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What If?

You may or may not be eager to delve into the ritual details of the Jewish Day of Atonement, but Adam Kirsh’s latest blog at the Tablet offers an important insight into what the Talmud is all about generally. In “What Happens When the Talmud Asks, ‘What If?’” Kirsh highlights something about how the early rabbis used hypothetical situations to probe the essence of things. He writes,

Throughout the Talmud’s description of the Yom Kippur ceremony—the ongoing subject of Tractate Yoma—the rabbis have displayed what might seem like an excessive concern for what might go wrong. In the whole history of the Temple, for instance, it seems unlikely that a single high priest died during the performance of his duties in the Holy of Holies. But the Talmud worries repeatedly about what to do if this should happen. Such attention to unlikely or purely hypothetical cases is highly characteristic of the Talmud, and it can make the reader impatient: Why did the rabbis bother with such remote, academic speculations?

I’ve found it useful, in the course of reading Daf Yomi, to think of these kinds of questions as the rabbis’ indirect way of asking about definitions and essences. In laying down the Shabbat laws, for instance, one rabbi asks whether transporting saliva in one’s mouth is considered “carrying,” in which case one would have to spit it out every few paces. The point of the question, it seems to me, is not whether a Jew should go around spitting all the time, but exactly how to define a substance: Is matter within the body a separate entity, or part of the body itself? This kind of speculation about substances and their qualities was central to classical and medieval thought, including Jewish thought. Because Jewish law deals with everyday matters, it produces a kind of everyday metaphysics.

It’s a really enlightening read.

Classical Timeline

Just sighted: interactive timelines for classical philosophy and early Christianity. Check out ClassicalTimeline. Although still in beta, it looks like it could be very cool.

The Conflict between Science versus Religion: It’s not just Epic, It’s Mythical!

James Hannam explores the nature of the often reported but seldom documented age-old conflict between science and religion:

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of giving a talk at the Royal Society in London on medieval natural philosophy. During the course of my talk, I mentioned that the great conflict between science and religion is a myth. I also covered a few of the more egregious legends that feed the myth, such as the claim that medieval people thought that the Earth is flat. Afterwards, not expecting to hear anything more on the conflict myth, I took questions. But one of the first was about Roger Bacon and William of Ockham. Weren’t they examples of scientists persecuted by the Church?

That’s the strange thing about the conflict myth: much of the evidence for it is bogus. Most people are not only ignorant of the real history of science and religion, but what they think they know is actually untrue. My interrogator at the Royal Society was misinformed about Bacon and Ockham, but had accepted what he’d heard about them because it was consistent with his overall image of the medieval Church. It’s safe to say that, when properly investigated, almost none of the allegations behind the conflict myth stack up. That’s why we hear so much about the trial of Galileo. It’s the one unambiguous example of where the Church got it wrong (even if it was not the unambiguous attack on science by religion often supposed).

So I thought readers of Strange Notions might enjoy some of the weird and wonderful ways that non-believers have told me, with a straight face, that the Church held back science. I’ll also briefly debunk each of the myths just in case you hear them yourselves.

Fairies in the Bible?

Joel Hoffman is blogging today about unicorns and other mythological creatures in the Bible—or at least in the King James Version. As he usually does, Dr. Hoffman raises an intriguing question about how the original Hebrew words the KJV rendered as “dragon,” “unicorn,” and so forth should be handled. Did the original writers intend their readers to understand these as real-world creatures (e.g., as serpents, rhinoceroses, etc.) or did they mean to depict creatures of fantasy? He writes,

More generally, I think the real translation question with all of these creatures is whether they were intended to be mythic or — for want of a better word — real.

Even if they were intended to be real, “dragon” and “unicorn” may have been right once. It seems that people thought that both existed. (As late as the 17th century, scholars in Europe argued that griffins were real, and the only reason we didn’t see them was that, quite naturally, these magnificent creatures tended to stay away from people who would steal their gold). But now those translations wrongly take the real and turn them into fantasy.

On the other hand, if they were not meant to be real, then attempts to identify the exact species may be misguided, and maybe we should stick with “dragon” and “unicorn” and so forth.

Hoffman deals mainly with “unicorns” (re’em) and “dragons” (tannin), although he makes passing reference to a possible merperson in the character of Dagon, the god of the Philistines.

Along these same lines, I would suggest that there are a handful of possible reference to fairies in the Bible—at least if the rabbis of the medieval period were interpreting these passages rightly.

Two Hebrew words are of interest: shedim and se’irim, both translated daimonia (“demons”) in the Septuagint. Shedim only appear twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the plural (although the singular form would be shed). Psalm 106:37 says, “They sacrificed their own sons and daughters to demons!” (CEB). In a similar context, Deuteronomy 32:17 says,

They sacrificed to demons, not to God,
to deities of which
they had no knowledge—
new gods only recently on the scene,
ones about which your ancestors
had never heard.

Shedim are therefore obviously bad news in the Bible. Oddly enough, the term seems to be related to the Akkadian shedu, a benevolent or protective spirit, perhaps something we might think of as a guardian angel. Then again, people around the world have made offerings to various local protective spirits to secure their goodwill. The biblical writers were obviously interested in discouraging such a practice. Thus, in the Bible, they are depicted not as helpful minor spirits but as false gods to be avoided.

The next word is se’irim (singular se’ir), meaning “hairy beings” or “shaggy beings.” In the KJV, the word is translated “satyrs.” There are a few more references to se’irim than there are to shedim. According to Leviticus 17:7, “The Israelites must no longer sacrifice their communal sacrifices to the goat demons that they follow so faithlessly. This will be a permanent rule for them throughout their future generations.” The LXX renders se’irim as mataiois, “to empty or vain things.”

Se’irim dwell in the desolate wilderness and are apparently fond of dancing. According to Isaiah 13:21,

Wildcats will rest there;
houses will be filled with owls.
Ostriches will live there,
and goat demons (LXX, daimonia) will dance there.

And again in Isaiah 34:14:

Wildcats will meet hyenas,
the goat demon will call to his friends,
and there Lilith will lurk
and find her resting place.

I saw you wondering about Lilith in that verse. We’ll come back to her in a minute. It should be noted, that the Septuagint translation removes Lilith from the picture but possibly gives us a completely new mythological creature. My fairly wooden translation of the Greek is as follows:

Demons will meet onocentaurs
and they will shout one to the other,
There onocentaurs will rest
for they found a resting place for themselves.

If you’re not up to speed on medieval bestiaries, let me quickly explain that an onocentaur is part man, part ass. (And please refrain from any comments about half-ass blog posts. Thank you.)

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the se’irim are “are satyr-like demons, described as dancing in the wilderness…identical with the jinn of the Arabian woods and deserts.” Azazel, the goat-like wilderness demon (Lev 16:10ff) and Lilith (whom we already encountered in Isa 34:14) are said to be of the same class of beings. Further, it should be noted that some see in Lilith a prototype for later vampire legends. The Jewish Encyclopedia also raises the possibility that “the roes and hinds of the field” (gazelles and wild deer in the CEB) in Song of Songs 2:7 and 3:5 are “faunlike spirits similar to the se’irim, though of a harmless nature.”

How does all this apply to fairies? Thomas Keightley argued in The Fairy Mythology (1870)  that the prototypes of European fairy legends were to be found not only in the nymphs and satyrs of Greco-Roman mythology but also in Near Eastern stories of jinns and peris (or jinn and parian, to use the correct Arabic and Persian plurals). He even argued  that our English word “fairy” derives ultimately from Persian pari (or peri). This linguistic argument may or may not hold, but anyone who looks at Persian peri-stories will find many parallels to what was believed about fairies in rural Europe until fairly recent times.

If Keightley is correct, then the European conception of fairies owes a good deal to the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world(s) in which the Bible was written. It therefore would not be unusual to find references to the such creatures in biblical and other early Semitic materials.

After tracing the fairy mythology throughout northern Europe, Keightley makes quick reference to Jewish legends about similar creatures found in the rabbinic corpus. These beings are in fact called shedim and seirim (although Keightley transliterates them shedeem and shehireem). Another term, maziqin (or mazikeen in Keightley’s transliteration), is Aramaic and applies specifically to a malevolent spirit. According to rabbinic tradition, all these beings are in fact directly analogous to the jinn of Arabic folklore. Keightley writes,

It has long been an established article of belief among the Jews that there is a species of beings which they call Shedeem, Shehireem, or Mazikeen. These beings exactly correspond to the Arabian Jinn; and the Jews hold that it is by means of them that all acts of magic and enchantment are performed.

The Talmud says that the Shedeem were the offspring of Adam. After he had eaten of the Tree of life, Adam was excommunicated for one hundred and thirty years. “In all those years,” saith Rabbi Jeremiah Ben E’liezar, “during which Adam was under excommunication, he begat spirits, demons, and spectres of the night, as it is written, ‘Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begat children in his likeness and in his image,’ which teaches, that till that time he bad not begotten them in his own likeness.” In Berasbith Rabba, R. Simon says, “During all the one hundred and thirty years that Adam was separate from Eve, male spirits lay with her, and she bare by them, and female spirits lay with Adam, and bare by him.”

These Shedeem or Mazikeen are held to resemble the angels in three things. They can see and not be seen; they have wings and can fly; they know the future. In three respects they resemble mankind: they eat and drink; they marry and have children; they are subject to death. It may be added, they have the power of assuming any form they please; and so the agreement between them and the Jinn of the Arabs is complete.

Keightley shares three Jewish legends about the shedim: “The Broken Oaths,” “The Moohel,” and “The Mazik-Ass.”

As with dragons and unicorns, there are probably some who will pounce on “rational” or “scientific” explanations for fairies. Some do, in fact, attribute European fairy-lore to dim memories of diminutive tribes driven underground—and ultimately to extinction—by later invaders with the advantage of iron weapons (in both Europe and the Middle East, iron is a potent weapon against the Fair Folk).

In my experience, however, I think most interpreters would see shedim and se’irim as terms intended to describe supernatural or otherworldly beings and not merely misidentified pygmies or “wild men”—whether or not they judge such creatures to be “real.”

Three CRAPpy Songs

Jim McGrath is teaching students about information literacy through song parodies. Cool!

The Flow of History

Rogueclassicism tipped me off to the existence of The Flow of History, a cool site with brief summaries of various world history topics. The site also has many, many graphic representations of key points in the form of flow charts. Here, for example, is a chart for “The Israelites and the Birth of Monotheism” (with the accompanying text).

It obviously paints with a very broad brush, but sometimes that is what you need, especially if you’re trying to get up to speed on a topic in history with which you’re unfamiliar, such as (for me) “The Development of Early Japan.”

The Subjunctive Mood

After reading Geoffrey Pullum’s rant about misunderstandings of the subjunctive mood today at Language Log, I am even more mystified by this fairly commonplace explanation of the Latin subjunctive.

Caucasian Rednecks?

Google.org has launched a new initiative called the Endangered Languages Project. According to the website,

With the Endangered Languages Project, Google puts its technology at the service of the organizations and individuals working to confront the language endangerment by documenting, preserving and teaching them. Through this website, users can not only access the most up to date and comprehensive information on endangered languages as well as samples being provided by partners, but also play an active role in putting their languages online by submitting information or samples in the form of text, audio or video files. In addition, users will be able to share best practices and case studies through a knowledge sharing section and through joining relevant Google Groups.

This is a commendable goal that a language-junkie like myself can only applaud.

I found one slight problem, however. Exploring on their interactive map, I decided to zoom in on the United States to see what endangered languages might be spoken near me. There are no state boundaries on the map, but I believe the dot representing the Bezhta language is placed somewhere in north Georgia.

Bezhta USAI had never heard of this language. Assuming it was a Native American dialect, I clicked for more information. This is what I found:

Caucasian language and it belongs to the Dido subgroup of the northwestern group (Avar-Ando-Dido) of the Dagestan languages. Bezhta is also called the Kapucha language, a name which originates in the Georgian name for the village of Bezhita. There is no scholarly agreement on the genealogical classification of the Bezhta (Kapucha) language. E. Bokarev considers it to belong to the Dido subgroup, whereas Georgian linguist, E. Lomatadze, thinks it is a dialect of the Kapucha-Hunzib language. Bezhta is divided into three dialects: Bezhta, Tljadali and Hochar-Hota. The vocabulary has been greatly affected by Avar and Georgian, through which there have also been some borrowings from Arabic, Turkish and Persian. During the Soviet era the biggest influence was Russian. (The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire)

As they say, I see what you did there. Someone apparently confused the STATE of Georgia in the USA with the REPUBLIC of Georgia in the Caucasus. There is, however, another dot for the Bezhta language in the Caucasus region where it belongs.

Bezhta CaucasusIf there are, in fact, Bezhta-speakers hanging out somewhere between Rome and Chattanooga, I’d love to hear from you. Otherwise, I’m going to put this in the “somebody needs a geography lesson” file.

Thank you, Endangered Language Project, not only for the important work you’re undertaking, but also for providing me a much-needed chuckle today.

Moses, John Tyler, and Skewed Generation Lengths

I thought this story about Presidential descendants was interesting:

Former President John Tyler, born 221 years ago, still has two living grandchildren. The one-term president isn’t a well-known historical figure; he’s probably best remembered for helping to push through the annexation of Texas in 1845, shortly before leaving office.

So, how is it possible that a former president who died 150 years ago would still have direct descendents alive today? As it turns out, the Tyler men were known for fathering children late in life. And that math is pretty outstanding when added up:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He became the 10th president of the United States in 1841 after William Henry Harrison died in office. Tyler fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler in 1853, at age 63.  Then, at the age of 71, Lyon Gardiner Tyler fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924 and four years later at age 75, Harrison Ruffin Tyler. Both men are still alive today.

That means just three generations of the Tyler family are spread out over more than 200 years.

I don’t know how old Lyon Jr. and Harrison were when they became fathers, but the average age for both President Tyler and his son, Lyon, is a whopping 67 years! To put this in perspective, genealogists will usually figure a first child is born when the father is about 20-25. If you’re not worrying specifically about firstborns, the average father-to-son generation length will be a bit longer, but surely not much past 30. But here is a documented account of a father-to-son average generation length of almost 70 years. This is significantly longer than the average 40-year generation length documented in my own family tree over the past six generations.

Of course, I’m thinking about this because of (what else?) the biblical genealogies. We usually don’t bat an eye when we see a genealogy (biblical or otherwise) with generation-lengths in the 20-30 year range. But surely something is amiss if we find some in the 60-70 year range, right? Well, yes, there almost certainly is—but apparently not always. In the great majority of cases, there is most likely a generation or more missing from the record when you find you have to “stretch” the generation lengths to cover the allotted time. Either that or you have over-estimated the time span in the first place.

For example, the genealogies that span from the time Jacob and his family entered Egypt until the time of the Exodus will expand or contract depending on the dates assigned. Even then, however, different genealogical lines cover that period with different numbers of ancestors. Joshua’s (through Joseph) has thirteen. Nahshon’s (through Judah) has seven—or maybe a couple more if you make certain text-critical assumptions about the version of this line given in Luke 3. Moses’s (through Levi) has only five.

Is it really possible that only five generations separate two points in time that other genealogies fill with a dozen or so ancestors? Actually, probably not. I still suspect there are some missing generations in there somewhere. But the genealogy of John Tyler makes the genealogy of Judah look a bit more plausible on the surface. Two or three unusually long generational “jumps” would bring all the rest into something like the expected parameters.


I Am a Descendant of King David—and So Are You

Jim Davila notes a Jerusalem Post article about descendants of the House of David

Are you a descendant of the House of David? If you have ever wondered if blue blood flows through your veins, you might consider visiting the King David Private Museum and Research Center, which reopened on Monday in its new location in central Tel Aviv.

Better yet, run your name through the museum’s online database that curators vow will accurately tell you whether you are related to the monarch from the 10th century BCE (www.Davidicdynasty.org).

It is quite likely on statistical grounds that everyone alive today of Western European descent is a descendant of Charlemagne. Similarly, if King David existed in history at all, then it is virtually a mathematical certainty that everyone alive today is one of his descendants. The trick, of course, is having the documentation to prove it. Whatever you do, don’t tell Dan Brown!


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