From Whence the Beast?

By Simo Parpola

Sidebar to: Why 2K?

Four thousand years and two thousand miles separate these images of seven-headed beasts. One is Christian, the other, Sumerian. Nevertheless, they are bound by an enduring tradition of Near Eastern religious beliefs and symbols.

The Italian fresco at right, painted in 1393 by Giusto di Giovanni Menabuoi for the Baptistery of the Cathedral of Padua, represents the fearsome Beast of the Book of Revelation 12:1–9, who will be slain by the archangel Michael:

“A great red dragon, with seven heads…stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations…And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan.”

To modern eyes, the plaque below may appear to depict the same seven-headed dragon of Revelation; the kneeling warrior, who has already severed the beast’s lowest, drooping head, would represent Michael. But the plaque predates the Book of Revelation by 2,500 years. The 1.5-inch shell inlay, which comes from Mesopotamia, dates to the Sumerian Early Dynastic period (c. 2800–2600 B.C.E.). It is believed to illustrate the Sumerian deity Ninurta slaying the seven-headed serpent, musð sag-imin. The plaque, which is housed in the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, comes from the collection of Elie Borowski.

Join the BAS Library!

Already a library member? Log in here.

Institution user? Log in with your IP address.