Saturday, October 2, 2010

Jephtha and the Maiden without Hands

"Plorate filii Israel," from Carissimi's oratorio Jephte-from around 1650. This hauntingly beautiful chorus is part of the retelling of the biblical story of Jephtha, a man who promises God whatever should first come to greet him on his way home, in return for blessings on the battlefield. To his dismay, the first thing that came to greet him was his daughter-and only child. His daughter is heartbroken at his vow, but the importance of keeping one's word was valued highly. She allowed her father to kill her, after two months of mourning.

The Jephtha story found its way into fairy tales, like the brothers Grimms' "The Maiden Without Hands." This story is of a man who promises whatever is behind an old shed in return for riches, thinking it was his apple tree. This turns out to be his daughter. When the wizard who tricked him-or, in many versions, the devil-came to reclaim the daughter, she was too pure for him to touch her. The devil tries to manipulate the father into letting his daughter become unclean-denying her water for washing, and then cutting off her hands, but each time her tears purify herself. The wizard could not claim her, so he left. The disgraced daughter wandered about, eating pears off of trees, until a king found her and married her.

The King made his wife silver hands. They lived happily for a while, but once during an absence of the King, the same wizard intefered with letters sent between the King and his mother, trying to kill the wife. However, the King's mother was too good to kill the Queen, even on supposed orders from her son, so she had the Queen escape with her son. The King vowed he would search for his wife and son until he had found them. This he did-and his wife's hands had been allowed to grow back again, since she was so good. They lived happily after that, to make "amends for all they had suffered."

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