World’s Best Mom

Lilith is probably one of the better-known demons of Jewish lore. In fact, she is so well-known that many writers simply force their own interpretation on the mythical texts, making her to be a destructive femme-fatale or a demonic proto-feminist. There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do the same. Before I force the texts to suit my personal views of Lilith, though, I will at least have the common courtesy of presenting the said texts.

Continue reading

Posted in Angels and Demons | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Seething Blood and the Massacare at Solomon’s Temple

The previous post told the story of the Shamir, and of the building of Solomon’s Temple. In this post, I’ll bring some traditions regarding the destruction of that temple. The Biblical narrative can be found at the end of Kings and Chronicles, and in Jeremiaha 39 and 52. In short, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, claimed the entire region for himself. He sieged Jerusalem, and replaced the King of Judea with a puppet ruler from the House of David. That King, relying on the traditional alliance with Egypt, defied Nebuchadnezzar, who promptly sent Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard to siege Jerusalem again, lay its temples and palaces to ruin and exile the royal and priestly elite.

As always, where the Chronicler saw politics, the sages saw the Hand of God. The destruction of Solomon’s Temple has been woven into legend, as prefiguration of the destruction of the Second Temple and of the martyrdom of the First Crusade.

Continue reading

Posted in Heroes and Villains | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Solomon, Shamir and Ashmedai

Sorry for the slow update rate – hopefully, with the nearing term break, I’ll be able to speed things up a little.

In this post, I’m going to relate two of the many legends about King Solomon. With a thousand wives and unequalled wisdom, Solomon was the envy and role-model for the sages. The Targum Sheni, a collection of tales pertaining to the book of Esther, describes him thus:

And the Lord gave him dominion over all the people of the world, and He has given him so much wisdom that he was wiser than any man. And he also reigned over the animals and beasts and the fowls and the reptiles, and the spirits and demons of the world.

The legend I am going to relate here begins in the Babylonian Talmud, in tractate Gittin. Chapter 6 of 1 Kings tell of the building of the first temple, and mentions that the stones brought to the construction site were already so perfectly smoothed so that the stonemasons required no iron tools to fit them into the walls. To the sages, this was explained not by the unsurpassed skills of the Phoeneician artisans, but by the use of a magical worm.

Continue reading

Posted in Angels and Demons, Heroes and Villains | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

It’s a Bird!

This is the final part of a series of three posts on the gigantic mythical beasts of Jewish mythology. The previous posts were about Leviathan and Behemoth, creatures which the non-Jewish reader of the Old Testament is probably familiar with even without the help of this blog. Like them, the hero of this post is mentioned in the Bible, but if you don’t read Hebrew, there’s simply no chance that you’ll encounter it. Enter the giant Bird, Ziz Shadai.

Continue reading

Posted in Strange Creatures | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

The Beast that Dwells upon a Thousand Mountains

This is the second of a series of three posts dealing with the large megabeasts of Jewish folklore. Having spoken of Leviathan, current king of the sea and future meal and construction material, we now turn to its partner Behemoth, King of the Land Animals.

In God’s long monologue in the book of Job (presented in the previous post), Behemoth is mentioned along with Leviathan to show God’s greatness. In that passage, it is presented as a huge herbivore, with a strong, indomitable body. Unlike Leviathan, it is not especially dangerous – it lazes around swamps, and drinks from a river that ends up in its mouth. Also unlike Leviathan, Behemoth’s only mention is in the book of Job. Or maybe not.

Continue reading

Posted in Strange Creatures | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

The Big Bad Fish

The next three posts will be dedicated to the three mythical beasts that are first mentioned in the Bible and repeatedly obsessed over in later texts: Leviathan, King of the Fish; Behemoth, King of the Land Animals; and Ziz Shadai, King of the Birds. This post is dedicated to the first of the three, so please give your warmest welcome to Leviathan, the giant fish that holds the world on its fins.

Continue reading

Posted in Strange Creatures | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Armilus, Son of the Stone

I’ve written before about syncretism – how a culture comes in contact with another, absorbs certain myths or symbols, and tweaks them to fit better with its previously-established symbols and myths.

Where this phenomenon gets really funky, though, is when the two cultures begin to bounce ideas off each other. Such is the case of the Jewish Anti-Messiah, Armilus (alternatively spelled Aramillos or Aramileus), a legend born of the Christian vision of the Antichrist, which is itself related to the Jewish Messiah.

Continue reading

Posted in Heroes and Villains | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Angelic Songs of Death

One of the issues Jewish mystics obsessed about during the Late Antiquity was the Merkabah, or God’s throne-room. Based on the vivid description in the first chapter of Isaiah. The first chapters of Revelations fit pretty well into the genre – a rightous person, through prayers, mystic knowledge or magic, manages to traverse the heavens and reach the seat of God, where he hears words of prophecy or is given a chance to engage in angel politics.

The Merkabah literature itself mostly consists of endless lists of angels, of locations within the seven skies, and the passwords needed to pass each of the celestial guards until one reaches the Merkabah. Once in a while, the lists give way to short narratives. This one, from the Hechaloth Rabbati (“The Great Chambers”), I found especially interesting. In it, Rabbi Ishmael, who ascends to the Merkabah, hears about the exploits of the previous Merkabah-visitor, Rabbi Akiva.

Continue reading

Posted in Angels and Demons, Heroes and Villains | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A Short Talmudic Grimoire

The Talmud is the large corpus of Jewish law, compiled in the first centuries C.E. in Jerusalem and Babylon. The word Law should be used here in a very loose sense; the text is essentially protocols, ordered by vague association into smaller books called Tractates. The Talmud list endless disputes disputes on such inane subjects as the amount of white hairs that can appear on the body of a red heifer before it can no longer be called a red heifer; or the exact size of a woman’s breasts before she can be considered an adult.

In short, the Talmud contains every bit of knowledge its many authors thought might be of some use; and in a world populated with demons and other such malevolent creatures, you simply have to know some ways of warding them off. So, for the benefit of our readers who might otherwise be irreversibly damaged by disease and ill fortune, I present to you a short list of useful chants and incantations found in the Babylonian Talmud.

Continue reading

Posted in Angels and Demons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Two-Headed Gentleman from the World Beneath the Earth

With the possible exception of weird alien civilizations, cultures don’t exist in vacuum. People, communicative and receptive creatures as they are, tend to absorb ideas, symbols and images from other cultures. This phenomenon is known as syncretism. Early Christianity, for example, forbade the worship of Pagan gods, but it didn’t destroy them: it instead renamed them as saints and demons. Judaism too absorbed its fair share of many of the gods, monsters and heroes of Near Eastern and Hellenic cultures. Fortunately, Jewish cosmology found a neat dumping ground for such creatures: the World of Tevel.

Continue reading

Posted in Strange Creatures | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments