The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 20th January 2010

Sebetat: The Many Lives and Deaths of a Monster

Given by - Dorothea McEwan

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

What is a Sebetat? A Sebetat is a hybrid monster. The monster has the upper torso of a man, the body of a lion, and a tail divided into two snakes, one of whose heads is usually portrayed as fearsomely ready to strike.

Sobedat being killed by Saint Gelawdewos, Debre Samuel Church, Hamusit, Amhara
Photo © John Mellors

Where can we see the Sebetat? In Ethiopian church painting. The Sebetat is a stock figure in pictures of equestrian saints, particularly St. Claudius. Claudius (Galawdewos) is often to be seen on his majestic brown palfrey (Ethiopian patron St. George sits upon a princely white charger) in gladiatorial combat with the Sebetat.

On the face of it, the challenge is massively unequal. The horse is huge; the Sebetat, diminutive. But the contest is anything but unequal. The Sebetat fires arrow after arrow at his saintly opponent. And the Sebetat will not lie down and die. He fights on and on, irrepressibly.

In Ethiopian imagination, the Sebetat is the dangerous embodiment of all evil. He represents evil's omnipresence. The Saint, be he George, Claudius or any other of the many equestrian saints, wins out in the end. Dorothea mentioned a variant description of the role the hybrid creature plays: when two Sebetat fight, the Earth is said to tremble and is itself threatened with destruction.

If the horse of the equestrian saint stands at, say, two metres, the Sebetat's stature is often less than a quarter of this, thus showing the power relationship. The fight against the Sebetat is an allegorical depiction of good winning over evil.

But what about the Christian injunction of "You must not kill"? Quoting Matthew 5:39, Dorothea reminded us that this concept underwent a shift in interpretation: the soldier of Christ is engaged in a fight against a real enemy; his portrayal, however, goes further, he stands also for fighting against sin. Thus we see, in the famous painting commemorating victory in the battle of Adwa, the figure of St. George, underneath a rainbow of the Ethiopian colours, green, yellow and red, dominating the battle from the Ethiopian side. In the Ethiopian psyche Saints and Monsters present a very real fight.

What does the word Sebetat mean? Nobody knows. In Ge'ez, there is sebad'at but no-one, it seems, knows the correct etymology; it is used for the word 'monster' or 'serpent'. Some paintings even have captions with Sebedat and Sobedat. As Dorothea was quick to say, there is no answer, no hypothesis: "your guess is as good as mine".

Saint Tewodros killing a female Sebedat, Debre Genet Church, Adet, Tigray
Photo © John Mellors

The Sebetat figures in paintings of equestrian Saints all over Ethiopia: on the walls of churches in Debre Markos, Derasge Maryam and Gennete Maryam, and in manuscript books and icons, to mention just a few of the examples cited. Debre Genet church displays a rare example of a Sebetat whose human aspect is female prompting comparison to the Old Testament female demon Lilith, whose lower body was that of a serpent.

Do Sebetat still figure in modern Ethiopian church painting? One of our members verified that the depiction of equestrian Saints and their victims has not lost any of its gory appeal, even in churches with recent paintings. Sebetat the bogeyman cannot be consigned to history just yet.

Our thanks to Dr. Dorothea McEwan for a scholarly and entertaining talk enhanced with excellent illustrations.

First Published in News File Summer 2010

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