His banner over me is love. – Song of Songs
For the final post of my digital residency, I wish to draw attention to an erotic poem that managed to work its way into the Biblical canon, becoming one of the Megillot (scrolls) of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). ‘Song of Songs’ is more of an incoherent series of love poems that were written between 10th to 2nd century BCE. The author is still unknown to us – vanishing into obscurity whilst their creation lives on centuries later, in sermons and stained glass. The poems alternate between the perspective of a young maiden and her lover, unravelling into dreamlike reveries and erotic fantasies of each other. However, ‘Song of Songs’ does not show interest in Law or God, nor does it dictate the way one should live, worship or love. At its core, it celebrates physical pleasure and the embrace of sensuality – which is why I’m so drawn to it, time and time again.
Yet centuries of religious scholarship have enforced their reading on what could well have been a secular love poem. They offer only an allegorical reading: the two lovers are not themselves but meant to symbolise the love between God and Israel, or in the Christian tradition, Christ and the Church. Gregory of Nyssa, a Saint who was influential in this process, argued against literal, animalistic readings that dragged the poem into “the passions of livestock and animals.” (GNO 6:15) (Meyer 205) Clearly, there was something dangerous about pleasure being outside the realms of religiosity and courtship.
In love, we give up our sovereignty – hand over any armour or power that we have and expect to be met halfway in this surrender.
During an interview, the late cultural theorist Lauren Berlant conceptualised love as something that always means ‘non-sovereignty’. I was confused when I first heard this. But after reflection, I realised that nothing could better describe love than this. In love, we give up our sovereignty – hand over any armour or power that we have and expect to be met halfway in this surrender. It is from this notion of love that I approach what many consider to be the greatest love poem of all times.
Through its litany of metaphor and imagery, Song of Songs suggests love and desire as something more than a relenting, ‘upwards’ spiritual force that leads to Holy Communion, that centuries of theological and anagogical exegesis have imposed on our interpretation. Rather, Song of Songs, taken at a material and ‘earthly’ level, suggests that the human being can be something other than ‘human’: love can make humans return to their non-sovereign position, of an animal amongst other animals – a human animal. As Koosed argues, “the bible…contains multiple moments of disruption, boundary crossing, and category confusion: animals speak, God becomes man, spirits haunt the living, and monsters confound at the end.” (3) This post intends to interpret these breaches and crossings as ‘posthuman’ in their muddling of anthropocentric and speciesist dualisms integral to man’s ‘dominion’ and understand this within a greater picture of love.
The lovers are reduced to animals, enmeshed within a network of zoological imagery that opens them up to being governed by bestial instinct and desire.
Firstly, these boundaries blur primarily through the device of metaphor. In Song of Songs, the lovers are ceaselessly transformed into animals: the maiden appears as a lion or leopard, a horse, a turtledove, birds, goats, sheep, fawns, a bee, a gazelle, and a deer; the male appears as a gazelle, a fawn, a raven, a dove. Metaphor theory can aid in understanding this significance. Metaphor creates a complex interaction between ‘A and B’ (Anthonioz 15), transferring “some or all of B’s qualities to A with the consequence that B may be likened to A.” (15) Through it, the human and the animal become entangled. Yet, in Song, metaphor is not simply uni-directional but, through its repetition, the male lover receives similar imagery, becoming a deer and a dove. In such triangulations, Anthonioz argues that “one could no longer consider these metaphors in a separate way (A/B and A/C) but in their interaction (A/B/C).” (15) The lovers are reduced to animals, enmeshed within a network of zoological imagery that opens them up to being governed by bestial instinct and desire. The interaction of animal imagery appears in the Song often as wasf, an ancient style of Arabic poetry that uses metaphor to describe each body part of the poem’s object. The constant transformation from human to animal, upheld by metaphor, could weaken the anthropocentric hierarchy that has been enshrined through history, in place even when the unknown poet was writing. The poet seems to treat animals as “a web, each species connected and interdependent, each more sophisticated than assume, each a world of wonder.” (Koosed 10-11)
The image of the gazelle is a constant in Song of Songs and can have multiple meanings. Firstly, it functions to emphasise the youthfulness and agility of the male lover, he is repeatedly “swift as a gazelle.” (2.17, 8.14) This swiftness can also be symbolic of the allusiveness and pull of the lover – to follow a gazelle over hilltops is to be lured into the rush and acceleration that animal signifies through its swiftness, emblematising the exhilaration of eroticism. Theological interpretation too has a similar reading, the deer is “taken to signify God’s inscrutability in such a way that the reader is drawn into pursuit.” (Meyer 216) This reading is supported by the aural effects of the Hebrew: the names of the animals are a wordplay on the name of God (e.g. ‘gazelles’ is “tzeva’ot”, also meaning “Lord of Hosts.”) Whilst this may solicit theological and religious allegory, from the posthuman perspective, it can be seen as another example of boundary blurring. If ancient audiences were to listen, they would hear both traces of the animal and the divine in one word – further enmeshing the human, divine and animalistic into one and breaching their rigid categorisation, bringing the divine into an ‘earthly’ register. As Meyer points out through a close reading of Gregory of Nyssa’s homilies on Song of Song, no matter how much Gregory tries to clothe and resist the threatening ‘animality’ of the text, it is the “base, animal, erotic desire (in sublimated form) that drives the reader toward God.” (210) Here, the animal (or human as animal) represents that non-sovereignty and relinquishing of power, which drives one into love and communion, both in the erotic or spiritual sense.
Through imagery, the ‘man’ as that dominant category disintegrates, not just as the dominant in gender relations, but also as the dominant species .
In Song 4, the male lover bids the female to “Come…From the dens of lions / From the hills of Leopards.” (4.8) The image of the lion is interesting when placed in its ancient and biblical context. The use of the ‘lion’ within the Hebrew Bible is often that of an enemy force. (Anthonioz 20) Within this biblical framework, it depicts the woman as a menacing, threatening power – association of the bride with lions and leopards is “taken as indicative of a shamefully sinful past.” (Meyer 210) Yet, the man beckons to be hunted, wishes to be subjected to this enemy force through the imperative ‘come.’ (4.8) Even taken as a secular poem, the image of the lion throughout “ancient Israel/Palestine from 1500–332 BCE shows the common association of the lion with sovereignty and diverse deities.” (Anthonioz 20) The man appears (rather queerly) to desire his subjugation and to give up his sovereignty to the woman. As Exum articulates, in Song of Songs “there may not be gender equality, but there is gender bending… (Exum 30) The male lover asks to be the hunted, whilst the woman becomes the predator. Through imagery, the ‘man’ as that dominant category disintegrates, not just as the dominant in gender relations, but also as the dominant species – he is just like any other prey. The body in the bible, is not a “stable, bounded entity but one that is in constant flux, penetrated and penetrating: opening up to God is opening up to love is opening up to madness.” (Koosed 7)
In Song of Songs, the body is a site of constantly shifting power dynamics that ultimately, through the return to animalistic desire, relinquish their sovereignty – which is perhaps why we are so drawn to its alluring and magical border crossings; the breaking of such anthropocentric and sexist boundaries may well be bound up in love. Taken as a secular, erotic poem – the text appears to ground love not in the transcendental, spiritual ascent, but in its animal mayhem, its fleshy and earthly manifestation. Love relinquishes sovereignty, or rather, gives sovereignty, to that animal within.
Anthonioz, Stéphanie. “The Lion, the Shepherd, and the Master of Animals: Metaphorical Interactions and Governance Representations in Mesopotamian and Levantine Sources.” Researching Metaphor in the Ancient Near East, edited by Marta Pallavidini and Ludovico Portuese, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2020, pp. 15–28, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv15vwk4r.5. Accessed 7 Apr. 2022.
Bayfield, Tony. “9. JUDAISM The Human Animal and All Other Animals – Dominion or Duty?” The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Animal Ethics, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2020, pp. 101–106.
Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Hardt. “‘On the Risk of a New Relationality:” An Interview with Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt.” Interview by Heather Davis and Paige Sarlin, Reviews In Cultural Theory, Issue 2.3, http://reviewsinculture.com/2012/10/15/on-the-risk-of-a-new-relationality-an-interview-with-lauren-berlant-and-michael-hardt/.
Exum, Cheryl. “TEN THINGS EVERY FEMINIST SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE SONG OF SONGS.” The Song of Songs: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, edited by Athalya Brenner and Carole R. Fontaine, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, 2000, pp. 24–35.
Koosed, Jennifer L. “Humanity at Its Limits.” The Bible and Posthumanism, edited by Jennifer L. Koosed, Society of Biblical Literature, 2014, pp. 3–12, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1287n8s.3. Accessed 7 Apr. 2022.Meyer, Eric Daryl. “Gregory of Nyssa and Jacques Derrida on the Human-Animal Distinction in the Song of Songs.” The Bible and Posthumanism, edited by Jennifer L. Koosed, Society of Biblical Literature, 2014, pp. 199–224, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1287n8s.12. Accessed 7 Apr. 2022.