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.
According to the cosmology found in the Midrashim (most notably in the small Midrash Conen) and expounded in the Kabbalah , Creation consists of seven worlds (or Earths) and seven skies (or Heavens). Their ordering is a bit complex, so bear with me for a while, or just skip this paragraph altogether. Imagine, if you will, a Tower of Hanoi – a rod with seven disks, decreasing in size as one goes up the rod. These are the seven worlds, separated by layers of Water, Storm and Chaos. Now, imagine seven bowls, each of them the size of one of the seven discs – these are the seven skies. The bowls are stacked one inside the other and placed upside down on top of the discs, so that the upper most disc is covered by the lower-most and smallest bowl, and the lower-most disc is covered by the highest and biggest bowl. Our world Heled, is the smallest and upper most of these worlds. Accordingly, we as its inhabitants are the only ones who can see all of the seven skies.
The base description of the seven worlds isn’t too interesting in itself. Except for our world Heled, only one other world has sentient life in it. This is the sixth world, the one right below our feet, Tevel. This is what Midrash Conen has to say about it:
And on Tevel there are mountains and hills… and chasms and valleys, and they are all inhabited. And on Tevel live 365 sorts of humanoid creatures. There are humans with the head of an ox and [humans with] the body of an ox, yet they speak as humans…
To this rather short list, Ginzberg in his Legends of Jews add humans with the body of a snake and humans with the head of a lion. But the subjects of the current post are these strange dudes:
Some of these creatures have two heads, four ears, four eyes, two noses, two mouths, four arms and four legs, yet one body. When they are sitting, they look like two humans, and when they are walking they look like one. When they eat and drink, their heads argue with each other, saying “you ate more than I did!”, and “you drank more than I did!”.
You might ask – are they wicked? God forbid! They are extremely pious, and their dead will be resurrected on Judgement Day, and will praise of the Lord.
Even though this ends Midrash Conen’s description of Tevel and its inhabitants, the story doesn’t end here. In a later Midrash, one of the many texts involving King Solomon’s discourse with demons and otherworldly beings, we find the same two-headed creature from Tevel, this time as a main character.
This story happened during the reign of Solomon, King of Israel. One day, Ashmedai [Asmodeus], king of the demons, went before him and asked, “are you the one on whom it is written, he was wiser than all his men?”
Solomon replied, “such was promised to me by the Lord”.
Ashmedai said to him, “if you want, I can show you something you have never seen before”.
Solomon agreed, and Ashemdai’s hand reached into the land of Tevel and pulled out a man with two heads and four eyes. Solomon was amazed and frightened, and commanded that the man be put in his chambers.
In the next passages, the King locks the creature in his chambers, calls his advisers, and together they interrogate the poor thing about the land of Tevel. Some of its answers simply repeat the details in Midrash Conen, and other details are plain uninteresting. Eventually, Solomon has the courtesy to ask the creature if he wants to return to his home world. Surprisingly enough, he does, but Ashemdai claims that it would be impossible for him to return. Ashmedai leaves the stage, and the narrative moves on to discuss the legal issues that such two-headed persons might incur.
Since it was decided that the two-headed man must remain in this world, he married a woman and had seven sons. Six of them were like their mother, and one was like his two-headed father. And the man sawed, and he reaped, and he became a wealthy person.
After a while, that man died and left his wealth to his sons. Six of them said, we are seven, and our father’s fortune should be equally divided among us. The one with two heads said, we are eight, and I deserve two-eighths of the inheritance. They all went to King Solomon, and said to him, “Your Highness, we are seven yet our two-headed brother claims we are eight”.
Faced with this rather puzzling accusation, King Solomon is baffled. He spends the night in a lengthy prayer, reminding God of His promise to grant him wisdom and good judgement. Luckily, God didn’t give him too much in the way of proper witness questioning techniques.
The following morning, [Solomon] gathered his court and told them to bring before him that two-headed man. They brought him before the king, and he said, “behold – if this head knows what I do to the other, they are one, and if it does not, then they are two”.
Solomon said, “bring me hot water and old wine and fine cloth. And he wrapped the cloth around one head, and threw hot water and old wine at the other, and he screamed, “we are dying! we are dying! we are one and not two!”
So, to recount, the two-headed humans from Tevel are gluttonous, greedy, lying and quick to anger. If they were ever to invade our world (possibly as zombies after Judgement Day), we can take comfort in the fact that at they are supposed to be pious.
A probably unrelated medieval sculpture from France.