The King’s Daughter
by Tala Bar
Table of Contents|
Chapter 11 appeared
in issue 177.
Chapter Twelve: The Last Sacrifice
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.
As much as David wanted to abolish the sacrifices, he was not able to do that after he conquered Yerushalem, since he wished to maintain the covenant with the whole of Israel.
Canaanite customs had already taken roots in Israel, forming a strong tradition among the northern tribes. The seasonal festivals — the orgy of the Spring wedding, the mourning of the victim in summer and the joy of the rebirth of the god in autumn — had become an integral part of the life and culture of the Israelite farmers. When the desert tribes of Yehudah and its allies started settling the land and cultivating it, these customs brought new and rich contents into their lives; institutionalizing these customs was a part of the new organization of the People’s life.
But not all desert people had taken to this new way of life; some of them were still adhering to their traditional belief in the God of the desert and its purity of ritual. During David’s kingship it had gradually become obvious that the supposed religious sacrifice was being used for political murder; such usage had emptied the act of its sacred meaning, which included spiritual hope for resurrection and renewal. That was the time when more and more people were beginning to cry out against that practice.
* * *
The last victim belonging to Sha’ul’s family was Avner. As usual, David pretended he did not want that sacrifice, but Yo’av, his nephew and Army Chief, together with his brothers, knew their uncle’s heart better than he would admit to himself. All David’s victims were forced: not one of them went voluntarily to the altar; they were never even asked to do that. While most ordinary people, who had valued the protection of Ashtoret and her consort for their land and animals, wanted the practice of sacrifice continued, the Goddess’s priestesses were beginning to regard them as lacking of all religious value, being nothing but wicked acts of murder. But in David’s times the priestesses had no longer any say in the matter.
After the rape of Tamar and the priestesses by Avshalem and his soldiers, David, who saw in it an act of treason no less grave than Amnon’s coronation, was filled with rage against his favorite son. Ashtoret’s temple was not only under the King’s particular patronage; it actually belonged to him, and the priestesses were considered his mates by force of his image as Naaman. For anyone else to lie with a priestess unless in her capacity as a Sacred Harlot, without bringing a Love offering to the Goddess, meant plain treason.
David was angry with Ahino’am for conspiring to crown Amnon in his place, and for giving Tamar as a Spring bride to his son; but his fury against Avshalem, who exploited the situation in the most blatant way, was endless. What made the situation even worse, were the different rumors spreading around, about what had actually taken place at the Temple.
Some said that Avshalem had lain not only with Tamar but with the rest of the priestesses; others claimed that he had also lain with some of his father’s wives who had come to the Temple for the purpose of offering their Love tribute to the Goddess. Some people actually whispered he had done that with the declared purpose of desecrating his father’s bed and announcing himself King; I understand there is no length certain individuals would not go to to fulfilll their innermost wishes.
David’s rage against Avshalem was eating at the King’s heart, particularly because he loved him most of all his sons; in his looks, his musical talent and attraction to women, the father could identify himself with his third son to the greatest degree. In consequence, Avshalem’s action against David was all the more bitter for his father, filling him with much resentment, which soon turned into hate.
* * *
A very short time after his attack on the Temple, Avshalem was declared a rebel against the King and his reign. To save himself, he escaped from the Palace, announcing an open revolt and collecting around him men who were fed up with David’s rule and wanted to see a young man on the throne. But there were still as many people who had regarded David as a sacred myth, not wishing to see the end of his rule. The King himself was determined to end his life naturally, with no interference from any man.
I always wondered how David managed to achieve everything he ever wanted in his life; that was his character, as well as his destiny. After Ahino’am’s death, there was none of Ashtoret’s worshipers who had any influence over David and his actions. Even she was never able to persuade him to offer his own life a sacrifice to the Goddess; and there was no Underworld priestess who could affect him the way Sha’ul had been made to end his life. Both in nature and way of life, David was as far from Sha’ul as the sun is from She’ol.
Avshalem escaped from Yerushalem and from David’s chase, imitating the course of his father’s early life and his escape from Sha’ul. This particular chase had roused not one flutter in my heart, I was left completely indifferent. It was the same to me whether the father or the son would win in the struggle for kingship, whether the one or the other would be a victim, either on the altar or by the sword. After my first and last meeting with David as King, I had nothing of the magical youthful love left in my heart for him — nothing but complete indifference, not even hate. In Avshalem, I was disgusted by the same features I had come to dislike in David.
* * *
Only Tamar was left to me. After the catastrophe, she took care of Ahino’am, whom I never saw again; she died without coming to see me. For any information of what was happening with my mother and my daughter I fed on rumors and women’s gossip, which I had always taken with a large pinch of salt; all I could do was send them my love and support, not knowing what value these messages had for them.
Only after Amnon’s sacrifice and Ahino’am’s death Tamar at last came to see me. I was astonished at the change in her appearance. My daughter had lost nothing of her beauty; she still had her fine figure, slim but rounded, her golden halo of hair and her transparent grey eyes. But the expression in those eyes! The aura surrounding that fine figure! I had never seen a live person more dead to look at! A kind of mask was drawn over her face and body and all that remained was a beautiful shell! She never altered, even when I saw her last, almost reaching middle age. Only her grey eyes deepened to look almost black, but their expression remained as blank as they had become since the attack; her face was smooth with nothing of the lines of laughter and sorrow which are etched in any person who lives a full life.
When she came to see me for the first time after my mother’s death — I had not seen her for close to a year — I did not know how to talk to her.
“How have you been, Mikhal?” she asked politely in a voice which sounded as dead as her appearance; she had never called me Mother.
I gazed at her figure, her face, trying to find an opening. “Tamar,” I burst out at last, “you must be —”
“No,” she interrupted me; “no,” she repeated quietly. “Beside sadness at my grandmother’s death, I don’t feel anything...”
She paused, as if trying to muster her thoughts. “But I would like to explain it to you,” she continued in her dead voice, “for you are the only person left for me to talk to now. You see, Amnon was my uncle as well as my first lover. We had loved each other as close relatives long before we became lovers. And then, when I grew up, I loved Amnon with all the fervour of first love, and I think he really loved me in the same way, although I was not the first to lie in his arms. But he treated me as special, and I was able to mate with him perfectly in my soul.
“But at that night when he was snatched from my arms, I experienced the perfect physical mating with Avshalem — when he entered me without my consenting to him in any way, I felt such elevation I don’t want ever to know it again. And when he left me, my soul died, knowing I could never achieve such a physical elation with Amnon, the man I really loved... Now Amnon is dead, and Avshalem will soon be dead as well, and I shall have none of them; I can never let another man touch me in any way.”
She fell silent, and I was silent with her. I did not quite understand what she meant, I wondered at the strangeness of her words, trying to grasp that distance between the emotional and the physical love. “You have known only love all your life, haven’t you?” I said at last.
“I have known love, and I have known death. What else is there? I loved Ahino’am and she is dead, I loved Amnon and he is dead. I loved them and I died with them, and there is nothing left for me to live for and to love.”
You don’t know half of what life is, I thought — she was far too young to feel the way she did. There could be the pain and the happiness of the birth of a child, I thought; there could be friendship, and degradation, and there could be the wounds of separation which never heal; there could be the abyss of suffering but also the heights of bliss. But I was unable to utter these words aloud; I was glad my daughter never suffered the way I had, but I did not know what hell was brewing inside her soul. It seemed only a pity that I went on living when I wanted to die, and she had died in the middle of her life.
* * *
I never touched on those subjects in our talks again. I realized that in the worship of Ashtoret Tamar remained detatched as much as in her life. From Ahino’am she inherited the management of the Temple, with which she dealt as if it was an ordinary household — working hard and wisely. She had neither Maakha’s interest in the story of the Goddess, Sha’ul’s depth of faith, or Ahino’am’s fervour of worship. If she had not been hurt when so young and lacking in experience she might have developed in one of these directions. If Ahino’am had not died, she might have encouraged her granddaughter to live again. I myself had not enough life in me for that, nor the suitable emotional experience which must be a part of the Goddess’s cult.
“I wish you could be happier than I,” I cried out on one of our meetings, my sense of frustration overcoming the need for withholding my feelings.
“I am quite happy,” she replied in that tranquil voice that sometimes drove a shiver down my spine because it seemed to emit the smell of She’ol.
The battle between the factions of David and Avshalem was raging throughout the country, which was divided again between the worshipers of Yhwh and Ashtoret. David’s physical decline, his heavy, weak appearance and mainly the decrease of his sexual prowess were the main reasons for the wish to replace him with his handsome son Avshalem, who was prominent in his Davidic charisma; it was mainly Ashtoret’s worshipers who demanded strongly the replacement of the King.
But according to the desert system, the leader was chosen according to some personal attributes, and he ruled until his death. These people believed in the wisdom of old age and in its power to guide and lead the People. The fact that in his old age David was no wiser than when he was young made no difference; he had become a symbol, and none of Yhwh’s people could imagine that a young man with Avshalem’s licentious sexual appearance and behavior would be a better king than his old father. Besides, they remembered that David had been anointed by Shemuel, Yhwh’s priest; their opposition to David’s sacrifice as well as to sacrifices in general found a strong expression in their wish to continue his rule until his natural death.
* * *
In the Women’s house, the war between David and Avshalem had taken on a more personal expression. It was mainly the incessant agitation of Avshalem’s mother, Maakha of Geshur, which wearied the women with her endless complaints. How I hated her for her name — a name which treasured for me all the love and respect I felt for my great-grandmother, the name I had given the image of Ashtoret, my faithful companion!
Avshalem’s mother was a tall, bony woman, almost manly in her appearance; her bitterness against my mother had assumed a stronger outlet since Tamar took Ahino’am’s place at the Temple. The priestesses never wanted to listen to Maakha of Geshur, who was a haughty, troublesome woman; but she also upset the mothers of David’s other sons with her boasting of her future as the Lady, as the King’s mother is called, when Avshalem was crowned.
The one who objected most strongly to Maakha’s boasting was BatSheva, who claimed that David had promised the throne to her son, Yedidya. Four children altogether she had born to David, a sure sign of the King’s continued attention to her; David’s Sacred Marriage with Maakha, on the other hand, was plainly a purely diplomatic act, lacking in love and continuity beyond the ceremonious three days’ mating. Maakha was lucky to have a son at all, otherwise she would have had no importance at all at Court after the alliance was made with her father.
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar