Let’s talk a little about Legends of Palestine, by Zev Vilnay. This isn’t a review, per se since the work is out of print. It can still be found relatively cheaply from second-hand booksellers. Mine cost approximately $5.00 CND. It is an English translation of his earlier Hebrew work Agadot Erez Yisrael from 1929.

In short, it is a surprisingly dry collection of brief, almost encyclopedic entries on the features of the landscape of Palestine with note of any correspondences to Jewish history, primarily. Here and there, the native people and their daily lives peek out, but it’s not the author’s aim to record the living oral tradition without sifting it for only the pieces he finds useful for his project. His background as a geographer is difficult to ignore; he treats Palestinian folklore as a means of gaining knowledge of the land. And so it reads as part travelogue, part encyclopedia rather than a collection of fantastic literature from an oral tradition.

Title page for Legends of Palestine.

Unfortunately, the cover copy is lost on my volume. The preface, provided by the publishing committee of the Jewish Publication Society of America sets down what is the most warmly inclusive statement about the role of native Palestinians in the work that can be found, and is at odds with the author’s dismissive and at times condescending treatment:

“These Legends are almost entirely derived from Hebrew and Arabic sources both literary and from the spoken word. They cover the entire period of Jewish history, being adaptations of biblical, talmudic and midrashic stories and coming down to modern legends which grew up as late as 1929. In his preface to the Hebrew original the author indicates that, prior to the modern settlement, the legends concerned themselves mainly with the description of grave of patriarchs, saints and holy men. These were gathered from the old Jews of the Synagogue, from the Arabs, especially the fellahin who live in villages, and not infrequently from the Bedouins, whose memories breathe the ancient Hebrew spirit.

It is hoped that the illustrations supplied by the author will add to the vividness of the book and thus bring from Palestine a message to those who see in the tales of simple folk the real spirit of the land.”

Legends of Palestine, iii- iv.

A few examples will illustrate the author’s general attitude. Strictly speaking, the illustrations are landscapes. Where Palestinians appear in them, they are sometimes indistinguishable from stones and craggy trees. In a few, Palestinians appear as small figures without apparent features. The only exception to this is an account of the village of Zarnuka. In this illustration, you can make out that the natives have features, although you can’t make them out distinctly. The accompanying text asserts the antiquity of the village’s name, and an allusion to its local claim to fame but also derides the “ignorant masses” for their apparent belief in the tale he has just related.

It is telling that the only people who appear in the illustrations close enough to discern facial features and expressions are a group picture of three Jewish pilgrims. This dichotomy of rendering Jewish pilgrims, the landscape, its flora and fauna (native people excepted) and even recent colonies, with detail and care and the dismissive and sketchy depiction of native people in the illustrations reflect the author’s treatment of them in the text itself.

The contents are divided into the following categories: the Center of the World, On the Mountain of God, Ancient and Modern Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall of the Jews, Graves and Caves of Jerusalem, About and Around Jerusalem, On the Mountains of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Its Surroundings, Hebron and Machpelah, the Valley of Jericho, the Desert of Judah, Jaffa and Its Surroundings, the Mountains of Judea, the South of Judea, the Plain of Sharon, the Mountains of Samaria, haifa and Carmel, Acco and Its Surroundings, the Plain of Jezreel, Tiberias and Her Shrines, the Sea of Galilee, Safed and Its Surroundings, Meron and Pek’in, Galilee and Her Towns, In Transjordania.

Excerpt:

13. THE HOLY NETTLE TREE

In addition to the olive and cypress trees which grow on Mount Moriah in the Temple area, there are also a few nettle trees (Celtis australis). They are lofty, with handsome crowns and longish pointed leaves. Their fruit is small and grape-shaped.

The first foundations of the Temple as laid by King Solomon were destroyed by some hidden hand. This puzzled the King sorely, and only after much investigation did he discover that the evil eye rested upon his work, and that evil spirits were wreaking vengeance upon him. He sought for means to keep these at a distance from Mount Moriah, and by planting nettle trees round the area he succeeded in driving away the demons: for such trees ward off the evil eye.

To-day you still find Arabs plucking small twigs of the nettle trees and making charms out of them. The most effective of them is the one plucked after sunset on the twenty-seventh day of the fast-month of Ramadan. The twig is usually placed in a blue bead and hung as a charm round the neck of man or beast.

At night you sometimes see an Arab traveling over a forsaken road with his ass, wearing a bead containing such a charm. And should sudden fear seize him and he imagines that demons are coming after him, he recites these words: “Oh Demon! Oh Demon! Dost thou not see the bead and the twig of the nettle tree?”

Legends of Palestine, pp.29-30

[The citation for the above is as follows:]

According to T. Canaan, Aberglaube und Volksmedizin im Lande der Bible (1914), p62. The end I heard from an Arab round Bethlehem.

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