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Studies in Comparative Mythology: Immortality as a Curse

Classical Literature

Studies in Comparative Mythology: Immortality as a Curse

The Wandering Jew by Samuel Hirszenberg (1899)


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB

This series of articles has been written to show the importance of comparative mythology for students of classics and humanities. I strongly believe that myths can be a great tool to make students fall in love with the classics.

In today’s article I will describe three legends from three different cultures. Although these stories are from different traditions, they all have a common message: immortality may be a curse rather than a boon.

The Wandering Jew

The Wandering Jew is a medieval legend about a Jew who insulted Christ on the way to his crucifixion and ended up being cursed by him. The legend first appears in a work entitled Flores Historiarum, a 13th-century chronicle that mentions a certain Joseph who was cursed by Jesus. Later sources commonly give the Jew’s name as Ashverus.

In Flores Historiarum, Christ stumbled outside the house of a Jewish cobbler. The cobbler pushed him away and told him to move on. “I will move on,” Christ answered, “but you will tarry till I come.” The poor Jew has been wandering ever since and shall continue to do so until Judgment Day.

This fascinating legend has inspired many works by modern writers, most especially Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ballad entitled “The Wandering Jew”:

“Is it the Eternal Triune, is it He
Who dares arrest the wheels of destiny
And plunge me in the lowest Hell of Hells?
Will not the lightning’s blast destroy my frame?
Will not steel drink the blood-life where it swells?”

The Flying Dutchman: A Bet with the Devil

The Flying Dutchman is a legendary ghost ship doomed to sail the oceans forever. The first reference to this appears in a 1790 book entitled Travels, in various parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. In it, a ship’s captain mentions that some of his men claimed to have seen the cursed ship.

The captain of the Flying Dutchman swore he would round the Cape of Good Hope even if it took until Doomsday, as the character states in a 17th-century source: “May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment.”

This legend has been a source of inspiration for many artists and writers, including Richard Wagner, who wrote an opera of the same name, and Frederick Marryat, the author of the novel “The Phantom Ship”.

Ashwatthama: A Great Hero Cursed

The story takes place during the great civil war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas narrated in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Ashwatthama was a great hero who fought on the side of the Kauravas. When the Kauravas lost the battle, chased by the Pandavas, he
aimed his mystical weapon at his enemies’ only descendent, who was still then in his mother’s womb. The baby was miraculously saved by Krishna, who immediatey cursed Ashwatthama, uttering the following words:

“The fall of this mighty weapon will not be fruitless. The foetus will die. But being dead, it will live again and have a long life! As regards thyself, all wise men know thee for a coward and a sinful wretch! Always engaged in sinful acts, thou art the slayer of children. For this reason, thou must have to bear the fruit of these thy sins. For 3,000 years thou shalt wander over this earth, without a companion and without being able to talk with anyone. Alone and without anybody by thy side, thou shalt wander through diverse countries, O wretch, thou shalt have no place in the midst of men. The stench of pus and blood shall emanate from thee, and inaccessible forests and dreary moors shall be thy abode! Thou shalt wander over the Earth, O thou of sinful soul, with the weight of all diseases on thee.”

(Translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli)


André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.



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