On Jewish Demons and Sublunary Buttercups

matted hair babyButtercups are blooming in our back yard. Sighting spring buttercups inevitably leads my husband, Ralf, to remember the many walks he took with his mother, Evelyn. Evelyn loved flowers and meadows, and upon seeing buttercups she inevitably said the exact same thing. Each time, each year, wherever they happened to be.

Wenn man das sieht, dann möchte man eine Kuh sein und gleich reinbeißen!

For those of you who don’t speak German, a translation: “When one sees that, one would want to be a cow and start munching.”

“Sometimes I wonder,” Ralf told me this morning, “was that some kind of past life experience talking?”

“Funny you should say that,” I answered. “I’ve been wondering about the same thing where my mother was concerned.”

“Do tell.”

“Well, it’s not exactly the same thing,” I explained. “But I was reading the other day about the way medieval Jews described demons at work in the world.”

“Wait,” Ralf said, “what are you saying about your mother?”

“It’s actually about my mother’s stories,” I said. Then I paused. “Though she did tell me she was a witch.”

This is the absolute truth. When I was a child my mother professed to be a witch who could fly to the moon. She did so frequently, she said, and she claimed to have taken me with her, too. Sadly, I seem not to have been able to remember these nocturnal lunar visits, so she always had to fill me later about the experience.

She also provided an explanation for the knots and tangles in my hair. That, she claimed, was the doing of Mr. Tangle. Apparently, he would party down in and among the strands with selected invited guests all night long. This would account for the knots that had to be combed out in the morning. Tears stinging my eyes, I would get to chastise Mr. Tangle because he was mean and cruel.

“Bad Mr. Tangle,” I would say through gritted teeth. “Bad!”

I know. It doesn’t seem like this has much to do with buttercups or cows. Bear with me.

I had been reading about medieval Jewish demons, you remember. I had learned, among others, about the mares (these are not horses, but demons). Mares hang out in groups of nine. If there are ten, Satan will surely come along and seize one. Moral of the story: Don’t make a minyan with mares.

Apparently such demons hang out with sleeping humans and make it impossible for them to speak by grasping their tongues and choking them. The mare is responsible for nightmares. (Surprise!)

On to my mother.

Well, actually, the mikveh, first.

Most of us know that a dip in the mikveh requires that before stepping into the water, every last item on the body must be removed. No rings, no jewelry. There are other rules about clipping nails and the like, but the question that concerned some of our ancestors was apparently this one: Should badly matted hair be cut off before allowing a candidate to step into the ritual bath?

Answer, according to one of the greatest rabbis of the thirteenth century, Isaac Or Zarua: No.

And why not?

Matted hair is caused by a demon. It would be courting mortal danger to cut such hair. Mortal dangers are not something to be courted at any time, particularly during the Middle Ages when Jews are oft surrounded by such things.

It turns out that there is a name for this demon. Actually, a demoness. She is Holle, also known as Holda and/or Hulda (no connection, I think, to the prophetess in II Kings, 22:14 who sanctifies a scroll supposedly found during the time of King Josiah). Though her origin is likely German, in which tradition she took the form of a rather ugly witch with long, matted hair and buck teeth, she apparently made her way into Jewish folklore.

As I was reading about this demon, I couldn’t help wonder: Was my mother refracting some old belief, some traditional story she had been told? My grandparents came from central and eastern Europe, with names like Kirschenbaum (or Karschenbaum – we aren’t quite sure which).

Was Mr. Tangle actually Holle? Was this Jewish-past-life experience turning up in modern America? Given that my mother claimed to be a witch, what might she know about demons and demonesses of the past?

“Maybe Holle and Mr. Tangle worked together,” Ralf said when I was done explaining.

“How so?” I asked.buttercups

“You don’t think it takes two to tangle?” he asked innocently.

“I am going out to water the sublunary buttercups now,” I said.


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