The Name of Man: Transformation as Punishment

I find the act of transformation as punishment interesting, because within the Genesis retellings of the Old Testament Narratives, God seems to punish all those who betray him by severely distorting or wholly changing their humanity and physical body. This then presents the idea of sin and being able to avoid it as the definition of being human while sinning in general is, on the other hand, the definition of being inhuman. To me, this creates an interesting dichotomy and power to the concept of sin.

In Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, he himself talks about this innate power that exists in sin: “It is goodness that raises a man above the level of humankind, and it therefore follows that evil thrusts a man down below the human condition, so that he no longer deserves the name of man” (Book IV, Prose 3, p. 118). To be even more exact, Boethius equates these people who stray away from goodness as “beasts” and tells us of the different names that different “sinners” can be called: the lawsuit-obsessed quarreler is a dog, a scammer is a fox, the greedy thief is a wolf, a lustful and obsessive man is a pig, and so forth (118). This description of sin as a transformation to a lower, bestial state vividly illustrates how there is some deeper connection between the relationship to humanity and a person’s own moral code. Through original sin, every person has the potential to sin and be reduced to this more animalistic state. The only way to escape this inferiority is to stay close to God and away from evil, as the loss of reason and autonomy of choices not driven by vice will always lead to evil and a later unrecognizable self.

Briton Rivière, Circe and her Swine, as referenced in Book IV Prose III, before 1896

With this definition in mind, Genesis A & B provide several examples of such transformations which happen, unsurprisingly, to people, or characters, that God determines are his enemies. One prime example is seen in Genesis A when Lot’s wife turned back to look at the slaughter of Sodom and Gomorrah, turning into a pillar of salt because “she did not wish to obey the words of the ministers of glory” (OTN, 179) and betrayed her secret longing for the life in Sodom and Gomorrah, deeming her unworthy of being saved. Although not bestial, the transformation to something that is even less than human still follows Boethius’s own definition of partaking in vice, perhaps even adding an additional layer by showing the severity of her betrayal and the exacting punishment in turn.

Benjamin West, Lot Fleeing from Sodom, 1810

However, the most blatant and widespread transformation in Genesis is seen in the Fall of Lucifer or Satan. There are various versions of the fall but all of God’s angels in these versions are all turned into monstrous demons:

“[God] banished [Lucifer] from his favor and threw him into hell, into the deep cleft, where he became a devil, the enemy with all his companions. They fell from the heavens above continuously for three nights and days, the angels from heaven into hell, and the Lord misshaped them all into devils” (OTN, 25).

To continue this idea even further, hell itself is a monstrous landscape “pervaded with fire and intense cold” (5) and “endless torture” (27). On the other hand, Lucifer, now transformed into Satan, has several more transformations that are critical to the narrative of Genesis itself. 

Gustave Doré, Illustration for Paradise Lost, 1866

In Genesis B, already misshapen into the form of a devil, Satan transforms himself again, but this time of his own volition in order to deceive others; he transforms into a serpent “through his devil’s skill” (39). It is important here that this transformation occurs because Satan has already received God’s ultimate punishment and has been severely transformed and relocated as a result. This transformation instead is no longer a punishment for Satan; this serpentine transformation is instead a punishment for God Himself. In the creation of the angels, he made them “by the power of his hand, whom he well trusted would follow in his obedience, work his will – because he granted them intelligence” (20-1). Through this creation, God presents the angels with intellect and reason, made by his own hand, showing that those that have intellect and reason are heavenly while those who do not are monstrous. Lucifer is the odd one because he is “made so potent, so mighty in his intellect” (21), the most superior of the angels. Lucifer, as we know, then uses this Godly bestowed gift against God himself in his betrayal and this leads to Lucifer’s own punishment and transformation into Satan.

However, even in the fall, Satan still retains his intellect but instead of being the Godly virtue of reason it has transformed into wickedness: “He had won hate from his master, had lost his favor, the food one had become hostile toward him in his mind” (25). This wickedness is what Satan uses even after his fall in order to punish God for what he has done. It is a dirty move because Satan uses the gift that God has bestowed him and punishes God himself for it, even going as far as transforming himself, the punishment that God enacted on him, in order to fully serve his point. It is from this that the fall of Adam and Eve happens, where the serpent Satan tricks Adam and Eve, who “did not know how to do or commit sin” (15) and were created in God’s own likeness, into betraying God’s command and becoming sinful creatures aware of their own nakedness and aflame with shame. 

 

Group 8: Caitlin Lozada, Lucas Cortinez, Elizabeth Gerlach

 

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Anlezark, Daniel, ed. and trans. Old Testament Narratives. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. 

Images:

Header: Bruegel the Elder, Pieter. 1562. The Fall of the Rebel Angels. Oil on panel, 117 cm x 162 cm (46 in x 64 in). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fall_of_the_Rebel_Angels.

Image 1: Rivière, Briton. 1896. Circe and her Swine. Literary painting, unknown dimensions. Unknown location. https://thehistorianshut.com/2020/05/12/circe-and-her-swine-painted-by-briton-riviere-c-1840-1920/.

Image 2: West, Benjamin. 1810. Lot Fleeing from Sodom. Oil on panel, 119.7 cm x 198.4 cm (47.125 in x 78.125 in). Detroit Institute of Arts. https://www.dia.org/art/collection/object/lot-fleeing-sodom-64799.

Image 3: Doré, Gustave. 1866. Paradise Lost. Illustration for Milton’s Paradise Lost, unknown dimensions. https://www.pearlofgreatpricecentral.org/the-fall-of-lucifer/.

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