Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bird Myths, Pt.3: The Jewish Ziz (continued)

The Ziz
Illustration from "The Princess of the Tower,"
Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, by Aunt Naomi (Gertrude Landa) (Public domain )
        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?
       This passage is a continuance of the previous post in this series, so to get an explanation of the characters and circumstances, go to that post.  The following is adapted from Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, by Aunt Naomi (pseud. of Gertrude Landa), New York, Bloch Pub. Co., 1919.  The footnote to this effect is meant to have been supplied in the 28th century by the person who is writing Capt. Nikalishin's fictionalized biography.


Avi continued, "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.  And I’ll abbreviate it, because when Uncle Ely would tell tales to Ziv and Daniel and me after school, he would stretch them out so they usually went two or three sessions.  He’d turn them into cliffhangers and use the installments as a reward for buckling down to our lessons.”[1]
 “Once there was a princess who was very beautiful and accomplished and smart and well-educated, but suddenly she got very depressed.  Her father the King sent for all kinds of experts to try to figure out what was wrong with her, and finally one who was a bit more savvy than the others decided that the only thing wrong with her was that she was pining for someone to fall in love with.
“So the King brought all the princes and nobles of his realm to court her, but she rejected every one of them, saying they were all self-centered botbrains … well, I doubt she used that word, but you know what I mean … and she would never marry any prince who thought himself to be the only person in the world who mattered, or who loved himself more than the people that he ruled.  The King could grasp the wisdom of that, but when the wise men told him that it was obvious the princess would never fall in love with anybody but a commoner, he lost patience and imprisoned his daughter in a fortress tower by the sea. 
“The people missed their kind princess, although the King took a funny turn.  It seems that, annoyed as he was with his obstinate daughter, he took what she had said to heart and began to take more of an interest in the welfare of his people.  So it happened that they began to hope for better things and that included a certain young cowherd. 
“One day he was out in the field watching his cattle.  As he was pondering the state of the world, he fell asleep and was awakened by the piteous bellowing of an ox in pain.  He jumped up to see that an enormous bird had seized the ox in its talons and was trying to lift it from the ground!  He realized that it could only be the Ziz, and yet, with no thought for his own safety, the cowherd rushed to seize the ox by the forelegs at it was rising into the air.  He wound his own legs around a tree to try to hold the bird back, but to no avail.  The Ziz, its huge eyes glowing with rage, struck at the cowherd, but fortunately its wicked beak sliced the tree in two instead.  Then, freed from any restraint, it rose up from with ground with the ox dangling beneath him and the young man dangling from the ox!
“He clung on for dear life as the bird rose higher and higher above the trees and then soared away over the ocean.  It soon became night, with a great moon glimmering on the water below, and the cowherd was about to give up in despair and let go and accept his death, when the bird reached a tower on the seacoast and swooped down to drop both the dead ox and the cowherd in a nest at the top.  Above them towered the Ziz, glaring ferociously as it prepared to strike the young man with a death blow.”  Again Avi grinned broadly, surely remembering the antics with which his beloved mentor must have illustrated this tale.
“But the resourceful cowherd pulled out his field knife and struck at the tongue in the gaping beak just as it was darting down.  A pierced tongue can’t feel so good even if you are as big as an elephant, and the Ziz gave a shriek, leaped out of the nest, and flew off.  The exhausted young man soon fell asleep, and when he awakened it was morning and a beautiful young woman was standing before him.  Naturally, she asked him how he had gotten there and he related his astonishing tale.  So the princess – for that was who it was, of course – took him down into her tower and gave him food and clothing and a place to rest and bathe, all the while not telling him her identity.  She found him very attractive and he was likewise smitten, but he felt that only members of royalty could be so beautiful, and here he was nothing but a common peasant.
“The princess told him that every morning she went to the top of the tower and looked forth to see if her future husband might to coming to rescue her, and the cowherd in his naïveté asked her who that might be.  And she said that she didn’t know – in fact, she had often felt moved to make a vow to marry the first man who came to her.
“Emboldened, the cowherd said, ‘I believe I am that man, then, and certainly in my heart I knew it was love at first sight.  I would be honored if you would allow me to marry you.'  And she agreed without the slightest hesitation.
“But she said, ‘I will happily marry you, but first you must think of a way for us to escape from this place.’  And so he devised an ingenious plan.
“In the evening the Ziz returned to feast on the remains of the ox, and while it was thus occupied, the cowherd and his princess attached to its legs ropes and a large basket.  They provisioned the basket with a supply of food and water and then climbed in.  They had no idea where the bird would carry them, but their hope was that it would come to ground in occupied lands and they would be able to escape.
“But what happened was better than that – it flew across the sea to the capital city of the realm!  Then, seeming to notice for the first time the extra weight on its legs, it dashed the basket against a tower of the King’s very palace, and the princess and her lover tumbled out.  Only when guards appeared and recognized the princess did the cowherd discover the true identity of his intended bride.  The King was overjoyed – it was surely fate that this handsome prince among commoners had found his daughter.  He gave his consent to their marriage, and … Captain, you knew how this kind of old tale is supposed to end!  So I’ll say, they all lived happily ever after – even the Ziz, I presume!”  And Avi bobbed a comically childish bow and sat down, suddenly going red in the face.  Vigorous clapping and a spurt of animated conversation followed.
 Robbie stood up, still applauding.  “That was a highly entertaining tale, Lieutenant!  And I would love to hear Rabbi Kohn tell it!  Now, who wants to go next?”

[1] Rabbi Kohn appears to have drawn this tale from a 20th-century children’s narrative (Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, by Aunt Naomi [pseud. of one Gertrude Landa]) that is known to exist in only two copies, one in the Bodley Library in the Historical Preserve of Oxferd and one in the Ostrailien Archives.  One suspects that a third copy might be held somewhere in the IJE.
Coming Next ...
Mythical Birds from Greece and the Middle East

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