Thursday, November 15, 2018

A Byzantine Nativity Icon that Depicts a Belief in Witchcraft and the Evil Eye

The fresco above, dated to 1289 from the church known as Omorphi Ekklesia on the island of Aegina, might appear upon first glance to be a standard Nativity scene typical of late Byzantine iconography. A closer look, however, reveals a number of unusual iconographic features, which suggest that first impressions are wrong, and that it is actually rather an unconventional treatment of the subject.

First is that it depicts the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child at her breast, known in Greek as Galaktotrophousa, or Milk-Feeder. Though it is not unusual in itself, it is unusual to find it depicted in the late thirteenth century. But as one looks at the painting, what catches the attention is the treatment of the Cave of Bethlehem, the birthplace of the incarnated Logos, which is shown as a rocky mass fringed by a corrugated band with six eyes depicted on it. These eyes encompass the Virgin and her new-born child, and are focused on the interior of the cave, seeming to follow the drama which unfolds within it. This composition with the Galaktotrophousa and the watching eyes is unique in Byzantine art.

Another iconographic oddity, at first glance seems to be a standard genre feature. This is the figure of the dog on the right; with its long claws and gaping jaws the barking animal exudes an air of menace. Ferocious dogs of this kind appear in murals in the churches of San Pietro in Otranto, southern Italy and of Sts Anargyroi in Kipoula, Mani (1265), while a strange creature resembling a dragon rather than a dog can be found in the church of the Archangel Michael in Kouneni, Crete. The inclusion of this fierce creature in four near-contemporary Nativity scenes is unlikely to be a coincidence, and in view of the generally negative attitude to dogs held by the Byzantines, its presence here raises a number of questions. In hagiological and theological literature, descriptions of saints confronting the Devil in canine form and frequent comparisons of the Evil One to a dog suggest that this was a widely accepted belief in Byzantine society. The purpose of including such ferocious animals in Nativity scenes seems therefore to be a reminder that on the margins of this joyful event lurked the evil presence of a demonic creature. This teaching can also be found in the Nativity hymns of the Orthodox Church and patristic sermons on the Nativity.

This indicates that the Devil’s threat to the Virgin and to the Christ-child is clearly part of Orthodox belief, and it also provides a possible explanation of the inclusion of the rabid dog as a symbol of evil in the Nativity scene. The confrontation of the Christ-child with the agents of evil is also found in the Christmas liturgy itself. The prophecy par excellence of the coming of the Messiah (Isaiah 11:1–8) describes the co-existence of wild and tame animals (‘then the wolf also shall graze with the lambs’) in verses 6–8, which end with the passage ‘and he shall play while giving suck at the hole of the asps and being weaned he shall raise his hand to the face of the basilisk.’

The basilisk, the king of reptiles, could according to legend cause death with his glance. This belief, which has its roots in Roman times and is found in early Christian texts, spread throughout the Byzantine world, as is clear from references in literature and from illustrated manuscripts of zoological treatises depicting this fantastic creature with its huge head and terrifying eyes. The myth of its deadly gaze led to the basilisk being linked with the popular belief of the evil eye (baskania), i.e. the harm caused by envy through the power of the gaze. This connection is clearly expressed in the commentary on the Psalter by Euthymios Zigabenos. Writing about Psalms 90(91):13 (‘You will overcome the asp and the basilisk and tread down the lion and the dragon’), Zigabenos, like other commentators, says that these fearful monsters are symbols of the Devil, and then he adds: ‘The basilisk is the baskania (evil eye), for just as he has destruction in his eyes, so baskania causes destruction through the eyes.’

Like many other peoples throughout history, the Byzantines believed that it was pregnant mothers and new-born children who were most susceptible to the workings of the envious eye because of the risks and dangers arising from pregnancy and childbirth. A whole series of apotropaic practices relating to babies and children indicates how widespread this belief was:red ribbons, for example, were tied to babies’ arms ‘as amulets to provide protection against diseases and the evil eye.’ On the other hand, although the church officially condemned such unorthodox religious practices, it offered prayers for the protection of mothers in labor and new-born children which – it is no coincidence – contained references to the evil eye.

The Byzantine belief in witches, known in Greek as the Gelo, which was like a female demon, who endangers the life of new-born children and women during pregnancy and labor, may account for this. In an apotropaic text on the demon’s confrontation with Archangel Michael and her defeat at his hands, she gives a description of her powers, in accordance with the concept that in order to resist unfamiliar evil spirits one must first recognize their strengths: ‘I enter someone’s house in the form of a snake, a serpent … I go to wound women; wherever I go I cause them pain in their heart, and I dry up their milk … I kill infants.’ And she concludes: ‘When the holy Mary gave birth to the Word of truth, I went there to delude her, but I failed and was myself turned away deluded.’ As one of the Gelou’s appellations is given as ‘Baskosyne’ and a basic motive for her actions is envy, she is identified with baskania, the evil eye.

The reference in the exorcism to the attack on the Virgin, though probably a magical formula expressing the demon’s strength and immunity, which can only be overcome by the powers of God, could have suggested the idea of danger to the Christ-child from the forces of evil and in particular the evil eye. The fact that the boundaries between Orthodox beliefs and practices on the one hand and magical rituals and superstitions on the other are not always recognized by the general public or sometimes even by priests lacking in theological knowledge makes this a very plausible theory.

To return to the placing of eyes around the cave of the Nativity in the Omorphi Ekklesia, this should be interpreted as anapotropaic practice against envy and the Devil’s evil eye. The representation of an eye as a protection against baskania follows a basic apotropaic rule, in which the very thing which provokes the evil is used to destroy it. The fact that Christ is depicted at his mother’s breast supports this interpretation, since although this image basically emphasizes the doctrine of the Incarnation, it is at the same time a representation of an intimate and human moment in the life of the incarnated Logos, who is here no different from any other new-born infant; Christ is shown as an ordinary baby needing protection from the perils of the evil eye.

Finally, the interpretation of the eyes around the cave may also lie in the symbolism given to the sacred birthplace in ecclesiastical hymnography and homilies. In addition to its associations with Paradise and Heaven and with the cave of the Burial and Resurrection, the cave of the Nativity is also likened to the ‘dark underground life of mortals’. This comparison is extended in hymns to the individual figure of the hymnographer and thence to that of the believer, who is characterized as a cave, and specifically a cave of robbers, i.e. demons. Christmas homilies associate the idea of the believer as a ‘cave of devils’ with the Cave of the Nativity, as in this later text: ‘The Lord was born in a poor, humble cave, to transform man who is the cave and dwelling of the robber and the murderous demon, the fearful evil devil, into the temple and house of the Holy Spirit’ (Archbishop Anthimos of Athens, late 14th c.). It was thus the belief that the Cave of the Nativity was to be compared with sinful and demon-dominated man, and more generally that caves were the haunt of demons,that led to the placing of these apotropaic symbols at the cave mouth.

Read more about this image here.