THE TOWER MYTH

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It is tragic that the mass murderer Putin with his announced “mobilization” is sending even more Russian men to die, deceiving them with lies and propaganda and trying to turn them into murderers as well.  I feel so sorry for the young Russians caught in this nightmare, and sorry too for the Ukrainian people who continue to suffer greatly because of the demented whims of one man.  Let us all hope that soon common sense will prevail and this great evil will end both for Russians and Ukrainians.

Putin’s arrogance reminds me to the old tale in Genesis of the tower that was to be built to heaven so that men could “make a name” for themselves.

There are not many images of the so-called “Tower of Babel” in Eastern Orthodox iconography.  It is seen here and there in frescoes and occasionally as a border image of a larger icon, or as a book illustration, but it is not common.

In the following manuscript image from a 15th century Russian version of the Christian Topography of the 6th century writer Kosmas Indicopleustes, we see the Tower:

БашняВавилонскаяРоссияXVв
(Russian State Library, Moscow)

It is under construction.  At the base a ruler on a throne gives instructions.  Workers at left bring materials, while at right two men turn a winch to raise them up the tower.  The tower is so high that the sun and moon are seen at left and right.  But Yahweh — the Old Testament God — has come down to see what was happening, and has stopped the building of the tower, from which four men fall to the ground.

The tale itself, found at the beginning of Genesis 11, is brief.  Here it is in Brenton’s Septuagint translation:

And all the earth was one lip, and there was one language to all. And it came to pass as they moved from the east, they found a plain in the land of Senaar, and they dwelt there. And a man said to his neighbour, Come, let us make bricks and bake them with fire. And the brick was to them for stone, and their mortar was bitumen. And they said, Come, let us build to ourselves a city and tower, whose top shall be to heaven, and let us make to ourselves a name, before we are scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men built. And the Lord said, Behold, there is one race, and one lip of all, and they have begun to do this, and now nothing shall fail from them of all that they may have undertaken to do. Come, and having gone down let us there confound their tongue, that they may not understand each the voice of his neighbour. And the Lord scattered them thence over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city and the tower. On this account its name was called Confusion [Babel], because there the Lord confounded the languages of all the earth, and thence the Lord scattered them upon the face of all the earth.

So according to the Biblical story, the people on the Plain of Shinar in Babylonia (Mesopotamia) decided to build a famous city and with it a tower to Heaven, which of course irritated the Old Testament God, Yahweh (he was a very irritable fellow)

This old tale is an etiological myth, a story to explain why people speak different languages, and why the ancient city was called Babel.  Its name was really Bab-ilu  — “Gate of God” in Babylonian, but Hebrews thought that its Hebrew form sounded like balal — meaning “to confuse.”  That gave rise to the notion that there human language became confused and divided into many mutually unintelligible languages.

Note that the people intended to build a tower that would reach to Heaven.  In ancient belief Heaven was the sky — the place above the earth — but not too far above — where God had his dwelling.  In Isaiah we find this:

It is he (God) that sits upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretches out the heavens as a curtain, and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in.” 

So from Heaven, people on earth were about the size of grasshoppers in the sight of God.  That is why they thought it possible to build a tower to heaven.  They had not a clue as to the real size of the universe, or even the height of the atmosphere.  Thus the Old Testament gives us a very pre-scientific view of things.  Remember that even in the New Testament, all Jesus had to do to get to Heaven after his resurrection was to rise into the sky.

In our times, such simple “origin” stories are replaced by research and evidence.  We now know (and have for a very long time) that languages evolve, and that it is common for people separated by distance and time and isolation  — even if they began speaking the same language — to change their speech gradually, both vocabulary and grammar.  Eventually such changes result in mutually unintelligible languages.  We can see, for example, how greatly English has changed just since the days of Shakespeare.  So difference of language is simply the natural result of that.  But of course in earlier times this was not known, and such stories as the “Tower of Babel” were used in the absence of actual facts.

Even legends may sometimes have elements of truth in them.   Some think that when the Babylonians were rebuilding the great ziggurat (stepped temple) called Etemenanki (“Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth”), Judeans in Babylon may have seen the great ziggurat there, and that sight, combined with the similarity of the Hebrew word for “confusion” and the Akkadian words for “Gate of God” may have been the origin of the tale.

Here is a modern reconstruction of the likely appearance of the completed Etemenanki:

Etemenanki_drawing

TWO BY THE SAME NAME

A reader in Romania asked about icons of this fellow:

There are several things we can learn from him. First, his image is imaginary, like a great many other icon images of saints before the age of accurate portraiture and photography. Second, and equally significant, his biography is completely fictional.

Nonetheless, he is a saint associated with Taormina in Sicily. His Greek name is Ἁγιος Παγκρατιος / Hagios Pangkratios, and his Slavic name is Pankratiy Tavromenskiy / Панкратий Тавроменийский — Pancratius of Taormina. It is said that there is a St. Pangkratios mentioned in early martyrologies, but the story of his life was written in the early 8th century. So though there may have been a martyr named Pangkratios, virtually nothing is known about him.

The made-up life of Pangkratios of Taormina tells us that as a first-century boy, he lived in Antioch. When his parents heard of a teacher named Jesus, they took the boy to Jerusalem to see him and the miracles he was said to perform. So Pangkratios saw Jesus and became acquainted with his disciples, particularly with Peter. The tale goes on to say that after Jesus ascended to Heaven, an apostle came to Antioch and baptized the family.

When his parents died, Pangkratios went to live in a cave in the Pontic Mountains, in what now would be Northern Anatolia, Turkey. There he practiced prayer and religious meditation. St Peter supposedly met Pankratios in Pontus and took him to Cilicia, where he was ordained by both Peter and Paul as bishop of Taormina in Sicily. Supposedly after his arrival to take up the bishopric in Taormina, he was so successful at converting the populace that he was martyred by jealous pagans. But again, it is all a pious fiction.

It happens that in the West, Pangkratios / Pancratius is also known as Pancras. Those who have been to or have read much about London will recall the name St. Pancras Station, a railway terminus in central London. It is now called St. Pancras International. One might suppose then, that it is named for St. Pancras / Pankratios of Taormina, but that too would be wrong. It is named for a second Pancras more famous in the West than Pangkratios of Taormina — and that would be the boy St. Pancras of Rome.

(Bodemuseum, Berlin)

There again we have no reliable historical information.  His traditional hagiography says he was born around the end of the 200s, and was then raised by an uncle in Rome.  Both became Christians, and the boy Pancras is said to have been beheaded for his belief at the age of 14 during the persecution of Christians by Diocletian.   The tale of St. Pancras is found in the 13th century Golden Legend of Jacobus Voragine.

In 597 St. Augustine (of Canterbury) was sent by Pope Gregory I from Rome to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons.  Augustine was a devotee of the boy St. Pancras, and is said to have named the first church he founded in England after him.  That is how veneration of the boy saint began to spread in England.  Now oddly enough, tradition says that to have your prayers answered successfully by St. Pancras, one needed to have been either voluntarily given an image of him or to have stolen his image.  If one wanted money and prosperity in business, his image was to be placed in an obvious place, along with an offering of parsley.

Inevitably, St. Pangkratios/Pancras of Taormina and St. Pancras of Rome are often confused.

SLIM EXCUSE FOR SAINTHOOD

A reader asked me to explain this very Westernized icon, which appears to be from the late 19th-early 20th century:

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Such icons originated in the tale of bizarre events said to have occurred in the 1560s, but the story was recorded in the 18th century.

It relates that two parents in the Novgorod region named Isidor and Barbara had two little sons:  Ioann, who was five years old, and Iakov, who was three.

Now it happened in the autumn of the year that their father decided to kill a ram by striking it on the head.  The impressionable children watched the act.  Later, when the parents were out in the field, Ioann said to Iakov, “Let us do just as our father did,” and gave Iakov a big whack on the head with a stick.  Iakov fell down dead.

Ioann was terrified by what had happened, according to one account, and went and hid behind the firewood laid ready inside the big stove in the house.  When the parents came home, they found Iakov dead and Ioann missing.  After a fruitless search, the mother lit the firewood in the stove, and Ioann was killed by the smoke.  The mother then found the supposedly unburnt body of Ioann in the stove.

The two children were buried in the churchyard of the St. Nicholas Church.

Later, some hunters became lost in the forest some distance away.  When they looked out on Kamenskoye Lake, they saw two coffins floating there, which happened to be those of the two children buried in the churchyard.  They prayed to the two children for help, and suddenly a path appeared that led the lost hunters back home, where they told of their encounter at the lake.  The coffins with the bodies were retrieved by clergy and local people, and taken back to the St. Nicholas Church.  The hunters, however, said the two children had appeared to them in a dream, saying they wished to be buried in a deserted place near Menyush, where formerly there had supposedly been a monastery.  So the two coffins were buried in the new location, and a chapel was built on the site. As these tales go, miracles of healing were associated with the two children.

Here is another State Church icon of the two brothers, shown with St. Darya at left, the priest Zakharias/Zechariah at right, and Jesus (with his name abbreviated in the State Church manner) blessing from the clouds above.

ioanniakovmeniuzhskdaryazakhariy

Now according to an alternate account, the death of the older brother was a voluntary martyrdom for killing his younger brother.  That accounts for why both the slayer and the slain in this account were reckoned as saints, strange as it seems with such slim support for such status evident in the story.  Even the writers of the tale thought that odd, because some did not like to talk about the details of their deaths, and some instead changed the story to read that the children were killed by villains.  In any case, the two children are venerated as saints and known as Праведные отроки Иаков и Иоанн Менюжские / Pravednuie otroki Iakov i Ioann Meniuzhskie — “Righteous Youths Jacob and John Meniuzhskiy”

As you can see, the whole matter is highly dubious, but that is often the case with tales of the saints in Eastern Orthodoxy.

HYPATIUS GETS NASTY ABOUT ICONS

Just a beginning note that I often add the flags above to remind us of the suffering and bravery of Ukraine under Putin’s invasion, and of those Russians who oppose and deplore Putin’s senseless and evil war with Ukraine and all the unnecessary sorrow and loss of many, many lives on both sides.

Now to today’s icon.

This icon appears to be one of the more skillful creations attributed to the Vetka school of icon painting.

It depicts
ИПАТИЙ ЧУДОТВОРЕЦ ИЖЕ В ГАНГРЕ
IPATIY CHUDOTVORETS IZHE V GANGRE
HYPATIUS THE WONDERWORKER THE ONE AT GANGRA

So this icon represents Hypatios/Hypatius of Gangra.

You will notice that anachronistically, Ipatiy holds in his right hand a icon of the “Kazan” type, which first became famous in 1579. Ipatiy, however, by tradition was a participant in the Nicene Council in 325 — centuries earlier. His story says that after that council, he was attacked by some supporters of Arianism, and a woman among them killed him with a stone — then supposedly went mad until she was healed by visiting the burial site of Hypatius.

His scroll illustrates the intolerance of religions based on dogma. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.”

It reads:

АЩЕ КТО НЕ ПОКЛОНЯЕСЯ ИКОНЕ ПРЕЧИСТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ С ПРЕВЕЧНЫМ МЛАДЕНЦЕМ ИСУСОМ ХРИСТОМ ДА ВУДЕТЪ ПРОКЛАТЪ

ASHCHE KTO NE POKLONYAESYA IKONE PRECHISTUIYA BOGORODITSUI S PREVECHNUIM MLADENTSEM ISUSOM KHRISTOM DA BUDET” PROKLAT”

“Whoever does not bow before the icon of the most holy Mother of God with the Eternal Child, let him be cursed.”

Well, that’s not very nice or tolerant, is it? Orthodoxy does have its dark side, something that can happen in most any religion that adopts the “true believer” status for itself, dividing the world into “us” and “them” — something that has caused endless suffering over the centuries, and continues to do so even today.

In any case, the scroll text seems to be the result of the confusion in tradition of Hypatius of Gangra, who is said to have attended the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea, with a later bishop Hypatius who is said to have attended the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, which dealt with the veneration of icons. At that later council, Hypatius supposedly made the statement written on the scroll in the icon, saying those who refused to venerate them were cursed/damned/anathema.

What I find most interesting about Ipatiy however, is his relationship to the domovoy in folk belief.

The domovoy (домовой) in Russian belief is a spirit creature who is the guardian spirit of the house. He watches over it, keeps out evil spirits, helps out diligent human dwellers and tends to punish those who are lazy. He usually looks like a rather hairy old man, but some say the older a domovoy gets, the younger he looks.

The commoration day of Ipatiy/Hypatius of Gangra is March 31st by the Old Calendar, April 13th by the New. So the day called “Ipatiy” has a number of folk traditions associated with it, one of which is this: On that day, the domovoy tends to be particularly rambunctious, and Ipatiy is believed to have the power to keep the domovoy under control. He is also appealed to in cases of sexual impotence, infertility, problems with pregnancy, as well as the expulsion of evil spirits.

Here is another somewhat similar icon of Ipatiy/Hypatius. It is obviously a State Church icon, as we can tell from the ICXC position of the fingers on the right blessing hand. Note too that a different icon of Mary and the child Jesus is used in this example. That is because the podlinniki — the painters’ manuals — usually did not specify the actual icon type to be used here, but generally said only something like the icon should be of “the Most Holy Mother of God and the Eternal Child Jesus Christ.”

The title inscription on this icon of Ipatiy reads:

OBRAZ IPATIYA EPISKOPA GANGRSKAGO
“IMAGE OF HYPATIUS BISHOP OF GANGRA”

THE FAMILY DOG-MEN

Do you remember Merkurios Abu-Seifein — Merkurios of the two swords, the one whom Mary, mother of Jesus supposedly sent to assassinate the Emperor Julian?

Well, in his traditional story the father of Merkurios had a couple of very interesting buddies. He made their acquaintance when they ate his own father, the grandfather of Merkurios/Mercurius. Now of course most saints — even before their conversion — do not go about eating people’s relatives, but these two were an unusual pair. We find them in Egyptian Christianity, as in this icon from the Museum of Coptic Art in Cairo, said to have been painted in the last quarter of the 18th century by Ibrahim al-Nassikh:

They appear also in the Ethiopian Synaxarium, which has a good account of them and how they met the father of Merkurios. Remember that St. Merkurios was also called Philopater. Here is how the story goes in Budge’s translation of the account for his day of commemoration — Hedar 25 — December 4th. The English of Budge is a bit archaic, but understandable nonetheless:

On this day became a martyr Philopator (which is being interpreted “lover of the Father”)
Mercurius, and this name also being interpreted is “servant of Jesus Christ.” This holy
man was a native of the city of ‘Asletes, which was also the city of his father, and his
grandfather who were born therein, and he was brought up in the city of Rome.

Now the occupation of his father, and grandfather, and his kinsmen was that of hunters of wild
beasts. One day they went out hunting, according to their custom, and they found two men
with the faces of dogs, and they ate his grandfather, and they also wanted to eat his father,
but the angel of the Lord prevented them from doing so. And the angel said unto them,
“Touch him not, for from him shall go forth good fruit.” Then the angel of the Lord
surrounded them with fire, and being in tribulation, the two Dog-faces came to the father
of Saint Mercurius, and they bowed low before him. And straightway God changed their
[savage] nature to one of gentleness, and they became like sheep and went with him to the
city.

And after he had begotten the holy man Mercurius, and called his name “Philopator,”
the Dog-faces lived with them for many days, and then they became Christians; now the
ancestors of the holy man had been in days of old pagans. And when they received the gift
of Christian baptism, they called the father of the holy man “Noah,” and his mother
“Tabot,” and Philopator “Mercurius.”

And the Dog-faces, according to what the angel ofthe Lord said unto them when he appeared unto them, were in subjection to the holy man Mercurius, and his father. And when the king heard the story of the Dog-faces and how God had changed their savage natures, [he ordered his soldiers to bring in wild beasts]before the king, and the Dog-faces destroyed all the wild beasts, which the king broughtbefore them. When the king saw this he was afraid of them exceedingly, and he asked the father of Saint Mercurius to entreat God to remove from them their savage nature, and to
make them to possess the nature of men; and he asked God, and God changed their nature
and they became like men.

Then the king took the holy father Mercurius and appointed him governor and captain of the army, and these Dog-faces were subject unto him, and all the people were afraid of them. After this a certain wicked king rose up and he wished to make war upon another king, and the king sent his soldiers to entice those Dog-faces and to bring them to him. And that wicked king, who wished to make war on the king of the city wherein the father of Saint Mercurius lived, enticed them. And straightway he was angry at the Dog-faces, and he punished one of them, who became a martyr thereby, and the other fled.

When the father of Saint Mercurius returned to the city he sought for his
son and his mother and found them not. Now the king, having heard that the father of
Saint Mercurius was killed in battle, decided to take the mother of Saint Mercurius and
marry her. And one of the soldiers of the king knowing what the king intended to do, went
and told the mother of Saint Mercurius what the king had decided concerning her. When
she heard this she asked him to take [her] out secretly, and she went out with her son the
blessed Mercurius. And his father having sought for his wife and his son, and found them
not, knew not in the least what had become of them.

And the king was afraid because he thought that the Dog-faces lived with him, and that he would become angry and would turn them loose, and they would destroy all the city. And the king commanded his servants not to tell him that he intended to marry his wife.

After this war broke out against the king, and the father of Saint Mercurius went out to fight, and the king took him prisoner. Now by the Will of God the king of Rome was a Christian. And when he knew that the father of Saint Mercurius was a Christian, he spared him and did not kill him, and he made him governor of all the city of the Mardosaweyan. And by the Will of God Saint Mercurius
and his mother were in the city of Rome, and when his father came into the church the
mother of Saint Mercurius saw him and knew that he was her husband.

One day when they were sitting in the guest house the father of Mercurius and his soldiers rode out, and the mother of the blessed Mercurius dressed her son in the fine raiment which he used to
wear in the royal city, and commanded him to go and mount the horse of the governor, that
is to say of his father. And having mounted the governor’s horse, the soldiers seized him
and brought him before the governor, that is to say his father, who did not know that he
was his son, and he was angry with him. And the mother of Mercurius came to her
husband, now he did not know that she was his wife, and she said unto him, “We are
strangers, and when I knew that thou was a stranger I thought that my son might be with
thee”; and when he asked her questions and enquired concerning her journey she told him
that she was his wife.

And straightway he knew her and he knew his son Mercurius, and
he placed [him] in the church, and they lived there together. When the father and mother
of Saint Mercurius died, the king took him and made him governor of the city of the
Mardosaweyan in his father’s stead; and the one Dog-face that had remained with him up
to the time he was appointed governor, used to go forth with Mercurius in battle. When
they wanted to fight God used to restore to the Dog-face his original savage nature, and
there was none who could stand before him. And there were given to this Saint Mercurius
power, and great strength, and he was more renowned and more exalted than all the other
officers of the kingdom.

So you can add these two fellows to the ranks of dog-headed saints. Their names by tradition are given variously as Akhrax and Augani or Ahrauqas and Augani.

I hope you have realized by now how full of myth and legend Eastern Christianity is, whether Slavic, Greek, or in regions farther south. Christianity itself is largely based on myth, but that is something seldom told to the laity. It will, however, eventually become obvious to the serious student of the iconography of the Eastern Church.