O’Donovan notes: the calendar’s emblems: November and July. Pt.4

2500 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

Having set our chronological limits as c.2ndC AD- 1230 AD and a northern geographic limit at the line of the via Francigena (though including, by sea, the Adriatic),* we’re not seeking a similar form for Scorpius as constellation, so much as a lineage for its character – perceived nature – as expressed in the ‘November’ emblem in Beinecke MS 408. We take this course because there is no known representation of Scorpius, whether as a constellation or as sign, in such a form in any western manuscript, just as no equivalent series for the Voynich calendar’s has yet been found.

*Our reasons for doing so were explained in earlier parts of this series.

By default, considering the quality of fifteenth-century images of Scorpius in western manuscripts, we assume that any figure first created there between 1405-1438 would attempt to depict the scorpion literally and superficially, while what we have is a figure ‘moralised’, emphasising its inner character. (see previous post). The exception, in fifteenth-century Europe, would be if the exemplar was one sufficiently old, or sufficiently foreign, or of such perceived importance that its images were copied closely rather than ‘improved’ as was usually done.

How much older and whence it might have come do matter, because those things may shed light on where, and when, our manuscript’s written text was first given its form.

We’ve recognised a consistent character for representing Scorpius as ‘beast’: that of the deadly and ‘devilish’ marauder, or to use a phrase attached to Antares in the later version of the Toledan tables: ‘tendit ad rapinam‘.

Now, I hope, understanding that moralisation, the form which was given Scorpius-as-beast in 12thC Vézelay will no longer seems so bizarre, even if it’s not quite the form we’re seeking.

Throughout what follows, the key is the line of transmission: from eastern origins into the west. This will become another constant for moralised, non-literal, forms expressing Scorpion-character, in western medieval works.

Egypt and Rome 1st-2nd C

When the ‘Poeticon Astronomicon’ was written as a school ‘crib’, Egypt lay under Roman rule, with the small and still detested* Christian communities living alongside traditional Egyptian cults, Hellenistic cults, Roman cults, synthesised Roman-Egyptian and Roman-Greek forms, and from the 3rdC AD, also with Manichaean communities.

*detested by imperial Rome.

But while attempting to eradicate that annoying Christian cult, Rome was busily accumulating riches, both material and intellectual, from conquered eastern peoples. Interest in Egypt, and in Egyptian cults, was high.

Some Roman emperors continued the Ptolemies’ support of jackal god cults, even representing Herm[es]-anubis..

And while that is certainly true to some extent, the Roman-era figure from Kom el-Shoqafa (shown at right) does not (pace Venit et al.) show Egypt’s loyal and kindly guide of souls, Anubis, It is a form for that other – the one who pierces on the one side and strikes with the other.

The Romans in Egypt were not always well-informed and since the spirits of their own dead simply lived ‘underground’ the whole matter of Anubis-or-Ammit* apparently passed them by.

*On the vital figure called Ammit, see Part 3.

Whether the Romans realised that the Kom el-Shoqafa figure is no ‘Anubis’ is another question, but one which need not detain us.

During the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, coins minted for Alexandria show a better understanding, though still when the ‘Chronography of 354’ was made (or so it would appear), the Romans still associated Anubis, rather than Ammit, with their rite opening the Gate(s) of Hell,

Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, Egyptologist from whom Athanasius Kircher would gain much, was among those who copied a late copy of the Chronography,

(detail) from the ‘November’ page of the “Philocalus” or Chronography of 354 ‘

For us, now, opposition between Anubis and the Scorpio character can be reduced to a simple ‘good guide on the upward road’- Anubis; versus ‘bad’ down-dragging Scorpius.

Scorpius = South.

In a general, less loaded sense, Scorpius has been associated with South and this was evidently common knowledge by the 4thC AD, when the Babylonian Talmud is generally believed completed. Because the connection is recorded there, it can be considered common knowledge among Rabbinical Jews everywhere during the centuries to follow.

The Rabbis taught: “If one comes to make a town square, he must make it as the square of the earth, i.e., the north must be towards the north of the earth, the south towards the south, and his signs shall be: the zodiac of the capricorn in the north and that of the scorpion in the south. “Michael L. Rodkinson (trans.), The Babylonian Talmud ( Vols. 1-10), 1918 p.130.

The Scorpion in early Christian writings.

In Christian tradition, South was the direction of Hell. Egyptian influence and ideas affected Late Roman thought, but Egyptian influence in early Christianity was more, and more direct. It came not only through formal text and preaching but, as it were, ‘from the ground up’; after several thousand years, Egyptian beliefs had permeated and informed popular culture in much of the eastern Mediterranean, and indeed its formal religion had developed from them. Many of those ideas were to be consciously re-cast and re-explained in Christian terms, while other became part of ‘unofficial’ lore in Christian thought and art. In some cases, too, early Christian thinkers actively attempted to fuse older Greek, Egyptian and Roman ideas, from a conviction that all pre-Christian knowledge had been a well-intentioned but necessarily dim apprehension of truth, to be understood in other terms once the perfection of understanding came to human kind – as they thought – after Christ’s teaching. One then finds Orion sanctified as great angel’ and as Christopher; a holy female dog (probably symbolic of Isis-Sirius) re-defined as a female St. Guinefort and honoured as far as Gaul, and re-interpreted later by Renaissance Italians to become a male and martial figure… and so on.

But about the scorpion itself, no-one had anything positive to say.

Writings of the early Christian Fathers, still read and respected today, have the scorpion a type for those who mislead the Christian, imperiling their souls. Sometimes the figure is used neatly, as when the scorpion’s sting is likened to the heretic’s pen; sometimes less felicitously as when one writer urges his listeners to regard the truth as an egg, falsehood as a scorpion, and to behave like hens.

But ‘scorpion’ meant ‘bad’. It meant South. It meant ‘trespass’ and ‘transgression’, losing the ‘right Way’. These ideas could be embodied in forms other than the ordinary scorpion’s – in the form of dog, or a demon, or as some other creature which lurked and snatched, carrying the body or the soul downwards. And to this day, In English, ‘going west’ and ‘going south’ are euphemisms for death, loss and destruction.

By some – principally those deriving from the Babylonian tradition – the stars were regarded as evil. By others, the stars were worshipped. Those influenced chiefly by Egyptian tradition regarded the stars as living creatures, at this time often termed ‘angels’ or messengers by Greek speakers, with ‘northern’ increasingly identified with the good. The question of whether the stars were alive, or ensouled, was still an active one, pondered by Christian Origen, early in the 3rdC. (Origen 185AD-c.253 AD)

Almost three hundred years later, Alexandria was still one of the three most important Christian centres, along with Antioch and Rome. Having earlier travelled, himself, to collect books in Egypt, Gregory the Great found himself elected much against his will head of the western Church. As western pope he wrote to the pope of Egypt (= Coptic patriarch) saying:

[Peter] himself exalted the See [of Rome] in which he deigned even to rest and end the present life. He himself adorned the See [of Alexandria] to which he sent his disciple [Mark] as evangelist. He himself established the See [of Antioch] in which, though he was to leave it, he sat for seven years.

from the letter of Pope Gregory in Rome to Eulogios, Patriarch (=Pope) in Alexandria, Feb. 13th, 590 AD.

Greek, Roman and Egyptian traditions thus informed the development of early Christian culture, even while most of the Christian bible consisted of Jewish historical, prophetic and religious writings.

Within Europe itself, however, the Roman eradication of older cultures had been thorough, and after the fall of Rome and subsequent upheavals, Christianity itself would create medieval western Europe’s intellectual and social structures, with Latin as its lingua franca and the Roman imperial era as its formal foundation. Roman atrocities were forgotten; Roman baths and laws remembered. Officially.

But the peoples subjected to Roman invasion and occupation in the west, had not entirely forgotten the Romans’ living counterpart for Ammit – gigantic ‘hell-hounds’ which, in their hundreds, were used as advance shock-troops, ‘openers of the way’ in another and horrific sense.

The great black dogs were famous as Roman war dogs; trained for a specific purpose on the battlefield their savage temperament and imposing looks increased the horrors and terrors of war. They were armoured and were trained to charge while carrying buckets of burning oil like paniers on each side. At night they served as guards around a Roman encampment.

from a commercial website

And they really did devour ‘human souls’ – fed on human flesh not always dead before it was delivered.

Those hounds’ training and uses are detailed in THIS four-minute video, very well researched, and enthusiastically pro-Roman. Check you get its first 40 seconds.

The Hell-Hound:

In a scene where other dogs are tended by human owners, this huge, black-bodied and red-eyed monster is left alone.

Here again, the 2nd C figurine included at the end of the previous post, one among a number recovered in south-western England late the seventeenth century, (the original figurine is now lost).

When that figurine was found, English antiquarians were not looking for evidence of Roman barbarity, nor of influence of Egypt in later Rorme. They were seeking evidence of imperial Roman and Viking-Norse influence, and so they called such figures ‘wolf-gods’,

For convenience, that tag is maintained by modern archaeology, though no-one who has seen a wolf can be unaware that wolves have a plumed tail, not one with a lion-like tuft or as a whippet’s – and no-one made armour for wolves!

Those elements are clearly seen in other examples for the type , as Durham has shown, and one from Wales makes the connection clear between such hounds and the Christians’ southern Hell. Note here the ‘blood-thirsty‘ tongue, the thickened/armoured neck, the over-curled ‘scorpion’ tail, and in this case too the body armour denoted by the same convention as used in nicer-looking images made in Rome.

As you see from the examples (above, left and centre) the animal’s tail could be represented as a coiled whip. This is the hound who pierces from the front and has its ‘lash’ behind – like the scorpion and also like that figure from Roman-era Kom al-Shoqafa.

An artist’s reconstruction, from written sources, of the gigantic hound (now extinct). The artist has the ears cropped and the tail docked, as was done in theory, though archaeological finds show it was not always done, or done so thoroughly.

Canis pugnax. The reconstruction (from video linked above) has the animal’s tail docked.

Compare that last illustration with the following detail from a copy of Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse, where a beast – specifically identified with Rome – carries a human dead as trophy. Here again, the skin is covered by a grid, as were the Roman figurines and as a crocodile skin is – but in this case represented by dots, like the armour given the Southbroom figurine and many representations of Ammit.

From a 12thC manuscript – the Silos Beatus

Memory of the relentless, armoured ‘hound from Hell’ permeated very deeply into the folk-memory and art of the south-western Mediterranean, and Britain. The following paired figures date to the 12thC and were made for the church of the Benedictine Abbey of S. Sever, in the Landes, an Occitan-speaking region in far south-western France.

Here we see the character in two forms, one with two legs and the other, four. The first has a head more like that of a crocodile, and the other more like a dog’s, the latter having its ‘scorpion-like’ over-curled tail and thickened, armoured, neck and in his case its uncanny, shining eyes, The other wears lamellar armour, its demonic nature expressed by an unnervingly wide ‘crocodile’ grin.

Abbey Church of S.Sever – (12thC). Attached to the Benedictine Abbey founded in the 10thC..

Next post – medieval Iberia.

During the 2ndC AD, a text was composed in the eastern Mediterranean, in Greek, that would later be counted part of the Christian canon. It is known by the Greek term ‘Apocalypse’.

On the other side of the Mediterranean, six hundred years later, a Spanish monk known as Beatus of Liébana was to write a Commentary on that text, and among remaining illustrated copies of that Commentary is one made during the twelfth century, in the monastery of Silos. Other copies were made for related monasteries of the same, Benedictine, order – including S.Sever.

In the next post we’ll see, in images made for the Silos Beatus (or: ‘Silos Apocalypse’) yet another instance, within our stated parameters, of how matter gained from the eastern side of the Mediterranean was presented for a western (Latin-) Christian community. We will find that this constant idea of ‘scorpion’ nature – tendit ad rapinam – is shown manifest in angels, men, and in four-footed creatures. Here’s one instance, as preview.

Afterthought –

Wrong month; no human head or skull – but here’ the Scorpius-hound with coiling tail from the Winchester Psalter- and the terrified figure fleeing for her life.

3 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes: the calendar’s emblems: November and July. Pt.4

  1. To forestall objections – I’ve simplified the Egyptian vision of the life-after-death. The Egyptians believed that the sky turned with the sun, so that the ethereal world which lay ‘below’ in daylight was what one saw ‘above’ in the night sky. The journey ‘up’ began with encountering and successfully passing by, the various opponents and guardians along the way. In Dante’s Cantos, no-one threatens him, and both his guides are good, though Virgil cannot rise to the heights. In one copy of his Cantos, Dante added a list of star names in Arabised version so that, as he says, ‘those with Arabic instruments can follow the journey’.


  2. crocodile – Middle English cokedrille, cocodril, kokedrille, etc. (c. 1300), from Old French cocodrille (13c.) and Medieval Latin cocodrillus, from classical Latin crocodilus, from Greek krokodilos, a word of unknown origin but, according to Herodotus, the Ionians’ name for a type of lizard.


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