorial’ of the god: its function is to remind people of his existence.  In no other way can image worship be maintained and defended in an enlightened age.  The image has no longer any magical powers, but human nature is too weak to do without this symbolic representation of the divine if it is not to forget about it.

Moreover, id., pp. 243-4, misreads al-Biruni’s quotation of Galen amid al-Biruni’s discussion of Greek and Hindu idolatry:

It interested him {al-Biruni} that the figure of Hermes was to be a memorial of the deceased man or a memorial of a god, and nothing else but a memorial, and for this reason alone he quoted Galen.

Al-Biruni would have been sympathetic with Walzer’s apparent intellectual bias, but al-Biruni treated the texts less tendentiously.

[13] Aesop, “Hermes, the Sculptor and His Dream,” Greek text of Babrius, trans. Gibbs (2002).

[14] 1 Corinthian 6:19.

[15] De Lacy (1966) p. 265.  Galen’s newly recovered work, On the Avoidance of Grief, sec. 20, 23b-28, indicates the importance that Galen attached to these lexicons.  Trans. Rothschild & Thompson (2011).  Galen’s concern for linguistic clarity is also apparent in Galen’s On Fallacies, trans. Edlow (1977).

[16] Totelin (2012), pp. 312-3, observes:

the verse recipe (elegiac couplets) for Theriac by Andromachus the Elder, which Galen transmits in Antidotes, is so unclear that it warrants a rendition into prose (by Andromachus the Younger) and into ‘simpler’ verse (by Damocrates). According to modern standards, the poetry of Andromachus is more beautiful, and for that reason it has been studied more, but it is Damocrates’ plain Iambic poetry that appealed to Galen. … Galen tends to appreciate poetry less for its beauty than for its utility: Damocrates’ poetry is more useful for didactic purposes than that of Andromachus and therefore more praiseworthy.

[17] Bing (2003) provides detailed discussion and the characterization of this work.

[18] Id. pp. 331-3, quoting Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 9.401d-e.  See id. pp. 331-3 for further discussion of the “emaciated professor.”

[19] Cameron (1995) App. B. discusses thin-person jokes, which were common in ancient comedy. Bing (2003), p. 333, points out that the specific figure of the emaciated professor seems to have emerged in early Hellenistic elegy and epigram.

[20] Id. pp. 331-2, quoting an epigram of Posidippus on a statue of Philitas of Cos (“the Coan man”), from the newly discovered Milan Papyrus, P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 (ancient Greek source text, translations into modern languages).  Speaking, seemingly alive statues are a motif in Hellenistic epigram.  See, e.g. the Andriantopoiika section of the Milan Papyrus.

[21] Galen personally reported receiving in a dream instruction from Asclepius.  Oberhelman (1983) p. 37 observes:

Dreams are fully incorporated into Galen’s medical science and play an active role in his treatment of illnesses. They also proved to be of crucial importance for him personally throughout his life and career.

The Aesop epigram that Babrius transmits also has Hermes speaking to the sculptor in a dream, but Hermes speaks more extensively in Galen’s version.

References:

Bing, Peter. 2003. “The Unruly Tongue: Philitas of Cos as Scholar and Poet.”  Classical Philology. 98 (4): 330-348.

Cameron, Alan. 1995. Callimachus and his critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

De Lacy, Phillip. 1966.  “Galen and the Greek Poets.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies.  7(3): 259-266.

Edlow, Robert Blair. 1977. Galen on language and ambiguity: an English translation of Galen’s “De captionibus (On fallacies)” with introduction, text, and commentary. Leiden: Brill.

Gibbs, Laura. 2002. Aesop’s Fables: A new translation. Oxford University Press (World’s Classics): Oxford.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Mattock, J.N. 1972.  “A Translation of the Arabic Epitome of Galen’s Book Peri Ethon.” Stern, Samuel M., and Richard Walzer.  Islamic philosophy and the classical tradition: essays presented by his friends and pupils to Richard Walzer on his 70th birthday. Oxford: Cassirer.

Oberhelman, Steven M. 1983. “Galen, On Diagnosis from Dreams.”  Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 38 (1): 36-47.

Rothschild, Clare K, and Trevor W. Thompson. 2011. “Galen: ‘On the Avoidance of Grief.’” Early Christianity, vol. 2, pp. 110–129.

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Singer, P. N. 1997. “Levels of Explanation in Galen.” Classical Quarterly. 47 (2): 525-542.

Stern, S. M. 1956. “Some Fragments of Galen’s on Dispositions (Περὶ ἠθω̑ν) in Arabic.”  Classical Quarterly. 6 (2): 91-101.

Totelin, Laurence M.V. 2012. “And to end on a poetic note: Galen’s authorial strategies in the pharmacological books.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A. 43 (2): 307-315.

von Staden, Heinrich. 1995. “Science as text, science as history: Galen on metaphor.” Pp. 499-518 in Ph.J. van der Eijk, H.F.J. Horstmanshoff & P.H. Schrijvers, eds.  Ancient medicine in its social and cultural context.  Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Walzer, R. 1954. “A Diatribe of Galen.” The Harvard Theological Review. 47 (4): 243-254.

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al-Biruni treats Hindu idolatry like ancient Greco-Roman idolatry

By the early eleventh century, Greco-Roman thought was much more respected and eagerly studied in the Islamic world than was Hindu thought.  One obstacle to Muslims engaging with Hindus was Muslims’ perception that Hindus worshiped idols.   In his monumental work on India, early-eleventh-century Muslim scholar al-Biruni described Hindu idolatry as similar to Greco-Roman idolatry.  Greco-Roman idolatry caused little intellectual and religious concern to Muslims.  In al-Biruni’s view, Hindu idolatry likewise should cause little intellectual and religious concern to Muslims.

While both Christians and Muslims were adept at recasting ancient Greeks as proto-coreligionists, al-Biruni showed more respect for the fullness of truth. Al-Biruni described ancient Greek belief in “the First Cause,” which can be analogized to belief in the one God of Islam.  Al-Biruni declared that Plato wrote:

God is in the single number; there are no gods in the plural number.[1]

Nonetheless, al-Biruni also reported that the ancient Greeks believed in spirits that ruled the world in various ways: “they called them gods, built temples in their names and offered them sacrifices.”  According to al-Biruni, Galen, who was the leading medical authority in the ancient Islamic world, described Asclepius and Dionysos as divine beings.  Al-Biruni also transmitted Galen’s story of a stone statue of Hermes.  That stone statue spoke to its maker in a dream and declared, “Now I am no longer a stone.”  Al-Biruni also noted that the ancient Greeks used the word apotheosis “which has a bad sound in the ears of Muslims.”[2]  Greco-Roman non-Christian religion had largely vanished by the time of the coming of Islam.  Greco-Roman idolatry was thus easy for Muslims to ignore.  Al-Biruni, in contrast, described many Greco-Roman beliefs and practices that would offend Muslim beliefs.

Sol Invictus, an idol of the late Roman Empire

Hindu beliefs and practices, in al-Biruni’s view, were much like those of the ancient Greeks.  Al-Biruni described Hindus as recognizing seven classes of spiritual beings who continually quarrel and fight.   They occasionally had intercourse with human beings.  Al-Biruni observed:

If you compare these {Hindu} traditions with those of the Greek regarding their own religion, you will cease to find the Hindu system strange.  We have already mentioned that they called the angels gods.  Now consider their stories about Zeus, and you will understand the truth of our remark. … {Zeus} married certain women one after the other, doing violence to them and not marrying them, among them Europa, the daughter of Phoenix, who was taken from him by Asterios, king of Crete.  [3]

Those stories attribute to Zeus “anthropomorphisms and traits of animal life.”  Moreover, according to al-Biruni, “Brahman {apparently meaning a Hindu god} is described in the same way as Zeus by Aratos {Aratus}.”[4]  Al-Biruni’s accounts of Hindu gods and Greeks gods aren’t coherent.  But al-Biruni’s primary point is that both Hinduism and ancient Greek religion fall short of Islam in similar ways.

Al-Biruni emphasized the importance of elite beliefs.  The Greek scholars and Greek philosophers that Muslim scholars translated and studied were Greek elites.  Al-Biruni directed attention away from popular Indian practices, towards learned Hindu thinking:

The educated among the Hindus abhor anthropomorphisms of this kind, but the crowd and the members of the single sects use them most extensively. They go even beyond all we have hitherto mentioned, so as to speak of wife, son, daughter, of the rendering pregnant and other physical processes, all in connection with God. They are even so little pious, that, when speaking of these things, they do not even abstain from silly and unbecoming language. However, nobody minds these classes and their theories, though they be numerous. The main and most essential point of the Hindu world of thought is that which the Brahmans think and believe, for they are specially trained for preserving and maintaining their religion. [5]

Indian elite texts described in detail the construction of idols.  In al-Biruni’s view, these texts illustrate “how the crowd is kept in thraldom by all kinds of priestly tricks and deceits.”  Al-Biruni reported that these elite tactics had great effects:

When the ignorant crowd get a piece of good luck by accident or something at which they had aimed, and when with this some of the preconcerted tricks of the priests are brought into connection, the darkness in which they live increases vastly, not their intelligence.  They will rush to those figures of idols, maltreating their own figures before them by shedding their own blood and mutilating their own bodies.[6]

Such idol-worship al-Biruni excused more than condemned.  It indicated common, ignorant persons being exploited.

Al-Biruni saw economic exploitation of idols and idol-worshiping as preferable to some other alternatives.  When Islamic warriors invaded Sicily in the mid-seventh century, they captured “golden idols adorned with crowns and diamonds.”  The (Muslim) Caliph didn’t destroy the idols.  He ordered the idols to be sent to India to be sold there.  Al-Biruni approvingly observed:

for he thought it best to sell them as objects costing sums of so-and-so many denars, not having the slightest scruple on account of their being objects of abominable idolatry, but simply considering the matter from a political, not from a religious point of view. [7]

Similarly, when Muslims conquered the Indian city Multan about 712, they didn’t destroy Multan’s main Hindu idol, which attracted many visitors and much money.  Instead, the Muslims took a share of ongoing revenue from the idol.   About 986, an Ismaili army seized control of Multan in battle among Muslim forces.  The new, Ismaili ruler of Multan destroyed the idol.  Al-Biruni described this new ruler as “the usurper” and approvingly noted that “the blessed Prince Mahmud swept away their rule.”[8]  Al-Biruni seemed to regard economically exploiting an idol to be preferable to destroying it.

Al-Biruni favored ignoring idols intellectually.  Al-Biruni reported ancient Greek devotion to more than one god and ancient Greek use of idols as mediators and embodiments of gods.  Such practices encompassed Plato and Galen, Greco-Roman thinkers highly respected in the Islamic world.[9]  Al-Biruni’s solution to this troubling strand of Greco-Roman thought was Aristotle’s wisdom, taken from legends of Alexander the Great.   According to these legends, Alexander the Great sought help from Aristotle in addressing a Brahman’s criticism of Greek idolatry.  Aristotle reportedly answered the Brahman for Alexander:

If you maintain that some Greeks have fabled that the idols speak, that the people offer to them and think them to be spiritual beings, of all this we have no knowledge, and we cannot give a sentence on a subject we do not know.

“I don’t know” is truly a classic legal defense.  Al-Biruni warmly approved this Aristotelian wisdom:

In these words he {Aristotle} rises high above the class of fools and uneducated people, and he indicates by them that he does not occupy himself with such things.[10]

Al-Biruni wanted Muslim scholars to treat concerns about Hindu idolatry according to Aristotle’s wisdom, and to study Hindu thought as seriously as they studied Greco-Roman thought.

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Related posts:

Notes:

[1] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) p. 35.

[2] Id. pp. 34, 35, 124, 36.

[3] Id. pp. 91, 95, 96.

[4] Id. pp. 95, 97.

[5] Id. p. 39.

[6] Id. pp. 122, 123.

[7] Id. p. 124.  Lavish, pre-Islamic venerating of statues is important for understanding Byzantine iconoclasm.

[8] Id. pp. 116-7.  Muhammad ibn al-Qasim was the initial Muslim conqueror of Multan.  According to al-Biruni:

he thought it best to have the idol where it was, but he hung a piece of cow’s-flesh on its neck by way of mockery.

Id. Hanging cow-flesh on a Hindu idol probably would have destroyed its revenue-generating potential in attracting Hindu pilgrims.  Elsewhere al-Biruni noted:

they {Hindus} never desire that a thing which once has been polluted should be purified and thus recovered, as, under ordinary circumstances, if anybody or anything has become unclean, he or it would strive to regain the state of purity.

Id. p 20.  The claim about hanging cow-flesh on the idol may have been a fiction intended to assuage Muslim concern about economically exploiting the idol rather than destroying it.  The ravaging of India by Mahmud of Gazna (“blessed Prince Mahmud”) seems to have generally appalled al-Biruni.  For more on the temple of Multan, see Friedmann (1972).

[9] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) pp. 123-4.  Al-Biruni quotes loosely from Plato’s Laws (Bk. 4) and closely from the surviving Arabic translation of Galen’s De Moribus (Ethics), which al-Biruni calls De Indole Animae.

[10] Trans. Sachau (1910) p. 124.  A Hebrew text written in fourteenth century France — one of the many, different, surviving manuscripts of the Alexander legends — has the Brahman King Dindimus write to Alexander:

We, the Brahmans, do not slaughter sheep and oxen for the glory and honor of the gods. We do not build temples in order to place images and idols of silver and gold in them. We do not do as you do.

Trans. Bonfils & Kazis (1962) p. 140.  Similar to the wisdom that al-Biruni records from Aristotle is part of a fourth-century saying of the desert monk Abba Sopatras:

Do not get involved in discussions about the image.  Although this is not heresy, there is too much ignorance and liking for dispute between the two parties in this matter. It is impossible for a creature to understand the truth of it.

Trans. Ehrman & Jacobs (2004) p. 306.

References:

Bonfils, Immanuel ben Jacob, and Israel Joseph Kazis. 1962. The book of the gests of Alexander of Macedon: a mediaeval Hebrew version of the Alexander romance. Cambridge, Mass: Mediaeval Academy of America.

Ehrman, Bart D., and Andrew S. Jacobs. 2004. Christianity in late antiquity, 300-450 C.E.: a reader. New York: Oxford University Press.

Friedmann, Yohanan. 1972. “The temple of Multan: a note on early Muslim attitudes to idolatry.” Israel Oriental Studies, 2, 176-182

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

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