The King’s Daughter
by Tala Bar
Table of Contents|
Chapter 4 appears
in this issue.
|Chapter Five: The Three Asses|
The contrast between Naaman’s temple and that of the Three Asses was astonishing. I shall forever remember this contrast, although I have not seen either of them since my childhood. The former was destroyed, the latter was shut down. They both, however, have accompanied the events of my life as eternal symbols of the basic elements of Ashtoret’s faith in Life and Love and the Wisdom of Death.
Naaman’s temple, where the cyclic life of the god, his birth, love and death, was celebrated every year, was situated close to the much-travelled road to and from the town of Naama; it was a popular, jolly place used as an assignation for young men and women, a pleasant diversion for wayfarers, a shelter for homeless girls and for women who sought meaning for their lives. The last thing they wanted would be anything like the loneliness and isolation, which was the main characteristic of the temple of the Three Asses.
The Oracle was situated at a remote place difficult to approach, because going there could never be a mundane business; to reach it a person needed a directed intention. No one would start on the way there unless answering a deep heartfelt need or a firm command.
Both temples were built on mountain slopes, but these were very different in character. Naaman’s place, a glowing white edifice decorated with red, yellow and blue colors, was erected in the heart of a lush green crevasse at the end of an easy path. The Three Asses temple was situated in the middle of the steep, rocky slope of an arid mountain, hard and even dangerous to reach. It faced southwest toward the sinking sun of winter, getting the full blast of summer’s hot sun and winter’s rainstorms. One skeleton of a dried-up tree stood above it, its bare, dead branches hovering over the building without sheltering it from the harsh weather. All day a clutter of ravens flew above in confusion, and at night, when the noise of the birds subsided, the howl of jackals would join the occasional hooting of owls to haunt the lonesome visitor.
While the Naaman’s temple formed an amusing subject for evening talks, the Three Asses temple was never mentioned in company; its mere name carried with it terror and apprehension, and anyone who went there left and returned furtively, keeping the visit secret.
* * *
Following Maakha’s command and out of desperation, Sha’ul went to consult the Oracle of the Three Asses, although his soul cried out against it. The mere thought of the Goddess ruling and judging in the Underworld was painful for his mind, always recalling to him his own avoided sacrifice.
But his grandmother would hear nothing of his protest. “And take Mikhal with you,” she added in her croaky old voice.
“Mikhal? Why?” He was obviously reluctant. “Isn’t it enough that I have to stand this trial a second time?”
“It is a trial every one of Ashtoret’s faithful servants must withstand at least once in a lifetime.”
“But she is too young! Maybe in a few years time?”
“She is exactly the right age.”
“I don’t want to take Mikhal! I still remember my own ordeal going there and I want to spare her this terrible experience.”
“Your wish to spare people trouble is not helping them to live their lives, Sha’ul. You can’t avoid the inevitable.”
Maakha always used a very quiet voice for admonishion, emphasizing the force behind her words. When she talked to him in that tone of voice, he knew he really had no choice in the matter.
* * *
The excitement which took hold of me when I learned that I was to join Sha’ul on his journey to the Three Asses Oracle even today makes my cheeks flash. No one except Maakha and Avner knew where we were going, the people hardly realized that the King was leaving town; on that day they were told he was sick, staying in his bedroom all day. Only one boy with a donkey accompanied us, the secrecy adding power to the sense of adventure for me.
It was a wonderful journey in its learning and experience, which I can never forget, adding to the strong ties between father and daughter. A long time had passed since Sha’ul and I had roamed the fields together, walking and running free among trees and rocks. People are usually suspecious of the area outside town or village; wild, vicious animals, outlaw bandits or evil spirits are supposed to be dwelling in forest and mountains, stirring anxiety and a sense of constant threat. I myself, in all my travellings, never met any of those, but shepherds and field workers would never go out unless in twos and threes, and wayfarers always joined caravans. A man, a girl, and a boy with a donkey wandering on the road were a rare sight indeed; but we were on a mission of the Goddess, and without a thought of evil in our hearts we could expect to remain unharmed.
Crouching among my soft cushions, imprisoned in the Women’s house, my spirit breaks the walls of my little room, flying out to the open spaces. There I am again, alone with my father among the hills which were my home and playground, the rocks and plants which were my friends and playthings. Every bush, every boulder or clod or earth awakened my excitement; a flying bird, a frightened hare, a fluttering butterfly or a buzzing bee were the joy of my life.
How different was this lonely journey from Malkishua’s Wedding and Sacrifice procession! There, I was lost among the crowd, I drowned in a sea of colors and sounds; the sun rays burned then, enthusiasm stirred the blood as I was drawn to join the dancing, to be absorbed in ecstasy with the other celebrants. Here, silence and loneliness ruled everywhere; Sha’ul was quiet as usual, the boy hummed a monotonous tune, the donkey brayed now and then; and I... I was with myself, with nature. The sense of Ashtoret’s loving power ruled everywhere, but the excitement was internal, unexhibited, stirring the spirit, not the body.
Our journey to the Three Asses temple took place in autumn. The day started with remnants of the night’s chill, but toward noon it had grown hot and heavy as some autumn days are. We arrived at a peak overlooking a steep slope, panting under the exhaustingly moist heat. An enormous tree grew on the peak, “Ashtoret’s oak,” Sha’ul explained to me. We sat in its shade. It was the only tree in the area as far as I was able to see.
Below us, the steep slope descended into a narrow canyon, deep and rocky. A lone building was affixed to the slope, camouflaged in its drab earth color of brown-grey; from that distance it looked more like a shack than a temple. An atmosphere of secrecy prevailed on it, and for the first time that day I felt a slight unexplained apprehension. The boy got some food out of the sack carried by the donkey, but I had no appetite. Unable to sit down quietly, I rose and roamed restlessly around, picking some squill blossoms growing among the boulders; I sat down at Sha’ul’s side, cut the stiff stalks and made a white garland, which I put on my head.
“Why is the temple called ‘The Three Asses’?” I asked my father.
“Maakha told me about it once,” he said; then he told me the following story.
The temple of the Three Asses was called after the Ass, mother of all oracles, sister-lover to the wild desert donkey. The ass had been sacred to the people of Israel as long as memory could carry; three times in ancient days it prophesied the future of the People. Once it told our ancestress Rivka, who was riding it, about the birth of her twin sons. The second time it foretold through the mouth of the prophet Bil’am of the victory of Israel over Amalek in their war in the desert. The third time it proclaimed the judge Shimshon’s victory over the Philistines and his death at their hands.
* * *
“The Three Asses told of your kingship as well, didn’t they?” I asked innocently.
“I could do without their telling,” the King mumbled darkly. Then he related the circumstances of the Oracle declaring his kingship.
Before he was crowned, during his many wars against the Philistines, Sha’ul sometimes returned home tired, falling straight on his bed, barely managing to remove his outer garments. Falling into a heavy sleep, he used to be troubled by dreams, which were repeated in many diverse and strange forms. Some of them showed him leading his army to battle: an army of ants who attacked trees and shrubs, denuding them from leaves and blossom. Sometimes the ants fell on animals, devouring their flesh to the bones. Sha’ul would wake up from those dreams sweating in disgust and nausea.
He also dreamed other dreams, in which he was carried on the wings of a vulture, the great divine bird of Israel. They would fly up to the sky, and then, when they were hovering over the cliffs, the bird’s feathers started falling off and they sank like a stone out of the sky, down... down... Sha’ul then woke up in a panic, his heart pounding.
In still other dreams he was sitting on a high throne with Re’uma at his side and the people gathering around them; they came in throngs, crowding up at him getting nearer and nearer, until he was filled with terror from their closeness, afraid of suffocating. In his fear, he moved his chair closer to Re’uma’s, taking hold of her and trying to use her as a shelter against the people; as he did that, she melted in his arms and vanished, leaving him alone to face the crowd...
“You did not know what these dreams meant?” I asked my father when he paused, breathing hard; I had never seen him in such a state.
“I am not a prophet,” he replied in short; “I asked Maakha’s advice, and she sent me to the Oracle of the Three Asses, saying, ‘There you will get a true answer, without any delusions’.”
“What did Re’uma say about these dreams?”
“Re’uma is not a person to tell dreams to.” His face darkened again, and I did not know whether he was filled with resentment for his wife’s inability to help him, or whether he was sorry for her present illness, even feeling guilty about it.
“Re’uma is a very clever woman,” Sha’ul continued, “but very practical, earthly. That is also her beauty: a physical, blossoming beauty. I still remember the way she looked after giving birth to four children — healthy and radiant, even more beautiful than when we married. Seeing her giving suck to this or that of the children, she looked to me like the great Mother Goddess herself.” He paused.
“How strange...” He suddenly fell into meditation, looking internally, forgetting his surroundings.
“What is strange?” I asked out of curiosity.
“Re’uma and Ahino’am. The one who worships Yhwh looks like Ashtoret and the one who is faithful to Ashtoret lacks all form, like Yhwh himself.” He wondered about that, as if making a great discovery.
“So, you went to visit the Temple of the Three Asses,” I recalled him back to the story.
* * *
What he told me then was strange indeed, in a way preparing me for what was going to happen. It was the most difficult journey of his life, both physically and mentally. Like us, he went on his own, accompanied only by one boy and a donkey carrying provisions.
It was a spring day, but Sha’ul was sunk deep in his meditations and did not notice the bloom, the birds and insects in the air, even the hardship of the way. So much so that sometimes he saw parts of his dreams popping out in broad daylight: trees stripped of their foliage, or beasts’ skeletons strewn along the road, having suffered the attack of the army of ants.
Then, when he was climbing down the slope to the temple — having left the boy with the donkey on the top of the mountain — he nearly fell into the abyss. It was the withered tree trunk above the temple building, which suddenly appeared before him, as a miracle, breaking his fall. He grasped at it, clinging to the dry branches until he recovered, climbed down and reached the Temple safely.
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar