But a far more powerful theologian entered the field in
England to save the sacred theory of language--Dr. Adam Clarke.
He was no less severe against Philology than against Geology. In
1804, as President of the Manchester Philological Society, he
delivered an address in which he declared that, while men of all
sects were eligible to membership, "he who rejects the
establishment of what we believe to be a divine revelation, he
who would disturb the peace of the quiet, and by doubtful
disputations unhinge the minds of the simple and unreflecting,
and endeavour to turn the unwary out of the way of peace and
rational subordination, can have no seat among the members of
this institution." The first sentence in this declaration gives
food for reflection, for it is the same confusion of two ideas
which has been at the root of so much interference of theology
with science for the last two thousand years. Adam Clarke speaks
of those "who reject the establishment of what, _we believe_, to
be a divine revelation." Thus comes in that customary begging of
the question--the substitution, as the real significance of
Scripture, of "_what we believe_" for what _is_.
The intended result, too, of this ecclesiastical sentence
was simple enough. It was, that great men like Sir William Jones,
Colebrooke, and their compeers, must not be heard in the
Manchester Philological Society in discussion with Dr. Adam
Clarke on questions regarding Sanskrit and other matters
regarding which they knew all that was then known, and Dr. Clarke
But even Clarke was forced to yield to the scientific
current. Thirty years later, in his _Commentary on the Old
Testament_, he pitched the claims of the sacred theory on a much
lower key. He says: "Mankind was of one language, in all
likelihood the Hebrew.... The proper names and other
significations given in the Scripture seem incontestable evidence
that the Hebrew language was the original language of the
earth,--the language in which God spoke to man, and in which he
gave the revelation of his will to Moses and the prophets." Here
are signs that this great champion is growing weaker in the
faith: in the citations made it will be observed he no longer
says "_is_," but "_seems_"; and finally we have him saying, "What
the first language was is almost useless to inquire, as it is
impossible to arrive at any satisfactory information on this point."
In France, during the first half of the nineteenth century,
yet more heavy artillery was wheeled into place, in order to make
a last desperate defence of the sacred theory. The leaders in
this effort were the three great Ultramontanes, De Maistre, De
Bonald, and Lamennais. Condillac's contention that "languages
were gradually and insensibly acquired, and that every man had
his share of the general result," they attacked with reasoning
based upon premises drawn from the book of Genesis. De Maistre
especially excelled in ridiculing the philosophic or scientific
theory. Lamennais, who afterward became so vexatious a thorn in
the side of the Church, insisted, at this earlier period, that
"man can no more think without words than see without light." And
then, by that sort of mystical play upon words so well known in
the higher ranges of theologic reasoning, he clinches his
argument by saying, "The Word is truly and in every sense `the
light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.'"
But even such champions as these could not stay the progress
of thought. While they seemed to be carrying everything before
them in France, researches in philology made at such centres of
thought as the Sorbonne and the College of France were
undermining their last great fortress. Curious indeed is it to
find that the Sorbonne, the stronghold of theology through so
many centuries, was now made in the nineteenth century the
arsenal and stronghold of the new ideas. But the most striking
result of the new tendency in France was seen when the greatest
of the three champions, Lamennais himself, though offered the
highest Church preferment, and even a cardinal's hat, braved the
papal anathema, and went over to the scientific side.[]
In Germany philological science took so strong a hold that
its positions were soon recognised as impregnable. Leaders like
the Schlegels, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and above all Franz Bopp and
Jacob Grimm, gave such additional force to scientific truth that
it could no longer be withstood. To say nothing of other
conquests, the demonstration of that great law in philology which
bears Grimm's name brought home to all thinking men the evidence
that the evolution of language had not been determined by the
philosophic utterances of Adam in naming the animals which
Jehovah brought before him, but in obedience to natural law.
True, a few devoted theologians showed themselves willing to
lead a forlorn hope; and perhaps the most forlorn of all was that
of 1840, led by Dr. Gottlieb Christian Kayser, Professor of
Theology at the Protestant University of Erlangen. He does not,
indeed, dare put in the old claim that Hebrew is identical with
the primitive tongue, but he insists that it is nearer it than
any other. He relinquishes the two former theological
strongholds--first, the idea that language was taught by the
Almighty to Adam, and, next, that the alphabet was thus taught to
Moses--and falls back on the position that all tongues are thus
derived from Noah, giving as an example the language of the
Caribbees, and insisting that it was evidently so derived. What
chance similarity in words between Hebrew and the Caribbee tongue
he had in mind is past finding out. He comes out strongly in
defence of the biblical account of the Tower of Babel, and
insists that "by the symbolical expression `God said, Let us go
down,' a further natural phenomenon is intimated, to wit, the
cleaving of the earth, whereby the return of the dispersed became
impossible--that is to say, through a new or not universal flood,
a partial inundation and temporary violent separation of great
continents until the time of the rediscovery" By these words the
learned doctor means nothing less than the separation of Europe
While at the middle of the nineteenth century the theory of
the origin and development of language was upon the continent
considered as settled, and a well-ordered science had there
emerged from the old chaos, Great Britain still held back, in
spite of the fact that the most important contributors to the
science were of British origin. Leaders in every English church and
sect vied with each other, either in denouncing the encroachments
of the science of language or in explaining them away.
But a new epoch had come, and in a way least expected.
Perhaps the most notable effort in bringing it in was made by Dr.
Wiseman, afterward Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. His is one
of the best examples of a method which has been used with
considerable effect during the latest stages of nearly all the
controversies between theology and science. It consists in
stating, with much fairness, the conclusions of the scientific
authorities, and then in persuading one's self and trying to
persuade others that the Church has always accepted them and
accepts them now as "additional proofs of the truth of
Scripture." A little juggling with words, a little amalgamation
of texts, a little judicious suppression, a little imaginative
deduction, a little unctuous phrasing, and the thing is done. One
great service this eminent and kindly Catholic champion
undoubtedly rendered: by this acknowledgment, so widely spread in
his published lectures, he made it impossible for Catholics or
Protestants longer to resist the main conclusions of science.
Henceforward we only have efforts to save theological appearances,
and these only by men whose zeal outran their discretion.
On both sides of the Atlantic, down to a recent period, we
see these efforts, but we see no less clearly that they are
mutually destructive. Yet out of this chaos among English-speaking
peoples the new science began to develop steadily and rapidly.
Attempts did indeed continue here and there to save the old
theory. Even as late as 1859 we hear the emninent Presbyterian
divine, Dr. John Cumming, from his pulpit in London, speaking of
Hebrew as "that magnificent tongue--that mother-tongue, from
which all others are but distant and debilitated progenies."
But the honour of producing in the nineteenth century the
most absurd known attempt to prove Hebrew the primitive tongue
belongs to the youngest of the continents, Australia. In the year
1857 was printed at Melbourne _The Triumph of Truth, or a Popular
Lecture on the Origin of Languages_, by B. Atkinson, M. R. C. P.
L.--whatever that may mean. In this work, starting with the
assertion that "the Hebrew was the primary stock whence all
languages were derived," the author states that Sanskrit is "a
dialect of the Hebrew," and declares that "the manuscripts found
with mummies agree precisely with the Chinese version of the
Psalms of David." It all sounds like _Alice in Wonderland_.
Curiously enough, in the latter part of his book, evidently
thinking that his views would not give him authority among
fastidious philologists, he says, "A great deal of our consent to
the foregoing statements arises in our belief in the Divine
inspiration of the Mosaic account of the creation of the world
and of our first parents in the Garden of Eden." A yet more
interesting light is thrown upon the author's view of truth, and
of its promulgation, by his dedication: he says that, "being
persuaded that literary men ought to be fostered by the hand of
power," he dedicates his treatise "to his Excellency Sir H.
Barkly," who was at the time Governor of Victoria.
Still another curious survival is seen in a work which
appeared as late as 1885, at Edinburgh, by William Galloway, M.
A., Ph. D., M. D. The author thinks that he has produced abundant
evidence to prove that "Jehovah, the Second Person of the
Godhead, wrote the first chapter of Genesis on a stone pillar,
and that this is the manner by which he first revealed it to
Adam; and thus Adam was taught not only to speak but to read and
write by Jehovah, the Divine Son; and that the first lesson he
got was from the first chapter of Genesis." He goes on to say:
"Jehovah wrote these first two documents; the first containing the
history of the Creation, and the second the revelation of man's
redemption,... for Adam's and Eve's instruction; it is evident
that he wrote them in the Hebrew tongue, because that was the
language of Adam and Eve." But this was only a flower out of season.
And, finally, in these latter days Mr. Gladstone has touched
the subject. With that well-known facility in believing anything
he wishes to believe, which he once showed in connecting
Neptune's trident with the doctrine of the Trinity, he floats
airily over all the impossibilities of the original Babel legend
and all the conquests of science, makes an assertion regarding
the results of philology which no philologist of any standing
would admit, and then escapes in a cloud of rhetoric after his
well-known fashion. This, too, must be set down simply as a
survival, for in the British Isles as elsewhere the truth has
been established. Such men as Max Muller and Sayce in
England,--Steinthal, Schleicher, Weber, Karl Abel, and a host of
others in Germany,--Ascoli and De Gubernatis in Italy,--and
Whitney, with the scholars inspired by him, in America, have
carried the new science to a complete triumph. The sons of Yale
University may well be proud of the fact that this old Puritan
foundation was made the headquarters of the American Oriental
Society, which has done so much for the truth in this field.[]
It may be instructive, in conclusion, to sum up briefly the
history of the whole struggle.
First, as to the origin of speech, we have in the beginning
the whole Church rallying around the idea that the original
language was Hebrew; that this language, even including the
medieval rabbiinical punctuation, was directly inspired by the
Almighty; that Adam was taught it by God himself in walks and
talks; and that all other languages were derived from it at the
"confusion of Babel."
Next, we see parts of this theory fading out: the
inspiration of the rabbinical points begins to disappear. Adam,
instead of being taught directly by God, is "inspired" by him.
Then comes the third stage: advanced theologians endeavour
to compromise on the idea that Adam was "given verbal roots and a
Finally, in our time, we have them accepting the theory that
language is the result of an evolutionary process in obedience to
laws more or less clearly ascertained. Babel thus takes its place
quietly among the sacred myths.
As to the origin of writing, we have the more eminent
theologians at first insisting that God taught Adam to write;
next we find them gradually retreating from this position, but
insisting that writing was taught to the world by Noah. After the
retreat from this position, we find them insisting that it was
Moses whom God taught to write. But scientific modes of thought
still progressed, and we next have influential theologians
agreeing that writing was a Mosaic invention; this is followed by
another theological retreat to the position that writing was a
post-Mosaic invention. Finally, all the positions are
relinquished, save by some few skirmishers who appear now and
then upon the horizon, making attempts to defend some subtle
method of "reconciling" the Babel myth with modern science.
Just after the middle of the nineteenth century the last
stage of theological defence was evidently reached--the same
which is seen in the history of almost every science after it has
successfully fought its way through the theological period--the
declaration which we have already seen foreshadowed by Wiseman,
that the scientific discoveries in question are nothing new, but
have really always been known and held by the Church, and that
they simply substantiate the position taken by the Church. This
new contention, which always betokens the last gasp of
theological resistance to science, was now echoed from land to
land. In 1856 it was given forth by a divine of the Anglican
Church, Archdeacon Pratt, of Calcutta. He gives a long list of
eminent philologists who had done most to destroy the old
supernatural view of language, reads into their utterances his
own wishes, and then exclaims, "So singularly do their labours
confirm the literal truth of Scripture."
Two years later this contention was echoed from the American
Presbyterian Church, and Dr. B. W. Dwight, having stigmatized
as "infidels" those who had not incorporated into their science
the literal acceptance of Hebrew legend, declared that
"chronology, ethnography, and etymology have all been tortured in
vain to make them contradict the Mosaic account of the early
history of man." Twelve years later this was re-echoed from
England. The Rev. Dr. Baylee, Principal of the College of St.
Aidan's, declared, "With regard to the varieties of human
language, the account of the confusion of tongues is receiving
daily confirmation by all the recent discoveries in comparative
philology." So, too, in the same year (1870), in the United
Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Dr. John Eadie, Professor of
Biblical Literature and Exegesis, declared, "Comparative
philology has established the miracle of Babel."
A skill in theology and casuistry so exquisite as to
contrive such assertions, and a faith so robust as to accept
them, certainly leave nothing to be desired. But how baseless
these contentions are is shown, first, by the simple history of
the attitude of the Church toward this question; and, secondly,
by the fact that comparative philology now reveals beyond a doubt
that not only is Hebrew not the original or oldest language upon
earth, but that it is not even the oldest form in the Semitic
group to which it belongs. To use the words of one of the most
eminent modern authorities, "It is now generally recognised that
in grammatical structure the Arabic preserves much more of the
original forms than either the Hebrew or Aramaic."
History, ethnology, and philology now combine inexorably to
place the account of the confusion of tongues and the dispersion
of races at Babel among the myths; but their work has not been
merely destructive: more and more strong are the grounds for
belief in an evolution of language.
A very complete acceptance of the scientific doctrines has
been made by Archdeacon Farrar, Canon of Westminster. With a
boldness which in an earlier period might have cost him dear, and
which merits praise even now for its courage, he says: "For all
reasoners except that portion of the clergy who in all ages have
been found among the bitterest enemies of scientific discovery,
these considerations have been conclusive. But, strange to say,
here, as in so many other instances, this self-styled
orthodoxy--more orthodox than the Bible itself--directly
contradicts the very Scriptures which it professes to explain,
and by sheer misrepresentation succeeds in producing a needless
and deplorable collision between the statements of Scripture and
those other mighty and certain truths which have been revealed to
science and humanity as their glory and reward."
Still another acknowledgment was made in America through the
instrumentality of a divine of the Methodist Episcopal Church,
whom the present generation at least will hold in honour not only
for his scholarship but for his patriotism in the darkest hour of
his country's need--John McClintock. In the article on _Language_,
in the _Biblical Cyclopaedia_, edited by him and the Rev. Dr.
Strong, which appeared in 1873, the whole sacred theory is given
up, and the scientific view accepted.[]
It may, indeed, be now fairly said that the thinking leaders
of theology have come to accept the conclusions of science
regarding the origin of language, as against the old explanations
by myth and legend. The result has been a blessing both to
science and to religion. No harm has been done to religion; what
has been done is to release it from the clog of theories which
thinking men saw could no longer be maintained. No matter what
has become of the naming of the animals by Adam, of the origin of
the name Babel, of the fear of the Almighty lest men might climb
up into his realm above the firmament, and of the confusion of
tongues and the dispersion of nations; the essentials of
Christianity, as taught by its blessed Founder, have simply been
freed, by Comparative Philology, from one more great incubus, and
have therefore been left to work with more power upon the hearts
and minds of mankind.
Nor has any harm been done to the Bible. On the contrary,
this divine revelation through science has made it all the more
precious to us. In these myths and legends caught from earlier
civilizations we see an evolution of the most important religious
and moral truths for our race. Myth, legend, and parable seem, in
obedience to a divine law, the necessary setting for these
truths, as they are successively evolved, ever in higher and
higher forms. What matters it, then, that we have come to know
that the accounts of Creation, the Fall, the Deluge, and much
else in our sacred books, were remembrances of lore obtained from
the Chaldeans? What matters it that the beautiful story of Joseph
is found to be in part derived from an Egyptian romance, of which
the hieroglyphs may still be seen? What matters it that the story
of David and Goliath is poetry; and that Samson, like so many men
of strength in other religions, is probably a sun-myth? What
matters it that the inculcation of high duty in the childhood of
the world is embodied in such quaint stories as those of Jonah
and Balaam? The more we realize these facts, the richer becomes
that great body of literature brought together within the covers
of the Bible. What matters it that those who incorporated the
Creation lore of Babylonia and other Oriental nations into the
sacred books of the Hebrews, mixed it with their own conceptions
and deductions? What matters it that Darwin changed the whole
aspect of our Creation myths; that Lyell and his compeers placed
the Hebrew story of Creation and of the Deluge of Noah among
legends; that Copernicus put an end to the standing still of the
Sun for Joshua; that Halley, in promulgating his law of comets,
put an end to the doctrine of "signs and wonders"; that Pinel, in
showing that all insanity is physical disease, relegated to the
realm of mythology the witch of Endor and all stories of
demoniacal possession; that the Rev. Dr. Schaff, and a multitude
of recent Christian travellers in Palestine, have put into the
realm of legend the story of Lot's wife transformed into a
pillar of salt; that the anthropologists, by showing how man has
risen everywhere from low and brutal beginnings, have destroyed
the whole theological theory of "the fall of man"? Our great
body of sacred literature is thereby only made more and more
valuable to us: more and more we see how long and patiently the
forces in the universe which make for righteousness have been
acting in and upon mankind through the only agencies fitted for
such work in the earliest ages of the world--through myth,
legend, parable, and poem.
FROM THE DEAD SEA LEGENDS TO COMPARATIVE MYTHOLOGY,
I. THE GROWTH OF EXPLANATORY TRANSFORMATION MYTHS.
A FEW years since, Maxime Du Camp, an eminent member of the French
Academy, travelling from the Red Sea to the Nile through the Desert
of Kosseir, came to a barren slope covered with boulders, rounded
His Mohammedan camel-driver accounted for them on this wise:
"Many years ago Hadji Abdul-Aziz, a sheik of the dervishes, was
travelling on foot through this desert: it was summer: the sun was
hot and the dust stifling; thirst parched his lips, fatigue
weighed down his back, sweat dropped from his forehead, when
looking up he saw--on this very spot--a garden beautifully green,
full of fruit, and, in the midst of it, the gardener.
"`O fellow-man,' cried Hadji Abdul-Aziz, `in the name of Allah, clement
and merciful, give me a melon and I will give you my prayers.'"
The gardener answered: `I care not for your prayers; give me money,
and I will give you fruit.'
"`But,' said the dervish, `I am a beggar; I have never had money;
I am thirsty and weary, and one of your melons is all that I need.'
"`No,' said the gardener; `go to the Nile and quench your thirst.'
"Thereupon the dervish, lifting his eyes toward heaven, made this
prayer: `O Allah, thou who in the midst of the desert didst make
the fountain of Zem-Zem spring forth to satisfy the thirst of
Ismail, father of the faithful: wilt thou suffer one of thy
creatures to perish thus of thirst and fatigue?'
"And it came to pass that, hardly had the dervish spoken, when an
abundant dew descended upon him, quenching his thirst and
refreshing him even to the marrow of his bones.
"Now at the sight of this miracle the gardener knew that the
dervish was a holy man, beloved of Allah, and straightway offered
him a melon.
"`Not so,' answered Hadji Abdul-Aziz; `keep what thou hast, thou
wicked man. May thy melons become as hard as thy heart, and thy
field as barren as thy soul!'
"And straightway it came to pass that the melons were changed into
these blocks of stone, and the grass into this sand, and never
since has anything grown thereon."
In this story, and in myriads like it, we have a survival of that
early conception of the universe in which so many of the leading
moral and religious truths of the great sacred books of the world
All ancient sacred lore abounds in such mythical explanations of
remarkable appearances in nature, and these are most frequently
prompted by mountains, rocks, and boulders seemingly misplaced.
In India we have such typical examples among the Brahmans as the
mountain-peak which Durgu threw at Parvati; and among the Buddhists
the stone which Devadatti hurled at Buddha.
In Greece the Athenian, rejoicing in his belief that Athena guarded
her chosen people, found it hard to understand why the great rock
Lycabettus should be just too far from the Acropolis to be of use
as an outwork; but a myth was developed which explained all.
According to this, Athena had intended to make Lycabettus a defence
for the Athenians, and she was bringing it through the air from
Pallene for that very purpose; but, unfortunately, a raven met her
and informed her of the wonderful birth of Erichthonius, which so
surprised the goddess that she dropped the rock where it now stands.
So, too, a peculiar rock at AEgina was accounted for by a long and
circumstantial legend to the effect that Peleus threw it at Phocas.
A similar mode of explaining such objects is seen in the
mythologies of northern Europe. In Scandinavia we constantly find
rocks which tradition accounts for by declaring that they were hurled
by the old gods at each other, or at the early Christian churches.
In Teutonic lands, as a rule, wherever a strange rock or stone is
found, there will be found a myth or a legend, heathen or
Christian, to account for it.
So, too, in Celtic countries: typical of this mode of thought in
Brittany and in Ireland is the popular belief that such features in
the landscape were dropped by the devil or by fairies.
Even at a much later period such myths have grown and bloomed.
Marco Polo gives a long and circumstantial legend of a mountain in
Asia Minor which, not long before his visit, was removed by a
Christian who, having "faith as a grain of mustard seed," and
remembering the Saviour's promise, transferred the mountain to its
present place by prayer, "at which marvel many Saracens became
Similar mythical explanations are also found, in all the older
religions of the world, for curiously marked meteoric stones,
fossils, and the like.
Typical examples are found in the imprint of Buddha's feet on
stones in Siam and Ceylon; in the imprint of the body of Moses,
which down to the middle of the last century was shown near Mount
Sinai; in the imprint of Poseidon's trident on the Acropolis at
Athens; in the imprint of the hands or feet of Christ on stones in
France, Italy, and Palestine; in the imprint of the Virgin's tears
on stones at Jerusalem; in the imprint of the feet of Abraham at
Jerusalem and of Mohammed on a stone in the Mosque of Khait Bey at
Cairo; in the imprint of the fingers of giants on stones in the
Scandinavian Peninsula, in north Germany, and in western France; in
the imprint of the devil's thighs on a rock in Brittany, and of his
claws on stones which he threw at churches in Cologne and
Saint-Pol-de-Leon; in the imprint of the shoulder of the devil's
grand mother on the "elbow-stone" at the Mohriner see; in the
imprint of St. Otho's feet on a stone formerly preserved in the
castle church at Stettin; in the imprint of the little finger of
Christ and the head of Satan at Ehrenberg; and in the imprint of
the feet of St. Agatha at Catania, in Sicily. To account for these
appearances and myriads of others, long and interesting legends were
developed, and out of this mass we may take one or two as typical.
One of the most beautiful was evolved at Rome. On the border of the
medieval city stands the church of "Domine quo vadis"; it was
erected in honour of a stone, which is still preserved, bearing a
mark resembling a human footprint--perhaps the bed of a fossil.
Out of this a pious legend grew as naturally as a wild rose in a
prairie. According to this story, in one of the first great
persecutions the heart of St. Peter failed him, and he attempted to
flee from the city: arriving outside the walls he was suddenly
confronted by the Master, whereupon Peter in amazement asked,
"Lord, whither goest thou?" (_Domine quo vadis_?); to which the Master
answered, "To Rome, to be crucified again." The apostle, thus
rebuked, returned to martyrdom; the Master vanished, but left, as
a perpetual memorial, his footprint in the solid rock.
Another legend accounts for a curious mark in a stone at Jerusalem.
According to this, St. Thomas, after the ascension of the Lord, was
again troubled with doubts, whereupon the Virgin Mother threw down
her girdle, which left its imprint upon the rock, and thus
converted the doubter fully and finally.
And still another example is seen at the very opposite extreme of
Europe, in the legend of the priestess of Hertha in the island of
Rugen. She had been unfaithful to her vows, and the gods furnished
a proof of her guilt by causing her and her child to sink into the
rock on which she stood.[]
Another and very fruitful source of explanatory myths is found in
ancient centres of volcanic action, and especially in old craters
of volcanoes and fissures filled with water.
In China we have, among other examples, Lake Man, which was once
the site of the flourishing city Chiang Shui--overwhelmed and sunk
on account of the heedlessness of its inhabitants regarding a
In Phrygia, the lake and morass near Tyana were ascribed to the
wrath of Zeus and Hermes, who, having visited the cities which
formerly stood there, and having been refused shelter by all the
inhabitants save Philemon and Baucis, rewarded their benefactors,
but sunk the wicked cities beneath the lake and morass.
Stories of similar import grew up to explain the crater near
Sipylos in Asia Minor and that of Avernus in Italy: the latter came
to be considered the mouth of the infernal regions, as every
schoolboy knows when he has read his Virgil.
In the later Christian mythologies we have such typical legends as
those which grew up about the old crater in Ceylon; the salt water
in it being accounted for by supposing it the tears of Adam and
Eve, who retreated to this point after their expulsion from
paradise and bewailed their sin during a hundred years.
So, too, in Germany we have multitudes of lakes supposed to owe
their origin to the sinking of valleys as a punishment for human
sin. Of these are the "Devil's Lake," near Gustrow, which rose and
covered a church and its priests on account of their corruption;
the lake at Probst-Jesar, which rose and covered an oak grove and a
number of peasants resting in it on account of their want of
charity to beggars; and the Lucin Lake, which rose and covered a
number of soldiers on account of their cruelty to a poor peasant.
Such legends are found throughout America and in Japan, and will
doubtless be found throughout Asia and Africa, and especially among
the volcanic lakes of South America, the pitch lakes of the
Caribbean Islands, and even about the Salt Lake of Utah; for
explanatory myths and legends under such circumstances are
To the same manner of explaining striking appearances in physical
geography, and especially strange rocks and boulders, we mainly owe
the innumerable stories of the transformation of living beings, and
especially of men and women, into these natural features.
In the mythology of China we constantly come upon legends of such
transformations--from that of the first Counsellor of the Han
dynasty to those of shepherds and sheep. In the Brahmanic mythology
of India, Salagrama, the fossil ammonite, is recognised as
containing the body of Vishnu's wife, and the Binlang stone has
much the same relation to Siva; so, too, the nymph Ramba was
changed, for offending Ketu, into a mass of sand; by the breath of
Siva elephants were turned into stone; and in a very touching myth
Luxman is changed into stone but afterward released. In the
Buddhist mythology a Nat demon is represented as changing himself
into a grain of sand.
Among the Greeks such transformation myths come constantly before
us--both the changing of stones to men and the changing of men to
stones. Deucalion and Pyrrha, escaping from the flood, repeopled
the earth by casting behind them stones which became men and women;
Heraulos was changed into stone for offending Mercury; Pyrrhus for
offending Rhea; Phineus, and Polydectes with his guests, for
offending Perseus: under the petrifying glance of Medusa's head
such transformations became a thing of course.
To myth-making in obedience to the desire of explaining unusual
natural appearances, coupled with the idea that sin must be
followed by retribution, we also owe the well-known Niobe myth.
Having incurred the divine wrath, Niobe saw those dearest to her
destroyed by missiles from heaven, and was finally transformed into
a rock on Mount Sipylos which bore some vague resemblance to the
human form, and her tears became the rivulets which trickled from
the neighbouring strata.
Thus, in obedience to a moral and intellectual impulse, a striking
geographical appearance was explained, and for ages pious Greeks
looked with bated breath upon the rock at Sipylos which was once
Niobe, just as for ages pious Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans
looked with awe upon the salt pillar at the Dead Sea which was once
Pausanias, one of the most honest of ancient travellers, gives us
a notable exhibition of this feeling. Having visited this monument
of divine vengeance at Mount Sipylos, he tells us very naively
that, though he could discern no human features when standing near
it, he thought that he could see them when standing at a distance.
There could hardly be a better example of that most common and
deceptive of all things--belief created by the desire to believe.
In the pagan mythology of Scandinavia we have such typical examples
as Bors slaying the giant Ymir and transforming his bones into
boulders; also "the giant who had no heart" transforming six
brothers and their wives into stone; and, in the old Christian
mythology, St. Olaf changing into stone the wicked giants who
opposed his preaching.
So, too, in Celtic countries we have in Ireland such legends as
those of the dancers turned into stone; and, in Brittany, the
stones at Plesse, which were once hunters and dogs violating the
sanctity of Sunday; and the stones of Carnac, which were once
soldiers who sought to kill St. Cornely.
Teutonic mythology inherited from its earlier Eastern days a
similar mass of old legends, and developed a still greater mass of
new ones. Thus, near the Konigstein, which all visitors to the
Saxon Switzerland know so well, is a boulder which for ages was
believed to have once been a maiden transformed into stone for
refusing to go to church; and near Rosenberg in Mecklenburg is
another curiously shaped stone of which a similar story is told.
Near Spornitz, in the same region, are seven boulders whose forms
and position are accounted for by a long and circumstantial legend
that they were once seven impious herdsmen; near Brahlsdorf is a
stone which, according to a similar explanatory myth, was once a
blasphemous shepherd; near Schwerin are three boulders which were
once wasteful servants; and at Neustadt, down to a recent period,
was shown a collection of stones which were once a bride and
bridegroom with their horses--all punished for an act of cruelty;
and these stories are but typical of thousands.
At the other extremity of Europe we may take, out of the multitude
of explanatory myths, that which grew about the well-known group of
boulders near Belgrade. In the midst of them stands one larger than
the rest: according to the legend which was developed to account
for all these, there once lived there a swineherd, who was
disrespectful to the consecrated Host; whereupon he was changed
into the larger stone, and his swine into the smaller ones. So also
at Saloniki we have the pillars of the ruined temple, which are widely
believed, especially among the Jews of that region, to have once been
human beings, and are therefore known as the "enchanted columns."
Among the Arabs we have an addition to our sacred account of
Adam--the legend of the black stone of the Caaba at Mecca, into
which the angel was changed who was charged by the Almighty to keep
Adam away from the forbidden fruit, and who neglected his duty.
Similar old transformation legends are abundant among the Indians
of America, the negroes of Africa, and the natives of Australia and
the Pacific islands.
Nor has this making of myths to account for remarkable appearances
yet ceased, even in civilized countries.
About the beginning of this century the Grand Duke of Weimar,
smitten with the classical mania of his time, placed in the public
park near his palace a little altar, and upon this was carved,
after the manner so frequent in classical antiquity, a serpent
taking a cake from it. And shortly there appeared, in the town and
the country round about, a legend to explain this altar and its
decoration. It was commonly said that a huge serpent had laid waste
that region in the olden time, until a wise and benevolent baker
had rid the world of the monster by means of a poisoned biscuit.
So, too, but a few years since, in the heart of the State of New
York, a swindler of genius having made and buried a "petrified
giant," one theologian explained it by declaring it a Phoenician
idol, and published the Phoenician inscription which he thought he
had found upon it; others saw in it proofs that "there were giants
in those days," and within a week after its discovery myths were
afloat that the neighbouring remnant of the Onondaga Indians had
traditions of giants who frequently roamed through that region.[]
To the same stage of thought belongs the conception of human beings
changed into trees. But, in the historic evolution of religion and
morality, while changes into stone or rock were considered as
punishments, or evidences of divine wrath, those into trees and
shrubs were frequently looked upon as rewards, or evidences of
A very beautiful and touching form of this conception is seen in
such myths as the change of Philemon into the oak, and of Baucis
into the linden; of Myrrha into the myrtle; of Melos into the
apple tree; of Attis into the pine; of Adonis into the rose tree;
and in the springing of the vine and grape from the blood of the
Titans, the violet from the blood of Attis, and the hyacinth from
the blood of Hyacinthus.
Thus it was, during the long ages when mankind saw everywhere
miracle and nowhere law, that, in the evolution of religion and
morality, striking features in physical geography became connected
with the idea of divine retribution.[]
But, in the natural course of intellectual growth, thinking men
began to doubt the historical accuracy of these myths and
legends--or, at least, to doubt all save those of the theology in
which they happened to be born; and the next step was taken when
they began to make comparisons between the myths and legends of
different neighbourhoods and countries: so came into being the
science of comparative mythology--a science sure to be of vast
value, because, despite many stumblings and vagaries, it shows ever
more and more how our religion and morality have been gradually
evolved, and gives a firm basis to a faith that higher planes may
yet be reached.
Such a science makes the sacred books of the world more and more
precious, in that it shows how they have been the necessary
envelopes of our highest spiritual sustenance; how even myths and
legends apparently the most puerile have been the natural husks and
rinds and shells of our best ideas; and how the atmosphere is
created in which these husks and rinds and shells in due time
wither, shrivel, and fall away, so that the fruit itself may be
gathered to sustain a nobler religion and a purer morality.
The coming in of Christianity contributed elements of inestimable
value in this evolution, and, at the centre of all, the thoughts,
words, and life of the Master. But when, in the darkness that
followed the downfall of the Roman Empire, there was developed a
theology and a vast ecclesiastical power to enforce it, the most
interesting chapters in this evolution of religion and morality
were removed from the domain of science.
So it came that for over eighteen hundred years it has been thought
natural and right to study and compare the myths and legends
arising east and west and south and north of Palestine with each
other, but never with those of Palestine itself; so it came that
one of the regions most fruitful in materials for reverent thought
and healthful comparison was held exempt from the unbiased search
for truth; so it came that, in the name of truth, truth was
crippled for ages. While observation, and thought upon observation,
and the organized knowledge or science which results from these,
progressed as regarded the myths and legends of other countries,
and an atmosphere was thus produced giving purer conceptions of the
world and its government, myths of that little geographical region
at the eastern end of the Mediterranean retained possession of the
civilized world in their original crude form, and have at times
done much to thwart the noblest efforts of religion, morality, and
II. MEDIAEVAL 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
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
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
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
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
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
_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
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
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
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.[]
III. POST-REFORMATION CULMINATION OF THE DEAD SEA
LEGENDS.--BEGINNINGS OF A HEALTHFUL SCEPTICISM.
The first effect of the Protestant Reformation was to popularize
the older Dead Sea legends, and to make the public mind still more
receptive for the newer ones.
Luther's great pictorial Bible, so powerful in fixing the ideas of
the German people, showed by very striking engravings all three of
these earlier myths--the destruction of the cities by fire from
heaven, the transformation of Lot's wife, and the vile origin of
the hated Moabites and Ammonites; and we find the salt statue,
especially, in this and other pictorial Bibles, during generation
Catholic peoples also held their own in this display of faith.
About 1517 Francois Regnault published at Paris a compilation on
Palestine enriched with woodcuts: in this the old Dead Sea legend
of the "serpent Tyrus" reappears embellished, and with it various
other new versions of old stories. Five years later Bartholomew de
Salignac travels in the Holy Land, vouches for the continued
existence of the Lot's wife statue, and gives new life to an old
marvel by insisting that the sacred waters of the Jordan are not
really poured into the infernal basin of the Dead Sea, but that
they are miraculously absorbed by the earth.
These ideas were not confined to the people at large; we trace
them among scholars.
In 1581, Bunting, a North German professor and theologian,
published his _Itinerary of Holy Scripture_, and in this the Dead
Sea and Lot legends continue to increase. He tells us that the
water of the sea "changes three times every day"; that it "spits
forth fire" that it throws up "on high" great foul masses which
"burn like pitch" and "swim about like huge oxen"; that the statue
of Lot's wife is still there, and that it shines like salt.
In 1590, Christian Adrichom, a Dutch theologian, published his
famous work on sacred geography. He does not insist upon the Dead
Sea legends generally, but declares that the statue of Lot's wife
is still in existence, and on his map he gives a picture of her
standing at Usdum.
Nor was it altogether safe to dissent from such beliefs. Just as,
under the papal sway, men of science were severely punished for
wrong views of the physical geography of the earth in general, so,
when Calvin decided to burn Servetus, he included in his indictment
for heresy a charge that Servetus, in his edition of Ptolemy, had
made unorthodox statements regarding the physical geography of
Protestants and Catholics vied with each other in the making of new
myths. Thus, in his _Most Devout Journey_, published in 1608, Jean
Zvallart, Mayor of Ath in Hainault, confesses himself troubled by
conflicting stories about the salt statue, but declares himself
sound in the faith that "some vestige of it still remains," and
makes up for his bit of freethinking by adding a new mythical horror
to the region--"crocodiles," which, with the serpents and the "foul
odour of the sea," prevented his visit to the salt mountains.
In 1615 Father Jean Boucher publishes the first of many editions of
his _Sacred Bouquet of the Holy Land_. He depicts the horrors of the
Dead Sea in a number of striking antitheses, and among these is the
statement that it is made of mud rather than of water, that it
soils whatever is put into it, and so corrupts the land about it
that not a blade of grass grows in all that region.
In the same spirit, thirteen years later, the Protestant
Christopher Heidmann publishes his _Palaestina_, in which he speaks
of a fluid resembling blood oozing from the rocks about the Dead
Sea, and cites authorities to prove that the statue of Lot's wife
still exists and gives signs of life.
Yet, as we near the end of the sixteenth century, some evidences of
a healthful and fruitful scepticism begin to appear.
The old stream of travellers, commentators, and preachers,
accepting tradition and repeating what they have been told, flows
on; but here and there we are refreshed by the sight of a man who
really begins to think and look for himself.
First among these is the French naturalist Pierre Belon. As regards
the ordinary wonders, he had the simple faith of his time. Among a
multitude of similar things, he believed that he saw the stones on
which the disciples were sleeping during the prayer of Christ; the
stone on which the Lord sat when he raised Lazarus from the dead;
the Lord's footprints on the stone from which he ascended into
heaven; and, most curious of all, "the stone which the builders
rejected." Yet he makes some advance on his predecessors, since he
shows in one passage that he had thought out the process by which
the simpler myths of Palestine were made. For, between Bethlehem
and Jerusalem, he sees a field covered with small pebbles, and of
these he says: "The common people tell you that a man was once
sowing peas there, when Our Lady passed that way and asked him what
he was doing; the man answered "I am sowing pebbles" and
straightway all the peas were changed into these little stones."
His ascribing belief in this explanatory transformation myth to
the "common people" marks the faint dawn of a new epoch.
Typical also of this new class is the German botanist Leonhard
Rauwolf. He travels through Palestine in 1575, and, though devout
and at times credulous, notes comparatively few of the old wonders,
while he makes thoughtful and careful mention of things in nature
that he really saw; he declines to use the eyes of the monks, and
steadily uses his own to good purpose.
As we go on in the seventeenth century, this current of new thought
is yet more evident; a habit of observing more carefully and of
comparing observations had set in; the great voyages of discovery
by Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and others were producing
their effect; and this effect was increased by the inductive
philosophy of Bacon, the reasonings of Descartes, and the
suggestions of Montaigne.
So evident was this current that, as far back as the early days of
the century, a great theologian, Quaresmio of Lodi, had made up his
mind to stop it forever. In 1616, therefore, he began his ponderous
work entitled _The Historical, Theological, and Moral Explanation
of the Holy Land_. He laboured upon it for nine years, gave nine
years more to perfecting it, and then put it into the hands of the
great publishing house of Plantin at Antwerp: they were four years
in printing and correcting it, and when it at last appeared it
seemed certain to establish the theological view of the Holy Land
for all time. While taking abundant care of other myths which he
believed sanctified by Holy Scripture, Quaresmio devoted himself at
great length to the Dead Sea, but above all to the salt statue; and
he divides his chapter on it into three parts, each headed by a
question: First, "_How_ was Lot's wife changed into a statue of
salt?" secondly, "_Where_ was she thus transformed?" and, thirdly,
"D_oes that statue still exist_?" Through each of these divisions he
fights to the end all who are inclined to swerve in the slightest
degree from the orthodox opinion. He utterly refuses to compromise
with any modern theorists. To all such he says, "The narration of
Moses is historical and is to be received in its natural sense, and
no right-thinking man will deny this." To those who favoured the
figurative interpretation he says, "With such reasonings any
passage of Scripture can be denied."
As to the spot where the miracle occurred, he discusses four
places, but settles upon the point where the picture of the statue
is given in Adrichom's map. As to the continued existence of the
statue, he plays with the opposing view as a cat fondles a mouse;
and then shows that the most revered ancient authorities, venerable
men still living, and the Bedouins, all agree that it is still in
being. Throughout the whole chapter his thoroughness in scriptural
knowledge and his profundity in logic are only excelled by his scorn
for those theologians who were willing to yield anything to rationalism.
So powerful was this argument that it seemed to carry everything
before it, not merely throughout the Roman obedience, but among the
most eminent theologians of Protestantism.
As regards the Roman Church, we may take as a type the missionary
priest Eugene Roger, who, shortly after the appearance of
Quaresmio's book, published his own travels in Palestine. He was an
observant man, and his work counts among those of real value; but
the spirit of Quaresmio had taken possession of him fully. His work
is prefaced with a map showing the points of most importance in
scriptural history, and among these he identifies the place where
Samson slew the thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass,
and where he hid the gates of Gaza; the cavern which Adam and Eve
inhabited after their expulsion from paradise; the spot where
Balaam's ass spoke; the tree on which Absalom was hanged; the place
where Jacob wrestled with the angel; the steep place where the
swine possessed of devils plunged into the sea; the spot where the
prophet Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire; and, of course,
the position of the salt statue which was once Lot's wife. He not
only indicates places on land, but places in the sea; thus he
shows where Jonah was swallowed by the whale, and "where St. Peter
caught one hundred and fifty-three fishes."
As to the Dead Sea miracles generally, he does not dwell on them at
great length; he evidently felt that Quaresmio had exhausted the
subject; but he shows largely the fruits of Quaresmio's teaching in
So, too, we find the thoughts and words of Quaresmio echoing afar
through the German universities, in public disquisitions,
dissertations, and sermons. The great Bible commentators, both
Catholic and Protestant, generally agreed in accepting them.
But, strong as this theological theory was, we find that, as time
went on, it required to be braced somewhat, and in 1692 Wedelius,
Professor of Medicine at Jena, chose as the subject of his
inaugural address _The Physiology of the Destruction of Sodom and
of the Statue of Salt_.
It is a masterly example of "sanctified science." At great length
he dwells on the characteristics of sulphur, salt, and
thunderbolts; mixes up scriptural texts, theology, and chemistry
after a most bewildering fashion; and finally comes to the
conclusion that a thunderbolt, flung by the Almighty, calcined the
body of Lot's wife, and at the same time vitrified its particles
into a glassy mass looking like salt.[]
Not only were these views demonstrated, so far as
theologico-scientific reasoning could demonstrate anything, but it
was clearly shown, by a continuous chain of testimony from the
earliest ages, that the salt statue at Usdum had been recognised as
the body of Lot's wife by Jews, Mohammedans, and the universal
Christian Church, "always, everywhere, and by all."
Under the influence of teachings like these--and of the winter
rains--new wonders began to appear at the salt pillar. In 1661 the
Franciscan monk Zwinner published his travels in Palestine, and
gave not only most of the old myths regarding the salt statue, but
a new one, in some respects more striking than any of the old--for
he had heard that a dog, also transformed into salt, was standing
by the side of Lot's wife.
Even the more solid Benedictine scholars were carried away, and we
find in the _Sacred History_ by Prof. Mezger, of the order of St.
Benedict, published in 1700, a renewal of the declaration that the
salt statue must be a "_perpetual_ memorial."
But it was soon evident that the scientific current was still
working beneath this ponderous mass of theological authority. A
typical evidence of this we find in 1666 in the travels of Doubdan,
a canon of St. Denis. As to the Dead Sea, he says that he saw no
smoke, no clouds, and no "black, sticky water"; as to the statue of
Lot's wife, he says, "The moderns do not believe so easily that she
has lasted so long"; then, as if alarmed at his own boldness, he
concedes that the sea _may_ be black and sticky _in the middle_; and
from Lot's wife he escapes under cover of some pious generalities.
Four years later another French ecclesiastic, Jacques Goujon,
referring in his published travels to the legends of the salt
pillar, says: "People may believe these stories as much as they
choose; I did not see it, nor did I go there." So, too, in 1697,
Morison, a dignitary of the French Church, having travelled in
Palestine, confesses that, as to the story of the pillar of salt,
he has difficulty in believing it.
The same current is observed working still more strongly in the
travels of the Rev. Henry Maundrell, an English chaplain at Aleppo,
who travelled through Palestine during the same year. He pours
contempt over the legends of the Dead Sea in general: as to the
story that birds could not fly over it, he says that he saw them
flying there; as to the utter absence of life in the sea, he saw
small shells in it; he saw no traces of any buried cities; and as
to the stories regarding the statue of Lot's wife and the proposal
to visit it, he says, "Nor could we give faith enough to these
reports to induce us to go on such an errand."
The influence of the Baconian philosophy on his mind is very clear;
for, in expressing his disbelief in the Dead Sea apples, with their
contents of ashes, he says that he saw none, and he cites Lord
Bacon in support of scepticism on this and similar points.
But the strongest effect of this growing scepticism is seen near
the end of that century, when the eminent Dutch commentator
Clericus (Le Clerc) published his commentary on the Pentateuch and
his _Dissertation on the Statue of Salt_.
At great length he brings all his shrewdness and learning to bear
against the whole legend of the actual transformation of Lot's wife
and the existence of the salt pillar, and ends by saying that "the
whole story is due to the vanity of some and the credulity of more."
In the beginning of the eighteenth century we find new tributaries
to this rivulet of scientific thought. In 1701 Father Felix
Beaugrand dismisses the Dead Sea legends and the salt statue very
curtly and dryly--expressing not his belief in it, but a
conventional wish to believe.
In 1709 a scholar appeared in another part of Europe and of
different faith, who did far more than any of his predecessors to
envelop the Dead Sea legends in an atmosphere of truth--Adrian
Reland, professor at the University of Utrecht. His work on
Palestine is a monument of patient scholarship, having as its
nucleus a love of truth as truth: there is no irreverence in him,
but he quietly brushes away a great mass of myths and legends: as
to the statue of Lot's wife, he treats it warily, but applies the
comparative method to it with killing effect, by showing that the
story of its miraculous renewal is but one among many of its kind.[]
Yet to superficial observers the old current of myth and marvel
seemed to flow into the eighteenth century as strong as ever, and
of this we may take two typical evidences. The first of these is
the Pious Pilgrimage of Vincent Briemle. His journey was made
about 171O; and his work, brought out under the auspices of a high
papal functionary some years later, in a heavy quarto, gave new
life to the stories of the hellish character of the Dead Sea, and
especially to the miraculous renewal of the salt statue.
In 172O came a still more striking effort to maintain the old
belief in the north of Europe, for in that year the eminent
theologian Masius published his great treatise on _The Conversion of
Lot's Wife into a Statue of Salt_.
Evidently intending that this work should be the last word on this
subject in Germany, as Quaresmio had imagined that his work would
be the last in Italy, he develops his subject after the high
scholastic and theologic manner. Calling attention first to the
divine command in the New Testament, "Remember Lot's wife," he
argues through a long series of chapters. In the ninth of these he
discusses "the _impelling cause_" of her looking back, and
introduces us to the question, formerly so often treated by
theologians, whether the soul of Lot's wife was finally saved. Here
we are glad to learn that the big, warm heart of Luther lifted him
above the common herd of theologians, and led him to declare that
she was "a faithful and saintly woman," and that she certainly was
not eternally damned. In justice to the Roman Church also it should
be said that several of her most eminent commentators took a similar
view, and insisted that the sin of Lot's wife was venial, and therefore,
at the worst, could only subject her to the fires of purgatory.
The eleventh chapter discusses at length the question _how_ she was
converted into salt, and, mentioning many theological opinions,
dwells especially upon the view of Rivetus, that a thunderbolt,
made up apparently of fire, sulphur, and salt, wrought her
transformation at the same time that it blasted the land; and he
bases this opinion upon the twenty-ninth chapter of Deuteronomy and
the one hundred and seventh Psalm.
Later, Masius presents a sacred scientific theory that "saline
particles entered into her until her whole body was infected"; and
with this he connects another piece of sanctified science, to the
effect that "stagnant bile" may have rendered the surface of her
body "entirely shining, bitter, dry, and deformed."
Finally, he comes to the great question whether the salt pillar is
still in existence. On this he is full and fair. On one hand he
allows that Luther thought that it was involved in the general
destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and he cites various travellers
who had failed to find it; but, on the other hand, he gives a long
chain of evidence to show that it continued to exist: very wisely
he reminds the reader that the positive testimony of those who have
seen it must outweigh the negative testimony of those who have not,
and he finally decides that the salt statue is still in being.
No doubt a work like this produced a considerable effect in
Protestant countries; indeed, this effect seems evident as far off
as England, for, in 172O, we find in Dean Prideaux's _Old and New
Testament connected_ a map on which the statue of salt is carefully
indicated. So, too, in Holland, in the _Sacred Geography_ published
at Utrecht in 1758 by the theologian Bachiene, we find him, while
showing many signs of rationalism, evidently inclined to the old
views as to the existence of the salt pillar; but just here comes
a curious evidence of the real direction of the current of thought
through the century, for, nine years later, in the German
translation of Bachiene's work we find copious notes by the
translator in a far more rationalistic spirit; indeed, we see the
dawn of the inevitable day of compromise, for we now have, instead
of the old argument that the divine power by one miraculous act
changed Lot's wife into a salt pillar, the suggestion that she was
caught in a shower of sulphur and saltpetre, covered by it, and
that the result was a lump, which in a general way _is called_ in our
sacred books "a pillar of salt."[]
But, from the middle of the eighteenth century, the new current
sets through Christendom with ever-increasing strength. Very
interesting is it to compare the great scriptural commentaries of
the middle of this century with those published a century earlier.
Of the earlier ones we may take Matthew Poole's _Synopsis_ as a
type: as authorized by royal decree in 1667 it contains very
substantial arguments for the pious belief in the statue. Of the
later ones we may take the edition of the noted commentary of the
Jesuit Tirinus seventy years later: while he feels bound to present
the authorities, he evidently endeavours to get rid of the subject
as speedily as possible under cover of conventionalities; of the
spirit of Quaresmio he shows no trace.[]
About 1760 came a striking evidence of the strength of this new
current. The Abate Mariti then published his book upon the Holy
Land; and of this book, by an Italian ecclesiastic, the most
eminent of German bibliographers in this field says that it first
broke a path for critical study of the Holy Land. Mariti is
entirely sceptical as to the sinking of the valley of Siddim and
the overwhelming of the cities. He speaks kindly of a Capuchin
Father who saw everywhere at the Dead Sea traces of the divine
malediction, while he himself could not see them, and says, "It is
because a Capuchin carries everywhere the five senses of faith,
while I only carry those of nature." He speaks of "the lies of
Josephus," and makes merry over "the rude and shapeless block"
which the guide assured him was the statue of Lot's wife,
explaining the want of human form in the salt pillar by telling
him that this complete metamorphosis was part of her punishment.
About twenty years later, another remarkable man, Volney, broaches
the subject in what was then known as the "philosophic" spirit.
Between the years 1783 and 1785 he made an extensive journey
through the Holy Land and published a volume of travels which by
acuteness of thought and vigour of style secured general attention.
In these, myth and legend were thrown aside, and we have an account
simply dictated by the love of truth as truth. He, too, keeps the
torch of science burning by applying his geological knowledge to
the regions which he traverses.
As we look back over the eighteenth century we see mingled with the
new current of thought, and strengthening it, a constantly increasing
stream of more strictly scientific observation and reflection.
To review it briefly: in the very first years of the century
Maraldi showed the Paris Academy of Sciences fossil fishes found in
the Lebanon region; a little later, Cornelius Bruyn, in the French
edition of his Eastern travels, gave well-drawn representations of
fossil fishes and shells, some of them from the region of the Dead
Sea; about the middle of the century Richard Pococke, Bishop of
Meath, and Korte of Altona made more statements of the same sort;
and toward the close of the century, as we have seen, Volney gave
still more of these researches, with philosophical deductions from them.
The result of all this was that there gradually dawned upon
thinking men the conviction that, for ages before the appearance of
man on the planet, and during all the period since his appearance,
natural laws have been steadily in force in Palestine as elsewhere;
this conviction obliged men to consider other than supernatural
causes for the phenomena of the Dead Sea, and myth and marvel
steadily shrank in value.
But at the very threshold of the nineteenth century Chateaubriand
came into the field, and he seemed to banish the scientific spirit,
though what he really did was to conceal it temporarily behind the
vapours of his rhetoric. The time was propitious for him. It was
the period of reaction after the French Revolution, when what was
called religion was again in fashion, and when even atheists
supported it as a good thing for common people: of such an epoch
Chateaubriand, with his superficial information, thin sentiment,
and showy verbiage, was the foreordained prophet. His enemies were
wont to deny that he ever saw the Holy Land; whether he did or not,
he added nothing to real knowledge, but simply threw a momentary
glamour over the regions he described, and especially over the Dead
Sea. The legend of Lot's wife he carefully avoided, for he knew too
well the danger of ridicule in France.
As long as the Napoleonic and Bourbon reigns lasted, and indeed for
some time afterward, this kind of dealing with the Holy Land was
fashionable, and we have a long series of men, especially of
Frenchmen, who evidently received their impulse from Chateaubriand.
About 1831 De Geramb, Abbot of La Trappe, evidently a very noble
and devout spirit, sees vapour above the Dead Sea, but stretches
the truth a little--speaking of it as "vapour or smoke." He could
not find the salt statue, and complains of the "diversity of
stories regarding it." The simple physical cause of this
diversity--the washing out of different statues in different
years--never occurs to him; but he comforts himself with the
scriptural warrant for the metamorphosis.[]
But to the honour of scientific men and scientific truth it should
be said that even under Napoleon and the Bourbons there were men
who continued to explore, observe, and describe with the simple
love of truth as truth, and in spite of the probability that their
researches would be received during their lifetime with contempt
and even hostility, both in church and state.
The pioneer in this work of the nineteenth century was the German
naturalist Ulrich Seetzen. He began his main investigation in 1806,
and soon his learning, courage, and honesty threw a flood of new
light into the Dead Sea questions.
In this light, myth and legend faded more rapidly than ever.
Typical of his method is his examination of the Dead Sea fruit. He
found, on reaching Palestine, that Josephus's story regarding it,
which had been accepted for nearly two thousand years, was
believed on all sides; more than this, he found that the original
myth had so grown that a multitude of respectable people at
Bethlehem and elsewhere assured him that not only apples, but
pears, pomegranates, figs, lemons, and many other fruits which grow
upon the shores of the Dead Sea, though beautiful to look upon,
were filled with ashes. These good people declared to Seetzen that
they had seen these fruits, and that, not long before, a basketful of
them which had been sent to a merchant of Jaffa had turned to ashes.
Seetzen was evidently perplexed by this mass of testimony and
naturally anxious to examine these fruits. On arriving at the sea
he began to look for them, and the guide soon showed him the
"apples." These he found to be simply an _asclepia_, which had been
described by Linnaeus, and which is found in the East Indies,
Arabia, Egypt, Jamaica, and elsewhere--the "ashes" being simply
seeds. He looked next for the other fruits, and the guide soon
found for him the "lemons": these he discovered to be a species of
_solanum_ found in other parts of Palestine and elsewhere, and the
seeds in these were the famous "cinders." He looked next for the
pears, figs, and other accursed fruits; but, instead of finding
them filled with ashes and cinders, he found them like the same
fruits in other lands, and he tells us that he ate the figs with
So perished a myth which had been kept alive two thousand
years,--partly by modes of thought natural to theologians, partly
by the self-interest of guides, and partly by the love of
marvel-mongering among travellers.
The other myths fared no better. As to the appearance of the sea,
he found its waters not "black and sticky," but blue and
transparent; he found no smoke rising from the abyss, but tells us
that sunlight and cloud and shore were pleasantly reflected from
the surface. As to Lot's wife, he found no salt pillar which had
been a careless woman, but the Arabs showed him many boulders which
had once been wicked men.
His work was worthily continued by a long succession of true
investigators,--among them such travellers or geographers as
Burckhardt, Irby, Mangles, Fallmerayer, and Carl von Raumer: by
men like these the atmosphere of myth and legend was steadily
cleared away; as a rule, they simply forgot Lot's wife altogether.
In this noble succession should be mentioned an American
theologian, Dr. Edward Robinson, professor at New York. Beginning
about 1826, he devoted himself for thirty years to the thorough
study of the geography of Palestine, and he found a worthy
coadjutor in another American divine, Dr. Eli Smith. Neither of
these men departed openly from the old traditions: that would have
cost a heart-breaking price--the loss of all further opportunity to
carry on their researches. Robinson did not even think it best to
call attention to the mythical character of much on which his
predecessors had insisted; he simply brought in, more and more, the
dry, clear atmosphere of the love of truth for truth's sake, and,
in this, myths and legends steadily disappeared. By doing this he
rendered a far greater service to real Christianity than any other
theologian had ever done in this field.
Very characteristic is his dealing with the myth of Lot's wife.
Though more than once at Usdum,--though giving valuable information
regarding the sea, shore, and mountains there, he carefully avoids
all mention of the salt pillar and of the legend which arose from
it. In this he set an example followed by most of the more
thoughtful religious travellers since his time. Very significant is
it to see the New Testament injunction, "Remember Lot's wife," so
utterly forgotten. These later investigators seem never to have
heard of it; and this constant forgetfulness shows the change which
had taken place in the enlightened thinking of the world.
But in the year 1848 came an episode very striking in its character
At that time, the war between the United States and Mexico having
closed, Lieutenant Lynch, of the United States Navy, found himself
in the port of Vera Cruz, commanding an old hulk, the _Supply_.
Looking about for somnething to do, it occurred to him to write to
the Secretary of the Navy asking permission to explore the Dead
Sea. Under ordinary circumstances the proposal would doubtless have
been strangled with red tape; but, fortunately, the Secretary at
that time was Mr. John Y. Mason, of Virginia. Mr. Mason was famous
for his good nature. Both at Washington and at Paris, where he was
afterward minister, this predominant trait has left a multitude of
amusing traditions; it was of him that Senator Benton said, "To be
supremely happy he must have his paunch full of oysters and his
hands full of cards."
The Secretary granted permission, but evidently gave the matter not
another thought. As a result, came an expedition the most comical
and one of the most rich in results to be found in American annals.
Never was anything so happy-go-lucky. Lieutenant Lynch started with
his hulk, with hardly an instrument save those ordinarily found on
shipboard, and with a body of men probably the most unfit for
anything like scientific investigation ever sent on such an errand;
fortunately, he picked up a young instructor in mathematics, Mr.
Anderson, and added to his apparatus two strong iron boats.
Arriving, after a tedious voyage, on the coast of Asia Minor, he
set to work. He had no adequate preparation in general history,
archaeology, or the physical sciences; but he had his American
patriotism, energy, pluck, pride, and devotion to duty, and these
qualities stood him in good stead. With great labour he got the
iron boats across the country. Then the tug of war began. First of
all investigators, he forced his way through the whole length of
the river Jordan and from end to end of the Dead Sea. There were
constant difficulties--geographical, climatic, and personal; but
Lynch cut through them all. He was brave or shrewd, as there was
need. Anderson proved an admirable helper, and together they made
surveys of distances, altitudes, depths, and sundry simple
investigations in a geological, mineralogical, and chemical way.
Much was poorly done, much was left undone, but the general result
was most honourable both to Lynch and Anderson; and Secretary Mason
found that his easy-going patronage of the enterprise was the best
act of his official life.
The results of this expedition on public opinion were most curious.
Lynch was no scholar in any sense; he had travelled little, and
thought less on the real questions underlying the whole
investigation; as to the difference in depth of the two parts of
the lake, he jumped--with a sailor's disregard of logic--to the
conclusion that it somehow proved the mythical account of the
overwhelming of the cities, and he indulged in reflections of a
sort probably suggested by his recollections of American
Especially noteworthy is his treatment of the legend of Lot's wife.
He found the pillar of salt. It happened to be at that period a
circular column of friable salt rock, about forty feet high; yet,
while he accepts every other old myth, he treats the belief that
this was once the wife of Lot as "a superstition."
One little circumstance added enormously to the influence of this
book, for, as a frontispiece, he inserted a picture of the salt
column. It was delineated in rather a poetic manner: light streamed
upon it, heavy clouds hung above it, and, as a background, were
ranged buttresses of salt rock furrowed and channelled out by the
winter rains: this salt statue picture was spread far and wide, and
in thousands of country pulpits and Sunday-schools it was shown as
a tribute of science to Scripture.
Nor was this influence confined to American Sunday-school children: