Chapter 18 - From the Dead Sea Legends to Comparative Mythology
Medieval Growth of the Dead Sea Legends
The history of myths, of their growth under the earlier phases of
human thought and of their decline under modern thinking, is one of
the most interesting and suggestive of human studies; but, since to
treat it as a whole would require volumes, I shall select only one
small group, and out of this mainly a single myth - one about which
there can no longer be any dispute - the group of myths and legends
which grew upon the shore of the Dead Sea, and especially that one
which grew up to account for the successive salt columns washed out
by the rains at its southwestern extremity.
The Dead Sea is about fifty miles in length and ten miles in
width; it lies in a very deep fissure extending north and south,
and its surface is about thirteen hundred feet below that of the
Mediterranean. It has, therefore, no outlet, and is the receptacle
for the waters of the whole system to which it belongs, including
those collected by the Sea of Galilee and brought down thence by
the river Jordan.
It certainly - or at least the larger part of it - ranks geologically
among the oldest lakes on earth. In a broad sense the region is
volcanic: On its shore are evidences of volcanic action, which must
from the earliest period have aroused wonder and fear, and
stimulated the myth-making tendency to account for them. On the
eastern side are impressive mountain masses which have been thrown
up from old volcanic vents; mineral and hot springs abound, some of
them spreading sulphurous odours; earthquakes have been frequent,
and from time to time these have cast up masses of bitumen;
concretions of sulphur and large formations of salt constantly appear.
The water which comes from the springs or oozes through the salt
layers upon its shores constantly brings in various salts in
solution, and, being rapidly evaporated under the hot sun and dry
wind, there has been left, in the bed of the lake, a strong brine
heavily charged with the usual chlorides and bromides - a sort of
bitter "mother liquor" This fluid has become so dense as to have a
remarkable power of supporting the human body; it is of an acrid
and nauseating bitterness; and by ordinary eyes no evidence of
life is seen in it.
Thus it was that in the lake itself, and in its surrounding shores,
there was enough to make the generation of explanatory myths on a
large scale inevitable.
The main northern part of the lake is very deep, the plummet having
shown an abyss of thirteen hundred feet; but the southern end is
shallow and in places marshy.
The system of which it forms a part shows a likeness to that in
South America of which the mountain lake Titicaca is the main
feature; as a receptacle for surplus waters, only rendering them by
evaporation, it resembles the Caspian and many other seas; as a
sort of evaporating dish for the leachings of salt rock, and
consequently holding a body of water unfit to support the higher
forms of animal life, it resembles, among others, the Median lake
of Urumiah; as a deposit of bitumen, it resembles the pitch lakes
In all this there is nothing presenting any special difficulty to
the modern geologist or geographer; but with the early dweller in
Palestine the case was very different. The rocky, barren desolation
of the Dead Sea region impressed him deeply; he naturally reasoned
upon it; and this impression and reasoning we find stamped into the
pages of his sacred literature, rendering them all the more
precious as a revelation of the earlier thought of mankind. The
long circumstantial account given in Genesis, its application in
Deuteronomy, its use by Amos, by Isaiah, by Jeremiah, by Zephaniah,
and by Ezekiel, the references to it in the writings attributed to
St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. Jude, in the Apocalypse, and, above
all, in more than one utterance of the Master himself - all show how
deeply these geographical features impressed the Jewish mind.
At a very early period, myths and legends, many and circumstantial,
grew up to explain features then so incomprehensible.
As the myth and legend grew up among the Greeks of a refusal of
hospitality to Zeus and Hermes by the village in Phrygia, and the
consequent sinking of that beautiful region with its inhabitants
beneath a lake and morass, so there came belief in a similar
offence by the people of the beautiful valley of Siddim, and the
consequent sinking of that valley with its inhabitants beneath the
waters of the Dead Sea. Very similar to the accounts of the saving
of Philemon and Baucis are those of the saving of Lot and his family.
But the myth-making and miracle-mongering by no means ceased in
ancient times; they continued to grow through the medieval and
modern period until they have quietly withered away in the light of
modern scientific investigation, leaving to us the religious and
moral truths they inclose.
It would be interesting to trace this whole group of myths: their
origin in times prehistoric, their development in Greece and Rome,
their culmination during the ages of faith, and their disappearance
in the age of science. It would be especially instructive to note
the conscientious efforts to prolong their life by making futile
compromises between science and theology regarding them; but I
shall mention this main group only incidentally, confining my self
almost entirely to the one above named - the most remarkable of
all - the myth which grew about the salt pillars of Usdum.
I select this mainly because it involves only elementary
principles, requires no abstruse reasoning, and because all
controversy regarding it is ended. There is certainly now no
theologian with a reputation to lose who will venture to revive the
idea regarding it which was sanctioned for hundreds, nay,
thousands, of years by theology, was based on Scripture, and was
held by the universal Church until our own century.
The main feature of the salt region of Usdum is a low range of
hills near the southwest corner of the Dead Sea, extending in a
southeasterly direction for about five miles, and made up mainly of
salt rock. This rock is soft and friable, and, under the influence
of the heavy winter rains, it has been, without doubt, from a
period long before human history, as it is now, cut ever into new
shapes, and especially into pillars or columns, which sometimes
bear a resemblance to the human form.
An eminent clergyman who visited this spot recently speaks of the
appearance of this salt range as follows:
"Fretted by fitful showers and storms, its ridge is exceedingly
uneven, its sides carved out and constantly changing;... and each
traveller might have a new pillar of salt to wonder over at
intervals of a few years."
Few things could be more certain than that, in the indolent
dream-life of the East, myths and legends would grow up to account
for this as for other strange appearances in all that region. The
question which a religious Oriental put to himself in ancient times
at Usdum was substantially that which his descendant to-day puts to
himself at Kosseir. "Why is this region thus blasted?" "Whence
these pillars of salt?" or "Whence these blocks of granite?" "What
aroused the vengeance of Jehovah or of Allah to work these miracles
And, just as Maxime Du Camp recorded the answer of the modern
Shemite at Kosseir, so the compilers of the Jewish sacred books
recorded the answer of the ancient Shemite at the Dead Sea; just as
Allah at Kosseir blasted the land and transformed the melons into
boulders which are seen to this day, so Jehovah at Usdum blasted
the land and transformed Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, which is
seen to this day.
No more difficulty was encountered in the formation of the Lot
legend, to account for that rock resembling the human form, than in
the formation of the Niobe legend, which accounted for a supposed
resemblance in the rock at Sipylos: it grew up just as we have seen
thousands of similar myths and legends grow up about striking
natural appearances in every early home of the human race. Being
thus consonant with the universal view regarding the relation of
physical geography to the divine government, it became a treasure
of the Jewish nation and of the Christian Church - a treasure not
only to be guarded against all hostile intrusion, but to be
increased, as we shall see, by the myth-making powers of Jews,
Christians, and Mohammedans for thousands of years.
The spot where the myth originated was carefully kept in mind;
indeed, it could not escape, for in that place alone were
constantly seen the phenomena which gave rise to it. We have
a steady chain of testimony through the ages, all pointing to
the salt pillar as the irrefragable evidence of divine judgment.
That great theological test of truth, the dictum of St. Vincent of
Lerins, would certainly prove that the pillar was Lot's wife, for
it was believed so to be by Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans from
the earliest period down to a time almost within present memory -
"always, everywhere, and by all." It would stand perfectly the
ancient test insisted upon by Cardinal Newman," Securus judicat
For, ever since the earliest days of Christianity, the identity of
the salt pillar with Lot's wife has been universally held and
supported by passages in Genesis, in St. Luke's Gospel, and in the
Second Epistle of St. Peter - coupled with a passage in the book of
the Wisdom of Solomon, which to this day, by a majority in the
Christian Church, is believed to be inspired, and from which are
specially cited the words, "A standing pillar of salt is a monument
of an unbelieving soul."
Never was chain of belief more continuous. In the first century of
the Christian era Josephus refers to the miracle, and declares
regarding the statue, "I have seen it, and it remains at this day";
and Clement, Bishop of Rome, one of the most revered fathers of the
Church, noted for the moderation of his statements, expresses a
similar certainty, declaring the miraculous statue to be still standing.
In the second century that great father of the Church, bishop and
martyr, Irenaeus, not only vouched for it, but gave his approval to
the belief that the soul of Lot's wife still lingered in the
statue, giving it a sort of organic life: thus virtually began in
the Church that amazing development of the legend which we shall
see taking various forms through the Middle Ages - the story that the
salt statue exercised certain physical functions which in these more
delicate days can not be alluded to save under cover of a dead language.
This addition to the legend, which in these signs of life, as in
other things, is developed almost exactly on the same lines with
the legend of the Niobe statue in the rock of Mount Sipylos and
with the legends of human beings transformed into boulders in
various mythologies, was for centuries regarded as an additional
confirmation of revealed truth.
In the third century the myth burst into still richer bloom in a
poem long ascribed to Tertullian. In this poem more miraculous
characteristics of the statue are revealed. It could not be washed
away by rains; it could not be overthrown by winds; any wound made
upon it was miraculously healed; and the earlier statements as to
its physical functions were amplified in sonorous Latin verse.
With this appeared a new legend regarding the Dead Sea; it became
universally believed, and we find it repeated throughout the whole
medieval period, that the bitumen could only he dissolved by such
fluids as in the processes of animated nature came from the statue.
The legend thus amplified we shall find dwelt upon by pious
travellers and monkish chroniclers for hundreds of years: so it
came to he more and more treasured by the universal Church, and
held more and more firmly - "always, everywhere, and by all."
In the two following centuries we have an overwhelming mass of
additional authority for the belief that the very statue of salt
into which Lot's wife was transformed was still existing. In the
fourth, the continuance of the statue was vouched for by St.
Silvia, who visited the place: though she could not see it, she was
told by the Bishop of Segor that it had been there some time
before, and she concluded that it had been temporarily covered by
the sea. In both the fourth and fifth centuries such great doctors
in the Church as St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Cyril of
Jerusalem agreed in this belief and statement; hence it was,
doubtless, that the Hebrew word which is translated in the
authorized English version "pillar," was translated in the Vulgate,
which the majority of Christians believe virtually inspired, by the
word "statue"; we shall find this fact insisted upon by theologians
arguing in behalf of the statue, as a result and monument of the
miracle, for over fourteen hundred years afterward.
About the middle of the sixth century Antoninus Martyr visited the
Dead Sea region and described it, but curiously reversed a simple
truth in these words: "Nor do sticks or straws float there, nor can
a man swim, but whatever is cast into it sinks to the bottom." As
to the statue of Lot's wife, he threw doubt upon its miraculous
renewal, but testified that it was still standing.
In the seventh century the Targum of Jerusalem not only testified
that the salt pillar at Usdum was once Lot's wife, but declared
that she must retain that form until the general resurrection. In
the seventh century too, Bishop Arculf travelled to the Dead Sea,
and his work was added to the treasures of the Church. He greatly
develops the legend, and especially that part of it given by
Josephus. The bitumen that floats upon the sea "resembles gold and
the form of a bull or camel"; "birds can not live near it"; and
"the very beautiful apples" which grow there, when plucked, "burn
and are reduced to ashes, and smoke as if they were still burning."
In the eighth century the Venerable Bede takes these statements of
Arculf and his predecessors, binds them together in his work on The
Holy Places, and gives the whole mass of myths and legends an
In the tenth century new force is given to it by the pious Moslem
Mukadassi. Speaking of the town of Segor, near the salt region, he
says that the proper translation of its name is "Hell"; and of the
lake he says, "Its waters are hot, even as though the place stood
In the crusading period, immediately following, all the legends
burst forth more brilliantly than ever.
The first of these new travellers who makes careful statements is
Fulk of Chartres, who in 1100 accompanied King Baldwin to the Dead
Sea and saw many wonders; but, though he visited the salt region at
Usdum, he makes no mention of the salt pillar: evidently he had
fallen on evil times; the older statues had probably been washed
away, and no new one had happened to be washed out of the rocks
just at that period.
But his misfortune was more than made up by the triumphant
experience of a far more famous traveller, half a century
later - Rabhi Benjamin of Tudela.
Rabbi Benjamin finds new evidences of miracle in the Dead Sea, and
develops to a still higher point the legend of the salt statue of
Lot's wife, enriching the world with the statement that it was
steadily and miraculously rene wed; that, though the cattle of the
region licked its surface, it never grew smaller. Again a thrill of
joy went through the monasteries and pulpits of Christendom at this
increasing "evidence of the truth of Scripture."
Toward the end of the thirteenth century there appeared in
Palestine a traveller superior to most before or since - Count
Burchard, monk of Mount Sion. He had the advantage of knowing
something of Arabic, and his writings show him to have been
observant and thoughtful. No statue of Lot's wife appears to have
been washed clean of the salt rock at his visit, but he takes it
for granted that the Dead Sea is "the mouth of hell," and that the
vapour rising from it is the smoke from Satan's furnaces.
These ideas seem to have become part of the common stock, for
Ernoul, who travelled to the Dead Sea during the same century,
always speaks of it as the "Sea of Devils."
Near the beginning of the fourteenth century appeared the book of
far wider influence which bears the name of Sir John Mandeville,
and in the various editions of it myths and legends of the Dead Sea
and of the pillar of salt burst forth into wonderful luxuriance.
This book tells us that masses of fiery matter are every day thrown
up from the water "as large as a horse"; that, though it contains
no living thing, it has been shown that men thrown into it can not
die; and, finally, as if to prove the worthlessness of devout
testimony to the miraculous, he says: "And whoever throws a piece
of iron therein, it floats; and whoever throws a feather therein,
it sinks to the bottom; and, because that is contrary to nature, I
was not willing to believe it until I saw it."
The book, of course, mentions Lot's wife, and says that the pillar
of salt "stands there to-day," and "has a right salty taste."
Injustice has perhaps been done to the compilers of this famous
work in holding them liars of the first magnitude. They simply
abhorred scepticism, and thought it meritorious to believe all
pious legends. The ideal Mandeville was a man of overmastering
faith, and resembled Tertullian in believing some things "because
they are impossible"; he was doubtless entirely conscientious;
the solemn ending of the book shows that he listened, observed, and
wrote under the deepest conviction, and those who re-edited his
book were probably just as honest in adding the later stories of
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, thus appealing to the popular
heart, were most widely read in the monasteries and repeated among
the people. Innumerable copies were made in manuscript, and finally
in print, and so the old myths received a new life.
In the fifteenth century wonders increased. In 1418 we have the
Lord of Caumont, who makes a pilgrimage and gives us a statement
which is the result of the theological reasoning of centuries, and
especially interesting as a typical example of the theological
method in contrast with the scientific. He could not understand how
the blessed waters of the Jordan could be allowed to mingle with
the accursed waters of the Dead Sea. In spite, then, of the eye of
sense, he beheld the water with the eye of faith, and calmly
announced that the Jordan water passes through the sea, but that
the two masses of water are not mingled. As to the salt statue of
Lot's wife, he declares it to be still existing; and, copying a
table of indulgences granted by the Church to pious pilgrims, he
puts down the visit to the salt statue as giving an indulgence of
Toward the end of the century we have another traveller yet more
influential: Bernard of Breydenbach, Dean of Mainz. His book of
travels was published in 1486, at the famous press of Schoeffer,
and in various translations it was spread through Europe,
exercising an influence wide and deep. His first important notice
of the Dead Sea is as follows: "In this, Tirus the serpent is
found, and from him the Tiriac medicine is made. He is blind, and
so full of venom that there is no remedy for his bite except
cutting off the bitten part. He can only be taken by striking him
and making him angry; then his venom flies into his head and tail."
Breydenbach calls the Dead Sea "the chimney of hell," and repeats
the old story as to the miraculous solvent for its bitumen. He,
too, makes the statement that the holy water of the Jordan does not
mingle with the accursed water of the infernal sea, but increases
the miracle which Caumont had announced by saying that, although
the waters appear to come together, the Jordan is really absorbed
in the earth before it reaches the sea.
As to Lot's wife, various travellers at that time had various
fortunes. Some, like Caumont and Breydenbach, took her continued
existence for granted; some, like Count John of Solms, saw her and
were greatly edified; some, like Hans Werli, tried to find her and
could not, but, like St. Silvia, a thousand years before, were none
the less edified by the idea that, for some inscrutable purpose,
the sea had been allowed to hide her from them; some found her
larger than they expected, even forty feet high, as was the salt
pillar which happened to be standing at the visit of Commander
Lynch in 1848; but this only added a new proof to the miracle, for
the text was remembered, "There were giants in those days."
Out of the mass of works of pilgrims during the fifteenth century
I select just one more as typical of the theological view then
dominant, and this is the noted book of Felix Fabri, a preaching
friar of Ulm. I select him, because even so eminent an authority in
our own time as Dr. Edward Robinson declares him to have been the
most thorough, thoughtful, and enlightened traveller of that century.
Fabri is greatly impressed by the wonders of the Dead Sea, and
typical of his honesty influenced by faith is his account of the
Dead Sea fruit; he describes it with almost perfect accuracy, but adds
the statement that when mature it is "filled with ashes and cinders."
As to the salt statue, he says: "We saw the place between the sea
and Mount Segor, but could not see the statue itself because we
were too far distant to see anything of human size; but we saw it
with firm faith, because we believed Scripture, which speaks of it;
and we were filled with wonder."
To sustain absolute faith in the statue he reminds his reader's
that "God is able even of these stones to raise up seed to
Abraham," and goes into a long argument, discussing such
transformations as those of King Atlas and Pygmalion's statue, with
a multitude of others, winding up with the case, given in the
miracles of St. Jerome, of a heretic who was changed into a log of
wood, which was then burned.
He gives a statement of the Hebrews that Lot's wife received her
peculiar punishment because she had refused to add salt to the food
of the angels when they visited her, and he preaches a short
sermon in which he says that, as salt is the condiment of food, so
the salt statue of Lot's wife "gives us a condiment of wisdom."
There were, indeed, many discrepancies in the testimony of
travellers regarding the salt pillar - so many, in fact, that at a
later period the learned Dom Calmet acknowledged that they shook
his belief in the whole matter; but, during this earlier time,
under the complete sway of the theological spirit, these
difficulties only gave new and more glorious opportunities for faith.
For, if a considerable interval occurred between the washing of one
salt pillar out of existence and the washing of another into
existence, the idea arose that the statue, by virtue of the soul
which still remained in it, had departed on some mysterious
excursion. Did it happen that one statue was washed out one year in
one place and another statue another year in another place, this
difficulty was surmounted by believing that Lot's wife still walked
about. Did it happen that a salt column was undermined by the rains
and fell, this was believed to be but another sign of life. Did a
pillar happen to be covered in part by the sea, this was enough to
arouse the belief that the statue from time to time descended into
the Dead Sea depths - possibly to satisfy that old fatal curiosity
regarding her former neighbours. Did some smaller block of salt
happen to be washed out near the statue, it was believed that a
household dog, also transformed into salt, had followed her back
from beneath the deep. Did more statues than one appear at one
time, that simply made the mystery more impressive.
In facts now so easy of scientific explanation the theologians
found wonderful matter for argument.
One great question among them was whether the soul of Lot's wife
did really remain in the statue. On one side it was insisted that,
as Holy Scripture declares that Lot's wife was changed into a
pillar of salt, and as she was necessarily made up of a soul and a
body, the soul must have become part of the statue. This argument
was clinched by citing that passage in the Book of Wisdom in which
the salt pillar is declared to be still standing as "the monument
of an unbelieving soul." On the other hand, it was insisted that
the soul of the woman must have been incorporeal and immortal, and
hence could not have been changed into a substance corporeal and
mortal. Naturally, to this it would be answered that the salt
pillar was no more corporeal than the ordinary materials of the
human body, and that it had been made miraculously immortal, and
"with God all things are possible." Thus were opened long vistas of
As we enter the sixteenth century the Dead Sea myths, and
especially the legends of Lot's wife, are still growing. In 1507
Father Anselm of the Minorites declares that the sea sometimes
covers the feet of the statue, sometimes the legs, sometimes the
In 1555, Gabriel Giraudet, priest at Puy, journeyed through
Palestine. His faith was robust, and his attitude toward the myths
of the Dead Sea is seen by his declaration that its waters are so
foul that one can smell them at a distance of three leagues; that
straw, hay, or feathers thrown into them will sink, but that iron
and other metals will float; that criminals have been kept in them
three or four days and could not drown. As to Lot's wife, he says
that he found her "lying there, her back toward heaven, converted
into salt stone; for I touched her, scratched her, and put a piece
of her into my mouth, and she tasted salt."
At the centre of all these legends we see, then, the idea that,
though there were no living beasts in the Dead Sea, the people of
the overwhelmed cities were still living beneath its waters,
probably in hell; that there was life in the salt statue; and that
it was still curious regarding its old neighbours.
Hence such travellers in the latter years of the century as Count
Albert of Lowenstein and Prince Nicolas Radziwill are not at all
weakened in faith by failing to find the statue. What the former is
capable of believing is seen by his statement that in a certain
cemetery at Cairo during one night in the year the dead thrust forth
their feet, hands, limbs, and even rise wholly from their graves.
There seemed, then, no limit to these pious beliefs. The idea that
there is merit in credulity, with the love of myth-making and
miracle-mongering, constantly made them larger. Nor did the
Protestant Reformation diminish them at first; it rather
strengthened them and fixed them more firmly in the popular mind.
They seemed destined to last forever. How they were thus
strengthened at first, under Protestantism, and how they were
finally dissolved away in the atmosphere of scientific thought,
will now be shown.