This first appeared in The Scotsman books section Saturday 26th November 2011
ANCIENT Israel was a man’s world; it was men who wrote the laws, wrote the scriptures, waged wars, re-told their tales in history books.
In a world dominated by men, what happened to the women’s stories?
The Dovekeepers is American novelist Alice Hoffman’s attempt to tell their story. In it she tells the epic tale of the siege of Masada in 70AD, when 900 Jews held out for months against the Roman army from within their mountain stronghold in the Judean desert. Only two women and five children survived.
The story follows four women whose fates are woven together as each becomes a “dovekeeper” within the stronghold, women who care for doves and gather their droppings to make the soil fertile. Fiery-haired Yael, an assassin’s daughter, has the power to speak to animals without words. She can pick up scorpions, does not fear lions, and has survived the blistering heat of the desert. Bristly Revka, a baker’s wife, has witnessed a murder horrific enough to render her two grandsons mute. Aziza, a warrior’s daughter, is a skilled marksman raised as a boy, torn between her desire for a man’s freedom and a woman’s passions. Shirah is known as the Witch of Moab, a woman skilled in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, with a dangerous insight into the future and the hearts of others.
Hoffman centres her story round the only known account of the tragedy, written by the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus. Inspired by her own “intense and moving” visits to Masada, she incorporates real archaeological remains found there into her tale, from woven cloth and incantation bowls, to amulets and spells found in museums in Europe, Israel and Egypt. Filled as it is with factual information and real artefacts, the book is laced with the unreal, with magic, superstitions and ancient witchcraft. Using these mystical ingredients, Hoffman concocts a rich, female world in which the women tell the stories.
The private female universe we enter is filled with atrocities: child brides who flee their captors only to die in the heat of the desert; women, raped by soldiers, who slice open their hands and feet to drain away their sorrow; servant girls ripped apart by childbirth; demons who steal and strangle newborns; ghosts who sew themselves to the living; curses brought upon people for their wrongdoings; the Angel of Death, who seems to hover over everyone. Menstruating women are seen as unclean and, though a man may have many wives, if a woman dares to sleep with a man outside of wedlock, or commits adultery, or has an illegitimate child, she is treated with the deepest, often deadliest, contempt.
In this world, “women were hurt everyday and kept the cause to themselves”. They are voiceless, unable to articulate their suffering, and yet, as one of the women reflects, “among men words were not nearly as perilous as the ones women spoke”. Though men have the public voice, the private world of woman’s magic is shown to be as dangerous as any law men may decree or any weapon they may wield.
Spells are passed down secretly from mother to daughter, and with them the women try to combat the wrongs done to them. They weave spells and mix potions to chase away ghosts and demons, to secure men’s loyalty, to banish nightmares, to provide the antidotes to poisons, to keep children safe, to make the rain fall, to make barren women fertile. The spells and potions involve burnt hair, powdered snakeskin, herbs, spices, eggshells, berries, ashes, blood, sulphur, honey, flowers, roots, musk and all manner of curiosities.
They’re conducted in secret. Though the society in which the women live is ruled by superstitions, where signs and omens are seen daily and where the bodies of the dead must be treated the right way in order for their souls to pass into the “World to Come”, witchcraft is still feared as women’s wickedness, and Shirah in particular is mistrusted and ill-treated for her knowledge and powers.
Hoffman’s story is as beautiful as it is harrowing. Amidst all the horrors contained within the story, the human spirit and capacity to love endures throughout. Deeply atmospheric and brimming with intricate details from the time, the book captures the essence of the age as well as it does the complex characters of the four women. Most of all, it achieves what it sets out to do. The words of women like Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah may have gone unspoken for centuries, but Hoffman gives a voice to the women who have been silent for too long.