Monday, March 2, 2009

Covered with Eyes: Revelation and the Aeneid

Here are two passages: one from Revelation; the other, the Aeneid. Each depicts a supernal monstrous divine-like being with lots of feathers and eyes all over:

And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within.... (Rev. 4:6b-8a; RSV)

This depiction is, as is often noted, an adaptation of Ezek. 1:5-14. The difference being that each being in Ezekiel has four faces, one of each animal. Another major difference are the eyes. There is absolutely no real discussion of eyes in Ezekiel's vision as there are for John of Patmos. In fact, the vision in Revelation strongly draws attention to this innovation, mentioning that the beasts around the throne have eyes all over, front and back, inside and outside, twice--at the beginning and end of their description. There is, however, a text that precedes Revelation by a century that does have such a characterization of a supernal beast: Virgil's Aeneid. In the Aeneid, Virgil introduces us to the character of Rumor, a monstrous birdlike goddess, described as...

and lithe of wing, she is a terrifying
enormous monster with as many feathers
as she has sleepless eyes beneath each feather
(amazingly), as many sounding tongues
and mouth, and raises up as many ears.
(Aeneid 4.238-42; trans. Mandelbaum)

For Revelation, the multi-eyed, multi-winged beast is near to God, attending God at the throne and singing praises to God constantly. The ever-vigilant Rumor is also always seeing and always speaking, but not praises (or not only praises). She repeats whatever she hears, amplifies it, whether it is true or false or a bit of both. She spreads unsubstantiated information. She is slander, praise, liar, and truth-teller--and you never know which! So, in these two relatively contemporaneous texts (merely a century between them), we have two depictions of an all-seeing beast with multiple eyes and feathers/wings (giving a nice birdlike quality), but evaluated completely differently. While both are (semi-)divine, Virgil's depiction is entirely negative, while Revelation's perhaps inspires awe. Perhaps many eyes and many wings are just to be used of any creature to represent its all-seeing vigilance and speed / mobility. Or is there something particularly Roman about this creature? If anyone has any other examples of multi-eyed divine beasts from antiquity (Mediterranean, Ancient Near Eastern, etc.), please send them on and perhaps we can compile and see how these characterizations develop in different contexts.

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