16 Comments

  1. This piece is excellent work. You’re doing a good job of showing us how our modern minds still can relate to the quirks of medieval thought. I also appreciate the discussion of chimeras in sacred space – such as the four cherubim. It reminds me of western fairy tales, in which the unicorn is the guardian of the sacred.

    Almost every Byzantine church had a pair of griffins flanking a cross carved on the door lintel. In Greek mythology, griffins were guardians of great treasure and semi-divine. They provided protection to the church, and yet they are still monsters, and quite fearsome. It has been demonstrated pretty convincingly that the ancient Greeks modeled their griffins on fossils of the protoceratops dinosaur, which were abundant in Greece. At the Delphi museum, they have sculptures of griffins from the ancient oracle temple displayed alongside the fossils. The resemblance is perfect.

    Where one person might say that this disproves the real existence of griffins, I would suggest that rather the Greeks had fossils to prove their existence! They basically had scientific proof of griffins. We just call things by other names now.

    I very much look forward to the next installment.

    1. I didn’t know that griffins where used so extensively in Byzantine churches. Someone recently pointed out to me that griffin is a cognate of cherubim, and you can see it in the word if you know how the “K” is vocalised into a “G” and the “P” can slip into an “F” sound and be vocalised into a “B” or a “V”. The question of fossils are probably similar for dragons, and this is very related to the whole discussion. What is very far in the past or the future acts temporally as a periphery does in space. So both the extreme past and future, are what can be found in the extreme distance. Today, we have the narrative of a future in outer space, so nothing has changed.

  2. I really enjoy this blog, and I have particularly enjoyed this article, and Part 1 as well. I’m looking forward to Part 3!

    I sense from your explanations that you might be familiar with the metaphysical school of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, particularly as expounded by Charles Upton (a Muslim Sufi) in his Vectors of the Counter-Initiation: The Course and Destiny of Inverted Spirituality, and also his The System of Antichrist: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and the New Age.

    His wife Jennifer (also, formerly, a Sufi, now converted to Orthodoxy via the Russian tradition) also covers these topics in her excellent work Dark Way to Paradise: Dante’s Inferno in Light of the Spiritual Path. In addition, this book covers the concepts of symbolic “hybridizations” quite thoroughly (as Dante uses this kind of symbolism all over the place).

    If you are not familiar with these, I highly recommend them. They are quite well written! But as I said, judging from this article, it seems as though you have already read them. Am I guessing correctly? 🙂

    (Note: sorry if there are multiple copies of this comment. WordPress is not confirming submission. This is the last one I’ll try, and is to be considered the final edition also.)

  3. Thank you for your comment. Yes, I am familiar with all these people. Though I have never read their books, I corresponded extensively with both Charles and Jennifer over ten years ago, but I have lost contact with them since. I find much to think about in the works of Guénon especially, though I have to admit that I have taken a certain distance from that intellectual environment to focus on Christian symbolism as lived in the Church. There is a certain overt universalism and “meta-religion” which in my opinion can become counterproductive to the spiritual life.

    1. I agree regarding the “meta-religion”‘s counter-productivity. In fact, Charles stresses over and over again in Vectors that he considers it highly important that whatever Tradition the person enters, he or she should consider that the only True path as far as they are concerned, and do their best to follow it without admixture. How he reconciles this now with the fact of his wife’s conversion to Orthodoxy, I don’t know. I’m sure God is still working in their lives, and I wish them the best, although I do not know them personally as you did. I first heard of them when Charles did an interview on Coast to Coast AM a while back, after which I bought his Vectors.

      Distanced or not, it’s pretty obvious to anyone familiar with that intellectual environment that you’ve been exposed to it. 🙂 It’s encouraging to me (and fascinating) to read your interpretations of these icons with those concepts in mind. You are certainly far more perceptive in this regard than I!

  4. Nun Katherine Weston

    Thank you for this very interesting discussion of boundaries and hybridism. There is also an interesting discussion of St.Christopher and the Cynocefaloi in the Road to Emmaus, #19 in an article about the travels of St. Andrew:
    http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_19/The_Astonishing_Missionary_Journeys.pdf

    1. Thank you for the link to such an interesting article. It makes us want to get his book! There is in fact a story in the Acts of St-Andrew and Bartholomew, where they meet a cynecephalic creature named Abominable. This story is very similar to the St-Christopher story, whose name was Rebrobus. Abominable was renamed “Christian” and Rebrobus was renamed “Christ carrier”, so there are very close ties. I think the conclusions in the article about “who” the cynocephali “really” were can be interesting, but only to a point. It can give us the impression that we now “know” what they really are, whereas the silly superstitious Christians mistakenly took them for monsters. I think we should pull out of his idea a more general argument, that when we encounter something extremely foreign, one of the things that happens is a difficulty in differentiating what is essential from what is artificial or accidental. The encounter with the unknown as a lack of “logos” makes us incapable of seeing the “order” in what we see. If we can understand that, then we can learn within our own experience to recognize this happening constantly in the construction of social narrative.

  5. Matthieu

    A few examples to support what you are describing.

    The two types of crossings are right there in plain view in the story of the Exodus. The “baptism by water” and then the “baptism by fire”. First in the story of Moses: Moses is saved as an infant from death in Egypt by floating in an Ark on the Nile. The fact that Moses is a child makes an even stronger relation to St Christopher carrying Christ. Then the infant is saved from the waters by Pharaoh’s daughter. It is another example of “death” becoming a vehicle for salvation since the Egyptian Pharaoh was the very cause of the death of all the male children. Now his very daughter is tricked into saving the Child! (tricked by Miriam who pretends to find a nurse who is actually the true mother).
    After that Moses goes to the Mountain of God: Horeb where he is confronted by the Angel of the Lord who appears as a flaming bush. It might be worth mentioning here that the word Horeb is exactly the same as the word “Sword” (Hereb), only the vocalisation is different. So we have, first the “ark” and then the “flaming sword”.

    The whole structure later repeats itself when the entire nation of Israel follows Moses out of Egypt. First, the Crossing of the red sea, and then the encounter with God on the Mountain. The encounter on Mount Sinai (which is mt Horeb) is described as a trial by fire in which the mountain of God is set ablaze. The Israelites are warned not to approach the mountain and borders are set around it. So again two peripheries- and outer periphery: The Red Sea (or the “sea of end”), and an inner periphery: Mount Horeb (the flaming sword).

    1. Thanks for mentioning the Moses connection. It seems I should have mentioned it myself in the first article. But I had not noticed how the inner limit also appears in these stories, so I am happy you are pointing it out.

  6. Carl

    Wonderful, masterful post. I was moving the other day, and I thought of the first post in your series, so I prayed to St. Christopher, and he helped out quite a bit.

    Concerning footnote five, when I began teaching in Japan, I had a lot of trouble telling my students apart because they all looked “the same” (Japanese with straight dark hair, etc.), but after two years of teaching, they all looked very different from one another (she has freckles; he has a mole; her face is round…). On the flip side, I had Japanese people tell me that all whites look alike to them. It’s mostly a matter of experience. We can’t see the differences in things until we have enough experience to know what to see.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I think St-Christopher helps us to deal with the dangers of transition while not giving us a false image of what these transitions mean. The reaction you describe to your Japanese students is natural and inevitable. One of the side-effects of politically correct culture is that we are asked to deny how we encounter the foreign and there is a kind of stigma attached to the very unavoidable experience of real difference. St-Christopher can help us both experience the radical view of the foreign, and then help us to cross over in a way that is not damaging to our soul. In my next post I will be discussing hospitality in Biblical and Hellenistic culture, as well as the much more surprising relationship Christ entertains with the foreign.

  7. Why all this blather and fuss? St. Christopher was a cynocephalus, not a legend, a rare and probably extinct
    tribe of bad tempered sasquatch in north africa. If people
    have run into such all over the world, it is because they
    ARE all over the world. Some quite dangerous. American
    Indians told the white explorers east of the Mississippi
    that they had recently exterminated a tribe of such, because
    they were cannibals (and human enough to use weapons).

    Real simple. Leave out all the paganistic metareligion speculative stuff and fact simple concrete facts.

    St. Christopher was a sasquatch.

    Period.

    Glory to God.

    1. I hesitated to post your comment and answer it, but I realized that it is inevitable in writing about St-Christopher that I should attract the kind of person who can mention cynocephali, the Native American Sasquatch, accuse me of paganism and say “Glory to God” in the same breath. You seem to think that saying St-Christopher is “a sasquatch” solves the question by being a “fact”. Interestingly, the sasquatch is, by consensus of 95% of scientists, very far from being a fact. Indeed, stories about Big-Foot, sasquatches, yetis and other of these types of monsters are always of the type which appear on the margins of our society, both by their form as quasi-proofs, vague testimonies, blurry pictures, and by the very fact that people who are interested in such “crypto-zoology” are most also often attracted to UFO, Lake monster, conspiracy theories and other things which are as marginal, as peripheral as anything can get. And so there is indeed a relation between how stories of cynocephali function and how these modern versions of a “human-ape” hybrid work, but it is not as simple as you think. Your difficulty in understanding what I am talking about, that which makes you think I am dealing with “speculation” is that you speak like a literalist and a materialist. You seem to think that saying St-Christopher is a “sasquatch” solves the problem because it is a “fact”, a “fact” therefore that has no meaning, has no symbolic value. On the contrary, if St-Christopher were a sasquatch, whatever you seem to think that means, everything I have written in my article would still be valid as a way to understand what such a saint means, because the somewhat fantastical, semi-factual stories of human-animal hybrids that are all around us but that most people have only heard about is the very image of the limit I have painted in the article. I have never said I do not believe in St-Christopher, yet I have deliberately avoided in my article any attempt to say “what” st-Christopher is in a kind of “biological taxonomical” fashion because firstly St-Christopher is the image of the very place where taxonomies break down, and secondly it is more important to understand “who” st-Christopher is, what his person and story tells us about how the church, society and the world interact with their limits, no matter what those limits are.

      1. Or, to summarize, Justina missed the point entirely, and ironically, considering that her own statement, if factual, would itself be a very good example of the actual point. 🙂

  8. Buenos Aires

    Mr. Pageau this is a fabulous post!, I think the dog-headed icon of St Christopher has a huge connection with the symbology of the “guardian spirit” or the roman “Lar”:

    …They support us, and protect the City walls,
    And they’re propitious, and bring us aid.
    A dog, carved from the same stone, used to stand
    At their feet: why did it stand there with the Lares?
    Both guard the house: both are loyal to their master:
    Crossroads are dear to the god, and to dogs.

    (Ovid: Fasti Book Five)

    Some indigenous peoples in my country (Argentina) make reference to them when they speak about human microcosm, the name they use is “wichankulliñ” or guardian animal an alter-ego or non-ordinary aspect of ourselves he is a part of our being that symbolises the peripherical states (exactly as you said!). In central America the correspondent name is Tonal (or sometimes nahuatl) and is always represented by a wild animal.
    This being resides in the underworld on the other side of a river and he is symbolised by a Puma, it is said that there he will devour the Renu (High priest) in his mystical voyage and after that he will expell him out to this earth but changed into a glorious state. I think that somehow both the cherub and the monster at the edge of the world are guardians of the same entrance.

    I have a question for you Mr. Pageau about the four hybrid aspects of the tetramorph. Do you know about any association between them and the four elements?.

    Thank you very much for this post

    1. Thank you for your comment. I think that most uses of the dog symbol are bound to have similarities with one another, the “guard dog” being one of those rapprochements. St-Christopher is a warrior saint.

      Although I agree we can see commonalities in symbolism with Fasti and other things, we need to be weary these commonalities do not lead us into the error of equating Christian saints with Pagan deities.

      As for your question about the four elements, I will admit it is a tempting relation to make, but I have never seen anything convincing on this, and those who want to make this connection seem to come to different conclusions. One of the reasons might be that the 4 elements do not have a strong place in the Bible. The elements are complicated and because we don’t interact with the world that way anymore, I often feel it is a lost symbolism.

      In the Bible, the only clear distinction we have is a reference to how the Lion is related to the “right”, and the ox is related to the “left” (Ez. 1:10). A “leap” of interpretation will tell you that the eagle must be “up”, and the man must be “down”. You can see this is how it was interpreted in the Meteora Cherub pictured above in the article. So if you are facing east (which is the liturgical direction the tabernacle and churches) then the eagle becomes east, the man becomes west, the ox becomes north and the lion becomes south. So from there, you could make a really big dangerous leap of interpretation, because the “left” is usually associated with fire (red, wine, blood, etc) in Christian symbolism, and the right can be associated with water (blue, white, bread, etc.), so the eagle then becomes air and the man becomes earth. But really, I would not place any wager on this interpretation!

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