JEAN MARIE COURTÈS
Translated by William Granger Ryan
To anyone seeking information about the black, the reading of the Greek and Latin patristic writings, which span almost the entire imperial period, is quite as disappointing as research in the iconography of that time and culture. Explicit mention of persons of color is extremely rare and not very significant. The concept of the black hardly goes beyond that of skin coloration, which seems to be the only racial characteristic taken into account by Christian writers. It can be said without exaggeration that blackness is not regarded as a specific racial difference, but simply as the darkest of the various shades of color found among the peoples of the Mediterranean basin and the East.
From this it would be tempting to infer that there was an absence of “race consciousness” and that this in turn was a corollary of the vocation of the Church to universality; but the silence of the sources does not justify such a conclusion. It would be equally specious to dismiss the problem on the basis of certain assumptions. It might be thought, for instance, that the spread of the new religion, beginning as it did among the servile and lower classes and reaching great numbers of foreigners and exotic groups, inevitably included some blacks without creating any special problem. But is it not just as plausible to suppose that their race itself isolated the blacks, or that their tribal cohesiveness kept them from any contact with Christianity? For the present no sure conclusions can be drawn on this question. Further discoveries may be made, but at best they will bring to light only individual or limited examples.
The substance of our theme and the manner of its treatment in this abundant literature, with its great variety of genres, must therefore be studied together. A preliminary inventory, not intended to be definitive, suggests certain lines of research once we establish the contexts in which the topic of the black is likely to emerge.
It is apparent that the greater number of references to “Ethiopians” can be divided into two groupings. The first, a very broad one, draws on works of exegetical interpretation. The second and more limited one constitutes a demonology of the black. The first grouping includes all the Judeo-Christian definitions of Ethiopians and Ethiopia which appear by way of coincidence in commentaries on scripture; this forms a fairly coherent body of doctrine. The “demonological” texts, on the other hand, resolutely avoid any contact with the realities of anthropology (here understood in the broadest sense to include myth and symbol insofar as they have a concrete foundation). These texts will be considered here only as a metaphorical complement to our main theme and as a measure of its acceptability.
We must emphasize the coincidental and dependent character of these references to Ethiopians: they occur only in connection with a formal explication of the sacred text or as called for by a fixed topic such as that found in eremitic literature. On the other hand, such allusions are lacking precisely where the modern reader would expect them, for instance in the numerous explanations of the creation of man, the dispersion of the races, or the reunification of mankind in the Church. These observations seem to indicate a certain lack of interest in the black as such, even among those of our authors who lived in geographical and cultural proximity to black peoples. By way of compensation, however, the terms Ethiopia and Ethiopian, being used in an abstract rather than a concrete sense, serve in many ways as means of definition and limitation, and of marking the opposition between good and evil, between the graced and the ungraced. A selection of texts will give an idea of the similarity and variety of ways in which these quasi-symbolic terms are used.
Ethiopia: The Symbolism of the Place Itself
The Book of Genesis, after telling how man was created and brought to life, mentions the planting of a garden in Eden, to the east (Gen. 2:8–14).1 The biblical quotations in this essay are taken from the Latin Vulgate. The only English version based solely on the Vulgate is the Douay-Rheims (1582–1609), and the translator has followed the Douay-Rheims. It is to be noted, however, that references to the Book of Psalms include the number of the psalm as given in the Latin Vulgate and the Douay-Rheims, followed in parentheses by the number found in modern versions: e.g., Psalm 67 (68).—TRANS.
A river flowed out of Eden and divided into four branches, of which the second, Gihon, surrounded the whole land of Chus (i.e., Ethiopia). Origen echoes a “Phrygian” tradition according to which Eden represents the brain and the four rivers the senses whose center is in the head: Pishon stands for sight, Gihon for hearing, Tigris for smell, and Euphrates for taste. Gihon hems in the almost inaccessible land of Ethiopia like a labyrinth: it resembles an ear, and this leads naturally to the implication that the Ethiopians will in the future give ear to the message of the Gospel.2 Origen, Contra haereses 5.9, 10.34 (PG 16.3158, 3454).
Another example: Caesarius notes that the Egyptians went up the river (the Nile) to make their way to paradise, but were stopped by the heat of the equatorial zone and had to turn back—a circumstance which made them aware of the limitations of human knowledge.3 Caesarius, Dialogi 3.145–47 (PG 38.1096–97).
Augustine, on the contrary, rejects any allegorical interpretation:4 Augustine, De Genesi ad luterani 8.7 (CSEL 28.1.240).
Pishon is the Ganges, Gihon the Nile, and so on. But then how could such figurative interpretations as going by water to Eden be justified? With the exception of the Nile, all the rivers mentioned rise from known sources and therefore cannot be the rivers of Genesis. Augustine offers an ingenious solution to this problem: the known sources are only the places where the rivers return to the surface after following underground channels. This leaves Ethiopia where it was before, somewhere at the edge of the other world; but could not the frontiers to be reached by the Gospel be pushed back farther and farther by pointing to the Ethiopians, who live “beyond the river” and are not yet evangelized?5 Augustine, De Gen. ad litt. 8.7 (CSEL 28.1.242).
Division by Color
The Ethiopians’ black pigmentation provides a principle of inversion in anthropological structuralism. Xenophon, whom Clement of Alexandria follows,6 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7.4 (PG 9.427–28). Cf. Arnobius, Advenus nationes 3.14–16 (CSEL 4.121–22), where he discusses the differentiation of the gods and the possibility of their recognizing each other. Among the proprietates signorum differentium are flat nose, prognathism, and woolly hair. Arnobius, however, alludes to the theory that these images did not pretend to represent the gods but fulfilled a cultic requirement. Moreover, he mentions Isis blackened (furua) by the glare of the Ethiopian sun (idem, Adv. nat. 1.36 [CSEL 4.24]).
had observed that the gods the blacks made for themselves were black with simian features, in accordance with the principle of anthropomorphic likeness. But if the regressive comparison thus led to denying the universality of the gods, the whole perspective might just as easily be reversed. Three significant examples will show how these positions are opposed.
Origen uses the following argument against astrology. We are told that those born under the sign of Virgo have fair skin and smooth hair. No Ethiopian, therefore, can be born under this sign unless he takes on the characteristics proper to it—in other words, ceases to be an Ethiopian. But it is known that Ethiopians are born the year round, a fact which, assuming the unity of the human race and the universal influence of an astral determinism independent of cultures and geographical situation, prompts some skepticism about astrology:7 Origen, Contra haer. 4.6 (PG 16.3068).
the zodiac, seen from the tropics in the vertical plane, does not necessarily look the same as when it is seen obliquely from the extratropical zones. The monk Meletios, writing about the nature of man,8 Meletios, De natura hominis (PG 64.1279–82).
sees the diversity of racial colors as a mark of the Creators loving care: once skin color is seen as an accidental property like the other differences between men, the notion of similitude, which is not accidental, can be extended to constitute a new principle of genetic equality in God. Athanasius9 Athanasius, Liber de definitionibus 3 (PG 28.541).
distinguishes the “proper” (
, i.e., the composite of mortal and immortal natures) from the “subordinate” (
—whiteness, blackness, height, etc.), and says that after the Resurrection men will not recognize each other because all the signs by which they are recognizable belong to the nature that perishes. They will recover the first mans oneness of form, with no distinction due to “accidents”—no tall ones or short ones, no whites or blacks, no flat noses, etc. This is a handy solution to otherwise insoluble
difficulties, such as recognizing the child who dies young and will rise with the glorious body of a thirty-year-old or the Ethiopian who will rise as a white man.10 Athanasius, Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem 24 (PG 28.611). The authenticity of this text and the preceding one is doubtful, but they certainly belong to the Alexandrian Gedankenkreis.
The discriminating racial characteristic will go the way of the individuality which will no longer exist.
Arnobius, writing about the pagan sacrifices in the seventh book of his Adversus nationes
,11 Arnobius, Adv. nat. 7.19–20 (CSEL 4.253–54).
tries to determine the reason behind the separation of the gods to the right and left, noting that the ones to the right claim white victims while the others demand black ones, and that the two groups preside over the upper and lower regions of the world respectively. Black goes with the idea of sadness and death, white with that of joy. But then there arises a line of thought derived from the well-known syllogism of the Ethiopian: it is true that the sacrificial victims’ fleece is black, but their flesh, bones, and brains are white; if, therefore, the logic of chromatic and theological partition were followed, the proper procedure would be to sacrifice only the fleece, or else to color the incense, fruit, milk, blood, and oil of the libations. Arnobius is being playful—stolide ludamus
—but here displays a curiosity common in his day concerning such notional contrasts and dichotomies. In a more serious passage12 Arnobius, Adv. nat. 2.36–37 (CSEL 4.77). This is an extension of Plato’s idea in the Timaeus—souls thought of as being the work of the demiurge.
he goes so far as to deny that the souls of men are of divine or heavenly origin. All men, he asserts (to bolster his thesis, of course), have “dark bodies.”
The Black Bodies of the Damned
Origen proposes the hypothesis that the “outer darkness” into which the damned will be cast after the Resurrection means that these souls will then be clothed in black bodies. Their outward appearance in the world to come will thus correspond to the darkness of ignorance that filled their inward being in this world and will make it visibly manifest.13 Origen, Peri Archon 2.10.8 (PG 11.240).
Nevertheless the Resurrection will reestablish man in the image and likeness of God by abolishing the diversity and mutability of the body. Origen makes no reference whatever to racial differences, either in the sense of a reuniting of mankind or in that of a continuation of diversity.14 Origen, Peri Archon 3.6 (PG 11.333–42).
In fact there is no need to raise the question, since God has neither form nor color, and all his human creatures bear the same likeness to him in their essence, independently of racial or other peculiarities.15 Origen, Contra Celsum 6.64 (PG 11.1395). Concerning the “body” of God walking in the Garden of Eden, see idem, In Genesim homelia 1.13 (PG 12.155–60).
The transformation of the damned is related rather to the symbolism of light and darkness: any mention of bodily elements in God is allegorical. Origen reaffirms the definition found in the First Epistle of John: “God is light and in him there is no darkness” (1 John 1:5).16 This is one of the dominant notes in Origens approach to the subject; cf. Origen, Commentarla in Ioannem 13.22 (PG 14.435).
Moreover, a simple analysis of the way an artist portrays a body gives an idea of the contingent nature of the factors that create visual resemblance: the painter produces a likeness solely by the use of colors without a third dimension; the sculptor uses relief without color.17 Cf. Origen, Commentarla in Matthaeum 10.11 (PG 13.857ff.).
The damned in their blackness are in reality those who have been judged unworthy of the brightness of the glorified body; they certainly are not to be thought of as Ethiopians.
Augustine declares firmly that whatever men’s shape or color may be now, they all trace their origin to a single human form. His definition of man, “a rational and mortal being,”18 Augustine, De civitate Dei 16.8 (CSEL 40.2.139–41); see also idem, De civ. Dei 21.8 (CSEL 40.2.532).
simply ignores external marks of classification or differentiation. It also affords a solution to the problem raised by deformities and monstrosities, realities which fit neither a literal interpretation of likeness nor the teleological views implied or expressed in Christian thought on the sacramentum hominis
.19 On this teleological theme (man’s upright stance as related to his being destined for gnosis), see A. Wlosok, Laktanz und die philosophische Gnosis: Untersuchungen zu Geschichte und Terminologie der gnostischen Erlösungsvorstellung, Abhandlungen der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 1960, 2 (Heidelberg, 1960).
The concept of man, therefore, embraces the most surprising peculiarities found in ethnological fable, compared to which racial characteristics seem negligible since they have no effect on the essential relationship of likeness. This relationship not only exists between the Creator and his creature; it is also the conformity of the body with the rational soul. This latter aspect of likeness is manifested not through liniamenta figurasque membrorum
(the features and shape of the body), but through the disposition of the human composite in relation to the superna
(the things above). The heavens are spread out before the only animal that stands up straight and is built conformably with the spiritual destiny of the soul. This explains why the Genesis story of the formation of man does not include the secundum genus
which accompanies the account of the creation of plants and animals. “Man was made one: even woman was made from him. There are not several races of men as there are species of herbs and trees, fishes and winged creatures, serpents, wild beasts and grazing animals.”20 Augustine, De Gen. ad litt. 3.12 (CSEL 28.1.78).
Augustine tends to minimize anything that might seem an intrusion of the bodily into the spiritual, and thus (given the nimbleness of the imagination) might cause the appearances of the body to be taken for the properties of the spirit. He denounces the illusion—produced by fantasy or by the Devil—suffered by those who attribute form, shape, or color to the soul and conceive it, without always being aware of so doing, as a body. Before refuting the theses of Vincentius Victor,21 This is the objective of Augustine’s treatise De anima et ejus origine and of numerous developments in his De Trinitate.
he takes issue with Tertullian’s De anima
. Tertullian ascribed to the soul “a color of air and light”; quite gratuitously he gave it senses and members of a like nature. Augustine
observes that an Ethiopian almost always sees himself as black, even in dreams. Were he to see himself as being of another color, he would be astonished. As for the “color of air and light,” no one has ever seen his soul thus adorned, unless in a dream, and that would be an illusion anyway. The Ethiopian would never have such an idea unless he got it from some source outside himself.22 Augustine, De Gen. ad litt. 10.25, 24 (CSEL 28.1.329, 327). Our inability to conceive incorporeal beings leads us to imagine souls with “colors.”
Obviously this does not mean that the soul of a white man is different from that of a black, but it does mean that consciousness of skin color affects the deceptive images one forms to represent ones own being. The De Trinitate
gives the ultimate analysis and general philosophical formulation: “Color, which has in itself no proper substance, resides in a colored subject; the colored body is the substance, the color is in the substance.”23 Augustine, De Trinit. 2.9.4–5.
It is no contradiction, therefore (provided the terms are understood allegorically), to say on the one hand that after the Resurrection, the just will have the beauty of the sun's brilliance as a perfection of their nature, and on the other hand that each ones beauty “consists in the symmetry of the parts of the body and a pleasing color.”24 Augustine, De civ. Dei 22.19 (CSEL 40.2.630).
This metaphysical assumption is probably responsible for the absence of blacks in Augustine’s works. The oft-cited eunuch of Queen Candace does not appear as an Ethiopian in these writings,25 See, for example, Augustine, De baptismo 3.19.25 (CSEL 51.216), and idem, Epistula ad catholicos de secta Donatistarum 8.21–22, 21.28 (CSEL 52.254–56, 306).
and Moses’ Ethiopian wife becomes a Midianite.26 Augustine, Quaestionum in Heptateuchum libri VII 4.20 (CSEL 28.2.331).
The Quality of Blackness: “Niger . . . Dicitur in Quo Nigredo Permanserit”27 Boethius, In categorias Aristotelis 3 (PL 64.248).
In patristic thought all speculation on the origin of man leads to a debate on the Trinity and a theology of the image. Didymus the Blind had shown that the Word had no qualities and that even if, for convenience of thought, the Word was assumed to be the prototype of man, its image
had no more than a nominal relationship to the images of mimesis
of form and color.28 Didymus the Blind, De Trinitate 1.16 (PG 39.332–37).
But it was Boethius (the commentator of Aristotle as interpreted by Porphyry) who, anticipating medieval thought, turned his attention to the study of “accidents,” basing his analysis on the data accessible to the human mind. The modern reader may be tempted to smile at the dialectical and verbal gymnastics which he finds so hard to fathom, but if he follows their permutations and combinations, he will have to admire the freedom of mind acquired through the device of syllogistic reasoning.
An example: if a “proper” applies to an individual, it applies also to the “accidents” of the individual. Man is an animal capable of reason and laughter. If I say “black Ethiopian,” it follows that I can say “black rational” or “black capable of laughter” or “black individual.”29 The Latin text reads: “Dicitur etiam rationale nigrum et irrationale nigrum, quippe si equus et homo Aethiops nigri sunt. Dicitur etiam risibile nigrum cum hominum quis niger fuerit. Dicitur etiam individuum nigrum, cum sic quis unus homo ex Aethiopia nominatur” (Boethius, In Porphyrium dialogus 1 [PL 64.30]).
Now let us consider a crow and an Ethiopian, both black, and let us imagine that both of them lose their blackness: the crow will then be white but will still be a crow, whereas the Ethiopian will lose his quality as an Ethiopian and will simply be a man like other men. His natural identity with them becomes apparent once the “accident” is eliminated, but the detour would have been unnecessary if a “proper” (rationale
) had been taken into consideration.30 Boethius, In Porphyr. dial. 2 (De accidenti) (PL 64.56–70). “At vero hominis, id est Aethiopis, amisso nigro colore, erit ejus species candida, sicut etiam aliorum hominum” (PL 64.56). However, black color does not distinguish a man from ebony or a crow, whereas being capable of laughter (risibile) is an absolutely distinctive human trait (PL 64.70).
“Est igitur accidens quod adest et abest praeter subjecti corruptionem” (An accident is that which may be present or absent without corruption of the subject).31 Boethius, In Porphyrium commentarla 4 (De accidenti) (PL 64.132–33). It is quite possible to imagine a white Ethiopian.
Of course it could be argued that blackness is not the only distinguishing characteristic of the Ethiopian.32 There is a trace of nominalism here, which is due to the etymology of the ancient name; cf. Boethius, In Porphyr, comm. 5 (PL 64.145–46): “Nam si interrogemur qualis est Authors, respondebimus accidens, id est nigerm.”
Boethius remarks, moreover, that there are many degrees of blackness, from fuscis proxima
(swarthy) to nigerrima
(pitch-black), and that as much could be said of other “accidents”: like blackness they are subject to quantity and therefore to uncertainty (how dark must one be before he is black?—a difficulty coming from the chain-of-syllogisms type of argument). The “proper,” on the other hand, does not lead to this difficulty. It is absolute; it either is or is not: be he black, tan, or white, or even an albinic Negro, a man laughs and reasons.33 Boethius, In Porphyr. comm. 5 (PL 64.156–58).
The Commentary on the Categories
states: “When it is said of a man that he is a man of color, it is not said of the man himself, because man as man is not color. It is because he has
a color that he is called a man of color.”34 Boethius, In categ. Arist. 2 (PL 64.209).
Blackness is simply the permanence of a condition that can be fortuitous. “When heat has cooked the blood that comes to the surface of the face, the glow of the burnt blood produces a black color. If the same phenomenon is caused by something that happens to the face of a newborn child, it is probable that its body will be colored in the same way”35 Boethius, In categ. Arist. 3 (PL 64.247–48).
It is also probable that when he wrote these and many similar lines, Boethius had no concrete image of a black in mind. The point of view he adopts, like Augustine’s, excludes such a possibility. Both authors put the emphasis on the unity of mankind; but whereas Augustine bases this unity on the undifferentiated and transcendent archetype, Boethius sees it in se beneath the diversity of “accidents.”
Origen’s commentary on the Song of Songs contains an anthology of scriptural texts and a cluster of interpretations on the theme of negritude which set the tone of all later exegesis, both Greek and
Latin. (We note that the Greek original and a large part of the works of Origen have disappeared, and that we read him in a Latin translation.)36 Origen, Commentarium in Canticum Canticorum 2 (PG 13.101ff.). The entire passage should be read for the full development of the theme.
The text he is commenting on is the following:
I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Do not consider me that I am brown, because the sun hath altered my colour . . . Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun . . . ? (Song of Songs 1:4–5, 6:9)
With the exception of Theodore of Mopsuestia,37 G. D. Mansi, ed., Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, vol. IX (Berlin, 1902 ), col. 226; Theodore of Mopsuestia, In Canticum Canticorum (PG 66.699). See also Anastasius, In Hexaemeron 8 (PG 89.977) (against allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs).
who considered the Song of Songs a very realistic poem written by Solomon with the Queen of Sheba in mind, the entire Christian tradition accepts Origen’s exegesis, according to which the Bride represents the Church of the Gentiles. Yet it should be remembered that Origen saw in the Song of Songs a sort of sacred drama, a mystical play.38 Cf. the reconstruction of the “staging” of this mystery play in the introduction of O. Rousseau’s edition of Origens Homélies sur le Cantique des Cantiques, 2nd ed., S.C., no. 37bis (Paris, 1966).
Attention must therefore be given to the concrete terms of the allegory as well as to what they signify.
The Church is black “with regard to her color,” beautiful “due to the internal ordering of her members.” She is black by reason of the obscurity of her origins (thus differing from the Synagogue), although “Kedar” connects her with Ishmael, and “the curtains of Solomon” relate her to the tabernacle of God. She is black also because she is the Ethiopian bride of Moses. Origen reviews the Old Testament texts which may be cited in support of this interpretation, referring to the story of Moses’ marriage in the Book of Numbers, the episode of the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings, Psalm 67 (68), the prophecy of Zephaniah, and Ebed-melech’s intervention on behalf of Jeremiah.39 Scriptural references: Num. 12:1–2, 10 (Miriam’s punishment); 1 Kings 10:1–12; 2 Chron. 9:1–12 (cf. Matt. 12:42); Ps. 67 (68):32; Zeph. 2:12, 3:10; Jer. 38:7–13.
Moses, as the twelfth chapter of Numbers tells us, had taken an Ethiopian woman as his wife, and because of this Miriam and Aaron spoke against him. In this symbolic event Origen sees the union of the spiritual Law with the Gentile nations, which in turn foreshadowed the universal Church. Miriam expresses the resentment of the Synagogue abandoned and soon to be stricken with a leprosy as white as snow, Aaron the carnal priesthood’s failure to understand the significance of the event. To this caste also belonged the priests who condemned Jeremiah before he was saved by Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian eunuch (Jer. 38:7–13). Thus everything is directed to the spread of the truth, from the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon to consult his wisdom (1 Kings 10) to the final repetition of this visit on the Day of Judgment, when the Church will come to hear the new Solomon.
Psalm 67 (68) conveys the same meaning, since the disqualification of Israel opens the way of salvation to Ethiopia. The rivers beyond which lies Ethiopia symbolize the “fullness of the peoples”— in other words, the whole of mankind including Israel, which had been subjected to the “dark coloring of wickedness” and had become “black and darkened.” Origen’s general theory of salvation thus takes this passage of the psalm to be the image of a spiritual land of passage and, since the ultimate goal is salvation, a metamorphosis of Egypt bathed and inundated by the saving waters.
Coming back to the Bride, Origen explains the words of the Song of Songs. Neither Nature nor the Creator made the Bride black. She got her color ex accidentibus
, through exposure to the sun, but by a process which was the reverse of that undergone by the Ethiopians.40 Origen recalls the traditional explanation of the characteristic color of the black race: “Ita denique et apud illam omnem gentem Aethiopum ferunt, cui naturalis quaedam inest ex seminis carnalis successione nigredo, quod in illis locis sol radiis acrioribus ferveat, et adusta jam semel atque infuscata corpora genuini vitii successione permane ant” (Origen, Comm. in Cant. Cant. 2.6 [PG 13.110]).
Her blackness is not a transmissible characteristic acquired by genetic inheritance; it is a sign of neglect: despexit me sol
.41 “Nam neque aspectu, sed despectu solis inuritur, neque nascendo, sed negligendo” (Origen, Comm. in Cant. Cant. 2.6 [PG 13.111]).
Here we discern between the lines the typological opposition between Scythian and Ethiopian, which is linked in a way with the opposition of the visible and the spiritual. The visible sun burns those who are directly beneath it, while those whom its rays touch obliquely are left white. Contrariwise, the spiritual sun sheds light on the former and leaves the latter in darkness. The Bride in her dark beauty can say that she has “drawn near to him who is the image of God, the first-born of all creation, the radiance of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature,” and that she has “been made beautiful.” But there is more to this than mystical allegory. In both weddings—that of Moses and that of the Bride of the Song of Songs—an actual whitening takes place. The initial subjective statement “I am black but beautiful” is replaced by the objective judgment of the virgins, queens, and concubines, based on the color transformation interpreted as a sign. This visible passage from potency to act is one of the keys to the “Ethiopian” symbolism of the Christian tradition.
The Conversion of the Ethiopians, Sons of the Devil
Didymus the Blind, in his Commentary on Zechariah
, turns his attention to the ways in which the Ethiopians may be brought into the economy of salvation. Quoting Psalm 86 (87):3–4, where they are named with the people of Tyre, Didymus makes the point that “[these] foreigners . . . have a place in the glorious city of God only after they have turned away from impiety and the worship of demons.”42 Didymus the Blind, Sur Zacharie 3.83 (ed. and trans. L. Doutreleau, S.C., no. 84 [Paris, 1962]), vol. II, pp. 658–61.
This conversion follows the trial announced by the prophet Zephaniah (2:12): “You Ethiopians, also shall be slain with
my sword.” Through this wound they lose their sonship with the Devil and in God become white as snow. “Once they have been wounded by Him who says these words and have given up their Ethiopian way of life, they will receive immortality, and, filled with thankfulness, will say, ‘Let the brightness of the Lord our God be upon us’ (Ps. 89 :17). Washed by the Author of all good we have emerged clean and white, according to the word of him who said with confidence, ‘Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow’ (Ps. 50 :9).” “What was it therefore,” Didymus continues, “that made them Ethiopians—these people who are wounded for their own good in order to die to impiety? It was that they were born of the Devil and wished to serve his evil designs. He is assumed to be black because of the darkness in which his ignorance of God and his perversity establish him.” The Epistle of Barnabas
and The Shepherd of Hermas
are cited as authorities on this same point.43 Didymus the Blind, Sur Zacharie 3.195–96, vol. II, pp. 712–15. The Shepherd differs from the Epistle of Barnabas in that it does not directly characterize the demon in terms of color. The blacks come from the first mountain, which also is black. Blasphemers and apostates, they are doomed to death; they are black because they are a lawless race (γνος νομον). Cf. Hermas, Le Pasteur 96.1 (ed. and trans. R. Joly, 2nd ed., rev. and enl., S.C., no. 53 bis [Paris, 1968]), pp. 332–33. We find this theme turned upside down, as it were, in the exegesis of the marriage of Moses to an Ethiopian. Le Pasteur (83.4, pp. 302–3; 92.1, pp. 324–25) again reverts to the symbolic value of blackness with reference to the choice of stones for the tower (i.e., souls classified according to their color and so accepted or rejected), and again to the guilty unions of certain believers with beautiful women dressed in black—allegorical personifications of unbelief, intemperance, disobedience, and deceitfulness, all of these being demonic manifestations in the soul. Cf. idem, Le Pasteur 22.10, pp. 134–35; 24.2, pp. 138–39.
Further on, and still referring to Zephaniah 2:12, Didymus substitutes the notion of participation in the original fall of Satan for that of sonship: “Those who fall beneath the stroke of God’s sword are the Ethiopians, because they all share in the malice and sin of the Devil, from whose blackness they take their name.” The Devil is black “because he fell from the splendor, virtue, and spiritual whiteness which only those who have been whitened by God can possess.”44 Didymus the Blind, Sur Zacharie 4.312 (S.C., no. 85), vol. III, pp. 964–65.
Jerome’s ideas are like those of Origen and Didymus. Yet, although he adds nothing that would indicate a particular interest in the Ethiopian theme, his treatment of it has some originality. Only when the City of God (the Church) has been built will it be possible to count those who are born in it: “Behold the foreigners, and Tyre; and the people of the Ethiopians, these were [born] there [in Zion]” (Ps. 86 :4), says the psalmist. Citizenship is acquired by the offering that confers a birthright, even if the one who offers it comes from the remote regions trans flumina
(cf. Zeph. 2:12 and Ps. 67 :31–32). Here a spiritual meaning is projected into the reality of earthly space.45 Jerome, In Zachariam 2.9 (PL 25.1480–87). Jerome also includes Hippolytus among his sources.
Zechariah’s vision confirms the character of Jerusalem as an open city which the heavenly surveyor is measuring. The Eternal will be its “wall of fire” (cf. Zech. 2:1–5 and Ps. 67 :32), as he is also the gladius fortium
(sword of the strong). The Ethiopians, wounded by this sword, will then be admitted to the city and will be on the same footing as those born there. At that time they will lose their blackness and will rejoice as David did after he repented (Ps. 50:9–10 [51:7–8]).
Considered from the standpoint of language and material reality, such a transformation can hardly be thought of as possible. Jeremiah says: “If the Ethiopian can change his skin, or the leopard his spots: you also may do well, when you have learned evil” (Jer. 13:23). Here the Manichaeans had seen a weighty argument for the dual nature of man and the impossibility of passing from blackness to whiteness, from the polychrome of guilt to the single color of repentance. Jerome answers that nothing is impossible “to him who acts in the Ethiopian and the leopard.”46 Jerome, In Hieremiam 3.22 (CSEL 59.170).
The nature of a being can be changed not by the being itself but by the One who is its principle of existence and action.
Ambrose of Milan, the northernmost of our authors, is aware of the many possible allegorical meanings of negritude. Origen’s exegesis of the Song of Songs often provides Ambrose with a hermeneutical key for his own interpretations, which he supplements with large collections of biblical texts. The various and original ways in which he uses this key will be seen from a remarkable example, the Exposition of Psalm 118, where it appears in a number of contexts. Here are some examples of the way he applies it.
John the Apostle: Soul and Body
. The Gospel narrative of the Last Supper shows John reclining on the Lord’s breast (John 13:23). In this Ambrose sees the visible, historical development of the mysteries of the Song of Songs. The “slave” leaning on the Master should cause no surprise: this is the flesh of sin resting upon the temple of the Word, or again the soul caught in the bonds of flesh and gazing into the fullness of God. Like the Bride, John’s soul is both black and beautiful, due to the double effect of sin and grace. The flesh is also black and yet beautiful, but its blackness comes from the dust of the world picked up in the struggle, while its beauty comes from the spiritual oil which washes away that stain. The spiritual combat thus takes on a sacramental aspect. By the absolution it confers, baptism removes the blackness of sin and consecrates the reconciliation of the flesh, exiled in Eve and assumed into Heaven in Mary.47 Ambrose, Expositio Psalmi 118 2.8 (CSEL 62.23–24).
. Jesus, Peter, John, and James were Jews, dissident heirs of the Synagogue, the prima congregatio Dei
, which also was both black and beautiful, since in it were associated the refusal to believe and the transmission of the Law, the Fall, and the first assembly of believers. Its blackness, like that of the Ethiopians, is due to the Sun, but this time to the lack of it in the darkness of abandonment: “I am black because the Sun of Justice, which shone upon me in the past, has abandoned me; my face has lost its color; the keenness of my eyes is dulled . . . I wander in the darkness.” Yet
the Sun that now shines on the Gentiles will rise again upon Israel when this people opens itself to the Light.48 Ambrose, Exp. Ps. 118 2.9 (CSEL 62.24–25).
. The Church includes saints, who are comparable to heavenly creatures, and men of the earth. She is earth and heaven, darkness and light. She has the black color of the Bride just as the winter world is dark, far from the suns brightness. Henceforth she receives the Light, and the Light also shines on Greeks, Barbarians, and Scythians, following upon the darkness of the centuries of the Law.49 Ambrose, Exp. Ps. 118 12.25 (CSEL 62.265–66).
The moral and spiritual division of her members prolongs and illustrates her history, which is that of the truth at first hidden and then revealed.
The Desert of Life
. The soul is the Spouse who comes up pure white from the desert (cf. Song of Songs 8:5), or again (according to some versions of the Song of Songs) who is whitened, “as she comes up from the desert,” by accumulated merits that wipe away the blackness of worldly folly.50 Ambrose, Exp. Ps. 118 14.34 (CSEL 62.321).
The thing to do, then, is to cast off the earthly and put on the heavenly image of man, which no shadow nor any color can express, and in which Christ recognizes himself.51 Ambrose, Exp. Ps. 118 15.36 (CSEL 62.349).
Morality and Mysticism
. The Church sees men, to whom she is guide and teacher, in a double light. Therefore she has two eyes, of which the “doves washed with milk” (Song of Songs 5:12) are a figure. The doves also suggest the black and whitened Bride, as well as those sincere souls whom the Lord baptizes in milk. Their whiteness fits them morally for spiritual knowledge. Leaving behind the maculosa confusio
of negritude, and thanks to the rational milk, they acquire the purity of mystical sight.52 Ambrose, Exp. Ps. 118 16.21, 15.13, 22.33 (CSEL 62.364, 337, 505)
. The Church was formerly “black in broad daylight” but later “shone brightly in the night.” Now she is white, being cleansed of the Manichaean and Arian heresies: she receives the dual illumination of the Old and New Testaments, which she unites and fulfills. The daughters of Jerusalem who wonder at the coming up of the Bride, now whitened (dealbata
), represent the Old Law contemplating the new sacrament.53 Ambrose, Exp. Ps. 118 19.26–27 (CSEL 62.435). There is an interesting remark on the meaning of the copulative et in nigra et formosa in idem, Exp. Ps. 118 18.33 (CSEL 62.414–15).
These themes and some few others are closely connected with the speculations about the sun that were so dear to the contemporaries of Macrobius, and just as closely with the various light symbolisms of the Neoplatonists. Ambrose borrows from Philo when he interprets Ethiopia in moralistic terms indicative of disdain (the outsider, the thing of small value)—an interpretation which he extends to the body, symbolized by the earth burned by the passions. The river Gihon, which is a figure of chastity, purifies the body as it bathes the land of Ethiopia.54 Ambrose, De Paradiso 3.16 (CSEL 32.1.275–76).
Indeed, if the conscience is darkened by sin, its night spreads to the body, the corpus tenebro-sum
,55 Ambrose, Exp. Ps. 118 14.7 (CSEL 62.302).
imprisoned in its materiality. This dark side of human nature is personified in Nimrod the hunter, who was black like his father Chus. Forced by his nature to live and act more like an animal than a creature of reason, Nimrod is an image of the guilty soul, “Ethiopian, enemy of the light, deprived of brightness.”56 Ambrose, De Noe 34.128 (CSEL 32.1.496).
Gregory the Great, in his Moralia
,57 Gregory the Great, Moralium libri, sive Expositio in librum B. Job 18.52 (PL 76.88–89).
sketches a little synthesis on our theme. Commenting on Job 28:19 (“The topaz of Ethiopia shall not be equal to [wisdom]”), he explains that Ethiopia signifies the present world, whose blackness is the sign of a sinful people, although he does not exclude the narrower interpretation according to which Ethiopia is the symbol of “the Gentiles, black with the sins of infidelity.” As such, Ethiopia will feel Gods might: “I saw the tents of Ethiopia for their iniquity” (Hab. 3:7); but Psalm 67 (68):32 intimates that the Ethiopians will accept the faith before the Jews do. The black world of the Gentiles presents itself to the Lord in order to be saved. The topaz (topantium
) also expresses totality (
) and the multiplicity of colors bestowed on the ex-Ethiopians by the practice of virtues. Yet they must not go too far; they must practice humility, which subordinates the brilliance of the gem coming from “the blackness of the world” to the radiance of Wisdom—that by way of response to the pride of the Nestorians! Conversely, the Lamentations of Jeremiah describes the metamorphosis of the Nazirites: “Her Nazirites were whiter than snow, purer than milk . . . [Now] their face is made blacker than coals” (Lam. 4:7–8). Gregory comments: “They had been white and became black because having lost Gods justice they trust in themselves and fall into sins that they do not even understand.”58 Gregory the Great, Moralia 32.22 (PL 76.663).
In either case negritude is identified with an inferior level of knowledge. This inferiority, consisting of a lack of knowledge from which sins proceed, has its origin in the relativity of everything in this world, including human righteousness.
The literature of edification, such as the lives of the saints and the passions of the martyrs, often introduces the demons, who try to tempt saintly persons or appear to them in the dreams and visions visited upon them. These evil spirits, adjutants of the Prince of Darkness (called “the Black” from the beginning, according to the Epistle of Barnabas)
,59 Epître de Barnabé 4.10, 20.1 (ed. and trans. P. Prigent and R. A. Kraft, S.C., no. 172 [Paris, 1971]), pp. 100–101, 210–11.
are soon likened to “Ethiopians.” This comparison, however, does not seem to go beyond an indication of
color, and no text refers explicitly to other racial characteristics, nor to any resemblance to real Ethiopians. The visible appearance of the devils who carry on in this wealth of tales is a mark of identity, an element of symmetry, in the diptychs of darkness and light. By way of exception we get a glimpse of an Ethiopian hermit who possesses all the virtues,60 Historia Lausiaca 22 (PL 73.1119–22). The hermit’s name is Moses, a detail that casts doubt on his very existence.
but the theme of the false hermit, which enjoyed such popularity throughout the Middle Ages, makes no use of the disguise of negritude. It can be said that every black is the incarnation of evil and of danger to the soul.
A limited selection of examples will suffice to give an idea of the range of this colorful theme.61 It should be noted that these anecdotes cover a limited area, mostly close to Ethiopia. There is absolutely no question here of a general topic. In North Africa, where Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine give ample play to the devils, these are never presented as being black.
A monk is tempted by the sensuous vision of an Ethiopian girl gathering ears of corn.62 Palladius, Lausiaca 2 (PL 74.347).
Another sees two crows or a black dancer.63 John Moschus, Pratum spirituale 105, 160 (PL 74. 171, 200).
Antony sees himself being brought into a theater and forced to wrestle with a huge Ethiopian before an audience comprising whites and blacks.64 John Moschus, Prat. spirit. 66 (PL 74.150).
Melania the Younger argues theology with the Devil disguised as a young black (he takes the side of the Nestorians): she routs him by calling upon Christ and for six days suffers a pain that returns regularly at the hour of her encounter with the demon.65 Vie de sainte Mélante 54 (ed. and trans. D. Gorce, S.C., no. 90 [Paris, 1962]), pp. 234–35. This mode of disguise is inspired by 2 Cor. 11:14—“Satan himself transformeth himself into an angel of light”—with the colors reversed. On the role of demons in illnesses, often cyclical, see Tertullian, Apologeticum 22.4–12 (CSEL 69.61–62), and numerous later testimonies.
Liturgical offices are sometimes disrupted, although here we are not sure whether we are dealing with “facts” or visions. In a monastery, at the time when the brethren are about to receive the Eucharist, Ethiopians put burning coals into their hands, whereas they should have been holding palm branches.66 Rufinus, Historia monachorum 30 (PL 21.456). It may be that we have here a kind of inverted allusion to martyrdom (the palm is won by braving fire).
Macarius is awakened by a demon and goes to the church, to find it filled with little black Ethiopians, who run hither and thither and seem to flit through the air. Then a psalm is read, the assistants being seated as they listen or make the responses. The black imps make a game of putting the brothers to sleep by rubbing their eyelids, or making them yawn by sticking a finger into their mouths. They walk back and forth on the backs of those who lie prostrate in prayer, making them see tempting visions of women and journeys and houses.67 Rufinus, Hist. monach. 29 (PL 21.454). The text is worth quoting in its entirety: “Et ecce vidit per totam Ecclesiam, quasi parvulos quosdam puerulos Aethiopes tetros discurrere hue atque illue, et velut volitando deferri. Moris est autem inibi, sedentibus cunctis, ab uno dici Psalmum, ceteris, vel audientibus, vel respondentibus. Discurrentes ergo illi Aethiopes pueruli, singulis quibusque sedentibus alludebant, et si cui duobus digitulis oculos compressissent, statim dormitabat; si cui vero in os immersissent digitum, osci tare eum faciebant.”
More grandiose are the scenes related to the Last Judgment. A giant Ethiopian does the winnowing of souls;68 Hist. Laus. 27 (PL 73.1126).
others load the scales of the Judgment with lists of accusations.69 Anastasius, Oratio in sextum Psalmum (PG 89.1142).
More immediate are the premonitions experienced in times of trial. Perpetua in a dream finds herself face-to-face with an Ethiopian.70 Passio Perpetuae 3.2 (PL 3.40).
Much later, but again in Africa, Victor of Vita reports that the Vandal persecution had been foreshadowed in this way: a brightly lighted church is suddenly plunged into darkness and filled with a foul stench, while Ethiopians drive out the crowd of the blessed.71 Victor of Vita, Historia persecutionis Africanae provinciale 2.18 (CSEL 7.30–31).
Antony encounters an ugly black youth who makes himself known as the spirit of fornication72 Athanasius, Vita beati Antonii abbatis 4 (PL 73.130).
and boasts about his conquests of young men. He has to admit his failure to break down the hermit's constancy. Modestly, Antony observes that his age and color are signs of weakness; then he bursts into a chant, and the specter vanishes. The aged abbot Apollo is worried about his tendency to take pride in his work, which threatens to undermine his last monastic foundation. A voice from on high orders him to reach back and to bury in the sand whatever he finds on his shoulders. He reaches back and seizes a tiny Ethiopian, the spirit of vanity, which he buries alive.73 Hist. Laus. 52 (PL 73.1155).
Still more involved is the story of a troubled monk who makes a retreat before abandoning the religious life. An ugly, evil-smelling Ethiopian woman appears to him and declares, “I am she who seems so sweet to the hearts of men; but because of your obedience and the trials you have borne, God would not allow me to lead you astray. All I can do is to let you smell my foul odor.”74 Vitae Patrum 5.5 (PL 73.879).
These disdainful descriptions certainly denote the secondary importance of these poor, powerless beings, but a certain racism is also discernible, and this was to furnish themes—the ugliness or bad odor of the Negro, for instance—which were destined for a long life. At best the demons fail in their efforts, like the little black dancer who jumps through the window into the cell where a holy man is chanting the psalms.75 John Moschus, Prat, spirit. 160 (PL 74.200).
Having tried in vain to distract him by dancing around him, the demon denounces him for a fraud because he has made three mistakes in his psalmody. Having scored this cheap victory, he can only take himself off, which he does. In all this picturesque gallimaufry, the only anecdote with any real significance is that of a “black Ethiopian” who is cutting wood. Having cut an armful, he tries to lift it, and finding that he cannot, he goes on cutting more and more wood, thus sinking deeper into futility and failure, like the unrepentant sinner.76 Vit. Pat. 3.38 (PL 73.763).
We are further informed that the Thebaid, and more specifically the city of Hermopolis, was visited by the Christ Child on the flight into Egypt (cf. Matt. 2:13–20), this being a sign of the future evangelization of these distant lands. Thus we are not surprised to find there certain persons unnamed who, three centuries later, give proof of the fulfillment of the sign. “We saw there a number of men of the Ethiopian race who lived with the monks and far outdid many of them in virtue and religious observance, so much so that in them the Scripture seemed fulfilled wherein it says that ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God’ (Ps. 67 :32).”77 Rufinus, Hist. monadi. 7 (PL 21.415).
Should we take this for actual fact? The possibility is there, but it seems more likely that at the same time, the narrator is expressing
repentance for his antiracial feelings by a kind of rhetorical paradox. This is not uncommon in this type of literature; thus we find theatrical performers converted, persecutors touched by grace, etc. At any rate it is certain that while the Ethiopians were in no sense relegated to spiritual ostracism, they suffered nonetheless by their metaphorical relationship with the demons, and their small number in the midst of white society kept more favorable evidence from making itself felt. They were not excluded but remained on the outside: for instance, we are told that the Ethiopians themselves knew Simeon Stylites, the renowned ascetic, but they are not mentioned among the pilgrims who swarmed at the foot of his pillar.78 Vit. Pat. 9.26 (PL 74.99–102).
No less worthy of note is the tale handed on by Augustine in the City of God
.79 Augustine, De civ. Dei 22.8 (CSEL 40.2.601).
In Carthage a physician who suffers from gout has a dream in which he sees woolly-haired black children who try to keep him from being baptized, and who, to lend authenticity to the vision, stamp on his aching feet. He perseveres despite all this and is cured as he receives the sacrament.
The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, Minister of Queen Candace (Acts 8:26–40)
An angel orders the disciple Philip to take the road toward the south, and Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch, who is reading Isaiah as he rides along in his chariot. Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian has him climb up and ride beside him and asks him to explain the meaning of the text, which refers to Christ. Philip thereupon announces the Good News to the eunuch and at his request baptizes him as they come to a wayside pond.
This anecdote, which is richly illustrated in iconography from the third century on, attracted the attention of the early exegetes for a multitude of converging reasons. This is the first instance of the baptism of a non-Jew and the only mention of an Ethiopian in the New Testament: the evangelization of the world at large has its beginning here. So we find the episode mentioned many times in the early doctrinal writings, notably those on baptism, as well as in the speculations on the end of the world, which would take place, it was generally thought, when the spread of the Gospel message was completed (cf. Matt. 28:19–20).
The eunuch is a man of power, since he controls the treasures of the heiress of the Queen of Sheba. Yet he reads and gives proof of his humility when he finds the text hard going. He is on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship in the Temple. All these touches identify him with the attitude of the Gentiles, in contrast to the spiritual arrogance and poverty of Israel. The treasures are the mass of souls to be saved, as well as the riches of human learning contained in the books of the profane world.80 John Chrysostom, In acta Apostolorum homiliae 19 (PG 60.149); cf. Epiphanius, Liber de mensuris et ponderibus 9 (PG 43.252). Isidore of Pelusium, writing to Zosimus (Epistolae 1.61 [PG 78.221–24]), says: “Are you not Ethiopian in spirit? Do you understand what you are reading?” Epiphanius, in the text referred to, mentions the library of Alexandria and says that it could have been filled out, notably in the area of the scriptures, with the many books that were in Ethiopia.
The call of the eunuch to Christianity lifts the curse that hung over the race of Chus and Nimrod, a stain washed away by baptism voluntarily received as a right due to faith alone. “See, here is water! What doth hinder me from being baptized?” Philip answers, “If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest,” and baptized him forthwith (cf. Acts 8:36–37).81 Gregory of Nyssa, De vita Moysis (PG 44.385). There Philip is described as the “bather” of the eunuch.
This faith therefore demonstrates the active presence of Christ the Light everywhere in the world— in Jerusalem, in Babylon, in Ethiopia82 Epiphanius, Adversus haereses (1–4.6 [PG 41.185]), reinstates Nimrod as the father of the malae artes (astrology, magic) attributed to Zoroaster. Cf. Origen, Comm. in Matth. 12.28 (PG 13.1047), and Athanasius, De titulis Psalmorum, Ps. 7 (PG 27.667).
—enlightening by the gift of faith “every man that cometh into the world” and is willing to receive the gift, just as Christ is present everywhere in the continuous act of creation (cf. John 1:9–12).
Athanasius marvels at the posthumous power of Christ, who can send his messengers as far as Ethiopia.83 Athanasius, Oratio de Incarnatione Verbi 51 (PG 25.188).
They go north, south, east, and west; they penetrate regions where the primary qualities of the elements (dryness, humidity, cold, and heat) prevail and the great masses of men live. “Let us imitate the Ethiopian eunuch, who, by receiving baptism on the road, himself became a road for the Ethiopians who believed.”84 Athanasius, Quaest. ad Antioch. 123 (PG 28.676). The heat of the fire restrains the Ethiopians from drinking too much wine and makes them irritable and libidinous. On the “road,” cf. idem, Sermo in sanctum Pascha 8 (PG 28.1092); idem, Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae 51, 34 (PG 28.405, 361).
In the eunuch the farthest outpost of the world is potentially attained.85 Athanasius, Expositio in Psalmos 67.32 (PG 27.303).
But the realists see things somewhat differently. Epiphanius may celebrate the unity of the Church beneath the diversity of tongues, including those of the peoples who dwell in the southern region of the world,86 Epiphanius, Adv. haer. 31.31 (PG 41.533).
but the various commentators of Matthew hesitate to affirm the evangelization of the future kingdom of Prester John. Origen says forthrightly87 Origen, Comm. in Matth. 24.9–14 (PG 13.1655).
that all the Ethiopians, “particularly those who are beyond the river,” have not yet been touched by the Gospel. At the other end of our period, Theodoret puts them in the second phase of the spread of the truth, along with Persians, Scythians, Massagetes, Sarmatians, and Indians.88 Theodoret, Thérapeutique des maladies helléniques 8.6 (ed. and trans. P. Canivet, S.C., no. 57 [Paris, 1958]), vol. II, pp. 311–12.
This confirms the exegesis of Habakkuk 3:7, where “the iniquity of the tents of Ethiopia” signifies the defeat of the demons.89 Theodoret, In Habacuc 3.7 (PG 81.1828).
In contrast to the “racial image,” widespread in antiquity, which represented the black as possessed of a kind of hypersexuality, the Ethiopians of our texts present an image of continence and dignity
that reminds us of the respect paid them in the Homeric poems. We might, however, record a few less edifying tidbits. Epiphanius asserts that Origen was said to have been forced to choose between an act signifying apostasy and an act of sodomy with an Ethiopian.90 Epiphanius, Adv. haer. 64.2. The story runs that Origen agreed to burn a few grains of incense, figuring that he had better choose the lesser of two evils. Cf. Nemesius of Emesa, De natura hominis 30 (PG 40.722). The story is doubtful and recalls the rhetorical theme of the priestess-prostitute or the apologetical theme of the Christian woman condemned to the lupanar.
A hermit is tempted by a pretty, black peasant woman.91 Cf. supra, n. 61.
Ennodius recommends virginity in the following terms:
Sic tua non maculent nigrantis membra puellae, Nec jaceas propter Tartaream faciem.92 Ennodius, Epistulae 7.21, in Monumenta Germaniae historica: Auctores Antiquissimi, vol. VII, ed. E Vogel (Berlin, 1885), p. 246.
(Don’t let the body of a black girl soil yours, nor lie with her for her Hell-black face.)
Here, however, there can scarcely be an allusion to a real person. What we find in the main are the usual pious conventions, such as the chaste visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, her sole interest being the quest of wisdom,93 Cf. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio XL: In sanctum Baptisma (PG 36.397). Theodoret, Interpretatio in Psalmos, In Psal. LXXIX (PG 80.1514), In Psal. LXXI (PG 80.1435).
and the decor Aethiopicus
, the beauty of negritude assumed by the Bride in the “metanoia” of absolution.94 The expression is Jeromes, translating Origen; cf. Jerome, Interpretatio homiliarum Origenis in Canticum Canticorum Homilia 1 (PL 23.1125–26). On the Brides “metanoia,” cf. Cyril of Alexandria, Explanatio in Psalmos 67.32 (PG 69.1160).
The eunuch baptized by Philip exemplifies the defeat of libido. “The chaste take the kingdom of heaven by force,”95 Arator, De actibus Apostolorum 1.673–707 (CSEL 72.52–54); cf. 1 Cor. 6:9.
Arator, the last link in the chain of exegesis that began with Origen, exclaims at the end of a charming synopsis. The image of Ethiopia, the dark region, is rich in implications. It confirms the symbolic marriage of Moses (the man who met God face-to-face), representing the Law, with the eternal Bride, the Church, which, like the comely maiden of the Song of Songs, came out of the scorched land at the end of the road to the south, the road on which the studious eunuch met the disciple guided by the angel.96 Arator, De act. Apost. 1.690–99 (CSEL 72.53–54).
Non parva figurae
Causa sub obscurae regionis imagine lucet:
Comprobat Omnipotens taedarum foedere Moysen
Aethiopam sociasse sibi, quern dogmata produnt
Postea cum Domino vicinius ore locutum.
Quid mirum si legis amor tunc crescere
Ecclesiae cum iuncta fuit? Quod sponsa perennis
Hac venial de gente magis, nec Cantica celant,
Quae fuscam pulchramque vocant; haec pergit ab austro
Aethiopum qui torret humum.
Tropological Synthesis: The Continued Commentary on the Black
The extensive exegetical treatment of our topic certainly merits attention for its thematic detail, although this is on the whole fairly limited. Perhaps even more interesting is the way the authors, one after another, go back over the same material, thus adding link upon link to a long chain of exegetical development. Before examining a noteworthy specimen, it will be useful, with regard to the texts themselves, to make a few observations on scriptural commentaries as a literary genre.
This genre virtually reached its finished form in the writings of Origen, before being introduced to western Europe by Rufinus, Jerome, and Augustine. The real intent of these profuse monuments of erudition and subtlety is anything but clear, and their preliminary statements and dedicatory formulas throw but little light on the authors’ purpose in writing them. We need hardly say that no useful mention of a critical reading, aside from a few discussions of points of doctrine, has come down to us. We therefore do not know whether they were conceived, or received, as comprehensive and coherent wholes. Were they intended to be merely hermeneutical repertories following the order of the Bible, or the Book itself explicated and deciphered for a relatively intelligent and cultured readership?
Comparison with the exegetical homilies actually delivered to an audience makes possible an analytical approach, though rarely in connection with our present study. Such an approach, moreover, must be undertaken with due caution, because sacred orators like Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, and Ambrose are also difficult writers, who, it would seem, were not afraid to leave the clarification of scripture buried under layer upon layer of “explanations,” however much these might agree or disagree. We follow their unpredictable lead down countless trails of exegesis, which successive authors either abandoned or returned to with the fundamental conviction that the full meaning of the sacred writings is beyond human ken. To delve into it was for these commentators an exercise of faith or the fulfillment of a pastoral obligation; they felt it a duty to comment on the scriptures, thus putting to use the charismatic insight bestowed on them. The interpreter said all he knew, all he had read, all the meanings and nonmeanings dug out by others before him. Of course he did not bother to give references: the “scholarship” of antiquity did not demand them, and the inadequate authority of mere men rendered them of little use when applied to the Word of God. So when a theme is pursued or broken off, this may be due to the chance information available, but it may just as well be due to a deliberate choice or to a latent interest coming to light in this way.
Thus, when Cyprian tries to establish an irrefutable basis for his position on baptism, he falls back on Philip’s procedure in conferring the sacrament on the Ethiopian eunuch; but using it for his particular purpose, he omits any allusion to its racial connotation, which elsewhere is determinative when the episode in the Acts of the Apostles is discussed.97 Cf. supra, pp. 21–22.
Jerome uses the event in an entirely different way, in a highly complex sequence of his commentary on the prophet Zephaniah.98 Jerome, In Sophoniam 1.1 (CCL 76 A.656ff.).
Zephaniah is the son of Chusi, and Chusi
means either “humility” or “my Ethiopian.” Naturally no explanation of this baffling ambiguity is given. There is not even an attempt to furnish the semantic explanation which the context leads
one to expect: “After such merits are enumerated, how could the name Ethiopian sound like praise?” In fact, Jerome suggests, this is a false problem, and he eliminates it with a morphological note to the effect that the text reads “Chusi,” not “Chus.” If it read “Chus,” the difficulty would be insoluble, since Chus was born of Ham the accursed, and his name is equivalent to Ethiopian
, which is equivalent to sinner
. On the other hand, Chusi
means “my Ethiopian,” and this touches on a mystery—that of the Ethiopian restored to God’s favor by penance. Besides the psalmists testimony,99 The usual references to Pss. 67 (68): 32, 71 (72):9–11.
the Bride of the Song of Songs and the Ethiopian eunuch Ebed-melech (mentioned in Jeremiah 39:15–18 as having pleased God) help to introduce the baptism of the eunuch by Philip, and this completes the exempla
that prove the point. Scrutinizing the letter of the text (like the eunuch himself, whose attachment to holy scripture made him read the Book of Isaiah as he rode in his chariot, though he could not understand it), Jerome points to the surprising formula vir Aethiops eunuchus
—a man, a eunuch, and an Ethiopian to boot! He was, then, a eunuch of Christ, who had made himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven and so could still be called a man. That is why Zephaniah, son of Chusi, had a right as the son of an Ethiopian to speak of the Ethiopians’ penance—this being the natural explanation of Zephaniah 3:10: “From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, shall my suppliants the children of my dispersed people bring me an offering.”
Needless to say, these unconvincing verbal acrobatics make sense only in the language of allegory: it would be futile to destroy the eunuch’s virility, even if it were spiritual like his mutilation, by a stylistic observation. It would be equally fruitless to ask why all the particular Ethiopians met in connection with our topic lack the aggressive sexuality generally attributed to the black: they are so few that no plausible conclusion can be drawn. It is possible, however, to suggest Jerome’s implicit reasoning. Zephaniah is one of the redeemed Ethiopians—allegorically, at least, for he certainly is not black. His penance has left him a whole man, a man who has subjugated his sexual nature, like the eunuch of Queen Candace—a disciple of Paul without knowing it. He belongs to the glorious lineage of his fathers, in accordance with a pattern as dear to Jewish tradition as to Hellenistic and Roman sensitivity. One might almost say that by penance he loses his distinctive color, the anthropological reality of which becomes merely a symbolic coloration, a metaphor. The scriptures use the name Ethiopian for those who are deeply sunken in vice, as we read in Jeremiah 13:23: “If the Ethiopian can change his skin . . .” If what is impossible can nevertheless be brought about by conversion, then there is hope that no man who does penance will be denied salvation.
This optimistic view, which seems tinged with a certain Pelagianism,100 Jerome, In Soph. 2.12–13 (CCL 76 A.690).
is based on the personage of the Bride of the Song of Songs, who is black but beautiful, as well as on another figure, the Ethiopian wife of Moses. Maintaining their own characteristics as they confront the daughters of Jerusalem and the jealous personification of the Synagogue, they show that the “washing away of the color of darkness” is possible.
Some pages further on, Jerome talks about the time when all peoples will call upon the name of the Lord and will bring offerings from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, whence came the Queen of Sheba to listen to Solomon’s wisdom. That is when the Ethiopian woman marries the truth-speaking Lawgiver who inflicted the ten plagues upon Egypt. The Synagogue, of yore the beloved daughter but now tormented by jealousy, will have to resign herself to seeing the sacrificial victims sent by Ethiopia, in other words by the Gentiles. The blackness of the soul, the dragon’s poison and his dark color—the color of sin and vice—can disappear as soon as the teachers of false doctrines are left in the rivers of Ethiopia.101 Jerome, In Soph. 3.10–13 (CCL 76 A.703–4).
The mystical frontier of these rivers—they were crossed in many ways in the historical events of the economy of salvation—must therefore be understood as an exemplary and, in a way, necessary passage. The journey of the soul coordinates and completes these narratives. The Queen of Sheba was satisfied by the teaching of her host, but the eunuch, servant of her distant successor, started back from Jerusalem still beset by uncertainty. His meeting with Philip on the road toward the south was of more benefit to him than his pilgrimage, which could no longer serve its purpose. The significance of the wife of Moses is explained by the scandal of the evangelization of the Gentiles more clearly than by a comparison with the black but beautiful Bride.
Inevitably there are still questions which we shall mention without attempting to answer them. What part does the concrete image of the black play in the setting of the theme, and more especially in conveying the author’s meaning? In other words, is the strangeness of the Ethiopian so strongly felt that he will be understood as the equivalent of the “old man” which is the body of sin (cf. Rom. 6:6)? On the other hand, how should we interpret the unfavorable judgment contained in the analysis, which questions it even while making it the basis of the argument? The prophet admits being the son of an Ethiopian only after revision and appropriation of the relationship. The eunuch is not what he appears to be. And the salvation of the black people, real or symbolic, supposes a mutation, a return to whiteness.
Negritude: Refusal and Acceptance
The adventures of one Ethiopian, explicitly described as black, are significant. This is a certain Moses.102 Heraclides, Paradisus 7 (PL 74.277ff.). More novella than historical document, this text is similar to an anecdote in the Lausiac History (Hist. Laus. 22 [PL 73.1119ff.]).
He begins as a brigand who is able to perform astonishing feats of strength. We see him swimming the Nile at night to steal four rams, which he kills and carries back across the river. He eats some of the meat, trades the rest for wine, then walks fifty miles to rejoin his comrades. Later he does penance and becomes a monk. We shall hold on to this truculent character as a possible document—no more than a possible one, since his saintly actions are a little too close a counterpoint to his misdeeds, which, after all, were not so heinous. At any rate he stands guarantee for the universality of monasticism, and especially for the fact of “metanoia,” the change of heart, illustrated by his race.
Some pointers will help to understand the complexity, and even the contradictions, of the theme. In his treatise on the theater103 Tertullian, De spectaculis 3.
Tertullian writes: “When God threatens Egypt and Ethiopia with extinction, he pronounces sentence on every sinful nation. Thus every sinful nation is called Egypt or Ethiopia (Isa. 11:11, 14:24–27) a specie ad genus”
In the context this is given as an example of rhetorical style, the rhetorical figure here being the reverse of the one that includes every theatrical spectacle in the expression “council of the wicked”—a genere ad speciem
. But the introduction of this example is not purely accidental. The typology of the fundamental fault turns up again in connection with the interpretation of a verse of Jeremiah (13:23): “If the Ethiopian can change his skin, or the leopard his spots . . .” Peter, bishop of Alexandria, who had reason to know what he was talking about,104 Peter of Alexandria, Epistola canonica 4 (PG 18.473).
teaches that Ethiopians are the men who have reached the limit of despair. The blackness caused by sin is identical with the black pigment of the skin, as indelible as the fig tree cursed by Christ is sterile. Naturally the leopards spots are cited not only as a physiological feature but as an image of the stains borne by the guilty soul. But here again the proliferation and contamination of the directive images make it impossible to extract a relatively simple syntax of the theme.
Theodoret starts from the note in the Song of Songs “I am black” but emphasizes the symbolic connotations. The Bride is black, like Moses’ Ethiopian wife: she herself is Ethiopian and is also the spouse of the great Lawgiver in the marriage of the Church and the New Law. Where does her color come from? From looking too fixedly at the things of earth, at the sun here below, neglecting the Sun of Justice.105 Theodoret, Quaestiones in Numeros 12.22 (PG 80.376); idem, In Canticum Canticorum 1 (PG 81.68).
Justus of Urgel echoes this, but with a nuance that deserves our attention as bearing on the sixth-century Spanish context. The Bride represents in particular the first Church, that of Jerusalem, made up of converted Jews, which was black by the confession of its sins, beautiful by the grace of the sacrament.106 Justus of Urgel, In Cantica Canticorum Salomonis explicatio mystical 1.8 (PL 67.965).
This interpretation runs counter to the tradition which sees in the wife of Moses the image of the Church of the Gentiles. This tradition was firmly established by Isidore of Seville in his Allegories of Holy Scripture
, a work that served for centuries as a compendium of exegesis.107 Isidore of Seville, Allegoriae quaidam Scripturae Sacrae 62 (PL 83.109).
Might we mention the romantic little story drawn from Josephus, about the military campaign conducted by Moses in Ethiopia? His troops were besieging the enemy city. A princess saw him from the towers of the beleaguered town and fell in love with him. Moses made her his wife in exchange for the surrender of the place. An embellishment of the tale added that he got out of this union by a stratagem as ambiguous as it is worthy of courtly literature: he fashioned two gems, identical in appearance, of which one caused forgetfulness and the other memory. He kept the second and left the first to the princess, and when she forgot all about him, he made his way back to Egypt.108 Leo Allatius, In Eustathii Antiocheni Hexameron notai (PG 18.1052).
The Cappadocian fathers left an immense store of writings, but the black is rarely mentioned in them. It is certainly possible to hold that this relative silence can be explained by the fact that despite the picturesque motley of their mixed populations, the great metropolises of the Eastern Roman Empire—Constantinople, Antioch, and the rest—“ignored” the Negro as such, just as the cities of the West did. John Chrysostom works him into vast historical intuitions. In a homily on St. John’s Gospel109 John Chrysostom, In loannem homiliae 2 (PG 59.32).
he says that Pythagoras and Plato had deceived mankind with a false philosophy that time had exposed for what it was. On the other hand, the apostle’s message (the exegetes of the New Testament generally considered John as the evangelist who flew high and far)110 That is why his symbol is the eagle.
went beyond the geographical boundaries of the Greek world and the temporal boundaries of human thought and taught the Ethiopians, among other exotic peoples, to philosophize in their own language. In short, this was a second Pentecost with long-lasting perspectives: it was foreshadowed in an inverted figure by the eunuch, a privileged personage among “those who came from East and West to be crowned with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”111 John Chrysostom, In Matthaeum homiliae 26 (PG 57.339ff.).
The narrative in the Acts of the Apostles is explained along the same lines.112 John Chrysostom, In act. Ap. hom. 19 (PG 60.149ff.).
did not stay with the eunuch in his chariot to give him a long and leisurely lesson as they rode through the desert, it was because he was not on an apostolic mission, but was there to do a one-time demonstration. The eunuch, for his part, neither asked for nor received such instruction as a catechumen would require. He only asks a negative question: “What doth hinder me from being baptized?” Once the ceremony is over, Philip is snatched away by the Spirit, who does not show himself to the new Christian. What had taken place, then, was a spiritual demonstration, which any supernatural occurrence would have made more disturbing than convincing to the eunuch, who, suddenly finding himself alone, went his way rejoicing.
Gregory of Nazianzus may have been thinking of the eunuch when he wrote, in a moral poem, that it is sweet to see a white form among the Ethiopians.113 Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmina moralia 10.824 (PG 37.739).
He certainly had him in mind when he exhorts the hesitant to ask for baptism: “I am Philip, be thou Candace”114 Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat. XL (PG 36.396–97).
—a hardy, inexact formula that probably evoked a familiar image implying no assimilation.
We Are All Ethiopians
In a treatise on Psalm 67 (68) intended for direct pastoral use—a fairly rare thing in his work—Jerome gives a kind of personalized aspect to the equation color = sin. His exegesis is an original one. “Ambassadors shall come out of Egypt: Egypt
is interpreted as meaning ‘darkness,’ so the ambassadors come out of the darkness of this world. Ethiopia shall take the lead, with her hands, before God:
since we were black because of our sins and passions, we have taken the lead over the people of Israel and we believe in the Savior, as the woman with the issue of blood came ahead of the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue and recovered her health (Matt. 9:20–22).”115 Jerome, Tractatus in Psalmos 67.32 (CCL 78.47).
In another treatise in the same series116 Jerome, Tract. in Psal. 86.4 (CCL 78.114).
Jerome goes still further: “People of the Ethiopians
means those who are black, being covered with the stain of sin. In the past we were Ethiopians, being made so by our sins and vices. How? Because sin had made us black. But then we heeded Isaiah (Isa. 1:16)—‘Wash yourselves, be clean’—and we said, ‘Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow’ (Ps. 50 :9). Thus we, Ethiopians that we were, transformed ourselves and became white.”
In contrast to these professions of optimistic humility, probably called for because the treatise was intended for a “popular” audience, Paulinus of Nola furnishes a remarkable restatement of the question. In one of his long, meditative poems, the soul, though enlightened by grace, is still conscious of spiritual danger and on guard against it: “The dragon devours the peoples of Ethiopia, who are not burnt by the sun
but are black with vice, sin giving them the color of night. These are the Ethiopians the serpent devours, being condemned to make them his food, for God used the single word earth
to designate both the sinner and the food of the serpent.”117 Paulinus of Nola, Carmina 28.249–54 (CSEL 30.302).
In the passages just referred to, we find two rather infrequent connotations of our theme, both with a feminine allusion—the woman suffering from hemorrhage, and the Marian image of the serpent crushed to the earth. Also worth noting is the departure from the traditional explanation of blackness. In the same spirit, Augustine declares that Moses’ Ethiopian wife was a Midianite, “a people almost no one now calls Ethiopians”; he regards this as a common enough example of onomastic development, which has no effect on the symbolic value of the names.118 Augustine, Quaest. in Hept. 4.20 (CCL 33.247).
A timid rehabilitation of blackness appears even in certain tropological contexts. Commenting on 1 Kings 5:8, Paulinus of Nola speaks of “good, black, fir trees” needed for the building of the Temple, and refers to the Bride of the Song of Songs, black and beautiful, as well as to palm trees and cedars, which are just as dark and yet can have a place in the hull of the ship of the Church. “Even now souls instructed in the faith of the apostles are fir trees black and good: no longer, in my opinion, black because of sin, but by reason of their bodily dwelling-place, or else blackened by the dust of battle and the sweat mixed with sand of spiritual discipline.”119 Paulinus of Nola, Epistulai 23.29–30 (CSEL 29.185–86). Here he gives some notes on the tropological ambiguity of the crow and its black color.
About six centuries later, Simeon the New Theologian, in a very beautiful hymn, went so far as to allow that blackness could persist after the Resurrection: “The bodies of sinners will rise . . . as black as they can be, for having done the works of darkness . . . They too, however, will arise immortal and spiritual, but like to darkness; and the unhappy souls united to them, dark and impure also, will become like to the devil because they imitated his works.”120 Simeon the New Theologian, Hymnes 50.315ff. (ed. and trans. J. Koder, J. Paramelle, and L. Neyrand, S.C., no. 196 [Paris, 1973]), vol. III, pp. 180–81.
This is not much of a rehabilitation, but it makes room for a distinctive character which most of the testimonies refer to only to abolish it. May we see here a hesitant advance toward a human type hitherto rejected?
Darkness and Grace
The theme of obscuratio
, the darkening of the heart by sin (cf. Rom. 1:21), bears a close relationship to the allegorical interpretations of blackness, especially in the Pelagian controversy. According to Pelagius’s optimistic view, it simply would not do to admit that such a
punishment could be meted out by God as would inevitably beget other sins and thus close off any possibility of salvation. Are the contenebrati
inexorably doomed to opera tenebrarum
? The strictly orthodox answer121 Cf. Augustine, De natura et gratia 22.24–25, referring to Paul in Rom. 1:21: “obscuratum est insipiens cor eorum.”
was that sin is a deliberate choice of that will which Pelagius was so anxious to exalt, and not something imposed by God. Prosper of Aquitaine, in his Carmen de ingratis
, put this thesis very well: “Thus, the soul which possessed light of the greatest brilliance enveloped the will in darkness, and, when the light had been abandoned, the will chose to be darkened by the counsel of the foul night.”122 Prosper of Aquitaine, Carmen de ingratis vv. 856ff. (ed. and trans. C. T. Huegelmeyer, Catholic University of America, Patristic Studies, vol. XCV [Washington, D.C., 1962]). For the error still abroad in part of the world, note the formulas: “Consilio legit tetrae nigrescere noctis” (v. 858) and “et dira innumeri demersi nocte peribant” (v. 285).
It is no longer a matter of the hard night preceding the preaching of the Gospel, which the dawn of truth could brighten, but of a process (nigrescere
) and of envelopment in a dark mantle (caligine tetra induitur
). This picturesque connotation may imply a reference to circus games and their exotic personnel; the pitiable darkness of the soul appears in the paradox of the man able to tame lions but unable to govern his own conduct.123 Augustine, De nat. et grat. 40.46.
A later illustration of similar ideas is found in Cassiodorus’s explication of Psalm 73 (74): 14: “Thou hast given him [the dragon] to be meat for the people of the Ethiopians.” Satan (i.e., the dragon) darkened himself by a perverse act of the will. That God gives him as food to repentant sinners (i.e., the Ethiopians, now enlightened and converted) shows that the Devils machinations contribute, in fact, to the progress of the saints.124 Cassiodorus, Expositio Psalmorum 73.14. On the theology of grace underlying this text, cf. R. Schlieben, Christliche Theologie und Philologie in der Spätantike: Die schulwissenschaftlichen Methoden der Psalmenexegese Cassiodors, Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte, no. 46 (Berlin, 1974), pp. 73–74.
We cannot resist quoting a lovely text (little known, probably because written in Syriac), Ephraem Syruss The Pearl, or Seven Rhythms on the Faith:
Very glistening are the pearls of Ethiopia, as it is written, Who gave thee to Ethiopia [the land] of black men. He that gave light to the Gentiles, both to the Ethiopians and unto the Indians did His bright beams reach. The eunuch of Ethiopia upon his chariot saw Philip: the Lamb of Light met the dark man from out of the bath. While he was reading, the Ethiopian was baptized and glistened with joy, and journeyed on! He made disciples and taught, and out of black men he made men white [as snow]. And the dark Ethiopic women became pearls for the Son; He offered them up to the Father, as a glistening crown from the Ethiopians.
The Queen of Sheba was a sheep that had come into the place of wolves; the lamp of truth did Solomon give her, who also married her when he fell away. She was enlightened and went away, but they were dark as their manner was. The bright spark which went down home with that blessed [Queen], held on its shining amid the darkness, till the new Day-spring came. The bright spark met with this shining, and illumined the place.125 Ephraem Syrus, The Pearl, or Seven Rhythms on the Faith 3.2–3 (ed. and trans. J. B. Morris, Library of the Fathers, no. 41 [Oxford, 1847]), pp. 92–93.
The virtuosity of the changes rung on the theme of light savors of a preciosity attributable, no doubt, to the poetic style of Eastern hymnody. But the Occident did not lag behind, even if it preferred the nacreous iridescence of words and formulas. Thus Peter Chrysologus: “Nec minus animat me illius spadonis exemplum quem fides ante rapuit ad gratiam quam currus ad Indiam domumque revocaret” (Nor am I less heartened by the example of that eunuch, whom faith snatched up unto grace before his chariot bore him away to India and home)126 Peter Chrysologus, Sermones 61 (PL 52.369).
—an image of sovereign speed, or even of a spiritual leap and return, as in this from the same author: “Aethiops spado arcanum vitalis lavacari praeteriens invenit in via, rapuit in transitu” (As he passed by on the road, the Ethiopian eunuch found the secret of the life-giving bath, and snatched it up on the run).127 Peter Chrysologus, Sermones 60 (PL 52.365).
Riddles vs. Clear Speech
Origen gives the Ethiopian marriage of Moses a double prophetic dimension: it is prophetic both in the general economy of redemption, which it prefigures, and by the definition of a new mode of transmission of the Word, which it inaugurates. Moses is the Law of the Lord. He allies himself by marriage to Ethiopia, the “assemblage drawn from the Nations.” The marriage is confirmed by God, who generously allows his peoples guide to live in peace with the foreign woman, in order to leave time for the Synagogue, personified by Miriam the leper, to purify itself and join the one flock of reconciled mankind.128 Origen, In Numeros homiliae 6.4 (GCS 30.35–36).
This interpretation not only means that the historic condemnation of the Gentiles is lifted by their receiving the Gospel; it also is based on a subtle analysis of the text of Numbers, in which Origen notes that it is only after Moses had taken the black woman to wife that God declared: “For I speak to him mouth to mouth: and plainly, and not by riddles” (Num. 12:8). It is, therefore, “when Moses came to us, was united with our Ethiopian, that the Law of God is henceforth made manifest no longer in figures and images but in its true and open form.”129 Origen, In Num. hom. 7.2 (GCS 30.39–40).
Thus the baptism of regeneration “in water and the Holy Spirit” replaces the ambiguities of the cloud and the passage through the Red Sea, as the
Eucharist replaces the manna, and the clear language of the New Testament the riddles of the Old. The reconciliation resolves what was only an apparent historical conflict, an interval of adaptation to an immediate understanding that frightened and scandalized Israel, temporarily unable to accept the simplicity of the offer proposed through the Ethiopian woman.
This definitely does not mean that the spiritual Ethiopia received special treatment. On the contrary, Ethiopia’s character as exceptionally “Other” is precisely what reveals God’s infinite solicitude for mankind. For instance, when Ezekiel foretells the devastation of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar, he makes it clear that the terror over the event will spread to Ethiopia, and Origen explains130 In Jeromes Latin translation of the In Hiezechielem 9.29, 30 (CCL 75.412, 424–25).
what this means to those beyond Egypt who live in the night of error and in the dark, and whose blackness does not become white, or does so only with difficulty. The prophet even adds that the Ethiopians living in Egypt will also be struck down, but the invader will halt at Syene (Aswan), at the utmost limits of Egypt. He will not go to the land of the black men, the Blemmyes, where the Nile is no longer navigable and the roar of the cataracts resounds, where no road is carved out and snakes and poisonous beasts are everywhere. In this hostile world, beneath the overpowering sun that blackens the laborers who work all day long and at day’s end receive no more than the promised wage,131 Jerome, In Hiezech. 8.27 (CCL 75.379).
it is the stricken conscience of the sinner that makes him fear God’s punishment.
Here the hermeneutical bond is ensured by Augustine in a sermon on Psalm 67 (68), in which he marshals Ethiopia to the defense of his thesis on the necessity of faith for salvation. The problem is to explain the difficult expression in verse 32, which, depending on the Latin translation, can mean either “Ethiopia will forestall the vengeance of God” or “Ethiopia will precede her own works before God.” The two interpretations, needless to say, complete without excluding each other, even if it takes some philological sleight of hand to make them do it.132 Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 67.40–41 (CCL 39.897–99).
For Augustine the question raised by the verse concerns justification by faith, and the text, in its ambivalent obscurity, answers the question: “Behold Ethiopia, which appears to be the farthest of the nations, justified by faith without the works of the law . . . She does not put her merits before her faith, but by faith precedes her own works.” The bishop-theologian may get a little ahead of the exegete here, but in his view the doctrina Christiana
needed every possible support. Augustine’s rival Jerome, faced with a similar obscure passage in Isaiah,133 Jerome, Commentariorum in Esaiam 7.18.1–3 (CCL 73.274–75).
also gives two versions of his text. One of them throws the Marcionites back “beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.” The heretics, he says, are busy launching fragile papyrus boats, bearing their erroneous doctrine, upon the sea of this world, but they are doomed to founder.
If we try to grasp the general idea behind these contrived and unavoidably heterogeneous elaborations, a strong bond can be seen between the explication of the faith and the Ethiopian theme, the equivocal nature of which lends itself to paradoxical word games; but these are intended to extend the promise and possibility of salvation to all mankind.
Here and there we find insistence on the scandal provoked by some Old Testament figures. Moses’ Ethiopian is the paradoxical vehicle of salvation, and she arouses the hostility of Miriam, in whom we must see prophecy enslaved to the letter. Here again the fundamental question of understanding arises. The scandalous wife is black and beautiful; her opponent turns white with leprosy and then is restored to her original color; but when the black woman is baptized, she changes color and goes from black to white. Her blackness, therefore, is strictly paradigmatic and vanishes in the flood of light imparted by the truth.134 Jerome, In Osee prologus (CCL 76.3).
More bluntly, Gregory of Elvira declares: “I admit to being confused. How can the Church say she is black and beautiful, whereas she who is black cannot be beautiful? How can she be black if she is beautiful, or beautiful if she is black? But ponder the mystery of the word, and see with what depth of meaning the Holy Spirit speaks.”135 Gregory of Elvira, In Canticum Canticorum 1.23–30 (CCL 69.176–79).
Not until the acceptance of the faith is imminent is the trait of blackness brought in, like a shadow to throw the event into high relief. Moreover, blackness undergoes some strange metaphorical transformations. It can result from the smoke of idolatry and the fires of sacrifices; the sun, contrary to the traditional cliché, can make it disappear, either by illuminating what is only a lack of light or by taking away the color altogether. In these circumstances the process is reversible. Israel, having escaped from Egypt, risks being brought back there by its love of pleasure and can find itself in Ethiopia, beyond the land of captivity, the captive of a color of skin that cannot again be changed until Christ grants the change. To state the case more generally, the Ethiopians put on the raiment of the children of God if they have done penance, and the children of God become Ethiopians if they plunge into the abyss of sin.136 Jerome, In Amos 3.9.7–8 (CCL 76.343). The blackening of the body is also the result of the sin of Adam and Eve; the flesh recovers its beauty in the Incarnation. Cf. the texts cited in the preceding notes.
Throughout the entire history of the City of God, morality and sin re-create the alternation of white and black, a fitting metaphor for the vicissitudes of the faith.
Ethiopia and God’s Promises
The Book of God's Promises and Predictions
, written by the African bishop Quodvultdeus in the middle of the fifth century brings together the historical facts that demonstrate the truth of the prophecies and prophetic events of the Old Testament. Moses’ marriage and the harsh criticisms it drew find their counterpart in the reproaches aimed at Jesus for consorting with publicans and sinners.137 Quodvultdeus, Livre des promesses et des prédictions de Dieu 2.9.15 (ed. and trans. R. Braun, S.C., no. 101 [Paris, 1964]), vol. I, pp. 328–29.
Christ “took as his bride an Ethiopian, the Church of the Nations, which exclaims: ‘I am black but beautiful, daughters of Jerusalem.’” Another promise “believed and seen” was contained in the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon. The queen of the south is the antitype of the Jews who scorned wisdom when it came to them and the type of the Church, which from the East to the West runs to listen to the Lord, as she will do at the Last Judgment.138 Quodvultdeus, Livre des promesses 3.36.38 (S.C., no. 102), vol. II, pp. 562–63.
The type, however, is only partially representative, since not just one queen but the whole company of kings of the earth will crowd around the One who is greater than Solomon.139 Quodvultdeus, Livre des promesses 3.6.7, vol. II, pp. 510–11.
The Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Sibylline Oracles foretell the progress of the spread of the Gospel, an observable fact when Quodvultdeus wrote.140 On the historical value of the work, cf. R. Braun’s introduction in Quodvultdeus, Livre des promesses, vol. I, pp. 65–74.
On the other hand, an event foretold and believed in, but awaiting its accomplishment in the future, is the final defeat of the dragon—the Devil or the pharaoh—which is given as fodder to the Ethiopians (Ps. 73 : 13–14).141 Quodvultdeus, Livre des promesses 4.5, vol. II, pp. 596–97.
The diversity of the sources labeled “patristic” dictates a large measure of caution when we come to draw conclusions, partial though these may be. Different milieus, literary genres, and doctrinal currents are less clearly distinguishable in secondary or exotic themes—a common phenomenon closely connected with the methods of ancient scholarship. From the point of view of Christian literature, as from that of profane science, the black was essentially “other”—the borderline case, situated in every sense at the outside limit of humanity. It must be said that there is no question here of a hierarchical classification of the races, nor of the superiority of one to the other, but we should also note that their equality was only theoretical, metaphysical, notional. The tenet that all peoples are equally called to eternal salvation led to no corollary such as the equality or inequality of their earthly cultures.
That may well be due to the fact that there was so little contact between the white world and black Africa, but the further and perhaps more important fact is that to the white world “black” stood for “Ethiopian,” meaning “inhabitant of Ethiopia,” not simply “burnt face.”142 A bibliography on the subject can be found in the large documentation brought together by A. Hermann for the article “Farbe,” in T. Klauser, ed., Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, vol. VII (Stuttgart, 1969), cols. 358–447. See also G. Lanczkowski, “Aethiopia,” Nachträge zum Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum published in Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 1 (1958): 134–53.
Now Ethiopia, as we have stated before in these pages, is a land bathed by a river (the Nile), the source of which is unknown and, like the land itself, cannot be reached or investigated.143 E.g., Augustine, refuting the Donatisti claim to privileged treatment by God for North Africa, reminds them that the south, place of mystical repose (Song of Songs 1:7), should be understood as “the land south of scorched Egypt” (Sermones 46.15). For Anastasius, In Hexane. 8 (PG 89.977ff.), the Gihon, a river whose source is unknown, is a figure of Christ.
Is this to be taken as a convenient cloak for ignorance or lack of interest, or was it simply the usual substitution of fable for knowledge about the frontiers of the known world?
To that question we have no final answer, but one thing is certain: when the Church fathers came across the few scriptural allusions that forced them to recognize the existence of their colored fellow men, they read the texts as white men. The symbolism of the color black, of light and darkness, was so strong an influence that the theology of the divine image and likeness in man could do no better, all things considered, than to try to play down negritude—to pretend it did not exist. The opening of the Gospel of salvation to the world, illustrated by Moses’ Ethiopian wife, by the flight into Egypt, or by the conversion of the eunuch, was primarily an argument against the closed Jewish mentality, limited as this was by inbreeding and spiritual exclusivism.144 Cf. Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyrorum in Numeros liber 2 (PG 69.593).
The Gospel, therefore, was to reach the most unusual kinds of people, and this signifies the unity of mankind in the new Adam and in the totality of the Church.
Once given that principle, which restores all races to their original status as sons of Light made in the likeness of a Creator who has no color of his own, but also in the likeness of Christ, who took a white body, the triumphant post-Constantinian Church and her historians showed no interest in the progress of the faith trans flumina Aethiopiae
, and still less in its advance among other black peoples.145 Cf. Rufinus, Historia ecclesiastica 1.9; Socrates, Bistorta ecclesiastica 1.15; Theodoret, Historia ecclesiastica 1.22; Sozomen, Historia ecclesiastica 2.23.
We shall not propose the unkind surmise that behind this lack of interest was the thought of delaying the end of the world, which, as Jesus had foretold, would come when all men had been evangelized. Yet it does seem clear that the establishment mentality and the pomp and circumstance of the Christian empire shrouded the final catastrophe in the vagueness of signs and figures, and that this vagueness affected realities which also served as symbols, among them Ethiopia and its dark inhabitants.