On epistolary wisdom

Today, we take a trip down the rabbit hole, into some of the darker recesses of my mind. Not the very darkest, I hasten to add. In those, many spheres below the subconscious, bizarre and disturbing proto-thoughts lie quietly fermenting and fomenting, occasionally rising up to the lowest levels of subconscious to place in my mind shudderingly strange content, the words to express which have yet to be invented.

But we shan’t be plunging that deep today. Today we are merely descending a short way down, to the sphere of odd and sometimes slightly icky obsessions. Here, alongside the fascination for bodily oozes previously discussed on this blog, we find an innocent joy in bizarre folk myths about the behaviours of animals, and a slightly more discomforting fondness for discovering the glorious variety of innovative ways (both true and mythical) in which they get their respective freaks on.

The former means that, amongst others, I have filed away in my mind to occasionally take out and enjoy the fairly well-known fact that no lesser a mortal than Aristotle subscribed to the belief that mother bears give birth to unformed lumps of flesh, which they mould into a cub using their tongue (giving us the expression “to lick into shape”), and the lesser-known nugget that, according to the fourteenth-century Arabic lexicographer al-Fīrūzābādī, the tortoise lays exactly 100 eggs, of which 99 hatch to be tortoises, and one to be a snake. The latter obsession… well, we shall visit that shortly.

So, anyway, I’ve been reading the Epistle of Barnabas, and—

Reader: Wait, wait, wait… The Epistle of Whodjummy?

Me: Oh, you again. Aren’t we done stealing this device from a long-dead Irish comic?

Reader: Apparently not. And I’m not sure being all meta and self-referential about the fact improves matters. It just turns you from being a plagiarist into a irritating post-modern plagiarist.

Me: Well, it’s written now.

Reader (sotto voce): You nicked that joke from him too.

Some explanation, then: the Epistle of Barnabas is a tract, purportedly by St. Paul’s travelling-companion Barnabas, that very nearly made it into the New Testament; in fact it’s in the fourth-century Codex Siniaticus manuscript, and as late as the sixth century the Codex Claromontanus lists it as canonical. This makes it quite interesting, as an almost-ran, showing the kind of ideas that were floating around early Christianity. It is also astonishingly antisemitic, taking the not uncommon (though, to be fair, not universal either) Christian depiction of Jews as knowing deniers of the True God, and jumping the shark by back-projecting it onto the Jewish scriptures themselves. For, according to Barnabas, the entire Law, all 600 plus commands of it, was never intended to be followed. It was all metaphorical, and predictive of the arrival of Jesus and his moral code. The Jews, having broken the initial covenant, willfully erred yet further by treating the Law as literal. I have to say, I’m kinda with them on this point. If a voice spoke to me from a burning bush or a whirlwind giving extensive and detailed instructions on how to act, along with generalized threats of wrath and hellfire, I think I’d give it the benefit of Grice’s maxims, and presume it meant them. But Barnabas is very clear: they are all metaphors. In fact, to demonstrate this, he elucidates a few of them, and it is three of these that give me particular joy, and are the original point of this rather digressive post. They all concern meats declared unfit to eat. The bans on their flesh, to Barnabas, is not literal, but rather evokes characteristics of the creature that should be eschewed.

Firstly, hyenas. The ban on hyena flesh is, actually, a warning against adultery and perversion. Why? Because “this animal changes its nature each year, at one time it is male, the next time female” (10:7). Awesome: though from the folk mythology point of view, it’s not a stunningly left-field imaginative leap, if you know anything about the sexual morphology of the spotted hyena.

Next up, the weasel, who is dealt with as a prohibition on oral sex due to the fact that the weasel “conceives with its mouth” (10:8).

But my favourite, my absolute top, comes first in the list. The rabbit. Here it is, in its full glory:

But also “do not eat the rabbit.” For what reason? “You must not,” [Moses] says, “be one who corrupts children, or be like such people.” For the rabbit adds an orifice every year; it has as many holes as years it has lived. (10.6)

Domesticated rabbits can live up to twelve years.

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