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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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Today is, uhhhh…World Health Day, which commemorates the founding of the World Health Organization.  This “day of observance” was designed “to draw the attention of the world to the health of global human populations and the diseases that may impact these populations.”  Since this is also Holy Week, I decided to bundle World Health Day together with the Biblical theme post I had already selected. Perhaps we can work together at the end of the post (and in the comments below) in order to reconcile the two themes!

OK, back to our Bibles!  Today’s chapter is Numbers 21 which describes another episode during the long Jewish exodus from bondage in Egypt to conquest of Israel.  Although not necessarily well-versed at understanding natural phenomena, the writers of the Pentateuch were extremely keen students of human nature!   Whenever things turn difficult (spoiler: things are always difficult) or if Moses is not constantly micromanaging them, the Israelites hare off and start worshiping golden calves or sleeping with Moabite hussies or whining so very aggressively that it annoys God himself (as happens in this instance).  Here is how it is described in Numbers 21:

4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.

6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

Wow! God instructs Moses to build what would, in any other circumstance, be an extremely idolatrous metal serpent to heal the bites of poisonous fire serpents?  What is going on in this passage?

For one thing, paleoethnographers who have studied the deepest history of Semitic tribes surmise that El, the sky shepherd god who, in time would become develop into Yweh and thence into God as we know him was perhaps not the original center of Jewish worship!  It seems like the wandering tribe might have adopted El from Canaanite/Syrian sources they encountered in the Sinai. The oldest religious objects archaeologists have associated with bronze age Canaanite sites like Megiddo,  Gezer,  Hazor, and Shechem seem to be snake cult objects!  It is intriguing to surmise that the chosen people were originally snake worshipers, and this shameful pre-literary heritage is preserved in the Bible in the form of Moses’ brass effigy (as well as one or two other critical moments of that text).

But the baffling interplay of religious syncretism in Asia-Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Levant five thousand years ago (which gave rise to monotheism) is a topic for a greater and more ponderous work of scholarship!  I just wanted to explain to you the origin of this brass serpent icon in the Bible.  The Jewish call such a thing a Nehushtan ((נחשתן and it kept making controversial appearances in ancient Israel.  Later on King Hezekiah would institute a reform banning the popular religious totem and rabbis still argue about it to this day.

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The Brazen Serpent (James Tissot The Brazen Serpent, ca.1896–1902) watercolor on paper

Here is a Nehushtan painted by a 19th/20th century Christian artist and it is pretty shocking! Not only does the Brazen Serpent resemble Christian iconography,  it is more or less identical to the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus of Hermes (if you haven’t read about Asclepius, please do so, his story is profoundly thought-provoking).

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Wow! This is a lot to take in.  Before the Aztecs show up with Quetzalcoatl and this post melts completely, it is worth asking if there is a bigger point to all of this?  The answer is YES: today is World Health Day! I am honoring the world’s brave and compassionate (and hard-working) health care workers by talking about their ridiculously ancient symbol, a snake on a stick.  The fact that it comes not just from the GrecoRoman canon but from JudeoChristian mythology as well only highlights its importance (Frankly I didn’t expect to find intimations that Jews worshiped this thing before they worshiped their one God! Yet perhaps some of New York’s most eminent physicians would secretly smile). Modern people are apt to think of religion as an ancient political/ethical rubric which holds society together and regard medicine as a science.  Yet plagues and crises remind us what Moses knew.  There is more overlap in caring for the sick and providing stories which explain existence than we might initially suppose!  Thank you doctors and nurses for working so hard (and for holding up the world during this pandemic!  We appreciate what you are doing more than we can say (even if we can only express these feelings in the form of strange biblical blog posts).  You truly are the children of Apollo and we all love you no matter what happens (although would it kill you to drive the profane and wicked MBAs out of your profession and reclaim its sacred compassion for everyone?)

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The Citron Fruit (Citron Medica)

The Citron Fruit (Citron Medica)

People love citrus fruit!  What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons?   This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees.  Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions!  The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets.  All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas.  It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.

Large Citron in a Landscape (Bartolomeo Bimbi, ca. 1690s, oil on canvas)

Large Citron in a Landscape (Bartolomeo Bimbi, ca. 1690s, oil on canvas)

The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid).  Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times).  Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them.  Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.

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In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual.  The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills.  Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims.  In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).

"Um, how do you tell if this has been grafted?" (Image from Abir Sultan / EPA)

“Um, how do you tell if this has been grafted?” (Image from Abir Sultan / EPA)

Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).

Varieties of Citron Fruit

Varieties of Citron Fruit

Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade.  In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange.  I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing.  I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you.  In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?

The color citron

The color citron

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