The King’s Daughter
by Tala Bar
Table of Contents|
Chapter 9 appeared
in issue 175.
Chapter Ten: Ishbaal
part 1 of 3
Mikhal’s life is a story of pagan worship and sacrifice, of love, wars, kingship and death. She is the daughter of the Biblical king Saul; her mother is Ahino’am, a priestess of the goddess Ashtoret. Born to a king, Mikhal is married to the future king David. She is separated from him and joined to another man, to whom she bears a child. She is then torn from her family and carried away by a criminal brother. At last she is brought back to her former husband, king David, in Jerusalem.
Mikhal thus lives out her life in the vortex of social, political and religious upheavals in the days of the first kings of Israel.
Indeed, were it not for Palti’s love for me, these would have been black days of despair; but my husband knew how to be father, brother and lover, all in one person. In his company I found new life, better in many way than anything I had ever known. I don’t like to remember these times because inevitably they lead me always to the worst period of my life.
The lost war with the Philistines had almost nothing to do with us; no one from Galim took part in it, and Sha’ul’s family was very far away...
Or, at least, that was what we thought. Our life went on as usual, my love developed and deepened; in time I conceived, and bore a son. I was happy being a simple person leading a normal life. If only they had left me alone! My son — my child — was torn from me! — More than once I died in my life, but that was the worst death of all!
* * *
Again I return in my mind to the first hours, days, weeks, after his birth, when the pains of labor had subsided and turned into the happiness of my life. This new creature in my arms — I still feel him as part of myself, my body, my soul, my whole entity. In my devotion to him I was at last able to devote myself to myself, a true devotion for the first time of my life, out of love and awareness.
It was no wonder that I wanted to give him the name of Sha’ul, or Yonatan, in memory of the first people I ever loved; but Palti objected to it as strongly as he could. “These are unlucky names,” he told me; “I won’t let their fate repeat itself in my son! Besides,” he added in his ordinary quiet voice, “it’s better now not to show up our belonging to the royal family — we don’t know where it might lead.”
“Aviya — ‘Yah is Father’ — is a nice name,” Alma remarked, daring against her nature to intervene in the argument between me and her father, “at least, it might hint at your father.”
But I could not in any way agree to call my son by a name that carries a hint of Yhwh’s. “What have I to do with the god of the desert?” I protested.
Then, like a bursting storm, Ahino’am landed on us, out of the unknown void which seemed to surround the little oasis of Galim.
“Mother!” I could hardly believe my eyes, when their gaze rested on the small dark figure who, under the grey travelling cloak, was clad, as usual, in bright red. She had not changed at all since I last saw her at her last and aborted Sacred Marriage ceremony with Sha’ul.
“I saw his birth in a dream!” she claimed, took the child, her grandson, from my arms to rock him in hers. He probably was not the first but possibly the most important of her issue. For the first time in my life I saw my mother with a baby in her arms, her face softening, the veil of mystery removed for a moment from her shining eyes.
“What is his name?” she asked, returning him to me after a while.
The idea sprang suddenly in my mind. “Avino’am, we’ll call him Avino’am,” I turned to Palti, “mentioning both my father and my mother together. You won’t object to this, will you?” I smiled at him with begging in my eyes, a look I knew he was unable to resist.
He granted me one of his warmest smiles, turned, bowing, to Ahino’am, “We’ll call him after your honorable mother,” he said reverently.
* * *
In the evening we sat together. The picture, painfully peaceful and happy, forms in my mind. The baby was sleeping in his cot, I had deserted the loom in order to rock it. My old nurse Naama, now my son’s nurse, together with Alma — Palti’s oldest daughter who had married her betrothed and was now pregnant — were spinning, and little Yaala helping them from time to time to straighten the thread. Palti, his son-in-law and his son Nahir, a grown lad of fifteen and a candidate for marriage, were cracking seeds. All of us look up to Ahino’am who was sitting on the seat of honor, ruling the family party with her presence.
I glanced searchingly at her. The mystery eyes were as veiled as ever, her mouth red and sensous as ever — she seemed not a day older since I saw her last. She smiled at me.
“Mother,” I said at last, “tell us, what brought you here, to our remote village. Haven’t you always liked to be in the center of things?”
Her laughter rolled. “And you, my child, got some wisdom since. Is it your husband’s doing?”
“Maybe.” For a minute I put my hands in my lap. “But still, I would like to hear from you what is going on in the world at large.”
At once Ahino’am’s face darkened. “It is true I have come to see my new grandson, the most important of them all. But I also wanted to warn you.”
“Warn us?” Asked Palti, who up till then had not taken part in our conversation.
“You want to know what’s happening outside Galim? That is what I wanted to tell you.”
* * *
These were the events which occurred since I had left Giv’at Sha’ul on my way to Galim. David escaped, and Sha’ul went after him, his determination to catch him as cold as ice, as burning as fire. The flame of madness gnawed in his bones but did not show on the surface, only occasionally peeping out of his flashing eyes. Yonatan continued to sit in judgment of the people in his father’s place, but the annual ceremonies of coronation and sacrifice were neglected. All the power of conviction current in his Ashtoret-worshipping family was not enough to make Yonatan agree to be crowned as king and to mate with the goddess’s priestess.
One spring day David appeared at the temple of Naaman, accompanied by a few of his people.
“I can’t say whether he came there on purpose or by accident,” Ahimo’am remarked, smiling slightly, “but the time was close to the spring equinox, when the Spring Queen mates with her consort.”
Since the Spring ceremony was cancelled at the King’s court, Ahino’am had avoided going to Giv’at Sha’ul; the priestesses had gone back to their old custom of annually celebrating the marriage of Naaman to the Spring queen, using the god’s statue as a symbol for his image.
When David appeared, all the priestesses fell in love with him, seeing in him the live image of the god! The wanderings had tanned his skin pinkish brown, over which his golden hair glittered blindly in the sunlight, and his sea-green eyes shone like a pair of emeralds in a fascinating contrast.
The temple priestesses always preferred a flesh and blood representative for the god to a sculptured image, and David, with all his belief in Yhwh, showed no objection to be ceremoniously wedded to the glamorous Love priestess. The celebration took place with enhanced strength and joy.
* * *
Suddenly, I realized the meaning of Ahino’am’s words. “Mother!” I cried out, “you slept with my husband!” My heart was torn, the wound covered with Palti’s love was stripped open again.
“And so did the rest of the priestesses,” she added, disregarding my pain, with a secret smile hovering on her lips as if recalling some strange delight.
Naama rose from her seat, came up to me and held my head to her bosom.
“You are hurting your daughter badly, Madam,” she remonstrated with brave words.
“It was inevitable.” Through my tears I saw Ahino’am shrugging her shoulders; “and you have already found a replacement,” she said pointedly.
I turned my eyes to Palti. I saw him gazing at my mother, but he did not chide her with one word.
“You have robbed me of David’s love!” I accused her, moaning.
“Mikhal,” her voice softened. She rose, took the nurse’s place at my side and hugged me to her flat figure. “Your marriage to David had no place in the worship of Ashtoret,” she reminded me. “You did not represent the Goddess, nor did you acquire her blessing. You could have inherited from me the title of Spring Queen if you had performed the ritual, but perhaps you were not built for it. As to David’s love — you could never rely on that!”
“And you — does he love you?” I asked bitterly.
“Love me?” She burst out with a laughter, which did not sound at all joyful. “David does not love me, nor any other woman he had ever slept with, as far as I know. He needs me at his side in order to strengthen his position, especially since you have married Palti.
“Please, understand, Mikhal,” she continued with her most matter-of-fact tone of voice, “I was not destined to the love of any man but the representative of Naaman, and I don’t need David’s particular love. At the age of three, my mother asked me if I wanted to live and serve at the temple of Ashtoret, and I accepted gladly; at the age of seven, I first joined the orgy of the priestesses with the image of Naaman, with unparallelled excitement; at the age of eleven, I took on myself to guide the boy Sha’ul in his first love offering to Ashtoret, and I fulfilled the task with great reverence. My destiny in life is to be used as a vessel through which the Goddess receives the love offering of any man. What have I to do with the love of just one man?
“Your course of life has been quite different from mine. You were not destined to be an Ashtoret priestess — I can see that clearly now; you are not fit to accept the love of many men, both by nature and because you were not bred for it. When I see you here, in Palti’s house, I have no doubt this is the fate suitable for you, that you were destined for each other. Both of you look so happy! If only Devora’s prophecy continued to exist!”
“What do you mean?” Palti opened his mouth again after a long silence, his gaze concentrated on Ahino’am, as if trying to see hidden meaning in her words.
“I shall try to explain; I don’t want you to be too alarmed.” Then, my mother continued with her story.
* * *
After the three days’ wedding at the temple of Naaman, Ahino’am joined David’s band in his wanderings. She did it for two reasons. First, she had already understood that Sha’ul’s kingship was coming to its end. When it looked as if Yonatan had refused to be crowned in the name of Ashtoret, the priestesses concluded that David could be Sha’ul’s worthy replacement. David did not object to celebrating a Sacred Marriage with Ahino’am as the Goddess’ representative, even when its meaning was religious rather than political; but the priestesses hoped that the connection between David and Ahino’am would help them advance Ashtoret’s interest. I know now that they were much mistaken in their estimation of David!
But Ahino’am left the temple to go with David also because she was afraid of Sha’ul’s revenge — she did not fear for herself but for the fate of the temple. It was clear to her that if the King learned of what she had done, he would be unable to forgive her, would pour his rage over the place where she gave herself to his rival. A long time had passed since she realized that Sha’ul’s strong faith in Ashtoret was not enough for him to accept the Goddess’ commands. Ahino’am thought that if she left the temple, Sha’ul would have no cause to revenge himself on its other inhabitants. Unfortunately, her exile did not help the temple.
In a few dry words Ahino’am told us how Sha’ul’s men came, and in broad daylight raped the priestesses, murdered the sacred male servants and destroyed the house. The survivors of the attack were scattered throughout the land. When in a rage, Sha’ul never knew any limits.
“But what is happening now?” Palti asked. “You don’t seem to be in much danger.”
“Since the death of Sha’ul and Yonatan, David has crowned himself in Hevron as a king of the tribe of Yehudah and its southern associates; but he is ruling in the name of Yhwh, not of Ashtoret.”
“But what about you? Are you a queen, then?”
“No,” she laughed bitterly; “I have no standing in the framework of the faith of Yhwh — and, actually, there is no queen at David’s side. But he is not satisfied with only Hevron and Yehudah, he wants to spread his kingship over the whole of Israel. That is one thing you must be aware of. Besides...” she paused.
“Aware of what? Of David? But why? And who is the king of Israel now, after Sha’ul’s death?”
“That is what I wanted to talk to you about. After the death of Sha’ul and Yonatan, the Israelite army scattered all over in panic. The Philistines took over that region in the north; our soldiers returned beaten and shamed to their homes, one by one or in small bands. Then, with the aid of Chief Avner, your brother Ishbaal, Mikhal, mustered Sha’ul’s scattered army and crowned himself King of Israel at Giv’at Sha’ul.”
She fell silent, gazing at me under half-closed lids.
“Ishbaal?” I was astonished, the last man I could see as king.
“In whose name is he ruling?” Palti asked.
“That is a good question. At the moment he rules in his own name, but he has ambitions. One of the reasons of my coming here is to warn you against Ishbaal.”
“What can he do to us? Why should he think evil of us? We have no intentions of rebelling against him, or any other man who fancies himself king.”
Ahino’am’s face darkened. “Perhaps there is really nothing to fear. Maybe my evil premonitions will never be realized. In the meantime, I have a grandson who has been called after me, Avino’am — ‘Father Naaman’... I hope the mere name does not turn him into a natural victim, but I sense the time of sacrifices is going to vanish from the world. That is, at least, what I hear from David.”
She stopped, and we kept silent. I did not know how to interpret the many events of which I had heard for the first time, so I tried to ignore any foreboding thoughts and concentrate on my happiness with my gathered family.
“When you give birth again,” Ahino’am said suddenly, “it will be a daughter, and I shall take care of her!”
“What do you mean?” I laughed, embarrassed. This one is still suckling, and she is already talking of the next child?
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar