Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

When Did the Wandering Jew Head North?

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

When Did the Wandering Jew Head North?

Article excerpt

The landscapes of the north are haunted by several wanderers whose existence is marked by a supernatural longevity. (1) The most widely described must be Starkaor, condemned to live the lifetimes of three men, and to commit three evil deeds for each of them (Lindow 2001, 281-2). So, too, is there Norna-Gestr, who lived for three centuries after his mother defied a malevolent norn (Wurth 1993, 435-6). In Iceland, with staff and walrus-skin belt, the hooded Baror Snaefellsass traverses the glacier of Snaefellsjokull, returning whenever his people need him most. (2) Elsewhere, Odinn himself stalks the sagas, an incognito rambler testing those whose paths he crosses. This surplus of timeless flaneurs makes it hard to follow the northbound footprints of medieval Europe's best-known pedestrian: the Wandering Jew. The story needs little introduction, but it may be useful to highlight briefly its most important elements: now known by many names (Ahasuerus, Buttadeus, Cartaphilus (3)), the Wandering Jew once scorned Christ on the way to Golgotha, and was cursed to walk the earth without rest until the end of days.

Direct written references to the Cartaphilus legend prior to 1500 are attested in Czech, English, French, and Italian sources (Anderson 1965, 21-8). The most influential of these is arguably that of Matthew Paris in his Chronica Majora. His account of the Wandering Jew replicates an earlier record by Roger of Wendover in the Flores Historiaram for the year 1228, and Paris then tells his own story for the year 1252. However, we should note that the scattered records surviving to date seem to imply a much wider circulation of texts. For instance, the Czech Svatovitsky rukopis is based on the Chronica Majora, and it seems more plausible to imagine a number of lost intermediaries rather than direct transmission between England and Bohemia. Medieval Scandinavia, on the other hand, might be able to lay claim to such a direct connection; in 1248, Matthew Paris was sent to Munkholmen in Trondheim as a monastic visitor (Paris 1984, 158-61). But if Paris already knew the story of Cartaphilus--and there is no reason to suppose he should not have done--there is no record of any of the Norwegian monks with whom he might have shared it committing anything to vellum.

The first identifiable Ahasuerus tales in Scandinavia are all post-Reformation, and derive from the German chapbook Kurtze Beschreibung and Erzehlung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus, published in 1602 (Overgaard 2007, 153-7; Schaffer 1920, 598). But if textual sources fail us, there is certainly a wealth of Cartaphilus material from Scandinavian folklore, some strains of which are clearly conversant with medieval antecedents. Particularly demonstrative of this tendency is the regional tradition of Joden fra Uppsala--"The Jew from Uppsala." It is a subset of the Klintekonge (Clifiking type), a folkloric motif in which the hollows of certain Danish cliff-faces are said to be the home of solitary supernatural beings, who may alternately protect or menace the local population (Olrik and Ellekilde 1915-1930, 133-4). Frederik Hammerich, on a pan-Nordic wandering of his own in 1834, recorded the following conversation with a fisherman from the Danish island of Mons:

Seer de Hulerne overst oppe, sagde vor Fiskemand; der boede i fordums Tid Joden Opsal (Jetten fra Upsala, Odin), men det var ikke god at besoge ham, kan jeg troe, for engang var der en forvoven Krop, der lod sig hidse ned til ham og gik ind i hans Slot. Hvad skete saa? Touget fik de vel tilbage, men der var ingen Mand med. Og det maa jeg medgive, den Opsal var en Pokkers Karl; tidt saae de ham kjore over Soen med sine sorte Heste for, naar Havet var i Opror, og Bonderne i min Barndom skulde aldrig forsomme at lade det sidste Neg staae paa Marken; det var tilgivens for hans Heste, kan jeg troe. Garnie Folk veed ogsaa at sige, at han med sine Gronjaegere var trukken over Klipperne i sidste svenske Krig, for at forsvare Landet, og han har lovet, fortaelle de, at gjore det endnu engang. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.