Saint Raphael the Whale-Slayer

St. Raphael’s icon on the chapel at the bridgehead of the Blue Nile, 19th c.

I have already written that the iconography, that is, the system of representations of the Ethiopian church, living isolated at the edge of the Christian world, had evolved in a separate way, and developed many pictorial formulas that are apocryphal to other Christian churches.

Such as the prominent role of the seven archangels in the church frescoes. The Ethiopian monastery churches of Lake Tana are circular wooden constructions, with square-based stone sanctuaries inside. On each of the four sides of the sanctuary, a gate opens (or, more precisely, is closed to the ordinary believer), and on their double doors are painted a pair of archangels (and on the doors of the fourth gate, the seventh archangel and the Virgin Mary).

Archangel Raphael (to the right) on one gate of Ura Kidane Mihret monastery church. The counterpart of the slaying of the big fish is everywhere another sea scene, the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the water.



Who can name all seven archangels? Probably not many of us. In fact, the Bible mentions only two or three of them by name, depending on confession. Michael, who pushes down the rebellious angels with a fiery sword, and Gabriel, who forwards the divine message to the Virgin Mary with a white lily in hand, are known to everyone. And the Catholic Bible also includes the book of Tobit, which is not accepted in the Jewish and Protestant scriptures, since it had no Hebrew original, only a Greek version was known. In this, a third archangel, Rafael, accompanies the young Tobias from Nineveh to Media – to Ekbatana/Hamadan, a significant Jewish settlement at that time, the later funeral place of Queen Esther and Mordecai, to connect it also to today’s Purim celebration.

At the same time, apocryphal or not, this is the book which establishes that seven is the number of archangels. In its final part, the archangel reveals himself: “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand in the glorious presence of the Lord, ready to serve him.” (Tob 12:15) The idea of the seven archangels – the lords of the seven planets – was taken over by the Jews from the surrounding peoples, especially from the Zoroastrian religion, where it first took shape, during the Assyrian-Babylonian captivity, when Tobias’ story also takes place. The Yezidi Kurds preserved from the same cultural milieu the cult of the seven archangels, for which they are now being massacred by the extremists of ISIS. This cult was also popular with local Christians in the first centuries, so much so, that the Council of Laodicea of 363 (Article 35) had to expressly prohibit the worship of the angels, and allow only their veneration. The Latin church limited this to the three archangels known by name, while the Orthodox church has preserved to this day the veneration of the seven archangels, celebrated on 8 November in a special feast called “the gathering of the archangels” (Σύναξη των Αρχαγγέλων), “the gathering of Archangel Michael” (Собор Архистратига Михаила), or “the gathering of the bodiless” (Σύναξη των Ασωμάτων). At this meeting, the seven archangels hold a council at the end of time, just before the last judgment.

The gathering of Archangel Michael. Russian icon, 19th c., with the names of the single archangels in their halos: Yegudiel, Uriel, Selaphiel, Barakhiel, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael (the latter with the young Tobias, who holds the fish in hand).

Especially remarkable among the Ethiopian representations is the figure of Raphael, who always stabs a big fish with his spear. In the Book of Tobit, Raphael and Tobias wandering together catch a big fish from Tigris River, whose heart and liver are later used to expel the demon Asmodeus, and its gall to heal the blind eye of Tobit, the father of Tobias. We might think that the Ethiopian pictures of Raphael also show the fish of the Book of Tobit. It is peculiar, however, that we always see a small chapel beside the fish or on the fish’s back, with people praying inside. What’s that?


The answer is given by an Ethiopian source. The 14th-century Synaxarium Aethiopicum, the collection of the biographies of the Ethiopian saints, ordered by feasts, celebrates on 8 September the feast of Archangel Raphael, about whom it tells, amongst others, the following miraculous story. The Coptic Patriarch St. Theophilus (385-412)

“…built many churches, and among them was the church, which was on the island outside the city of Alexandria, and was dedicated in the name of the glorious Archangel Rufa’el (Raphael); and Abba Theophilus the Archbishop finished the building thereof and consecrated it as it were this day. And whilst the believers were praying in the church, behold the church trembled, and was rent asunder, and it moved about. And they found that the church had been built upon the back of a whale of the whales of the sea, on which a very large mass of sand had heaped itself. Now the whale lay firmly fixed in its place, and the treading of the feet of the people upon it cut it off from the mainland; and it was Satan who moved the whale so that he might throw down the church. And the believers and the archbishop cried out together, and made supplication to the Lord Christ, and they asked for the intercession of the glorious Archangel Rufa’el. And God, the Most High, sent the glorious angel Rufa’el, and he had mercy on the children of men, and he drove his spear into the whale, saying unto him, “By the commandment of God stand still, and move not thyself from thy place”; and the whale stood in his place and moved not. And many signs and wonders were made manifest, and great healings of sick folk took place in that church. And this church continued to exist until the time when the Muslims reigned [641], and then it was destroyed, and the whale moved, and the sea flowed back again and drowned many people who dwelt in that place.”

In this story, we can recognize two “Wandermotive”, traveling motifs. One is the big sea fish which is thought to be an island, but which, after a while, swims away or submerges in the sea. Its best known example is read in the sea travels of the 6th-century Irish abbot St. Brendan, where the abbot and his companions moor at night on an island. However, when in the morning they read Mass, and then set fire, the island moves, and slowly swims away. The companions flee back in horror to the ship, where they hear from St. Brendan:

“God has last night revealed to me the mystery of all this; it was not an island you were upon, but a fish, the largest of all that swim in the ocean, which is ever trying to make its head and tail meet, but cannot succeed, because of its great length. Its name is Iasconius.”
Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. The voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot, ch. 10., translated by Denis O’Donoghue, 1893

St. Brendan’s island, c. 1230-1240. British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 69r.

The other traveling motif is the subjection of the great fish / water monster. This story often appeared in various creation stories in Mesopotamia, where the Book of Tobit was also written: the deity (Ninurta, Marduk, Hadad etc.) overcomes the great fish / snake / dragon living in the ancestral sea of chaos, and creates from it / builds upon it the world. This myth was also taken over by the Jews at the time of the Babylonian captivity, and although later they replaced it with the two creation stories now read at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, its traces were retained in the Bible. For example, in Job 40:25-32, where God reminds Job of His greatness with references to the former struggle: “Can you pull the Leviathan with a fishhook… will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life?” or in Psalm 74, which briefly summarizes the creation myth to illustrate God’s greatness:

“It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan, and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert. It was you who opened up springs and streams; you dried up the ever-flowing rivers. The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon. It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.” (Psalm 74:13-17)

The creation founded on the Leviathan in the center of the Hasidic synagogue of Łańcut (on the vault of the bimah), late 18th c.

The Ethiopian legend of Raphael bears a great resemblance to this creation story. The archangel, at the command of God, stabs the great fish, so it serves as a solid foundation for the house of God. Is it possible that the Ethiopian tradition has retained something from the Jewish myth, in which, perhaps, the Archangel Raphael fulfilled the subjugation of the ancient water monster at His command, just as the rebellious angels were pushed out from heaven to the underworld by the Archangel Michael in His name?

This is justified by a motif that was unintentionally left in the Book of Tobit. Known as the “Tobias’ Dog Problem”, it has excited the fantasy of commentators at least since the age of confessional debates. It is about the dog that appears twice in brief mentions without any antecedents, and then disappears again without any further role in the Book of Tobit:

“So the son and the angel departed, and the dog went after them.” (Tob 6:2)

“They both arrived, and the dog went after them.” (Tob 11:4)


Tobias and Raphael depart and then come back, and on these occasions the dog appears next to them. Jacob van Maerlant, Rijmbijbel. Utrecht, 1332, miniatures by Michiel van der Borch


According to the analysis of Naomi S. S. Jacobs (What about the dog? Tobit’s mysterious canine revisited, 2014), the dog remained in the Book of Tobit from a more detailed folk narrative, written – as it is indicated by its Greek vernacular – as an entertaining and teaching Midrashic story. In the original narrative, it might have been the helper of Raphael who subjugated the great fish / water monster, just as in similar myths, the evil-chasing dog helps the deity to overcome the water monster / dragon. In the final version, it appears at the two key points of the fish story: before the catching of the great fish, and when Tobias and Raphael heal the blind Tobit with the fish gall.

It is thus conceivable, that this unique motif of Ethiopian iconography, Archangel Raphael stabbing the big fish and firmly founding the house of God on it, as well as the Book of Tobit, written in the 3th century BC in a Greek-speaking Jewish diaspora of Mesopotamia or Egypt, preserved the memory of the most ancient “third creation story” on these two edges of the Jewish and Christian religions, where the authority of the official Book of Genesis, redacted in Judea in the 6th century BC, had not yet completely pushed the original myth into oblivion.

Archangel Raphael (to the right) on a gate of the Azwa Mariam monastery church at Lake Tana.


In any case, the fish scene is well suited to the monasteries built on the islands of Lake Tana. The frescoes of the nearly two-dozen monastery churches willingly reach back to those biblical or apocryphal scenes, where the holy figures catch or eat fish, thus blessing and elevating up to a higher sphere the most important daily food of the islands’ inhabitants.


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