Mary And The Spinners

Reviewed by Virginia Scott

A document sometimes attributed to Matthew (but considered by most scholars to be a third century document written by some pseudo-Matthew) names other virgins who served with Mary in the temple of the Lord: "Then Mary, with the other five virgins . . . . Rebecca, Sephora, Suzanna, Abigea and Cael; to whom the High Priest gave the silk and the blue and the fine linen and the scarlet and the purple and the fine flax .... cast lots among themselves what each Virgin should do, and the purple for the veil of the Temple of the Lord fell to the lot of Mary."

Upon this foundation the author has built a shimmering tale of miracles, religious taboos, rich colors and poetic refrains. In the opening scene the six young virgins, "who are trembling on the brink of maturity," are about to leave the Temple where they have been educated and taught to spin for the Temple of the Lord and the raiment of His priests. Clad in "white robes like brides, golden chaplets, flowing hair, and gold sandals," they glide in a procession past the congregation which includes their parents. To the accompaniment of strings and cymbals, the words of priests, and the refrains of the Singer, they move toward the portals of the world where their lives will no longer be similar. It is then that the drawing takes place and the virgins receive the colors they are to spin-the red for fire, the white for earth (from which the flax has come), the blue for air, the gold for the splendor of enlightenment and the indescribable secret purple for the veil of the Temple. Into the uncertain future they carry the advice: "Be as holy as blue, as steadfast as scarlet, as enlightened as gold, and as secret as purple."

Five Lives and a Miracle

Long after they have parted, the five Spinners think of shy little Mary at times. Back in the Temple they had relied on her, had turned to her with their problems, had even heard the rumor that she was fed by Angels. But their lives are bound to her in still another way-although they remain unaware of it-for a phenomenon attending the birth of Mary's child has a direct effect upon each life at a critical moment.

This phenomenon is described in one of the Apocryphal Books of the Bible (The Protevangelion of James, Chapter 12). Joseph tells how he left the cave to seek a Hebrew midwife and witnessed a miracle: "I looked up into the air, and I saw the clouds astonished, and the fowls of the air stopping in the midst of their flight. And I looked down towards the earth and saw a table spread, and working people sitting around it, but their hands were upon the table and they did not move to eat. They who had meat in their mouths did not eat. They who lifted their hands up to their heads did not, draw them hack; And they who lifted them up to their mouths did not put anything in; But all their faces were fixed upwards. And I beheld sheep dispersed, and yet the sheep stood still . . . ...

This moment when time stood still blessed each of Mary's friends, for it thwarted a suicide, foiled a murder, prevented the stoning of an accused adulteress, sanctified a betrothal kiss and stopped a war. Each story is distinctive and gripping.

Doctrines and Superstitions

Apparently, the orthodox Jews of that time could not move through an hour of the day without performing some rite or heeding some restriction set forth in the Torah. While this was a means of keeping the thoughts turned toward God, and many bits of prayer and ritual mentioned seem to fulfill that intention perfectly, other restrictions and taboos seem-from today's vantage point-to be unnecessary, pointless. And where the people were not restrained by religious doctrines, they were tightly bound by fear and superstition.

By assigning to each of the Spinners a different temperament, caste and environment, the author is enabled to include a great many of these commandments and beliefs in her narrative in such a natural way that they enrich the stories. For instance, Rebecca, from fertile Bethlehem, knows well the duties set forth for a wife and mother ("To Marry is to grind and bake and suckle his child, make his bed and work in wool") and desires nothing more than to fulfil them. But since her maternal desires never bear fruit she is subject to the heart-breaking law which permits her husband to take another wife. She also knows the art of midwifery, and how to render a witch harmless, and the danger in vows hastily made, and the evening prayer which must be said as soon as three small stars are visible in the sky. (The Shema: "Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bringest on the evening twilight and arrangest the stars in their watches in the sky.")

And so it is with the others. Beautiful red-haired Suzanna learns that wealth and family position cannot save her from the terrible trial for those accused of adultery-the drinking of the Water of Bitterness - the stoning. Brown-faced, naive Sephora - a peasant child from the desolate vale of Siddem, near the Salt Sea knows about the holes in the sky, and how to tend goats in a wilderness, and what a woman may and may not wear on the Sabbath, and the rumors concerning the expected Messiah, and how easily an accident or misplaced action can render a person or thing "unclean" and even besmirch the Sabbath, and that the twenty-ninth Psalm can be used for protection. And she learns about love from a dazzling creature who is not an angel after all!

Abigea, from a fertile valley of vineyards, takes part in "the dancing for husbands" at the time of the Little Harvest. But when she marries a Canaanite she comes face to face with paganistic demonology. And she has need of all her prayers and faith in God when called upon to surrender her first-born as a sacrifice. Finally, lovely Cael's story includes a marriage ceremony, elaborate precautions against demons and, to balance the picture, a description of such rites as the reverent Sabbath blessing of the bread and the heaped grain.

The Holy Land in which these characters move is indeed a land of milk and honey. Except for one scene in the vale of Siddem the dust and heat and dryness of the country are hidden by the life swarming over it. The author sees a fertile land dotted with flocks of sheep, blessed with palms, willows and firs, caves and grottoes, mountains, rivers, and low-hung stars. A land covered by wheat and barley, hyssop, camphire, terebinth and oleanders. A land of oil, honey cakes, pomegranates, purple grapes, ripe figs, and pats of butter (from milk rocked in a goat skin) - A land where owls call, swallows, bees and green birds color the air, and white doves flutter above cooling fountains. A land where marble and black basalt are used for building, where palanquins brighten the streets and women move about in veils which tinkle with the dowry coins sewn onto them, or in "veils thin as water." A land of myrrh and frankincense, with a voice intoning the poetry of love and religion, the rhythm of work songs and temple songs.

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