A while ago, I asked the question, "Just what exactly is a cherub?" I received a mostly satisfactory answer from kaph
that confirms what I have since researched on my own. A cherub seems to have been basically a winged sphinx -- a winged bull or lion with a man's face -- in ancient near-eastern mythology. They were known to more that just the ancient Jews.
The Old Testament, however, seems to indicate that there are real cherubim from which the mythological ones are based or perhaps real heavenly/angelic/otherworldly creatures associated with cherubim as the closet approximation to mere humans.( Brief Overview of Biblical Descriptions of CherubimCollapse )
Now what of seraphim?
First, the root of the word is almost certainly, SRP
, which is "to burn". So at first guess, one might conclude that the seraphim were similar to ifrits (jinns/genies of fire).
This much I knew until this weekend when I ate lunch with tellemonn
who showed me a book about life in ancient Israel. I read some of the following information there and then looked up more in my Hebrew books at home.
For one, there was an Egyptian snake-beings called Sherrefs. There was also an Assyrian serpent god named Sharrapu or Sharrabu. Are these coincidences, or are seraphim snake creatures?
Well, going back to the book of Numbers, when Moses set up a bronze serpent, the people were being bitten by n'hashim seraphim
, "snakes of flames" or "fiery snakes". It is generally thought from the context that these were poisonous snakes. And one can easily explain how poison would cause burning.
Interestingly enough, however, the word seraph
, the singular of seraphim is sometimes used in the Bible to refer to what are thought to be poisonous snakes without the attached n'hash
. Even more interesting, a seraph is mentioned twice in Isaiah, where it is usually translated as some type of serpent. But it is associated with a word for "darting, winged, flying". In these two passages -- Is 14:29; 30:6 -- seraphim appear to be flying snakes!
Now as for the root, "to burn", the Egyptians often wore ornamental snakes that they believed could breath fire upon their enemies. (These were the uraei.)
So if anything, we see that ancient cultures had ideas of flying serpents and/or fire-breathing serpents.
Finally, the Book of Enoch, when translated into Greek has the word seraphim
translated into the word from which we get our word "dragon".
Are seraphim dragons?
Now, this raises the question about the only occurrence of the plural in the Hebrew Bible in Is 6:3. Isaiah, unlike Ezekiel, is able to name these creatures. He calls them seraphim. It is probable that they were fire serpents or flying serpents or both. They have six wings, so they were definitely flying something. They apparently had feet (or possibly genitals, as feet was a euphemism for them) and hands. So do most depictions of dragons. They had no aversion to fire as one picked up a burning coal. They sang, "Holy, holy, holy," so they could speak.
(Now, like in Ezekiel, Isaiah may have been associating a known mythological creature with some otherworldly creature, but still....)
Finally, consider this. What if the serpent in the garden of Eden was actually a seraphim or what we might call a dragon? Regardless of whether one takes that story to be true or fable, it would make a lot of narrative sense if the serpent were a walking, flying, and talking serpent, since it talks to Eve and since it is later cursed to crawl on its belly.
Cross-posted to lhynard