The Incarnate Holy Spirit in the Christian West: Mythical Birds and Potent Potables, Part One

In a recent book I wrote the following:

In his Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, Saint Photius claims that the Western Christian dogma of the filioque leads inexorably to the notion that Christ’s flesh and blood body gives birth to the Holy Spirit (Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, edited by J.P. Migne [Paris: Imprimerie Catholique, 1857-1866], 102:313D; cited in Joseph P. Farrell, Free Choice in St. Maximos the Confessor [South Canann, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1989], 206). This filioquist materialization of the prior heresy of Arius, who merely failed to distinguish between divine generation and divine creation, is the probable origin of the strange Frankish tradition that the Holy Spirit took on material form as a dove in order to deliver the Holy Ampoule to the consecration of the Frankish king Clovis. Not only has the Third Person of the Holy Trinity somehow become incarnate (as an irrational beast[!]), but so has the “grace” become materialized, the oil in the Ampoule being analogous to the Soma of the Scythians and the Indo-Iranians.[1]

In the present series of posts, I hope to provide a few additional details about the Frankish tradition of the Holy Spirit incarnating as a dove to deliver the sacred oil to the king of the Regnum Francorum. Also, I will try to indicate some possible links to Indo-European traditions about a heavenly bird that brings the food of the gods to men. However, our route must needs be circuitous, and we must begin in the century that followed the Christian Church’s founding. These are not going to be polished, publisher-ready posts. I reserve the right to digress (without the classroom, à la Catcher in the Rye, shouting me down) and to otherwise mosey wherever the Muse calls. There will doubtless be cliffhangers and also loose ends that will cry out for tying-off, but which will have to wait for a future post. I will be setting a lot of things up in the first post or two, so precious little will be said about the Franks until later, but, never fear, there will be a payoff. Now, let’s get down to brass tacks…

It is highly probable that the Franks took their idea of an incarnate Holy Spirit from the Protoevangelium of James (hereafter Prot. Jas.), that 2nd century extra-canonical screed that narrated the conception and early life of Christ. Indeed, nearly every chapter of Prot. Jas. contains references to birds (especially doves) and to the fleshly incarnation of immaterial beings. Both of these themes come together in the eldritch doctrine of an Incarnate avian God that the Franks believe appeared “as a dove” above Christ’s head at His Epiphany.

So, let’s take a look at some of these dove/incarnation references in the apocryphal text. Prot. Jas. speaks of Mary as living “in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel.”[2] Joseph is chosen to be Mary’s husband in Prot. Jas. by a dove that flies out of the rod he acquired in a casting-of-lots. The bird lands on Joseph’s head, just as doves will later perch on the Sts. Dunstan and Aredius in the Frankish tradition.[3] At Prot. Jas. 14 we find Joseph in distress over Mary’s mysterious pregnancy. Joseph: “I am afraid lest that which is in her be from an angel, and I shall be found giving up innocent blood to the doom of death.” The reference here is doubtless to Genesis 1:6 and the birth of nephilim from intercourse between angels and human women. Nephilim are not birds, but they are bird-like beings who bring things to the terrestrial sphere from the immaterial sphere.

Now, a few tentative conclusions concerning these avian/spirit themes: 1) Prot. Jas. links the Incarnation of Christ in particular, and the materialization of the immaterial in general, to the image of a dove. 2) Mary is like the sacrificial doves that Jews bred and raised in or near their Temples; 3) priestly divination results in the incarnation of divine will in the form of a dove that lights on Joseph’s head; 4) Joseph fears that the incarnation in Mary’s womb may be a simple materialization of a created, yet immaterial angel. As a fifth and final point, recall that 5) the angel has been feeding Mary (This theme of an intermediary being bearing food will recur in the later Frankish tradition of the Holy Spirit dove delivering the uncreated holy oil of consecration to St. Clovis, who is made the first Christian king of the Franks, of which more will be said in a later post).

There is yet another reference to a special bird in the text we are examining, however. In Prot. Jas. 2-3, a barren Anna is bewailing her childlessness. She sees a sparrow in her nest and cries out to God that, though the air is productive (it produces birds, which themselves are productive), the beasts on the earth are productive, the waters are productive (of fishes), and even the earth itself is productive (of plants), Anna herself is barren. Each of these elemental regions is productive in God’s sight, but Anna is not! Anna’s servant Judith comforts her by giving her a “royal” headband, a crown of sorts, which Anna worries will be a window through which her kinsmen will be able to see that she is childless (and, so Anna thinks, they will also see the sin that has made her barren). However, the angel announces Anna’s pregnancy to her, and Anna’s husband Joachim goes to the Temple to verify that this pregnancy is blessed by the Lord.

Next we encounter yet another royal headband, this time the “polished metal disk” (Prot. Jas. 5) worn on the forehead of the High Priest, which Joachim thinks will, in the manner of a scrying mirror, reveal whether or not he has God’s favor (so, like Anna, Joachim looks to a regnal headband or crown as a conduit through which divine knowledge is revealed). Seeing no untoward signs in the disk’s gleamings, Joachim is satisfied that God has forgiven him his sins and granted him a child (Joachim had earlier mourned in the desert because he was childless; indeed, this abandonment of Anna is what provoked the latter to cry out to God in the first place). The Babylonian Talmud, comprised of Rabbinic commentaries dating from before the time of Christ up until the 4th century, refers to the High Priest’s headband as the “ziz.” (In the same part of the Talmud we find a discussion of whether bodily ornaments can aid people in maintaining a woman’s virginity, which the commentary decides in the affirmative). The name “ziz,” originates from Psalm 50: 11, “I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine,” the “ziz” meaning “all the birds of the air.”[5] Ziz is a personification of all of the life that the air yields; an English rendering could be “Birds” or “Air-Beings.” However, ziz also came to mean “shining.”[6]

So, the term ziz has a number of related meanings: 1) a head ornament that can divine the will of God and guarantee sinlessness/virginity, 2) a divine bird, and 3) a shining or pulsing light (I will capitalize the term when referring to the mythical bird). Joachim’s trip to the Temple gives us a clue as to how these strands of meaning are related. When Joachim goes to look at the ziz on the High Priest’s forehead to see if he has a child and thus is free of sin, he seems to be equating the ziz with the Urim and Thummim as described by Josephus:

For as to those stones, which we told you before, the high priest bare on his shoulders, which were sardonyxes, (and I think it needless to describe their nature, they being known to everybody), the one of them shined out when God was present at their sacrifices; I mean that which was in the nature of a button on his right shoulder, bright rays darting out thence, and being seen even by those that were most remote; which splendor yet was not before natural to the stone. This has appeared a wonderful thing to such as have not so far indulged themselves in philosophy, as to despise divine revelation.[7]

If indeed the writer of Prot. Jas. is portraying Joachim as divining God’s will from the High Priest’s adornments in the same manner as the Jews are said to have used the Urim and Thummim, then we have a crown that sparkles with light and which is closely associated with a celestial divine bird.

In order to understand what is going on with all of these zizes: ziz/crowns, ziz/elemental birds, and ziz/flashing oracular lights, we need to bring into sight the Rabbinic teaching about the three elemental beasts: Leviathan, Behemoth, and Ziz. Leviathan is the biblical beast of the waters, Behemoth the beast of the earth. Ziz, as we have already said, is the beast of the air. Note that this Jewish teaching of three elemental beasts has some relation to Anna’s enumeration of cosmic regions that are productive of life (air, on the earth, water, in the earth).[8] The three beasts myth states that Leviathan and Behemoth will engage in a mutually lethal duel at the end of days, after which the righteous will feast upon the bodies of Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz. The idea is that, by fasting from unclean flesh in this life, Jews will be able to have a truly satisfying meal that offers eternal holiness in the coming age.

Where all of these strands of myth and extra-canonical narrative come together is in the depiction of the Holy Epiphany in early Christian word and image. As Lois Drewer notes, “the conquest of the primordial monsters by God’s righteous wrath plays a significant role in baptismal imagery.”[9] Drewer goes on to cite St. Cyril of Jerusalem that “Jesus sanctified Baptism by being Himself baptized…. According to Job, there was in the water the dragon that ‘draweth up Jordan into his mouth’ [Behemoth; Job 40:23]. (…) [Destruction] ran before [Leviathan].”[10] Next, Drewer tells us that the three beasts myth is probably present in the earliest depictions of the Epiphany:

On fol. 34r of the marginal Psalter in the Walters Art Gallery two large sea monsters are represented directly beneath the waters of the Jordan. [Leviathan and Behemoth] are an integral part of the Baptism scene and were probably present in the prototype of the illumination.[11]

Indeed, the Epiphany in the Walters Gallery Psalter depicts, below Christ and John the Baptist, two beasts: a crocodile representing Leviathan and an ox representing Behemoth. Images of these animals were used in Jewish places of worship and in Jewish manuscripts to represent Leviathan and Behemoth. In these Jewish artworks, a large griffin-like or phoenix-like bird was used to indicate Ziz.

I submit that the Holy Spirit’s depiction as a dove in the Walters Psalter is a replacement of the Ziz bird. After all, of the three beasts, the Ziz was the least evil, or at least the most neutral. Ziz is above the water and the earth, and Ziz is usually absent from other depictions of Behemoth’s and Leviathan’s fight to the death. A Rabbinic legend about Ziz that has the bird standing in the ocean with its head in heaven also may have indicated to Jewish and Christian interpreters the special status of Ziz as an intermediary between earth and heaven, between the created and the uncreated.[12] The Franks later used these themes to invent the abominable columba that appears in their hagiographies and in their regnal consecration rituals…




[1] James L. Kelley, Orthodoxy, History and Esotericism: New Studies (Dewdney, B.C.: Synaxis Press, 2016), p. 88n15.

[2] Prot. Jas. 8, On the Protoevangelium‘s origin and influence: “Prot. Jas. is a document that was very popular in its day. We have over one hundred extant MSS in six different languages, all from the Greek East. Probably due to its teaching regarding the past marriage of Joseph, Prot. Jas. was condemned as apocryphal by the Decretum Gelasianum in the fifth century c.e. Jerome’s condemnation of Prot. Jas. was instrumental in this process. Nevertheless, the West absorbed Prot. Jas. indirectly, and ironically, through Jerome’s involvement with the production of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. This account contains a nearly complete version of Prot. Jas. within a larger narrative of Jesus’ life drawn from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (Timothy J. Horner, “Jewish Aspects of the Protoevangelium of James,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 12.3 [Fall 2004], pp. 313-335, at p. 315). Note that my use of Prot. Jas. as a source of heresy does not oppugn the work as a whole. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses some passages about the lives of Sts. Joachim and Anna in Her teaching, but this is because (so the Church believes) these particular passages reflect pre-existing Tradition. Many newly-baptized Orthodox (especially in the United States) read Prot. Jas. as some kind of sacred writing, but its inspiration is limited to those parts that echo Church teachings: it cannot be used to establish dogmas or anything else. It can only buttress beliefs about historical events that impact the Church. If dogmas and teachings of the Church are supported by individual passages, then they can be cited to this purpose, but only as support, not as establishing truth.

[3] Prot. Jas., 9.

[4] Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbath, folio 63a,

[5] Lois Drewer, “Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz: A Christian Adaptation,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 44(1981), pp. 148-156, at p. 151n22.

[6] H.D. McEwen, “Notes on Ziz and Zuz,” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, Fifth Series 5 (1925), pp. 393-394.

[7] Josephus, Antiquities 3.215-216, as cited in Horner, “Jewish Aspects,” p. 319n12.

[8] For biblical and Rabbinic references, see Drewer, “Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz.”

[9] Drewer, “Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz,” p. 155.

[10] Cited in Drewer, “Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz,” p. 155.

[11] Drewer, “Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz,” p. 155.

[12] Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Baba Bathra, folio 73b,


This entry was posted in Ancient Religions, Antiquity, Apocryphal Books, Behemoth, Leviathan, and Ziz, Christology, filioque, Frankish Royal Religion, Franks, Holy Spirit, Incarnate Holy Spirit, Indo-European Culture, Indo-European Homogenesis, Joachim of Fiore, Middle Ages, Mythical Birds, Pneumatology, Trinitarian heresies, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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