by Doctor Science
In my last post I mentioned some things I was disappointed by in David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years, but that's not by any means my opinion of the book as a whole. Indeed, I found it fascinating, mind-opening and for the most part convincing in its core thesis: that money did not arise out of barter, as the story is usually told, but out of debt. Graeber argues that debt as a social obligation is much older and more universal than money, and he demonstrates it with wide-ranging knowledge of history and anthropology.
One of the many insights I got from the book was into the nature of the Jewish High Holy Days, the "Days of Awe". Not because Graeber discusses them specifically, but because of this passage, describing Early Modern England (based on the work of Craig Muldrew):
In a typical village ... everyone was involved in selling something, however just about everyone was both creditor and debtor; most family income took the form of promises from other families; everyone knew and kept count of what their neighbors owed one another; and every six months or year or so, communities would hold a general public "reckoning", canceling debts out against each other in a great circle, with only those differences then remaining when all was done being settled by use of coin or goods. [Debt, p.327]Graeber notes that "the circular cancellation of debts in this way seems to have been quite a common practice in much of history" [p.400-01], though he gives no other details.
When I read Graeber's description of a yearly circular debt cancellation, I immediately recognized the Days of Repentance.
For those of you who aren't Jewish: Rosh Hashanah is New Year's Day; Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is 10 days later; the period that includes them both is called the Days of Repentance. The overarching metaphor for this period is expressed in the prayer Unetanneh Tokef:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribedThe Book of Life for the year is opened on Rosh Hashanah, but it's only a rough draft until it is "sealed" at the end of Yom Kippur. So the days in between are for charitable giving, prayer, and also for reconciling with anyone you may have harmed or angered in the past year. The solemn and moving Kol Nidre is (for many of us) the culmination of this "debt-clearing" process, as we ask to be released from pledges made to G-d that we should never have made, from our foolish promises or "I swears".
and on Yom Kippur will be sealed
how many will pass from the earth
and how many will be created
who will live and who will die ...
But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree
What Graeber describes for medieval English villages is what we Jews do before Yom Kippur: canceling spiritual debts to each other in a great circle, and adding prayer and charity to bring our spiritual balance into the black before it's finalized. It's pretty much exactly as in the translation of the Christian "Lord's Prayer" which asks G-d to
Forgive us our debtsSome years ago, our then-rabbi explained that balancing the spiritual books happens at this time of year -- sometime in September or early October -- because that was the custom in Babylonia, where the month of Tišritum -- equivalent to Jewish Tishrei -- was the start of the fiscal year, under the constellation of Libra, the Scales or Balance.
as we forgive our debtors
So at about this point in working on this post I went looking for an illustration, and googled painting weighing scales (you have to put in "weighing" because otherwise it's mostly reptile skin). Look what popped up:
Why, it's Saint Michael the Archangel, weighing souls! I hadn't realized that was one of his symbols and functions -- I just thought of him as "The Warrior Archangel". And then I remembered Michaelmas, and checked its date.
That's right, September 29. Under the sign of Libra.
In medieval England, Michaelmas marked the ending and beginning of the husbandman's year, George C. Homans observes: "at that time harvest was over, and the bailiff or reeve of the manor would be making out the accounts for the year."So I fell into a research vortex, chasing St. Michael and his scales.
Spanish art historian Laura Rodríguez Peinado's study of St. Michael Psychostatia (in Spanish with images; English translation, no images) found images of St. Michael with scales from the 10th Century onward, and commonly after the 11th. She traces this representation of St. Michael to Coptic Egypt, where he absorbed the soul-weighing function of Hermes and of Thoth before him.
The scales St. Michael has in Christian artworks are for one-time use, at the end of someone's life if not indeed at the Last Judgment. The scales of Libra and of the Days of Repentance are used every year -- just as the settling of financial accounts comes around every year. And the Last Trump of Judgment Day is an amplification of Tekiah Gadolah, the final shofar blast that ends the Days of Repentance.
And yet, St. Michael's Day is still near the autumn equinox, part of the yearly fiscal cycle. Michaelmas *could* still have some of the quality of the Days of Repentance, with rituals for settling moral debts as well as monetary ones. If St. Michael's scales are only used on Judgment Day, why is Michaelmas part of the fiscal year? I see the Roman indiction or fiscal year began in September, so I'm guessing that scales and balances were already associated with that season in Egypt and the Roman Empire. I don't know how much of this was due to influence from Babylon.
Graeber says it was only in the Late Middle Ages that " all moral relations came to be conceived as debts" [p.330]. But I think the parallel between financial and moral debts must have been clear much earlier, in Babylon of the 7th century BCE at latest, for the scales of commerce and the scales of justice, moral debt and financial debt, to come together in one ritual.
May you be sealed for a good year.