Lotán The Edomite
Who is this who comes from Edom,
With garments of glowing colours from Bosra,
Majestic in his apparel,
Marching in the greatness of his strength? [Isaiah 63:1]
to the memory of RR
ob. February 21st 1980.
"Lotán, wake up."
"Lotán, honey, come on, wake up. It's late."
Still no response.
"Lotán, if you don't wake up now I shall pull the blanket off of you!"
"Well, you did that all last night," said Lotán, stirring at last. "I hardly slept because you had stolen most of the blanket. As usual." He was lying on his tummy, and he turned his head to look at Absalom out of one eye. "I need to sleep some more," he complained. "We went to bed late last night. I haven't had enough beauty sleep."
"We did not go to bed late last night," Absalom contradicted him. "We went to sleep late last night. There's a difference. Honey, you are as insatiable as ever."
"No I'm not. I'm old. Decrepit. Senile. Tired. Exhausted. Stop tormenting me and let me sleep." Lotán closed his one eye again, pulled the blanket over himself and tried to get back to sleep.
"Don't start that all over again, please," said Absalom. "Just because last week you celebrated your 50th birthday doesn't mean that you've got one foot in the grave."
No response from Lotán.
Absalom was used to this, so he just continued, knowing full well that Lotán was by now awake and listening. "For a man of your age you are in very good condition - both physically and ... how shall I put it? ... Let's just say that your dagger has a thrust as strong as it had thirty years ago."
"I am not in good physical condition. My body is disintegrating. And stop talking like a healer," Lotán complained.
"Well, I am a healer, so you can't complain. I have seen more 50 year olds naked than I have had festive dinners. They come to me with all their 'complaints of old age'. I can assure you that you are in excellent shape." Suddenly, he pulled the blanket away from Lotán. "Just look at that butt of yours," he said. "Two perfect globes. No sagging whatsoever. They are just demanding to be caressed and kissed."
Lotán turned his head again in Absalom's direction. "Sweetheart, I have to admit that you too are in pretty good shape. Maybe it's our almost nightly physical activity over so many decades that has kept us both lithe and lissome." then he added, with a wicked grin: "So, are you going to kiss my arse?"
"No. But if you don't get up this minute I am going to smack it!"
Lotán turned over at last. "Now look at what you've done! All this talk about kissing my arse has had a most exciting effect on..."
"Nonsense! That has nothing to do with it. It just means that you need to go and get rid of all that wine you drank last night. For God's sake, go and get washed and dressed. We are late."
"Oh, for Caus' sake, stop nagging me." Lotán stood up. "Good morning, sweetheart," he said, kissing Absalom lightly on the lips.
"Good morning, honey," responded Absalom. "Now, go and wash - and brush your teeth so I may have a sweet kiss."
"Whose turn is it today to get breakfast?" Lotán asked. And then both of them simultaneously said "Yours!"
"I got breakfast yesterday, honey," said Absalom.
"So you did," said Lotán ruefully. He put plates on the table and then food: bread, roasted grits, goat cheese and a jar of wine. "Come and eat," he said, and sat down. Absalom joined him. While they ate, Lotán spoke.
"You said we are late today. Late for what?"
"Oh Lotán, don't you remember? Today is the anniversary of Yannai's death. You always go to his tomb on this day."
Lotán's eyes clouded over. Across the table Absalom put his hand on Lotán's.
"It's all right, sweetheart," said Lotán. "I'm all right. It's just that it momentarily slipped my mind. Is it really thirty years since he ... was killed? It still seems like only yesterday."
"Well, thirty-two years, to be exact, my dear."
"Thirty-two years," mused Lotán. And then he added savagely, "And that monster is still alive!"
"You call that life?" said Absalom. "I am his healer. I can tell you that what he has right now is a living death. He suffers terribly."
"I am glad to hear it," said Lotán roughly. "You make me prepare all those potions for him. I wish I could make him a death potion!"
"You are my apothecary," said Absalom, gently. "And I know that you would never deliberately kill any man or woman. If we were to do that we would be no better than Herod himself."
"I know, sweetheart, I know. But it is very tempting. Just think of all the people that he has murdered over the years. There must be dozens of them. The man is so insecure that he has changed his will Caus knows how many times. And of his dead, Yannai was just the first."
"You know," said Absalom, "it was not just Yannai. Not one member of Yannai's family has managed to survive. He has murdered them all. Oh, of course, he made a show of putting them on trial and letting 'the law take its course', but no one was fooled."
Lotán put down the chunk of bread he was eating. "After Yannai the first to go was his old grandfather, his mother's father. Then he had beautiful Mariamne killed. Then it was the turn of Salomé Alexandra to keep an appointment with the executioner."
"And two years ago," added Absalom, "he killed off Mariamne's two sons. God, his own children!" He shuddered.
"And now there is no trace whatsoever of the Hasmonean house," mused Lotán. Yannai and all his family have been obliterated, wiped off the face of the earth."
"Herod knows he's dying," said Absalom. "Each time I visit he rails at me, asking why I can't do any better for him. He's 70 years old and riddled with disease. He is beyond my help. The best I can do for him is to administer one of your palliatives - and they don't seem to help him all that much."
"Is he lucid?"
"Oh yes. Last time I was at his bedside, yesterday afternoon, he was concerned whether his passing would be properly mourned."
"I would think that the whole nation will jump for joy the moment he breathes his last," said Lotán, with no small trace of venom.
"Apparently, he thinks so too. He has ordered that all the leading sages are to be penned in a stadium and the moment he dies they are to be butchered, so that when his cortège passes the nation will be in mourning."
"I don't believe it," said Lotán.
"Well, I was there when he dictated the order to his secretary, poor man," said Absalom.
"The order won't be carried out, of that you can be sure," cried Lotán.
"Of course it won't."
"What is the cause of his death?" asked Lotán.
"You know, I'm not sure," replied Absalom.
"But you are his healer," Lotán objected.
"As far as I can see, he has several problems. First, he is senile. His body is completely exhausted from a life of debauchery and his constitution is giving up under the strain of fearing for his life and throne for nigh on forty years. Second, he complains of intense itching. He says that something is burning inside him, although his skin is not hot to the touch. He has developed a ferocious appetite, but the more he eats the worse his pains become. When I ask him where the pain is he appears to be pointing to the region of the colon, but one can not be sure. Last, he finds it increasingly difficult to breathe, as if he can't catch his breath. I think that somewhere inside him his entrails are rotting away, because every time he opens his mouth to breathe or speak the stench coming from there is absolutely loathsome. Something like water has settled itself about his feet and there is something similar at the base of his stomach. He has convulsions in every limb and has even lost feeling in some of his fingers and toes. But the worst sight of all is his genitalia."
"His 'dagger and eggs' to you. They have turned gangrenous. The skin is dying. His penis is putrefied and has produced maggots."
"Well, as far as I am concerned," said Lotán, pushing his stool away from the table and getting up, "I rejoice in his suffering. He can't die a moment too soon. I will gladly dance over his bones."
At that moment there was a loud knocking on the door.
"Botheration!" said Absalom, "Who can that be? Just as we were about to leave, too." As he made his way to the door he added, "You see, if you hadn't lazed around in bed so late we could have been on our way already."
"You had to say that, didn't you?" laughed Lotán. "You just wait until tonight. You won't get any, I promise you."
Absalom opened the door. "Who is it, sweetheart?" Lotán called after him as he cleared the breakfast things off the table.
It was a courier from the palace. Absalom tore open the seal and read the message. "It's from the head chamberlain," he said to Lotán. "It seems that there has been a sudden relapse and I am needed immediately. I'm so sorry, honey."
"That's all right, sweetheart," said Lotán. "I can go by myself. It's no problem."
"But I like going with you - just as I like you to come with me on Jesse's anniversary. But this does sound very serious. I've never had dealings with the head chamberlain before. I've always dealt with the private valet." Then he added softly so that the courier could not hear, "I think that the end may now be very near indeed."
Lotán looked at Absalom steadily. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm reasonably sure."
"In that case," said Lotán decisively, "I am coming with you. We can go to Yannai when this is all over. He wouldn't have minded. Not for this."
Absalom turned to the courier. "Please tell the head chamberlain that I and my apothecary will be in attendance at the palace forthwith."
* * * * *
They arrived at the palace just a few minutes after the courier had left. Absalom was used to being greeted by the king's private valet, but this time it was the head chamberlain himself who was waiting, impatiently.
"Who are you?" he asked bluntly, "and where is Master Melchior?"
"I am Master Absalom," replied Absalom. "Master Melchior has been gone this twelvemonth and I am looking after his practice. I have been in attendance on the king many times."
"Gone? Where has Melchior gone?" asked the chamberlain.
"Two very wise old friends of his came from somewhere in the east, from Persia I think," said Absalom. "They got very involved in astronomy, and have gone off somewhere together to watch for stars."
"Star watching? What a waste of time!" opined the head chamberlain. "And who are you?" he asked, turning to Lotán.
"This is my apothecary," said Absalom quickly. "He has accompanied me this time in case I need a preparation speedily."
"Very well," said the chamberlain. "There has been a distinct deterioration during the night. We fear for his life. His son, Archelaus, is in attendance all the time."
"Would you please be so kind as to ask the prince to leave his father for a while when we are admitted into the royal sickroom? I prefer to examine my patient, make my diagnosis and reach my prognosis with the patient alone."
"Very well, Master healer." The chamberlain turned to one of the guards on duty. "Escort these two gentlemen to the king's bedchamber. Before you let them in ask Prince Archelaus if he would please be so kind as to attend on me forthwith because there is something unclear in his majesty's will." Then he turned to Absalom and to Lotán. "That message will bring him here as fast as a race horse in heat as he is most anxious about his father's will. Oh, and one more thing, before you go into the royal presence you will each be given a kerchief which has been saturated with perfume." Then, with a wry smile, he added, "You will need it."
They turned to follow the guard. "I wish you good luck," he said.
"We wish the king long life," said Absalom. "As long as God gives him."
As they followed the guard, Lotán asked Absalom, "Why wouldn't you let me speak?"
"Because Your name might still be known around here."
"After more than thirty years?" asked Lotán, incredulously.
"I didn't want to take any chances," said Absalom.
They arrived outside two large doors. Their escort said something to one of the sentries on duty. The sentry opened one of the doors and their escort went in. A few moments later he returned, this time with the prince at his side. Both still had kerchiefs held to their noses. "Master healer and Master apothecary, do your best for my father," said Archelaus. "However, judging by his present condition I may not permit myself to be very hopeful. Unfortunately, I cannot be with you at this moment; some important business summons me to the office of the head chamberlain." With that he rushed off. The sentry handed Lotán and Absalom a scented kerchief and the escort once again opened the door to admit them into the king's presence, announced them and left, closing the door behind him.
* * * * *
The atmosphere in the room was stifling. The windows were closed and the walls covered in drapes. The only light in the room came from a series of candelabrae. In the middle of the room was a large bed and Herod was lying on it face up. He did not move nor open his eyes. On all four sides of the bed were buckets of burning incense, but even their heady perfume could not hide the all-pervading stench coming from the body lying on the bed.
Holding his kerchief to his nose, Absalom approached the bed. "Sire, I am Master Absalom, your personal healer. I have come again to see what treatment I can offer to ease your condition. Do I have your permission to examine you?"
Herod turned his head slightly in the direction of Absalom's voice and gave an almost imperceptible nod of agreement.
Swiftly, Absalom pulled away the sole sheet which covered the king and revealed his naked body. At age 70 no man's naked body is the most pleasant of sights to see, but in this case Lotán was so taken aback at what he saw that he gasped and retreated a couple of steps. Herod's body was emaciated and every now and then one of his limbs, arm or leg, would give an involuntary jerk. But the worst sight of all was his genitalia. The scrotum and the penis were covered in gangrenous scales, which peeled off at the softest touch; but worse than that was the fact that the gangrene was generating maggots which were crawling all over his private parts.
"There is nothing to be done there," said Absalom to Lotán, in a matter-of-fact tone. "Let's see whether your preparations have caused any improvement in the state of his guts."
He put his hand on Herod's stomach and pressed down lightly. Herod gave a gasp of acute pain, and his exhalation filled the room with a gut-wrenching stench. Clearly something inside him was rotting away.
"Nothing to be done there either," said Absalom through the kerchief which he held close to his nose. "Your majesty," he said, turning to his patient, "we shall continue the treatment as before."
Herod raised his head slightly from the bolster which supported it. In a hoarse whisper he said, "Let me die in peace. Let me out of this living hell. I am a rotting corpse that yet lives."
Lotán stepped forward boldly. "Herod son of Antipatros," he said in an almost declamatory tone, "you have spoken wisely. You are indeed a rotting corpse that yet lives. But very soon, in a few moments in all probability, you will breathe your last and the world will be rid of you. But you cannot die before your cup of woe is brimful. While you still can, open your eyes and look at me."
His tone was so imperious that Herod opened his eyes with great difficulty and looked at Lotán.
"Herod son of Antipatros, you see before you Lotán the Edomite. Do you remember who I am?"
Herod suddenly opened his eyes wide and stared at Lotán, with a look first of incredulity which quickly turned to blazing anger. "You are a dead man," he croaked, "I shall call a guard and have you killed on the spot!"
"You will do no such thing," said Lotán calmly. "We can hardly hear you; do you think that a guard on the other side of the massive door will be able to hear you?"
Herod's head sank back onto the bolster. "So, Lotán the Edomite, have you come to murder me in my bed?"
"No, you wicked man. I have no need to murder you. In a very short while your own body will be your executioner!" Now Lotán's voice was as cold as ice and took on an imperious tone. "I am here for one reason and one reason alone. I want to be certain that as you die your last thought will be of my beloved Jonathan Aristobulos, whom you murdered all those years ago. I am here to haunt your last moments in life. Die in desperation, and know that all your suffering is truly justified."
"Jonathan Aristobulos," murmured the king, "Jonathan Aristobulos."
"Yes," said Lotán relentlessly, "my Yannai, my beloved. His memory comes to haunt your passing. Go to the grave remembering what vile thing you did. Yannai was young, scarcely eighteen years old. He had all his life before him, but you cut him off. You had him drowned. And now the memory of that vile act will be the last thought in your mind before your mind shuts down for all eternity."
"Jonathan Aristob...." murmured the king again, but was not able to finish the name. His limbs stopped their involuntary jerking. Absalom stepped forward. He held a feather to the king's nose but it did not move. He then took the king's wrist in his fingers.
"There is no pulse," he said. "The king is dead."
"Thank you, merciful Caus!" shouted Lotán at the top of his voice.
Upon hearing Lotán's shout the guards came rushing in. "What is going on?" asked their escort, sword drawn at the ready.
"My apothecary called you so that we can give you the dreadful news," said Absalom swiftly. "The king is dead. There is no more that we can do here. Come, apothecary. Let us leave this place."
With that Absalom and Lotán left the room and the palace.
* * * * *
They went straight from the palace to the place outside the city where Yannai was buried. What was left of his body had been put in a stone sarcophagus the year after he died and the cave, which was the family burial plot, had been sealed with a huge block of stone. That stone had been removed twice since then: once to bring Queen Miriam to her last resting place next to her brother, and yet again to bury the Lady Salomé Alexandra alongside her children. But now, of course, the burial cave was securely blocked.
Lotán stepped up to the cave's entrance and Absalom remained behind, leaving Lotán to commune by himself.
"Yannai. Beloved Yannai. Yannai, never forgotten. I know that you cannot hear me, and yet in my heart I can talk to you as if you were still here. Yannai, beloved, I want you to know that this day your death has been avenged. You died in vain, my precious Yannai, but your violent passing has been paid for in full. The monster is dead, and he died a death a thousand times more painful than yours. You died in a few moments; he was a-dying for many a long day, and he saw his earthly body disintegrate before his very eyes. He saw his rotting corpse while yet alive. Yannai, my sweetest Yannai, now I can be at peace. Though I grow old, you will always be young and beautiful, for you live in my memory until the day I die just as you were then. I shall return to you, beloved, in this place at this time next year and every year. And never are you forgotten."
After a moment in silent communion Lotán stepped back and turned to Absalom. "Come, sweetheart," he said, "take me home."
(for the curious)
I never thought that I would write another story, but once I read the history of Jonathan Aristobulos I knew that I wanted to write a story about Yannai. Indeed, the story almost wrote itself. Lotán is a fictional character, but he soon made himself the backbone of this story.
Our source for the factual history that is the background to this story is the historian Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD). Despite his Roman name Josephus was a Jew. At the outbreak of the great Jewish revolt against the Romans (66 AD) Joseph, son of Matityahu (to give him his real name), was the commander of the insurgent forces in the Galilee. When he saw that the Romans were going to win the war he went over to the Roman side, settled in Rome as a pensioner in the court of the Flavian emperors Vespasian and Titus - hence his Latin name. In Rome he wrote three books: one was a treatise (Contra Apionem) defending Judaism against a rabid anti-semite. The other two were histories: one was a history of the Jewish people and the other was a history of the great war against the Romans (66-70 AD). Thus, when Josephus died, the events described in this story were less than 150 years old and he had copious access to contemporary records, as he himself says.
Yannai is the familiar form of the name Jonathan that was current at the time. The Judean aristocracy affected Greek names alongside their Jewish ones. Jonathan Aristobulos, was born in the year 53 BC and was killed, as described in the story in the year 36 BC. He is described as being of so striking an appearance that he was considered beautiful by all who saw him. The members of his family who appear in the story are all historical figures - including his sister, his mother, his uncle, and both his grandfathers.
The Sadducees were an aristocratic Jewish sect whose main religious interest was in the great temple in Jerusalem; they were the antagonists of the Pharisees who enjoyed the support of the majority of the people. About their beliefs Josephus writes as follows:
The Sadducees deny predestination entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say that to do what is good or what is evil is at men's own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also deny the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in the next world.
As for Yannai's homosexuality, it was suggested to me from a comment made by Josephus, that
Dellius [in his letter to Mark Antony] also talked extravagantly, and said that these youngsters [Yannai and his sister Miriam] seemed not derived from men, but from some god or other. His design in doing so was to entice Antony into lewd pleasures with them ... [Antony] sent, in the most decent manner he could, for the young man... When this letter was brought to Herod, he did not think it safe for him to send one so handsome as was Aristobulus, in the prime of his life, for he was sixteen years of age, and of so noble a family, and particularly not to Antony, the principal man among the Romans, and one that would abuse him in his amours, and besides, one that openly indulged himself in such pleasures as his power allowed him without control.
Josephus recounts in great detail the story of Yannai's appointment as High Priest, his enticement to Jericho and his death there by being drowned in a pool. (The pool, by the way, has recently been excavated by archeologists.)
King Herod [74-4 BC], was, I am afraid, as cruel and as ruthless as described in the story. In modern terms we would say that an enormous inferiority complex made him so unsure of his hold on power that he murdered indiscriminately to remove the slightest threat to his hold on power. Josephus describes in gory detail Herod's last illness. From what he says some moderns have guessed that Herod suffered from kidney failure and Fournier's disease, which is a gangrenous infection affecting the genitalia.
"Righteous Teacher" was the title of the head of the sectarian monastery on the shores of the Dead Sea whose library, hidden away in the caves in the cliffs by the sea, was discovered in 1947. These documents are now referred to as the "Dead Sea Scrolls".
Mark Antony, Cleopatra VII and Quintus Dellius are, of course, historical personalities.
Both Lotán and Absalom are figments of my imagination. As I have already written, my original intention was to write a story about Jonathan Aristobulos, but the character of Lotán became increasingly dominant as he forced himself and his story upon me and he gave me no choice.
The dedication of the story is to the memory of someone who, like Yannai, met a violent death at the hands of thugs. Hopefully, the reading of this story will bring a modicum of comfort to his surviving "Lotán".
[For those who use webmail: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, etc). Each browser is subtly different or we'd give fuller instructions here. If it pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]