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Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884) oil on canvas

It is the last month of a largely disappointing year. It is time to start looking forward in time and thinking about how we can maybe redeem next year from the failures and idiocies which have bedeviled this era. But it also the beginning of the holiday season, so as an early holiday treat, here is a very famous and beautiful painting from 1884 (it was very famous in 1884–perhaps less so now, but its troubling beauty endures). But why is this painting troubling? What is it even about?

This is Consulting the Oracle, by the matchless John Williams Waterhouse, one of the greatest of English painters from England’s greatest era. Like Waterhouse’s foreboding and challenging work Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden, this is a work that, at first glimpse, seems to be an overly realistic Victorian fantasy of decorative charm, exotic setting, sumptuous color, and feminine beauty without much larger import. As with the Psyche painting, this initial impression is quite far from the truth, but, to understand the painting one must research the subject.

According to Waterhouse (who must have been a very strange and learned man) “Consulting the Oracle” is about a group of young Jewish women consulting a teraph to learn the future. Teraphim appear in the Pentateuch–but the text makes their nature extremely problematic and mysterious, or, to say that a different way, teraphim are baffling forbidden items in the Bible. Hebrew scholars have lost the original meaning of the word and now just translate it as “disgraceful things.” Apparently they were household or ancestral deities, not unlike the Roman Penates. For example, In Genesis, when Jacob (the father of Israel) is finally escaping his conniving father-in-law, Laban, Jacob’s wife Rachel steals the family teraphim. Laban is suspicious about what she is sitting on (for she refuses to rise from her camel saddle), but she tells him she is menstruating and thus succeeds in making off with the items. Various disputed Talmudic sources (which I guess that Waterhouse was reading?) suggest that the teraphim were the ancestors, or to quote the Jewish Encyclopedia, that “Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first-born male adult humans. The heads were shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate.” According to Kabbalistic tradition, such objects could foretell the future if hung upon the wall and properly invoked. Modern archaeology has discovered many ceremonially plastered and mounted skulls kept inside the house as sacred ancestral totems in the ancient early cities and settlements of Palestine and the Levant. Also the sacrifice of all first born male mammals is indeed an ancient Middle Eastern tradition.

So what Waterhouse has actually given us is a peak into a ritual which casts a great deal of doubt onto just what the Old Testament is really about (in fact if you look around the room, you might notice that the torah is there, peaking out of its cupboard beneath the blue bottle at far right). Also notice that in this composition, a seat has been prepared for you the viewer to take part in this dark ritual of prophecy. You get to hear what this sacrificed mummified human head has to say. In fact the head is there too, whispering to the quack priestess who commands the audience with her stagecraft–it is just so leathery, brown, and unexpected that you probably missed it. Jeepers Creepers!

So what is this painting about? To my mind it is a warning about the false promises of magic and divination (or “religion” as we call such things). These excited young women have fallen under the dark thrall of the teraph’s interpreter. She is using the “disgraceful thing” to work everyone up and gain a hold upon them. A cursory look at Waterhouse’s full oeuvre reveal him to be obsessed with exactly such stories of sacrifice, judgement, and faith gone horribly awry. Another interpretation is that it is a painting which takes a thread from the Bible, the teraphim, and pulls at it to see what unwinds, rather in the manner Kierkegaard did with “Fear and Trembling” (or Rembrandt did with Abraham and Isaac). But this is an evil version of Fear and Trembling, for it opens a curtain into a world where God’s chosen are, well, murderers and idolators, apparently. This, of course, lays open a possible interpretation that this is an anti-Semitic work, although I personally doubt this since because, like Waterhouse’s Arthurian and Roman women, these Jewish ladies really look like Victorian/Edwardian English ladies to me. Whatever Waterhouse is saying, he is probably saying it about all people for all time.

Another interpretation is that this really is a work about augury. The teraph’s words are terrible and forbidden, but who could resist hearing them? The audience’s body language of open mouthed astonishment, horror, or outright weeping suggest that the teraph might indeed have some bad things to say (maybe about the Great War and how Waterhouse would die just before it ended of a horrible, painful cancer). In a way, the painting reminds me most of the poem “Goblin Market” (another profound work of art by another Pre-Raphaelite) it approaches forbidden and the transgressive as a legitimate source of transcendent knowledge about ourselves. So sit down, right there, in the the seat Waterhouse has prepared for you and tell me what you hear.

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