Gnostic Christian Thylacine Veneration

Given all of the hullaballoo in the press lately about the fragment of parchment in which Jesus has a wife, I thought it might be a good time to dust off this old paper of mine on an equally plausible– and equally mysterious– early Christian mystery.

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In the field of cryptozoology, there is ever increasing speculation on the possible survival of the thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, currently considered “extinct.” Although the last known living specimen of this creature died in 1933 in the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania, many new sightings have come to light recently in both Australia and Tasmania. Although the Australian and Tasmanian scientific communities will no doubt continue to deny the existence of this elusive creature until a live specimen leaps onto their desks and licks their faces, we are more concerned with recent sightings not in the South Pacific, but in the catacombs of ancient Egypt.

A description of this animal may be in order before proceeding, so that the reader will be able to formulate a picture of the animal in question. Thylacinus cynocephalus (Latin, “pouched dog with a wolf’s head”), a distant relative of the opossum, was a wolf-sized creature resembling a mixture of a wolf, a dog, and a hyena. Especially notable for its dispropotionately large powerful jaws, this shy but ferocious carnivore has a series of stripes running along the back part of its body and a pouch which opens backwards. It was thought to have resided in Australia until around 10,000 years ago, at which point it migrated to Tasmania. Whereas no one has ever come across a thylacine outside of these regions, it is quite possible that the creature played a small symbolic part in the lives of Christian Gnostic sects in First Century Alexandria.

Many original Gnostic Alexandrian Christian texts mention a strange creature known only by its Greek name, the Λυκοσπιρα, or lykospira, a loose translation of which is “pouched wolf.” Mentioned predominantly in the Ophitic text, “The Secret Book of Judas [1],”  the lykospira is used to symbolize a saviour figure, typically Jesus, and is commonly employed as such a symbol in a number of other texts, including “The Passerby,” a second century Valentinian Text located in the Papyrus Berolinensis 8514 (Akhmim Codex),  and one can even find a correlative mention in one of the Pnakotic Fragments currently in the archives of the Coptic Museum in Cairo [2].

The “Secret Book of Judas,” written most likely by members of an Ophitic sect, who saw in Judas Iscariot the redeemer who betrayed Jesus in order to facilitate mankind’s salvation, mentions the lykospira a total of three times.  “And as the lykospira generates its young in its stomach and fills them until they can emerge into the daylight,” reads one passage, “so does the Lord keep us and release us into the Immeasurable Light when we are healthy enough to leave his refuge” [3].

“The Passerby” contains a similar reference; the tale is similar to the “penny dreadful” novel popular in the Roman Empire at the time and best displayed in works such as “The Golden Ass” of Lucius Apuleius and “The Book of Acts.” In the text, “the passerby” himself, never mentioned by name but representative of the human soul, travels along the road of the righteous and encounters a veritable menagerie of animals, each symbolic of one of the “Secret Virtues” and holy names that the gnostic would need to rise past the Rulers of This World and into Heaven. In “The Passerby,” the main character speaks: “At that point, I came upon a pocketed wolf with the stripes of a tiger, from whose abdomen were springing forth babes of its own kind” [4]. This text is thought to be the forerunner of similar Alchemical Texts from the Middle Ages, which also employ animals as symbols for spiritual virtues [5].

Although the primary sources give a good indication of just how important this symbol was to the Gnostic sects that utilized it, perhaps the most vivid description of the veneration of this creature comes from the Fifth Century theologian, John of Pannonia, in his Against Heresies (ironically, John himself was burned as a heretic eight years after the following excerpt was written):

And there are those in Alexandria who worship a certain wolf, which they claim keeps its young in its stomach, regurgitating them again after they are fully grown. They claim that this wolf symbolizes Our Saviour, and we are its children, kept in Darkness within the Body of Our Lord until we are mature enough to emerge into the light of the world, at which point we must take others into our own pouches, and that this wolf, just as Christ did, dies and is reborn. Surely this abominable practice reeks of the work of the Pagan Egyptians, who also venerated a god with the head of a wolf. . . . [6]

It is not difficult for the student of Gnosticism to see how well this creature, strange as though it may seem, could fit into the mythosymbolic epistemology of the Gnostic cults of the First and Second Centuries, which often feature bizarre and animalistic iconography [7]. The lykospira can be seen as an especially good illustration of Christ as the Father/Mother — aggressive, yet protective. The pouch or pocket in which the creature keeps its young could represent the darkness of the physical world, and we the babes kept warm by the Saviour until we are ready to emerge out of the Realms of Darkness and into the Light, as it were.

Although for years scholars have considered the lykospira a purely imaginary and symbolic creature, similar to the “Seth-beast” of Egyptian Mythology [8], recent evidence now points to the fact that this creature may indeed be a Thylacine, somehow known to Gnostics in the Roman Empire despite the fact that it was thought to have exclusively inhabited Australia and Tasmania.

While excavating a Roman-era private residence in 1996, Eric Salingk, a graduate student at Columbia University, uncovered the remains of a textless First Century C.E. potsherd with a picture of what he at first thought to be a wolf. Upon showing the potsherd to renowned archaeologist Jean Yves Empereur, uncoverer of the great– and once lost– Pharos of Alexandria, Salingk noticed that the creature was vaguely wolf-ish, but was not, after all, a wolf. As mentioned in his “Decorative Symbolism in the Harbor District of Roman Era Alexandria,” “It had a larger jaw, and its back was striped in an odd fashion, as if someone had decided that only the rear half of the animal had been painted. The tail was long and pointed. This was an animal unlike any of the other wolf-like creatures I had come across in Alexandrian and Egyptian decorative or religious art” [9].

The Egyptians and the Romans indeed both had a veritible menagerie of wolf-like animals in their aesthetic ouvres. Many Egyptian deities, such as Anubis and Apuat, were illustrated as having the heads of jackals or dogs, and the Romans were so enamoured of the wolf that their mythical founders, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf as children. The idea that this creature could be a thylacine had not crossed anyone’s mind, including Salingk, who claims that the creature is purely a work of imagination. In fact, Salingk did not identify the creature from the potsherd as a thylacine or as the lykospira, but as an imaginative work of decoration in the submerged house of an Alexandrian Gnostic.

Salingk and others found more examples of this creature at the site, which are not currently on display as artifacts from these excavations are being held by the Egyptian Government before being released to American and French researchers late next year [10]. However, pictures of these artifacts are available in Salingk’s work and the library at Bogota College, Bogota, Alabama, which had sponsored some of the archaeological work [11].

The author happened to be reading Salingk’s paper one afternoon when joined by a colleague who specializes in marsupial biology at the University of Washington. This colleague, who wishes to remain nameless as he is in somewhat of a public position, upon seeing the illustration of the original potsherd, exclaimed “why, that’s a thylacine!” The author asked what he meant, and we visited the University, where we perused photographs and drawings of this creature, and they were all almost identical to the creature from the First Century fragment. Locating the other evidence of this creature collected at the site, we came to the conclusion that somehow, the mysterious lykospira was indeed the Tasmanian Tiger. We scanned both a photo of a thylacine and an image of the lykospira for computer analysis, and found an amazing 86% anatomical match between the two. Although certainly not conclusive, we feel that the results point to a strong possibility that the thylacine was known in Alexandria in the First Century, and may have ended up in a select few Gnostic texts.

How did this creature, this marsupial from the southern hemisphere, end up in Alexandria during the First Century? We pondered this question for quite some time, and have still not been able to come up with a reasonable explaination. We have arrived at the following possibilites:

A) At one time, the thylacine or a close relative lived in Africa. Tales and pictures made their way to Alexandria, where they were incorporated into Gnostic Mythology.

B) Well known for its Asiatic trade routes, perhaps the Roman Empire stretched farther than we realize. A Roman ship sailed into the Indian Ocean and returned with a thylacine or tales thereof.

C) Descriptions of the creature were brought from Australia to Asia by natives of the Pacific and Indian Ocean; these tales found their way to Egypt by way of land routes.

It is important to remember that Alexandria had been trading with western Asia as early as the time of Alexander the Great. During that time, is it not conceivable that some South Seas Islanders, notorious for their seamanship, brought tales of this creature to Asia, and by the time of the Roman Empire they were known in Europe? If so, why are the descriptions of the thylacine so vivid in the gnostic texts? Why haven’t they been eroded by time?

Although these are questions for a future essay, perhaps they are not meant to be answered. The Universe is imperfect, according to the Gnostics, and perhaps this is simply another of those imperfections. One thing is certain, however. The thylacine, seen more and more frequently despite its supposed extinction, may be, as did Jesus himself, returning from death and coming into life.

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NOTES:

[1] This is different from the Gospel of Judas found in the Tchacos Codex, published in various editions in 2007.

[2] Unfortunately, since the time this paper was composed, the Coptic Museum was looted during the “Arab Spring,” and the location of the Pnakotic Fragments is currently unknown.

[3] Hurtfeld, Gertrude. The Secret Book of Judas: a Fourth Century Ophitic Initiation (LT 456:2). Journal of Near Eastern Religion Vol 5, pp 65-84. Banagher 2004.

[4] Mead, G.R.S. Light of the East. Suffolk 1934.

[5] See, for instance, Dr. R. B. Baker’s introduction to The Chemickal Cryptogram of Johann of Hasselt.

[6] John of Pannonia, Adversus haereses. Jerster, G. trans.  Grains of Wheat, Grains of Sand: Lesser Known Church Fathers of Roman Egypt. Princeton 1968.

[7] Vide the descriptions of the Archons in the “Secret Book of John.”

[8] Hurtfeld, G. Op cit. p 72.

[9] Salingk, E. “Decorative Symbolism in the Harbor District of Roman Era Alexandria.” Journal of Architecture in Antiquity Vol 8.6 55-59. June 1998.

[10] Recent events in Egypt and the Middle East have postponed the release of these artifacts indefinitely.

[11]  Reprint rights for the pictures were granted, but depend upon publication of this article in a peer-reviewed journal.

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