Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bird Myths, Pt.3: The Jewish Ziz
In searching Google Images for the Ziz I found this modern
children's book making use of this rather minimal myth.
I can't believe the author would mind a little free publicity!
       When I was writing The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, (see the Prologue and first six chapters here), I made Capt. Robbin Nikalishin a birder. What better qualification for the man who will head up the mission that encountered the first intelligent lifeform known to humanity -- and who happened to be big birds? During the mission out, there was a lot of boring downtime and one way the crew entertained itself was by telling bird myths, each crewmember telling tales from his or her own culture.  Now, this section will be cut or drastically emended if I ever get that monster ready for publication, but I did too much research and had too much fun writing it to let it all disappear, so what better place to display it than on a blog devoted partially to myth in literature?
       I did no editing or abridging to the following passage, so some explanation may help.  Lt. Avi Oman is the ship's Communications Officer.  He's Jewish and at one point earlier in The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, I decided I wanted him to get married.  (You see how far off topic I got in this saga?)  I used that as an excuse to depict one of the self-governing Enclaves for particular ethnic or religious groups that have been set aside in my secular 28th century.  And since I didn't know much about Jewish weddings, I had to research them.  That was the start of my fascination with all things Jewish, which went on for some three months, far beyond the wedding idea, even prompting me to study a little Hebrew.  Rabbi Eliyahu Kohn, who is mentioned in the selection, was a character in that section of the book.  Avi's father is the Minister of Trade for the Enclave and he and Rabbi Kohn and Rabbi Natan Ben-Ari are very close friends.  Similarly, Avi and the sons of the two Rabbis were also close friends.  Daniel was the son of Rabbi Ben-Ari, but Daniel is dead.  So that's a bit of the background. (Parenthetically, I might say that someday I may extract the part with the wedding and the Rabbis and publish it as a novella.  The story of Rabbi Ben-Ari is very moving, while the depiction of the Istrian Judish Enclave and the story of what became of the Jewish people in future times is absorbing in itself.)


       Avi began.  “All of you should know by now that I was brought up in the Istrian Judish Enclave.  My ancestral people had legends about a bird called the Ziz.  Now, the term appears only once in our sacred writings, in a verse in the book called Tehillim, and even there the meaning isn’t very clear.  It just says, ‘I know all the birds of the mountains, and the ziz of the field is mine.’  It’s sometimes just translated as ‘wild beast’ because nobody knows exactly what animal God was referring to there.  Oh, yeah, I forgot to say, the speaker in that passage is God.”  Avi snickered, and Robbie found himself thinking how ill at ease it made people to openly discuss private cultural heritages.       “Later on,” Avi continued, “it was interpreted to be a big bird equivalent to some of the other fabulous giant birds of the Near East, like the Phenix or the rook.”       “Hold on,” said Robbie.  “Last time I looked, the rook was a real bird, and it’s not all that giant."
“Well, that’s the modern spelling of ‘roc’ or ‘rukh,’” said Linna.  “I’m going to hit a little bit on those stories later, if there’s time.  Go on, Avi.”
“The ancient Rabbis who wrote the interpretations of Judish scripture called the Talmud named the Judish version of the rook the ‘Bar Yokneh.’  But they also equated it with the Ziz, for no particular reason that I can see, but then I’m no scholar on such matters.  In our times it became a subject for nursery tales.  My father’s old friend, Rabbi Eliyahu Kohn – some of you met him at my wedding … ”  And Avi beamed, but whether at the thought of his wedding or at the recollection of the Rabbi’s funny, wrinkly grin it was hard to say.
Then Avi cleared his throat.  “It was from Rabbi Kohn, the man I call Uncle Ely, that I first heard about the Ziz.  You see, there are three great Judish beasts.  One of them is the lord of the ocean, the livyatan, or king of the fishes … ”
       “In Inge it’s ‘leviathan,’” said Linna.  “It just means a big sea monster.”
“Oh, it is?” said Avi, looking foolish.  “I’ve never heard the Inge word for it – thanks for enlightening me, Linna!  Anyway, besides this big sea creature, there was a monstrous ox – and I know the Inge for that – it’s ‘behemoth,’ which just means ‘cattle’ or ‘livestock’ in Hebru.  And so I suppose the Talmudists just decided to make this mysterious creature called a ziz into a giant bird to round out a trio of fish, beast, and bird. 
“On the Fifth Day of Creation God made the fishes out of water, and then he made the birds out of marshy ground, a mixture of water and earth.  On the Sixth Day of Creation, he made the land animals out of dry earth, and then that same day he went on to make human beings, but that gets us into a whole different story.  So while the … lev-AI-a-than? … was made to rule the fishes and the behemoth the beasts, so the Ziz was made to rule the birds – King of the Birds, like Garuda.  And he is every bit as fabulous as Garuda – he’s so big that his head touches the sky."
And Avi chuckled richly, pinching his whiskered chin.  “I’ll never forget the first time I heard Uncle Ely talk about the Ziz.  I was only five years old, and he and his wife had taken his three children and me down to swim at the beach.  His son Ziv is one of my best friends – some of you may remember he was one of my witnesses at the wedding.  Uncle Ely went in the water, too … ”  He broke off.  “Now, don’t look so skeptical, Captain!  Remember this was almost 25 years ago and Rabbi Kohn was only in his early thirties.  Anyway, he told the tale while he was standing in water up to his calves, and this is it.
“One time some people were sailing in a boat and they came upon this huge bird standing in the water, so tall that its crest brushed the sky.  And here Uncle Ely sort of pranced around and kicked up spray, and then settled down standing on one leg like a stork.  And he ruffled up his hair with one hand like a bird’s crest – he had more hair then, too.  Ziv and I and Ziv’s two sisters giggled our heads off."
 “What?  The Rabbi wasn’t wearing his kippah?” queried Robbie, who was enjoying himself tremendously.
Avi regarded his Captain with mock exasperation.  “Well, it’s kind of hard to keep a hat on your head when you’re swimming, so he made an exception.  Uncle Ely went on to say that since most of the bird’s legs were above the water line, the people on the boat thought the sea was shallow at that spot, and they decided to jump in and take a bath.  But then a voice came out of the heavens – and here Uncle Ely made his voice really deep and ominous … “Do not jump in!  Once a carpenter dropped his axe overboard at this spot and it did not reach the bottom for seven years!  This bird is the Ziz, and you will never see its like elsewhere!’  Avi, too, made his voice unnaturally deep, wagging his head pompously.
“And then Uncle Ely stretched out his arms and announced that the Ziz had wings so broad that they darken the sun and hold back the winds from the south, which otherwise would have blown the Judish people away long ago.  And Uncle Ely flapped furiously … you remember how scrawny he is – his arms could hardly have darkened or held back anything!  Then he came back onto the beach and hunched down over a large stone as if he was incubating it and said that the Ziz had eggs so big that one time when one fell out of its nest and broke, 300 trees were crushed and the fluid flooded 60 cities.  Humanity is fortunate that normally the Ziz is very careful with its eggs!”
Avi paused to let everybody laugh and then he said, “I’ll always remember with pleasure what a cutup Uncle Ely could be when we were children.  He was so much fun.”
“Where was Daniel?” asked Robbie softly.
       Avi glanced at him.  Not many people in the room knew about Daniel.  "Oh ... he was only three at the time, you know -- not old enough for that kind of excursion.  but that's not the whole story of the Ziz.  He appears in several later tales meant especially for children.  I'll tell just one of them ... "


  1. I've never thought about doing this - posting exerpts from my stories in this way. DVD extras, if you like. Very nice.

    Mind you, we certainly think differently - I detest having to research anything. I consider it a weakness. I'm sure my stories would be a lot stronger if I did.

    1. Well, since this part of the WIP would probably have to be cut anyway, and since it falls in comfortably with one of the themes of this blog - that is, to explore myth in literature - I thought I might as well get some use out of it.
      I'm a former librarian and a grad student in English, so I enjoy research! And the internet made it so much easier! Frankly, though, the ability to imagine rather than research is one reason I like to write about future and alien worlds. I have no desire to learn the entire street grid and the location of every warehouse or park in contemporary Chicago, for example.

  2. I don't want to make assumptions on your character and how orthodox he is or how reverent he is, but there's a lot of the speaking of the word 'God' by your Jewish character. The closeness of the rabbis to this character and the nearness of the stories being passed down(directly from a relative)to me suggests a more traditional Jew, who would likely refer to G-d as 'The Lord'(Adonai), and sometimes 'The Name'(HaShem), otherwise Elohim. I don't want to be a nitpicker, lol. He may have a reason for being so casual.

    Nice telling of the myth. I especially enjoyed the inclusion of Leviathan. I have a fondness for Leviathan mythology, from other cultural perspectives along with Hebrew. :)

    (silly Blogger won't let me edit my own comments. I had too many spelling errors to live with, so I re-posted, lol)

    1. Heh,heh - I'm always seeing errors in comments just as soon as I hit that Publish button!
      This may take a little explanation. My future world has banned the open practice of religions - it's secular humanist - but as I stated, sometimes special enclaves are chartered where a religious or ethnic group can set up a ministate where they can openly practice their religion and customs as long as they don't mount campaigns to convert the rest of the world. The Istrian Judish Enclave is one of those and it is quite orthodox. In the Enclave most people would say "HaShem" for G-d, and they wouldn't write the word "G-d" in its entirety. But Avi left the Enclave, attended a Flight Academy, and became a Com Officer, and so he conforms to the norms of Earth society in his regular life and is used to uttering the name of God secularly. Rabbi Ben Ari would never do that, but then he's never left the Enclave. I think you would enjoy my depiction of the Enclave, which is part of the Jewish (or Judish, as they say in the 28th century) wedding section that I talk about above. In it Avi's father tells the tale of the founding of the Enclave and the fate of the Middle East, and later he tells Ben-Ari's story, which as I mentioned is quite a moving one.

    2. That makes sense. I thought maybe I was not seeing it in it's proper future context. It occurred to me after the fact that he may have been utilizing a casual approach in front of Gentiles, or in this case the future societal norm, but it was just such a 'personal' telling, I couldn't be sure. Good on your character for giving it that extra touch that made me feel like he was within cherished tradition. This tells me that I will enjoy reading these people and their society very much. Is this a part of the 'Termite' series? I have the first book already. It's just waiting for its turn to be read.

    3. No, it's not part of the termite stories. It's laid some 200 years earlier, right after global unification, and it is supposed to be a fictionalized biography of the Starship Captain who made the first contact with the Bird people who appear in The Termite Queen. But it got so out of control length-wise that publishing it in its present form is impossible. And it also has some experimental things in it that didn't work. I'm post the opening chapters of MWFB on my other blog (this link will give you all of them - read from the bottom up):
      The Jewish part doesn't appear until much later.