(ORDO NEWS) — The Bible is called the Book of Books for a reason. For believers, it is sacred. For creative people it serves as an inexhaustible source of inspiration and a treasure trove of stories. Some of the art critics even claim that all world literature and painting (as well as cinema, theater, fine arts) are based exclusively on biblical stories, and that writers and artists have never invented anything that surpasses them. Historians can find many interesting things in the Bible. There are also technical riddles. But biblical animals are no less curious. Let’s try to figure out what kind of mysterious behemoth with a leviathan will be served at the feast table of the righteous after the Last Judgment? Did the Eden tempting serpent have legs? In the belly of what fish could the prophet Jonah hide?
And I watched a hippopotamus at the zoo …
Who does not remember this phrase of a young pupil of the Suvorov Military School from the film “Officers”? The thick-skinned inhabitants of African rivers are really quite funny. Watching them at the zoo is a real pleasure for kids. But few people know that in the wild these animals are very dangerous: defending their territory, they are ready to crush any intruder – from man to elephant. Every year, more people die in Africa after accidental encounters with hippos than from attacks by crocodiles.
Meanwhile, the very word “hippopotamus” in relation to the massive inhabitants of freshwater rivers in Africa came into use only in the 19th century, and only in Russia. It came from French and German, but only our compatriots called hippos hippos. Europeans called any large thick-skinned animal a hippopotamus. And as soon as zoologists were able to identify and describe the species, it immediately began to be called a hippo once and for all. So in Europe, the hippopotamus is now found only in the Bible.
In Holy Scripture, the hippopotamus is a terrible beast. The personification of horror and dark forces. His feet are like pillars, his tread shakes the earth, and his roar is like the thunder of hundreds of copper pipes. In the early Middle Ages, the hippopotamus was synonymous with the definition of “brute” – something huge, hostile, despising and larger than everyone else.
But did the authors of the biblical texts mean the hippopotamus known to us? The ancient Jews were perfectly familiar with this, albeit a huge animal, but completely subject to man. Egyptian pharaohs considered it a matter of honor to have elephants, rhinos, and hippos in their zoos. Moreover, it was the hunters from among the tribes conquered by the Egyptians who went to the very heart of the African continent in order to get these animals alive. So the unfortunate hippos could not cause superstitious horror.
But in almost any village in Central Africa, local clay-makers will show (and even sell) you a figurine that closely resembles a reconstruction of a stegosaurus. But the biblical hippopotamus really looks more like a dinosaur – isn’t it?
It turns out that the memory of animals that died out millions of years ago, long before the appearance of man, somehow survived among the primitive tribes. This is absolutely implausible, if one does not assume that the contemporaries of the compilers of the first biblical texts really met with the miracle of surviving relatives of dinosaurs. The wilds of Central Africa are not well studied. Who can say that the jungle does not roam like a surviving stegosaurus?
Let’s give an example. Some Egyptian and Hebrew images depict a strange fish – always belly up. However, both the ancient Jews and the ancient Egyptians were very accurate in depicting nature, and modern ichthyology did not know such a fish. Some archaeologists even formulated a theory: they say, for some reason ancient artists began to draw sick fish, they almost depicted an ecological catastrophe. Others said it was a mistake, an artistic fiction. But in the late 1960s, a similar fish was caught in the middle reaches of the Nile – it turns out that it always swims with its belly up – this is the breed!
In the footsteps of megalodon
Figures in the Bible and a distant relative of the hippopotamus – a whale, in the belly of which the prophet Jonah hid for three days, thrown from a ship during a storm as a victim. By the way, do not be surprised, but cetacean mammals actually descended from artiodactyls, like the hippopotamus family, choosing an aquatic lifestyle about 60 million years ago. If we compare the size of, for example, a blue whale (up to 33 meters) and a human, then the story does not look entirely implausible. However, such an obvious analogy does not work – all the largest whales belong to the suborder baleen. They feed on plankton, and such a large object as a person simply cannot get into their stomachs because of a kind of filter designed specifically for filtering plankton.
Toothed whales (dolphins, killer whales) are much smaller and cannot physically swallow humans. Perhaps only with the exception of the sperm whale. In this case, a person could enter the whale’s stomach entirely. True, Iona could not exist there for three days – the digestive enzymes in sperm whales are so strong that they even digest rubber and rubber, not like human flesh. And no cases of attack or voluntary approach of a sperm whale to a person have been registered.
Then maybe it was a giant shark? The largest representatives of this order of human fish are many times larger in size. The stomach of sharks is easily stretched, and some of their species have a habit of cleansing the stomach by the method of eversion – in other words, “turning outward through the mouth.” The configuration is quite suitable for Jonah: first, the shark swallowed it by mistake, and then spat it out.
But the largest species – whale sharks (up to 20 meters), giant and bigmouth sharks – feed the same way as whales, and the object is not able to swallow more sea bass. White and tiger sharks (as well as several smaller breeds) were not averse to feasting on human flesh and could have swallowed the hapless Iona. But they first break the food, and only then swallow it. And even after three days in the belly of such a fish, the biblical prophet would have looked very pitiful. After all, the content of hydrochloric acid in the stomach of sharks reaches 3%, and they process food very quickly, not storing reserves in the stomach, but pumping fat into their own liver.
True, modern sharks had more impressive relatives. These are megalodons, which appeared about 30 million years ago and became extinct, according to most scientists, only 1.5 million years ago. They reached a length of up to 30 meters, and one of the teeth found from root to point has 18 centimeters. Such a beast will swallow anyone without chewing, and the digestive system of ancient fish was not as complex as that of modern sharks. Maybe Jonah met this particular inhabitant of the deep sea? But, most likely, waiting out the storm in the belly of a whale is just an allegory, nothing more.
Who stripped the snake’s legs
Everyone knows that Adam and Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit, were severely punished – expelled from Eden. But the tempting serpent was also punished, inciting Eve to violate the duty of obedience to God. The biblical serpent was stripped of its legs and was doomed by the Creator to eternally “crawl on its belly and feed on dust.” Snakes are truly devoid of limbs, crawl and are the only animals on Earth that are incapable of eating plant foods. But could they once be able to walk like most animals?
It turns out that the snakes we know were not always like that. Even in some species of modern boas, rudimentary remnants of the hind limbs are traced, preserved in the skeleton. Moreover, in South America, fossils have been found belonging to a very strange breed of snakes – the Patagonian nayash. The reptile, which became extinct after the appearance of man, had hind limbs that helped in movement – that is, they were real legs.
Moreover, modern science quite clearly deduces snakes from ordinary lizards of the Baranov family, which got rid of their limbs as a result of evolution – their legs prevented them from moving among stones and bushes. The front legs of the snakes were the first to fall off, as the least useful. But the remains of the bones of the pelvic girdle have been preserved in the so-called primitive snakes today. So it was not the Creator who punished the tempter with the deprivation of legs, but the snakes got rid of them for their own convenience.
In the Christian tradition, the dragon is often identified with the “snake”. And in this case, science, as they say, is powerless. A huge fire-breathing and flying beast is a figment of the imagination of ancient authors. Although there is a small grain of truth in the union of the animal and the flame. For example, salamanders have the unique ability to get wet out of the fire. With a sharp increase in ambient temperature, this harmless amphibian instantly evaporates moisture and does not get burned. Imagine the horror of a medieval peasant: he threw an armful of firewood into the fire, and from the fireplace (from the flame!) A small black-fiery lizard suddenly jumps out. Here you will not only remember the tempting snake, but the entire text of Holy Scripture.
Leviathan, Lord of the Waters
If the hippopotamus, according to biblical tradition, is the most terrible land beast, then Leviathan is a sea monster. We can say the same reflection of universal evil, only on the waters. True, this beast was never associated with anyone, but was portrayed as necessary – more and more terrifying. Also, by the way, it looks like a Cretaceous ichthyosaur.
To recognize the Nile crocodile in Leviathan, it is enough to recall the history of the ancient Jews, who were in captivity by the Egyptians for a long time. After all, the Egyptians themselves in ancient times said that “the country Ta-Kem (the ancient name of Egypt) from the south and east is guarded by impassable deserts, from the north by powerful fortresses, and the western border (Nile) is guarded by crocodiles.” Isn’t this Leviathan the Jews had in mind? After all, a predator is more terrible, and even guarding the waterways from Egypt, they did not know.
Summing up the study of the “biblical zoo”, it can be noted that more or less real prototypes of monsters from the Holy Scriptures have a very real “residence” on the African continent, and the authors of the texts were familiar, if not personally, then from eyewitness accounts. The rest must be attributed to exaggeration and allegory. Unless on our planet, megalodons, ichthyosaurs and other animals of the Jurassic period have survived somewhere. Or persisted until relatively recently.
Exaggeration is a property of the ancients
Of course, not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. For example, medieval Christians imagined Satan as a nightmarish creature with horns and hooves, and demons as his slightly smaller copies, tirelessly supporting the fire under the hellish cauldrons. Now the clergy are talking more about intangible substances. Demons are a symbol of human passions, and the devil is an allegory, the personification of evil. Therefore, one should not be surprised that animals and birds in the Bible not only have a mind and perform independent actions, but are also able to speak.
For example, the compilers of biblical texts attribute human speech to the Valaam donkey. But no one will seriously argue that donkeys were able to talk in Old Testament times. This is done for the sake of simplicity. So it is more convenient to convey this or that truth to the not too educated reader. How to explain to a simple farmer, for whom even an ordinary crop failure is already a great grief. what is more terrible than a drought or a flood? Yes, exaggerate tenfold the strength and power of the predatory beast and intimidate the punishment of the Lord.
Let us recall again the ancient Jews who laid the foundation for biblical traditions. Palestine, where this people lived after the exodus from Egypt, is poor in large fauna. But in the memory of the people for a long time remained the same Nile crocodiles – fierce and merciless predators, moreover, completely alien to human nature. Over time, these prehistoric reptiles could well turn into such a scarecrow, an identification of evil, strength and power.
In any case, it should be borne in mind that concepts such as “a lot” and “big”, “good” and “evil”, “sin” and “punishment”, in ancient times were often used only to enhance the effect. As they say, the scale shift is the clarity of the comparison. And when it is difficult to explain to contemporaries what the nature of things really is, it is easier to paint the world around with bright colors, intimidate with unknown punishments or beckon with indescribable benefits. And so it happened that the Bible is “inhabited” by mysterious, mysterious monsters, at every step lying in wait for those who dare to violate the prohibitions.
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