Dead Varmint Vision at Its Funniest

Philip J. Senter

According to the young-Earth creationist (YEC) worldview, God created the Earth, humans, and all other kinds of organisms independently during the same week about 6,000 years ago, as described in the book of Genesis. This worldview rejects the overwhelming physical evidence that the Earth is over 4.5 billion years old (Gradstein et al. 2004), that all organisms on it evolved from a common ancestor (Prothero 2007), that non-avian dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago (Wicander and Monroe 2016), and that humans (Homo sapiens) did not arise until about 0.3 million years ago (Hublin et al. 2017) and therefore are separated from non-avian dinosaurs by millions of years. To support the YEC view that humans and non-avian dinosaurs were contemporaries, YEC authors frequently claim that ancient or medieval artwork depicts dinosaurs. Investigation of such claims shows that they are usually based on ludicrous misinterpretations of the artifacts in question (Senter 2012a; 2013; Senter et al. 2013; Senter and Klein 2014).

Previously I introduced the terms dead varmint vision and apnotheriopia (literally, “dead-beast vision”) to denote the tendency of YEC authors to erroneously see dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals (dead varmints) in ancient art (Senter 2013). Here, I report a case in which dead varmint vision has presented itself with a particularly entertaining twist: a claim that a medieval carving depicts a dinosaur with breasts and that breastfeeding dinosaurs are mentioned in the Bible. From melon-eating tyrannosaurs (Senter 2012b) to fire-breathing duckbills (Senter 2017), the absurd dinosaur-related claims that the YEC movement regularly spawns often have particularly high entertainment value, but the notion that dinosaurs had breasts surely takes the cake. It could aptly be dubbed the voluptuous varmint myth.

To fully appreciate the voluptuous varmint myth, it is necessary to first grasp the elements of its backstory. These include the Beowulf epic and a biblical passage that mentions an animal that the ancient Hebrews called a tannîn. Beowulf, a medieval English narrative, includes a scene in which the hero, Beowulf, kills a monster named Grendel and another scene in which Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother. Grendel and his mother are described in the epic as humanoid creatures (lines 1350–1355). Grendel has head hair (line 1647) and carries a patchwork pouch (lines 2085–2092). Grendel’s mother wields a knife (line 1545), keeps a fire burning in her home (line 15516–1517), and is a descendant of Cain (line 1258–1268) (Alexander 1973; Swanton 1997). These are all traits that are consistent with the human body form and human behavior, and they are inconsistent with dinosaurs. Even so, some YEC authors absurdly contend that Grendel and his mother were dinosaurs (see Siebert 2013), and that contention is an important part of the voluptuous varmint myth.

Another part of the backstory of the voluptuous varmint myth is Lamentations 4:1–8. That biblical passage poetically describes the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians as a topsy-turvy time when things have characteristics that are the opposites of their normal ones. Gold is no longer shiny, gemstones that had been collected are now strewn, the once-precious “sons of Zion” are now as worthless as clay, serpents are suckling their young, human mothers aren’t suckling theirs, the rich are now poor, and the pure Nazirites are now impure. In short, nothing is as it normally is.

The Hebrew word for “serpent” in verse 4:3 is tannîn. Although some researchers mistakenly interpret the word tannîn as a term for a kind of mythical sea monster (Kiessling 1970; Wakeman 1973; Day 1985; Heider 1995), it is easy to demonstrate that it means “serpent.” In Exodus 7:8–12, Aaron’s staff becomes a tannîn, and in verses 15–21, God calls Aaron’s staff the staff that had become a nāhāsh (the generic Hebrew term for “snake”). In Isaiah 27:1, the monster Leviathan is called a nāhāsh and a tannîn. These two passages demonstrate that the terms nāhāsh and tannîn are equivalent. Furthermore, couplets in Deuteronomy 32:33 and Psalm 91:13 equate tannîn with pethen (a venomous snake). Couplets in which the author says the same thing twice with different words are frequent devices in ancient Hebrew literature, and in these cases, they indicate the equivalence of tannîn with “snake.” The tannîn is scaly (Ezekiel 29:3–4), venomous (Deuteronomy 32:33), and terrestrial (Isaiah 13:22, 34:13, 43:20; Jeremiah 9:11, 10:22, 49:33, 51:37)—all traits consistent with snakes. The mistaken interpretation of tannîn as “sea monster” is due to researchers having misunderstood ancient texts on Leviathan, a demonic entity that is described figuratively as a tannîn that is imprisoned beneath the sea (Job 41:1:43; Psalm 74:13–14; Psalm 104:26; Isaiah 27:1; Enoch 60:7–8; 2 Baruch 29:4; 4 Esdras 6:49–52). Leviathan is a serpent imprisoned in the abyss of the sea in the same way that Satan is (Revelation 20:1–3): metaphorically, not literally.

The word tannîn appears numerous times in the Old Testament, and the Septuagint usually translates tannîn as drakōn. Drakōn is ancient Greek for “serpent,” as is amply demonstrated by the numerous ancient Greek artistic depictions of the drakōn in myths as a snake and by several ancient Greek texts in which a creature is called a drakōn on one line and an ophis (snake) on the next (Ogden 2013; Senter 2013; Senter et al. 2016). Eventually, the word drakōn gave rise to the word dragon, which is the typical English translation of tannîn in the King James Version of the Bible, including Lamentations 4:3. Early medieval artists depicted the dragon simply as a snake, but in the late Middle Ages they began to add feathered wings and a pair of limbs (Temple 1976; Mittman 2006). By the end of the Renaissance, the dragon had become a bat-winged quadruped in European art and bore a passing resemblance to Mesozoic reptiles such as dinosaurs and pterosaurs (Allen and Griffiths 1979; Benton 1992; Absalon and Canard 2006; Morrison 2007).

Figure 1. Sketch of the four lions in the stone panel at Breedon-on-the-Hill, after plate LIc of Jewell 1986, with the manes shaded.

That passing resemblance prompted the advent of apnotheriopia, which brings us to the case in question: a carved stone panel from the Church of St. Mary and St. Hardulph at Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire, England (Jewell 1986). On that panel are two pairs of lions, with one lion attacking the other in each pair (Figure 1). Each attacker supports itself upon its hindlimbs while leaning on its victim with its forelimbs, in the manner of a real lion upon its prey. The four lions are highly stylized, as one might expect from an artist in a country where lions are not part of the native fauna. Nonetheless, the leonine nature of the four animals is made evident by the shaggy mane of each, which extends down the dorsal edge of the torso and is multi-lobed, a feature that appears in other lions in English art of the same period (Figure 2). Each also has a short snout that suggests a cat, small ears like a lion’s, and a narrow tail that is inconsistent with any animal but a mammal. The panel was carved in the early ninth century (Jewell 1986). Eleven centuries later, thanks to dead varmint vision, the four lions would be misidentified as dinosaurs: three herbivores and a tyrannosaur in need of a brassiere.

In 1992, the YEC periodical Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal published an article by Bill Cooper titled “The Early History of Man—Part 4. Living Dinosaurs from Anglo-Saxon and Other Early Records” (Cooper 1992). In that article, Cooper cited numerous medieval British myths and legends as “records” of human encounters with dinosaurs and other reptiles presently known only from Mesozoic fossils. He also identified various creatures in medieval British artwork as evidence that humans had encountered dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles. Among those works of art was the Breedon-on-the-Hill panel. Cooper interpreted the attacking lion on the left as a “bipedal predator” and the other three lions as “a herd of grazing Brontosaurus-type dinosaurs.” Although one of the lions on the right is biting the other, Cooper suggested that the two are “necking,” as in the neck-to-neck combat of giraffes, with the unstated implication that the behavior of long-necked (“Brontosaurus-type”) dinosaurs might have been similar to that of today’s long-necked animals. Cooper identified the stylized mane of the “bipedal predator” in the carving as a depiction of dinosaurian armor plating. He posited that the “bipedal predator” was of the same kind as the monster Grendel of the Beowulf epic and that Grendel was a “predatory dinosaur.” Noting that Grendel had puny arms (in Cooper’s imagination, not in the Beowulf epic), he implied that Grendel was a tyrannosaur without stating it outright: “I doubt that the reader needs to be guided by me as to which particular species of predatory dinosaur the details of his physical description fit best.”

In the caption to Figure 2 of his article, which illustrates the carved panel, Cooper connected Grendel’s mother to the “bipedal predator” in the carving: “Could the sagging skin on the underbelly of this apparently adult creature have fooled the Danes into thinking that most of the adult members of the species were female, mistaking its appearance for mammalian-type breasts, and thus the older creature seen with the young Grendel for Grendel’s mother?” In other words, the larger monster in the Beowulf epic was portrayed as a female because adult tyrannosaurs had belly folds that medieval Englishmen mistook for breasts.

In a subsequent letter to the editor (Goertzen 1993), YEC author John Goertzen took things a step further, positing that the apparent breasts on the “bipedal predator” of Breedon-on-the-Hill were truly breasts: “the mammary glands on this carnivorous dinosaur were probably real.” He then drew a connection with the suckling tannîn of Lamentations 4:3: “Figure 2(b) [of Cooper 1992] would tend to support this verse and the interpretation of dinosaur for ‘tannim’ [sic]. This dinosaur was apparently a mosaic animal, part mammalian and mostly reptilian … .” In other words, the “dragons” of the Bible were breasted dinosaurs.

Figure 2. English stone carvings of the eighth century with three lions in one case (left: after Figure 3.29 of Hicks 1993) and a pair of lions in the other (right: after Figure 3.31 of Hicks 1993). Note the multi-lobed manes (shaded) and the narrow limbs and tails, as in the Breedon-on-the-Hill lions.

One could not ask for a more variegated collection of misinterpretations nor a more thoroughly comical exemplar of dead varmint vision. As we have seen, the biblical word tannîn means “serpent,” and the inclusion of the suckling tannîn in the Opposite-Day passage of Lamentations 4 indicates that a tannîn does not ordinarily suckle its young. Grendel and his mother were humanoid (not to mention imaginary) monsters, not reptilian beasts. No known carnivorous dinosaur was armor-plated. Finally, the lions on the Breedon-on-the-Hill panel are in fact lions, not a herd of Brontosaurus-type dinosaurs being attacked by a predatory dinosaur, nor are their manes armor plating.

As I have previously pointed out (Senter 2013), the mistakes of dead varmint vision are avoidable. Cooper and Goertzen could have avoided their particular mistakes by paying more attention to the biblical context of Lamentations 4:3 and other passages on the tannîn, by paying more attention to the wording of the Beowulf epic, and by studying stylization of animal depictions in early medieval English art. They could also have avoided the massive error that is the YEC worldview by noting the plethora of biblical passages that preach against taking the Pentateuch (which includes Genesis) literally (Senter 2016).

The dinosaurs of the carved panel at Breedon-on-the-Hill exist only in the imaginations of YEC authors with apnotheriopia. The voluptuous varmint myth therefore now joins the long and ever-lengthening list of discredited dinosaur-related claims that YEC authors have put into print, with the merry distinction of winning the laughter prize.

 


 

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Philip J. Senter

Philip J. Senter is a vertebrate paleontologist with a specialty in dinosaur paleobiology. He earned a PhD in Biological Sciences from Northern Illinois University in 2003 and teaches biology courses at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. He has published more than sixty articles on dinosaur paleontology, reptile biology, and the creation-evolution debate. He can be contacted at psenter@uncfsu.edu


According to the young-Earth creationist (YEC) worldview, God created the Earth, humans, and all other kinds of organisms independently during the same week about 6,000 years ago, as described in the book of Genesis. This worldview rejects the overwhelming physical evidence that the Earth is over 4.5 billion years old (Gradstein et al. 2004), that …

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