Folk-Lore/Volume 31/Folk-Lore in the Old Testament


Folk-Lore in the Old Testament.

Sir James Frazer kindly sends the following letters on questions connected with his recent work, Folk-lore in the Old Testament:

I have just been reading your book on the Folk-lore in the Old Testament with great interest and profit. There is one point on which you may be interested to have further information; viz. the story of how Gideon chose his men. When I was in Palestine some years ago friends who knew the country advised me never to drink direct from a spring or stream but to adopt the method of Gideon’s selected men—not for magical reasons but on sanitary grounds. The springs and streams of Palestine abound in leeches, which a careless drinker is very apt to swallow. They stick in the throat and cause serious haemorrhage and discomfort (see Masterman, Parasitology, vol. i. p. 282 (1908)). While, therefore, it is quite correct to say that by noting how men drank water from a stream Gideon was testing them for carefulness, I doubt very much whether the test had any magical or sentimental basis. In a recent trip to Seistan in Eastern Persia I noticed Indian coolies carefully skimming water from the surface of springs in the desert with a brass dish for the same reason. Curiously, or perhaps naturally, enough, they were well acquainted with the presence of the leeches, the existence of which was entirely ignored by the sanitary authorities of their Cordon.

Since I have studied the natural history of Palestine on the spot I have been much struck by the fact that the old Hebrews were, compared with the Romans and the Greeks, extremely accurate observers of nature, and fond of scattering in their narrative almost irrelevant statements of observed fact. For instance, it is recorded that when Jezebel was thrown out of the window and killed, dogs ate her up except the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet and her skull. The story seems to have no particular point, but I believe that the fact that the palms and soles were left intact may be explained by another fact previously noted, that she had just performed her toilet, and had, therefore, stained her hands and feet with henna, which is very bitter, as Eastern ladies do.

As to the head not being eaten, there is a wide-spread popular belief that dogs will not touch a human face if they can help it, and I have this much evidence in favour of the belief being true. I was shown in Shanghai in 1915 some photographs of the horrors of a massacre that had taken place shortly before. One of these photographs represented dogs eating a human corpse. They had devoured practically the whole body and limbs, but the face and head were untouched.

Many of these little observations of fact have, through the ignorance of commentators, absorbed a miraculous tinge, for instance the story of the she-bears which rent the children who mocked Elisha, that of the mess of wild gourds given by the same prophet to the sons of prophets who visited him in a time of famine, and even that of the “miraculous draught of fishes.”

She-bears are notoriously bad-tempered when prematurely roused from their winter sleep by any noise. Elisha, we may be sure, had passed on for some distance before the children shouted at him and their shouts and his disturbed the bears without any impulse from him. Elisha is not a character for whom I have any great respect except as a medicine-man, but he may be absolved of cruelty on this count. That the mess of colocynth was an attempt on the part of Elisha to poison the sons of the prophets who had waxed sarcastic on the disappearance of Elijah, there is no evidence; but if it was so, it was a very clumsy attempt; for the colocynth is only poisonous in large quantities and is so bitter that a single mouthful of food in which it was present even in small quantities would betray it immediately. The young men who partook of the mess would naturally eject it at once. The whole of the pot was emptied out and Elisha was obliged to provide from his secret hoard a mess of porridge.

The so-called miraculous draught of fishes is not in my opinion described in such a way as to suggest a miracle at all, but rather to illustrate the interest that Christ took in the daily pursuits of his followers. In the Lake of Tiberias certain fish collected in large numbers before the breeding season round the mouth of small streams. Their shoals can be seen by a man walking on the shore of the lake, which is at many places shelving, much more easily than by people in a boat.