A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom
Chapter 18 - From the Dead Sea Legends to Comparative Mythology

Medieval Growth of the Dead Sea Legends

The history of myths, of their growth under the earlier phases of human thought and of their decline under modern thinking, is one of the most interesting and suggestive of human studies; but, since to treat it as a whole would require volumes, I shall select only one small group, and out of this mainly a single myth - one about which there can no longer be any dispute - the group of myths and legends which grew upon the shore of the Dead Sea, and especially that one which grew up to account for the successive salt columns washed out by the rains at its southwestern extremity.

The Dead Sea is about fifty miles in length and ten miles in width; it lies in a very deep fissure extending north and south, and its surface is about thirteen hundred feet below that of the Mediterranean. It has, therefore, no outlet, and is the receptacle for the waters of the whole system to which it belongs, including those collected by the Sea of Galilee and brought down thence by the river Jordan.

It certainly - or at least the larger part of it - ranks geologically among the oldest lakes on earth. In a broad sense the region is volcanic: On its shore are evidences of volcanic action, which must from the earliest period have aroused wonder and fear, and stimulated the myth-making tendency to account for them. On the eastern side are impressive mountain masses which have been thrown up from old volcanic vents; mineral and hot springs abound, some of them spreading sulphurous odours; earthquakes have been frequent, and from time to time these have cast up masses of bitumen; concretions of sulphur and large formations of salt constantly appear.

The water which comes from the springs or oozes through the salt layers upon its shores constantly brings in various salts in solution, and, being rapidly evaporated under the hot sun and dry wind, there has been left, in the bed of the lake, a strong brine heavily charged with the usual chlorides and bromides - a sort of bitter "mother liquor" This fluid has become so dense as to have a remarkable power of supporting the human body; it is of an acrid and nauseating bitterness; and by ordinary eyes no evidence of life is seen in it.

Thus it was that in the lake itself, and in its surrounding shores, there was enough to make the generation of explanatory myths on a large scale inevitable.

The main northern part of the lake is very deep, the plummet having shown an abyss of thirteen hundred feet; but the southern end is shallow and in places marshy.

The system of which it forms a part shows a likeness to that in South America of which the mountain lake Titicaca is the main feature; as a receptacle for surplus waters, only rendering them by evaporation, it resembles the Caspian and many other seas; as a sort of evaporating dish for the leachings of salt rock, and consequently holding a body of water unfit to support the higher forms of animal life, it resembles, among others, the Median lake of Urumiah; as a deposit of bitumen, it resembles the pitch lakes of Trinidad.

In all this there is nothing presenting any special difficulty to the modern geologist or geographer; but with the early dweller in Palestine the case was very different. The rocky, barren desolation of the Dead Sea region impressed him deeply; he naturally reasoned upon it; and this impression and reasoning we find stamped into the pages of his sacred literature, rendering them all the more precious as a revelation of the earlier thought of mankind. The long circumstantial account given in Genesis, its application in Deuteronomy, its use by Amos, by Isaiah, by Jeremiah, by Zephaniah, and by Ezekiel, the references to it in the writings attributed to St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. Jude, in the Apocalypse, and, above all, in more than one utterance of the Master himself - all show how deeply these geographical features impressed the Jewish mind.

At a very early period, myths and legends, many and circumstantial, grew up to explain features then so incomprehensible.

As the myth and legend grew up among the Greeks of a refusal of hospitality to Zeus and Hermes by the village in Phrygia, and the consequent sinking of that beautiful region with its inhabitants beneath a lake and morass, so there came belief in a similar offence by the people of the beautiful valley of Siddim, and the consequent sinking of that valley with its inhabitants beneath the waters of the Dead Sea. Very similar to the accounts of the saving of Philemon and Baucis are those of the saving of Lot and his family.

But the myth-making and miracle-mongering by no means ceased in ancient times; they continued to grow through the medieval and modern period until they have quietly withered away in the light of modern scientific investigation, leaving to us the religious and moral truths they inclose.

It would be interesting to trace this whole group of myths: their origin in times prehistoric, their development in Greece and Rome, their culmination during the ages of faith, and their disappearance in the age of science. It would be especially instructive to note the conscientious efforts to prolong their life by making futile compromises between science and theology regarding them; but I shall mention this main group only incidentally, confining my self almost entirely to the one above named - the most remarkable of all - the myth which grew about the salt pillars of Usdum.

I select this mainly because it involves only elementary principles, requires no abstruse reasoning, and because all controversy regarding it is ended. There is certainly now no theologian with a reputation to lose who will venture to revive the idea regarding it which was sanctioned for hundreds, nay, thousands, of years by theology, was based on Scripture, and was held by the universal Church until our own century.

The main feature of the salt region of Usdum is a low range of hills near the southwest corner of the Dead Sea, extending in a southeasterly direction for about five miles, and made up mainly of salt rock. This rock is soft and friable, and, under the influence of the heavy winter rains, it has been, without doubt, from a period long before human history, as it is now, cut ever into new shapes, and especially into pillars or columns, which sometimes bear a resemblance to the human form.

An eminent clergyman who visited this spot recently speaks of the appearance of this salt range as follows:

"Fretted by fitful showers and storms, its ridge is exceedingly uneven, its sides carved out and constantly changing;... and each traveller might have a new pillar of salt to wonder over at intervals of a few years."

Few things could be more certain than that, in the indolent dream-life of the East, myths and legends would grow up to account for this as for other strange appearances in all that region. The question which a religious Oriental put to himself in ancient times at Usdum was substantially that which his descendant to-day puts to himself at Kosseir. "Why is this region thus blasted?" "Whence these pillars of salt?" or "Whence these blocks of granite?" "What aroused the vengeance of Jehovah or of Allah to work these miracles of desolation?"

And, just as Maxime Du Camp recorded the answer of the modern Shemite at Kosseir, so the compilers of the Jewish sacred books recorded the answer of the ancient Shemite at the Dead Sea; just as Allah at Kosseir blasted the land and transformed the melons into boulders which are seen to this day, so Jehovah at Usdum blasted the land and transformed Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, which is seen to this day.

No more difficulty was encountered in the formation of the Lot legend, to account for that rock resembling the human form, than in the formation of the Niobe legend, which accounted for a supposed resemblance in the rock at Sipylos: it grew up just as we have seen thousands of similar myths and legends grow up about striking natural appearances in every early home of the human race. Being thus consonant with the universal view regarding the relation of physical geography to the divine government, it became a treasure of the Jewish nation and of the Christian Church - a treasure not only to be guarded against all hostile intrusion, but to be increased, as we shall see, by the myth-making powers of Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans for thousands of years.

The spot where the myth originated was carefully kept in mind; indeed, it could not escape, for in that place alone were constantly seen the phenomena which gave rise to it. We have a steady chain of testimony through the ages, all pointing to the salt pillar as the irrefragable evidence of divine judgment. That great theological test of truth, the dictum of St. Vincent of Lerins, would certainly prove that the pillar was Lot's wife, for it was believed so to be by Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans from the earliest period down to a time almost within present memory - "always, everywhere, and by all." It would stand perfectly the ancient test insisted upon by Cardinal Newman," Securus judicat orbis terrarum."

For, ever since the earliest days of Christianity, the identity of the salt pillar with Lot's wife has been universally held and supported by passages in Genesis, in St. Luke's Gospel, and in the Second Epistle of St. Peter - coupled with a passage in the book of the Wisdom of Solomon, which to this day, by a majority in the Christian Church, is believed to be inspired, and from which are specially cited the words, "A standing pillar of salt is a monument of an unbelieving soul."

Never was chain of belief more continuous. In the first century of the Christian era Josephus refers to the miracle, and declares regarding the statue, "I have seen it, and it remains at this day"; and Clement, Bishop of Rome, one of the most revered fathers of the Church, noted for the moderation of his statements, expresses a similar certainty, declaring the miraculous statue to be still standing.

In the second century that great father of the Church, bishop and martyr, Irenaeus, not only vouched for it, but gave his approval to the belief that the soul of Lot's wife still lingered in the statue, giving it a sort of organic life: thus virtually began in the Church that amazing development of the legend which we shall see taking various forms through the Middle Ages - the story that the salt statue exercised certain physical functions which in these more delicate days can not be alluded to save under cover of a dead language.

This addition to the legend, which in these signs of life, as in other things, is developed almost exactly on the same lines with the legend of the Niobe statue in the rock of Mount Sipylos and with the legends of human beings transformed into boulders in various mythologies, was for centuries regarded as an additional confirmation of revealed truth.

In the third century the myth burst into still richer bloom in a poem long ascribed to Tertullian. In this poem more miraculous characteristics of the statue are revealed. It could not be washed away by rains; it could not be overthrown by winds; any wound made upon it was miraculously healed; and the earlier statements as to its physical functions were amplified in sonorous Latin verse.

With this appeared a new legend regarding the Dead Sea; it became universally believed, and we find it repeated throughout the whole medieval period, that the bitumen could only he dissolved by such fluids as in the processes of animated nature came from the statue.

The legend thus amplified we shall find dwelt upon by pious travellers and monkish chroniclers for hundreds of years: so it came to he more and more treasured by the universal Church, and held more and more firmly - "always, everywhere, and by all."

In the two following centuries we have an overwhelming mass of additional authority for the belief that the very statue of salt into which Lot's wife was transformed was still existing. In the fourth, the continuance of the statue was vouched for by St. Silvia, who visited the place: though she could not see it, she was told by the Bishop of Segor that it had been there some time before, and she concluded that it had been temporarily covered by the sea. In both the fourth and fifth centuries such great doctors in the Church as St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Cyril of Jerusalem agreed in this belief and statement; hence it was, doubtless, that the Hebrew word which is translated in the authorized English version "pillar," was translated in the Vulgate, which the majority of Christians believe virtually inspired, by the word "statue"; we shall find this fact insisted upon by theologians arguing in behalf of the statue, as a result and monument of the miracle, for over fourteen hundred years afterward.

About the middle of the sixth century Antoninus Martyr visited the Dead Sea region and described it, but curiously reversed a simple truth in these words: "Nor do sticks or straws float there, nor can a man swim, but whatever is cast into it sinks to the bottom." As to the statue of Lot's wife, he threw doubt upon its miraculous renewal, but testified that it was still standing.

In the seventh century the Targum of Jerusalem not only testified that the salt pillar at Usdum was once Lot's wife, but declared that she must retain that form until the general resurrection. In the seventh century too, Bishop Arculf travelled to the Dead Sea, and his work was added to the treasures of the Church. He greatly develops the legend, and especially that part of it given by Josephus. The bitumen that floats upon the sea "resembles gold and the form of a bull or camel"; "birds can not live near it"; and "the very beautiful apples" which grow there, when plucked, "burn and are reduced to ashes, and smoke as if they were still burning."

In the eighth century the Venerable Bede takes these statements of Arculf and his predecessors, binds them together in his work on The Holy Places, and gives the whole mass of myths and legends an enormous impulse.

In the tenth century new force is given to it by the pious Moslem Mukadassi. Speaking of the town of Segor, near the salt region, he says that the proper translation of its name is "Hell"; and of the lake he says, "Its waters are hot, even as though the place stood over hell-fire."

In the crusading period, immediately following, all the legends burst forth more brilliantly than ever.

The first of these new travellers who makes careful statements is Fulk of Chartres, who in 1100 accompanied King Baldwin to the Dead Sea and saw many wonders; but, though he visited the salt region at Usdum, he makes no mention of the salt pillar: evidently he had fallen on evil times; the older statues had probably been washed away, and no new one had happened to be washed out of the rocks just at that period.

But his misfortune was more than made up by the triumphant experience of a far more famous traveller, half a century later - Rabhi Benjamin of Tudela.

Rabbi Benjamin finds new evidences of miracle in the Dead Sea, and develops to a still higher point the legend of the salt statue of Lot's wife, enriching the world with the statement that it was steadily and miraculously rene wed; that, though the cattle of the region licked its surface, it never grew smaller. Again a thrill of joy went through the monasteries and pulpits of Christendom at this increasing "evidence of the truth of Scripture."

Toward the end of the thirteenth century there appeared in Palestine a traveller superior to most before or since - Count Burchard, monk of Mount Sion. He had the advantage of knowing something of Arabic, and his writings show him to have been observant and thoughtful. No statue of Lot's wife appears to have been washed clean of the salt rock at his visit, but he takes it for granted that the Dead Sea is "the mouth of hell," and that the vapour rising from it is the smoke from Satan's furnaces.

These ideas seem to have become part of the common stock, for Ernoul, who travelled to the Dead Sea during the same century, always speaks of it as the "Sea of Devils."

Near the beginning of the fourteenth century appeared the book of far wider influence which bears the name of Sir John Mandeville, and in the various editions of it myths and legends of the Dead Sea and of the pillar of salt burst forth into wonderful luxuriance.

This book tells us that masses of fiery matter are every day thrown up from the water "as large as a horse"; that, though it contains no living thing, it has been shown that men thrown into it can not die; and, finally, as if to prove the worthlessness of devout testimony to the miraculous, he says: "And whoever throws a piece of iron therein, it floats; and whoever throws a feather therein, it sinks to the bottom; and, because that is contrary to nature, I was not willing to believe it until I saw it."

The book, of course, mentions Lot's wife, and says that the pillar of salt "stands there to-day," and "has a right salty taste."

Injustice has perhaps been done to the compilers of this famous work in holding them liars of the first magnitude. They simply abhorred scepticism, and thought it meritorious to believe all pious legends. The ideal Mandeville was a man of overmastering faith, and resembled Tertullian in believing some things "because they are impossible"; he was doubtless entirely conscientious; the solemn ending of the book shows that he listened, observed, and wrote under the deepest conviction, and those who re-edited his book were probably just as honest in adding the later stories of pious travellers.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, thus appealing to the popular heart, were most widely read in the monasteries and repeated among the people. Innumerable copies were made in manuscript, and finally in print, and so the old myths received a new life.

In the fifteenth century wonders increased. In 1418 we have the Lord of Caumont, who makes a pilgrimage and gives us a statement which is the result of the theological reasoning of centuries, and especially interesting as a typical example of the theological method in contrast with the scientific. He could not understand how the blessed waters of the Jordan could be allowed to mingle with the accursed waters of the Dead Sea. In spite, then, of the eye of sense, he beheld the water with the eye of faith, and calmly announced that the Jordan water passes through the sea, but that the two masses of water are not mingled. As to the salt statue of Lot's wife, he declares it to be still existing; and, copying a table of indulgences granted by the Church to pious pilgrims, he puts down the visit to the salt statue as giving an indulgence of seven years.

Toward the end of the century we have another traveller yet more influential: Bernard of Breydenbach, Dean of Mainz. His book of travels was published in 1486, at the famous press of Schoeffer, and in various translations it was spread through Europe, exercising an influence wide and deep. His first important notice of the Dead Sea is as follows: "In this, Tirus the serpent is found, and from him the Tiriac medicine is made. He is blind, and so full of venom that there is no remedy for his bite except cutting off the bitten part. He can only be taken by striking him and making him angry; then his venom flies into his head and tail." Breydenbach calls the Dead Sea "the chimney of hell," and repeats the old story as to the miraculous solvent for its bitumen. He, too, makes the statement that the holy water of the Jordan does not mingle with the accursed water of the infernal sea, but increases the miracle which Caumont had announced by saying that, although the waters appear to come together, the Jordan is really absorbed in the earth before it reaches the sea.

As to Lot's wife, various travellers at that time had various fortunes. Some, like Caumont and Breydenbach, took her continued existence for granted; some, like Count John of Solms, saw her and were greatly edified; some, like Hans Werli, tried to find her and could not, but, like St. Silvia, a thousand years before, were none the less edified by the idea that, for some inscrutable purpose, the sea had been allowed to hide her from them; some found her larger than they expected, even forty feet high, as was the salt pillar which happened to be standing at the visit of Commander Lynch in 1848; but this only added a new proof to the miracle, for the text was remembered, "There were giants in those days."

Out of the mass of works of pilgrims during the fifteenth century I select just one more as typical of the theological view then dominant, and this is the noted book of Felix Fabri, a preaching friar of Ulm. I select him, because even so eminent an authority in our own time as Dr. Edward Robinson declares him to have been the most thorough, thoughtful, and enlightened traveller of that century.

Fabri is greatly impressed by the wonders of the Dead Sea, and typical of his honesty influenced by faith is his account of the Dead Sea fruit; he describes it with almost perfect accuracy, but adds the statement that when mature it is "filled with ashes and cinders."

As to the salt statue, he says: "We saw the place between the sea and Mount Segor, but could not see the statue itself because we were too far distant to see anything of human size; but we saw it with firm faith, because we believed Scripture, which speaks of it; and we were filled with wonder."

To sustain absolute faith in the statue he reminds his reader's that "God is able even of these stones to raise up seed to Abraham," and goes into a long argument, discussing such transformations as those of King Atlas and Pygmalion's statue, with a multitude of others, winding up with the case, given in the miracles of St. Jerome, of a heretic who was changed into a log of wood, which was then burned.

He gives a statement of the Hebrews that Lot's wife received her peculiar punishment because she had refused to add salt to the food of the angels when they visited her, and he preaches a short sermon in which he says that, as salt is the condiment of food, so the salt statue of Lot's wife "gives us a condiment of wisdom."

There were, indeed, many discrepancies in the testimony of travellers regarding the salt pillar - so many, in fact, that at a later period the learned Dom Calmet acknowledged that they shook his belief in the whole matter; but, during this earlier time, under the complete sway of the theological spirit, these difficulties only gave new and more glorious opportunities for faith.

For, if a considerable interval occurred between the washing of one salt pillar out of existence and the washing of another into existence, the idea arose that the statue, by virtue of the soul which still remained in it, had departed on some mysterious excursion. Did it happen that one statue was washed out one year in one place and another statue another year in another place, this difficulty was surmounted by believing that Lot's wife still walked about. Did it happen that a salt column was undermined by the rains and fell, this was believed to be but another sign of life. Did a pillar happen to be covered in part by the sea, this was enough to arouse the belief that the statue from time to time descended into the Dead Sea depths - possibly to satisfy that old fatal curiosity regarding her former neighbours. Did some smaller block of salt happen to be washed out near the statue, it was believed that a household dog, also transformed into salt, had followed her back from beneath the deep. Did more statues than one appear at one time, that simply made the mystery more impressive.

In facts now so easy of scientific explanation the theologians found wonderful matter for argument.

One great question among them was whether the soul of Lot's wife did really remain in the statue. On one side it was insisted that, as Holy Scripture declares that Lot's wife was changed into a pillar of salt, and as she was necessarily made up of a soul and a body, the soul must have become part of the statue. This argument was clinched by citing that passage in the Book of Wisdom in which the salt pillar is declared to be still standing as "the monument of an unbelieving soul." On the other hand, it was insisted that the soul of the woman must have been incorporeal and immortal, and hence could not have been changed into a substance corporeal and mortal. Naturally, to this it would be answered that the salt pillar was no more corporeal than the ordinary materials of the human body, and that it had been made miraculously immortal, and "with God all things are possible." Thus were opened long vistas of theological discussion.

As we enter the sixteenth century the Dead Sea myths, and especially the legends of Lot's wife, are still growing. In 1507 Father Anselm of the Minorites declares that the sea sometimes covers the feet of the statue, sometimes the legs, sometimes the whole body.

In 1555, Gabriel Giraudet, priest at Puy, journeyed through Palestine. His faith was robust, and his attitude toward the myths of the Dead Sea is seen by his declaration that its waters are so foul that one can smell them at a distance of three leagues; that straw, hay, or feathers thrown into them will sink, but that iron and other metals will float; that criminals have been kept in them three or four days and could not drown. As to Lot's wife, he says that he found her "lying there, her back toward heaven, converted into salt stone; for I touched her, scratched her, and put a piece of her into my mouth, and she tasted salt."

At the centre of all these legends we see, then, the idea that, though there were no living beasts in the Dead Sea, the people of the overwhelmed cities were still living beneath its waters, probably in hell; that there was life in the salt statue; and that it was still curious regarding its old neighbours.

Hence such travellers in the latter years of the century as Count Albert of Lowenstein and Prince Nicolas Radziwill are not at all weakened in faith by failing to find the statue. What the former is capable of believing is seen by his statement that in a certain cemetery at Cairo during one night in the year the dead thrust forth their feet, hands, limbs, and even rise wholly from their graves.

There seemed, then, no limit to these pious beliefs. The idea that there is merit in credulity, with the love of myth-making and miracle-mongering, constantly made them larger. Nor did the Protestant Reformation diminish them at first; it rather strengthened them and fixed them more firmly in the popular mind. They seemed destined to last forever. How they were thus strengthened at first, under Protestantism, and how they were finally dissolved away in the atmosphere of scientific thought, will now be shown.

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