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Magic as a Central Theme in "Moses, Man of the Mountain"
There has been magic in the world since time began. Even in the scientific world that has little to do with metaphysics, magic has a significant place because how can a scientist explain the tiny bit of matter that became the universe unless they do so with magic. Throughout history it has had a significant place because there are many things about this world that people still cannot explain, so they reason that there must be some unseen force behind it. Zora Neale Hurston saw this in the Biblical story of Moses, as have many others. He was able to do wondrous things with the staff he carried, the rod of power (Hurston), because of its magic. This paper discusses a central theme, magic, as it is developed in Hurston's book "Moses: Man of the Mountain" from the perspective of the history of Africa, and how the theme has played a part in the history of the continent and its people.
The people of Africa have long been thought to be superstitious. Whether this is so or not is not important, what is important is what the unknown has produced in the culture and beliefs of the peoples that inhabit, and have inhabited, the land. It is interesting at first to think that people around the world have religious beliefs, but they are not necessarily thought of as magic thinking. But, when it applies to the various religions of Africa, it is often given that distinction. Of course, the people believe in the dead coming back to life, the power of the shaman to cast away evil, and the efficacy of potions an chants to rid people of disease and harm, but that sounds like a retelling of some of the scenes in the Bible also. The source or the people so not matter. Magic has been a constant since humans first walked the Earth because there had to be some way to explain events that were beyond rational explanation.
So, magic exists throughout the world as a concept even if it is not a reality, but in Africa, it has always been a part of everyday life. Interestingly, this is so to the extent that when some African nations have made modern sets of law to govern the actions of citizens, the lawmakers have had to take the magical thinking of the inhabitants into consideration (Rio). The main thrust of Rio's article is how the government on Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific, has had to deal with magical belief as it has constructed a modern code. But, in relation to Africa, he said "today, there are reports of widespread witchcraft beliefs and accusations in Africa bound up with situations of great change in relations of production and ideology" (Rio). It is not an issue then one place or of one people, but something that occurs around the world. However, magic is deeply engrained in the thinking of the people in Africa, and it has its roots, Hurston seems to believe, in some of the events that bring ancient African religion and Judeo-Christian beliefs together.
One author relates that Africans believe that their land is central to Judeo-Christian heritage the same as it is for theirs. One researcher writes about a book that was published by a former slave and missionized Christian from Africa. The author relates that;
"In his refiguring of things, Africa remains in need of the colonizing and missionizing efforts of Western Christians with whom he identifies himself, but with a difference. Here Africans are imaged as the center of Christian sacred history, the bearers of God's promises, the recipients of God's favor" (Elrod).
This makes sense because the Biblical account does seem to center on Africa, and archeologists have found much evidence that life began in Africa. It is no surprise then that Hurston takes the story of one of the central figures in the Judeo-Christian litany of characters, and written about how he was blessed with magic that could be enhanced by the power of God (Mark).
The Theme of Magic
In the story of Moses there are many instances when he needed some type of supernatural assistance so that the story of his life could continue. From his very beginnings, in a basket of reeds constructed by his mother and watched by his sister Miriam as it floated down the Nile (Ex. 2: 3,4), Moses had a blessed life. The fact that he was able to escape from the fear of Pharaoh in which every Hebrew boy must die was a miracle on its own. About this event, Hurston writes
"The birthing beds of Hebrews were matters of state. The Hebrew womb had fallen under the heel of Pharaoh. A ruler great in his newness and new in his greatness had arisen in Egypt and he had said, "This is law. Hebrew boys shall not be born. All offenders against this law shall suffer death by drowning."
The Egyptian edict meant that Moses had no chance at life. Only a magical act could save him, and that chain of events began as soon as he was born according to Hurston's narrative.
His father wanted to kill him quickly to silence him because a boy baby could mean death for the entire family. But, his mother saves him because of her maternal instinct but also because she sees him as special. After three months of living with his family Moses is placed in the reed basket and placed in the ricer. The magic in him carries the basket to a spot where pharaoh's daughter and her hand maidens are bathing. This is the second incidence of the magic Moses has protecting him
These two events are dramatized in the book as evidence that Moses has magic in himself. What the Judeo-Christian would call providence (because God had a bigger plan for his life) Hurston relates as magic. Moses had some of his own, which is seen in Hurston's recounting of his days at the foot of mount Sinai, before God takes him back to the Egyptians, and it can be seen in these little events. The manner in which he escapes the death penalty to be expected from someone who kills a Jewish overseer is just another example that Hurston gives.
Moses had an Egyptian name, and he was the adopted son a princess of Egypt, but he intuitively, it seemed, knew that he was not an Egyptian. Possibly the story had been related to him how he was picked up from the bulrushes, or maybe his actual mother who became his nanny told him of his Jewish heritage. But, if he knew exactly where he had come from it is hard to believe that he could have stomached the treatment of his people while he remained in the luxury of the house of pharaoh. The story that he was a Hebrew became known to him through his wife who was trying to do away with him, In the anguish of finding out he was a Hebrew, he came upon an overseer beating a defenseless slave and killed the overseer. The next day he was warned by his personal attendant that Pharaoh knew of this and meant to have him seized. The book talks of this as being magic also (Hurston).
However, Moses did not receive his greatest magic until after he exiled himself to the desert "He was seeing visions of a nation he had never heard of where there would be more equality of opportunity and less difference between top and bottom" (Hurston). It is interesting that as this theme builds throughout the book, Hurston uses it as a parallel, from the first, of the plight of the Africans and their ancestors in the United States. The language she uses is drawn from a Southern vernacular, and the images Moses sees are of a land of promise where the people he now knows he came from will be free. This is another insight into the religion that has developed over the millennia relating to the power that Moses had, and he is about to get the powerful object that will be a symbol of the power he possessed.
At the foot of Sinai, the mountain named in the title, Moses meets his future wife and her father Jethro. In the book, Jethro is a shepherd, as he is in the Bible, but he is also a man of magic who instructs Moses in the power that he already has within himself. This is consistent with some of the legends that have grown up around Moses from the cults that still worship him today (Osahon). Jethro introduced Moses to the power he already had (Osahon states that many believe Jethro was the father of modern witchcraft), but God enhanced it (Hurston).
Moses spoke to God in the burning bush, saw his hind parts as God passed him at the…[continue]
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