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The Last of the Ancient Centaurs and Fauns September 16, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

The following appears in the Life of St Paul by Jerome, chapters 7 and 8. These passages are interesting because we have a very unusual attitude to in-between creatures, particularly given what an intolerable stick in the mud, Jerome was about everything that didn’t come out of the gospels and Paul’s letters…

The blessed Paul had already lived on earth the life of heaven for a hundred and thirteen years, and Antony at the age of ninety was dwelling in another place of solitude (as he himself was wont to declare), when the thought occurred to the latter, that no monk more perfect than himself had settled in the desert. However, in the stillness of the night it was revealed to him that there was farther in the desert a much better man than he, and that he ought to go and visit him. So then at break of day the venerable old man, supporting and guiding his weak limbs with a staff, started to go: but what direction to choose he knew not. Scorching noontide came, with a broiling sun overhead, but still he did not suffer himself to be turned from the journey he had begun. Said he, ‘I believe in my God: some time or other He will shew me the fellow-servant whom He promised me.’ He said no more. All at once he beholds a creature of mingled shape, half horse half man, called by the poets Hippocentaur. At the sight of this he arms himself by making on his forehead the sign of salvation, and then exclaims, ‘Holloa! Where in these parts is a servant of God living?’ The monster after gnashing out some kind of outlandish utterance, in words broken rather than spoken through his bristling lips, at length finds a friendly mode of communication, and extending his right hand points out the way desired. Then with swift flight he crosses the spreading plain and vanishes from the sight of his wondering companion. But whether the devil took this shape to terrify Anthony, or whether it be that the desert which is known to abound in monstrous animals engenders that kind of creature also, we cannot decide.

Jerome is rarely confused but here he holds back only reluctantly from condemning the centaur as a creature of the devil. The story handed down to him, after all, gives the centaur a benign role. This creature – and this is to Beachcombing’s knowledge the last sighting in classical literature – gives directions to the holy man questing for Paul. The next passage is even more interesting in this respect.

Antony was amazed, and thinking over what he had seen went on his way. Before long in a small rocky valley shut in on all sides he sees a mannikin with hooked snout, horned forehead, and extremities like goats’ feet. When he saw this, Antony like a good soldier seized the shield of faith and the helmet of hope: the creature none the less began to offer to him the fruit of the palm-trees to support him on his journey and as it were pledges of peace. Antony perceiving this stopped and asked who he was. The answer he received from him was this: ‘I am a mortal being and one of those inhabitants of the desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord and ours, who, we have learnt, came once to save the world, and ‘whose sound has gone forth into all the earth.’’ As he uttered such words as these, the aged traveller’s cheeks streamed with tears, the marks of his deep feeling, which he shed in the fullness of his joy. He rejoiced over the Glory of Christ and the destruction of Satan, and marvelling all the while that he could understand the Satyr’s language, and striking the ground with his staff, he said, ‘Woe to thee, Alexandria, who instead of God worshippest monsters! Woe to thee, harlot city, into which have flowed together the demons of the whole world! What will you say now? Beasts speak of Christ, and you instead of God worship monsters.’ He had not finished speaking when, as if on wings, the wild creature fled away.

So this time, in the middle of the desert Antony comes across a goat man or a faun. And the pattern repeats itself. He fears and yet the faun helps. It gives directions and sustenance and announces the curiosity of his people about Christ. Here is the first occurrence known to Beach of a motif that will echo down through fairy lore, the longing of the ‘in between people’ for a salvation that will never be theirs. Antony finally meets Paul by following a she wolf: the theme of the wilds helping the two Christian saints to meet in the desert continues.

Jacque Vallee covers this passage in his Passport to Magonia, which Beach is presently going through chapter by chapter in a tiny reading group: a very curious experience. ‘In the above account, however, it is at least clear to St. Anthony that the [faun] is neither an angel nor a demon. If it had been, he would have recognized it immediately!’ Beach isn’t so sure, note Anthony crossing himself when encountering the centaur. The saint is as confused as Jerome and the reader. Tradition seems to be playing games with us all as in the depths of the desert: in between creatures lead to in between places… But one last thought. After Jerome had introduced, we suspect with some embarrassment, the faun, he attacks those who do not take the account seriously.

Let no one scruple to believe this incident; its truth is supported by what took place when Constantine was on the throne [306-337, a century before], a matter of which the whole world was witness. For a man of that kind was brought alive to Alexandria and shewn as a wonderful sight to the people. Afterwards his lifeless body, to prevent its decay through the summer heat, was preserved in salt and brought to Antioch that the Emperor might see it.

Beach cannot remember any other record of this visit to Alexandria, though he would love to proved wrong: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. Has Jerome got mixed up with an earlier account? And what was this exotic creature?!

25 Sept 2012: KMH writes: Strange incidents such as this can occur when a religion in permanent decline confronts the new one destined to replace it. Christianity did “interact” with the Greek, Celtic and Germanic religions, and others outside of Europe. These “in-between” creatures associated with the Greek religion would most likely be paranormal in nature. However, any religion which cannot demonstrate that solid, physical specimens of their spiritual beings can actually exist on the surface of the planet, is at best not truly relevant to human life in the flesh, or at worst a deliberate deception. This applies to all the gods as well. With our burgeoning knowledge of  genetics it will eventually be possible to physically recreate the chimeras of the past and the fantastic symbolical creatures of the Bible (such as the seven headed, ten horned dragon of Revelation). They are technically monsters since they are unable to reproduce.The dead centaur (or whatever it was called) is a metaphor for the nearly dead Greek religion as a whole. AB, meanwhile, has this to say in terms of eye-witness accounts: I was aware of the faun component of this story but the centaur component’s new to me unless it’s mentioned in Passport to Magonia which I read countless times years ago and I’ve simply forgotten which would be unusual for me. You ask what this creature is and here I must declare my colours as either a nutcase or a natural mystic or probably a mixture of both because I’ve actually seen a satyr in of all places the parlour of our previous housing association place near Liverpool city centre. This was actually the least of the sort of stuff I get to interact with so feel free at this point to publicly disown me. Basically since the moment I was born I’ve had this kind of binary pulse thing operating inside me which I use to spend at times literally days on end rocking backwards and forwards but during a much shorter stint a few years back I was rocking away in my favourite armchair when I got up to make a cup of tea only for the springs of the chair to carry on squeaking away as if I was still rocking in it. Knowing this contradicted the laws of physics and deeply unnerved but determined not to be bullied by some menacing presenced dark jinn or warlock type (for want of a better explanation) into fleeing the room I stood my ground for several minutes but the bloody springs refused to stop rocking then all of a sudden something seemed to leap out the chair and start moving around the room making clip clop sounds as if it had hooves. The funny thing was although I couldn’t SEE it with my eyes I could somehow FEEL it with them almost like as if they were shooting out beams you could use for reading braille so I was able to observe its progress but after a while the braille beam effect began to alternate with an effect not unlike the one in the movie Predator and I could finally see this two foot or so tall satyr wandering round the room fascinatedly investigating things like the radio and the computer and images on books and magazines as if these were things it’d never seen before. It looked a bit like a white human adolescent just starting to develop brown facial hair though how I knew it was white and the hair was brown I don’t know because it was translucent when it wasn’t in braille mode but it seemed to be completely unaware of me something I’ve encountered in other circumstances and when it was done leapt back into the chair as if to sit in it then vanished. Meanwhile the chair springs kept squeaking away so I ended up tearing off the cushions to see what was going on but nothing I did would make them stop until I went for a cup of tea and returned to find them back to normal. Now you know why I think the weird and wacky ‘lightweight’ stuff you cover mightn’t be so lightweight afterall. Thanks to KMH and AB!