Western civilization has long been a bastion of wild, outrageous antisemitism. Scorned as outsiders, labeled as criminals, Jews have suffered millennia of persecution, intolerance, and horrific violence. These tragedies beg the question of why hatred for Judaism runs so deeply, in so many different cultures. To eliminate hatred, we must first understand it. And few methods of examining the roots of antisemitism are more revealing than studying folk tales and local stereotypes concerning these afflicted people. Below are ten of the most common and significant examples of anti-Semitic legends. This is in no way an exhaustive examination, but it does provide a starting point for those who wish to track the development of antisemitism.
10. Well Poisoning
One of the main accusations leveled against Jewish communities in Europe concerned the supposed poisoning of wells. One example can be found in a law passed by the leaders of Brandenburg, Germany in May 1349: “ … it is said that the Jews have elsewhere dispatched many person through poisoning.” Many of these rumors started around the time of the outbreak of the Black Death. Considering that people in the Middle Ages had no idea how the Black Death spread, the idea that the plague was the result of sabotage or poisonings seemed logical to many populations. When social and political groups eager for power placed the blame on Jews, enraged rioters were more than eager to burn and massacre entire Jewish communities.
9. Part-Man, Part-Beast
During the Middle Ages, images depicting demons and the Devil emphasized grotesque, animalistic physical features. These included “horns, tails, protruding tongues … [and] extra faces.” These characteristics were also assigned to those believed to be in the employ of Satan and his demons, i.e. Jews. Some of the legends about Jews stated that they had had horns, a goat’s head or beard, and even pig’s ears. Imagery depicting Jews as monstrous or physically grotesque became more and more commonplace. Stereotypes about the appearance of Jews also began to include sub-human characteristics: flat-footed, bowlegged, slanting forehead, puffy lips, and more.
The Judensau (Jew’s Pig) was a visual motif that depicted Jews literally suckling at the teat of pigs. Additionally, many Judensau showed Jews eating fresh pig feces straight from the anus. The Devil also frequently appeared in these images. He was shown as being ecstatic about the consumption of sow milk and feces.
First appearing in Germany during the 13th century, the Judensau remained an almost distinctly Germanic image for six centuries. Judensau showed up on woodcuts, broadsheets, playing cards, and cathedral walls. Judensau also began to be depicted on secular buildings and structures, such as bridges and public monuments, thereby indicating that antisemitism was becoming more and more institutionalized in everyday life in their respective regions.
7. Jewish Doctors Kill Christians
Since Jews were considered to be evil, various taboos arose concerning how Christian communities should interact with them. One of the most insidious rumors stated that Jewish doctors cannot be trusted because they kill Christian patients. These rumors were sometimes reinforced by the Church. The Church councils of Valladolid and Salamanca explicitly warned that Jewish doctors “kill the Christian people when administering medicaments to them.” But the idea of the murderous Jewish doctor also seeped into regional folklore. One example is a story in the book Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom.) In the story, a young girl ignores her friends’ advice and visits a Jewish doctor, only for him to transform into a devil. Thankfully, she manages to escape. But other stories didn’t end so happily.
6. The Golem
The Golem is an “image or form that is given life through a magical formula.” Frequently characterized as a kind of robot or automaton, the Golem is a popular figure from Jewish mythology. According to Jewish tradition, Golems could be brought to life by writing one of the Names of God in the Hebrew Alphabet, either on their foreheads or on a piece of paper which is then stuffed in their mouths.
However, when non-Jewish communities adopted facets of this distinctly-Jewish legend, they became more destructive in nature. The German writer Jacques Offenbach adapted the Golem legend into a story entitled “The Golden Pot.” In it, the Jewish characters are portrayed as corrupt, and the Golem itself seen as the “crude embodiment [of] pride, lust and avarice.” The Golem legend has even continued into the modern era, being adapted to film several times, such as Paul Wegener’s 1920 opus The Golem, How He Came into the World. While praised for accurately depicting medieval Jewish life, this film has also been accused of harboring anti-Semitic sentiments.
5. The Wandering Jew
The Wandering Jew is a figure in Christian mythology who is doomed to wander the Earth until the Second Coming, for rebuffing or striking Christ during his trip to Calvary to be crucified. The first recorded variation of the Wandering Jew archetype appeared in the writings of Roger of Wendover, a monk of St. Albans. In this version, he converted to Christianity and has since lived a godly life. However, the legend served to re-enforce the idea that Jews are a people cursed by God. It has been claimed that the prevalence of the Wandering Jew myth, and the accompanying belief that it proved that Jews were wicked, was a direct cause of antisemitic violence during the Middle Ages. The Wandering Jew was also adopted as a symbol by German antisemites in the nineteenth century. Tragically, this led to the Wandering Jew being used as propaganda in the Nazi Party.
4. Jewish Deicide
Jewish Deicide is the belief that Jews are responsible for the murder of Jesus and, by extension, God. This comes from the various Christian Gospel narratives which claim that Jesus was prosecuted and crucified by Jews. This fueled many Christians into believing that it was their duty to continuously punish Jews, and that Jewish suffering was God’s will. Additionally, many thought that Jewish social degradation confirmed the superiority of the Christian faith. Therefore, the continual misery of the Jewish people became a form of legitimacy for the Church. Prosecuting Jews became a priority instead of a mere cultural bias. Incredibly, the Catholic Church didn’t officially repudiate the Jewish Deicide charge until the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
3. Evil Moneylenders
One of the most popular and enduring stereotypes about Jews is that they are greedy and untrustworthy when it comes to money. This stereotype can be largely contributed to accusations of Jewish moneylenders taking excessive interest on money loaned to Christians. During times of economic instability, many commoners were forced to deal with Jewish moneylenders. Historically, many of these moneylenders did charge high interest rates, since they were at risk from violence and debt absolution from non-Jewish governments. Since usury was considered a crime by Christians, these high interest rates inspired hatred and contempt.
One of the most famous examples of this stereotype can be found in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in the character of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who demands a pound of flesh from the hero Antonio when he cannot pay his loan back.
2. Host Desecration
The first accusations of host desecration, acts of violence and/or blasphemy against the host wafer used during the Christian Sacrament of Holy Communion, took place near Berlin in the thirteenth century. For the next six centuries, claims of host desecration became one of the primary justifications for the persecution and expulsion of Jewish communities. Many Jews who were found guilty of the crime were executed.
But as terrible as host desecration was, it pails in comparison to the effects and longevity of another horrific rumor with which it was frequently paired. That rumor is the number one entry on this list…
1. Blood Libel
During the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of killing Christian children, collecting their blood, and consuming it. Some claimed that they used the blood to make Passover matzohs. But what mattered wasn’t necessarily what the Jews allegedly used the blood for, but the fact that they were brutally torturing and killing good Christians for it. Blood libel was a primary cause of pogroms and other waves of anti-Semitic violence and hatred throughout the West.
But accusations of blood libel aren’t just limited to Christendom. The legend of blood libel crept into the Arab world sometime in the 19th century. Perhaps the most famous example of blood libel is “The Prioress’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In the story, a seven-year-old boy is savagely murdered by Jews for singing a Christian hymn while walking through their street. But the boy’s body miraculously continues to sing, gathering the attention of local Christians, who hang the Jews for their crime.