The Wandering Jew is a figure from medieval Christian folklore whose legend began to spread in Europe in the 13th century. The original legend concerns a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. The exact nature of the wanderer’s indiscretion varies in different versions of the tale, as do aspects of his character; sometimes he is said to be a shoemaker or other tradesman, sometimes he is the doorman at Pontius Pilate’s estate.
The Curse of the Wandering Jew
The first man to acheive immortality was Utnapishtim. For rescuing animal and human life during the Flood, the gods granted him this favor, that he and his wife should live forever, albeit outside the realm of mortal men. For Utnapishtim, immortality is a blessing–one that the gods have seen fit to deprive from every other man, as Gilgamesh learns with bitterness.
Next came the Sibyl of Cumae. To win her love, Apollo offered her a gift. Gathering a pile of sand, she said, “Let me live as many years as there are grains of sand here,” and it was granted. Having been given near-immortality, she spurned the god–after all, the gift of a god is irrevocable. Apollo then changed his blessing into a curse: the Sibyl would continue to live, but she would also continue to age. She would age and shrivel until nothing was left of her but a voice, pleading for death. This time, near immortality is a curse, but only accidentally. Not perpetual life, but the infirmity of extreme old age is what is unbearable.
During the Christian era, another man was given immortality: Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew. For mocking Christ as He carried His cross to Golgotha, Ahasuerus was cursed to live on for millenium to millenium and wander the Earth until Christ’s second coming. Unlike the Sibyl, Ahasuerus does not continue to age–near immortality itself is the curse, as well as the perpetual homelessness which, we shall see, is essentially connected to it. Nor is immortality a curse only for the Wandering Jew in Christian folk lore. It is also such for the Flying Dutchman, who is essentially the Wandering Jew at sea.
How could immortality–not immortality accompanied by perpetual pain or aging, but immortality in itself–be a curse? And why couldn’t an immortal man feel at home in the world? Why must he be a wanderer? It might seem that such a man would be more at home in the world, which after all is his permanantly, while we are just temporary guests.
In some versions of the legend, Ahasuerus can stay under one roof or in one town only for a fixed time: three days, a fortnight, or whatever. In some versions, there is no such stricture, but Ahasuerus’ fate is not significantly different. An immortal man is a man with no family and no homeland. In some versions, Ahasuerus had a wife and daughter at the time of the Crucifixion, but his curse tore him away from them; in any case, they’re long dead now. Couldn’t he remarry? Suppose he could. Then he would live to see his wife die, their children die, and so on for as long as his progeny don’t all die off or become strangers. Each wedding comes at a price of many funerals. Perhaps after such an ordeal, the Jew forswears close human contact for a few centuries, only for loneliness to get the better of him, so that once again he seeks out friends and family, and soon he has new loved ones to mourn. Perhaps he tries to teach himself to enjoy the presence of friends without caring enough to feel the sting of their loss, but the thing isn’t possible, and he worries that he might lose part of his humanity if it were.
The desire not to outlive our loved ones is an easy thing to understand. However, there’s a more subtle element of the curse, one that makes it particularly interesting to us. Every man needs to make sense of his life. When he looks back on his life, he needs to see a single story. There should be an overall story arc, a major plotline, in light of which he can distinguish the major from the minor incidents. Such a story is, no doubt, often a greatly simplified version of a life that was in reality complicated and ambiguous, but it forms an important part of one’s sense of identity through time.
For most of us, the main plot of our lives is our family. A boy meets a girl. They fall in love and get married. This means that they decide to make their love story, and the story of the family they build, the main plot of both their lives. This is why remarriage seems so repugnant to us. Divorce and remarriage is, I believe, a great desecration. For myself, I would not even want to remarry if–God forbid–my wife were to die, even though there would be no sin in it. I can’t stand the thought of promising undying devotion to one woman and enjoying moments of closest intimacy with her, all the while remembering that I had once been with another woman in the same way. Where would be the unity of my life? It would be like a bad novel, with two unconnected stories. It would be hard even to imagine that the man who gave his love to that first woman was really me.
It’s not only wife and children that the Wandering Jew is doomed to outlive. More than once, he’s lost his country, too. He lived to see Jeruselem sacked, the Temple destroyed, the end of Israel’s political existence. Perhaps he transferred his loyalty to the Roman Empire. Surely here is a polity that will last. But no, he lived to see the end of Rome as well. He has outlived even some of the languages he once spoke. If long outliving one’s family takes away a life’s unity of plot, outliving one’s country and culture is like taking away the background, the settiing. These are things that are supposed to be fixed, and we plan our personal lives by taking them for granted. In reality, of course, cultures are not eternal; they just last much longer than a normal human life, so we are able to treat them that way.
Here is where the Legend of the Wandering Jew is most relevant to our times. We are living through an age of mass cultural extinction–tribes, cultures, languages, and religions are dying all over the world. Aboriginal tribes around the world are collapsing on contact with modern civilizations, and perhaps soon there will be no uncivilized tribes left. Imagine what it must be like to be one of those tribesmen in Africa, South America, or wherever. You are born into one way of life. You hunt, you build a hut, you obey the tribe’s elders, you sacrifice to the gods and protect yourself against demons. This way of life has been passed down from time immemorial, and you imagine that once you pass it on to your children, it will continue forever. Now fast forward twenty years. You’re living in an apartment in a big city, working at McDonald’s for minimum wage, going to the movies on Friday nights. Your new life is not necessarily worse than your old one, but how utterly different! You’ve outlived what was supposed to last forever, and now you don’t know what you can take for granted and plan around. In thinking of the way of life you’ve outlived, meloncholy passes over you, and the thought comes into your mind, “I have lived too long.”
The displaced aboriginee is an extreme example, but in these times of cultural demolition, most of us experience this feeling to some degree. Catholics who grew up before the Vatican II onslaught hear the old beliefs and practices being ridiculed by their new priests. The ideals of past ages–motherhood, patriotism, politeness–are despised by the new generation. The things that were once the heart of America–the family farm, small town life, regional distinctiveness–are all passing away. I have lived too long.
What can we do to make our lives make sense again? For us, it may be possible to preserve some elements of our cultures and communities, at least for the course of an average lifetime. And, fortunately, we can still hope that our children will outlive us. Poor Ahasuerus doesn’t have these options. I find it significant that, at least in the medieval versions of the Legend, he becomes a hermit or a missionary, renowned for his wisdom and piety. There’s only one other man as eternal as he–the One who cursed him. Yes, Ahasuerus has long since repented for his offenses against Christ and accepted baptism. He puts his trust in God’s mercy, and he takes advantage of his ages on Earth to grow closer to God and help others grow closer to Him too. The Middle Ages were, in some ways, more optimistic ages than ours, but for religious believers, there is always this consolation–that God, the most fundamental part of life’s background, is indeed fixed.