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sient. ‘Their minds were blinded; for unto this day, when Moses is read, that veil is on their heart.’ Kircher says the Seraphs of Egypt were images without any eminency of limbs, rolled as it were in swaddling clothes, partly made of stone, partly of metal, wood, or shell. Similar images, he says, were called by the Romans ‘secret gods.” As an age of scepticism advanced, it was Sometimes necessary that these ‘involuti' should be slightly revealed, lest it should be said there was no god there at all. Such is the case with the famous bambino of Aracoeli Church in Rome. This effigy, said to have been carved by a pilgrim out of a tree on the Mount of Olives, and painted by St. Luke while the pilgrim was sleeping, is now kept in its ark, and visitors are allowed to see part of its painted face. When the writer of this requested a sight of the whole form, or of the head at any rate, the exhibiting priest was astounded at the suggestion. No doubt he was right: the only wonder is that the face is not hid also, for a more ingeniously ugly thing than the flat, blackened, and rouged visage of the bambino it were difficult to conceive. But it wears a very cunning veil nevertheless. The face is set in marvellous brilliants, but these are of less effect in hiding its ugliness than the vesture of mythology around it. The adjacent walls are covered with pictures of the miracles it has performed, and which have attracted to it such faith that it is said at one time to have received more medical fees than all the physicians in Rome together. Priests have discovered that a veil over the mind is thicker than a veil on the god. Such is the popular veneration for the bambino, that, in 1849, the Republicans thought it politic to present the monks with the Pope's state coach to carry the idol about. In the end it was proved that the Pope was securely seated beside
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the bambino, and he presently emerged from behind his veil also. There came, then, a period when the Serpent crept behind the veil, or lid of the ark, or into a chalice,—a very small worm, but yet able to gnaw the staff of Solomon. No wisdom could be permitted to rise above fear itself, though its special sources might be here and there reduced or vanquished. The snake had taught man at last its arts of war. Man had summoned to his aid the pig, and the ibis made havoc among the reptiles; and some of that terror which is the parent of that kind of devotion passed away. When it next emerged, it was in twofold guise,_as Agathodemon and Kakodemon,--but in both forms as the familiar of some higher being. It was as the genius of Minerva, of Esculapius, of St. Euphemia. We have already seen him (Fig. 13) as the genius of the Eleans, the Sosopolis, where also we see the Serpent hurrying into his cavern, leaving the mother and child to be worshipped in the temple of Lucina. In christian symbolism the Seraphim—‘ burning (sāraf) serpents'—veiled their faces and forms beneath their huge wings, crossed in front, and so have been able to become “the eminent,' and to join in the praises of modern communities at being delivered from just such imaginary fiery worms as themselves |
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The Naturalistic Theory of Apophis—The Serpent of Time—Epic of the Worm—The Asp of Melite—Vanguishers of Time—NachashBeriach—The Serpent-Spy—Treading on Serpents.
THE considerations advanced in the previous chapter enable us to dismiss with facility many of the rationalistic interpretations which have been advanced to explain the monstrous serpents of sacred books by reference to imaginary species supposed to be now extinct. Flying serpents, snakes many-headed, rain-bringing, woman-hating, &c., may be suffered to survive as the fauna of bibliolatrous imaginations. Such forms, however, are of such mythologic importance that it is necessary to watch carefully against this method of realistic interpretation, especially as there are many actual characteristics of serpents sufficiently mysterious to conspire with it. A recent instance of this literalism may here be noticed. Mr. W. R. Cooper" supposes the evil serpent of Egyptian Mythology to have a real basis in ‘a large and unidentified species of coluber, of great strength and hideous longitude,” which ‘was, even from the earliest ages, associated as the representative of spiritual, and occasionally physical evil, and was named Hof, Rehof, or Apophis, the “destroyer, the enemy of the gods, and the devourer of the souls of men.’
* See his learned and valuable treatise, “The Serpent Myths of Ancient Egypt.” Hardwicke, 1873.
That such a creature, he adds, “once inhabited the Libyan desert, we have the testimony of both Hanno the Carthaginian and Lucan the Roman, and if it is now no longer an inhabitant of that region, it is probably owing to the advance of civilisation having driven it farther south.” Apart from the extreme improbability that African exploration should have brought no rumours of such a monster if it existed, it may be said concerning Mr. Cooper's theory: (1) If, indeed, the references cited were to a reptile now unknown, we might be led by mythologic analogy to expect that it would have been revered beyond either the Asp or the Cobra. In proportion to the fear has generally been the exaltation of its objects. Primitive peoples have generally gathered courage to pour invective upon evil monsters when—either from their non-existence or rarity— there was least danger of its being practically resented as a personal affront. (2.) The regular folds of Apophis on the sarcophagus of Seti I. and elsewhere are so evidently mystical and conventional that, apparently, they refer to a serpent-form only as the guilloche on a wall may refer to sea-waves. Apophis (or Apap) would have been a decorative artist to fold himself in such order. These impossible labyrinthine coils suggest Time, as the serpent with its tail in its mouth signifies Eternity,+ an evolution of the same idea. This was the interpretation given by a careful scholar, the late William Hickson," to the procession of nine persons depicted on the sarcophagus mentioned as bearing a serpent, each holding a fold, all being regular enough for a frieze. ‘The scene,’ says this author, ‘appears to relate to the Last Judgment, for Osiris is seen on his throne, passing sentence on a crowd before him ; and in the same tableaux are depicted the river that divides the living from the dead, and the bridge
* “Time and Faith,’ i. 204. Groombridge, 1857.
of life. The death of the serpent may possibly be intended to symbolise the end of time.’ This idea of long duration might be a general one relating to all time, or it might refer to the duration of individual life; it involved naturally the evils and agonies of life; but the fundamental conception is more simple, and also more poetic, than even these implications, and it means eternal waste and decay. One has need only to sit before a clock to see Apophis : there coil upon coil winds the ever-moving monster, whose tooth is remorseless, devouring little by little the strength and majesty of man, and reducing his grandest achievements—even his universe—to dust. Time is the undying Worm.
God having made me worm, I make you—smoke.
Since the star flames, man would be wrong to teach
To gnaw yon star is not more tough to me
The starry ship, high in the ether Sea,
The Epic of the Worm,' by Victor Hugo. Translated by Bayard Taylor from “La Légende des Siècles'