Monday, December 26, 2011

The Jewish Annoted New Testament

The New Testament is constantly being re-interpreted from a variety of perspectives. From feminists, to socialists, to traditionalists; there's even a version as seen through the prism of Star Wars.

Well now, you can add to the collection The Jewish Annotated New Testament by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. More...

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Tropes: Science and Isaiah

On the value of metaphor to science:

The tentative discovery at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider of the Higgs boson -- among the key missing links in our fundamental theories of matter -- again shows the surprising power of mathematics to illuminate nature’s secrets. But the discovery also points to the value of scientific metaphor, of guessing that things we know nothing about might turn out to be surprisingly similar to things we’re familiar with. Indeed, the theory behind the Higgs boson owes as much to what’s already known about mundane things like iron magnets and metals as it does to exotic mathematics.

From a conversation with Walter Brueggemann:

Ms. Tippett: I'd love to talk about your image of God, and I want you to talk about that more personally. But I thought I might start, you know, for example, in one of your sermons, you are talking about some poetry, Isaiah, and you talk about that it offers five images for God. This is just one — (laughter) one passage in Isaiah:

"A demolition squad, a safe place for poor people who have no other safe place, the giver of the biggest dinner party you ever heard of, the powerful sea monster he will swallow up death forever, a gentle nursemaid who will wipe away every tear from all faces."

How are normal people, not biblical scholars, how are they to make sense of a text like that? Of a God — who God is?

Mr. Brueggemann: Well, they're going to make sense of it if they have good preachers and teachers to help them pause long enough to take in the imagery. But you see, what the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation and then it's deathly. So we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that is healthier than that, you're going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Income inequality in the Roman Empire

Two economists find income disparity in the Roman Empire at the peak of its population (150 C.E.):

To determine the size of the Roman economy and the distribution of income, historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen pored over papyri ledgers, previous scholarly estimates, imperial edicts, and Biblical passages. Their target was the state of the economy when the empire was at its population zenith, around 150 C.E. Schiedel and Friesen estimate that the top 1 percent of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, less than half of what America’s top 1 percent control. 
. . . They point out that the majority of extant Roman ruins resulted from the economic activities of the top 10 percent. “Yet the disproportionate visibility of this ‘fortunate decile’ must not let us forget the vast but—to us—inconspicuous majority that failed even to begin to share in the moderate amount of economic growth associated with large-scale formation in the ancient Mediterranean and its hinterlands.” 

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The "Death" of Tragedy?

A friend brought to my attention a book that might be said to address questions at the heart of this blog, i.e., the complex legacy of descending from two extremely different traditions, the ancient Greeks and the Jews of the Old Testament: The Death of Tragedy by George Steiner.

From the top review on Amazon:
Steiner argues that Tragedy is an Artform unique to the Western world. In his opening pages he makes the claim that for the Judaic sensibility there is no tragedy as it is "vehement in its conviction that the order of the universe and of man's estate is accessible to reason." pp.4 For Steiner tragedy arises out of a contrary view"necessity is blind and man's encounter with it shall rob him of his eyes, whether in Thebes or in Gaza." pp.5 For Steiner this is a Greek assertion.Steiner makes a learned survey of Western Literature showing the points at where tragic genius has flourished, and the many more where it has been attempted and failed. Close to the end of the work he makes this observation "..tragedy is that form of art which requires the intolerable burden of God's presence. It is now dead because His shadow no longer falls upon us as it fell on Agamemnon or Macbeth or Athalie. " Steiner then goes on to talk briefly about the possibility of renewal of tragedy under different circumstances. This work is a stellar piece of literary criticism- whether one takes issue with Steiner and believes Job on the one hand , and Willy Loman in another way , are tragic characters after all.
Without having read the book, it's impossible to be sure, but from our readings of the Greco-Roman classics, and from the Old Testament, I have a feeling that I'd be in major and lively disagreement with Steiner's basic premises.

Another snippet (p. 5):

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Who says Dickenson is dead?

NPR focuses on a citywide effort in Tucson to put people in touch with Emily Dickenson - in some cases almost literally.
Emily Dickinson is all over Tucson, Ariz. Reading, lectures, classroom lessons — it's all part of the Big Read Project, a National Endowment for the Arts project devoted to "inspiring people across the country to pick up a good book." In Tucson, people aren't just picking up Dickinson's poetry books — they're celebrating her in reading, dance and even desserts. 
"You don't want to put somebody up on a pedestal and pay homage ... that's not very interesting," says Lisa Bowden with a laugh. Bowden is a publisher and poet, and the organizer of Big Read Tucson
One of her ideas was to hold open recording sessions for anyone to read Dickinson's poetry and letters. Restaurants and coffee houses then play those recordings to stimulate conversation and creativity.

Folks are also invited to adapt Dickenson's style to texting, to which, indeed, it lends itself. A few more posts about Dickenson.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Nietzsche on Horace

In his last year of literary production, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote several books, including Twilight of the Idols. By the time this book hit the booksellers, Nietzsche was no longer sane - he didn't recognize his own works. This is one of the last passages from that last work, in which he begins to reflect on his literary relationship to the ancients. The whole passage can be found here by scrolling nearly to the end.


1 In conclusion, a word about that world to which I sought interpretations, for which I have perhaps found a new interpretation — the ancient world. My taste, which may be the opposite of a tolerant taste, is in this case very far from saying Yes indiscriminately: it does not like to say Yes; better to say No, but best of all to say nothing. That applies to whole cultures, it applies to books — also to places and landscapes. In the end there are very few ancient books that count in my life: the most famous are not among them. My sense of style, of the epigram as a style, was awakened almost instantly when I came into contact with Sallust. Compact, severe, with as much substance as possible, a cold sarcasm toward "beautiful words" and "beautiful sentiments" — here I found myself. And even in my Zarathustra one will recognize my very serious effort to achieve a Roman style, for the aere perennius [more enduring than bronze] in style.

Nor was my experience any different in my first contact with Horace. To this day, no other poet has given me the same artistic delight that a Horatian ode gave me from the first. In certain languages that which Horace has achieved could not even be attempted. This mosaic of words, in which every word — as sound, as place, as concept — pours out its strength right and left and over the whole, this minimum in the extent and number of the signs, and the maximum thereby attained in the energy of the signs — all that is Roman and, if you will believe me, noble par excellence. All the rest of poetry becomes, in contrast, something too popular — mere sentimental blather.

A sensitive reader

The Genesis of Desire, a reading of some of the best known stories of Genesis with Avivah Zornberg. Scots-born Zornberg brings a lot to her reading of the Bible, including modern psychological study coupled with a deep knowledge of the Zohar and the Midrash. The Bible via this sensitive reader begins to seem a very strange, numinous place.

On the flood story:

Ms. Zornberg: Ah, what's happening there. I mean, everything is happening. I think whatever you can read in the text is happening. What I'm interested in is the issue of language and silence, a kind of defensive silence, and the basis for this apparently very modern theme actually is in the Zohar, in the source of Kabbalah.

Ms. Tippett: That's interesting too because we never — when that story is told to children, for example, I think it's mostly children who hear the Flood story — we never reflect on the life in the ark. You get the two by two coming on and then coming out at the end.


Ms. Zornberg: Yes, yes.

Ms. Tippett: So how does the Zohar …

Ms. Zornberg: The Zohar and Midrashic sources — first of all, how did they all eat? How did the animals eat? It's a big …

Ms. Tippett: Right [laugh].

Ms. Zornberg: Yes. I mean, all right, maybe they brought on food for the animals, but how did they get at it? So Zohar imagines very beautifully that Noah spends his whole time, morning and night, day and night, feeding the animals. That's an expression of his desire to preserve the world. And he feeds each animal according to its own timing, it's own feeding schedule, so he's really rather fully occupied feeding the world. He doesn't get a wink of sleep, again, in these Midrashic sources. He has no sexual relations with his wife and no one does. There is no sex. Even the animals on the ark, you know, don't have relations.


Ms. Zornberg: Absolutely. And on top of that, I think precisely the things that he can't do in the ark or he mustn't do, like sexual relations, sleeping, the way he spends all his time feeding, it occurred to me that these are descriptions of God. God feeds all living beings and God doesn't sleep. He doesn't slumber nor sleep and God, of course, has no partner. So in a sense, there's a kind of omnipotence that Noah is experiencing in this prison, which is, again, very natural that, once you have deprived yourself of life and you see that in some way as an ideal and as an expression of ultimate power because you are not compromised now in any way by the messy world of talk, of communication. So to me, it's a defense mechanism and he refuses to let go of it.

On reading:
Ms. Zornberg: You know, you don't read; you study. You study the text and that implies that you don't really understand it, first off. You read it and then you read it again and then you notice things and things don't work and things don't make sense and then you're exorcised by it. And that's what I call desire, because something is not. Something that should be there is not there and that's what gets people going. That's what gets people involved and this very intimate connection between the human being and the text, between Jews and this text, is a result of that.

A transcript of the full interview with Zornberg.

Avivah ZornbergAvivah Gottlieb Zornberg
Zornberg is a celebrated literary teacher of Torah. Her books include The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious and The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis.

Another, briefer interview here.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Göbekli Tepe

National Geo has a great cover story this month about the world's oldest temple, dating back some 11,600 years, being excavated in Turkey
We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.

Known as Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.

More here and here.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Mitchell "does" Homer

Stephen Mitchell has a new treatment of the Iliad:

It's Not All Greek to Him

The 'rock star' of translators produces a daring new version of the epic poem; the 'B' word

In various versions of Homer's nearly 3,000-year-old epic poem "The Iliad," the Trojan warrior Hector is referred to as "glorious," "flashing helmeted," and "man-killing." But he's probably never been described as a "son of a bitch" before.

Getty Images

Menelaus pursues Helen of Troy before the altar of Apollo as recounted in 'The Iliad,' in an engraving by Piringer after the original Grecian vase.

Stephen Mitchell's take on "The Iliad," the first major new translation in nearly 15 years, is an action-packed, slick and contemporary rendering of the Trojan war saga. Mr. Mitchell took some unusual liberties: He cut about 1,100 lines, modernized the dialogue and left out most of the fusty-seeming descriptors attached to each character (swift-footed Achilles, bright-eyed Athena, crafty Odysseus).

The text is peppered with modern slang. Helen refers to herself at one point as a "bitch" (the Greek original is "dog-eyed one"). Elsewhere, Hector yells a phrase at a soldier that could be literally translated as "Begone, cowardly puppet." Other translators have struggled with the insult, rendering it as "wicked doll," "rag doll" and "glittering little puppet." In Mr. Mitchell's translation, Hector yells, "Go ahead, sissy, run!" And when Achilles rails at Hector, he doesn't call him, "You doer of deeds not forgotten," as the original Greek reads. Instead, Mr. Mitchell has Achilles say, "Don't talk to me of agreements, you son of a bitch."

Mr. Mitchell defends his movie-style dialogue. "If you translate literally, the English may sound stilted or phony," says Mr. Mitchell. Asked if he thought his version would stir controversy, he laughed. "Of course," he said. "That's how scholars earn their living, by disputing things."

Mr. Mitchell, 68, may be the closest thing that the translation world has to a rock star. He brings oblique sayings in ancient languages to the masses, upsetting established scholars and occasionally creating unlikely hits. His 1988 version of the Tao Te Ching sold more than 900,000 copies in the U.S. Several of his other popular translations, which include The Gospel According to Jesus, Gilgamesh and poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, have each sold more than 100,000 copies.

Some of his translations aren't, strictly speaking, translations, but adaptations. He knows Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and Danish, but he's also rewritten works in languages he doesn't know—Chinese, Sanskrit and Babylonian. His interpretations of sacred texts have been criticized by evangelical Christians and "very irate Taoists," says Mr. Mitchell.

There have been plenty of English translations of "The Iliad," including several published in the 20th century. Mr. Mitchell says he felt he could do better. "I've never been able to read 'The Iliad,' actually, until I sat down to do this," he says. "I could never get past book one in any translation. I found the language very dull."

Several years ago, he picked up the original Greek text and began translating the opening lines for fun. He was quickly immersed in the dramatic story. The epic opens 10 years into the war, which the Greeks waged after the Trojan prince Paris kidnapped Helen, the wife of the Greek king Menelaus.

Mr. Mitchell, who was born in Brooklyn and studied comparative literature at Yale, bounced some ideas off Homeric scholars, including Martin West, who wrote a book about how "The Iliad" was composed. Using Mr. West's research as a guideline, Mr. Mitchell cut about 7% of the poem—because he believes those passages were added by later poets. He dropped book 10, which describes a nighttime raid against the Trojans, entirely. He left out most of the stock character descriptions because he felt that while the phrases serve a rhythmic function in Greek, they add nothing in English.

His next project: "The Odyssey."

Friday, September 23, 2011


Arline sends this link to a remarkable aerial tour of Israel: Watch it in full screen mode if possible. Its a preview of Jerusalem, an IMAX film set for release in 2013.


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Genesis and the Genome

This recent NPR story about a debate over belief in a literal Adam and Eve raises some interesting interpretive points. While there's a longstanding basis for interpreting Genesis allegorically, some scholars say if you remove the literal Adam (and Eve), you remove Paul's interpretation of the meaning of the work of Jesus Christ.

"Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul's description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament," [Albert] Mohler says.
"The evolution controversy today is, I think, a Galileo moment," says Karl Giberson, who authored several books trying to reconcile Christianity and evolution, including The Language of Science and Faith, with Francis Collins


Saturday, August 06, 2011

A book that looks interesting and perhaps relevant

I'll be curious to see how Esotericism and the Academy, due in 2012, develops this fascinating topic:

Esotericism and the Academy

Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture
  • Wouter J. Hanegraaff, University of Amsterdam
  • Hardback
  • ISBN: 9780521196215
    • 4 tables
      • Dimensions: 228 x 152 mm
        • Not yet published - available from January 2012

        • Academics tend to look on 'esoteric', 'occult' or 'magical' beliefs with contempt, but are usually ignorant about the religious and philosophical traditions to which these terms refer, or their relevance to intellectual history. Wouter Hanegraaff tells the neglected story of how intellectuals since the Renaissance have tried to come to terms with a cluster of 'pagan' ideas from late antiquity that challenged the foundations of biblical religion and Greek rationality. Expelled from the academy on the basis of Protestant and Enlightenment polemics, these traditions have come to be perceived as the Other by which academics define their identity to the present day. Hanegraaff grounds his discussion in a meticulous study of primary and secondary sources, taking the reader on an exciting intellectual voyage from the fifteenth century to the present day and asking what implications the forgotten history of exclusion has for established textbook narratives of religion, philosophy and science.Table of Contents

        Introduction: hic sunt dracones
        1. The history of truth: recovering ancient wisdom
        2. The history of error: exorcizing Paganism
        3. The error of history: imagining the Occult
        4. The truth of history: entering the Academy
        Conclusions: restoring memory.

        Monday, July 04, 2011

        The 17th Century

        In this interview, novelist Neal Stephenson touches on a peculiar aspect of the age of Milton and Newton:
        The medieval is still very much alive and well during this period. People are carrying swords around. Military units have archers. Saracens snatch people from European beaches and carry them off to slavery. There are Alchemists and Cabalists. Great countries are ruled by kings who ride into battle wearing armor. Much of the human landscape--the cities and architecture--are medieval. And yet the modern world is present right next to all of this in the form of calculus, joint-stock companies, international financial systems, etc. This can't but be fascinating to a novelist. Complete interview here.

        Saturday, June 25, 2011

        We're mostly about Ovid these days

        As most of our current focus is on Ovid, please bookmark the Ovid Blog, where we' re posting with some regularity. Thanks.

        Tuesday, June 21, 2011

        Milton's God and Wagner's Wotan

        Anyone who subscribes to the New York Review of Books should have a look at Stephen Greenblatt's piece, "The Lonely Gods." Here's the beginning of the article from the NYRB site:
        When James Levine’s tangled halo of white hair was picked up by the spotlight shining down over the orchestra pit at the May 9 performance of Die Walküre, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the audience roared with pleasure and relief. With good reason. Levine’s bad back and other health woes had forced him to pull out of multiple events he was scheduled to conduct, including one recent performance of this opera, the second in the Ring cycle. But there were no signs of diminished vigor or control on that evening.
        Greenblatt eventually gets to something important regarding the visions of divine power and human freedom as found in Paradise Lost and Die Walkure, but the full article is behind a paywall. Thanks to Jutta I have a print-out and will be happy to share. Here's a comment on it from a listserv. By all means have a look, especially if you happened to catch the recent Met Opera performance of Wagner's opera.

        Tuesday, June 07, 2011

        An elegy by Catullus

        Little could be further from the dramatic turns of Milton's Lycidas than this simple expression of pure, helpless grief:

        By ways remote and distant waters sped
        by Gaius Valerius Catullus
        translated by Aubrey Beardsley

        By ways remote and distant waters sped,
        Brother, to thy sad grave-side am I come,
        That I may give the last gifts to the dead,
        And vainly parley with thine ashes dumb:
        Since she who now bestows and now denies
        Hath ta'en thee, hapless brother, from mine eyes.
        But lo! these gifts, the heirlooms of past years,
        Are made sad things to grace thy coffin shell;
        Take them, all drenched with a brother's tears,
        And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell!

        Found on

        Friday, June 03, 2011

        King James Translation at 400

        Shaw sends us a link from this month's Harper's Mag marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible:

        History’s Best Seller Turns 400
        A Forum with John Banville, Charles Baxter, Dan Chiasson, Paul Guest,
        Benjamin Hale, Howard Jacobson, and Marilynne Robinson

        Saturday, May 21, 2011

        Milton's Hamlet?

        From a review of Harold Bloom's latest book, The Anatomy of Influence.

        “The Anatomy of Influence” is Bloom’s effort — his last, he says — to recalibrate his great theory, only shorn of its “gnomic” obscurities and written in “a subtler language that will construe my earlier commentary for the general reader and reflect changes in my thinking.” One of those changes is that over time his notion of influence has become more orthodox, growing closer, in its sensitivity to echo and allusion, to the approach of the hated New Critics.

        In a superb chapter, “Milton’s Hamlet,” Bloom shows how the Satan of “Paradise Lost” is the offspring of Hamlet, each a soliloquist who stands at a remove from the tragedy that engulfs him, puzzling out eloquent conundrums that press toward “depths beneath depths,” limitless self-consciousness. “It does not matter that Satan is an obsessed theist and Hamlet is not,” Bloom writes. “Two angelic intellects inhabit a common abyss: the post-Enlightenment ever-augmenting inner self, of which Hamlet is a precursor, intervening between Luther and Calvin, and later Descartes and Spinoza.”

        Monday, May 09, 2011

        Philyreius in Ovid and Milton

        Here's a poem composed by John Milton when he was in his teens. His deep acquaintance with Ovid among other ancients is apparent in the use of "Philyreius," which means "son of Philyra." One would learn from Book 2.676 of the Metamorphoses that Chiron was sometimes called Philyreius.

        Philyra incidentally has her own tale of transformation, told by Apollodorus among others:
        PHILYRE (or Philyra) was an Okeanid nymph of Mount Pelion in Thessalia loved by the Titan Kronos. When his wife Rhea came upon their rendevous, he quickly transformed himself into a horse to escape detection. As a result, Philyre birthed a half-horse, half-man hybrid, the kentauros (centaur) Kheiron. To ease her shame, Kronos transformed the girl into a linden tree (philyra in Greek.)
        Here's Milton's poem:
        Learn to submit to the laws of destiny, and lift your suppliant hands to the Fate, O children of Iapetus who inhabit the pendulous orb of the earth. If Death, the doleful wanderer from Taenarus, shall but once call you, alas! vain is it to attempt wiles and delay, for all must pass through the shades of Styx. Were the right hand strong to repel destined death, fierce Hercules had not lain dead on Aemathian Oeta, poisoned by the blood of Nessus; nor had Ilium seen Hector slain by the base guile of envious Pallas; nor Sarpedon whom the phantom Achilles slew with Locrian sword, whilst Jove wept. If Hecatean words could put to flight sad fate, the infamous mother of Telegonus had yet lived, and the sister of Aegialeus, who used the powerful wand. If mysterious herbs and the art of the physicians could thwart the triple goddesses, Machaon with his skill in simples had not fallen by the spear of Eurypylus; and the arrow smeared with the serpent's blood had done you no injury, O Philyreius; nor had the arms and bolts of your grandsire harmed you, O son, who were cut from your mother's womb. And you, too, Gostlin, greater than your tutor, Apollo, you to whom was given the rule of the gowned flock, had not died, whom now leafy Cyrrha mourns, and Helicon amid its springs. You would still live, happy and honored to have shepherded the flock of Pallas. You would not have gone in Charon's skiff to the horrible recesses of the abyss. But Persephone broke the thread of life, angered when she saw how many souls you snatched from the black jaws of Death by your arts and your potent juices. Revered Chancellor, I pray that your body may rest in peace beneath the soft turf, and that from your grave may spring roses, and marigolds, and the hyacinth with blushing face. May the judgment of Aeacus rest mildly on you, and may Sicilian Proserpina grant you a smile, and in the Elysian fields among the blest may you walk for ever.

        Latin text here, notes here.

        Cross-posted @ the Ovid Blog.

        Sunday, February 27, 2011

        Book VI: Bum's Rush

        As our reading of book 6 comes near to the end, a few things stood out in our discussion. To briefly summarize, Milton pulls out all the stops in bringing the first, cyclic half of his poem to a climax:

        - the three-day structure of the book echoes the larger three-part structure of the poem, and of sacred history, which begins with a war in heaven, continues with a messianic triumph on Earth, and concludes with an apocalyptic final battle at the end of time.

        - the hint that God and his creation are moving toward an ultimate convergence when God shall be "all in all."

        - the diminished role of Satan, who is not directly presented or given a speech, yet ends up being mercilessly parodied.

        - Milton's flawless use of Homer and the Bible, especially Exodus and Ezekiel, in portraying the action of the third day, when the Son in his Chariot singlehandedly triumphs over the rebel angels. The parallel with Achilles, whose rage dooms him, and the parody of Satan as a misguided Moses, leading his people to take a final stand before an onrushing King, only to find that instead of the Red Sea rolling back, the walls of heaven part to disclose a Promised Wasteland.

        - The remarkable structure of the poem that presents a complete whole, or circle, narrating the doom of fallen Satan, then with Book VII opens a new book, a new world, and a new sense of what is at stake, of what can be lost, and where this might lead,
        with wandering steps and slow.
        Whatever the second half of Paradise Lost is, it is not a circle.

        Wednesday, February 23, 2011

        Notes on the Chariot of the Son

        The chariot in Book 6 draws upon the vision in Ezekiel:

        The Biblical Merkabah

        See also: angelology

        According to the verses in Ezekiel and its attendant commentaries, the analogy of the Merkaba image consists of a chariot made of many angels being driven by the "Likeness of a Man." Four angels form the basic structure of the chariot. These angels are called the "Chayot" חיות (lit. living creatures). The bodies of the "Chayot" are like that of a human being, but each of them has four faces, corresponding to the four directions the chariot can go (north, east south and west). The faces are that of a man, a lion, an ox (later changed to a cherub in Ezekiel 10:14) and an eagle. Since there are four angels and each has four faces, there are a total of sixteen faces. Each Chayot angel also has four wings. Two of these wings spread across the length of the chariot and connected with the wings of the angel on the other side. This created a sort of 'box' of wings that formed the perimeter of the chariot. With the remaining two wings, each angel covered its own body. Below, but not attached to the feet of the "Chayot" angels are other angels that are shaped like wheels. These wheel angels, which are described as "a wheel inside of a wheel", are called "Ophanim" אופנים (lit. wheels, cycles or ways). These wheels are not directly under the chariot, but are nearby and along its perimeter. The angel with the face of the man is always on the east side and looks up at the "Likeness of a Man" that drives the chariot. The "Likeness of a Man" sits on a throne made of sapphire.

        The Bible later makes mention of a third type of angel found in the Merkaba called "Seraphim" (lit. "burning") angels. These angels appear like flashes of fire continuously ascending and descending. These "Seraphim" angels powered the movement of the chariot. In the hierarchy of these angels, "Seraphim" are the highest, that is, closest to God, followed by the "Chayot", which are followed by the "Ophanim." The chariot is in a constant state of motion, and the energy behind this movement runs according to this hierarchy. The movement of the "Ophanim" is controlled by the "Chayot" while the movement of the "Chayot" is controlled by the "Seraphim". The movement of all the angels of the chariot are controlled by the "Likeness of a Man" on the Throne.

        Part of a Hasidic explanation:
        The Man on the throne represents God, who is controlling everything that goes on in the world, and how all of the archetypes He set up should interact. The Man on the throne, however, can only drive when the four angels connect their wings. This means that God will not be revealed to us by us looking at all four elements (for instance) as separate and independent entities. However, when one looks at the way that earth, wind, fire and water (for instance) which all oppose each other are able to work together and coexist in complete harmony in the world, this shows that there is really a higher power (God) telling these elements how to act.

        Wednesday, February 09, 2011


        Here's a tune by Stefano Landi that Milton might have heard on his visit to Italy in 1638-39. If nothing else, the stylized structure of the Baroque -- powerful emotion under the pressure of controlled form -- lends itself to the grand gestures and potent speeches of Milton's angels.

        Sunday, February 06, 2011

        Blake's Warring Muse

        The perpetual contention between Athens and Jerusalem, Greco-Roman tradition and Biblical Scripture, turned up in concentrated form as I was looking into online sources for Ovid. It came via a well-known line of William Blake's:
        the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration.
        On the cusp of the metamorphosis of the Enlightenment into the Early Romantic Age, Blake assumes a strong, uncompromising position on the relative merits of the two great traditions. Who needs Homer or Ovid, he asks:
        The Stolen & Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid; of Plato & Cicero. which all Men ought to contemn: are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible. but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce; all will be set right: & those Grand Works of the more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men, will hold their proper rank. & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakespeare & Milton were both curbd by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword[.] Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashonable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just & true to our own imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live forever; in Jesus our Lord.
        In support of his argument, Blake offers one of his most famous lyrics:
        And did those feet in ancient time,
        Walk upon Englands mountains green:
        And was the holy Lamb of God,
        On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

        And did the Countenance Divine,
        Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
        And was Jerusalem builded here,
        Among these dark Satanic Mills?

        Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
        Bring me my Arrows of desire:
        Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
        Bring me my Chariot of fire!

        I will not cease from Mental Fight,
        Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
        Till we have built Jerusalem,
        In Englands green & pleasant Land
        Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets
        Numbers XI, ch 29.v.

        Friday, February 04, 2011

        New Dates for Milton

        As many know we're beginning Ovid's Metamorphoses at our regular Wednesday time on Feb. 16th. A separate blog will concern itself with those readings. It's entitled - click to go to it.

        The Milton Reading Group's new schedule:

        Fridays at Gulf Gate 10:15-12:15:
        • February 11 and 25
        • March 11 and 25
        • April 15 and 29

        Thursday, February 03, 2011

        A less than entirely helpful god

        We wondered yesterday about "Nisroc" -- why choose this Assyrian deity precisely to represent the Wimp Brigade among Satan's legions?

        in th' assembly next upstood
        Nisroc, of Principalities the prime;
        As one he stood escap't from cruel fight,
        Sore toild, his riv'n Armes to havoc hewn,
        And cloudie in aspect thus answering spake. [ 450 ]
        Deliverer from new Lords, leader to free
        Enjoyment of our right as Gods; yet hard
        For Gods, and too unequal work we find
        Against unequal arms to fight in paine,
        Against unpaind, impassive; from which evil [ 455 ]
        Ruin must needs ensue; for what availes
        Valour or strength, though matchless, quelld with pain
        Which all subdues, and makes remiss the hands
        Of Mightiest. Sense of pleasure we may well
        Spare out of life perhaps, and not repine, [ 460 ]
        But live content, which is the calmest life:
        But pain is perfet miserie, the worst
        Of evils, and excessive, overturnes
        All patience.

        Clearly he's averse to pain, although perfectly happy to join the revolt. A quick search turns up the information that he was a god of agriculture, that his name probably signified "eagle," and that he was associated via the Hebrew word "neser," which referred to a plank of wood that King Sennacherib was told came from Noah's Ark. In good pagan form Sennacherib proceeded to worship the plank of wood as an idol.

        In fact he was worshipping that very piece of wood when he was murdered by his two sons.

        36So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh.

        37And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead. 2 Kings 19.36-37

        Some suggestive patterns: Even as Moloch and Adramelech earlier were associated with the blood sacrifice of young children, here this god does nothing even as the king worshiping him is being murdered by his own children. The story also fits a deep motif in Milton -- the stupidity of idolatry. First Sennacherib was dumb enough to believe some con artist's tale of a tub about a plank, then he bows to its worship, getting assassinated for his pains. (In some versions of the story, his sons kill him by toppling a lamassu -- a heavy stone idol, also purportedly a "protective" deity -- on him.) Finally there's the thread fundamental to Book 6 of the relation of father and sons, originator and offspring, central in so many ways to the poem.

        Tuesday, February 01, 2011

        Following Moloc(h)

        Gabriel meets "Moloc" in Bk. 6.355:

        Mean while in other parts like deeds deservd
        Memorial, where the might of Gabriel fought, [ 355 ]
        And with fierce Ensignes pierc'd the deep array
        Of Moloc furious King, who him defi'd
        And at his Chariot wheeles to drag him bound
        Threatn'd, nor from the Holie One of Heav'n
        Refrein'd his tongue blasphemous; but anon [ 360 ]
        Down clov'n to the waste, with shatterd Armes
        And uncouth paine fled bellowing.

        We readers have met Moloc twice before. The first time was in Bk. 1 -- he got top billing as Satan's henchmen were identified as the pagan gods:

        First Moloch, horrid King besmear'd with blood
        Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,
        Though for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud
        Thir childrens cries unheard, that past through fire [ 395 ]
        To his grim Idol. Him the Ammonite
        Worshipt in Rabba and her watry Plain,
        In Argob and in Basan, to the stream
        Of utmost Arnon. Nor content with such
        Audacious neighbourhood, the wisest heart [ 400 ]
        Of Solomon he led by fraud to build
        His Temple right against the Temple of God
        On that opprobrious Hill, and made his Grove
        The pleasant Vally of Hinnom, Tophet thence
        And black Gehenna call'd, the Type of Hell. [ 405 ]

        And again in Bk 2.43 ff, at the council in Pandemonium, Moloc argues for "open Warr":

        He ceas'd, and next him Moloc, Scepter'd King
        Stood up, the strongest and the fiercest Spirit
        That fought in Heav'n; now fiercer by despair: [ 45 ]
        His trust was with th' Eternal to be deem'd
        Equal in strength, and rather then be less
        Care'd not to be at all; with that care lost
        Went all his fear: of God, or Hell, or worse
        He reck'd not, and these words thereafter spake. [ 50 ]

        My sentence is for open Warr: Of Wiles,
        More unexpert, I boast not: them let those
        Contrive who need, or when they need, not now.
        For while they sit contriving, shall the rest,
        Millions that stand in Arms, and longing wait [ 55 ]
        The Signal to ascend, sit lingring here
        Heav'ns fugitives, and for thir dwelling place
        Accept this dark opprobrious Den of shame,
        The Prison of his Tyranny who Reigns
        By our delay? no, let us rather choose [ 60 ]
        Arm'd with Hell flames and fury all at once
        O're Heav'ns high Towrs to force resistless way,
        Turning our Tortures into horrid Arms
        Against the Torturer; when to meet the noise
        Of his Almighty Engin he shall hear [ 65 ]
        Infernal Thunder, and for Lightning see
        Black fire and horror shot with equal rage
        Among his Angels; and his Throne it self
        Mixt with Tartarean Sulphur, and strange fire,
        His own invented Torments. But perhaps [ 70 ]
        The way seems difficult and steep to scale
        With upright wing against a higher foe.
        Let such bethink them, if the sleepy drench
        Of that forgetful Lake benumm not still,
        That in our proper motion we ascend [ 75 ]
        Up to our native seat: descent and fall
        To us is adverse. Who but felt of late
        When the fierce Foe hung on our brok'n Rear
        Insulting, and pursu'd us through the Deep,
        With what compulsion and laborious flight [ 80 ]
        We sunk thus low? Th' ascent is easie then;
        Th' event is fear'd; should we again provoke
        Our stronger, some worse way his wrath may find
        To our destruction: if there be in Hell
        Fear to be worse destroy'd: what can be worse [ 85 ]
        Then to dwell here, driv'n out from bliss, condemn'd
        In this abhorred deep to utter woe;
        Where pain of unextinguishable fire
        Must exercise us without hope of end
        The Vassals of his anger, when the Scourge [ 90 ]
        Inexorably, and the torturing hour
        Calls us to Penance? More destroy'd then thus
        We should be quite abolisht and expire.
        What fear we then? what doubt we to incense
        His utmost ire? which to the highth enrag'd, [ 95 ]
        Will either quite consume us, and reduce
        To nothing this essential, happier farr
        Then miserable to have eternal being:
        Or if our substance be indeed Divine,
        And cannot cease to be, we are at worst [ 100 ]
        On this side nothing; and by proof we feel
        Our power sufficient to disturb his Heav'n,
        And with perpetual inrodes to Allarme,
        Though inaccessible, his fatal Throne:
        Which if not Victory is yet Revenge. [ 105 ]

        He ended frowning, and his look denounc'd
        Desperate revenge, and Battel dangerous
        To less then Gods.

        Milton was surely aware of the Medieval and Renaissance sources for demons, including grimoires like the Pseudomonarchia Daimonum and The Lesser Key of Solomon. Asmodeus appears in these, but not Moloch.

        Note the word that clings to Moloch. First he's the "furious King," then the "horrid King," and then, "the Scepter'd King."
        Quite a bit about him can be found in the Old Testament.

        Power and the People

        At our last meeting, the question came up of Milton's relationship to England's absolute monarchy, its authority rooted in the "divine right of kings," and the turbulent institutional transition going on in 17th century England to a broader parliamentary mode that governed while representing the sovereign will of the people.
        Everyone at the moment is finding all sorts of analogs and parallels to the recent actions in Tunisia, Cairo and Jordan, so why not we? In a certain sense, the Middle East today can be seen as beginning that difficult transition that shook England so powerfully 350 years ago.