Author Topic: Here Be Monsters: The Bible in perspective  (Read 550 times)

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Online Graybeard

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Here Be Monsters: The Bible in perspective
« on: June 25, 2013, 10:00:36 AM »
In 1398 Johannes Witte, a Dutch preacher, found himself on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He was not content with simply looking around the holy places; instead he [says that he] journeyed far and wide on foot and by sea. He claimed and was claimed to be an honest and holy man. He said that he meticulously recorded all that befell him in a book called Itinerarius that was in print for at least the next 300 years.

If you can read Middle Low German[1], you can read his story here: http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.medievalacademy.org/resource/resmgr/maa_books_online/westrem_0105_bkmrkdpdf.pdf (Beware! 21Mb download) If not, the study by Scott D Westrem that precedes it, gives the idea.

Here are some of the highlights:

Witte proceeds to an unattested port city called Amram from which he sails back across the Red Sea, without the benefit of the Suez Canal, then walks for a week until he reaches the monastery of Saint Catherine at Mt. Sinai. Here thirteen canons regular live austerely, each associated with a lamp that burns of its own accord until he dies, whereupon it goes out and rekindles itself when a replacement is chosen. The body of Saint Catherine emits some kind of oil, but much less than it used to. Birds participate in cloister life by flying in with olive branches, whose use is unspecified.

In the desert, some four days' journey from Mt. Sinai, is the field of Elim ("Helym" [50]), the site of a crumbling altar and seventy-two palm trees, all the work of Moses, as well as twelve fountains, whose water permanently protects anyone who drinks it from blindness. Venomous animals poison the nearby "river of Marach" every night after sunset, but each morning a unicorn detoxifies the stream with its horn, a marvel Witte specifically claims to have witnessed. Not far away he sees a holy hermit who feeds on manna from heaven. The Sinai peninsula, traversed by many medieval pilgrims who recall its place in Old Testament history, is here a territory where marvels occur on a daily basis.

Witte now appears to encounter real danger for the first time as he maneuvers past the "Liver and Sandy seas"  The first of these has a floor of lodestone, which attracts vessels carrying any iron, and the second is sand that ebbs and flows, made even more precarious by the local one-eyed cannibals who prowl for fish and unwary sailors. Despite their eerie nocturnal labors and gleaming eyes, these Monoculi are definitely human, since they may be governed. Their king is named Grandicanis.

Having been captured and released, he travels on to another city. Here, Witte points out that only men live there; women inhabit the nearby Land of Females and negotiate the four-day voyage three times a year, their schedules adjusted to the Latin ecclesiastical calendar, in order to become pregnant. Daughters remain with their mothers, but sons join fathers at the age of three.

The entourage continues the voyage for well over a month, and sails through a pitch black, three-mile long natural tunnel at whose far end is a terrifying waterfall. He sees the valley where pepper grows, describing how the fields are set ablaze to drive away serpents so that the precious commodity can be harvested; and he reports on the horrible clamor that emanates from a nearby passageway in the mountains through which a stream runs, also for three miles, carrying with it great boulders and echoing with frightful noise.

After receiving permission from Prester John and other rulers to depart, Witte and his companions sail for ten days before reaching a small tropical island, […]. They are so overcome with the local splendor that what they believe to be a three-hour stroll turns out to have lasted for three days […]

Twelve days sailing from here, Witte says, one finds Mount "Edom", location of the inaccessible Earthly Paradise, whose walls reflect the setting sun's light like a star. Only a mile farther is the mountain where Alexander the Great, identified as a Roman emperor, once was. For a medieval writer to claim sufficient holiness to warrant a glimpse of Eden, even in fiction, would have been audacious and Witte's avoidance of first-person verbs in these two vignettes suggests that even he has his limits.

Witte is now "in the remotest parts of the sea," from which navigating in any direction would be a "return". After approximately one more month at sea, he approaches the rocky island of Purgatory, where, amid the crying of souls, he says a mass for the dead on each of three days, thus securing the release of three of them, as a loud voice triumphs.

Four months later he and his companions go ashore on an island that turns out to be Jasconius, an inhospitable whale that submerges when they light a fire to prepare dinner, causing them to lose both pots and food but no lives.

The last stops on Witte's itinerary expose him to human and animal wonders. [He] and his companions encounter a black monk who entertains twelve of them graciously while asking questions about Saint Thomas; his island is home to sheep and goats that grow to be the size of cattle because they are permanently put out to pasture.

Witte sails for six days between smoking mountains and reaches an island inhabited by naked wild men and various strange animals that are not described. On another island live apes the size of yearling calves. Four months later, near a second smoking mountain, he and his companions hear sirens (but are not drawn into danger) and see horrible monsters that terrify them (but the source of their frightfulness is not stated, and in any event nothing happens). An ensuing storm drives them into a gulf where, for five days, they remain in total darkness. The weather improves, and, setting a course to the east for a month and returning to the great Sea-Ocean, they reach a land called Amosona, whose queen bears this same name. In one final geographical portrait that underscores his penchant for outlandish, ambiguous, and evasive descriptions, Witte notes that local people are black and white, they have two faces (one in front, one in back), and Gog and Magog are said to be imprisoned between two mountains.


Witte writes much more of the ludicrous but, apparently it was not for 300 years that anyone bothered to check anything or even doubt it.

The point here is that Witte has obviously just sat around in Jerusalem and listened to fantastical stories.

The Bible was written by people of Witte’s intelligence and intellect – the word “gullible” hardly does them justice, yet, here we are 2000 years later, arguing whether there are miracles, resurrections, darkness at noon, people being taken up to heaven in chariots, 7-day creations, unicorns, and all the other stuff of the fevered imagination.

We need to view the claims of the Bible, Koran, etc., for what they are: the typical and very common ramblings of those from a less well informed era, who wanted to tell a story and probably earn a few dollars.
 1. It is not that bad if you know German, Dutch, or the English of Chaucer
Nobody says “There are many things that we thought were natural processes, but now know that a god did them.”

Online jaimehlers

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Re: Here Be Monsters: The Bible in perspective
« Reply #1 on: June 25, 2013, 11:43:19 AM »
the typical and very common ramblings of those from a less well informed era, who wanted to tell a story and probably earn a few dollars.
And due to the advent of the fiction publishing industry, they can now do so and make more than a few dollars (at least, assuming they're moderately talented).

Online jdawg70

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Re: Here Be Monsters: The Bible in perspective
« Reply #2 on: June 25, 2013, 11:47:29 AM »
the typical and very common ramblings of those from a less well informed era, who wanted to tell a story and probably earn a few dollars.
And due to the advent of the fiction publishing industry, they can now do so and make more than a few dollars (at least, assuming they're moderately talented).
Tom Clancy seems to sell a lot of books.  Take that data point as you will.
"When we landed on the moon, that was the point where god should have come up and said 'hello'. Because if you invent some creatures, put them on the blue one and they make it to the grey one, you f**king turn up and say 'well done'."

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Offline neopagan

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Re: Here Be Monsters: The Bible in perspective
« Reply #3 on: June 25, 2013, 03:01:46 PM »
Damn... you had me going, I thought that was a new Harry Potter book.
If xian hell really exists, the stench of the burning billions of us should be a constant, putrid reminder to the handful of heavenward xians how loving your god is.  - neopagan

Online Graybeard

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Re: Here Be Monsters: The Bible in perspective
« Reply #4 on: June 25, 2013, 05:53:03 PM »
Hmmm... the point is that Witte wrote that fully believing all that he had written - I don't think fiction authors do.
Nobody says “There are many things that we thought were natural processes, but now know that a god did them.”

Online Fiji

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Re: Here Be Monsters: The Bible in perspective
« Reply #5 on: June 26, 2013, 04:52:18 AM »
The Quran (Koran? Qur'an?) suffers from this too, massively. Just about everything mentioned in the quran is from a thousand mile radius around where Muhammed happened to be sitting, plus some of the more fabulous tales that would travel along trade routes. The cities, landscapes, peoples, religions, plants, fruits, rivers, animals, customs are all middle eastern. Why are deserts mentioned, but not mangroves? Why is Medina mentioned, but not the Great city of Zimbabwe? Why do people in heaven eat grapes and dates but not pineapples and yams? Are elk ok to eat? How about giant turtles? Why does the quran single out swine as baaaaaaad? After all, if the all knowing creator of the universe compiled the quran, these things should be in there, right?
Because Muhammed just sat on his ass and regurgitated half remembered tales. "Oooh, Pegasi are neat, I'll say that I flew about on a horse! How cool would that be?!"
Science: I'll believe it when I see it
Faith: I'll see it when I believe it

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Offline neopagan

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Re: Here Be Monsters: The Bible in perspective
« Reply #6 on: June 26, 2013, 09:26:41 AM »
Honestly, Witte was new news for me - I'd never heard of him, but it's fascinating - thanks for the heads-up.

Hmmm... the point is that Witte wrote that fully believing all that he had written - I don't think fiction authors do.

Graybeard, do you think Witte he believed this stuff?  Like I said, I'd never heard of him, but if he really did believe what he had written - was he insane?  I can understand how people can tell tales over time that get "larger" than the original and eventually buy in to the new version, but this started out at odds with what anyone could see in their world around them. 

I ask the same thing about holy books as well, but for some reason they seem to get a pass. 
If xian hell really exists, the stench of the burning billions of us should be a constant, putrid reminder to the handful of heavenward xians how loving your god is.  - neopagan