A Moroccan Jewish nightclub artist sings sáetas to the Virgin in León: Aicha la Hebrea

Looking for a 14th-century Hebrew bible from Spain on the website of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, I stumbled on Prof. Chris Silver’s curated collection of inter-war recordings of Andalusi music from Maghrebi singers

El Mamak 1930
source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France gallica.bnf.fr

One of them caught my attention: Cheikha Aicha ‘La Hebrea’, a Moroccan Jewish singer who in 1930 recorded a cover of Lili Labassi’s El Mamak for Columbia Records. What immediately stands out about this singer, who according to Silver “has barely left an archival trace,” is her nickname: ‘La hebrea.’ At first I thought she might have been from a Moroccan Ladino-speaking family, but in a Jewish setting where everyone is Jewish it’s unlikely that someone would be nicknamed ‘La hebrea’ (‘the Jewess’). That would be more likely if you were the only Jew around, for example, in a Spanish-speaking country whose citizens were prohibited from practicing Judaism, like, Spain.

Ideal Concert hall, Sevilla 1919
source: en.todocoleccion.net

As it turns out, this appears to have been the case, and Aicha ‘La Hebrea’ had a storied career as a singer and bohemian around town in Spain during the 1920s and 30s, where she made a name for herself as a popular singer of flamenco and other Spanish genres. As early as 1921 she is billed as “la artista moruna rutinaria Aicha La Hebrea” (the usual Arab singer Aicha La Hebrea) for a show at Ideal Concert in Seville in 1921 (Eco artístico (Madrid) vol 13, no. 376, Feb 28, 1921).

Circo Cuayás, Las Palmas (1939) source: http://galloscanarias.blogspot.com

She worked in Seville until at least 1925, when she toured Cádiz and the Canary Islands. A Seville newspaper again describes her as a singer of “beautful Arab songs” mixed with a “repertoire of Andalusian couplets”:

Después de haber actuado en Sevilla una corta temporada, marchó a Cádiz, embarcando para Canarias, para actuar en el Circo Cuayás, de Las Palmas, la original cancionista Aicha la Hebrea, que a sus bonitas canciones moras une un repertorio de coplas andaluzas que dice de manera magistral
El Liberal (Sevilla) Aug 4, 1925.

Plaza del Llano, Cantillana 2012
source: https://foursquare.com/

During Semana Santa 1927 she headlined a show put on in the Plaza de Llano in nearby Cantillana. She was billed as a singer from León and sang a set of “aires regionales, fandanguillos, canciones y sáetas.”

In the late 20s she lived in León in Northern Spain, where she sung at the Café Iris and was involved with the dwarf actor Nicolás. In 1929 she caused tremendous upset when she (as a very popular bohemian singer of ill repute in religious circles) sang a sáeta to the Virigin Mary from the balcony of the Café Iris. The Leonés bohemian personality Genarín worked as her valet for a while, before being struck dead by the city’s first garbage motor-truck. 

Leonés actor Nicolás
source: www.ileon.com

She also sang sáetas in the 1928 Holy Week processions in nearby Benavente, singing from the balcony above the Café de la Rúa, where she had also sung. Apparently the crowd of Aicha’s fans gathered in front of the bar was so large that the penitents carrying the Virgin could not get close enough to the bar for the Virgin to “hear” Aicha’s song. The local bishop objected to popular singers participating in the processions (p. 24)

In León she starred in the first film shot in that city by local photographer Winicio Testera Pérez, titled “Aicha la Hebrea,”  fragments of which can be found in the Filmoteca of Castilla y León. In 1929 she co-starred, with her paramour Nicolás, in the silent film Más vale llegar a tiempo.

still from film ‘Más vale llegar a tiempo’ (León 1929)

In 1933 She sang at the Kursaal Olimpia club in Sevilla, for the Seville Amateur Boxing Club, together with such singers as Angelita Cao ‘La Entrerrianita’ and Ildara Povi. (ABC Edición Andalucia Feb 4, 1971, p. 58)

Carlos Martín Ballester lists her among flamenco singers that recorded 78s in Spain. 


Some thoughts on Asturian mythology

The following is the text of a talk I gave at the University of Oregon Osher Center for Lifelong Learning on Dec. 10, 2014. My thanks to the Osher Center for the invitation.

horreo 01Typically when we think of Spain we think of Andalucía: bullfights, flamenco, Moorish monuments such as the Alhambra, and so forth. Maybe we think of Barcelona, the Mediterranean, and the modernist architecture of Antonio Gaudí.  Today I am pleased to talk to you about another corner of Spain, one that has very little to do with these images. Asturias is in central northern Spain, tucked in between the rugged Atlantic coast and the Cantabrian mountain range. It is a part of Spain that historically has been geographically isolated from the rest of the Peninsula, and for centuries it looked culturally toward the Atlantic, Brittany, and the British Isles. Together with its neighbor Galicia to the West, with its famed pilgrimage destination Santiago de Compostela, terminus of the Camino de Santiago or Road of Santiago, Asturias is the Spain on the so-called Celtic Rim. Culturally Asturias has much in common with Ireland and Wales. The local accent is a sort of brogue. The local alcoholic beverage of choice is sidra or cider, made from apples grown in local orchards for at least two thousand years. Asturian traditional architecture is decorated with symbols common to the Celtic world such as the trisquel or triple spiral, the hexapetala or hex, most frequently seen on granaries horreos in Asturian language), and traditional Asturian songs are accompanied by drum and gaita or bagpipe. In fact, Asturias may be the only place in the world where you can play castanets as you dance to a bagpipe.



A very interesting aspect of this shared Celtic culture is the popular mythology. Some of the traditional supernatural beings in Asturian popular traditions are familiar to us from their insular counterparts we know from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, in popularizing versions in school texts, films, and illustration traditions. The dragons, fairies, and satyrs of Celtic tradition are all here, as are the domestic tricksters (leprechauns), known as trasgus in Asturian, and the lord of the storms or ñuberu. These beings lived in the popular verbal arts of storytelling and song, and are rooted in specific communities and geographic locations, as we will discuss further on.

Asturias has the distinction within Spain of having the most robust popular mythological traditions in the country. By this I mean that there were and are more Asturians who were active participants in local folk traditions, more regional pride in these traditions, and regional institutions that promote the study of local mythological traditions in primary and secondary schools as well as at the university level. Other state agencies have followed suit. The Asturian tourism agency published a promotional video in 2004 that featured a friendly group of mythological beings flying around on the back of a dragon, while celebrating the birthday of the fairy, who was turning 20 that day. In this way, traditions that were more durable than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe have been repurposed in the contemporary construction of an Asturian regional identity, both internally, in schools and cultural activities, as well as externally, in tourism materials and other media directed toward national and international audiences.

Asturias, paraíso natural

Asturias, paraíso natural

Why have Asturian mythological traditions survived while their counterparts elsewhere in Spain and Portugal have not? Geography, mostly. As I mentioned before, Asturias is wedged between the Atlantic and the Cantabrian mountain range, which was all but impassable in the winter until the arrival of modern roadways. There are small fishing villages on the coast that were more easily accessed by boat than by land route, and mountain villages that were inaccessible during the winter months until the beginning of the twentieth century.  This isolation prevented the intrusion of people and media from outside the region, and slowed the assimilation of Asturian language and culture to the Castilian majority culture of modern Spain. Also, the depressed economics of the region relative to other more affluent, industrialized areas of the North such as the Basque Country and Catalunya helped to shore up the survival of Asturian culture in the modern age.

intimate contact

intimate contact

Even within modern Asturias, folklorists report that non-industrialized populations are far more likely to have conserved local folk traditions. In particular, people whose daily life is centered on agricultural and pastoral rhythms are far more likely to be carriers of local traditions than those who work in mining or other industries. The daily intimate contact with nature, with the animal and human life cycle, and with the elements reinforces the meaning in traditional narratives that originally developed to give meaning to the relationship between humanity and nature. Noted Asturian ethnographer Alberto Álvarez Peña once commented that when we was in the field interviewing informants in the villages, typically a miner might know a handful of traditional stories, a farmer would have a more extensive repertoire, and a cowherd would have an impressive command of hundreds of traditional tales learned by memory.

Iglesia de la Santa Cruz, Cangas de Onís

Iglesia de la Santa Cruz, Cangas de Onís

The traditions we are about to discuss today all developed before the arrival of Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula, and indeed before the Romanization of the Peninsula. Before the importation of Roman Gods and later of the Christian God, these traditions served a purpose similar to that of the Roman gods and Christian saints that would come to replace them. That is, they were mediators between humans and their experience with the natural world, personifications of natural forces, and allies for humans whose power was to be respected and feared. For example, the spirit of a local river or lake, known in British tradition as a water fairy or pixie, was meant to allegorize the bivalent relationship between humans and water in nature. On the one hand, the river brings water and therefore life. It waters animals that we hunt and herd. It carries fish that we eat. But it can also kill by drowning or by contamination. The xana or fairy associated with a local river was therefore a way for humans to articulate this relationship with this aspect of nature. The xana is powerful but largely benevolent. She would often give villagers gifts of gold objects or money, but could also turn violent if provoked.

Many of the supernatural beings we will discuss here are similarly bivalent in nature: they can be benevolent but also represent the violence inherent in the natural world, over which we have little to no control. They were revered by Asturians and provided a framework for articulating one’s experiences with the local natural world. They served both as reference points and as explanations for our experience of the vicissitudes of nature.

The arrival of Christianity transformed these traditions significantly. In Catholic society all spiritual authority must rest with God, Christ, Mary, the Saints, and the Church itself. The transition from Roman religion to Christianity was somewhat smoothed by the fact that Rome itself adopted Christianity. This institutional framework meant that Roman clerics would develop a transitional theology by which the Roman gods were mapped onto Christian saints, who for some time embodied both beings until such time as the identity of the Roman god merged and was assimilated to the Christian saint with whom he or she was paired. A similar process obtained in parts of the New World, when for example, Catholic saints were mapped onto the Yoruba Orixas in the Caribbean, or onto Aztec or Maya gods in Mexico and Central America. These syncretic practices are common in moments of transition or biconfessionalism in various historical moments.

However, the Asturian mythological beings did not fare well in the transition to Christianity. They were simply regarded by Catholic priests as heresies, and were pitted against the new religion. In this way, they were demonized and their positive meanings eroded. The spirits of nature that gave and took away became malevolent creatures who brought death and destruction only, and the cult of the old mythology and many other aspects of folk life were branded as heresy by the Church. As a result, a branch of narrative tradition emerges in the Christian period in which local priests are portrayed as locked in struggle with the local dragon or other being, in an allegory of the struggle between the old belief systems and Christianity. Priests and inquisitors inveighed against the old beliefs as Christian heresies, and associated mythological beings with negative figures in Christian tradition. In this way the busgosu or satyr, the spirit of the forest, becomes associated with the Christian Satan, who likewise is portrayed as having horns, the legs and hooves of an animal, and a tail.

remote geography helps

remote geography helps

Given how relatively robust the Asturian mythological traditions are straight into the twentieth century, one has to wonder how robust Christianity itself was in the most isolated rural populations where these traditions thrived. Given that most descriptions of the spiritual life of such communities come to us from local priests, it is difficult to say to what extent they were believing Christians, and in particular what shape those beliefs may have taken. In the more remote mountain villages, mass is given only once a week by a priest who lives in the local town and rotates to the area villages. In one remote mountain village I visited, most locals were openly critical of the Church and reported that there were only two elderly women who regularly attended the weekly masses given by the local priest. This historical antipathy (or at least apathy) to the Church is certainly tied to modern politics as well. Asturias, and rural Asturias, was virulently anti-Franco, whose regime was aggressively and officially Catholic. As is well known, the Spanish Church was hardly a neutral party in the Spanish Civil War, during which the Church was hand in glove with Franco’s Fascists.  This fact is not forgotten in rural Asturias, and the village in question, Sotres, in the Picos de Europa range, supported anti-Franco partisans for some twenty years after Franco took power.

Alberto Álvarez Peña

Alberto Álvarez Peña

But modern politics is only partly to blame for the failure of Christianity to take root meaningfully in the lives of cowherds and other villagers in the remotest areas of Asturias. According to ethnographer Alberto Álvarez Peña, it is the rhythms of daily life, particularly of the shepherds and cowherds, that is responsible. These men and women spend long stretches of time in the heights above the villages pasturing their herds. Until the recent invention of motorized vehicles, many of them slept in the high pastures with their animals and only came down to the village in the late fall when the grass stopped growing. They were surrounded by nature, and it was the forces of nature that were the most immediate to them. They did not need an abstract, universal divinity such as Christ, or his priests, to explain to them how the world works and what their place in it was. They could observe these things every day in the changing of the seasons, which they experienced more fully than those in the village, and in the life cycles of the animals with whom they spent their days. Neither did they spend long enough in the villages or towns to be properly indoctrinated by the priests, who were in any event chronically understaffed. And due to Asturias’ very late and equally incomplete industrialization, these ways of life and the traditions they supported were able to survive well into the twentieth century, while industrialization and official national culture all but extinguished traditional mythological beliefs in the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.

What I’d like to do know is to talk about a few of the most well represented mythological traditions in Asturias. These are all local versions of beings you’ve probably heard about in other Celtic traditions. All of them have their roots in local geographies and beliefs, and all of them are metaphors for our experience living in nature.

La xana image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

La xana
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

Perhaps the most well known being is the la xana (plural les xanes) or water fairy, who is associated with caves, grottos, rivers, and lakes. The xana is an almost entirely benevolent creature, human in appearance, who takes the shape of a very beautiful young woman with long hair dressed in traditional Asturian dress. The xana guards her treasures at the bottom of the lake, or in a cave, and is known to give humans gifts, usually skeins of golden yarn.  In the center of Asturias she is represented as a Christian, probably by dint of her appearance, but in the East she is thought to be a Muslim, a spirit of the wives of the Muslim forces stationed in Asturias in the eighth century, abandoned by her husband when the Christians captured Asturias. Alternatively, depending on our understanding of the Asturian word moro, or Moor. It can mean either “Muslim,” as in the Muslim forces of the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba who occupied Asturias during the first half of the eighth century, or “pagan”, by distinction from “Christian.” This sense give the xana a more ancient origin, placing her at least in pre-Christian Roman times. In any event, like all these beings the xana is thought to be of ancient or pre-historic origin, or at the very least not subject to time as are ordinary humans. Some believe the xana to be a distant memory of a local pre-Christian goddess, which is true of most of the more powerful mythological beings we will discuss. They were once local gods, each of whom represented a different aspect of nature just as the Romans and Greeks had their gods of fertility, of the sea, of the hunt, and so forth. As local pagan institutions were replaced by Roman and then Christian cults, these traditions were unmoored from their traditional frameworks and set loose in the popular imagination. That is, without a class of priests, druids, or shamans to actively shape and interpret the cults of local gods, the locals who carried the traditions were freer to reinterpret and transform them as they liked. We see this tendency, one might call it a de-institutionalization of myth, in the development of many of these traditions.

el cuélebre image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

el cuélebre
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

After the xana, el cuélebre, (male snake, in Spanish culebre) or dragon is probably the best-known member of the Asturian pantheon. This creature, similar to the dragons of Anglo-Celtic tradition, lives on the outskirts of a settled area in a cave, and is an enormous serpent with wings and legs. The cuélebre comes out of its lair to wreak havoc on the daily workings of the villagers, destroying farming or fishing equipment, poisoning wells and springs, and demanding the sacrifice of herd animals and eventually of human virgins this is where the image of the knight rescuing the dragon comes from. In pre-Christian times the dragon would have been a nature deity whose violent nature would have been placated by the sacrifice of herd animals, much like the Biblical Hebrew God who demanded the sacrifice of lambs and cows on certain days of the year in order to guarantee the balance between the interests of humans and of nature. In Christian times, the sacrifice of Christ made all others irrelevant and therefore heretical, and in order to demonize the old deity, Christians began turning the traditional sacrifices of animals into human sacrifices, which could more easily be denounced as a perversion of Christian doctrine and therefore a heresy. Christianization also brought innovations in the local traditions of cuélebres in which villagers, tired of the dragons’ destructive habits and taste for livestock or young girls, called in a local priest or in some cases a hermit to put an end to the creature or at least put the fear of god into him so he would no longer venture from his cave. One of the ways the cuélebre would terrorize villagers would be to block the local water source with his body and demand a ransom of herd animals or young virgins in order to unblock the source. This suggests its origins as a god of nature, similar to those South Pacific gods of volcanoes who require sacrifices in order to guarantee the volcano will not erupt. The cuélebre, like the volcano god, is a metaphor for the relationship between humans and nature.

Such gods or beings before Christianity were often benevolent. Another function of the cuélebre is also to guard treasure, and in pre-Christian times the cuélebre would also, like the xana, give presents to humans who sought him out in his lair, usually located in a cave in a mountain outside of a settled area. With Christianization, the cuélebre also became demonized and its generous aspect was suppressed, probably through its association with the Edenic serpent in Christian tradition. Curiously, in local traditions the cuélebre is always located in a cave into whose opening the sun shines on the day of the Summer solstice, meaning that the cuélebre is associated with the thinning of the veil between this world and the next. Other supernatural creatures traditionally appear on the Summer solstice, such as the xana, who appears in popular ballads on St. John’s night, combing herself with a golden comb.

frog prince

pucker up

In one tradition, the xana enchants herself to become a cuélebre, and a human man must kiss her three times on the lips in order to turn her back into a xana, after which she rewards the human by marrying him and making him the head of a prestigious lineage. There are noble houses throughout Europe that tell such legends about their origins. These tales have their analogues in Greek legends about kings and heroes who are descended from the gods, and are a way to justify the feudal social order. That is, if one should ask why a given family deserves to rule over all the others, the answer is simple: we are descended from gods, and you are not! There is a vestigial version of this tradition in the tale of the princess and the frog, in which the princess must kiss a frog in order to break the enchantment and change the frog back into a prince. The movie franchise Shrek turned this tradition on its head by having the princess’ true nature be monstrous, while the enchantment turned her into a beautiful young human woman.

Oviedo resident dressed as a busgosu, Antroxu (Carnaval) 2013

Oviedo resident dressed as a busgosu, Antroxu (Carnaval) 2013

Another creature that lives in the forest and is known to wreak havoc on the lives of nearby villagers is el busgosu or satyr. The busgosu is the half-man, half-goat Lord of the forest, whose job is to protect the interests of the forest and regulate the relationship of humans with natural forces within it. He is an Asturian version of the Greek god Pan, who is also represented as half-goat and half-man, with horns, cloven hooves, and a tail.  Legends of the busgosu represent him as alternatively malevolent and benevolent. At times he helps shepherds who are lost in the wood and offers to repair their huts in bad weather. At other times he is more of a boogeyman who harasses or kills villagers lost in the wood. It is noteworthy here to point out the key difference in these two versions. In the former, positive version is told among shepherds, who spend the majority of their time away from town and are the least catechized population (and therefore the most likely to experience these beings as forces of nature rather than of evil). In Christian times, the busgosu became demonized, and it is no accident that modern representations of the Devil show us a half-man, half-goat, with horns and a tail.  Again, there is no room in the Christian cosmovision for competing gods, and so these gods must be demoted to demons or in the case of the busgosu, the Devil himself. We see vestiges of the idea of the busgosu and related beings as gods in Asturian traditions about the Devil or Demons giving humans important technologies. In one tradition the Devil gives humans the saw, which enables them to cut down trees and build homes. In another the Devil builds humans bridges over local rivers. These traditions are confused by the traditional beings’ more recent identity as devilish. It doesn’t make sense for the Devil to be building bridges and donating new technologies. But it does make sense for a nature god, who is sometimes dangerous but not benevolent per se to donate technologies to his obedient followers. The metaphor is clear: you may proceed with the business of developing your civilization only to the extent that you are respectful of nature. Under Christianity this metaphor is broken, and what is left is a strange idea that very basic technologies such as the saw and the bridge for some reason come from the devil. There are a number of such traditions that attribute supernatural origins to ancient ruins and artifacts whose human origins have been lost to local memory. Ruins of ancient dolmens and other Neolithic structures are said to have been built by a race of demigods or titans known as moros, or Moors, not because they were Muslim but because they were not Christian. Roman nails and other iron or stone implements that surface in fields are likewise attributed to activities of dragons or lightning strikes caused by an angry weather god, the ñuberu.

El ñuberu image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

El ñuberu
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

This last nature-related being, the ñuberu or ‘master of the clouds,’ from the Asturian word for cloud ‘ñube,’ is most clearly related to forces of nature, and it may be that it has survived as such because it rains so darn much in Asturias. The first time we were there we arrived in January 2013 and left in June 2013. I am not exaggerating when I say it rained for about 170 of those 180 days. They tell me it was uncharacteristic, but as I have yet to spend another winter season in Asturias I have no basis for comparison. Therefore it is not surprising that the traditions about the ñuberu have been so faithfully transmitted. The ñuberu is represented as an older man, bearded, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, dressed in animal skins and rags. He keeps to the heights where he can survey his works, or rides around the skies on winds and clouds. He is thought to be the latter-day descendent of the Celtic god of rain and lightning, Taranis, whose lends his name to several toponyms in Asturias and Galicia, such as the towns Tarañes, Táranu, Taraña, and the tautological Tarañosdiós.

I smell a 'cristanuzu' Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1918, in English Fairy Tales by Flora Annie Steel (source: Wikipedia)

I smell a ‘cristanuzu’
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1918, in English Fairy Tales by Flora Annie Steel (source: Wikipedia)

Occasionally he falls to earth taking on the name Xuan Cabrita literally ‘John Little Goat’ but with the sense of ‘Jack Frost.’ In one tradition from the town of Artidiellu, they say that one day a lightning bolt struck and killed a cow, and a ñuberu fell to earth with the lightning. He was a short, ugly, hairy man. He ran into two shepherd boys who took him in and shared their food with him. In the morning he asked them to make a fire using green wood. As the fire grew and gave off thick smoke, he climbed the smoke up to the sky. Before he left, he said to the shepherds: “If you go to the city of Brita ask for Juan Cabrita.” Years later one of the shepherds, now grown, was traveling on a boat and was shipwrecked. He clung to a piece of wood and eventually washed ashore in a strange land. He wandered for a time, living on the charity of strangers until he eventually came to a town named Brita. Then he remembered what the Nuberu had said years ago and asked to see the house of Xuan Cabrita. He knocked on the door, and Xuan Cabrita’s wife answered him, telling him that her husband was out on a trip and would be back later. She asked him to come in and hid him in a dark room filled with smoke. When her husband the Nuberu came home later that night, she said that he smelled a ‘cristianuzu’ — a Christian (probably meaning ‘human’)— but his wife told him it was a man from Lligüeria whom he had met in Canga Xuangayu. Then Xuan Cabrita said: “Cor! That man is a friend of mine! Don’t kill him!”He sat down with the young man to have dinner with him and they spent the evening talking. When Xuan Cabrita asked him where he was from, Xuan said that he happened to be coming from Lligüeria de drop a hail cloud and there he had heard that the wife of the young man, due to his prolonged absence, thought him was dead and was planning to remarry. The young man was very worried because he could not stop the wedding from happening, being so far away from home, but Xuan Cabrita put his mind at ease: he promised to fly him there on the winds. He gave him a sharp stick and said he should spur him on with it, saying “arre demoniu, arre demoniu” (giddiyup, demon), but that he should not call out to either God or the Saints because then Xuan Cabrita would let him fall to earth. Flying through the air  they quickly came to Lligüeria. It was already morning, and they had arrived just in time to get to the church to stop the wedding. In that moment the young man exclaimed: “Oh God, I can see my town!” In that instant the Nuberu gave such a shudder that the young man fell to earth. He was lucky: he landed and caught on a tree branch next to the church and suffered only some scratches, and managed to stop the wedding in time.

make it to the church on time Iglesia San Esteban (Aramil)  source: turismoasturias.es

make it to the church on time
Iglesia San Esteban (Aramil)
source: turismoasturias.es

As in other traditions that allegorize the ups and downs of humans’ relationship with nature, Xuan Cabrita here repays a favor to the man, whose respect for the spirit of the winds pays off down the road. Like his counterparts the xana and the cuélebre who give humans golden treasures, or other creatures who grant technology such as bridges and saws, the Nuberu giveth and the Nuberu taketh away.

He is known by other names throughout Asturias. He is said to live in different cities: Tudela (in Navarra), Brita, Oritu, el Grito or Exitu (Asturian for Egypt). This last case is curious: why would a local nature spirit in Asturias come from Egypt? As it turns out, in the nineteenth century when many of these tales were collected was the golden age of European orientalism. Collections of Eastern tales, fables, and traditions were widely available, and as a result some local traditions began to borrow Eastern settings in order to appeal to current literary tastes. We often think of folk traditions as being somehow hermetically sealed off from printed literary tradition. We exoticize the rural informants as being quaintly pre-industrial and perhaps pre-literate. While it is true that general literacy rates in rural Asturias were quite low even by European standards until relatively recently, there is a high degree of interpenetration between written and oral traditions that goes back centuries, at least to the early age of print in the sixteenth century and possibly before this time, as written traditions were disseminated to audiences in public readings of manuscripts and later printed books, once a common form of popular entertainment.

el trasgu image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

el trasgu
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

The trasgu or trasno is the Asturian equivalent of the leprechaun, a mischievous domestic creature who causes minor annoyance and disorder but who ultimately is relatively harmless. In Asturian tradition he is described as wearing a red cap, and curiously, as having a hole through his left hand. The trasgu disrupts the rhythms of household and work life by stealing small objects such as keys, moving furniture during the night, and generally making a nuisance of himself. In some places it is told that the trasgu can be domesticated, after which he will perform chores around the house until he is released from servitude. This aspect of the Celtic tradition has survived in J.K. Rowling’s house elves, who are bound to serve the households of wizards until they are presented with an item of clothing to wear. Anyone who remembers Dobby the house elf from the Harry Potter books or movies will be familiar with this variant tradition. The trasgu, like the Gremlin from Anglo tradition, is a metaphor for the normal disorder that invades our lives, a reminder that despite our best efforts, some things will never be completely organized or regularized. They are margin of error incarnate. Appropriately, when young children create mischief their elders scold them calling them pequeñus tragsus. This comparison makes a lot of sense when we take into account the trasgu‘s behavior. He is annoying to the point of enraging, but ultimately benevolent, and even lovable. In one tradition, a local family is so fed up with the shenanigans of their house’s trasgu that they pack up and leave. Once their cart is packed up and ready to pull away, the trasgu pops his head from under the bundles and says: ya que vais tous, de casa mudada, tamién múdome you, cula mióu gorra culurada, or in English since you’re all moving away from this house, I’m moving too, with my little red hat!

In another version of this scenario, the family is all packed and realizes they left a bundle of corn in the house.  They send the youngest son back in to fetch it, who runs into the trasgu at the door, who is coming out carrying the corn, and says: tranquilos, que llévola yo, ‘don’t worry, I’m bringing it,’ then hops onto the cart to follow the family to their next house. The moral of the story: a certain amount of domestic chaos and disorder is inevitable, and like the forces of nature needs to be respected in order that you carry on with your life.

el diañu burllón image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

el diañu burllón
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

Other manifestations of the trasgu are more malevolent and come to be associated with the devil or his minions. The diañu or diañu burllón is a Christian concept, and grafts onto the domestic trasgu the horns and goat-legs used to represent Devils and Demons in Christian tradition. Some of these versions are able to take the shape of goats and other animals, and their mischievous exploits turn violent and are not limited to the domestic sphere. The Christianization of the trasgu and other related traditions turns them all into minor demons, blurring their pre-Christian characteristics and painting them all with the same demonic brush.

Nonetheless, the trasgu is one of the most beloved mythological figures in modern day Asturias. Restaurants and other business use him in their names and signage. trasgu fartu Around the corner from our apartment in Oviedo there was a sidrería, a restaurant that serves the local natural cider and traditional foods from the region, called El Trasgu Tartu or the Sated Trasgu. trasgu cerrajeros Around the corner from this there was a locksmith named trasgu, in honor of the propensity of those creatures to steal one’s keys. So while the primary oral traditions collected by ethnographers have mostly died out, there is a secondary life to these traditions that is symbolic of regional culture and identity. xana restaurante Likewise the Xana is found in name of businesses and organizations throughout Asturias, such as this restaurant, a brand of local beer, and a beauty shop, vacation apartments, and others.

xana restauranteSo it is clear from these contemporary examples that today’s Asturians still value these mythological traditions in some way, even if they themselves are not carriers of the traditions as repositories of knowledge and of transmitters who tell tales and stories and teach them to their children. The question is, do they —did they— believe in these creatures? This is a difficult question. When we ask if someone believes in God, we have a common reference point. We usually know what it looks like and sounds like if someone believes in God. But what does it mean to believe in a mythological creature such as a cuélebre or a xana. We can go to several sources for answers. The first is history. When these traditions emerged before Christianity, we can assume they were gods of a pagan religion and that people believed they existed in a concrete sense. In fact, according to one theory, in Neolithic times, humans actually hallucinated the voices of their idols or gods directly in their heads, so their experience was quite direct. There was no question as to belief when you saw the idol and heard the voice of the god every day. Let’s assume this was the case some five thousand years ago in Asturias. Then eventually, as human cognition and society advances, the gods stop talking to you directly and recede, in this case into the forests, caves, and rivers, where they appear sporadically, often on solstice days or other points on the agricultural cycle with which they are associated. At this point the legends and myths, which were quite unnecessary in the days when the gods spoke to you directly, begin to develop, in order to maintain a collective consciousness of their power and their value as metaphors for human experience in nature. This is where we can probably speak of belief in ways that are recognizable to us from our own experience as moderns. Then there is a long, probably very long transitional period in two parts. In the first, the local gods are in competition with Roman gods, and begin to take on aspects of Roman representations of their counterparts from Greek and Roman religion. Finally, with the advent of Christianity to the Peninsula, which we must remember proceeded from East to West and from South to North, would have arrived late to Asturias, which was home to some Roman settlements but whose geography made it possible for large rural populations to avoid Romanization and Christianization practically altogether.

We have mentioned the effect of Christianity on the old gods or beings. They were demonized in Christian sources. Parish priests inveighed against the old beliefs in order to safeguard the souls of their congregants. They read a steady stream of anti-pagan treatises that condemned as heretics the practitioners of folk traditions, be they medicinal, pagan rite, or cults of local gods such as the beings we have been discussing. The communities became biconfessional. Some professed Christianity, some stayed with the old  pagan beliefs, but I would say that a substantial majority practiced some combination of both. For example, an informant once told the ethnographer Alberto Álvarez Peña that in her village there were seven churches, and each church has its own Virgin Mary. The seven virgins, according to the woman, were sisters, and spoke to one another, and she went on to describe the private life of these local goddesses in detail. This can only be understood as the survival of a pagan mentality some fifteen hundred years after the Christianization of Spain.

But what about the traditional beings themselves, the xanas and cuélebres of the old beliefs? Did people believe in them in recent times? And what do we mean by believe? This is a complex question that we cannot possibly answer in five minutes. After Christianity had gained a firm foothold in the region, modern scientific beliefs —and they are beliefs, do not be fooled— came to challenge both the old beliefs and Christianity to boot. In this phase the old gods retreated further. First they had retreated from the minds of the people to the woods. Then they had to do battle —quite literally, in some traditions— with Priests and Saints, who almost finished them off. Now they really had the rug pulled out from under them in the modern era. Humans were demonstrating their dominance over nature in ways that were unimaginable before the eighteenth century. Mines probed deeper into the earth, ships were able to move cargo further and faster and in worse conditions than ever, and the airplane took us into the sky where, if indeed he still lived there, we could look eye to eye with the nuberu himself. Now what? Some informants provide clues as to how the traditions adapt themselves to the new conditions of human consciousness. The gods retreat further, into the past, but still retain their authenticity. In recent years an informant is asked about a local cuélebre, and he replies that when his grandfather was a boy, there was a cuélebre in a cave on a local hillside that used to appear once in a while, but he doesn’t come out anymore.  Note that he didn’t say, as informants often do when relaying traditions in which they do not believe in the strict sense of the word, ‘nobody believes in that dragon anymore.’ Rather, he respected the authenticity of the tradition, authorizing it for further transmission. He brought the cuélebre in line with modern, science-believing tradition by not requiring it to be tested current ideas about the relationship between nature and humanity. He puts the burden of proof on past generations, who are no longer present to speak. This a continuation of the trajectory of the old gods, who went from speaking in our heads, to receding into the forest or the sky, to disappearing altogether and existing as a tradition that no longer shapes everyday action or thought but that occupies its place in popular belief alongside Christianity and modern science.

I hope that these brief comments have been thought provoking, and that you have nuanced your understanding of Spanish culture, and European culture in general. My sources for the mythological material where two books by Alberto Álvarez Peña published in Spanish, the one is titled Mitología asturiana and the other Mitos y leyendas asturianas. The theory of Neolithic humans hallucinating the voices of their gods is from The Origin of Human Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes.

Reading Amadís in Istanbul

[This post includes material later revised and expanded in Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production before and after 1492 (Indiana University Press, 2015)]


Constantinople circa 1500

It was 1541 in Constantinople when Sephardic physician Jacob Algaba published his Hebrew translation of the first book of Spanish runaway bestseller Amadís de Gaula (1508). His translation of the endless adventures of the knight errant became the first novel written in the Hebrew language, and a literary example of Sephardic culture as the site of a symbolic struggle between the Spanish and Ottoman Empires.

In a way Algaba’s translation is exemplary of the complex relationship Sephardim had with the culture of the land from which they had been expelled in 1492.  Part of the way in which the Sephardim expressed their ‘Spanishness’ was in mimicking the intellectual and cultural habits of Imperial Spain.  They reenacted Spanish cultural imperialism by their imposition of Sephardic culture on the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire and by their adaptation of the Humanist rhetoric of Spanish historians and novelists. Just as the Spanish Amadís was imagined as a Christian hero of Spanish imperial designs, Algaba’s Sephardic Amadís was a sort of avatar of Sephardic supremacy within the Jewish world, and a response to the Sephardim’s alienation from Spain.

On the stage of the Mediterranean at the turn of the sixteenth century, the Sephardim are a sort of by-product of empire. Jettisoned from Spain, the Sephardim were free to rebrand ‘Spanishness’ to suit their own interests. They were hardly, after all, ambassadors of Spanish interests. But they were profoundly shaped by the cultural legacy of the land they had called home for over one thousand years by 1492. Though rejected by their home metropolis, they were still able to convert their Spanish identity into social currency in the host metropolis.

A Knight against the Turk

The chivalric novel Amadís de Gaula (1508) by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo was a smash hit and set the standard for popular fiction of the sixteenth century. Readers could not get enough of the (seemingly endless) exploits of the knight errant who protected the weak, battled dark knights, sorcerers, and dragons, all in the name of his beautiful damsel Oriana. Montalvo’s book, and its many, lucrative sequels, itself became a kind of popular literary monster that only Don Quijote could defeat, effectively parodying Amadís and his successors to death in 1605.

Wait til they get a load of him

But Amadís was more than a fictional hero. Spanish readers imagined him (and in particular his son, Esplandían) as a kind of avatar of Spanish imperial desire, a knight in service to Spain first against the Muslim Kingdom of Granada, and then against the Turk (the Ottoman Empire). In casting these fictional knights errant as imperial heroes, Montalvo was simply participating in the Humanism of his times. Humanist writers working at the court of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella actively promoted a program of imperial imagery that painted Spain as a new Rome, mixing language and imagery from the Latin writings of Imperial Rome with specifically Iberian and Catholic elements. The result was a narrative in which the Spanish crown was a renewal of the Holy Roman Empire, itself a renewal of Classical Rome (Tate, Ensayos 292). In the introduction to the first Amadís, Montalvo wonders aloud how the writers of Classical Rome would have been inspired to new heights had they witnessed the glorious campaigns of King Ferdinand in Granada:

¡what flowers, what roses might they have planted on its occasion, as concerns the bravery of the knights in the battles, skirmishes, and dangerous duels and all the other cases of confrontations and travails that were performed in the course of that war, as well as of the compelling speeches made by the great King to his nobles gathered in the royal campaign tents, the obedient replies made by them, and above all, the great praises, the lofty admirations that he deserves for having taken on and accomplished such a Catholic task!
(Rodríguez Montalvo, Amadís 219-220, translation mine).

Once the threat of Muslim Granada had been conquered by Ferdinand and Isabel in 1492, it was a logical next step to look toward Istanbul. The Ottoman Turks had, after all, conquered Constantinople in the not-so-distant past, and the loss of Christian Constantinople was, during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, still a fresh wound. Diego Enríquez del Castillo (ca. 1500), wrote that “the pain of the loss of Constantinople, that the Turk had conquered, was very recent in the hearts of all.” (Crónica 156). Ever since the Ottoman sack of Otranto, Italy in 1481, Spanish (and particularly Aragonese) writers were preoccupied by the possibility of a Turkish invasion of the Peninsula (Giráldez, Sergas 24). While an Ottoman invasion of Spain was probably not in the offing, such fears were similar to US fears of a Soviet invasion 1960s following the Cuban Revolution and famously parodied in the 1966 film The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. The cult of Amadís and his successors and their iconic (if anachronistic) status as Christian heroes of imaginary conquests in the Mediterranean East were an understandable, if irrational, reaction.

Don Quijote’s Dream Team: Knights Errant vs the Turk

Mehmet enters Constantinople (1454) by Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929)

Amadís finally met his match in Don Quijote, who parodied the knight errant protagonists of the Spanish chivalric novel beyond any hope of redemption. Interestingly, Cervantes also zeroed in on the tendency of fans of chivalric fiction to conflate the exploits of their heroes with current events. In this scene, Alonso Quijano (aka Don Quijote) suggests a simple solution for King Philip II’s ‘Ottoman Problem’: round up all the Spanish knights errant and send them to fight the Turk:

there might be one among them who could, by himself, destroy all the power of the Turk…. [if] the famous Don Belianís were alive today, or any one of the countless descendants of Amadís of Gaul! If any of them were here today and confronted the Turk, it would not be to his advantage!’ (trans. Grossman 461)

The effect is similar to a movie in which the sci-fi crazed protagonist suggests sending Luke Skywalker to battle Al-Qaeda. The English translator of Sergas de Esplandían (Montalvo’s sequel to Amadís) made a similar observation, calling Luke Skywalker “a kind of Esplandían redividus” (Little, “Introduction” 21).

What does a Sephardic Amadís look like? And what might a Hebrew Amadís champion, if not the Spanish conquest of Ottoman Istanbul where Jacob Algaba translated the exploits of the Ur-Knight Errant into Hebrew a generation after Montalvo described Amadís’ deeds as worthy to be celebrated by the pens of Imperial chroniclers? In order to answer this, we need to take a look at the ways in which Sephardic intellectuals retooled and adapted the intellectual habits of the Spain they had left behind.

‘Doing Spanish’: Sephardic Humanism and Cultural Imperialism

Upon their arrival in Ottoman lands, the Sephardim proceeded to dominate the Romaniote (Greek-speaking) and other Jewish communities. They were bearers of a prestigious European cultural legacy, and many of them were highly skilled in areas valued by the Ottoman Sultans: finance, administration, diplomacy, and the like. In addition the Sephardim had access to tremendous social capital in the form of international, even global trade and diplomatic networks. Contemporary sources bear out this characterization of the Sephardim as the socially and culturally dominant group within Ottoman Jewry, imposing their liturgy, rabbinic jurisprudence, cuisine, language, and social customs on the wider community. Writing in 1509, Rabbi Moses Aroquis of Salonika bears witness to this phenomenon:

It is well known that the Sephardim and their scholars in this empire, together with the other communities that have joined them, make up the majority, may the lord be praised. To them alone the land was given, and they are its glory and its splendor and its magnificence, enlightening the land and its inhabitants. Who deserves to order them about? All these places too should be considered as ours, and it is fitting that the small number of early inhabitants of the empire observe all our religious customs… (cited in Hacker, “Sephardim” 111)

This Sephardic cultural imperialism is one way in which the Sephardim expressed their ‘Spanishness,’ in carrying out a version of the Spanish cultural imperialism that characterized the late fifteenth century. Just as Spain colonized the Canary Islands, the New World, and bits of North Africa, the Sephardim did likewise in their new territories, the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire.

This imperialism, like the Spanish, also had its attendant historiography, its intellectual culture: a Sephardic Humanism. The historian Solomon ibn Verga, writing in Hebrew in the mid-sixteenth century, borrowed liberally from Spanish sources and like his Christian historian counterparts, legitimized the current political order by linking it to the regimes of Classical Antiquity. In his history of expulsions and persecutions he writes like a Humanist, substituting both authors of Hebrew antiquity (Bible, Rabbis) for Latin and Greek authors favored by Christian humanists, but he also draws on Classical and medieval Iberian authors, lending his prose of more sophisticated, cosmopolitan tone. (Gutwirth, “Expulsion” 149-150). He cites Josephus frequently, creating a Jewish humanist precedent in the Roman author who plays Virgil to his Dante.

Amadís in the Sephardic context

What is the role of a Hebrew Amadís in this context? As with the case of Ibn Verga’s history book (Shevet Yehudah), the project of the Sephardic intellectual is twofold: on the one hand, they sought to legitimize their work by drawing on the prestige of Spanish Humanism; on the other, they reshaped this humanism into one that reflected the values of the community in a diasporic, transimperial context.

But never on Shabbat

Algaba’s translation does not appear ex nihilo. Ottoman Sephardim were avid readers of Spanish editions of Amadís and other chivalric novels. In the early sixteenth century, Jerusalemite Rabbi Menahem di Lunzano chastised his community (in verse) for reading Amadís and Palmerín [de Olivia, 1511]  on Shabbat (the Sabbath), when they should have been reading religious books (Di Lunzano, Shete Yadot f. 135v). There was also a robust tradition of ballads sung in Sephardic communities about heroes named Don Amadí (or sometimes Amalví or other variants). Many of these songs had nothing to do whatsoever with the stories found in Montalvo’s book; Amadís had simply come to mean ‘hero’ in the popular Sephardic imagination. (Armistead and Silverman, “Amadís” 29-30)

Jacob Algaba’s Hebrew translation of Amadís de Gaula

Montalvo’s original Amadís had to pass muster with the Catholic censors and with the chivalric imaginary of the Spain of the Catholic Monarchs. Algaba, while giving voice to the Sephardic love for their vernacular culture, is free of these limits. He based his translation not from Montalvo’s 1508 edition, but from an earlier manuscript version whose Amadís was earthier, wilier, less courtly and less likely to make it into print in Spain in 1508. Algaba’s Amadís plays dirty when nessary, and the characters in Algaba’s version tell it like it is. In one example, Algaba includes an episode omitted by Montalvo where Amadís tricks his opponent into looking away in order to hit him: He asks the knight ‘to whom does that beautiful maiden behind you belong?’ When the knight looks away, Amadís sticks him in the groin with his lance, spilling his guts (Piccus, “Corrections” 187-88). In another example, Montalvo omits a reference to a character farting that is included by Algaba (Piccus, “Corrections” 201). These are scenes that do not pass muster with the chivalric imaginary of the Spain of the Catholic Monarchs.

The Hebrew Amadís, therefore, is at once celebratory of and resistant to Montalvo’s Amadís. The culture of Montalvo’s Amadís, with its exaggerated religious rhetoric and rarefied standards of courtliness, has rejected Algaba (who was born in Spain), and Algaba is happy to return the favor, refashioning Amadís as a Sephardic hero, one who springs from Iberian tradition but who is free of the restraints of official Spanish culture as propagated by the courts and controlled by the censors of the Catholic Monarchs.

Works cited

  • Armistead, S. G. “Amadís de Gaula en la literatura oral de los sefardíes.” La pluma es lengua del alma: Ensayos en honor del E. Michael Gerli. Ed. José Manuel Hidalgo. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 2011. 27-32.
  • Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Ecco, 2003.
  • Enríquez del Castillo, Diego. Crónica de Enrique IV de Diego Enríquez del Castillo. Ed. Aureliano Sánchez Martín. Valladolid: Secretariado de Publicaciones  Universidad de Valldolid, 1994.
  • Giráldez, Susan. Las sergas de Esplandián y la España de los Reyes Católicos. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
  • Gutwirth, Eleazar. “The Expulsion from Spain and Jewish Historiography.” Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky. London: Peter Halban, 1988. 141-161.
  • Hacker, Joseph. “The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth Century.” The Sephardi Legacy. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992. 108-133.
  • Little, William. “Introduction.” The Labors of the Very Brave Knight Esplandían. Trans. William Little. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992. 1-61.
  • Lunzano, Menahem di. Shete yadot. Jerusalem: [s.n], 1969.
  • Piccus, Jules. “Corrections, Suppressions, and Changes in Montalvo’s Amadís, Book I.” Textures and Meaning: Thirty Years of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ed. Leonard Ehrlich et al. Amherst: Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2004. 179-211.
  • Rodríguez de Montalvo, Garci. Amadís de Gaula. Madrid: Cátedra, 1987.
  • —. Sergas de Esplandían. Ed. Carlos Sainz de la Maza. Madrid: Castalia, 2003.
  • Tate, Robert Brian. Ensayos sobre la historiografía peninsular del siglo XV. Madrid: Gredos, 1970.

This post was adapted from “Reading Amadís in Constantinople: the Sephardic as imperial abject,” a paper I gave at the  2011 UC Mediterranean Research Project Fall Workshop: “Mediterranean Empires” on 29 October 2011 at UCLA. [Workshop program] Thanks to the Seminar organizers for their hospitality and support.

Hebrew Bible: Intertextuality in Spanish-Hebrew Literature

This post was originally given as a conference presentation at “Scriptures in Medieval Iberia: Language, literature, and sacred text in a multi-religious society” (Monday, 6 June, 2011, Iona Pacific Inter-religious Centre, Vancouver School of Theology). I’ve also posted a pdf of the handout, including full versions of the texts referenced, along with their translations.

The idea of intertextuality is very useful for understanding the importance of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh in Spain’s medieval Hebrew literature. Intertextuality is the site of a good deal of theorizing, and while time constraints do not allow a full accounting of this discussion, I would like to borrow from Michael Worton and Judith Still’s understanding of the term in its most basic sense as it has been used by various literary critics and theorists. They write that “the writer is a reader of texts…before s/he is a creator of texts, and therefore the work of art is inevitably shot through with references, quotations, and influences of every kind.” This means that each work of art is a sort of group discussion, a collaborative process in which various texts, authors, experiences, and readings participate. The text is a fabric, a weave of a number of threads which in turn are pulled from other texts. Today I would like to talk about the processes by which this pulling and weaving happen in medieval Spanish-Hebrew texts, paying specific attention to the role of Biblical language and source texts.

Reading in the medieval period, especially of literary and poetic texts, was a very different experience from what is generally understood as reading in the modern age.

In this image, a  miniature from a mansucript of the maqamat of al-Hariri of Basra, who wrote in the eleventh century, illustrates a literary gathering, where a popular preacher regales a crowd of listeners with his displays of rhetorical prowess.

There is not a book, page, or pen in sight. The experience is live, oral, aural, and judging from the hand gestures and gazes of both orator and audience, interactive. It is a social event.

This setting is recorded in the maqamat as well as in other genres of literary texts, and many of the structures of medieval literary texts and textual practices derive from a literary culture that is chiefly oral-aural as opposed to written.

By ‘scriptural textuality’ I mean the ways in which scripture is practiced and experienced by the community. This includes the visual reading of the text but also extends to the physicality of the text, its support and packaging, the physical and social contexts of its practice, and the aural-visual memory of its practice.

All of these contribute to biblical intertextuality in medieval Spanish-Hebrew literary texts, as we shall see.

Michael Sells has written about the ways in which Muslim communities experience the Qur’an and describes what he calls the ‘sound vision,’ the relation of sound to meaning, or the combined experience of seeing, hearing, and understanding the Qur’anic text in recitation.

Such recitations form part of the soundscape of a Muslim community, just as public recitations of the Tanakh form part of the soundscape of the writers whose texts we are about to examine.

Here is a demonstration of the idea of a sound vision of a text. This is Surat al-Qariah , “the Day of Reckoning” from the Qur’an, in a traditional modern printed edition. Take a look at the text.

Now, when the recitation and text are experienced together, the impression is quite different. And if the listener comprehends the text, the experience is one of layered visual, auditory, and narrative apprehension. This is the ‘sound image’ that Michael Sells is talking about – the multisensory record of the experience of hearing the text recited.

This understanding of reading as a verbal experience or embodied sensory event is recorded even within the Hebrew Bible itself, where according to Daniel Boyarin, the act of reading is nearly always described as a speech event meant to elicit action. A king reads from a scroll and people act upon the words. Prophets recite to exhort proper behavior from errant fellow Hebrews. Reading is not merely scanning a text but participating in a community, whether political or religious.

By way of demonstration I would like to try to illustrate or at least suggest the various forms of intertextuality that might obtain in any given reading of a biblical text. I’ll take the example of the Hebrew Shir HaShirim or Song of Songs. This text is a frequent source of language and imagery for medieval Hebrew love poetry, and also forms part of the liturgy for the Passover holiday, or Pesah. Here is an image of the opening verses of chapter one as they are written in a modern Torah scroll. The person reciting the text would be using this type of document as a visual support and would supply the vowels, which are absent from this text, and cantillation marks, or trope, from memory.

Any reference to the words of the Song of Songs in a poetic context would evoke, certainly for the poet and most likely for much of his or her audience, this text and its traditional recitation, the sound image similar to the Quranic example we have just seen.

For the poet and his audience that understands the meaning of the Hebrew text, the allusion would also rely on the literal meaning of the text in addition to the sound image of its recitation. This would seem to be obvious but is worth pointing out when one considers that the majority of the audience of such a recitation would likely consist of worshippers who might recognize the sound of the Hebrew words but would not necessarily understand their meaning. There are some billion Muslims worldwide who learn to recite the first chapter of the Qur’an, but only a relatively small percentage of them understand the meaning of the classical Arabic text.

In addition to the sound image of the recitation and the accompanying sensory memories of the gathering in the synagogue where it takes place, the allusion would also carry with it associations with the traditional exegetical interpretations of the passage. In this case, I bring examples from the commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra, a Sephardic rabbi who lived from the end of the eleventh century to the beginning of the twelfth. The traditional rabbinic interpretation of the Song of Songs is that, far more than a mere love poem, the text is an allegory of the love between God and the community of Israel.

To the sound image, literal meaning, and exegetical meaning, we might also add the liturgical context of the texts recitation as part of the Passover liturgy, with all the affective cathexis that attends the celebration of a major religious holiday: the specialness of the occasion, the hope for a good growing season, the spring fever that inevitably strikes the youth any community at this time of year. In this particular photo we see Samaritans celebrating the Passover in the West Bank.

In the same vein, the Song of Songs might well recall for poet and audience the social and familial context of the celebration: the foods, songs, and customs related to the celebration of Passover, the gathering of relatives and friends, the Seder or traditional ritual meal, the new clothes. In this photo we see a scene from a Passover Seder of the Jewish community of Manila in 1925.

All of these associations come bundled with poetic allusions to a biblical text: the textual image, the sound image, the literal and exegetical meanings, the lived experience of liturgical and social events related to the text. All of these may be indexed, consciously or otherwise, when a writer deploys biblical text in an original poetic composition, as well as by readers and listeners of that composition.

Let’s see how this intertextuality obtains in a specific example from a strophic poem, a muwashshah, by the same Abraham ibn Ezra who wrote the commentary on the Song of Songs that we have just seen. As you probably are aware, Ibn Ezra, like many of the  prominent Jewish intellectuals of al-Andalus, was a gifted polymath who is also a noted exegete. He was highly educated in rabbinics as well as in secular Arabic poetry, lore, and science. The worlds intermingle in this poem, in which a number of intertexts are juxtaposed with the language of the Song of Songs.

The complete poem is number one in your handout. In this particular stanza, ibn Ezra juxtaposes language drawn directly from Shir Hashirim with a closing couplet or ‘kharja’ in Andalusi vernacular Arabic. The poetic image of the apple as a perfume for, or alternately a substitution for, the mouth of the beloved resonates both with the biblical text as well as with Arabic poetic tradition.

In the literal sense of the Shir Hashirim, the poetic voice describes the body of the beloved in a series of agricultural metaphors that suggest fertility and echo the idyllic setting of the love encounter.

In Ibn Ezra’s own commentary, he explains the literal sense of the text: the lover wants to climb up the body of the woman as if she were a grapevine or a tree, so that he can enjoy the fruit (her breasts) and smell the sweet scent of her breath, which is like apples.

He goes on to explain the religious allegory of these images: that the scent of apples from the beloved’s mouth represents the burnt offerings and incense burned by the High Priest or Kohen Hagadol in the Temple in Jerusalem, both of these being sweet to God.

Abraham ibn Ezra drew not only on Biblical language but was also consciously participating in a well established Arabic poetic tradition of using the apple as a locus of amorous discourse. Arabic, and later Hebrew poets frequently employed descriptions of apples in their poetry. The eleventh-century poet and vizier of Granada, Samuel Hanagid, wrote a series of 15 descriptions of apples, and Solomon ibn Gabirol likewise tried his hand at the genre.

Click here to play the track in a new window

Like the Shir Hashirim itself, this poem is a text written to be performed, and not just to be recited, as would have been the Arabic poem by Abu Nuwas. The muwashshah in particular was a poetic genre written for musical performance, and even for dancing, and so ibn Ezra’s text would have also been set to music something like what you are hearing now. This deployment of biblical allusion in an original musical poetic setting amounted to a kind of unofficial exegesis. In this recording, the contemporary Spanish ensemble Altramar performs their interpretation of a muwashshah by Andalusi poet Ibn Zuhr (1091-1161). Most experiences of Ibn Ezra’s poem would have been live, accompanied by music and dancing as well. These corporeal readings of the text brought new intertexts to the biblical sources he employed.

Modern critics of medieval Hebrew literature have suggested that these poetic reworkings of biblical language amounted to a form of creative exegesis, not strictly rabbinical but nonetheless significant in that they expanded both the semantic fields attached to the words themselves and the hermeneutics of the biblical texts.

In a 1977 article in AJS Review, Neal Kozodoy suggests that this creative exegesis was an important part of medieval Hebrew poetry, relying as it did almost exclusively on biblical poetic language for its lexical building blocks.

Abraham ibn Ezra lived during the waning of Andalusi political hegemony on the Iberian Peninsula, and by his death Christian monarchs had conquered large sections of what had been al-Andalus.

The generations of Hebrew poets who were raised in Christian Iberia, despite being educated in Arabic, had a very different linguistic experience than their grandparents who were raised in a country where Arabic was the official language of the court, the mosque, and the majlis or literary salon.

They were native speakers of romance vernaculars such as Catalan, Galician, Aragonés, and Castilian. They sang ballads and songs, and told stories that were common to all of their countrymen regardless of religious tradition. In some cases they were familiar with vernacular versions of biblical texts, either from paraliturgical contexts such as the vernacular versions of the Book of Esther that were performed as part of the celebration of Purim, or from popular ballads and other vernacular reworkings of familiar biblical stories.

By way of example I would like us to examine some texts and intertexts from Vidal Benvenist’s text Melitsat `Efer ve-Dina, the tale of Efer and Dina. Benvenist wrote Efer ve-Dina in Zaragoza around 1400, and it was first published by Gershom Soncino in Rimini in 1521.

The story tells of the misadventures surrounding the marriage of the rich widower Efer to the young girl Dina. The eminent scholar of medieval Hebrew literature, Hayim Shirmann, has called Efer ve-Dina a “tragicomedy” (which should resonate with those of you who are familiar with the late fifteenth century work by Fernando de Rojas, Celestina).

In the story, Dina’s impoverished father seeks to better his position by marrying Dina off to the elderly, wealthy widow Efer. Despite Dina’s protests, the two are married, but Efer is unable to fulfill his conjugal obligations to his young wife. He sends one of his servants to procure for him an aphrodisiac, but misjudges the effective dose and dies of a fatal overdose.

Benvenist explains in a lengthy excursus that the tale is a moral allegory, in which one should read Efer as the weakness of the human soul and Dina as the temptations of the material world that ultimately bring one no lasting benefit and in fact may lead to one’s moral demise.

At the time when Benvenist wrote the Jewish communities of Aragon and Castile were under tremendous pressure to convert to Christianity and those who did often enjoyed far higher standards of living than those who chose to remain Jewish, so Benvenist’s message is timely.

Like the poem of Ibn Ezra, the biblical language and allusions in Efer ve-Dina coexist with and interact with a number of intertexts, including the Dina story in Genesis, the Spanish ballad version of that story, the traditional Spanish malmaridada songs in which a young girl laments her marriage to an older man who does not love her, and lastly a kind of situational affiliation with the biblical Esther story and celebration of Purim that I like to call the Esterismo of Dina. Let’s now have a look at these intertexts and how they might have impacted readings of Efer ve-Dina by Benvenist and his audiences.

The ballad of El robo de Dina or the Rape of Dina circulated in Spain in the fifteenth century and probably dates approximately to the time when Benvenist wrote. It is attested in both Peninsular and Sephardic oral traditions as well as in editions printed in Spain in Early modernity. The text follows the story as it is told in Genesis 34, but as is characteristic of the narrative style of Spanish ballads, leaves off in medias res, as Jacob sends messengers to King Hamor to legitimize the relations between their children. The common thread between the biblical Dina and that of Benvenist is the idea that the moral integrity of the community is threatened when a young woman is married off to a man for material reasons. Both are moralizing tales. That of Benvenist is explained at length in his allegorical epilogue, and that of the Genesis version most succinctly in the protest of Simeon and Levi to Jacob: “Should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?” (Gen 34:31)

The biblical Dina intertext is woven together with the popular songs of the malmaridadas, the mis-married young girl who laments her unhappy state. These songs are attested in many western Romance versions, including those in Galician, Catalan, French, Castilian, and Italian. Both ballads, El robo de Dina and La bella malmaridada, were so popular that they were dramatized by the indefatigable Lope de Vega (1562-1635), who wrote thousands of plays during his lifetime.

In this version, the full text of which is at number four in your handout, the malmaridada is depicted in conversation with a knight who promises to take her away from her abusive husband. The husband discovers the two lovers and threatens to kill his wife, who for her part would prefer to die for her newfound love than to continue to live with her husband.

Benvenist’s Dina similarly laments her situation à-la-malmaridada, but with a decidedly more pro-active agenda. She (correctly) fears that a man of Efer’s age will not be able to fulfill his conjugal obligations to her, and lobbies her father in vain to cancel the marriage before it is too late.

Her protestations also echo with the biblical Dina. In Efer ve-Dina, Dina’s father is creating a situation in which Dina will be easily tempted to seek fulfillment outside the context of her marriage. This constitutes a sin on her father’s part, one which resonates with the protests of Simeon and Levi that their father should not put their sister Dina in a situation where her honor might be compromised.

The text is number five on your handout. I will read only the beginning that you see on the current slide, and then I would like to call your attention to two examples of biblical allusions in Efer ve-Dina and their specific intertextualities.

The original of this text is found at number six on your handout. Here, the allusion is to Hoshea 4:12, where the prophet describes how Israel has alienated itself from God through its practice of harlotry, fornication, and other types of poor behavior. The idea is that they are so misguided they seek advice from a piece of wood, which in the context of Biblical Israel would be a reference to idolatry.

So the first resonance of this description of Efer is that of the morally irresponsible Israel described in Hoshea. In addition, there is a double entendre: Efer’s “staff” speaks to him, or rather, he is thinking with his penis, his actions are motivated by his lust, not by correct moral values.

This second example is from the description of the wedding party of Efer and Dina, found at number seven in your handout. The celebratory noises of the wedding party are juxtaposed with the Biblical context, the unnatural (and in the original text synesthetic) sound of thunder coming from Mount Sinai in Exodus 20:15 (kol ha`am ro’im et ha-kolot), In the biblical passage, the unnatural sounds strike fear into the hearts of the Israelites, but here, the sense is that the wedding party sees marriage between the old man and the young girl as unnatural, and views it with disgust (ed. Huss 172 n 254). Benvenist ironically characterizes what should be a happy, natural occasion by using language describing a scene of fear of the unnatural.

The final biblical intertext for Efer ve-Dina I would like to consider before concluding is the Book of Esther or Megillat Ester, which is traditionally recited in the liturgy for the holiday of Purim, which corresponds roughly to carnaval in the liturgical cycle, and like carnaval, is a time to enact inversions of the accepted social order, to drink to excess, and to perform vernacular versions and parodies of traditional liturgies.

Like the story of Dina, that of Esther is like a European novella or comedia in that a woman’s honor or romantic fate determine both the dramatic outcome and in a larger sense, the fate of the community. Dina’s marriage imperils the moral health of both her father and according to Benvenist’s allegory, the entire community. Esther’s marriage to King Ahashverosh, as we all know, turns out to be  the saving grace of the Jewish community of Shushan.

Despite Benvenist’s assurances that his text is meant as a serious moral allegory, in 1521 his publisher Gershom Soncino markets Efer ve-Dina as a Purim entertainment in the tradition of Purim literature that parodies the Talmud, the Prophets, and other traditional Jewish texts. He maintains in his introduction that he means for audiences to “delight in the tales of love and in words of silliness during the days of Purim.”  Whatever Benvenist’s intentions may have been, at least some of his readers saw the Esterismo in Efer ve-Dina and sought to capitalize on it.

In conclusion, I hope to have demonstrated from these examples the following:

Biblical intertextuality is more than a simple matter of the recycling of words from the Hebrew bible. I see it much more (secundum Kozodoy 1977) as the metaphor suggested by the Latin etymon textus, a cloth woven from a number of threads, each one a metaphor for a different allusion, reference, sensory experiences, or memory. Together, these intertexts form a new text that in turn acquires its own life, much as the life of a garment as it is worn and passed from one owner to the next comes to mean much more than a simple combination of threads woven together.

Finally, it is important to recognize that Spanish Hebrew authors, even when drawing on Biblical texts for inspiration or for raw materials, were also placing these texts into discussion with the secular vernacular texts and traditions of their particular time and place. The resulting poetic exegesis was one that was filtered through vernacular artistic sensibilities, much as the Rabbis drew on vernacular culture and reality in their formal exegesis and jurisprudence.