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The Lady and the Peddler:
Judaism and Paganism in Agnon
By Tala Bar
The title of this article is that of a story by the Nobel laureate Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon; it is based on a chapter from my own book Agnon's Goddess, which was only published as an e-book in Hebrew. Each chapter of that book is based on a different story demonstrating a different aspect of my interpretation to Agnon.
Agnon's way of writing had much in it to allow, even demand, interpretation, and I have written my Master degree thesis in literature for the London University on that subject (Agnon's Interpretations). That thesis exists in its original English version, besides the library of University College, London, also at the Tel Aviv University library; it was also published in Hebrew, first by the Israeli author Aharon Amir in his literary magazine Keshet, and as an e-book.
Most of Agnon's interpreters see him as basically a Jewish writer; Jewish subjects and characters are rife in his stories, and no doubt he drew the greatest part of his work from the Jewish background in which he was brought up and lived most of his life. However, again and again Agnon shows himself not only as a Jewish scholar but also as a poet, whose subjects are Nature, Love and Death; many of his protagonists are women, representing the Goddess of Nature, Love or Death, while the men are her subjects and victims according to that pagan scheme.
One of the prevalent subjects of Agnon's stories is the struggle between the masculine, rational attitude of the Jew towards Nature and women, and the feminine poetic or emotional attitude of the pagan towards those subjects; it may be stressed that a Christian attitude does not come into it at all. The subject of such struggle is prominent in the following stories: Iddo and Einam, Faithful Oath, The Legend of the Scribe and Only Yesterday. The story that expresses the idea of the struggle between Judaism and Paganism more than anything else is The Lady and the Peddler.
Basically, the story's plot is fairly simple. A Jewish peddler by the name of Joseph wanders through a thick European forest and arrives at the house of the gentile, Lady Helena. There he stays as long as the snow lies on the earth, and behaves as if he has forgotten being Jewish; he eats meat with butter and non-kosher slaughtered chicken, and he dresses as one of the locals. The Lady treats him for a while like a husband, but then but then she tries to kill him, and fails. Having failed, she dies, and the Jew leaves the house and the forest and returns to his wanderings.
The first indication to pagan way of life is the forest itself. "The forest", as is explained in the Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbolism (s. ref) is "the realm of the psyche and the feminine principle." It is a place of unknown perils, death and the secrets of nature. Thus, from the beginning, the Jewish peddler is observed abandoning his own "civilized" urban world and ventures into the wild world of Nature which belongs to the Lady. In this way he may be identifying himself with the Biblical Joseph who, when in Egypt, had forgotten his Fathers' Jewish way of life and adopted the Egyptian, pagan one.
While the figure of Joseph is easily recognized, that of the Lady's is not. Seemingly, she is supposed to be Christian, but actually, her whole behavior has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with ancient paganism. To start with, her name is Helena, which is an ancient, divine, Greek name meaning "bright" – obviously expressing beauty; the ancient Greeks fought the battle of Troy over Helen, who was considered the most beautiful of all women. About the Lady Helena Agnon says that she is "a healthy woman with beautiful face who deserves to be courted by beautiful men". On the other hand, as a figure that was called Helen of the Trees, in the image of a doll hanging out of fruit trees, she is said by Sir James Frazer to have been a fertility icon (s. link and ref); she can also be compared to the hunting goddess Artemis with the animal heads hanging on her walls, who was the protector of the forest and its animals.
Not only Helena's name but also her title is significant. The word Lady in expressed in Agnon's Hebrew as Adonit. While the proper Hebrew word would be ge'veret, or gevirah, Adonit can refer to two other words: one is the of a title of the Jewish God as it appears in the Hebrew Bible, A-donai, which is the address form of the word for "master"; the other is the supposedly Greek name (of obviously Semitic origin) of the fertility figure Adonis, who died and was revived to symbolize the seasonal life, death and resurrection that occurs in Nature (s. link). The title Adonit, then, gives Helena the power of Mistress over the Jewish man.
At first, Helena behaves like a Love goddess as she invites the Jew into her home and her bed; her figure as a Love goddess is hinted at when she speaks of the "many husbands" she has had before Joseph. However, that Love image soon turns to be coupled with that of Death, as it seems she has killed all her former husbands, in the way Love goddesses did many times, and she is going to kill Joseph as well. By force, if she is the Adonit, or Mistress, then he is Adonis, her subject; and if she is a Death goddess, than he is her intended victim. Playing that part in that ancient drama, Helena nicknames Joseph "my sweet corpse".
Another indication of Helena's identifying with the Death goddess is her connection with the figure of a bitch. Dogs in pagan mythology were regularly attached to images of Death and the Underworld (s. link). In the story, the Lady has a bitch, with which she first threatens Joseph; later he drteams that the bitch attacks him and grasps his throat by her sharp teeth; and in the end, the Lady herself bites his throat like a crazy bitch.
Gradually, Joseph realizes that Helena intends to kill him, eat his flesh and drink his blood, as she hints she has done to her previous "husbands". His nonchalant, detached existence comes to an end when he returns one day from roaming in the forest and finds his bed full of knife holes. When she realizes that she has not managed to kill him, she attacks him physically, biting him in the throat; this is when she finds out that his blood is too cold for taste and she gives up, in the end kills herself instead of him.
Joseph tries to have Helena buried by the scant community in the vicinity, but he can find no priest to do it for her; it is the last obvious clue to the fact that Lady Helena is not a Christian but a pagan. The snow lying on the land has frozen into ice, making it impossible to dig a grave; in the end Joseph puts her body on the roof for the corpse-eating birds to peck at. He then takes his box and resumes his wanderings as a peddler.
There is an emphasis in the story on the brutality of Lady Helena; "brutality" is a key word used in relation to Nature in contrast to what believers refer to as the "merciful" Jewish God. However, as Jane Goddall has shown in her book Innocent Killers, this brutality of Nature – she refers to the hunting habits of wild dogs – as it is seen by humans and especially by Jews – is an integral part of Nature, in much the same way as Death is. The Jewish God is a "God of Life", opposed to Death; Judaism has put Death "behind the fence", trying to ignore its being an integral part of Life and of Love.
The outcome of the accidental meeting of the Jewish peddler and the pagan Lady is disastrous. It is a brutal clash of cultures, the end of which is the unavoidable annihilation of one of them. By his cold rationalism, the Jew is not even an acceptable sacrificial victim, as the spilling of his blood will not fertilize the land. In her desperation, Helena tries to use her own warm blood for that purpose, but that only leads to her own death. In the end, Joseph leaves her frozen body on the roof, to be devoured by her own birds of prey; he takes himself away from her and from her realm of the wild forest, back to "civilization", back to his cold, rational world.
Reading between the lines, we can not find happiness in Agnon's words in light of the death of the Lady of Nature. As seen in many of Agnon's stories, he loved nature and what it entailed, sometimes (as in Only Yesterday), he could even express himself with loving words about a sacrifices offered to its continuation.
from the July 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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