The Bible is called the Book of Books for a reason. For believers it is sacred. For creative people, it is an inexhaustible source of inspiration and a treasure trove of stories. Some art critics even claim that the entire world of literature and painting (as well as film, theater and fine art) are based solely on the stories of the Bible, and writers and artists have not invented anything else that exceeds them. Historians can find a lot of interesting things in the Bible. There are technical mysteries there, too. But just as curious are the biblical animals. Let’s try to figure out what mysterious hippo and leviathan will be served to the feast table of the righteous after the Last Judgment? Did the serpent of Eden have legs? What fish could the prophet Jonah be hiding in the womb?
And I watched a hippopotamus at the zoo…
Who does not remember this phrase of a young pupil of the Suvorov School from the movie “Officers”? The thick-skinned inhabitants of African rivers are really quite funny. Watching them in the zoo is a real treat 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 from accidental encounters with hippos in Africa than from crocodiles’ attacks.
Meanwhile, the word “hippopotamus” itself, referring to the massive inhabitants of freshwater rivers in Africa, entered into use only in the 19th century, and only in Russia. It came from the French and German languages, but hippos were called hippos only by our compatriots. Europeans, on the other hand, called any large, thick-skinned animal a hippopotamus. And as soon as zoologists were able to identify and describe the species, it was immediately called a hippopotamus once and for all. So in Europe the hippopotamus is now found only in the Bible.
In the Holy Scriptures, the hippopotamus is a terrible beast. It’s the embodiment of horror and dark forces. His legs are like columns, his stride shakes the ground, and his roar is like the thunder of a hundred brass pipes. In the early Middle Ages, the hippopotamus was identical to the definition of “beast” – something huge, hostile, despicable, and larger than all.
But were the authors of the biblical texts referring specifically to the hippopotamus we know? The ancient Jews were very familiar with this animal, albeit a huge one, but very controllable by man. The Egyptian pharaohs considered it a matter of honor to have elephants, rhinos and hippos in their zoos. Moreover, it was hunters from among the tribes conquered by the Egyptians who went to the heart of the African continent to get these animals alive. So the unfortunate hippopotami could not cause superstitious horror.
But almost in any village in Central Africa the local clay makers will show (and even sell) a figurine, very much resembling a reconstruction of a Stegosaurus. And the biblical hippopotamus does look more like a dinosaur, doesn’t it?
It turns out that the memory of animals that became extinct millions of years ago, long before the appearance of man, was somehow preserved in primitive tribes. This is completely improbable, unless one supposes that the contemporaries of the compilers of the first biblical texts really met dinosaurs that miraculously survived their congeners. The wilds of Central Africa are not particularly studied. Who can claim that there is no known surviving stegosaurus in the jungle?
Here is an example. Some Egyptian and Hebrew depictions show a strange fish, always with its belly up. However, both the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Egyptians were very precise in their depictions of nature, and modern ichthyology did not know such a fish. Some archaeologists have even formulated the theory that the ancient artists began to draw sick fish for some reason, almost an ecological disaster. Others said it was a mistake, an artistic fiction. But in the late 1960s a similar fish was caught in the middle current of the Nile – it turns out it always swims with its belly upside down – such a species!
In the footsteps of the megalodon
The Bible also mentions a distant relative of the hippopotamus – the whale, in the womb of which the prophet Jonah hid for three days, being thrown as a victim from the ship during a storm. By the way, do not be surprised, but cetacean mammals actually descended from the cloven-hoofed mammals, like the hippopotamus family, about 60 million years ago, choosing the aquatic lifestyle. If we compare the size, for example, of a blue whale (up to 33 meters) and a human, the story does not look completely implausible. However, such an obvious analogy does not work – all of the largest whales belong to the suborder of whales. They feed on plankton, and such a large object as a human simply cannot get into their stomachs because of a peculiar filter designed precisely to filter plankton.
Tooth whales (dolphins, killer whales) are much smaller and cannot physically swallow a human. Perhaps, only with the exception of the sperm whale. In this case, a human could get into the whale’s stomach entirely. True, Jonah could not survive for three days there – sperm whales’ digestive enzymes are so strong that they can digest even rubber, not to mention human flesh. And there are no recorded cases of sperm whales voluntarily approaching humans.
Then maybe it was a giant shark? The largest representatives of this group of fish exceed the size of a man many times over. The stomach of sharks is easily distended, and some of their species have a habit of clearing their stomachs by eversion – simply put, “turning out through the mouth.” It’s quite a fitting configuration for Jonah: the shark first swallowed him by mistake and then spit him out.
But the largest species – whale sharks (up to 20 meters), giant sharks and largemouth sharks – feed just like whales, and an object larger than a sea bass cannot swallow. White and tiger sharks (as well as several smaller species) do not mind eating human flesh, and could swallow the hapless Jonah. But they tear the food first, and then swallow it. And after three days in the belly of such a fish, the biblical prophet would have looked pretty miserable. After all, the content of hydrochloric acid in the stomach of a shark reaches 3%, and they process food very quickly, not storing reserves in the stomach, but pumping fats into their own liver.
True, modern sharks also 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 up to 30 meters in length, and one of the teeth found has 18 centimeters from root to tip. Such a beastie would swallow anyone without chewing, and the digestive system of ancient fish was not as complex as that of today’s sharks. Could it be that Jonah encountered this particular inhabitant of the depths of the sea? But most likely, waiting out the storm in the belly of the whale is just an allegory, nothing more.
Who took the serpent’s legs off?
Everyone knows that Adam and Eve, who tasted the forbidden fruit, were punished severely – expelled from Eden. But the serpent, the tempter, who had incited Eve to violate her duty of obedience to God, was also punished. The biblical serpent had no legs and was condemned by the Creator to “crawl on his belly and eat ashes” forever. Snakes indeed have no limbs, crawl and are the only animals on earth that are unable to eat plant food. But could they ever walk like most animals?
It turns out that the snakes we know weren’t always like that. Even some species of modern boa constrictors have rudimentary remnants of hind limbs preserved in their skeleton. Moreover, fossils have been found in South America belonging to a very strange breed of snake, the Patagonian naiash. Extinct after the appearance of man, this reptile had hind limbs that helped it to move, i.e. they were real legs.
Moreover, modern science quite clearly derives snakes from common lizards of family Baranov, which got rid of limbs as a result of evolution – legs prevented them from moving among rocks and bushes. The front legs of snakes were the first to fall off as the least useful. But the remains of pelvic girdle bones have survived in so-called primitive snakes even now. So it was not the Creator who punished the tempter by depriving him of his legs, but the snakes got rid of them for their own convenience.
In the Christian tradition, the “serpent” is often identified with the dragon. And in this case science, as they say, is powerless. The huge fire-breathing and flying beast is a figment of the imagination of the ancient authors. Although there is a little bit of truth in the union of the animal and flame. For example, salamanders have the unique ability to “come out wet from the fire”. When the ambient temperature rises sharply, this harmless amphibian instantly evaporates moisture and does not get burned. Imagine the horror of a medieval peasant: he threw a handful of wood into the fire, and suddenly a small black-fire lizard jumps out of the fire (out of the flames!). Here we remember not only the serpent-torturer, but the entire text of Scripture.
Leviathan, the Lord of Waters
According to the biblical tradition, if the hippopotamus is the most terrible land beast, Leviathan is a sea monster. We can say that it is a reflection of the evil of the world, only on the waters. But they never associated this beast with anyone. By the way, it also looks like an ichthyosaur from the Cretaceous period.
To recognize a Nile crocodile in Leviathan, it is enough to recall the history of ancient Jews, who were captives of the Egyptians for a long time. Indeed, the Egyptians themselves in ancient times said that “the country of Ta-Kem (the ancient name of Egypt) is guarded by impassable deserts from the south and east and powerful fortresses from the north, and crocodiles guard the western border (Nile). Is this Leviathan the Jews had in mind? After all, they did not know any more terrible predator, moreover, guarding the water ways from Egypt.
Summarizing the results of the research of the “biblical zoo”, one can note that more or less real prototypes of the monsters of Holy Scripture have quite real “residence” on the African continent, and the authors of the texts knew them if not personally, then by the stories of witnesses. The rest must be attributed to exaggerations and allegories. Unless there are megalodons, ichthyosaurs and other Jurassic animals preserved somewhere on our planet. Or were preserved until relatively recently.
Exaggeration is a characteristic of the ancients.
Of course, not everything in the Bible has to be taken literally. For example, medieval Christians imagined Satan as a nightmarish creature with horns and hooves, and demons as slightly smaller copies of him, relentlessly keeping fire under the cauldrons of hell. Now the ministers of the cult speak more about immaterial substances. Demons are a symbol of human passions, and the devil is an allegory, a personification of evil. So it should come as no surprise that animals and birds in the Bible not only have reason and perform independent actions, but also are able to speak.
For example, the Balaam donkey is ascribed human speech by the writers of the biblical texts. But no one would seriously claim that in Old Testament times donkeys could speak. This is done for simplicity of presentation. It makes it easier to convey this or that truth to an uneducated reader. How to explain to an ordinary farmer, for whom even an ordinary crop failure is already a great sorrow, that there are things more terrible than drought or flood? To exaggerate tenfold the power and might of the beast of prey and to frighten with God’s wrath.
Let us remember again the ancient Jews, who laid the foundation for the biblical legends. Palestine, where this people lived after the exodus from Egypt, was poor in large fauna. But in the memory of people for a long time remained the same Nile crocodiles – ferocious and ruthless predators, in addition, completely alien to human nature. Over time, these prehistoric reptiles may well have turned into a kind of scarecrow, an identification of evil, power and might.
In any case, it should be kept in mind that concepts such as “many” and “great”, “good” and “evil”, “sin” and “punishment” were often used in ancient times only to heighten the effect. As they say, in shifting scales is the clarity of 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, to frighten with unknown punishments or to lure with indescribable benefits. And so it turns out that the Bible is “populated” by mysterious, mysterious monsters that lurk at every turn for those who dare to break the prohibitions.