Oy vey! Gal­lop­ing golems!

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Casey Sanchez The New Mex­i­can

At the end of the world, ac­cord­ing to He­brew leg­end, the right­eous will dine on a sub­lime three-course feast of beasts the world has never seen: Le­viathan, a mam­moth fish that rules the sea; Be­he­moth, a ti­tanic beast with do­min­ion over land; and Ziz, a gar­gan­tuan bird that lords it over the air.

“But is it kosher?” hus­band-and-wife sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers Ann and Jeff Van­der­Meer asked them­selves dur­ing a hike in the woods one day. Their talk of Jewish di­etary laws veered over to imag­i­nary an­i­mals of all sorts, from the chupacabra to the man­ti­core, a Per­sian cousin of the sphinx that con­founds its cap­tured hu­man prey with ex­is­ten­tial rid­dles. (Jeff Van­der­Meer, by the way, is a pi­o­neer of the New Weird, a type of post­mod­ern ur­ban fan­tasy writ­ing that is heav­ily in­flu­enced by Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino.) Just be­fore Passover in 2008, the pair blogged their con­ver­sa­tion, and the post went vi­ral, pick­ing up tens of thou­sands of read­ers through Bo­ing-Bo­ing, a tech-cul­ture blog, and Jewcy, an on­line Jewish hip­ster mag­a­zine. They de­cided to ex­pand their re­search and pub­lish their ef­forts as a com­pact, bril­liantly il­lus­trated book called The Kosher Guide to Imag­i­nary An­i­mals: The Evil Mon­key Di­a­logues (Tachyon Pub­li­ca­tions). Graphic de­signer John Coulthart gets part of the credit for the book’s charm. He also pro­vided the deft im­agery that ac­com­pa­nies the cult clas­sic The Thack­ery T. Lamb­shead Pocket Guide to Ec­cen­tric & Dis­cred­ited Dis­eases.

The book is a field guide to 34 beasts, most of them imag­i­nary, and it sur­veys the folk ori­gins of the fan­tas­tic an­i­mals in acer­bic one-page de­scrip­tions. These are fol­lowed by good-cop, bad-cop di­a­logues about the crea­tures’ pur­ported kosher­ness. In the back-and-forth con­ver­sa­tion, Jeff goes by his al­ter-ego, “Evil Mon­key.” Af­ter hash­ing out the ori­gins of the aigi kam­pos, a mus­cu­lar fish-tailed ram that the au­thors say is the ba­sis for the astrological sign Capri­corn, Jeff sur­mises, “Can you get cheese from this thing?”

Be­yond its hu­mor, the slim vol­ume is a re­fresh­ing break from a me­dia land­scape awash with sex­u­ally charis­matic vam­pires and tele­genic were­wolves. In­stead, the book by­passes the usual sus­pects of blood­suck­ers and zom­bies for a far more ec­cen­tric uni­verse of Ja­panese tsuku­mogami, spir­i­tu­ally pos­sessed inan­i­mate ob­jects; Lithua­nian ait­varas, ma­li­cious shape-shift­ing roost­ers; and South African tokoloshes, zom­bie-poltergeist hy­brids cre­ated from dead bod­ies.

“The bizarre an­i­mals in this book are de­scen­dants of phan­tas­magor­i­cal crea­tures that crawled out of the ocean of oral-story mil­len­nia ago,” Joseph Nigg writes in the fore­word. Nigg is a scholar of the imag­i­nary an­i­mals in world folk­lore. While na­ture has en­dowed us with mil­lions of species of in­sects, an­i­mals, and plants, he be­lieves hu­mans cre­ate their own mytho­log­i­cal crea­tures out of a need to make some­thing wholly theirs. “But our hy­brids are our own, shaped by our imag­i­na­tion out of fears, hopes, won­der, and sheer joy of cre­ation.”

Con­sider the ouroboros, a myth­i­cal crea­ture that Plato treats as fact in his di­a­logues. “Best known as an an­cient al­chem­i­cal sym­bol of the in­te­gra­tion of the in­fi­nite and the op­po­site, the ouroboros is a tail-de­vour­ing ser­pent or dragon,” the Van­der­Meers write. To some an­cients, it sym­bol­ized the cir­cle of life; to oth­ers, it was “a vastly ef­fi­cient or­gan­ism that be­came im­mor­tal by eat­ing its own waste.” Here the Jewish di­etary laws — or kashrut — pro­vide comic re­lief.

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