Friday, March 23, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

My daughter, who is in high school, is currently reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for her history class.  Recently, she and I have been having some very enjoyable discussions about the ever popular cantos that comprise The Inferno.  From “abandon all hope” to “and lo I saw the Beast”, it doesn’t get much better in literature.  Of course Dante’s famous poem is one of the first cases in Western literature of political satire masked as allegory, which makes it all the more delicious.  Plus how cool is it that a teacher of freshman history, at a public school by the way, is introducing his kids to some of the finest writing in our culture?

These conversations got me thinking about the chthonic stories in Jewish, Christian and Islamic history, and how much modern practitioners of those religions are unfamiliar with.  There’s a lot that has been sifted through the rigorous religious upheavals as chaff that actually would give a person pause if they really thought about it.  One such story, from the ancient Hebrew text known as the Book of Enoch, puts an interesting spin on the fall of angels and the archfiends of Hell.

“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the Sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose” says the opening of Genesis 6.  But who were these “Sons of God” that found the daughters of men irresistible?  While modern Biblical scholars interpret them as “angels”, the scribe Enoch begs to differ.

In the Book of Enoch, their name is Ben ha Elohim.  This can be interpreted as Sons of God but it also has a more sinister meaning: Watchers.  These Watchers, Enoch tells us, never slept and were tasked by Yahweh with keeping track of the descendants of Adam.  Enoch makes it fairly clear that the Ben Ha Elohim are not, in fact, angels as were the “Big Four” Michael, Uriel, Gabriel and Raphael (in order of appearance).  In Chapter 11 he speaks of these Archangels and specifically calls them “Four presences different from those who Sleep Not.”  What, exactly, the Watchers were is not specifically spelled out.  But their difference from angels – who are interpreted in Hebrew liturgy as beings of spirit without physical bodies – is made clear in their actions.

Besotted by the daughters of men, the Watchers descended from Mount Hermon 12,000 years ago according to Enoch.  In a manner familiar to lovers of Greek mythology, the Sons of God propositioned the daughters of men.  Throwing in a clever twist, the Hebrew daughters refused to gratify their suitors’ lusts until they had struck a bargain.  The ladies would “marry” the Watchers, but only if they in turn agreed to teach humans the knowledge so far kept only in heaven.  The Watchers quickly agree and, evidently after pairing off with the fleshly maidens, begin giving humans lessons in metal working, agriculture, astronomy and, perhaps most curiously, the manufacture of perfume, make-up and fine linen.

The humans became adept at their new skills and the Watchers settled in with their wives.  As will inevitably happen, children began to be born from these unions, but they were not any kind of bouncing babies.  They were horrid monsters who wreaked havoc on the countryside, their villages and even their own parents.  In dismay, both human mothers and Watcher fathers appealed to Yahweh for relief from the oppression of their children.

Seeing the trouble he had evidently tried to ignore was now out of hand, Yahweh sent his Archangels to Earth to clear things up.  The Watchers and their offspring were driven into “the valleys of the Earth” where they were said to be imprisoned under stone until the Day of Judgment.  It may have been one of the leaders of the Watchers, Azazel, to whom the famous “scapegoat” was sent out on the yearly Day of Atonement.  Azazel was said to be buried at the bottom of a cliff at Haradan, and it was over this cliff that the goat was driven to carry the sins of the people back to their originator: the “Seducer of Mankind.”

Some esoteric scholars have argued that the Watchers were the first heavenly beings to transform into demons of Hell, with their leader Azazel as the capital D “Devil”.  Lucifer in this scenario is a later addition to the fold who was only driven out by Michael when he refused to acknowledge Christ – who is sometimes said to be Lucifer’s twin – as the Son of God.  Others say that Lucifer awaited the Watchers when they came to Hell, his sin being his refusal to bow down before Yahweh’s creation, Adam.  At that point one might as well argue the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin for all the good it does.

But the story of the Ben Ha Elohim is interesting if for no other reason that it is so infrequently told in this day and age when the intrinsic characteristics of religion like sex and violence are carefully weeded out of the flower bed.  Enoch also graciously set down a list of the names of the Watchers, which is interesting too but certainly another post unto itself.  Enough is enough, so to say.

Header: Lucifer Cast Out by Gustave Dore


Timmy! said...

That was a fun post, Pauline! You can't make this sh*t up, can you? Oh, wait, it turns out you can...

But oh, those wacky kids, what are you gonna do?

Pauline said...

You know, considering how poorly Yahweh did with his kids, I turned out to be a fairly decent parent in spite of my own upbringing. There's no accounting, is there?

Anyway; yeah. I love these angel/fallen angel stories with their interchangable and different beginnings and endings. More to come here at HQ, no doubt!