Today’s venture into Jewish mythology has led me to the Shamir*, a small worm the size of a grain of barley which has the power to cut through stone. A biblical injunction prevented King Solomon from using metal tools, the implements of war, to cut stone for God’s temple, so Solomon had to go on a quest to find an alternative. His aide recommended the Shamir, a creature with rock-splitting power. But no one knew where the Shamir hid. Solomon first summoned a demon into his presence using his magic ring inscribed with the holy name of God. The demon replied that only Ashmedai, King of the Demons, had such knowledge. Solomon sent his trusted aide Benaiah to capture Ashmedai, who lived in the middle of a desert atop of a barren mountain. Benaiah spiked Ashmedai’s drinking well with wine, and when the demon passed out from intoxication, he wrapped him in chains inscribed with God’s secret name, thus imprisoning him.
After a long journey (more on this below), Benaiah returns to Solomon with his captured demon, and there Ashmedai tells Solomon that the Shamir was given to the Prince of the Sea, who further entrusted its care to a woodcock. Once again Benaiah ventures forth on a quest for his king. He covers the woodcock’s nest, with its fledgelings inside, under a glass shell. Upon returning, and seeing that its offspring are unreachable behind the shell, the woodcock uses the Shamir, tucked under its wing, to crack the shell. But Benaiah is hiding below and startles the bird, causing it to drop the stone-cutting animal. He wraps the Shamir first in wool and then encloses the animal in lead, the only thing that it cannot cut through, and returns victorious to his king. Meanwhile, the woodcock, ashamed of its loss, and terrified of the wrath of the Prince of the Sea, kills himself. Solomon uses the Shamir to build the temple.
I liked this story very much and I found its style reminiscent of Greek tales. No doubt due to a lot of cross-influence between the cultures. But what struck me the most interesting part of the tale was the journey of Benaiah and the enchained Ashmedai back to King Solomon. Along the way, Ashmedai sees a wedding in progress and starts crying. Benaiah says, “Why are you crying?” And the demon replies that “The bridegroom will be dead in three days.” Throughout their journey, although only touched on in the tale, Ashmedai shows further acts of empathy for human suffering. He says to Benaiah, “I see humans not how they present themselves to other men, but how they truly are.” I found it fascinating that a demon, and especially the king of the demons, would show empathy for human beings. And I found this brief tale very apt too, because I’m writing a novel loosely based on Jewish folktales and myths, and Ashmedai plays a large role (so does stone-cutting, coincidentally). One day, perhaps when I’m done with this novel, I’d like to write a story about Benaiah’s and Ashmedai’s journey home to King Solomon, filling in the blanks that the folk tale leaves out and exploring this unusual relationship between a demon and humankind.
* The Shamir was supposedly one of ten marvels created on the eve of the first Sabbath.