The Judas Tree, And Other Legends of the Betrayer

This is cercis siliquastrum, the Judas Tree:

It is, according to legend, the type of tree from which Judas hanged himself, and its once-white blossoms blushed with shame to be part of such a terrible history.

Or perhaps it’s called the Judas Tree because the clusters of blossoms sometimes hang from the branches, suggesting a hanging man.

Or maybe it’s all just a mistake: its French name–“Tree of Judea”–misunderstood as “Tree of Judas.” Legend is funny that way.

The Wednesday of Holy Week is sometimes called “Spy Wednesday”: a reference to the day Judas allegedly made his deal to betray Christ. There is a lot of lore surrounding Judas, invented as an attempt to fill in the gaps in the Gospel narratives.

Jacobus de Voragine relates some wild tales about Judas in the entry for St. Matthias in The Golden Legend. Jacobus admits that these are legends and we shouldn’t put too much stock in them, but they open an interesting window into Medieval perceptions about the figure of Judas, which are not at all as simplistic and some might think.

For example, we are told that his mother–Cyborea–has a premonition that her son would be the downfall of her people. He told her husband, Ruben, and when the boy is born they set him afloat in a basket.

The baby washes up on the shore of an island called Scariot, whose Queen is lonely and childless. She takes the baby in, hides him, and then feigns pregnancy and produces the child as her own nine months later. The King is overjoyed to have a son, and Judas is raised in royal style.

Shortly thereafter, the Queen becomes pregnant, and the two little princelings grow up together. Judas, rotten to the core, mistreats his brother, and the Queen begins to resent the foundling. Eventually, the truth comes out, and Judas slays the true heir to the throne, then flees to Jerusalem.

There, he enters the service of Pilate, who sees a kindred spirit in the wicked young man and puts him in charge of his household.

One day, Pilate spies a field of fruit and is overcome with a desire for some. He sends Judas off to gather it, whereupon he gets in an arguement with the field’s owner: his real father, Ruben. Judas slays the man, and Pilate gives all of Ruben’s property and his wife to Judas.

Judas finds his wife/mother in misery one day, and asks her what is her sorrow. She pours out her entire tale, at which point Judas realizes the true horror of his situation. Cyborea urges him to seek out and follow Jesus, beg forgiveness for all his crimes, and repent.

This Judas does, but his wicked tendencies cannot be checked, and he soon begins stealing money entrusted to his keeping. He rages against the 300 silver pieces spent on the ointment, and then betrays Jesus for 30 silver pieces. The amount is chosen because Judas had been skimming one-tenth of the purse, and the price of his betrayal was the amount lost from the purchase of the ointment.

Finally, after his betrayal, Judas repents once again, but swallowed up by despair he kills himself by hanging: his stomach bursting and spilling his bowels upon the ground. It was deemed fitting that he was burst open, so that the lips that kissed Christ should not be defiled in death, and that the bowels which had conceived the betrayal should burst, while the throat that uttered traitorous words was strangled. Moreover, he died hanging in the air, thus offending neither the heights of heaven where the angels dwell nor the earth where his fellow men roamed.

We see a lot of the Medieval imagination and misunderstanding in these tales. First, there is the strange mash-up of the stories of Moses, Cain and Abel, Joseph, and Oedipus, but through a dark, inverted lens. It suggests the inherent evil that appears bred in the bone of Judas, known even to his parents before his birth. His attempts to repent end first in backsliding, and then in suicide. He is the very image of a cursed figure.

Yet the classical motifs suggest a strange, uneasy overlay of fate in his story. Oedipus, for example, wasn’t inherently evil, but rather fated to be a tragic figure. It was the role picked out for him by the gods. It’s an element that sits uncomfortably on the story of Judas, who was a more active agent in his own downfall. The very notion of the crushing whims of inexorable fate is anti-Christian to its core.

Some Gnostics, and later some Muslims, regarded Judas in a better light. The Gnostic Gospel of Judas depicts him as an active figure in the ministry of Christ who helped free Jesus of his body, while the very late Gospel of Barnabas offers a Muslim-style Judas who takes the place of Christ on the cross. Different movements imagine the Judas they need.

But today, we remember the more straightforward figure of the traitor, a man who robbed from the poor and betrayed the son of the living God. It’s fitting that, although Judas is not a saint and the only one of the twelve not on the calender, we remember him on this day. He’s there as a warning, because each of us, every day, betrays Christ in ways small and large.

Judas didn’t just know the truth: he walked with the Truth. If he can fall so far, what of us?

The Earliest Known Depiction of Witches On Brooms, and What It Tells Us About Evil

2015-03-22 13.59.07This marginal illustration comes from Le champion des dames (A Defense of Women) by Martin Le France, 1451. Martin was secretary to both Antipope Felix V and Pope Nicholas V. His work is a 24,000-verse (!) poem extolling the virtues of women, but also condemning heresy and corruption.

The witches are identified Vaudois, or Waldensians, who were accused of practicing witchcraft and celebrating the witch’s Sabbath. Flight was one of the powers given to demons and their minions, and thus was often associated with evil.

The art is interesting because it’s part of a shift from depicting witches demonically or sexually, to showing them as simple women in everyday clothes.

Why the broom? The internet is full of very silly theories with little historical grounding, the most commonly repeated being that brooms were used to apply flying ointments to the nether regions of the witch. Go ahead and take a moment to imagine that. I’ll wait. The flying ointment part is real. The awkward and painful applicator? Not so much.

We’re also told that it stems from the testimony of male witch Guillaume Edelin in 1453, which was two years after this manuscript was created. So, we can stop blaming poor Guillaume any time now.

I prefer simple answers: as witches start to be depicted as more ordinary, they’re given a prop to indicate their commonplace, feminine nature. What’s more ordinary than a housewife’s broom?

The witch, it tells us, is not always discernible by outward appearances. What does evil look like? It looks like us. Or, in the case of medievals, like that annoying woman next door.

Game Con Threatens to Leave Indiana Over Conscience Protection Bill

The latest moral preening about Indiana’s conscience protection bill comes from the Gen Con gaming convention, which is threatening to move to another state. To satisfy gamers, Indiana must choose to crush religious freedom so gay couples don’t need to pick the next caterer in the phone book.

“Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state’s economy, and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years,” said Adrian Swartout, owner and CEO of Gen Con LLC, in a letter sent to Pence just hours after lawmakers sent the measure to his desk.

“Gen Con proudly welcomes a diverse attendee base, made up of different ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds,” she wrote. “We are happy to provide an environment that welcomes all, and the wide-ranging diversity of our attendees has become a key element to the success and growth of our convention.”

Wow, that bill must be some kind of horrible Nuremberg Laws for gays. Let’s see what fresh hell it would create:

Prohibits a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the governmental entity can demonstrate that the burden: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest.

Can you imagine the nightmare reality such protections would unleash? People might actually need to … choose another caterer. It’s like Selma all over again.

Hey, remember when gay marriage wasn’t going to have any effect at all on people with deeply held religious convictions? Yeah, that was a lie, and we all knew it was. Christian bakers or caterers who decline to serve a gay wedding (not a gay person, mind you: a gay wedding) in violation of their beliefs must be stripped of their business and sent to re-education camps.

Of course, GenCon has a contract that locks it into the state till 2020, so this is just a lot of noise from people cuing their moral superiority.

Tech Website Gets Access to 4.6 Million License Plate Scans

If you drive in Oakland, California, Ars Technica knows where you’ve been:

In response to a public records request, we obtained the entire LPR dataset of the Oakland Police Department (OPD), including more than 4.6 million reads of over 1.1 million unique plates between December 23, 2010 and May 31, 2014. The dataset is likely one of the largest ever publicly released in the United States—perhaps in the world.

After analyzing this data with a custom-built visualization tool, Ars can definitively demonstrate the data’s revelatory potential. Anyone in possession of enough data can often—but not always—make educated guesses about a target’s home or workplace, particularly when someone’s movements are consistent (as with a regular commute).

The article is long, detailed, and chilling to anyone concerned about privacy. Data is power, and being able to track a population’s movements gives the government, corporations, and individual citizens too much of it. Where you live, shop, worship, congregate, and sin are exposed on the very thin pretext of public safety.