The lion's tail

Lion in the Greek manuscript of the Physiologus (see below), made in Venice in the early 16th century, which in 1587 come from the property of the great Hungarian humanist and doctor Johannes Sambucus (János Zsámboki) to the Viennese Imperial Court Library (today Austrian National Library) (Cod. Phil. Gr. 290)

I have already mentioned, that the translator of Umberto Eco sometimes comes across passages, where the master (and his editor), similarly to good Homerus, fell asleep, or rather did not check in the impetus of the narration whether the facts only vaguely living in his memory conform to the reality. Earlier I used to add my corrections in footnotes, until the publisher, shocked by the number of notes, asked me to rather correct the text itself, since Eco (and his editor) would have written the same, had they looked after it. Since then I have done so, but to keep track of what I do, I write the more complex cases here in the blog. Like the last time I did with Eratosthenes’ well, or I will do now with the lion’s tail.

The lion’s tail came here, or rather into the chapter on bestiaries of Eco’s new book, from the Physiologus. The Physiologus was a Greek-language compilation from the second to third century AD, which was translated into several languages, and became one of the bestsellers of the Middle Ages and the forefather of all bestiaries. It described forty animals, plants and minerals, still on the basis of the Hellenistic tradition, but already interpreted in Christian spirit. Eco mentions an example:

Dopo avere descritto questi esseri, il Fisiologo mostra come e perché ciascuno di essi sia veicolo di un insegnamento etico e teologico. Per esempio il leone che, secondo la leggenda, cancella le proprie tracce con la coda per sottrarsi ai cacciatori, diventa simbolo di Cristo che cancella i peccati degli uomini.After describing them, the Physiologus also explains how and why each of them carries some ethical and theological teaching. The lion, for example, which erases its own footprints with the tail, so as to hide from the hunters, becomes a symbol of Christ, who erases the sins of mankind.

The lion erasing its own footprints with the tail. Physiologus, Codex Sambucus

An attractive parallel indeed, which connects the signifier with the signified by way of the naive association of “erasing” – just like St. Isidore of Seville does in his Etymologies, so indulgently referred to by Eco –, but which does not further expand the analogy (the footprints of Christ =/= sins of mankind). However, when we open the Physiologus at this place, we read something absolutely different: a fully expanded metaphor, which refers to a Christological doctrine living throughout the whole Middle Ages:

The first two pages on the lion from the 1588 Plantin edition of the Physiologus (the Greek and Latin original of the cited text is on the second page)

“When the lion roams the mountains, and he feels the smell of the hunter, he erases his footprints with his own tails, to prevent the hunters following him up, finding his abode, and capturing him … In the same way our Lord Jesus Christ, the spiritual lion … sent by the Father, erased His spiritual footprints, that is, His divinity; He emptied himself, and descended into the womb of Mary to save the deceived mankind.”

The unknown author (identified in the Middle Ages with the fourth-century Bishop of Cyprus and Church Father St. Epiphanius) relates the “scientific observation” accepted from Plutarch and Aelian with a popular theological doctrine which we find in several church fathers – Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nazianzos, Dionysius Areopagita, and even Epiphanius himself – as well as in later writers referring to them: that Christ assumed a human body so as to cheat the devil, the cheater of mankind, who, knowing nothing about His divinity, sought to destroy him as a man and as a (purely human) Messiah, thus actively contributing to His death on the cross and thereby the salvation of mankind.

The theologians recall this great trick with pleasure and by coloring the details. The fourth-century Rufinus of Aquileia, translator of Origen and friend (and later bitter debate partner) of St. Jerome, connects this doctrine with the metaphor of the hook in his commentary on the Apostles’ Creed:

“The object of the mystery of the Incarnation was the divine virtue of the Son of God, as a hook, concealed beneath the form of human flesh. He being found in fashion as a man (Phil 2:8), lured the Prince of this world to a conflict, offering His flesh as a bait. … As a fish seizes a baited hook, it not only does not take the bait off the hook, but is drawn out of the water to be itself food for others. So he, who had the power of death, seized the body of Jesus in death, not being aware of the hook of Divinity enclosed within it, but swallowed it and was caught. The bars of hell being broken apart, he was drawn out as it were from the abyss to become food for others. Ezekiel foretold this under the same figure, saying, ‘I will draw you out with My hook, and stretch you out on the earth. The plains shall be filled with you, and I will set all the fowls of the air over you, and I will satiate all the beasts of the earth with you’ (Ez 29:4-5, 32:3-8). … Job in like manner says in the person of the Lord speaking to him, ‘Will you draw forth the Leviathan with a hook, and will you put your bit in his nostrils?’” (Job 41:1-2)

We see this version of the metaphor in one of the beautiful pieces of thirteenth-century Parisian miniature painting, the Reims Missale (1285-1297) preserved in St. Petersburg, on whose complex iconography I once held an entire semester at the university. On Folio 59v – also an illustration of the Creed – Christ fishing in a boat with Job puts the same question to him, while with the fishing pole hanging in front of the devil He already proves that He does draw forth the Leviathan. And the long scroll of Prophet Oseas, standing to the right, tells us how to understand this: O mors ero mors tua, morsus tuus ero inferne, “oh, death, I will be your death, I will be your sting, oh hell”. Accordingly, this verse became the first antiphone of the Holy Saturday Laudes, the the morning office.

Guillaume Bouzignac (c. 1587 – 1641): O mors ero mors tua, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie

Other times they referred to the trap set to the devil with a different tool. St. Augustine says: “The Lord’s Cross was the devil’s mousetrap, the bait that caught him, the Lord’s death.” This is what we see in Robert Campin’s Mérode Altarpiece (between 1425 and 1428): while in the middle the scene of the Annunciation, that is, of Christ’s incarnation takes place, on the right side St. Joseph is knocking together mousetraps.

Supported by the authority of all this tradition, I have thus changed Eco’s text in the Hungarian translation, carefully erasing the traces of his slip-up:

After describing them, the Physiologus also explains how and why each of them carries some ethical and theological teaching. The lion, for example, which erases its own footprints with the tail, so as to hide from the hunters, becomes a symbol of Christ, who hides His divine nature from the devil.

After the Middle Ages, the motif of Satan cheated by Christ’s human nature and then bitterly disappointed, receded into the background, but hit has not completely disappeared. Its distant echoes can be heard even in so unexpected places, as Carman’s Carman Sunday’s on the way.

The demons where planning on having a party one night.
They got beer and Jack Daniels and pretzels, a little red wine, and some white.
They were celebrating how they crucified Christ, on that tree.
But Satan, the snake himself, wasn’t so at ease.
He took his crooked finger and he dialed the phone by his bed,
To call an old faithful friend, to know for sure, that he was dead.

He said, “Grave, Grave tell, did my plan fail?”
Old Grave just laughed and said, “Oh man, the dude is dead as nails.”

Well hey, hey, hey on Friday Night, they crucified the Lord at Calvary,
But He said, “Don’t dread, in three days, I’m gonna live again, you’ll see.”
When problems try to bury you and make it hard to pray,
It may seem like Friday night, but Sunday’s on the way!

A tranquilizer and a horror flick could not calm Satan’s fear.
So Saturday night, he calls up the grave… scared, of what he’d hear.
“Hey, Grave, what’s goin’ on?” Grave said, “Man, you called me twice,
and I’ll tell you, once more again boss, the Jew’s on ice!”

Devil said “Man grave, do you remember when old Lazarus was in his grave?
You said everything’s cool and four days later, BOOM, Ol’ Lazarus, he was raised!
Now this Jesus, He is much more trouble than anyone has been to me.
And he’s got me shocked, cuz He says, He’ll only be there three!”


Sunday morning Satan woke with a jump, ready to blow a fuse.
He was shaking from the tips of his pointed ears, to the toes of his pointed shoes.
He said “Grave tell me is He alive? I don’t want to lose my neck!”
Grave said, “Your evilness, maintain your cool. You are a wreck!”
Grave said, “Now just cool your jets, Big D, my sting is still intact,
You see, Jesus is dead forever, he ain’t never coming back,
so just mellow out man, just go drink up or shoot up, but just leave old Grave alone,
and I’ll catch you la… la… oh no! OH no! OH NO! OH NO…

Then the stone was rolled away and it bounced a time or two,
and an Angel stepped inside and said, “I’m Gabriel, who’re you?
And if you’re wondering where the Lord is, at this very hour,
I’ll tell you he’s alive and well, with resurrection power!”

“The third characteristics of the lion: when its female gives birth, the puppy comes dead into the world, and she keeps it until, on the third day, the father comes and, by breathing onto its face, resuscitates it.” Physiologus, Codex Sambucus

3 comentarios:

Douglas Kretzmann dijo...

thank you, quite beautiful.

O mors ero mors tua, morsus tuus ero inferne, “oh, death, I will be your death, I will be your sting, oh hell”

reminds me of the troparion we have been singing for the last few weeks,
Christós anésti ek nekrón,
thanáto thánaton patísas
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death

Minnesotastan dijo...

Several of my readers have pointed out that there is a typographical error in the date about Barbarossa. It should read 1158, not 1558.

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you (and your readers) so much. You’re absolutely right, it was a typo in my original article ( ), 1558 instead of the correct 1158. Thank you for the correction. And thanks for referring to my humble posts on the history of Bohemia :)