I’ve written before about syncretism – how a culture comes in contact with another, absorbs certain myths or symbols, and tweaks them to fit better with its previously-established symbols and myths.
Where this phenomenon gets really funky, though, is when the two cultures begin to bounce ideas off each other. Such is the case of the Jewish Anti-Messiah, Armilus (alternatively spelled Aramillos or Aramileus), a legend born of the Christian vision of the Antichrist, which is itself related to the Jewish Messiah.
In order to understand Armilus, we first need to understand the basic plot of Jewish apocalyptic literature. If you were ever bullied as a kid, you know the tone that underlies that literature. You felt it when you lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling, imagining what you might do to the bully if you had superpowers, powerful friends, or more courage.
Now, consider a religion bullied for centuries by its large and proselytizing neighbour, itself a former bullied kid. It would come as little surprise that the Jewish apocalypse is a very violent event. Drawing upon the “End of Days” vision found in Isaiah and “War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness” (which is not a Black Metal album, but an apocryphal work from the first century CE), the Apocalypse usually features the following seven phases, not necessarily in that order:
1. Evil kings rule the world, and are treating the Jews badly.
2. All the Jews, including the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, gather in Jerusalem. They are rallied by the first Messiah, son of Joseph, a charismatic military leader.
3. The Evil Kings attack! The first Messiah dies in battle.
4. As a deus ex machina, the second (and true) Messiah, son of David, appears and kicks the crap out of everyone else. Sometimes he fights side by side with God, because they’re best friends.
5. In some versions, all the non-Jews die and go to hell. In others, all the non-Jews say they’re sorry for everything they ever done and convert to Judaism.
6. Everybody who didn’t go to hell gets to go to back to the Garden of Eden, where God throws them the most awesome beach party ever. Everybody who did get to go to hell grows to be hundreds of feet tall so they can look into Eden and be jealous.
7. Oh, and the dead rise from their graves somewhere along the line.
(Modern rendition of the Jewish Apocalypse. I suspect a pirated copy of Photoshop is somehow involved)
The medieval mystic Saadia Gaon is the first to mention the name of Amarilus as the leader of the evil kings who will besiege Jerusalem. That rather bland character takes fantastic life of its own in the apocalyptic Midrashim of the late middle ages and the early modern period.
First of all, he gets characterized as a demonic figure, evil and disfigured, as in the following description in the Apocalypse of Bar Yohai:
And a wicked king will rise by the name of Armileus, and he is bald and with small eyes, and his forehead is stricken with leprosy. His right ear is maimed [or closed] and his left ear is healthy [or open], and whenever someone speaks to him words of good, he will turn to him his maimed ear, and whenever someone speaks to him words of evil, he will turn him his healthy ear. And he is a creature of devil and stone, and he will wage war on Jerusalem.
Note the words a creature of devil and stone. The Apocalypse of Zerubavel gives Armilus the rather unattractive epitaph “Son of the stone who came out of a stone”. The text goes on to describe his ghastly appearance:
The tenth [of the ten Kings who will besiege Jerusalem] is Armilus, son of Shipon. And his appearance is thus: his hair is made of gold and peat, and his arms strech all the way down to his heels… and his eyes are close to each other. His eyes are crooked, his head has two crowns, and everyone who sees him will fear him.
The most revealing and explicit description of Armilus is in Otot Ha-Mashiach (“Signs of the Messiah”), where he is described among all the woes and wonders that will befall the world at the End of Days. Not only does the text relate the entire story of his miraculous birth, it is also surprisingly open about the source of this myth.
It is said that in Rome there is a marble stone in the image of a beautiful maiden, and it is not made by human hands, but by the Glory of God. And the wicked from among the nations, the scoundrels, come to her and warm her and lay with her. The Lord preserves their semen inside the stone, and creates a being inside her, and he shapes it into a foetus. She will crack open, and the human-like creature will come out of her. His name will be Amrilus the Devil, the one who the gentile call Antrichristo. His height is 12 feet and his girth is 12 feet, and his eyes are close to each other. These eyes are deep and red, and his hair is golden. His feet are green and his head has two crowns.
As the Jewish Encyclopaedia states, the birth of Armilus from the stone statue is some sort of a perverse Virgin Birth. Considering how strongly the image of Rome is related to Christendom, I would suspect that the beautiful marble statue itself is a statue of the Virgin Mary.
According to the same text, the marble-spawn, who is as powerful and commanding as he is ugly, leads his armies against Jerusalem, kills the first Messiah, and is promptly destroyed along with his armies by a rain of fire and sulphur. The other apocalyptic texts depict a less climatic, but somehow more fitting end, which sounds rather perverse in English. Apparently, the second Messiah blows him to death. I mean literally – he blows a great wind from his lips, sending Armilus hurling into the air, for it is written: “with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).
With Armilus dead, God’s awesome beach party can begin. The next few posts will be dedicated to the monsters on the menu for the Feast of the Righteous – Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz Shadai.