On Fear and Susceptibility
There is much to actually fear in the world, so it is remarkable how often we seek out things to frighten us. As children we delight in and are highly susceptible to scary stories. Among my favourite books as a boy was one called Old Time English Stories, published in 1909, which included a particular frightening anonymous tale called "The Closed Cabinet", involving a family cursed with a murder every generation, and a mysterious locked cabinet in the room in which the murders took place. Another was The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson, a hallucinatory diary account of supernatural events experienced by a recluse during his stay at a remote house in the west of Ireland. It was published in 1907, and it seems that the decade before the very real horrors of the First World War was a particularly fertile time for nightmarish literature. Our childhood copy (my younger brother's if I recall) of The House on the Borderland is long lost, but I recently purchased a reprint of it and found it still to be a strange and haunting tale, indeed as eerie and foreboding as it had seemed when first I read it as a fifteen-year-old. As to the Old Time English Stories, I still possess the book, but its tales, like those favourite old Hollywood horror movies starring Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, have not aged as well. It no longer raises the hair on the back of my neck (to use that rather odd phrase). Modern realism, particularly in television and movies, has deadened our nerves to the less graphic and convincing stories and films of simpler times.
If in the 50s and 60s of the last century it was easier than today to give credence to the existence of spectres and apparitions, it was all the more so in the Middle Ages, in particular when it was combined with a greater openness to spiritual beliefs. Here is a small tale of medieval mystery.
The Jewish traveller, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela records that fifteen years before he visited Jerusalem in the late 1160s, a wall in the Church of Saint Mary on Mount Zion collapsed. The patriarch of Jerusalem ordered the restoration of the wall in what was one of Jerusalem's most important holy sites, and twenty workmen were hired to carry out the repair work. Benjamin records that among the workers were two close friends. When on one occasion they arrived late to work they were reprimanded by the overseer. They promised to make up for their lateness by remaining at work during the lunch break. When the others had left, while moving a stone they chanced upon the entrance to a cave. They entered and discovered a large chamber with marble pillars overlaid with silver and gold in which they found a golden table, a sceptre and a crown. According to Benjamin’s account this was the tomb of King David and to its left was the tomb of King Solomon and those of the other kings of Judah. But as they were about to enter the chamber “a fierce wind came forth from the entrance of the cave and smote them, and they fell to the ground like dead men.” They remained unconscious until the evening when “there came forth a wind like a man's voice, crying out: "Arise and go forth from this place!" The two fled in terror and refused the patriarch's order to re-enter the chamber, remaining instead lying in their beds in a state of terror. Their fear it seems, spread to the patriarch and he had the chamber sealed and henceforth hidden from sight.*
Was it perhaps this strange episode, first recorded by Benjamin who appears to have picked it up while visiting the Holy City, that introduced the tradition locating David's Tomb on Mount Zion. It is a tradition still observed today and as broadly accepted by the visiting public as is the identification of the small and beautiful Gothic chapel above it as the authentic location in which the Last Supper took place. As to Solomon's Tomb and those of the other kings of Judah, these appear to have vanished altogether, along with the "fierce wind".
* For this account see The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, trans. M.N. Adler, New York, 1907, p. 24.