Weird Creatures of the Bible: Things That Go Bump in the Night
The Bible makes no pretense of science—and the great Creeds of the
Church require no confession of belief in beings that dwell beyond the
veil—so let the faithful make of these paranormal encounters what they
will! Our job tonight is merely to open the door…
Part I: Biblical Beasties!
1. Vampires! Yes, vampires. Bloodsucking horrors have taken Western literature by storm every since Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula hit the shelves. While not the first vampire novel, it remains easily the most influential. Today, with Twilight, The Vampire’s Apprentice, Underworld, etc., we tend to think of the vampire as a rather modern phenomenon, like the zombie. But in truth, vampires are older than history itself.
storm demons that bring disease, illness and death (and prey upon
children) date back at least as far as 4,000 B.C. in ancient Sumer. They were called Lilitu. Lilith, the mother of all vampires, and her offspring, the lilim, were feared throughout the Fertile Crescent. But how does this relate to the Bible?
Genesis 1:27 states: “So God created Man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Yet in Genesis 2, God creates Adam, “the earthling,” places him in Eden, and creates various animals as Adam’s helpers. When this fails to please the earthling, God takes from him a rib and uses it to create Eve. Thus,
“the man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she
shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”
So which is it? Were male and female created simultaneously, or was woman created later? According to Jewish lore, both are true! In Genesis 1, Adam was created along with his first wife, Lilith. But when she refused to submit to Adam in any way, she fled to the fallen angels and bred monsters with the demons. To this day, she takes revenge upon the children of her replacement, Eve. Amulets are placed in cribs to keep Lilith at bay, and songs of lilu abi—“Lilith, begone!”—have become our modern lullabies.
Lilith appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, Jewish folklore, and Kabbalah. But she also explicitly appears in Isaiah 34:14, describing the desolation of Edom: “The
wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the
island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; Lilith also shall rest
there, and find for herself a place of rest.”
2. Sea Monsters! “Impious was the man who first spread sail and braved the dangers of the frantic deep.”—Augustus. In the ancient and classical worlds, the sea was always understood as a realm of chaos, death, and monsters. Only God, sings the Psalmist, can walk upon the sea, or give unto it proper boundaries.
much ancient mythology, a dragon of the sea must be slain by a hero
from the gods in order to create the world—to literally shape order out
of chaos. The most famous example of this is the Enuma Elish,
the Sumerian creation epic, in which the storm god Marduk slays and
bursts apart the sea dragon Tiamat, then uses her corpse to lay out an
ordered world. But the Jews had a different understanding of their God.
than forging order from the raw materials of chaos, the Hebrew God in
Genesis 1 (granted, not the only creation account in the Bible) creates ex nihilo, simply by speaking His Word. Instead of fighting sea monsters, God creates them on the Fifth Day, according to Genesis 1:21! And the most famous of all sea monsters is the Leviathan.
Leviathan appears five times in the Hebrew Scriptures:
- Job 3:8 “May those who curse days curse that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan”;
41:1-34 “Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his
tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his
jaw with a hook? ...Can you fill his hide with harpoons or his head with
- Psalm 74:14: “It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert.”
104:24-26: “O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom
you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. Here is the
ocean, vast and wide, teeming with life of every kind, both large and
small. See the ships sailing along, and Leviathan, which you made to
play in the sea,” or, “for the sport of it!”
- Isaiah 27:1: “In
that day the LORD with His severe sword, great and strong, Will punish
Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan that twisted serpent; And He
will slay the reptile that is in the sea.”
So what is the Leviathan? Commentators have described it as a great fish, a whale, a crocodile, or a snake. Often it is compared to Tiamat, the chaos dragon, or to Jormungandr, the world-serpent of Norse mythology, who surrounds the entirety of earth. The Greeks spoke of a similar creature, the Ouroboros. Jewish
commentators claim that Leviathan generally eats a whale every day, and
that in the beginning God slew the female Leviathan and salted its
flesh for the feast of the righteous; else, the Leviathans would have
procreated and taken over the whole of the earth.
Some Christian commentators take Leviathan simply to be a common animal, such as the crocodile or whale. Young Earth Creationists often claim it to be a dinosaur or related prehistoric reptile. Leviathan often represents chaos, or even that other great serpent, the Devil. You can find the term in English literature from Milton to Melville. Today
the term “Leviathan” refers to almost anything of vast and expansive
power, lurking somewhere beneath the surface. Whatever it may be,
Leviathan has both terrestrial and aerial counterparts: the Behemoth of Job 40 and the Ziz of rabbinic lore.
3. Witches & Ghosts! In the ancient and classical worlds, ghosts were an unnerving fact of life. (According to surveys, most modern people would agree that they still are!) In Greek mythology, death is almost never a happy thing. The “shades” of mortals descend into Hades, or Erebus, the land of the dead. Most
shades wander in a sort of shiftless limbo through the Asphodel
Meadows, where they may or may not remember their earthly lives. Particularly
heroic souls get to the Elysian Fields, while particularly nasty ones
plunge into Tartarus—the underworld beneath the underworld—where they
fall for days and enter a darkness “thrice wrapped in night.”
But not everybody gets to rest. Those
without a proper burial, especially those not given coins for Charon,
the ferryman, are trapped on this side of the River Stix. They cannot enter the land of the dead, and must wander the shores for 100 years. Souls of the dead might also return for a specific purpose, such as revenge. Jewish commentators speak of a similar phenomenon regarding a dybbuk, or lost soul, who is not permitted entrance into Sheol (“the Pit”), land of the dead.
That the people of the Bible believed in ghosts is clear. When Jesus comes walking toward the disciples upon the sea, they fear that He is a ghost (Mark 6:49-50)! Moreover,
after His Resurrection, Jesus sits and eats a meal of broiled fish and
honeycomb with His Apostles, proving that He is flesh and blood, and no
mere spirit (Luke 24:42).
This leads us to one of the most
remarkable stories of the Hebrew Bible, wherein King Saul longs for the
counsel of the recently deceased prophet Samuel, and so Saul breaks
God’s Law by seeking out the Witch of Endor to summon Samuel’s ghost (1 Samuel 28)! For his part, Samuel’s ghost is appalled that Saul has called him up. Several
Jewish and Christian traditions believe that the soul stays near the
body for a time, while others surmise that Samuel was called up from
Sheol. Some have tried to argue that the ghost of Samuel was actually a demon in disguise, but that’s simply not in the Bible.
Nowhere does the Scripture state that God is the only, or even the chief, source of supernatural phenomenon. Indeed,
the writers of the Bible seem to assume that there really is some power
at work in dark magic and conjuring—which is why it’s so dangerous! (Remember
traditions such as Voodoo, which do not deny the existence of God, but
explicitly seek out lower powers through magic and spirits instead.)
4. Angels & Demons! Obviously the most ubiquitous of paranormal critters throughout the Bible are angels and their fallen counterparts, the demons. Traditionally,
angels are divided up into multiple “choirs,” with the highest choirs
serving as the Counselors of God, the middle choirs governing the laws
of Creation, and the lower choirs serving as messengers or helpers for
While the number and ordering of the choirs varies,
the three highest are the most consistently agreed upon, as they appear
in the Book of Ezekiel. The Seraphim (“flaming ones,” or even “fiery serpents”) are the most like God, and literally burn with the reflection of His love and glory. In art and hymnody they’re often depicted as having six wings. Below them are the Cherubim,
who have bronze hooves, four wings, and four faces: those of a man, a
lion, a bull, and an eagle—corresponding to our Evangelists. Below them are the Ophanim, or Thrones, who serve as the living throne of God. These are described as “wheels within wheels” or “wheels of wheels,” their rims covered in eyeballs! Obviously these holy terrors don’t look like Cupid.
The numeration of archangels also varies widely. Michael, archangel of justice and patron of Israel, and Gabriel,
archangel of mercy and announcer of the Endtimes (hence his role in
Jesus’ Annunciation) are always right at the top of the list. Usually Raphael, archangel of healing, shows up there as well, though he hails from the apocryphal Book of Tobit. Uriel, guide to Enoch in the eponymous book, is often considered the archangel of light, responsible for the stars in their courses.
is traditionally understood to have been the greatest and most powerful
of the angels—which would have made him a Seraph, who were sometimes
understood as serpents—yet he fell from grace due to the primal sin of
pride. This is alluded to in the Bible at several points
(Luke 10:18: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from Heaven!”) and finds
fuller explanation in the Life of Adam & Eve, which heavily
influenced the Koran. But what most people don’t know is that Christians
and Jews also talked about a second fall of angels, not out of pride,
but out of lust. And that’s what leads us to…
5. Giants! Now things are really getting good. Genesis 6:1-4 reports:
it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and
daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters
of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever
they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man
forever, for he is indeed flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one
hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days,
and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of
men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were
of old, men of renown.
What are we to make of this? Well, Jewish tradition, especially as laid out in the Book of Enoch, expands upon this brief tale. It speaks of a fallen choir of angel, the Watchers, who, as the lowest choir, were the most like humankind. Thus, they were given the responsibility of protecting and overseeing human development. They
so loved the world in their charge, however, that they took physical
form and gave way to their passions, imparting to mankind the arts of
warfare, vanity, lust, and other plagues of vice.
The offspring of these fallen angels were the Nephilim (“violent,” or “causing to fall”), hybrids with half-angel and half-human natures. They were larger, faster, stronger than human beings—but their lusts ran amok. They craved violence and flesh, and turned to devouring men. But
with a Nephilim, you can’t just kill it, for the decaying corpse of a
dead giant, being half spiritual, will release wicked spirits upon the
countryside! In order to deal with the Watchers, their corrupted human charges, and their monstrous offspring, God sent the Great Flood to drown them out and start the world anew. The Watchers were bound to earth until the Judgment.
Now if this all sounds familiar, it ought to! Every
mythology, be it Hindu, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or
Scandinavian, records that heavenly beings who mate with mortals produce
three things: cannibalistic giants, horrific monsters, and demigod heroes. Suddenly, all the ancient heroes—Achilles, Gilgamesh, even Alexander the Great—count as biblical! They are “the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” The Bible refers to them as gibborim, “supermen.” The
Judeo-Christian understanding is simply that the pagan gods who birthed
such heroes and giants were the Watchers, still lording over humanity
and still governed by the mortal passions that seduced their angelic
nature! (Explains Zeus, doesn’t it?) Now all mythology can be Christian mythology! Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman…
Apparently the Flood didn’t stop the Watchers from producing later offspring. Nephilim show up throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Often they are referred to as Rephaim, which means “remnant” or “shade”—the remainders of a drowned race. It was from the Rephaim that King Og of Bashan descended. According
to Deuteronomy 3:11, Og’s iron bed was nine cubits long and four cubits
wide, indicating that Og stood somewhere around 12 feet tall and five feet across the shoulders. (Yikes!) Other surviving branches of the giant race were the Zuzim, the Emim, and, most famously, the Anakim. Clearing out Canaan, however, seems to have gotten rid of all the giants save those in Jotunheim.
Part II: Translated Terrors!
1. Dragons! Surely no catalog of mythological monsters is complete without dragons! Like vampires and ghosts, dragons recognizably appear in virtually every human culture, regardless of time or clime. Some
assume that this is due to a genetically programmed fear of predators,
which, in our primate subconscious, have been melded into one beast: the
dragon. (See: origins of the Chinese dragon.) Others claim that the universality of dragons has to do with dinosaur bones, or even some real, now-lost creature.
Dragons most certainly do show up in the Bible, but we must beware confusion from ambiguous wording and translation. The
term “dragon,” be it in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, is almost always
synonymous with the terms for “serpent,” “snake,” or “reptile.” The
King James Version of the Bible speaks of dragons in Nehemiah, the
Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and (of course) Revelation. But how many of these accurately reflect the original intention of the writers?
Hebrew for “fiery serpent” was often translated as “dragon” by King
James’ boys, but today is better understood simply as “poisonous snake.” Context matters, of course. In Bel & the Dragon,
which is an apocryphal expansion on the Book of Daniel, Daniel clearly
kills some beast referred to as a “dragon” and worshipped as a god. What was it? A crocodile? A python (often considered divine in the ancient world)? Or should we take it at face value—an actual dragon?
Dragons represent human vice, especially greed and violence, and this is most obvious in the dragon of Revelation. Revelation,
of course, is not a book meant to be taken literally, and the dragon
here is a metaphor for that great serpent, the Devil. Depictions of angels (St. Michael) or holy men (St. George) slaying dragons represent faith conquering evil. In
England, moreover, the Celtic Welsh used dragon banners as their
standards, and so dragon slayers were not necessarily literal killers of
magical reptiles, but were the Saxons defeating the old Britons.
course, others would argue that dragons were quite real indeed, and if
one were ever to ask whatever happened to them, we need only look to the
stained glass of medieval cathedrals…
2. Cockatrices! Back in the Middle Ages, the cockatrice was amongst the most feared of supernatural horrors. Alas,
this beastie seemed destined to slide down the memory hole—until a
certain Mr. Harry Potter unlocked a certain Chamber of Secrets. The cockatrice, or basilisk, is supposedly created by a serpent incubating a chicken egg. The resulting monstrosity is the “king of serpents,” with poisonous breath and a killing gaze!
The King James Version of the Bible used the term “cockatrice” in several verses throughout Isaiah and Jeremiah. Today the original Hebrew terms are more often translated as “asp,” “viper,” or even “fiery flying serpent.” Belief in the cockatrice seems to have flourished around the 12th Century and died out in the 17th.
3. Unicorns! Oh, that feisty King James. His Bible mentions unicorns not once, but on nine separate occasions: Numbers 23:22, 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9-10; Psalm 22:21; Psalm 29:6; Psalm 92:10; Isaiah 34:7. Traditionally, a unicorn is not simply a horse with a horn, but also with a goat’s beard, a lion’s tail, and cloven hooves.
in unicorns seems to stem from ancient symbols of horned beasts
(representing strength) shown in profile: hence, one horn. The
concept of the unicorn as a unique creature first appears in India, and
from there makes its way into ancient Greek natural histories—not Greek
mythology. Chinese and Japanese unicorns are described more like chimeras than anything else. The Hebrew term re’em, for a wild, untamable beast (probably referring to the now-extinct auroch) was translated into the Greek Septuagint as monokeros (“one horn”) and thus into the English of King James as “unicorn.”
sources refer to the unicorn as a beast that can only be tamed by
laying its horn on the lap of a virgin maiden—the symbolism being rather
obvious. Christian interpreters make of this an allegory for Christ and His mother, the Virgin Mary. Thus,
the unicorn became a cherished Christian symbol and entered into
European heraldry (e.g., the Scottish unicorn of King James).
4. Gryphons! The half-lion, half-eagle gryphon (or griffin), said to guard the golden hordes of Mongolia, is a mythological favorite. Recent
publications by Adrienne Mayor convincingly argue that the gryphon
legend originated from travelers witnessing the fossilized remains of
Protoceratops. The gryphon is also a popular medieval
symbol for Christ, most famously used by Dante, in that, like the
gryphon, Christ has two natures: He is true God, and true Man. The KJV translates Leviticus 11:13, referring to some sort of great bird, as “gryphon.”
5. Satyrs! In
Greek and Roman mythology, a satyr was a half-man, half-beast creature
usually associated with Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine and
ecstasy. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word sa‘ir occurs some fifty-two times. It is related to the term se‘ar
(hair), and generally means “a hairy one.” It is used, for example, to
speak of the male goat that was employed as the Israelites’ solemn,
collective sin offering on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16)—the scapegoat.
In two cases, however, the KJV renders sa‘ir
as “satyr” (Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14). But the specific context of both
passages makes it quite clear that the term is being used to refer to
the wild goats that frequently inhabited the ruins of both ancient
Babylon and Edom. Interestingly, the “scapegoat” mentioned above was given over by the people to Azazel, a desert demon, and traditionally understood to be the leader of the fallen Watchers!
Part III: Associated Abominations!
1. Phoenixes! Alas, pool Clement. As
a companion to Paul and author of one of the Early Church’s most
beloved epistles, Clement (along with the Shepherd of Hermas and the
Apocalypse of St. Peter) almost made it into the final canon of the New
Testament. But even though his work is not one of those
illustrious 27, nevertheless it is preserved for us in the collection of
the Church Fathers. The phoenix is a mythical bird that first appears in Phoenician mythology, then later in Egyptian and Greek. Of it, Clement writes:
us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place
in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about.
There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one
of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its
dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of
frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is
fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of
worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead
bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it
takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing
these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called
Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places
them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its
former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and
find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was
2. Orcs & Elves! Almost
every mythology contains a category of being which is neither ghost nor
god, angel nor devil, but is a sort of quasi-mortal creature—indeed,
not just a beast, but a type of person—magical in nature, fond of pranks
and puzzles, ranging in attitude from malevolent to benevolent. Be they hobgoblins, leprechauns, pixies or gremlins, Europeans typically refer to them as the Fair Folk, or fairies. They
tend to be much like human beings, with similar families, concerns, and
vocations, but living in a hidden or parallel world, concealed by
Some believe that elves and their ilk
are simply old pagan gods who were demoted upon the arrival of
Christianity, but even polytheists like the ancient Romans believed in
nymphs of various sort. In medieval literature they are not un- or anti-Christian, but often assist the faithful and show an orthodox religiosity. According to Beowulf, the “elves and orcs” are fanciful creatures descended from Cain, much like the monster Grendel. Fair
Folk are traditionally believed to have largely left this mortal realm
(see: Tolkien) in part because of a great aversion to iron, of which Man
is quite fond. Church bells are thought to drive away, or outright kill, any such creatures within earshot.
3. Genies! Muslims profess belief in ancient desert spirits called jinni (singular, djinn). For
the most part, these are no different than the elves and nymphs of
other cultures, save for a much more specific origin story. As
Man was made from earth (or clotted blood, depending upon which part of
the Koran you’re reading), so the genies were made by God from
“smokeless fire.” Like humans, they are ultimately mortal and have free will, able to choose good or evil. As such, they are liable to the final Judgment. Unlike humans, however, they are exceedingly long lived, and have vast magical power.
4. Golems! Amongst
the most fascinating of creatures in Jewish folklore is the golem (“raw
material”), a being shaped of clay and brought to near-life by a holy
man. As godly men are thought to reflect God, so they have some dim reflection of His powers, such as giving life. A golem may be raised by writing the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) on a piece of paper stuck in its mouth. It is not alive, however, but is “a shadow of life.”
a golem as a servant is considered the highest attribute of a holy man,
and is attributed to many great rabbis throughout the Middle Ages. Often the golem has the word emet, “truth” inscribed on its body or head, and erasing the first letter—making the inscription into met, “dead”—deactivates the golem. (It is just as easily reactivated.) A
golem cannot speak, and is generally mindless, but it often develops
other powers, such as invisibility, a heated touch, and the ability to
raise spirits of the dead!
Golems are often created to protect or
avenge Jewish communities, but have a tendency to grow more powerful,
uncontrollable, and violent over time, to the point of attacking
righteous gentiles and even the Jews in its charge. Such is the ancient price of hubris. Golems are best kept in reserve, deactivated, often in attics… just in case.
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