The Boanthropy of Nebuchadnezzar
Was King Nebuchadnezzar the first to identify as another species?
If a pastor, a psychoanalyst, and an anthropologist, were to come together in a public forum each promising to bring their expertise and perspective to the story of Nebuchadnezzar, it might go something like this. Since I am none of the above, I will be your humble moderator.
For fun, Dr. Maggie Bead, an anthropologist is here, along with Dr. Karl Young, a psychoanalyst, and finally, area pastor and funny man, Pastor Dave. These three are going to discuss one of the oldest and wildest stories of all human history- the story of King Nebuchadnezzar.
King Nebuchadnezzar would likely have been just a footnote in history had the Biblical books of Daniel and Jeremiah never been written. Because the story is fascinating with its combination of unbridled human hubris and despotism in full battle with the Will of God, vivid dreams demanding interpretation, and a strange mental psychosis all set in perhaps the world’s most spectacular city in 600BC- Babylon.
Frankly, I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t tackled this incredible moment in history with a blockbuster starring, perhaps, Anthony Hopkins as Daniel. But there does exist a movie titled ‘The Book of Daniel’ produced independently and released in 2015. Also, there exists a worthy documentary titled ‘Sphinx. Nebuchadnezzar’.
Because the life of Nebuchadnezzar made for a long and colorful story, we’re just going to focus on one particular event- when the King suffered a bizarre psychotic episode. He came to believe he was an animal. How did the most powerful man to roam the world’s most powerful kingdom come to roam the countryside of Mesopotamia on all fours, eating grass, and bellering like a bull? Somewhat surprising, others throughout history have suffered a similar condition causing the mental health people to give it a name. It is called Boanthropy.
Boanthropy- a psychological disorder that causes a person to believe they are an ox, cow, or generally of the bovine species. These individuals believe this to the extent of adopting bovine behaviors such as walking on all fours and eating grass.
Dr. Maggie Bead- As an anthropologist, I think it important that we have some context. First, King Nebuchadnezzar was a warrior/king who came to rule his kingdom and build it into an extravagant spectacle. Babylon by all accounts was a magnificent city. It is thought that the Nebuchadnezzar even had the infamous “hanging gardens’ built. The hanging gardens are considered one of the 7 greatest ancient wonders of the world.
But, as someone who managed, perhaps micromanaged his kingdom, he was likely troubled that his massive irrigation and dam projects could not solve draughts or bad weather or the salty unproductive nature of his kingdom’s soil. It is possible that it was a source of great anxiety. And there must have been considerable stress maintaining and defending his empire, I think it possible he, at least for seven something, whether days, weeks, months, or years, lost it. He went mad.
Of course, all this assumes the Biblical account is correct. But historical manuscripts do suggest he was a most powerful, intelligent, intense, and very likely a control freak of a leader. As to the king being reduced to all fours eating grass and weeds- that is truly bizarre if true.
Dr. Karl Young- As a psychoanalyst and dream state enthusiast, I am more interested in his dreams, the detail in which he remembers them, and his determination to have them interpreted. As to him thinking he an ox, a bovine, or any creature other than a human is truly perplexing. If the Book of Daniel is taken literally, his boanthropy was foretold by Daniel and indeed came true. History has other cases of this psychosis affecting a very few others. I believe there was a case in England in 1946.
I have written extensively about Nebuchadnezzar. I think he was a megalomaniac of the highest order- a ‘complete regressive degeneration of a man who has overreached himself.’1
Dr. Bead- Doesn’t that remind you of one of our recent presidents?
Dr. Young- Ha… perhaps, but what makes the story interesting to me is the psychological considerations of someone believing they are a human one moment and an animal the next. Today, we have those who are born to one gender but wish to be the other. Perhaps, in a psychological sense, they are but distant cousins. Both appear to be crises of identity and significant psychotic events. Boanthropy is a very rare condition but I’m afraid gender dysphoria is all too endemic today.
If I could return to the king’s dream for just a moment. ‘The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul.’2 Daniel knew from Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams that he was dealing with a king’s growing anxiety with the limits of his power. The king sensed there was something- someone more powerful than he. In his search for either his nemesis or his source of being, he grew mad. For a period of time, the king thought he was an ox.
Dr. Bead- So good doctor, if you the therapist and Nebuchadnezzar the patient, what would have been your advice?
Dr. Young- I would have told him your ‘madness is not to be despised and not to be feared, but instead you should give it life… If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature… Be glad that you can recognize it, for you will thus avoid becoming its victim. Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is full of craziness and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself. Life itself has no rules. That is its mystery and its unknown law. What you call knowledge is an attempt to impose something comprehensible on life.’3
I would imagine the theologian amongst us might have a different interpretation.
Pastor Dave- As a matter I fact I do. But, I’m fascinated by the connection between our contemporary culture’s fascination with identity and this ancient Biblical story. I work with our area kids and I’m saddened by the depth of their anxiety, their unhappiness, and the dysfunction of their home lives. They appear to be very vulnerable to anything or anyone offering either a promise of happiness or an escape from their misery.
Dr. Young- Exactly Pastor Dave! These kids are very vulnerable to anyone, for whatever nefarious reason, suggesting that the source of their unhappiness, their identity crises is they have been misgendered. Riddled with anxiety, possibly neurotic, they are encouraged- suggested- to pursue the poorest of choices- chemical castration and other mutilations.
Pastor Dave- Interesting point!
As to King Nebuchadnezzar, he is not the only powerful man to have dreams or go mad when confronting the Almighty. God uses ‘madness’ to change people. In this case, he reduced the most powerful man in the known world to the existence of an ox. This transformation, temporary as it was, was transformative as the king emerges a new man. A rebirth if you will from megalomania to a humble servant of God. He came to understand the limits of his own power and accept the power that comes from God. His kingdom was blessed. It must have been most liberating!
But this story cannot be told without admiring the skill and intelligence of Daniel. He handled Nebuchadnezzar like a Stradivari. It must have been most nerve-wracking to navigate a king who would quickly ‘off’ those whose answers were too uncomfortable. But Daniel, and this deserves its own story, with the confidence and assurance only a fierce faith in God provides, navigates the mercurial king with great finesse and confidence. So powerful was the legend of Daniel, Jesus quoted him in both Matthew and Mark.
The example of Daniel was perhaps what most influenced Nebuchadnezzar. Yes, he was humbled to the point of identifying as an animal, his extravagant water projects sometimes failed due to things he could not control, and he was tormented by his dreams to the point of going ‘mad.’ But in Daniel, and this is most perplexing, he came to respect the one man he could not control or gain ultimate loyalty. Daniel, plucked from the spoils of Jerusalem, remained resolutely loyal to God to subdue the most powerful man on earth.
Today, we have a culture full of Nebuchadnezzars…
Moderator- I’m sorry Pastor Dave. Let’s save that discussion for another day.
With the arrival of 2022, I want to thank my newsletter readers for reading. I wish you all a Happy New Year.
1 Actually, this quote can be attributed to Dr. Carl Jung.
2 This quote is from Dr. Carl Jung.
3 From ‘The Red Book- the Readers Edition’ by Dr. Carl Jung