Folk-lore of the Holy Land, Moslem, Christian and Jewish, by J. E. Hanauer , at sacred-texts.com
THREE mighty angels were standing before the throne of Allah with the most profound reverence, waiting to fulfil His high behests, and Allah said to one of them, "Descend to the Earth and bring hither a handful of its dust." On receiving this command the messenger, with swift wing cleaving the atmosphere, descended to the Earth, and gathered a handful of its dust in obedience to the most High. No sooner, however, had he begun to do this, than the whole world shuddered and trembled from its centre to its circumference and groaned most pitifully; and, moved and startled by the distress and anguish which his attempt had caused, the gentle angel let the dust which he had gathered fall back, earth to earth, and returned weeping and ashamed to the Presence of Him that had sent him. And Allah said, "I blame thee not, it was not written on the tablet of destiny that this should be thine office. Stand now aside for other service." Then Allah
said to the second of the three angels, "Go thou, and fetch a handful of Earth's dust." He, too, flew swiftly down to Earth and tried to gather up a handful of its dust, but when he saw how the Earth shook and shuddered, and when he heard its groans, the gentle angel could not do the deed but let that which he had gathered fall, dust unto dust, and lifting up himself, he returned ashamed and weeping to the Presence of Him Who had sent him. And Allah said, "This task was not for thee. I blame thee not, but stand thou too aside, and other service shall be thine." Then Allah sent the third angel, who descended swiftly, and gathered up the dust. But when the Earth began to groan and shudder in great pain and fearful anguish, the sad angel said, "This sore task was given me by Allah, and His Will must be done, even though hearts break with pain and sorrow." Then he returned and presented the handful of Earth's dust at Allah's throne. And Allah said, "As thou the deed hast done, so now the office shall be thine, O Azrael, to gather up for me the souls of men and women when their time has come; the souls of saints and sinners, of beggars and of princes, of the old or young, whate’er befall; and even though friends weep, and hearts of loved ones ache with sorrow and with anguish, when bereft of those they love." So Azrael became the messenger of Death. 1
Azrael had done some wrong in Heaven, to expiate which he was obliged to live a man's life on earth, without, however, neglecting his duties as Angel of Death; so he became a physician and, as such, attained wide celebrity. He married and got a son; but his wife was a dreadful shrew; and it did not increase his happiness in her society to know that she was destined to outlive him.
When Azrael had grown old, and the time for his release drew near, he revealed his real character to his son under oath of the strictest secrecy. "As I am shortly to depart," he said, "it is my duty to provide for your future. You know all that can be known of the science and practice of medicine. Now I am going to tell you a secret which will secure infallible success in that profession. Whenever you are called to a bedside, I shall be present, visible to you alone. If I stand at the head of the bed, be sure the patient will die in spite of all your remedies; if at the foot, he will recover though you gave him the deadliest poison." Azrael died, as was predestined; and his son, following his instructions, soon grew rich and famous. But he was a spendthrift, and laid by nothing out of all he earned. One day, when his purse was quite empty, he was called to the bedside of a rich notable, who lay at death's door. On entering the sickroom, he saw his father standing at the head of the bed; so, after going through a form of examination and deliberation, he pronounced the patient's case quite hopeless. At that the poor rich man, beside himself with fear, clasped the doctor's knees, and
promised him half his possessions if he would save his life. The son of Azrael was sorely tempted. "Well," he said at length, "I will see what I can do, if you will make it three-fourths of your wealth, to be mine whether I succeed or no." The patient in fear of death consented, and a contract was drawn up, signed and sealed and witnessed. Then the physician turned to his father, and by frantic gestures implored him to move to the foot of the bed, but the Angel of Death would not budge. Then, having called in four strong men, he bade each take a corner of the bed and, lifting all together, turn it round quickly so that the sick man's head should be where his feet had been. This was done very cleverly, but Azrael still stood at the head. The manœuvre was oft repeated, but Azrael always moved with the bed. The son was forced to rack his brains for some new expedient. Having dismissed the four porters, he suddenly fell atrembling and whispered, "Father, I hear mother coming." In a trice fear flamed in the grim angel's orbs, and he was gone. So the sick man recovered. But from that day forth Azrael ceased to appear to his son, who made so many mistakes in his practice that his reputation fast declined.
One day he had been at the funeral of a Jew, his victim, and was strolling down Wady-en-Nâr, 1 in sad thought of his father, when he saw Azrael standing at the door of a cave. "In a few minutes you
are going to die," said the father sternly. "For thwarting me in my duties, your life has been shortened." The youth implored his mercy, falling at his feet and kissing them, till Azrael said more kindly, "Well, come into my workshop, and see if your wits can find a way out of the difficulty. Though I myself am powerless now to help you, it is possible that you may yet help yourself." They passed through a suite of seven chambers, the sides of which looked like the walls of an apothecary's shop, being covered with shelves on which were all sorts of bottles, urns and boxes; each of which, as Azrael explained, contained the means of death for some human being. Taking down a vessel, he unscrewed its metal lid, and it seemed to the son as if some air escaped. "A certain youth," he explained has to die within a few minutes by a fall from his horse, and I have just let loose the 'afrìt' who will scare that horse." Of a second vessel he said, "This contains egg-shells of the safat, a strange bird, which never alights, even when mating. Its eggs are laid while on the wing and hatched before they reach the ground. The shells only fall to the earth, for the young are able to fly as soon as they leave the egg. These shells are often found and devoured by the greedy and blood-thirsty shibeh, 1 which goes mad in consequence and bites every creature that comes in its way, thus spreading hydrophobia and giving me plenty of work."
Thus they passed from room to room till they came to a mighty hall, where, on rows upon rows of tables, were myriads of earthen lamps of various forms and sizes; some of which burned brightly, others with a doubtful flame, while many were going out. "These are the lives of men," said Azrael. "It is Gabriel's place to fill and light them; but he is rather careless. See! he has left his pitcher of oil on the table next to you." "My lamp! where is my lamp?" cried the son feverishly. The Angel of Death pointed to one in the act of going out. "O father, for pity's sake, refill it!" "That is Gabriel's place, not mine. But I shall not take your life for a minute, as I have got to collect those lamps at the end of the hall, which have just gone out." The son, left standing by his dying flame, grasped Gabriel's pitcher and tried to pour some oil into his vessel; but in his nervous haste he upset the lamp and put it out. Azrael came and took up his son's empty lamp, carrying it back through the rooms to the mouth of the cave, where the dead body of the physician was found later. "Silly fellow," he thought to himself. "Why must he interfere in the work of angels. But at any rate he cannot say I killed him." Azrael always finds an excuse, as the saying goes.
Among the soldiers of Herod there was an Italian named Francesco, a brave young man who had distinguished himself in the wars and was a favourite with his master as with all who knew him. He was
gentle with the weak, kind to the poor, and except in fair fight had never been known to hurt a living thing. Children especially used to delight in his companionship. He had but one vice: he was an inveterate gambler, and all his spare moments were spent at cards.
Not only did he gamble himself, but he seemed to take a special delight in persuading others to follow his example. He would waylay boys and lads on their way to school, and apprentices sent running upon errands, and entice them to try their luck at a game. Nay, so infatuated did he become, that he is said to have ventured to accost some respectable Pharisees on their way to and from the Temple and invite them to join him at his loved diversion. At last, things went so far that the Chief Priests and Rulers betook themselves to Herod in a body and demanded his punishment. But card-playing happened to be a pastime in which Herod himself delighted so he did not take the charge against Francesco very seriously. Only, when the Jewish rulers kept on worrying him, he gave the Italian his discharge, and bade him leave Jerusalem and never again be seen within its walls.
Francesco entered on a new course of life. Gathering round him certain of his former comrades whose time of service had expired, he became the leader of a band of armed men whose business it was to waylay travellers on their way to and from the Holy City. Their principal haunt was a large cave on the road a little to the north of El Bìreh,
the ancient Beeroth. In no case were they guilty of violence and they always let the poor go unmolested. Their mode of procedure was singular. They used to stop and surround travellers who seemed wealthy and invite them to their cave to play a game with Francesco. The travellers dared not refuse so courteous an invitation when delivered by a band of armed brigands. They were politely welcomed by the gambler, treated to wine, and made to stake at cards whatever valuables they had with them. If they won, they went undespoiled; if they lost, they were compassionated and begged to come again with more money and try their luck a second time.
This went on for a long while, till, on a certain day, the sentinel on the look-out announced that a party of pedestrians was in sight. "If they are on foot," said the leader of the outlaws, "they are not likely to have with them anything worth playing for; still, let us see. How many of them are there?" "Thirteen," was the answer. "Thirteen," said Francesco musingly, "that is a curious number. Now where was it that I met a party of just thirteen men? Ah! now I remember; it was at Capernaum, where the Carpenter-rabbi of Nazareth cured the servant of one of the centurions belonging to our legion. I wonder whether by any chance, he and his twelve pupils can be coming this way. I must go and see for myself." So saying he came out of the cave and joined the watchman at his point of vantage. The travellers were now near enough for Francesco to know them for Our Lord and His
[paragraph continues] Apostles. He hastily called his men together, and told them that this time a really good man and a great prophet was coming, and that they must hide away the cards and all else that was sinful, for this was quite a different sort of person from the hypocrites of Jerusalem. Leaving them to prepare for the coming guests, he hurried down the road and, saluting the Saviour and His companions, pressed them, seeing evening was at hand and a storm threatening, to honour him and his comrades by spending the night with them. The invitation was accepted, and Jesus and His followers became the guests of the outlaws, who did their best to make them comfortable and, after supper, gathered round the Divine Teacher and, drinking in his gracious words, wondered. Although in all He said there was not a word that could be construed into blame of their way of life, yet a sense of guilt fell on them as they listened. The brigands made the guests lie down on their own rough beds, whilst they themselves wrapped their abâyehs around them and slept on the bare ground. That night it was Francesco's turn to keep the watch. It chanced to strike him that the Saviour, lying fast asleep, had not sufficient covering, so he took off his own abâyeh and laid it over Him. He himself walked up and down to keep warm, but could not help shivering. Next morning, having breakfasted with the outlaws, Jesus and His Apostles departed, Francesco and some of his own men setting them on their way. Before parting, the Saviour thanked Francesco for his hospitality and that of his comrades
and asked whether it were in His power to gratify any special wish he might have. "Not one, O Lord, but four," replied the gambler. "What are they?" asked Jesus. "First," said Francesco, "I am fond of playing cards, and I beg Thee to grant that whoever I play with, whether human or otherwise, I may always win. Next, that in case I invite any one to sit upon a certain stone seat at the door of our cave, he may not be able to get up without my permission. Thirdly, there is a lemon tree growing near the said cave, and I ask that nobody who climbs it at my request, may be able to descend to the ground unless I bid him. And lastly, I beg that in whatever disguise Azrael may come to take away my soul, I may detect him before he come too near, and be ready for him." On hearing these strange petitions, the Saviour smiled sadly and answered, "My son, thou has spoken childishly and not in wisdom. Still, that which thou hast asked in thy simplicity shall be granted, and I will add thereto the promise, that when thou shalt see thy error, and desire to make a fresh request, it shall be granted. Fare thee well."
Years passed away and many of Francesco's comrades had left him, when one day the Angel of Death, disguised as a wayfarer, was seen approaching. Francesco knew him from afar, and when Azrael came to the door of the cave, the gambler invited him to sit down on the stone seat without. Having seen the angel fairly seated, Francesco cried, "I know thee. Thou hast come to take
my soul, or the soul of one of my comrades, but I defy thee! I entertained the Lord of Life in this cave years ago, and He gave me power to forbid, any one who sits on that seat to rise from it without my leave." The angel at once struggled to get up but found himself paralysed. Finding rage of no avail, he humbly begged to be released. Francesco extorted from him a solemn oath not to seek his soul nor that of any of his comrades for the space of fifteen years, then let him go.
The fifteen years passed, and Francesco now dwelt alone in his cave as a godly hermit, when the Angel of Death drew near once more. The recluse at once withdrew into the cave and lay down on his bed, groaning as if in agony. This time, Azrael entered the cave dressed in a monk's habit. "What ails thee, my son?" he asked. "I have fever and I thirst," came the reply. "I beg you to gather a lemon for me off the tree which grows close to the cave, and to mix a little of its juice with f water that my thirst may be slaked." As it wanted yet some minutes of the time appointed, Azrael saw in the request a good excuse for administering a mortal draught; so he climbed the tree to reach the fruit. But, no sooner was he up in the branches than he heard a laugh and, looking down, beheld Francesco in the best of health. He strove to descend but could not move without Francesco's leave, which was not granted until he had pledged his word to keep away for other fifteen years.
That term elapsed and Azrael came a third time. "Do you intend to play any more vile tricks on me?"
he inquired of Francesco, now an aged man. "Not if you will grant me one favour," answered Francesco, "and allow me to take my pack of cards into the other world." "Will my giving you the permission lead to some fresh practical joke at my expense?" "No, I most solemnly assure you," replied the old man. Hereupon the Angel of Death snatched up Francesco's soul and his pack of cards and went with them to the gate of Paradise where St Peter sits to admit the souls of the righteous. Francesco was told to knock at the gate. He did so and it was opened, but when the porter saw who it was, and that he had brought his cards with him, he slammed the door in his face. So Azrael lifted the poor soul up again and descended with him to the gate of Hell where Iblìs sits, eager to seize and torment dead sinners. On beholding who it was that the Angel of Death had brought, he said in great glee, "Here you are at last, my dear. I have waited long for your arrival, and so have many others with whom you played cards on Earth. They all hope to see you beaten at your own game, for as you did not allow travellers to reach the Holy City till they had played with you, so shall I not allow you to roast on the red-hot coals till you have played a game with me. You have your cards, I see, so we will begin at once." So Francesco and the Evil One began to play, and to the surprise of both Francesco won the game. Satan insisted on a fresh trial of skill, and when he was once more defeated, he would insist on another trial, till at last, when he had been beaten seven times, he lost
his temper and drove out Francesco, saying that he could not have any one in Hell who excelled him in any thing even though it were a game. On hearing this, fresh hope was roused in the poor sinner's heart, and, recalling the Saviour's pledge to grant him one more boon, he begged Azrael who had stopped to watch the game to take him back to the gates of Paradise, as he felt sure the Saviour would not treat him as harshly as the Prince of Saints and the chief of lost spirits had done. So Azrael took the poor soul to Heaven's gate and it once more knocked thereat, and when St Peter opened, and would have driven it away, it pleaded the Saviour's promise to grant one more boon. So St Peter called his Master, Who, when Francesco asked for admission, confessing that his life had been one great mistake and offering to throw away his pack of cards, told Mar Butrus to let him in; and so the lifelong gambler entered Paradise.
177:1 This account of the appointment of Azrael was given by a Moslem lady of rank to a Christian woman, who passed it on to my wife.
179:1 Hell has seven gates, one of which is in Wady-en-Nâr; and the Angel of Death has his workshop in one of the caves in that gloomy valley, as appears in this story.
180:1 Shibeh (lit. "the leaper") is one of the names of the leopard. But in folk-lore it is described as a creature combining the characteristics of the badger and the hyæna.