Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"Fattening Frogs for Snakes"

The Blues contains a fair amount of folk wisdom, but the genesis of this song I could never fathom. Unless it refers to cultivating amphibians as a food source for reptiles. (I will gladly entertain, and would be most grateful for, any other theories.) No matter that, at first hearing, I found Howlin' Wolf so howlingly funny, I ran this groove through the bottom of my pitiful portable picnic player; it's purpose here is solely as an illustration (because--honestly--I can't think of any PICTURES to go with this post!) of something (i.e., every song from Charley Patton to Muddy Waters that may or may not refer to life in the Mississippi River delta) that was once understood by persons of particular geographical region, but is now a subject only fit for anthropologists. In general, this kind of disconnect between objects and subjects, forms and usages, occurs when the tradition from which it emerged has become something of an atrophied limb on the Tree of Man; one no longer a-budding and bearing fruit on the vine. Interpretation then requires an interpolation of facts with respect to its place of origin and historical era, socio-religious background, etc. Beyond that, you end up in the area of enlightened (or un-) guesswork, such as the above, if you want to reproduce the juice.

And why? What is it about folk wisdom (a/k/a: tribal lore) that makes it worth our time? Because what we were can teach us much about who we are today and what we are likely to become. Thing is, most people get a little irked when you start mucking about in their ancient burial grounds, and even testier when, say, you finally crack some scroll codes you find these precious relics were clay tablet 1040s. (See? Always be prepared for an audit!) Start to suggest their ancestors weren't all noble kings, priestesses, and great warlords and--lookout! Nobody wants to be descended from hack politicians, snake-oil salesmen, manure schleppers and charalatans. So, if you're going to get guff from digging up the past (not to mention the cost) there are still vast repositories of such ethnological lore to be found in among a variety religious practices, especially those with diligent scribes and roots going back well before what we refer to today as Western Civilization.

To find contempo corollaries of clan, kith and kin, one need only take a survey of headlines to uncover the subject of coverings. In my city, in my neighborhood even, the obvious is everywhere. On the street, Islamic headscarves and robes (even chadors!) for women are signs of chastity and modesty, but also reflect a practical concern: to guard against theft of breeding stock. Too callous? Not enough respect for the Almighty? Nope! The key word is "practical", as in "habit and practice" (a term of art in the legal world). This is not completely dissimilar to the rebbe parade and schmatta regatta of Williamsburg and King's Highway. When you look at those guys in the beaver hats, morning coats and white puttees, ever wonder why they don't have black hats like the Lubavitch? To payess or not to payess? It all comes back to what a particular theological theorist wore way back in the sheytl/ghetto when his sect split off from another. What you are seeing are fashion victims--albeit from previous centuries. It's just like mama said: you get judged by the company you keep. And it ain't just 7th Avenue, baby. Examine that in light of the cliques of today (hip hop, neo-Rasta, Neo-Cons, retro, etc.) and it gets even more obvious: You Are What You Wear.

Which, conversely and perversely, also must include the olde maxim of "De Gustibus Non Disputandem"--which has been given as a close reading of "There is no arguing with a customer" as much as "There's no accounting for taste"--in the discussion, along with "one man's meat is another man's poison". As much as the meal above-captioned might as well refer to a human appetite for the delicacy of the jumpers' legs en brochette, or a dish similar to smoked eel made from the primal tubesteak, we may enjoy these recipes in retrospect or re-creation, but is a rare thing indeed when one's own peculiar humors translate into the broader weal of the commons.

Like, why I find such things so revelatory...not to mention god-damned, funny/weird.

The funny-weird part is when, amid praise-songs for deity-of-choice, a fair amount of diet-of-choice will also be interjected. Of course, we realize, today, that such prohibitions were to avoid such things as salmonella, trichinosis, dysentery, rickets, and other odd-named ailments, as much "Rx" as recipe. The other provisos were a bit trickier, as in tryck-ier, as in Wikka-ier, as in white magyck and medicine man/shaman-type rituals disguised as advice from on high and prescriptions that read like performance art stage directions.

This is why I maintain that any religion which maintains these traditions in their 'gospel' (or whatever they keep as scripture/sacred text, worthy of counsel and advice) has got to be a bit verklempt. This is not a sudden revelation on my part, but, having recently stumbled on (nah, you don't want to know how) just such a Talmud (rabbinical commentaries on the Torah) section (specifically the Mishna and the Gemara, specifically the Babylonian treatises, and specifically within that the Gittin, 68b and 69a), I have found a further belief that true believers know no editors. You want to say "you can't make this stuff up", but what really mean is: "who'd write this stuff down?"...and why.

Mind you, this is NOT the "word" from YHWH as much as the aforementioned lore placed among the regular scroll studies as a viable subject for kabbalah-level scrutiny. Which should tell you a lot. What follows is verbatum, given the fact that I cannot reproduce Hebrew fonts. The only addition from this end are the upper-case notations at the end of the paragraphs with first reactions.

The Gemara now returns to its presentation, begun at the beginning of it is chapter (6th), of the remedies to various conditions. The discussion is arranged according to parts of the body, from the head downward:

For blood of the head: Bring boxwood, willow, fresh myrtle, olive, poplar, cloves and yivla and boil them together, then pour three hundred cups of the mixture on this side of the head, and three hundred cups of it on that side of head. THIS IS THE STANDARD PRESCRIPTION

An alternative remedy:
If not, bring a white rose [whose leaves] all stand in one row ¬and boil it. Then pour sixty cups of the resulting liquid on this side of the head and sixty cups on that side of the head. THIS IS ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE

Another head ailment:
For a migraine headache: Bring a wild cock and slaughter it with a sharpened zuz coin of pure silver over that side of the head which aches, so that the blood trickles down the side of the head. However, one must beware that the blood not blind one' eyes. Then, hang [the slaughtered cock] on the doorpost of the patient’s house, so that when he enters he brushes against it and when he exits he brushes against it. NOT EXACTLY WAVING A DEAD CHICKEN OVER IT, BUT CLOSE ENOUGH

The Gemara turns to afflictions of the eye:
For cataracts: Bring a scorpion that is spotted with seven colors. Dry it out in the shade, grind it and make a powder consisting of two parts antimony and one art ground scorpion] Then, apply three doses of the powder to this eye and three doses to that eye. One must beware not to apply more than three doses to the eye, because if one does not beware of this, his eye may burst. THIS IS A PRODUCT LABEL WARNING

[below, an explanation of method]
Literally: fill three applicators in this eye. Applicators for eye-powder were generally made of a bird's feather, or a thin wooden receptacle ONLY USE AS DIRECTED BY MANUFACTURER

For night blindness, one should bring a rope of animal hair and tie one of his own legs to the end of the rope and one leg of a dog to the other end of the rope. Then, children should rattle pottery shards behind him, and they should say to him the following Incantation: “Old dog mad hen” He should then collect seven pieces of raw meat from seven houses [each homeowner] should give him [the meat] in the doorway of his home. And he should eat [the meat] by the city dumps. Afterward, he should remove the animal-hair rope from his leg and they should say the following incantation: “Blindness of so-and-so, son of the woman so-and-so. Leave so-and-so, son of the woman so-and-so.” Finally, they should blow into the pupil of the dog's eye.THIS PRODUCT WAS TESTED IN CONTROLLED CONDITIONS ON LABORATORY ANIMALS.

For daytime blindness: Bring seven spleens from the insides of freshly slaughtered animals and roast them on a bloodletter's shard [repugnant earthenware vessel that a bloodletter uses to collect the blood that he draws]. Then, [the blind man] should sit inside a house and another person, whose vision is good, should sit outside, and the blind man should say to him: “Give me the spleens to eat” and the other one, who sees, should say to him: “Take, eat.” After he eats, he should break the bloodletter's shard, because if he does not, [the blindness] may return to him. THE "EAT, EAT, YOU'RE SO SKINNY"-VALLEY-OF-THE-ULTRA-YENTAS VERSION(PROBABLY INTERCHANGEABLE WITH CHICKEN SOUP).

The Gemara moves on to ailments associated with the nasal and oral cavities:

For nosebleed: One should bring a man who is a Kohen and whose name is Levi and he should write the name Levi backwards for him. If not, he should bring any man and he should write for him the incantation: “I Papi Shila bar Sumki” backwards. If not, let him write for him the following incantation: "The taste of a bucket in silver water, the taste of a bucket in tainted water." WOULD GEORGE M. COHAN WORK AS LONG AS HE CHANGED HIS NAME? AND IS THAT 'BACKWARDS' OR 'IN REVERSE'?

Another type of remedy for a nosebleed:
If not, one should bring the root of a stalk of aspasta [Aspasta is a type of plant which was usually used for animal fodder], the rope of an old bed, rag-paper, saffron and the red part of a palm branch, and burn them together until they turn to ash. Then, he should bring a ball of wool, and twist the fiber to form two strands, immerse the strands in vinegar and roll them in these ashes so that the ash adheres to them, and insert one strand in each of his nostrils.SEE BELOW

Yet another remedy for nosebleed:
If not, one should find a canal that flows from east toward west, step over it and stand with one foot on this side of the stream and one foot on that side of it. Then, he should take mud with his right hand from beneath his left foot and with his left hand from beneath his right foot, twist two strands of wool, immerse them in the mud and insert one of them in each of his nostrils.SHOVING THINGS UP YOUR NOSE SEEMS LIKE A GOOD IDEA, IN THIS CASE

A final remedy:
If not, one should sit beneath a water spout and [others] should bring water, pour it on him through the spout and say the following: “Just as these waters stop, so too should the blood of so-and-so son of the woman so-and-so stop.” SYMPATHETIC MAGIC

[Although the incantation has no medical explanation, the shower of cold water is recommended in various sources as a remedy for nose-bleed (Biblical and Talmudic Medicine 9:3). [Apparently, the water is poured through a spout simply to make it shower down on the patient.]] NOTE: COMMENTARY ON THE COMMENTARY ON THE COMMENTARY. SOMEONE SHOULD MAKE A PRESCRIPTION INVOLVING SPLITTING HAIRS.

An ailment of the oral cavity:
For bleeding from the mouth, [the patient] is to be tested with a straw of wheat. If [the blood] sticks to the straw, it is coming from the lungs and thus, there is a remedy for it. But if the blood does not stick to the straw, it is coming from the liver and there is no remedy for it. ALSO BE A TEST FOR PASTA AL DENTE.

The Gemara digresses and focuses on the premise that blood from the liver is more serious than blood from the lungs:

Rav Ami said to Rav Ashi: But we learned the opposite in a Mishnah, for a—“

Here's where it goes on, but why bother? Ok. So what's the big deal? It's not like its Scientology or anything? (Well, actually, yeah--it kind of is.) You have to ask yourself that question, and the reply would go something like: Hey! Nobody's getting hurt here. And the Christian Scientists don't even bother with proscribed rituals as much as faith in the healing powers of prayer... Which brings up the following; a short note on the text by the official historian (I guess) who assembled the English-language version. Apparently, Hezekiah, a king of Judah, removed this from circulation as he sensed that ill people tended to rely exclusively on these remedies rather than prayer! And this deed was considered VIRTUOUS by the sages of his time! Also citing a further reason not to pay that much attention to them is that "since Talmudic times, these therapies, which were efficacious in those time are not necessarily so nowadays..."

And just what part of "The taste of a bucket in silver water, the taste of a bucket in tainted water" was "efficacious in those time(s)" and "[is] not necessarily so nowadays"?

I don't know, but something about the withdrawal of these potions and witchcraft seems even more sinister than keeping them under the tab for hot topics in the 21st century. Maybe it's just me. However, it does go a long way to explaining the kind of "magical thinking" prevalent among true believers, on the same plane with the fact that all the 9/11 hijackers were purported to have spent their last night before at a discotheque...and were of the firm opinion that 89 virgins (or so) awaited them in Paradise. Also, examine the social lives of the class of disaffected Moroccan youth in Holland, from whose ranks came kid who killed Theo Van Gogh for making an anti-Islamic movie, and you'll find that when similar aspirations of getting a date on Saturday night are thwarted, its an easy path straight to the extremist mosque. Ever wonder what makes fanatic commandos out of Bollywood-bes? (You may note the last locution tending towards a reference of the Mumbai incident. See, this is not faith-specific, only offered--like the aforesaid excerpt from the Wolf--as an object lesson. The thinking here is more along the lines of Jonathan Swift's Yahoos as opposed to just the Yehudin.) They see the same banquet of life that Auntie Mame talked about, and they really ARE starving to death. Which is how we get martyrs out of horny, easily-deluded teenagers: if you learn to swallow enough half-truths, a fantasy will taste no different.

Which brings us back about to the subject of cuisine as well. While I consider myself more health-conscious than my friend Ed, over at, he lives on junk food that would shame a long-haul trucker, but is constantly chiding me every time I mention a homeopathic solution to a sniffle or a fever. "You should take more Pills! Pills are something you can place a LOT of faith in!"

A BeatGen/Hippie saying was "You are what you eat," and I guess there's still some circulation on that axiom, mostly with reference to calorie counts dictated by pamphlets picked up in the checkout line. As for Ed? I can only put his lack of toxic effects from this consumption of chemical representations of edibles down to a metabolism so high hummingbirds would appear as sluggish butterflies. One would then suppose it isn't so much as what you take in as how you process it...out. Overall, then, organic is fine, just so long as it doesn't lead to the kind of ascetic self-absorption where holistic roots doctors and "chi" energy-flow specialists start charting yer chakras.

There's a lot to be said for preservatives, BHA, BHT, ascorbic acid, and Red No. 2 least by Ed. And yes, avoid old wives tales, feudal belief systems and regimens, and be as skeptical as you like about other people telling you what's good for you. So here's to another, now-rather-ironical slogan of a previous generation:

"Better Living Through Chemistry"!

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