Quick Review: The Aleppo Codex

If you liked The Da Vinci Code or The Historian or The Name of the Rose, you might enjoy The Aleppo CodexThe difference is that it is a factual story, and its context is modern Syria and Israel, not medieval Europe.

From the dust jacket: “It’s a tale that involves grizzled secret agents, pious clergymen, shrewd antiquities collectors, and highly placed national figures who, as it turns out would do anything to get their hands on an ancient decaying book.”

The codex in question was created in the tenth century by an expert scribe and a noted rabbi working together. The scribe could write Hebrew like it came out of a laser printer, as the author will later note, while the rabbi then added various marginal notes to the completed pages. Unlike the Torah scrolls used in synagogues, this parchment book was designed to be the most accurate and complete reference edition of the entire Hebrew Bible.

It was looted when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem 170 years later, ransomed by Egyptian Jews, studied by Maimonides, then somehow later transported to the chief synagogue of Aleppo in northern Syria.  The codex, now known as the “Crown of Aleppo,” was no longer read but functioned more as a talisman for the Jewish community.

There in November 1947, angered that the United Nations had approved creation of the state of Israel, a Muslim mob attacked Jewish homes and businesses and trashed the synagogue.  Most of the Crown’s pages were recovered after the synagogue was vandalized during the riot—but then the story grows murky, foggy, and complicated.

When author Matti Friedman, a Canadian-born reporter working in Jerusalem, becomes intrigued with the story of how (and how much of) the Crown came to be in an Israeli museum, one of his sources tells him, “You’re entering a minefield . . . . There are traps and pitfalls and mirages and cats guarding the cream. Say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and ten other doors will slam shut.”

Trying to write the modern story of the codex, Friedman enters a world where public records disappear, where histories have large gaps, and where passions run high. One murder possibly connected with the Crown causes him to write that it was a “story could have been written by Agatha Christie, if Agatha Christie were an ultra-Orthodox Jew.”

A typical interaction goes like this:

My conversation with Zer followed the usual pattern for exchanges with people in the Aleppo Codex Underground: they would float vague pieces of information to see if I knew more than they did, and I did the same.

It is not the information within the codex that makes it so important, but its enormous significance as tangible Judaica—like a lost emperor’s crown or the Holy Grail, it is important for its associations.

Not coincidentally, another of his collaborators, the grizzled retired Mossad agent referred to on the dust jacket, describes how as bullets were still flying in the Six-Day War of 1967, he and an Israeli colonel traveled to Bethlehem in search of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls believed held by an antiquities dealer there. Eventually the dealer sells it to the government for a high price—but it is an offer that he cannot refuse.

Not only was the new state of Israel seeking to bring back Jews from all over the world, it was determined by any means necessary to bring back texts connected with Jewish history, and in that determination lies the probable explanation of what happened to the Aleppo codex.

Ronald Hutton Responds to His Critics

Even before his interview with Australian scholar/blogger Caroline Tully, Ronald Hutton had written a lengthy article for The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies titled “Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View.”

It is now available as a free download from Equinox Publishing.

In it, Professor Hutton discusses the trajectory of his own work as well as responding to Ben Whitmore’s Trials of the Moon.

In the same issue, Peg Aloi reviews Trials of the Moon as well as Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror.

And I review yet another “grandmother story.”

The other articles in the latest issue (listed below) are behind a pay wall, although if you have access to a university library or to a good public library, they should be available through inter-library loan.

The Idol and the Numinous: the Pagan Quest for the Holy
Dominique Beth Wilson

Shamanisms and the Authenticity of Religious Experience
Susannah Crockford

Negotiating Gender Essentialism in Contemporary Paganism
Regina Smith Oboler

The Meaning of ‘Wicca’: A Study in Etymology, History, and Pagan Politics
Ethan Doyle White

The Magical Cosmology of Rosaleen Norton
Nevill Stuart Drury

Vampires of Santa Fe

Corn plant grill work in Acequia Madre neighborhood, Santa Fe, New MexicoA week ago I walked through a snow squall on Cathedral Place in the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and thought, “Santa Fe needs a vampire novel.”

I had in mind something like Anne Rice meets Jake Page meets Michael McGarrity.

It turns out that a Santa Fe-based writer, S.M. Stirling, has in fact been writing in that vein (heh).  Here is his protagonist, hanging out in the Plaza, pondering an eternal Santa Fe question—shopping or museum-ing:

A homeless man was approaching, ready to ask for a handout; leathery skin and rank scent and layers of tattered cloth. She glared at him and found the weakness—a blood-vessel in the brain ready to rupture, weakened by drugs, bad feeding, alcohol and stress from the untreated chemical imbalances that rode him more savagely than even her kind could do. She pushed. The world shifted slightly as might-be switched to is, like a breath of cold air up the spine and a tightness that went click and released around the brows. The man collapsed.

Adrienne rose and stepped by him; it would probably be minutes before someone noticed it was more than the usual unconsciousness. She’d planned on spending the afternoon at the O’Keefe Museum, or possibly shopping for jewelry, but…

Sample chapters of the book, A Taint in the Blood, are available at his Web site. Stirling seems to have a fondness for superhuman characters who, we might say, clean out the weak, which fits with the literary-vampire ethos.

(Earlier mentions of Stirling’s work here and here.)

Santa Fe might be called the New Orleans of the West, only “earthy” in an elemental sense rather than “watery.

It caters to tourists and offers them a good time. Tourist Santa Fe, selling High Culture (art and opera) to Texans (and others) co-exists with governmental Santa Fe just hundreds of yards away—after all, it has been a provincial capital since 1608.

But underneath . . . layers and layers. Ethnic balkanization and people cherishing hatreds and triumphs that go back centuries. Martyrs and massacres.  Deep roots in the earth.

Harry Potter Fans not all that into Magic, Witchcraft

Glancing back at Oberon Zell’s sporadic blog, I see mention of the “Azkatraz” Harry Potter convention in San Francisco last July. (Scroll down to the “Escape from Azkatraz” subhead in Aug. 1, 2009 entry.)

The Zells took a vendor space for their Mythic Images business of New Age, Pagan, and Goddess-oriented images, etc.

But it was not a very successful show, as Oberon notes:

And that gets me to the second important lesson we learned: Harry Potter fans aren’t interested in Wizardry, Witchcraft, Magick, an online school, or anything that isn’t specifically and only about the Harry Potter stories and characters. The only successful vendor was the one selling licensed trademark Harry Potter merchandise—such as Hogwarts House patches and regalia, movie replica wands, Harry Potter games and toys—and pointy hats. I bought a really nice new one,as well as several books from the book vendors. And we sold two copies of the A Wizard’s Bestiary: A Menagerie of Myth, Magic, and Mystery by managing to convince some folks that the magickal beasts featured in the Harry Potter stories could be found in this book. This is true, and I do hope they’ll go on to read about other beasties as well.

I don’t doubt his observations. It’s not that the Harry Potter books “drive children to witchcraft,” it is more that some Pagan Witches hope that Potter-readers will wonder what real witchcraft is. Most, however, probably will not, having enjoyed the stories just as stories.

John Keel Has Died

Author and Fortean John Keel died Friday in New York.

Not long after his signature book, The Mothman Prophecies was published, I saw on the Colorado Springs downtown library’s new-books shelf and passed it by–repeatedly–because the title sounded too weird.

From the Cryptomundo obituary:

After years of writing parts of the story in various articles and other books, in 1975, Keel published The Mothman Prophecies, an account of his 1966-1967 investigation of sightings of the Mothman, a “winged weirdie” reported in and around Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

Keel corresponded with Ivan T. Sanderson quietly for months, trying to determine what kind of bird might be involved with the sightings. It was later, as Keel more fully revealed the tale of the sightings and concurrent phenomena, that other elements came into the mix.

“Other elements” is putting it mildly. When I finally read The Mothman Prophecies, I realized that it offers a vivid depiction of the strangeness that any investigator of the paranormal encounters, the feeling that part of your body or part of your consciousness is sliding into an unfriendly parallel universe. Never mind the Mothman, read it for the psychology.

Priestess Honored by Cherry Hill Seminary

Judy Harrow, Wiccan priestess and teacher, has been honored by having Cherry Hill Seminary’s online library named for her.

Don’t go looking for the libary yet–it is under construction. And it will be entirely digital, since Cherry Hill offers primarily online classes.

CHS blurbs thusly:

A Wiccan priestess since 1977, Harrow founded Proteus Coven in 1981, and held several leadership offices for Covenant of the Goddess, on both national and regional levels, including National First Officer in 1984. She founded the Pagan Pastoral Counseling Network in 1982, and served as the first editor of the Network’s publication. Harrow co-created a successful workshop series, “Basic Counseling Skills for Coven Leaders,” which grew into a series of intensive workshops for Pagan elders on a range of topics. She also founded the New York Area Coven Leaders’ Peer Support Group, and served as Program Coordinator for the first Mid-Atlantic Pan-Pagan Conference and Festival, as well as several other Pagan gatherings.

I would add that Judy has been preaching about the need for professional counseling education for coven leaders as long as I have known her, and she followed her own advice.

She is also the author or editrix of Spiritual Mentoring: A Pagan Guide, Devoted To You: Honoring Deity in Wiccan Practice, and Wicca Covens: How to Start and Organize Your Own.

One bit of bibilographic essay writing missing from that list is her contributions to the 50th anniversary edition of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today. Since we are still waiting for a scholarly biography of Gardner, her two essays included in that edition, “Looking Backward: Gardner’s Sources” and “Looking Forward: Gardner’s Hunches,” should be read by everyone studying Wiccan history.

The Mists of Avalon and Its Antithesis

I recently re-read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon for the first time in years, in order to cite it in a paper.

Now I am reading its antithesis, Simon Young’s A.D. 500: A Journey Through the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland.

Based on the fiction of a geographer in Constantinople writing a guide to the “Dark Isles” based on contemporary reports and present-day archaeology, Young’s sixth century agrees very little with Bradley’s except, perhaps, on the importance of Tintagel.

If Tintagel is a work of Nature’s art, then man has, however, botched its decorations. The British Celts who live there are not great builders….The king’s court is a timber shack, something approximating in size and finish to one of our royal stables.

You want all-wise Druids at the close of Pagan Ireland?

But even in their reduced state, these old men–the young with spiritual gifts turn to the Church–have a certain notoriety. Instantly recognizable for their curious cloaks and their shaved heads–each has a short tuft over the forehead–they walk from place to place officiating over oaths and sacrifices (it is better not to ask of which sort).

Young admits that the story of the last Temple of Bacchus in Britain is “necessarily speculative,” but does offer sources for it, as for all his information.

Young’s book is a useful corrective to the “matter of Britain’s” multiple re-tellings–the last time I checked, library databases listed more than 900 works under the category of “King Arthur-Fiction.”