Posts Tagged ‘ancient’

A Wedding On Hallowe’en?

October 29, 2015

VF-TheBridesFinger-Illustration

Although Jewish tradition has no direct cultural association with Hallowe’en, there are plenty of spooky and sometimes funny tales to make your hair stand on end and foster a wee suspicion about the existence of demons. Like this one, called The Bride’s Finger. I adapted it from a sixteenth century Palestinian folktale* for my Visual Fiction series of stories, published between 1993-1997 in Focus Magazine, which was then a Sunday supplement in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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The bright orange moon illuminated three young men as they walked in the forest surrounding the city of Safed in ancient Israel. Raphael, the oldest, was being teased by his friends, for this was the eve of his wedding. Raphael considered himself a fortunate fellow because Shira, the woman to whom he was promised, was the clever, beautiful daughter of the city’s wealthiest merchant.

Soon, they reached the edge of a river and sat down to rest. Their spirits were so high that at first, no one noticed the strange object protruding from the earth at their feet. Then, Tobias, the youngest man, grew quiet and leaned over to examine it, assuming  that it was some sort of root. Pointing at the object, he nudged his friends, “Raphi, Gideon; doesn’t this thing look like a finger?” he whispered. 

Still laughing, Raphael and Gideon teased their friend. “Sure, Tobi, it’s telling you to watch your step!” Tobias shrugged, then smiled slyly at Raphael. “Just like your clever bride will make you watch your step? Not to be outdone, Raphael announced smugly, ” I will put a ring on that ‘finger’ just to show it who’s the master around here!” He took off his ring and slipped it ceremoniously onto the protruding object. 

“Now, Raphi, say your vows!” the others urged him, snickering loudly. With mock solemnity, the bridegroom-to-be pronounced the Hebrew words which were required to seal a marriage. This he did three times, according to Jewish law. But as the last word slipped past his lips, he felt an odd chill slither down his spine…

Suddenly, the ‘finger’ began to emit an eerie, greenish glow, twitching and wriggling convulsively. The three young men jumped back, gasping in amazement, as the earth shuddered beneath them. Frozen in shock, they gazed horrified at the black chasm which opened at their feet. The greenish glow surrounding the ‘finger’ expanded at once, revealing a woman’s form wrapped in a ragged shroud, rising up out of the abyss! Her arms opened as if to embrace a lover.

“MY BRIDEGROOM!” she shrieked in a terrible voice staring straight at Raphael with lifeless eyes. Recovering their wits, the three friends screamed hysterically and ran for their lives, pursued relentlessly by her unearthly wailing. When they managed to reach their homes, they bolted every door and window, shuddering with relief at their narrow escape. 

In the morning, still trembling with fear, the young men met at Raphael’s house to discuss the consequences of their irreverent behavior. Deeply ashamed, they vowed to keep their horrible adventure a secret. Then, they parted soberly for Raphael’s ‘real’ wedding.

That evening, a delicious aroma of exotic foods accompanied the sounds of merriment and music flowing from the palatial home of the bride’s family. Many distinguished guests had gathered to witness this wedding that would unite the two wealthiest and most influential families in Safed.

Suddenly, as the rabbi cleared his throat to begin the ceremony, a spine-tingling shriek issued from the  marbled entrance. Screams of panic followed as the crowd rushed madly for the doors, leaving only the rabbi, the bride and groom and their immediate families gaping in horror at the apparition, who was clad only in her vermin-infested shroud.

The rabbi was the first to regain his composure. Shrewdly, he appraised the corpse, taking in her filthy, waist-length hair and curving, claw-like toenails. Then, he pointed accusingly at her. “Why have you left your grave and come to befoul our joyous celebration?” he thundered.

With a moan that was terrifying and desperate at once, the corpse pointed at Raphael and Shira, his bride-to-be, who cowered behind the rabbi. “I have come to claim what is mine!” she announced shrilly. “Why do you allow him to marry another when he is betrothed to ME?” She raised her hand to display the finger on which Raphael had foolishly placed his ring.

Wide-eyed in amazement, the rabbi turned to Raphael. “Is this true?” he demanded. Panic-stricken, the groom revealed the tale of the previous evening. With a worried expression, the rabbi pulled at his beard and asked the groom if he had pledged the sacred vow three times before two witnesses. Raphael nodded fearfully.

“Well, my son,” said the rabbi, shaking his head. “I am afraid that a rabbinical court must be gathered to resolve this, for according to our laws, a promise is a promise, and it looks as though ‘she’ is your wife!” Raphael’s eyes rolled up out of sight as he slid to the floor in a faint. Shira clutched her veil, sobbing uncontrollably. Their families stood by helplessly, begging the rabbi to release their children from the awful curse.

For days afterward, Safed buzzed with excitement over the ‘marriage of the living and the dead’. No one had ever heard of such a phenomena! Meanwhile, the rabbi searched feverishly for legal precedents to this case, but soon concluded that one would have to be set. He then sent for three renowned rabbis, requesting their presence at the rabbinical court that would convene three days later.

The people of Safed crowded the hall of the court. When all were seated, the Safed rabbi summoned the dead ‘bride’ to appear. Placing her under oath, he instructed her to recount the events in the forest and to swear that Raphael had indeed ‘married’ her.

Rachel Bat Shimon (for that was her name), clasped her translucent hands sincerely and did as she was told. The court then asked her if she would give up her claim on Raphael. A range of emotions appeared to cross her lifeless face and then coalesce into defiance. “While I lived,” she said tightly, “I had no opportunity to marry and was denied my happiness on earth! Therefore,” her voice rose to a shriek, “this marriage must be recognized and consummated! Unless,” she hinted craftily, “this court would prove that there is no justice in life or in death!”

The hall became very still, as the rabbis mulled over this statement. After a few moments, they decided to ignore her statement and continue the proceedings because the arcane interpretations her statement provoked would confuse the issue at hand. So they called on the parents of the bride and groom, placed them under oath and requested them to verify that their children had long been pledged to each other. Almost in unison, the fathers spoke, stating that their pledge was formed even before the birth of their children!

When all the witnesses had spoken, the rabbis retreated to a private chamber to make their decision. Raphael shivered in fear, casting sideways glances at his ghastly ‘wife’. She fluttered her eyelashes and bared snaggled yellow teeth in a horrific attempt to smile at him. Soon the rabbis filed back into the court. The Safed rabbi was the first to speak.

“According to our Laws, it is indeed true that Raphael made a valid vow of marriage in the presence of Gideon and Tobias, his two witnesses.” He paused for a moment and the large hall grew thick with terror. “However,” he continued, “we cannot deny that this wedding vow would invalidate his former betrothal, since the Law states that one vow may not contradict a prior one. Also, we have considered the bridegroom’s statement that his ‘vows’ were not intentional. And finally, as there is no precedent for a union between the living and the dead, these vows are not acceptable; for the ‘bride’ is obviously dead. Therefore, we declare this ‘marriage’ annulled!” At these words, Raphael grew weak with relief as applause erupted among the living.

But Rachel Bat Shimon, knowing she was defeated, released a shriek as bloodcurdling as it was pitiful. She then fell onto the floor and embraced death once again. Those present truly felt her loss and indeed, the rabbi ordered that Rachel be buried again properly, so that this tragedy would not recur.

At last, the rabbi of Safed gathered the bride, the groom and their families together to perform the true wedding. The distinguished guests, recovered from their shock and returned to witness the joyful ceremony. One one guest was missing: Death.

*The historical source of this tale is Shivhei ha-Ari (Hebrew), compiled by Shlomo Meinsterl (Jerusalem, 1905). My source was Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of The Supernatural, selected and retold by Howard Schwartz (Oxford University Press, 1988)

Note: For those who have followed my illustrated posts here, you might notice a marked difference in the drawing style of The Bride’s Finger and in Moving The Immoveable Feast published a few months ago. These were executed in sumi ink on scraperboard (scratchboard) and hand-colored with watercolor. No digital enhancements, whatsoever. Other drawings in the Visual Fiction series were done in a variety of art styles that in retrospect allowed me to understand the trajectory of my artistic development. As an illustrator, it’s sometimes instructive to look back not only to see where I’ve been, but where my Muse might decide to take me next!

Moving The Immoveable Feast

July 8, 2015

In recent weeks, I’ve become rather addicted to an online magazine called Mental Floss. Much of what is posted is silly, National Enquirer grade stuff, but with a little patience, some real gems come to the surface. One of these was a 2014 piece about a strange tree, an artificially cultivated hybrid (multibrid?) of forty different fruits (what??). Anyway, the tree is a sort of installation art project conceived by a Syracuse university professor named Sam Van Aken. The story can be read here: http://mentalfloss.com/article/60243/tree-flowers-40-different-fruits

Upon reading this article, I was immediately reminded of a story that I had written in 1994 called ‘Moving The Immoveable Feast’. It was one of series of twenty+ illustrated short stories that were published monthly (between 1993-97) by The Pittsburgh Tribune Review newspaper under the collective title, Visual Fiction. I adapted this one from an old Mayan folktale that told of a similar, though mythical tree. I am planning to publish a more fully illustrated anthology of these little tales but until then, I will post some of them here from time to time. Your comments and suggestions for this volume are welcome!
MovingTheImmoveableFeast

Scratchboard-Long before there were people everywhere, a tree that should have been impossible stood at the very center of the world, where the ruins of ancient earth pyramids now stand. The Old Ones called it “The Everything Tree” because every kind of fruit and vegetable drooped heavily from its twisted branches. Coconuts, peaches, mangoes, bananas and oranges were among its myriad fruit and its vegetables included every variety of bean, squash, pepper, eggplant, tomato, pickle and leafy green thing. The exception was corn whose tall stalks surrounded the massive tree’s trunk stretching as far as the eye could see.

Each day, from sunrise to sunset, animals gathered at The Everything Tree to sample its bounty. But for hundreds of centuries, people who eventually appeared had no clue to its existence. Until the day a man, who understood the language of animals found it. The man, who had been enjoying an afternoon nap, was awakened by the excited bleating of two of his goats as they discussed the tree’s wonders. Intrigued, he decided to follow them and see this miracle for himself.

After traveling many days over mountains and rivers, he stepped into the shadow of an enormous tree that appeared to loom just ahead, but was still many miles distant. At last he made his way through the aisles of animals that surrounded it. Starved and exhausted from his long journey, the man ate his fill and quenched his thirst with a juice he made by squeezing many fruits together into an empty coconut shell. As he rested, he marveled at the miracle he had found.

“Wouldn’t life be wonderful,” he thought, “if a tree like this grew near my home! We could enjoy its shade on hot, sunny days and we would always have enough to eat!” Plucking one more juicy plum, he set off for his village and decided to return to the tree with his friends and neighbors. Maybe together they could find a way to bring this wonderful tree closer to home.

When the man arrived at his village, the people gathered to hear of his adventures. They were fascinated at the notion of a never-ending feast and could hardly wait to witness this magical wonder. They began at once to prepare for the long, difficult journey. Anticipation made the miles pass quickly and they stood at last in the shadow of the Everything Tree.

As they approached it, several of the villagers fell to their knees at the sight, awestruck at the evidence and glory of their Earth Goddess. Then, amidst prayers of thanksgiving, they timidly began to reach for the tree’s fruits and vegetables, smacking their lips at the delicious new taste sensations. When their hunger had been satisfied, the villagers’ voices began to hum with proposed plans to transport this wonderful Tree back to their own lands. Soon, it was agreed that the tree should be cut down and its seeds carried back to be planted.

Led by a group of strong young men, the people brandished their sharp, stone axes and boldly chopped at the immense trunk. The day passed and darkness spread her curtain over the land. Exhausted from their journey and from chopping at the Tree, everyone soon fell asleep under the stars. When they awoke in the morning however, they could find no trace at all of the previous day’s work. “That’s odd,” the men murmured, glancing at each other in bewilderment. “Maybe we are looking at the wrong place,” someone suggested brightly. So they set to work again, chopping away at the Tree until sunset.

After managing to cut a few inches into the trunk, the men buried their axes in the groove to mark the spot and again retired for the night. But the next morning, the men nearly tripped over their axes that lay scattered on the ground. The tree had healed itself once more.

Frightened by this new miracle, the villagers held a council meeting to decide their next move. The strong young men advocated redoubling their efforts, while others quaked in terror. “We are risking the wrath of the Goddess,” they chorused. Then, one of the village Elders, the man who had first discovered the tree, spoke up. “Let us cut a few more inches into the trunk,” he proposed. “Then, I shall stay awake this night so that I may observe the Tree’s magic. Perhaps the Goddess herself might appear and reveal the solution to our needs.” Deeming this an equitable suggestion, the people did as he asked and then went to sleep while the Elder stationed himself among some cornstalks.

The hours passed and a soft breeze stirred the old man’s beard. Soon, he heard a faint musical sound emanating from the Tree. Curious, he began to creep through the cornstalks around her perimeter looking for the source of the music. Suddenly the Elder felt, rather than heard the Earth Goddess’ voice gently directing him to sleep and pay attention at the same time. Confused, the man struggled to keep his eyes open, but succumbed at last to the world of dreams.

Asleep, yet awake at the same time, the man became aware of a deep violet light that slowly suffused the Tree. Fascinated, he watched as the light summoned every living creature of the land and sky including elephants, armadillos, cockatiels, macaws, jaguars, serpents and monkeys. When all had arrived, they organized and set to work, eyes glowing yellow and orange in the darkness. Collecting bits of bark and root from the base of the Tree that the men had chopped away, the animals worked all night. Patiently, they replaced each tiny piece in the trunk and before the sun rose, the Everything Tree was just as it should be.

Shortly before he awoke, the old man again felt the Earth Goddess speak. “You and your people may not cut down My Tree,” She commanded, “ for it is my soul. But you may sample all that grows upon me, planting the seeds of your harvest throughout the world for all generations. Go now. For when you have filled your basket and returned to your village, I must cause you to forget where you have been.”

In the morning, the Elder related his experience to his friends and neighbors. “It was truly a miracle! The Goddess herself spoke to me!” he whispered in a hushed voice, prostrating himself briefly on the ground towards the Tree. The villagers were filled with joy, for the solution to their needs was so simple after all. Triumphantly they gathered some of every variety of fruits and vegetables from the Tree’s twisted branches, then returned to their homes. For generations afterward, their descendants carried the seeds of that first harvest to the four corners of the earth.

Although the Earth Goddess had decreed that no one would ever remember where the Tree stood, it is entirely possible that we were left with the suggestion that the Tree existed only in our imagination. Nevertheless, the colorful fruit and vegetables enjoyed around the world remain as tribute to that magical immoveable feast, The Everything Tree.

Text & Illustration ©1994 Ilene Winn-Lederer

A Toast To Bread…

July 9, 2014

BlessingForBreads+CakesBread, whether we enjoy it as a sandwich or with a meal does more for us than merely satisfying our hunger. If we pay attention, it lets us taste the histories of civilization in every bite as it nourishes our bodies and spirits. In evolving as we do; from fertility to growth, maturity and decay, bread is an apt metaphor of life itself.

In the Books of Exodus (16:1-36) and Numbers (11:1-9), bread, in the form of a mysterious substance called manna, was ‘given’ to the early Israelites during their desert tenure. The manna was ground and baked into cakes which purportedly tasted like honey or any other food one wished to imagine. Though no one knows what manna actually was, its etymology and physical form invited speculation that ran the gamut from coriander seed to ‘kosher’ locusts’, hallucinogenic mushrooms and bdellium, a sort of resin, perhaps from the tamarisk tree. This form of ‘bread’ appeared only until they reached and settled in Israel where they learned to cultivate grains. Eventually, grain-based bread was incorporated into religious ritual and made its way to our tables to symbolize the Temple altar. The bread we call ‘challah‘ was named for the piece of dough that was separated from the unbaked loaf and given to the Temple priests to burn as ‘minhah’, a sacrificial offering. According to rabbinical commentary on the Book of Numbers (15:19), it was to be made only from one of the five species of grain (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye) though some commentators differed on which grains were indicated. Absent the Temple, destroyed in 70 C.E., this custom is now largely followed by religiously observant women who bake bread at home. Technically there are two words in Hebrew for bread; challah, an egg-based bread and lechem, bread baked for daily use. In biblical times, the Sabbath bread was probably a form of the pita we enjoy at Middle Eastern restaurants and bakeries.

While the long, complex history of bread and bread-making is worthy fodder for the myriad culinary tomes out there, I will be brief here, as the goal of An Illumination Of Blessings is to visually extract the essence of how bread came to us and the ways by which we honor it and our Creator. Accordingly, the two blessings on this page address all forms of bread and grain-based baked goods. Among the five species of grain that form the borders of my illustration is a stalk of rice. I’ve included it here both for its esthetic beauty and to represent its use in the Spanish or Sephardic Jewish tradition which basically adheres to Orthodox customs with differences in interpretation.

The process of bread-making from harvesting to oven to table is embodied in two figures. There is a woman carrying a sheaf of wheat standing beside an upper hand-stone and lower grindstone or quern. These were used to grind (mill) the grain until more efficient devices were developed. Grinding was a difficult, time consuming task commonly assigned to women. In ancient times, each household stored its own grain and it is known that at least three hours of daily effort were required to produce enough flour to make bread for a family of five.

In the lower right corner, a baker is standing behind a sack of flour and pantry scoop. Under one arm are two baguettes and a challah. The round challah is of a type used on the Rosh Hashanah holiday to signify the wish for a long life. The baguettes are there simply because they remind me of the delicious breakfast served in the pension where my husband and I stayed on our first visit to Paris. The oven paddle or ‘peel’ in his right hand is a tool that has been in use since ancient times to move loaves of bread and baked goods in and out of hot ovens. It symbolizes one of oldest hand crafts in the world. On a visit to the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum some years ago, I saw some actual 5,000 year old loaves of bread and stalks of wheat that, if they could speak, would tell of ancient summers in the Land of the Pharaohs.

The ‘ha-motzi’ blessing at the top of the page is for any bread made from the aforementioned five grains, while the blessing below it is the ‘mezonos’ recited over baked goods such as cakes, pastries, cereals and cooked grain goods like pasta or couscous. Online are many lists that specify which products require this blessing. One of these is: http://oukosher.org/guide-to-blessings/

Since baker’s products are as many and varied as their cultures, customs and their imaginations permit, I’ve chosen just a few representative samples of both bread and dessert items. In addition to the challah and baguettes mentioned above, there are bagels, pita and a croissant for breads. Two types of rugelach, apple strudel, sufganiyot (jelly donuts popular in Israel and the US), macaroons, hamentaschen (for the Purim holiday) and mandel brate (almond bread) with fruit and nuts stand for desserts.

There is one last detail for this blessing. If you look closely, the challah at the center of the page bears a tiny number 78. Students of Hebrew mysticism may know that the gematria (numerical equivalence of letters and words in Torah) of bread or lechem is 78; the letter lamed =30, the letter chet = 8 and the final letter mem = 40. One of the lessons learned by the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt was that their bread/manna, was a ‘heaven-sent’ daily miracle. And in many ways, it still is. While we no longer subsist on manna, we understand the thought process around this miracle as the basis for agricultural laws which we continue to develop, perhaps with divine guidance. Consequently, we are expected to recite Grace after each meal thanking G-d for sustaining us in this way. In gematria, the numerical equivalent for G-d’s Name is 26 and it appears each time in the Birkat Hamazon or Grace After Meals. Three times 26 = 78 to bring us full circle as we acknowledge our Creator and the miracles of life.

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To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:
When you visit my Kickstarter page you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

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A Mundane Magick:Cleo@Cockfosters

January 18, 2011

Imposing strange images on ordinary observations seems to be the outgrowth of my developing visual vocabulary. As though seeing is an invitation to knowing or perhaps just imagining, as in this latest entry from my Notes From The London Underground series. What began with a casual glance at a pregnant passenger waiting at Bank Street station evolved into a vision that tells a story which can be interpreted at multiple levels. It is encapsulated in the framed text next to ‘Cleo’. The rooster and crocodile found their way into this image in response to the wordplay in the Cockfosters tube stop name, with which I couldn’t resist tampering. The crocodile represents the Egyptian deity Sobek, associated with ancient creation myths and agricultural fertility. A bit of research revealed that the rooster symbolizes the ancient sun gods and as the male principal also associated with fertility, it is charged with the protection of family and community. The name Cockfoster’s originated somewhere around 1524 and referred to a family estate in the North London suburban boroughs of Enfield and Barnet. The name may also be a mash-up of the words ‘cock forester’, the residence of the estate’s chief groundskeeper.


So even when an image presents itself to me, I don’t always understand all the reasons why that is so and in that sense, it doesn’t seem complete. I’d enjoy hearing your interpretations; it’s part of the magick…

This and other drawings in this series are available as limited edition prints. These may be seen throughout this blog and at my webfolio: http://www.winnlederer.com/underground/index.htm


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