Essays & Articles
“Blues Jumped A Hyrax Where The Vulture Builds Its Nest”
(‘Scientific’ roots of iconic animals from the bible) – by Max Haymes
This is a reproduction of a letter I wrote to Chris Smith, blues historian in the Orkneys, several years ago (c. 2011/2012). His excellent series ‘Words. Words. Words.’ featured in the Blues & Rhythm magazine (c. late 2012) included a brief piece on the US symbol – the eagle; subject of many blues and gospel recordings, especially in the early period (1890-1943) usually referred to as the ‘pre-war era’. It inspired me to write my letter which is here partly edited.
I quoted liberally from a superb book, (reprinted in 1877!) which I came across by sheer chance at an open-market book stall, in Lancaster. First published in 1869, this edition is a black hard-back with gilt lettering, gilt-edge pages etc. called Scripture Natural History – Illustrated by an Englishman in London who was a Natural History student, Rev. J.G.Wood. He was also a curator and avid zoologist. (His many books were widely popular both in the UK and the US.) It includes many beautiful sketches – possibly from woodcuts. The theme of this book is the tracing of animals referred to in the bible to actual species recognised in the scientific/zoological world. It contains over 700 pages with an index, etc. My letter to Chris Smith concerned two animals in particular: the rabbit and the eagle, who were always appearing in early recorded blues and gospel songs.
Part of a letter (edited) to Chris Smith (noted blues researcher) from Max Haymes – c. later 2012.
<< At one point, the Rev. Wood noted: “Sometimes the name [of a particular species of bird] is applied in such a manner as to mislead those, who are not scientific ornithologists, and we find such inappropriate titles as night-hawk, fern-owl, hedge-sparrow, red wren, etc., the birds in question being neither hawks, owls, sparrows, nor wrens.” (1)
This applies, apparently, also to the biblical eagle. Rev. Wood devotes some 11 pages (p.p. 344-354) to “The Griffon Vulture, or Eagle of Scriptures”. (2) I enclose several quotes + a fine sketch. Wood’s opening paragraph is included in its entirety. “We now come to another word which will give us but little trouble in identification. This is the word ‘Nesher’, which is invariably translated in the Authorized Version of the Bible as Eagle, but which was undoubtedly a different bird, and has satisfactorily been identified with the GRIFFON VULTURE, or Great Vulture (Gyps fulvus). The reasons for this conclusion are so inextricably interwoven with the various passages in which the bird is mentioned, that I shall not give them separately, but simply allude to them in the course of the article.” (3)
Wood continues: “In the first place, the name Nesher is derived, according to many Hebraists, from a word which signifies the power of sight, and is given to the bird in consequence of its piercing vision. The Talmudical writers mention a curious proverb concerning the sight of the Vulture, namely that a Vulture in Babylon can see a carcase [sic] in Palestine. Other scholars derive it from a word which signifies its longevity, while others again believe that the true derivation is to be found in a word which signifies ripping up or tearing with the beak.”. (4)
We learn that as well as a physical description – colours etc. – that the Griffin Vulture is “really a large bird, being little short of five feet in total length, and the expanse o wing measuring about eight feet.” (5) It apparently is – or was in 1869 – “very plentiful in Palestine,”. (6) Also detailed is the habit of this vulture to congregate making it a ‘flock-bird’, I guess. “Feeding, flying, and herding … in great numbers.”. (7) The first biblical quote of mistaken identity Wood lists, is but one allusion made to the “gregarious habits of the Vultures: ‘Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together’. (Matt xxiv, 28).” (8)
The Reverend points out that “the Vulture, and not the eagle is here signified, is evident from the fact that the eagles do not congregate like the Vultures, never being seen in greater numbers than two or three together, while the Vulture assemble in hundreds.”. (9) He adds that “the lesser though equally useful Egyptian Vulture,” (10) is closer to the eagle in its habits of feeding, etc. (11)
Several other biblical references are made which I shan’t include here are quoted to support Wood’s theme. Together with one I will, referring to the head and neck of both vulture and eagle. “The featherless head of the Vulture is mentioned in the Book of Micah, chap.i. ver.16: ‘Make thee bald, and poll thee for thy delicate children; enlarge the baldness as the eagle; for they are gone into captivity from thee.’ It is evident that in this passage reference is made not to the eagle whose head is thickly covered with feathers, but to the Vulture, whose head and neck are but scantily sprinkled with white down.”. (12) The author goes into the exaggeration and actual piercing vision of the Griffon Vulture and gives much detail on it’s idealization on the battlefield – and refers to “a vulture-headed deity” (13) called Nisroch and worshipped by the Assyrians, as observed by their Jewish prisoners/slaves. This deity or god, is described by Wood as “bearing not only the head of the bird, but also its wings. The vast wings of the Vulture were by the Assyrians used as types of Divine power, and were therefore added, not only to human figures, but to those of beasts. The human-headed and vulture-winged bulls of Nineveh, … are good examples of this peculiar imagery.”. (14)
In conclusion on this subject, I suppose ancient warriors as well as religious leaders (often one and the same, of course) would at some point in time deem it more fitting (or macho!) to identify with the majestic eagle rather than the lowly carrion-eater: the Griffon Vulture. Even if the latter (whom Wood also sees as ‘majestic’) is not only “equally useful” in the grand scheme of things, but essential to that ‘scheme’- whatever it is. In any event, Wood states that ‘evidence’ surely strongly suggests that the passage from the bible, Deut. 32: 9-12 regarding the eagle and used by many black preachers on recordings, as we know, actually extols the griffon vulture.
One more animal from Wood (Don’t panic! This is much shorter) before leaving him. This concerns possible links with the well-known ‘starvation’ lyric first recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson: the ‘blues jumped a rabbit’ verse. This comes from an entry on the hyrax, or ‘cony’. This is one of “four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceedingly wise”. (15) These four are “the ants, the locusts, the spiders, and the Conies” . (16) The latter being a rabbit-like creature from parts of Syria and South Africa; often called a “Rock Rabbit”. (17) This is erroneous, as the coney or Hyrax is linked between the rhino and the hippo! (18)
The “Hyrax inhabits rocky places,” (19) and “is so crafty that no trap or snare ever set ha induced a Hyrax to enter it, and so wary that it is with difficulty to be killed even with the aid of fire-arms.”. (20) Rabbit-like it lives in holes or burrows. Wood lists 3 species known to naturalists in (1869) of which “the third is the Syrian Hyrax, or the Coney of the Bible.”. (21)
Illustration p. 313 of the Hyrax. Rev. Wood. Ibid. The sub-text reads: “The Conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they houses in the rocks.” Prov. xxx. 26.
The Hyrax or ‘rock-rabbit’ “is a very watchful creature, … [and] In consequence of its activity and cunning, the rock-rabbit is seldom killed by white men; “. (22) Blacks in the southern states during the 18th. and 19th. centuries may have had tales of the characteristics of the hyrax passed on by oral transmission and adapted them as could Joel Chandler Harris, which evolved into the equally cunning Brer Rabbit. But somehow, Chris, ‘blues jumped a hyrax’ or indeed the ‘Hyrax Foot Minstrels’ doesn’t ring quite so ‘true’ in the annals of the blues .. >>
- Wood J.G. Rev. p.333.
- Ibid. p.344
- Ibid. p.p.344-345
- Ibid. p.345
- Ibid. See p.345
- Ibid. p.345
- Ibid. p.351
- Ibid. p.315
- Ibid. See p.313.
- Ibid. p.315
- Ibid. p.317
- Ibid. p.316
Wood John George Rev. Scripture Natural History – Illustrated
J.W.Lyon & Company. Guelph, Ontario 1877. Rep. 1st. pub. 1869.