… you’ll never see a man exactly six feet tall, because that was the height of the Lord Jesus.
I like non-canonical Christian folklore (meaning, folklore that’s not in the Old or New Testament). Growing up as I did, in a Catholic family, Bible stories never felt like “myth” in the same way that say, stories about the Roman or Greek or Hindu pantheons did. Bible stories felt (and still feel) more like “history” — they are the stories I grew up with, stories I’ve always known. From the inside, I don’t always appreciate the universe-explaining, myth-making capacity of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the same way I appreciate it in traditions that I didn’t grow up in. Stories and tidbits like Six-Foot Jesus, or the (very) old Irish story of Moses and the origin of Leprechauns put me back on the outside again. It’s good to be there once in a while.
I suspect that M.R. James, who by all accounts was a devout Christian, felt a little of what I feel. This is from the preface to his text Old Testament Legends (Being stories out of some of the less-known apocryphal books of the Old Testament):
Perhaps I have now said enough to show of what sort the tales are that are told in this book—some of them told for the first time in English. They are not true, but they are very old; some of them, I think, are beautiful, and all of them seem to me interesting.
The story that I retell below, of King Solomon and the demon Ephippas (with a bit of backstory), is originally from The Testament of Solomon. The text, which describes in the first person how King Solomon gained power over demons and forced them to build the temple in Jerusalem, dates back to somewhere between the first and fifth centuries CE. It is of Greek, probably Christian origin.
In addition to the translation (synopsis, really) in Old Testament Legends, Dr. James also wrote a couple of commentaries about The Testament of Solomon, available here and here. He also made use of the myth in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. That’s where I first learned of it, and I always did wonder where it came from. Now I know.
Anyway. To the story. The quotes are taken from Old Testament Legends.
King Solomon first gained power over demons at the time he was building the temple in Jerusalem. He noticed that one of his best and favored workmen was becoming weak, thin, and pale. At first, the workman wouldn’t tell Solomon what was wrong, but finally he confessed. Every night, something would come and suck the blood out of the workman’s right thumb; it stole his food, too. Slowly, it was stealing the life away from the workman.
Solomon went away and studied and prayed, hoping to figure out how to free the workman from the evil spirit. Finally, an angel came to Solomon and gave him a ring “on which was cut the figure that is called the Pentalpha and within it the Name that may not be spoken.” Solomon went to his workman the next day and told him that when the demon came in the night, the workman was to throw the ring at the demon’s heart and say, “In the strength of the Name, King Solomon calleth thee.”
That night, the demon came. The workman did as Solomon had told him, and then ran to the King. Solomon confronted the demon, forced the demon not only to give up his name (Ornias), but also to explain to the King how exactly the King could keep power over him. Once Ornias did this, Solomon sealed him with the seal of the ring, and forced the demon to carve out stone blocks for building the temple. Eventually, Solomon summoned and subjugated all the demon lords (starting with Beelzebul himself) and forced them to work on the temple.
The story of Solomon’s accomplishment spread far; one day Solomon got a letter from Adares, King of Arabia. Adares wrote that every day, at dawn, a poisonous wind blew through the land for three hours. The wind killed everyone on whom it blew, and the cattle also. Adares begged Solomon to send someone to capture the spirit.
Solomon pondered seven days. At the end of this period, he summoned a servant and gave him a camel, an empty wine-skin, and his demon-subjugating ring.
I said to him further, “Take this ring and go into Arabia, to the place where the venomous wind blows, and take the skin and hold the ring in front of the mouth of the skin towards the wind, so that the wind shall blow through the ring; and when the skin is blown up, you will know that the demon is inside it. Then hasten and tie up the neck of the skin, and seal it with the ring, and put it upon the camel, and bring it to me.
The servant did as he was ordered. After capturing the demon, he stayed in Arabia three more days; sure enough, the poisonous wind never blew again. The Arabians, overjoyed, loaded the servant with gifts, fêted him, and then escorted him back to the border. The servant returned to Jerusalem and placed the wine-skin with the demon in the midst of the unfinished temple.
Now at the time, Solomon was struggling over the cornerstone of the temple. He had an incredibly beautiful stone, but it was so heavy that neither men nor demon could lift it. The morning after the servant had returned from Arabia, Solomon went up to the temple, still wondering what to do about the stone. As he stepped inside, the wine-skin rose up and hopped seven paces, then bowed down on its “face” to Solomon.
The demon named himself as Ephippas of Arabia: “I can overturn kings’ palaces, and wither the green trees of the wood, and I can move mountains.” Solomon asked if Ephippas could lift the cornerstone. Ephippas said he could — and furthermore, with the help of the demon of the Red Sea, Ephippas could also bring up the great Pillar that lay at the bottom of the Red Sea, and set it in the temple.
Solomon had Ephippas set the cornerstone in its place (which he did); and then he sent Ephippas to fetch the demon of the Red Sea and bring back the pillar. Off Ephippas went.
… and after a while I saw the Pillar being borne through the air, and was astonished at the strength of the two demons. And when I considered with myself how mighty they were, and how they could shake the whole world in a moment of time, I feared to let them go; I made therefore a circle about them in the air with my ring, and said, “Stay there!” And the demons stayed, holding the Pillar sloping between heaven and earth; and there they are to this day. And if any one looks, he can see the Pillar sloping in the heavens, but the demons he cannot see.
In his synopsis, Dr. James remarks that the Pillar is probably the Milky Way. The story goes on to tell us that when the demons let the Pillar fall — that will be the end of the world.
The demon of Red Sea — this is from F. C. Conybeares’ 1898 translation of The Testament of Solomon — was named Abezithibod, a fallen archangel (or the son of a fallen archangel?). When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt to Canaan (as told in the Book of Exodus), it was Abezithibod who convinced the Pharoah to chase after the departing Israelites; the Egyptian army caught up with the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Moses parted the waters of the sea and the Israelites passed safely across, but when the Egyptians tried to follow, the sea came back together, drowning them. Abezithibod was with the Egyptians, becoming trapped at the bottom of the sea under the great pillar (no word as to how the pillar got there). There he stayed, until Ephippas fetched him.
The image above is of the Milky Way as seen from Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Photo by Steve Jurvetson, on Wikimedia.