A "NUANCED" HAPPY HANUKKAH…

…FROM A LATTER-DAY “HELLENISTIC” JEW

As seasonal happenstance would have it, while thinking of a subject for this post I came upon slides of two Hanukkah-related pictures I made many years ago in my mid-teens. My original intention had been to create an epic account of the Hannukah story in the form of a heavily illustrated book-cum-comic, however, I soon found the task to be overwhelming and abandoned it after just a few weeks.

The unfinished project coincided with my growing interest in biblical and ancient history and this had a strong influence on the way I considered the story of the Maccabees and their war of liberation against the forces of the Seleucid Empire. This meant that I was passionate about executing not only an accurate visual portrayal of the Hebrews, their Macedonian foes, and the Judean backdrop, but also an historically objective account of the story itself.

This is my take on the gruesome climax of the highly apocryphal story of Hannah and her Seven Sons. Within the Hannukah context, the episode is set before the Maccabee Revolt, and presented as one of its precursors. There are several versions of the story, and in this one I went for a touch of historicity by having Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) use crucifixion and impaling – a favoured Macedonian method of execution – to kill the seven sons for their’s and their mother’s refusal to submit to the will of the king by transgressing their religion. The scene is set in the western Jerusalem foothills and intentionally contextualises a later, far more famous such execution of another Jew at the hands of a later occupying power…

As a little Jewish boy I had received the traditional, pious version of the story based on the first and second books of Maccabees, in which Judah Maccabee and his family are presented as flawless heroes, struggling against an evil foreign enemy and even wickeder “Hellenised” Jewish collaborators. Until I was about twelve, the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) were totally good and all those who opposed them, totally bad.

This more stylised image was intended as the cover plate. It’s a depiction of Judah Maccabee in the full armour of a Macedonian hoplite (heavy infantryman). Originally, Judah and his fellow fighters would have been lightly armed guerrillas, but with each victory, would have acquired both battle experience and the armour and weaponry from those they defeated. It’s unlikely however that the Hebrew forces ever fought in classic Macedonian phalanx formation, hence the shortened sarissa (pike-spear) for close-order combat.

But as I grew older, and read more deeply into the history of the period I came to understand that the truth was – as it usually is in these sort of encounters – far more nuanced, and that if I’d been around at the time I might very well have seen the Hellenised Jews as enlightened and civilised, and the Maccabees as reactionary, intolerant and often cruel. Evidence for this probability lies in the fact that once the Maccabees were victorious and came to power, they too surrendered to many of the intellectual temptations of Greek culture and thought. Moreover, once the Hasmonean’s established their royal dynasty, the more powerful they became, the more they emulated their Seleucid and Ptolemaic imperial neighbours, including the hiring of large Greco-Macedonian mercenary armies – the very troops they had once fought against – to protect and expand their kingdom.

Thus, what I planned to do was to offer the first objective version of the epic struggle, which neither glossed over some the undoubted barbarities of the Macedonian occupiers, nor the fanatical fundamentalism of the Maccabee resistance fighters – and crucially, all wearing the correct gear, and inhabiting the genuine landscape. Looking at the two plates presented here, if I had completed the project, I might have created an early form of graphic novel. On the other hand, perhaps, my teen-self wasn’t yet ready to reveal myself as the “de-constructor” of a cherished myth and so risk the ire of many of my more traditional fellow Jews, something I did eventually manage to do thirty years later with my history of King Saul…

4 thoughts on “A "NUANCED" HAPPY HANUKKAH…

  1. I particularly like how you portrayed Judah Maccabee. It was the sort of thing I might have purchased when I was acquiring art instead of giving it away [we are downsizing].
    As I grew up in a different religious tradition, almost everything you write on the subject is new and interesting.
    Finally, your email added to my vocabulary – historicity. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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