Jezebel the Polytheistic Princess

I am reading Lesley Hazleton’s Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, which I picked up at the Doubleday booth at the AAR-SBL meeting.

Somewhat as Robert Graves did in King Jesus decades ago–but with better sourcing–she takes a familiar Bible story and re-tells it from a different perspective.

Jezebel (Phoenician “Itha-Ba’al” — woman of the Lord) was a Phoenician princess united in a political marriage with Ahab, who was actually one of the more militarily and successful Israelite kings of the Omride dynasty. The Bible slams him for not being hard enough on polytheists, however.

As queen and then as queen mother, she plays the political game as best she can before falling victim to monotheistic religious violence incited by the prophet Elijah. It’s telling that Hazleton describes Elijah as issuing a fatwa against her: He is nothing but a forerunner of the Islamic preachers of today, urging the young men to blow themselves up in the name of Allah. When the Bible speaks of “companies of prophets,” I see the Taliban.

The story is told in the the Book of Kings, which Hazleton supplements with what archaeology has since learned about the kingdom of Israel.

It has been many years since I looked at 2nd Kings. It is supposedly a chronicle of Israel and Judah, but as Hazleton says, “It has the logic of a dream.” But I was reading Jezebel with the Bible in my lap for cross reference (Hazleton provides ample citations.)

Jezebel’s grandniece,known to the Greco-Roman world as Dido, helped to establish the city of Carthage, Rome’s military and commercial rival. But Dido’s real name was Elitha, which via the Carthaginian colonies in Spain became “Alicia,” or so Hazleton claims. Meanwhile, Jezebel–Itha-Ba’al–became “Isabelle” (or Isabella or Isobel) by the same route.

Margaret Murray, the English archaeologist who cast Paganism as the “Old Religion” in early modern Europe, claimed that “Isobel” and its variants (along with Joan) was among the most common names of women tried as witches. (Is that why Björk chose it?) But, really, I think that that was because it was a popular name, not because it was a “witch name.”

Inventing Jane Harrison

I have received Mary Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison–there goes the evening. (And all hail the interlibrary loan staff for producing it so quickly.)

Ronald Hutton writes of Harrison in his book The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft:

“Savagery and barbarism both frightened and excited her. She admitted that ‘ritual seizes me: a ritual dance, a ritual procession and vestments and lights and banners, moves me as no sermon, no hymn, no picture, no poem has ever moved me.'”

She was both Puritan and would-be Bacchante in the same body, a fascinating character, described when lecturing at Cambridge as “a tall figure in black drapery, with touches of her favorite green and a string blue Egyptian beads, like a priestess’s rosary.” Hutton suggests that she did much to create the notion of a Great Goddess who preceded the familiar Greek pantheon. He quotes Beard, so now I will see what Beard has to say.

Beard herself describes the myth of Harrison thus in her preface:

“Jane Ellen Harrison changed the way we think about the ancient Greeks; she infuriated the academic establishment at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with her uncompromising refusal to play the submissive part; she fell repeatedly and hopelessly in love–usually with entirely unsuitable men, who were also her academic colleagues; she gave some of the most remarkably theatrical lectures that the University of Cambridge has ever seen; in the very male intellectual world of a century ago, she put women academics and women’s colleges (dangerously) on the map.”