“For they say that just as diverse colors existing in a wall decorate this wall, so indeed, diverse monsters embellish this world.” – Pseudo-Albertus Magnus, De secretis mulierum, cited from Mary B. Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988), 78.
“So God created the great sea monsters ….” (Genesis 1:21, Revised Standard Version). A wide-ranging survey of the various freaks, monsters, and theriomorphic fiends which haunt the pages of western Bibles and the hyperactive imaginations of many of its ancient, medieval, and early modern interpreters. Considerable attention will be devoted to isolating and analyzing the category of ‘the monstrous’ and examining the roles it has played in the construction of myths, rituals, institutions, and communities.
Warning: In this class you will hear or read ideas which may disturb, shock, dismay, or outrage you, and you will be compelled to think using methodological paradigms which you may deem troubling, wrong-headed, blasphemous, or even sacrilegious. If you think you might be uncomfortable in this situation, then this is definitely not the class for you. On the other hand, if you think you can suspend your uncritical attachments to certain notions about scriptures, their meaning, and the circumstances surrounding their production, then you will undoubtedly learn a great deal about the historical and cultural matrices betwixt which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam arose and flourished.
You do not need to buy anything from the bookstore. Web links to many of the texts we will read are available on the course website (https://pages.charlotte.edu/john-reeves/course-materials/rels-3000/bible-its-monsters/ ). Other texts will be distributed by the instructor electronically as needed. You should also note there is an academic journal (Preternature) devoted to publishing articles on monster lore as well as a professional association (MEARCSTAPA).
a. Readings. The nature of this course entails a significant amount of close reading and reflection. Students are responsible for anticipating and completing the reading assignments (outlined below) in a timely manner. Every student is expected to read substantial portions of ancient Near Eastern mythology, Bible, parascriptural works, commentaries, testimonia, folktales, esoterica, and various ‘wonders’ compilations which have been englished from texts originally written in Akkadian, Ugaritic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Mandaic, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Arabic, Persian, and Ethiopic.
b. Take-home written exercises. An indeterminate number of written exercises (usually one per week; optimally one per class) will be prepared and submitted for in-class discussion and out-of-class evaluation. These exercises vary in length from less than one (1) to a maximum of five (5) typewritten or electronically printed pages. All of these exercises will be announced and explained by the instructor during the course of or at the conclusion of a class meeting. The instructor’s evaluation of the student’s collective written exercise performance (based on the scale √+ = A-; √ = C+; √- = D) will comprise 75% of the course grade.
c. Take-home final examination. Instead of an in-class three-hour final examination, you will prepare a final assignment wherein you will be expected to synthesize many of the major issues and themes discussed in class and in the required readings, as well as to demonstrate your knowledge of the specific source materials and facts which pertain to those issues and themes. Once its topic is assigned and distributed (on the final class meeting day), this essay will be e-mailed to the instructor before the date and time officially mandated for the final examination of this course by the UNC Charlotte administration. The final essay is worth 15% of the course grade.
d. Individual involvement. Almost perfect attendance (see below) is an essential requirement for this course. Each class meeting builds upon the knowledge gained during previous meetings. Moreover, in-class discussion and analysis comprise a significant portion of every class meeting. Preparation for every class usually involves the completion of a series of assigned readings and/or short written assignment(s). Students are expected to contribute in an informed manner to the public analysis and discussion of any assigned topic, and the instructor reserves the right to administer occasional unannounced ‘pop-quizzes’ should he deem the situation so warrants. The instructor’s assessment of one’s attendance, apparent class preparation, oral contributions, and performance on pop-quizzes will constitute 10% of the final course grade.
e. Zakhor (Remember!): Mastery of the assigned readings and diligent class attendance are necessary prerequisites for the successful completion of this course. Each student is responsible for all lectures, class discussions, assignments, and announcements, whether or not he/she is present when they occur.
f. It is the policy of UNC Charlotte for the Fall 2021 semester that as a condition of on-campus enrollment, all students are required to engage in safe behaviors to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in our community. Such behaviors specifically include the requirement that all students properly wear CDC-compliant face coverings in all indoor spaces on campus, including in this classroom, regardless of your vaccination status. Failure to comply with this policy in this classroom may result in dismissal from the current class session. If a student refuses to follow this policy, s/he will be referred to the Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity for charges under the Code of Student Responsibility.
a. The grading scale used in this course is as follows:
91-100 A = demonstrable mastery of material; can creatively synthesize
81-90 B = some demonstrable proficiency in control of material & analysis
71-80 C = satisfactory performance of assignments; little or no analysis
61-70 D = inadequate and/or faulty understanding of material
0-60 F = unacceptable work
b. One of the requirements of this course is to complete the work of the course on time. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for late work—an illness or other emergency. ‘Emergency,’ however, does not include your social involvements, travel plans, job schedule, disk, wi-fi, and/or printer failures, the state of your love life, your obligations to other courses, or general malaise over the state of the world. The world has been in a mess as long as anyone can remember, and most of the world’s work is done by people whose lives are a mass of futility and discontent. If you haven’t learned yet, you had better learn now to work under the conditions of the world as it is. Therefore:
1) There is no such thing as a ‘make-up pop quiz.’ No exceptions will be considered or granted.
2) Homework exercises fall due on the date announced by the instructor in class. They must be typed, double-spaced, and submitted by email to me in either Microsoft Word or Adobe format prior to the start of the class for which they have been assigned. No physical copies of homework will be accepted or returned. Since we will normally discuss these exercises together in class on that date, it would clearly be unfair to those who submitted their work on time for me to accept ‘late’ work from those who were privy to our in-class discussion. Hence I will not accept ‘late’ homework submissions (even from those of you who may be physically absent during our discussion); however, ‘early’ submissions (i.e., before the start of class) are always welcome and will receive full credit. These exercises are graded using a scale √+ = A-; √ = C+; √- = D; failure to submit = 0.
3) For accounting purposes, letter grades bear the following values: A=95; A-=92; B=85; C+=78; C=75; D=65; F=30. A paper or written exercise that is not typed automatically receives the grade F, as do any typed papers which violate the required formatting parameters or which the instructor deems physically unacceptable and/or grammatically incomprehensible.
4) Since your diligent physical participation is critical for the success of this course, attendance at class meetings will be monitored by the instructor. One or two absences are regrettable; three absences are the limit of tolerability. Each successive absence lowers this portion of your course assessment by one letter grade; seven (7) or more results in an automatic F for the 10% of your course grade that is dependent upon attendance and class participation. Please note that—with the exception of religious holidays—the instructor does not distinguish ‘excused’ from ‘unexcused’ absences. Unsanctioned late arrivals and early departures will be tallied as absences.
5) I do not post grades on Canvas or use it for grading. You can easily determine your own course progress (or lack thereof) by paying attention to the number and quality of the grades you earn over the course of the semester and performing the simple arithmetic required (using the equivalency tables listed above) to generate a ‘rough’ grade average.
c. For absences related to COVID-19, please do the following:
- Complete your Niner Health Check (in your email) each morning.
- Do not come to class if you are sick. Please protect your health and the health of others by staying home. Contact your healthcare provider if you believe you are ill.
- If you are sick: If you test positive or are evaluated by a healthcare provider for symptoms of COVID-19, indicate so on your Niner Health Check to alert the University. Submit a copy of your Niner Health Check notification email to your instructors. Upon learning that you have tested positive or have been diagnosed for symptoms of COVID-19, either from your reporting or from Student Health Center testing or diagnosis, representatives from Emergency Management and/or the Student Health Center will follow up with you as necessary, and your instructors will be notified.
- If you have been exposed to COVID-19 positive individuals and/or have been notified to self-quarantine due to such exposure, indicate so on your Niner Health Check to alert the University. Representatives from Emergency Management and/or the Student Health Center will follow up with you as necessary. Submit a copy of your Niner Health Check notification email to your instructors. If you need any additional support verifying your absence(s) after you have communicated with your professors, contact Student Assistance and Support Services.
To return to class after being absent due to a period of self-quarantine, students should submit a copy of their Niner Health Check clearance email to their instructor(s). To return to class after being absent due to a COVID-19 diagnosis, students should submit an online request form to Student Assistance and Support Services (SASS). Supporting documentation can be attached directly to the request form and should be from a student’s health care provider or the Student Health Center, clearly indicating the dates of absences and the date the student is able to return to class. Instructors will be notified of such absences.
If you are absent from class as a result of a COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine, I will try to help you continue to make progress in the course by providing remote learning resources and/or assignments. Please bear in mind that the final decision for approval of all absences and missed work in this course is determined by the instructor.
d. There will be no class meetings on the following days:
Tuesday, Sept. 7 (Rosh Hashanah)
Thursday, Sept. 16 (Yom Kippur)
Thursday, Sept. 23 (Founders Day)
Tuesday, Oct. 12 (Student Recess)
Thursday, Oct. 21 (in homage to the gods of football)
Thursday, Nov. 25 (Thanksgiving Day)
e. Assistance and solicitation of criticism is your right as a member of the class. It is not a privilege to be granted or withheld. Do not hesitate to request it nor wait too late in the course for it to be of help.
f. The standards, requirements, and procedures set forth in this syllabus are subject to modification at any time by the course instructor. Notice of such changes will be by announcement in class, or by email, or by changes to this syllabus posted on the course website at https://pages.charlotte.edu/john-reeves/course-materials/.
Rough course outline
1. Monsters and the monstrous
What is a ‘monster’?
Case study #1: Gen 36:24 and its mysterious hayyēmim.
Case study #2: Num 13:25-33 and the intelligence briefing about the Canaanites.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture (ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 3-25.
Debra Higgs Strickland, “Introduction: The Future is Necessarily Monstrous,” Different Visions 2 (2010): 1-13.
Rudolf Wittkower, “Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 5 (1942): 159-97.
2. Hybridity and the monstrous
‘There were giants on the earth in those days ….’
Gen 6:1-4; 1 Enoch 6-11; Jubilees 5-10; Midrash of Shemḥazai and ‘Azael.
John C. Reeves, “Giants,” in John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, eds., The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 676-77.
John C. Reeves, “Re-visioning the Sources of Genesis 1-9” (unpublished).
3. Demons as monsters
‘My name is Legion, for we are many!’
Deut 32:16-17; Isa 13:21-22; 34:14 (note especially LXX and Vulgate); Ps 106:37; 11Q11; Testament of Solomon.
Anne Marie Kitz, “Demons in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 135 (2016): 447-64.
4. Urzeit and its monsters
From reptilian sea to inert body
Gen 1:1-2:4a; Ps 74:12-17; Ps 89:10-14; Ps 77:16-18; Isa 51:9-11; Job 26:12-13; Ps 93:1-5; Enuma elish.
Michael Fishbane, “The Great Dragon Battle and Talmudic Redaction,” in his The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 41-55, 192-97.
5. Endzeit and its monsters
Loathsome ‘beasts’ spawned from a watery womb; Armilus/Antichrist/Dajjāl
Dan 7:1-28; 4 Ezra 11:1-13:58; a sampling of early textual resources for the frightening figure of Armilus/Antichrist/Dajjāl.
Lois Drewer, “Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz: A Christian Adaptation,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 44 (1981): 148-56.
6. ‘Monstrous’ peoples: Gog and Magog
Ezekiel 38-39; Rev 20:7-10; Syriac Alexander Legend; Syriac Pseudo-Ephrem, ‘Sermon on the End of the World’; Syriac Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius VIII.
Zofia Ameisenowa, “Animal-Headed Gods, Evangelists, Saints and Righteous Men,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 12 (1949): 21-45.
7. Is God a monster?
Exod 4:24-26; Jub. 48:2-4; Gen 32:25-33; Prayer of Joseph; Jeremiah 5-6; gnostic portraits of the ghastly figure of Yaldabaoth.
Kim Paffenroth, “On the Impossibility and Inevitability of Monsters in Biblical Thought,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 74 (2020): 120-31.
In response to student requests for recommendations regarding useful and enlightening discussions of certain topics, themes, and personalities that are presented in class and/or readings, I offer the following suggestions for further study at the student’s leisure. I confine myself in the following two paragraphs to materials which I myself have used with profit and which are currently available at Atkins Library.
It is often helpful for the student to begin with appropriate articles in the standard Bible dictionaries. The latest and best are Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009) and The Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1992). Still reliable are The Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible (4 vols.) and its Supplementary Volume (ed. George A. Buttrick; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962 & 1976), and the Harper’s Bible Dictionary (ed. Paul J. Achtemeier; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985). Highly recommended are the relevant articles in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (2d ed.; 22 vols.; ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik; Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007) and the Encyclopaedia of Islam (new ed.; 12 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1960-2002).
The bibliographies supplied by articles consulted in the above reference works should suffice for deeper study. Of well nigh unparalleled importance for the history of traditional scriptural interpretation are the notes volumes for Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (7 vols.; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1909-38).
Note also the following studies, not all of which are available in Atkins Library:
Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Robert Bartlett, The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Note especially chapter 3: “Dogs and Dog-heads: The Inhabitants of the World” (pp. 71-110).
Bernard F. Batto, Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992).
Timothy K. Beal, Religion and its Monsters (London & New York: Routledge, 2002).
Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills, eds., The Monstrous Middle Ages (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003).
Seeger A. Bonebakker, “Some Medieval Views on Fantastic Stories,” Quaderni di studi arabi 10 (1992): 21-42.
Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings (New York: Dutton, 1969).
Wolfram Brandes, Felicitas Schmieder, and Rebekka Voß, eds., Peoples of the Apocalypse: Eschatological Beliefs and Political Scenarios (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016).
Caroline Walker Bynum, “Wonder,” The American Historical Review 102 (1997): 1-26.
Mary B. Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).
Georges Canguilhem, “Monstrosity and the Monstrous,” Diogenes 10 (1962): 27-42.
Thomas Scott Cason, “Creature Features: Monstrosity and the Construction of Human Identity in the Testament of Solomon,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 77 (2015): 263-79.
Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, “Monsters: A Case Study,” in idem, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998), 173-214.
John Day, God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
Marc Michael Epstein, “Harnessing the Dragon: A Mythos Transformed in Medieval Jewish Literature and Art,” in Laurie L. Patton and Wendy Doniger, eds., Myth and Method (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996), 352-89.
A. J. Ford, Marvel and Artefact: The ‘Wonders of the East’ in its Manuscript Contexts (Leiden: Brill, 2016).
Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” (1919) = “Das Unheimliche,” Imago 5 (1919): 297-324. Translated by Alix Strachey and published in Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, Volume IV (repr., London: Hogarth Press, 1957), 368-407; James Strachey, ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (24 vols.; London: The Hogarth Press, 1953-74), 17:217-56; also Philip Rieff, ed., Studies in Parapsychology (New York: Collier, 1963).
John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981).
David D. Gilmore, Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
Brandon R. Grafius, “Text and Terror: Monster Theory and the Hebrew Bible,” Currents in Biblical Research 16 (2017): 34-49.
Syrinx von Hees, “The Astonishing: A Critique and Re-reading of ‘Ağā’ib Literature,” Middle Eastern Literatures 8 (2005): 101-120.
Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
Marie-Hélène Huet, Monstrous Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
Peter Jackson, “Christians, Barbarians and Monsters: The European Discovery of the World Beyond Islam,” in Peter Linehan and Janet L. Nelson, eds., The Medieval World (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 93-110.
Ernst Jentsch, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny (trans. Roy Sellars),” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 2 (1997): 1-16.
Darryl Jones, “Monsters,” in idem, Sleeping With the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 29-58.
Amy Kalmanofsky, Terror All Around: The Rhetoric of Horror in the Book of Jeremiah (New York: T & T Clark, 2008).
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (trans. Leon S. Roudiez; New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
Suzanne Lewis, “Encounters with Monsters at the End of Time: Some Early Medieval Visualizations of Apocalyptic Eschatology,” Different Visions 2 (2010). You can access this article at http://www.differentvisions.org/Issue2PDFs/Lewis.pdf .
H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: B. Abramson, 1945).
Asa Simon Mittman and Peter J. Dendle, eds., The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2012).
James Montgomery, “Spectral Armies, Snakes, and a Giant from Gog and Magog: Ibn Faḍlān as Eyewitness Among the Volga Bulghārs,” The Medieval History Journal 9 (2006): 63-87.
Marina Münkler, “Experiencing Strangeness: Monstrous Peoples on the Edge of the Earth as Depicted on Medieval Mappae Mundi,” Medieval History Journal 5 (2002): 195-222.
James S. Romm, “Dragons and Gold at the Ends of the Earth: A Folktale Motif Developed by Herodotus,” Marvels & Tales 1 (1997): 45-54.
______, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought: Geography, Exploration, and Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
David I. Shyovitz, “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance,” Journal of the History of Ideas 75 (2014): 521-43.
Walter E. Stephens, “‘De Historia Gigantum’: Theological Anthropology Before Rabelais,” Traditio 40 (1984): 43-89.
______, Giants in Those Days: Folklore, Ancient History, and Nationalism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
Debra Higgs Strickland, “Antichrist and the Jews in Medieval Christian Art and Protestant Propaganda,” Studies in Iconography 32 (2011): 1-50.
______, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973).
J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95. Reprinted in Lewis E. Nicholson, ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), 51-103. Note also J. R. R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien, eds., The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984).
Lisa Verner, The Epistemology of the Monstrous in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 2005).
Mary K. Wakeman, God’s Battle with the Monster: A Study in Biblical Imagery (Leiden: Brill, 1973).
K. William Whitney, Jr., Two Strange Beasts: Leviathan and Behemoth in Second Temple and Early Rabbinic Judaism (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2006).
David Williams, Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996).
Travis Zadeh, “The Wiles of Creation: Philosophy, Fiction, and the ‘Ajā’ib Tradition,” Middle Eastern Literatures 13 (2010): 21-48.