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The original legend concerns a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. The exact nature of the wanderer's indiscretion varies in different versions of the tale, as do aspects of his character; sometimes he is said to be a shoemaker or other tradesman, while sometimes he is the doorman at Pontius Pilate's estate.
The legend appears in the earliest extant manuscript under the title Of the Jew Joseph who is still alive awaiting the last coming of Christ.
At least from the 17th century the name Ahasver has been given to the Wandering Jew, apparently adapted from Ahasuerus, the Persian king in the Book of Esther, who was not a Jew, and whose very name among medieval Jews was an exemplum of a fool.
A variety of names have since been given to the Wandering Jew, including Matathias, Buttadeus, Paul Marrane, and Isaac Laquedem (a name for him in France and the Low Countries, in popular legend as well as in a novel by Dumas).
Where the German language is spoken the emphasis has been on the perpetual character of his punishment and he is known as "Ewige Jude", the Eternal Jew. In French and other Romance languages, the usage has been to refer to the wanderings, as in French "le Juif errant", and this has been followed in English from the middle ages.
The origins of the legend are uncertain; perhaps one element is the story in Genesis of Cain, who is issued with a similar punishment — to wander over the earth, never reaping a harvest again, but scavenging. According to Jehoshua Gilboa, many commentators have pointed to Hosea 9:17 as a statement of the notion of the "eternal/wandering Jew". According to some sources, the legend stems from Jesus' words given in Matthew 16:28:
Another passage in the Gospel of John speaks about a guard of the high priest who slaps Jesus (John 18:19-23, KJV). Earlier, the Gospel of John talks about Simon Peter striking the ear from a servant of the high priest, named Malchus (John 18:10, KJV). Although this servant is probably not the same guard who struck Jesus, Malchus is nonetheless one of the many names given to the wandering Jew in later legend.
Extant manuscripts have shown that as early as the time of Tertullian some Christian proponents were likening the Jewish people to a "new Cain", asserting that they would be "fugitives and wanderers (upon) the earth".
Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (b. 348) writes in his Apotheosis (c. 400): "From place to place the homeless Jew wanders in ever-shifting exile, since the time when he was torn from the abode of his fathers and has been suffering the penalty for murder, and having stained his hands with the blood of Christ whom he denied, paying the price of sin.
"In some areas the farmers arranged the rows in their fields in such a way that on Sundays the Eternal Jew might find a resting place. Elsewhere they assumed that he could rest only upon a plough or that he had to be on the go all year and was allowed a respite only on Christmas."
A variant of the Wandering Jew legend is recorded in the Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover around the year 1228. An Armenian archbishop, then visiting England, was asked by the monks of St Albans Abbey about the celebrated Joseph of Arimathea, who had spoken to Jesus, and was reported to be still alive. The archbishop answered that he had himself seen such a man in Armenia, and that his name was Cartaphilus, a Jewish shoemaker, who, when Jesus stopped for a second to rest while carrying his cross, hit him, and told him "Go on quicker, Jesus! Go on quicker! Why dost Thou loiter?", to which Jesus, "with a stern countenance", is said to have replied: "I shall stand and rest, but thou shalt go on till the last day." The Armenian bishop also reported that Cartaphilus had since converted to Christianity and spent his wandering days proselytizing and leading a hermit's life.
Matthew Paris included this passage from Roger of Wendover in his own history; and other Armenians appeared in 1252 at the Abbey of St Albans, repeating the same story, which was regarded there as a great proof of the truth of the Christian religion. The same Armenian told the story at Tournai in 1243, according to the Chronicles of Phillip Mouskes, (chapter ii. 491, Brussels, 1839). After that, Guido Bonatti writes people saw the Wandering Jew in Forlì (Italy), in the 13th century; other people saw him in Vienna and elsewhere.
The figure of the doomed sinner, forced to wander without the hope of rest in death till the second coming of Christ, impressed itself upon the popular medieval imagination, mainly with reference to the seeming immortality of the wandering Jewish people. These two aspects of the legend are represented in the different names given to the central figure. In German-speaking countries he is referred to as "Der Ewige Jude" (the immortal, or eternal, Jew), while in Romance-speaking countries he is known as "Le Juif Errant" (the Wandering Jew) and "L'Ebreo Errante"; the English form, probably because it is derived from the French, has followed the Romance. As well as "El Judío Errante" (The Wandering Jew), he is known in Spanish as "Juan [el que] Espera a Dios", (John [who] waits for God).
There were claims of sightings of the Wandering Jew throughout Europe, since at least 1542 in Hamburg up to 1868 in Harts Corners, New York. Joseph Jacobs, writing in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, commented 'It is difficult to tell in any one of these cases how far the story is an entire fiction and how far some ingenious impostor took advantage of the existence of the myth'. It has been alleged by an 1881 writer, who however cites no instances, that the supposed presence of the Wandering Jew has occasionally been used as a pretext for incursions by Gentiles into Jewish quarters during the late Middle Ages, when the legend was accepted as fact.
The legend became more popular after it appeared in a 17th-century pamphlet of four leaves, "Kurtze [sic] Beschreibung und Erzählung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus" ("Short description and tale of a Jew with the name Ahasuerus"). "Here we are told that some fifty years before, a bishop met him in a church at Hamburg, repentant, ill-clothed and distracted at the thought of having to move on in a few weeks". As with urban legends, particularities lend verisimilitude: the bishop is specifically Paulus von Eitzen, General Superintendent of Schleswig. The legend spread quickly throughout Germany, no less than eight different editions appearing in 1602; altogether forty appeared in Germany before the end of the 18th century. Eight editions in Dutch and Flemish are known; and the story soon passed to France, the first French edition appearing in Bordeaux, 1609, and to England, where it appeared in the form of a parody in 1625. The pamphlet was translated also into Danish and Swedish; and the expression "eternal Jew" is current in Czech, Slovak, and German, der Ewige Jude. Apparently the pamphlets of 1602 borrowed parts of the descriptions of the wanderer from reports (most notably by Balthasar Russow) about an itinerant preacher called Jürgen.
In France, the Wandering Jew appeared in Simon Tyssot de Patot's La Vie, les Aventures et le Voyage de Groenland du Révérend Père Cordelier Pierre de Mésange (1720).
In England the Wandering Jew makes an appearance in one of the secondary plots in Matthew Lewis's Gothic novel The Monk (1796). The Wandering Jew is depicted as an exorcist whose origin remains unclear. The Wandering Jew also plays a role in St. Leon (1799) by William Godwin.
In 1797 the operetta The Wandering Jew, or Love's Masquerade by Andrew Franklin was performed in London.
In 1810 Shelley had written a poem in four cantos with the title The Wandering Jew but it remained unpublished until 1877. In two other works of Shelley, Ahasuerus appears, as a phantom in his first major poem Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem (1813) and later as a hermit healer in his last major work, the verse drama Hellas (poem).
George MacDonald includes pieces of the legend in Thomas Wingfold, Curate (London, 1876).
In 1873 a publisher in North America (Philadelphia, Gebbie) produced 'The Legend of the Wandering Jew, a series of twelve designs by Gustave Doré (Reproduced by Photographic Printing) with Explanatory Introduction. For each illustration there was a couplet, such as "Too late he feels, by look, and deed, and word, / How often he has crucified his Lord".
In 1901 a New York publisher reprinted, under the title "Tarry Thou Till I Come", George Croly's "Salathiel", which treated the subject in an imaginative form. It had appeared anonymously in 1828.
In Lew Wallace's novel The Prince of India, the Wandering Jew is the protagonist. The book follows his adventures through the ages, as he takes part in the shaping of history. An American rabbi, H.M. Bien, turned the character into the "Wandering Gentile" in his novel Ben-Beor: A Tale of the Anti-Messiah; in the same year John L. McKeever wrote a novel, The Wandering Jew: A Tale of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Walter M. Miller Jr's novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz features a character based on the legend of the Wandering Jew, who appears in several eras.
The legend has been the subject of German poems by Schubart, Aloys Schreiber, Wilhelm Müller, Lenau, Chamisso, Schlegel, Julius Mosen (an epic, 1838), and Köhler; of novels by Franz Horn (1818), Oeklers, and Schücking; and of tragedies by Klingemann ("Ahasuerus", 1827) and Zedlitz (1844). It is either the Ahasuerus of Klingemann or that of Ludwig Achim von Arnim in his play, Halle and Jerusalem to whom Richard Wagner refers in the final passage of his notorious essay Das Judentum in der Musik.
There are clear echoes of the Wandering Jew in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, whose plot line is adapted from a story by Heinrich Heine in which the Dutchman is referred to as 'the Wandering Jew of the ocean', and his final opera Parsifal features a woman called Kundry who is in some ways a female version of the Wandering Jew. It is alleged that she was formerly Herodias, and she admits that she laughed at Jesus on his route to the Crucifixion, and is now condemned to wander until she meets with him again (cf. Eugene Sue's version, below).
Robert Hamerling, in his "Ahasver in Rom" (Vienna, 1866), identifies Nero with the Wandering Jew. Goethe had designed a poem on the subject, the plot of which he sketched in his Dichtung und Wahrheit.
Hans Christian Andersen made his "Ahasuerus" the Angel of Doubt, and was imitated by Heller in a poem on "The Wandering of Ahasuerus", which he afterward developed into three cantos. Martin Andersen Nexø wrote a short story named "The Eternal Jew", in which he also refers to Ahasuerus as the spreading of the Jewish gene pool in Europe.
The story of the Wandering Jew is the basis of the essay, "The Unhappiest One" in Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or (published 1843 in Copenhagen). It is also discussed in an early portion of the book that focuses on Mozart's opera Don Giovanni.
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The French writer Edgar Quinet published his prose epic on the legend in 1833, making the subject the judgment of the world; and Eugène Sue wrote his Juif errant in 1844, in which the author connects the story of Ahasuerus with that of Herodias. Grenier's 1857 poem on the subject may have been inspired by Gustave Doré's designs, which were published the preceding year. One should also note Paul Féval, père's La Fille du Juif Errant (1864), which combines several fictional Wandering Jews, both heroic and evil, and Alexandre Dumas' incomplete Isaac Laquedem (1853), a sprawling historical saga.
In Russia, the legend of the Wandering Jew appears in an incomplete epic poem by Vasily Zhukovsky, "Ahasuerus" (1857) and in another epic poem by Wilhelm Küchelbecker, "Ahasuerus, a Poem in Fragments", written from 1832–1846 but not published until 1878, long after the poet's death. Alexander Pushkin also began a long poem on Ahasuerus (1826) but abandoned the project quickly, completing under thirty lines.
Brazilian writer and poet Machado de Assis often used Jewish themes in his writings. One of his short stories, Viver! ("To Live!"), is a dialog between the Wandering Jew (named as Ahasuerus) and Prometheus at the end of time. It was published in 1896 as part of the book Várias histórias ("Several stories").
Castro Alves, another Brazilian poet, wrote a poem named "Ahasverus e o gênio" ("Ahasverus and the genie"), in a reference to the Wandering Jew.
In Argentina, the topic of the Wandering Jew has appeared several times in the work of Enrique Anderson Imbert, particularly in his short-story El Grimorio (The Grimoire), included in the eponymous book. Chapter XXXVII, El Vagamundo, in the collection of short stories, Misteriosa Buenos Aires, by the Argentine writer Manuel Mujica Láinez also centres round the wandering of the Jew. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges named the main character and narrator of his short story "The Immortal" Joseph Cartaphilus (in the story he was a Roman military tribune who gained immortality after drinking from a magical river and dies in the 1920s). In Green Mansions, W.H. Hudson's protagonist Abel, references Ahasuerus, as an archetype of someone, like himself, who prays for redemption and peace; while condemned to walk the earth. In 1967, the Wandering Jew appears as an unexplained magical realist townfolk legend in Gabriel García Márquez's 100 Years of Solitude.
Jean d'Ormesson - Histoire du juif errant (1991)
In both Gustav Meyrink's The Green Face (1916) and Leo Perutz's The Marquis of Bolibar (1920), the Wandering Jew features as a central character. The German writer Stefan Heym in his novel Ahasver (translated into English as The Wandering Jew) maps a story of Ahasver and Lucifer against both ancient times and socialist East Germany. In Heym's depiction, the Wandering Jew is a highly sympathetic character.
The Belgian writer August Vermeylen published in 1906 a novel called De wandelende Jood ("The Wandering Jew").
Mihai Eminescu, an influential Romanian writer, depicts in his romantic fantastic novella Sarmanul Dionis a variation. A student follows a surreal journey trough the book of Zoroaster, a book seeming to give him God-like abilities. The book is given to him by Ruben, his Jewish master which is a philosopher. Dan is eventually tricked by Ruben, and is sentenced by God to a life of insanity, which he can escape only by resurrection.
Similarly, Mircea Eliade presents in his novel Dayan (1979) a student's mystic and fantastic journey through time and space under the guidance of the Wandering Jew, in the search of a higher truth and of his own self.
The Soviet satirists Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov had their hero Ostap Bender tell the story of the Wandering Jew's death at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists in The Little Golden Calf. In Vsevolod Ivanov's story Ahasver a weird man comes to a Soviet writer in Moscow in 1944, introduces himself as "Ahasver the cosmopolite" and claims he is Paul von Eitzen, a theologian from Hamburg, who concocted the legend of Wandering Jew in the 16th century to become rich and famous but then turned himself into a real Ahasver against his will. The novel Overburdened with Evil (1988) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky involves a character in modern setting who turns out to be Ahasuerus, identified at the same time in a subplot with John the Divine.
In Pär Lagerkvist's 1956 novel The Sibyl, Ahasuerus and a woman who was once the Delphic Sibyl each tell their stories, describing how an interaction with the divine damaged their lives. Lagervist continued the story of Ahasuerus in Ahasverus död ("The Death of Ahasuerus", 1960).
In O. Henry's story "The Door of Unrest" a drunk shoemaker Mike O'Bader comes to a local newspaper editor and claims to be the Jerusalem shoemaker Michob Ader who did not let Christ rest upon his doorstep on the way to crucifixion and was condemned to live until the Second Coming. However, Mike O'Bader insists he is a Gentile, not a Jew.
In Evelyn Waugh's Helena, the Wandering Jew appears in a dream to the protagonist and shows her where to look for the Cross, the goal of her quest.
In the post-apocalyptic science fiction book A Canticle for Leibowitz, written by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and published in 1959, a character that can be interpreted as being the Wandering Jew is the only one to appear in all three novellas. He also appears in the Miller's 1997 follow-up novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. It is implied that he may actually be Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead, since in A Canticle for Leibowitz some children are heard saying of the old man, "What Jesus raises up STAYS raised up".
J. G. Ballard's short story The Lost Leonardo, published in The Terminal Beach (1964), centres on a search for the Wandering Jew. The Wandering Jew also appears in Mary Elizabeth Counselman's story "A Handful of Silver" (1967). Barry Sadler has written a series of books featuring a character called Casca Rufio Longinus who is a combination of two characters from Christian folklore, Saint Longinus and the Wandering Jew. Jack L. Chalker wrote a five book series called the "Well World Saga" in which it is mentioned many times that the creator of the universe, a man named Nathan Brazil, is known as the Wandering Jew. There is a discussion about the Wandering Jew in the Robert Heinlein novel Time Enough for Love. In January 1987 DC Comics the 10th issue of Secret Origins gave The Phantom Stranger four possible origins. In one of these explanations, the Stranger confirms to a priest that he is the Wandering Jew. Angela Hunt's novel The Immortal (2000), features the Wandering Jew under the name of Asher Genzano.
George Sylvester Viereck and Paul Eldridge wrote a trilogy of novels My First Two Thousand Years, an Autobiography of the Wandering Jew, (1928), in which Isaac Laquedem is a Roman soldier who, after being told by Jesus that he will "tarry until I return," goes on to influence many of the great events of history; he frequently encounters Solome (described as 'The Wandering Jewess'), and travels with a companion, to whom he has passed on his immortality via a blood transfusion (another attempt to do this for a woman he loved ended in her death). In Ilium by Dan Simmons, (2003), a woman who is addressed as the Wandering Jew plays a central role, though her real name is Savi.
The Wandering Jew appears as a sympathetic character in Diana Wynne Jones's young adult novel The Homeward Bounders - his fate is tied in with larger plot themes regarding destiny, disobedience, and punishment. "Ahasver," a cult leader identified with the Wandering Jew, is a central figure in Anthony Boucher's classic mystery novel, "Nine Times Nine" (originally published 1940 under the name H. Holmes). The Wandering Jew encounters a returned Christ in Deborah Grabien's 1990 novel Plainsong.
"The Wandering Jew" is the title of a short poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson which appears in his book "The Three Taverns." In the poem, the speaker encounters a mysterious figure with eyes that "remembered everything." He recognizes him from "his image when I was a child" and finds him to be bitter, with "a ringing wealth of old anathemas;" a man for whom the "world around him was a gift of anguish." The speaker does not know what became of him, but believes that "somewhere among men to-day / Those old, unyielding eyes may flash / And flinch - and look the other way."
Nineteenth century works depicting the legendary figure as the Wandering (or Eternal) Jew or as Ahasuerus (Ahasver) include:
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the figure of the "Wandering Jew" as a legendary individual had begun to be identified with the fate of the Jewish people as a whole. After the ascendancy of Napoleon Bonaparte at the end of the century and the emancipating reforms in European countries connected with the policy of Napoleon and the Jews, the "Eternal Jew" became an increasingly "symbolic... and universal character" as the continuing struggle for Jewish emancipation in Prussia and elsewhere in Europe in the course of the nineteenth century gave rise to what came to be referred to as "the Jewish Question".
Before Kaulbach's mural replica of his painting Titus destroying Jerusalem had been commissioned by the King of Prussia in 1842 for the projected Neues Museum, Berlin, Gabriel Riesser's essay "Stellung der Bekenner des mosaischen Glaubens in Deutschland" (On the Position of Confessors of the Jewish Faith in Germany) had been published (1831) and the journal "Der Jude, periodische Blätter für Religions- und Gewissensfreiheit" (The Jew, Periodical for Freedom of Religion and Thought) had been founded (1832). In 1840 Kaulbach himself had published a booklet of Explanations identifying the main figures for his projected painting, including that of the Eternal Jew in flight as an outcast for having rejected Christ. In 1843 Bruno Bauer's book with the title The Jewish Question was published, to which Karl Marx responded by an article with the title On the Jewish Question.
After the First Zionist Congress held at Basel in 1897, Hirszenberg's painting The Eternal Jew was exhibited in Lodz, Warsaw and Paris in 1899. Now in the Israel Museum Jerusalem, it leads from the nineteenth century Pogroms, through the Nazi era of the twentieth century and on to the cultural background of Jewish studies in present day Israel.
The caricature which had first appeared in a French publication in 1852, depicting the legendary figure with "a red cross on his forehead, spindly legs and arms, huge nose and blowing hair, and staff in hand", was co-opted by anti-Semites. It was shown at the Nazi exhibition Der Ewige Jude in Germany and Austria in 1937–1938. A reproduction of it was exhibited at Yad Vashem in 2007.
The exhibition had been held at the Library of the German Museum in Munich from November 8, 1937 to January 31, 1938 showing works that the Nazis considered to be 'degenerate art'. A book containing images of these works was published under the title The Eternal Jew. It had been preceded by other such exhibitions in Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Dresden, Berlin and Vienna. The works of art displayed at these exhibitions were generally executed by avant-garde artists who had become recognized and esteemed in the 1920s, but the objective of the exhibitions was not to present the works as worthy of admiration but to deride and condemn them.
The title of a controversial book published in 2011, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, loosely referred to the tradition of the Wandering Jew in literature and art. In the book Gilad Atzmon critically discussed the support given to Zionism by Jews around the world.
Fromental Halévy's opera Le juif errant, based on the novel by Sue, was premiered at the Paris Opera (Salle Le Peletier) on 23 April 1852, and had 48 further performances over two seasons. The music was sufficiently popular to generate a Wandering Jew Mazurka, a Wandering Jew Waltz, and a Wandering Jew Polka.
A Hebrew-language play titled "The Eternal Jew" premiered at the Moscow Habimah Theatre in 1919 and was performed at The Habima Theatre in New York in 1926.
There have been several films on the topic of The Wandering Jew. In 1933, the Jewish Talking Picture Company released a Yiddish-language film entitled The Eternal Jew. A 1934 British version The Wandering Jew, starring Conrad Veidt in the title role, and entitled The Eternal Jew, is based on the stage play by E. Temple Thurston, and attempts to tell the legend literally, taking the Jew from Biblical times all the way to the Spanish Inquisition. This version was also made as The Wandering Jew a silent film in 1923, starring Matheson Lang in his original stage role. The play had been produced both in London and on Broadway. Co-produced in the U.S. by David Belasco, it had played on Broadway in 1921. The play "Spikenard", (1930) by C.E. Lawrence, has the Jew wander an unhabitanted Earth along with Judas and the Impenitent thief. Still another film version of the story, made in Italy in 1948, starred Vittorio Gassman. A propaganda 'documentary' film made in Germany in 1940 and entitled Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), reflected National Socialist anti-Semitism, linking the legend with alleged Jewish malpractices over the ages. In the 1988 film The Seventh Sign the Wandering Jew appears as a Father Lucci, who identifies himself as the centuries old Cartaphilus, Pilate's porter, who took part in the scourging of Jesus before his crucifixion.
Donald Wolfit made his debut as the Wandering Jew in a stage adaption in London in 1924. Glen Berger's 2001 play Underneath the Lintel is a monologue by a Dutch librarian who delves into the history of a book which is returned 113 years overdue, and becomes convinced that the borrower was the Wandering Jew.