From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Wandering Jew is a figure from medieval Christian folklore whose legend began to spread in Europe in the thirteenth century and became a fixture of Christian mythology, and, later, of Romanticism. The original legend concerns a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. The exact nature of the wanderer's indiscretion varies in different versions of the tale, as do aspects of his character; sometimes he is said to be a shoemaker or other tradesman, sometimes he is the doorman at Pontius Pilate's estate, and sometimes the myth is transferred to a Roman rather than a Jew.
The legend became more popular after it appeared in a pamphlet of four leaves, Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzählung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus (short description and tale of a Jew with the name Ahasuerus). "Here we are told that some fifty years before, a bishop met him in a church at Hamburg, repentant, ill-clothed and distracted at the thought of having to move on in a few weeks" As with urban legends, particularities lend verisimilitude: the bishop is specifically the Bishop of Schleswig, Paulus von Eizen. The legend spread quickly throughout Germany, no less than eight different editions appearing in 1602; altogether forty appeared in Germany before the end of the eighteenth century. Eight editions in Dutch and Flemish are known; and the story soon passed to France, the first French edition appearing in Bordeaux, 1609, and to England, where it appeared in the form of a parody in 1625. The pamphlet was translated also into Danish and Swedish; and the expression "eternal Jew" is current in Czech and German, der Ewige Jude.
The Wandering Jew makes an appearance in one of the secondary plots in Matthew Lewis's Gothic novel The Monk, first published in 1796. The wandering Jew is also mentioned, and then mirrored in "Melmoth the Wanderer" by Charles Maturin c. 1820. The legend also has been the subject of poems by Schubart, Aloys Schreiber, Wilhelm Müller, Lenau, Chamisso, Schlegel, Julius Mosen (an epic, 1838), and Köhler; of novels by Franz Horn (1818), Oeklers, and Schücking; and of tragedies by Klingemann ("Ahasuerus", 1827) and Zedlitz (1844). It is almost certainly the Ahasuerus of Klingemann to whom Richard Wagner refers in the final passage of his notorious Das Judentum in der Musik. There are clear echoes of the Wandering Jew in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, and his final opera Parsifal features a woman called Kundry who is a female version of the Wandering Jew.
Hans Christian Andersen made his "Ahasuerus" the Angel of Doubt, and was imitated by Heller in a poem on "The Wandering of Ahasuerus", which he afterward developed into three cantos. Robert Hamerling, in his "Ahasver in Rom" (Vienna, 1866), identifies Nero with the Wandering Jew. Goethe had designed a poem on the subject, the plot of which he sketched in his "Dichtung und Wahrheit".
In France, the Wandering Jew appeared in Simon Tyssot de Patot's La Vie, les Aventures et le Voyage de Groenland du Révérend Père Cordelier Pierre de Mésange (1720). Edgar Quinet published his prose epic on the legend in 1833, making the subject the judgment of the world; and Eugene Sue wrote his Juif Errant in 1844. From the latter work, in which the author connects the story of Ahasuerus with that of Herodias, most people derive their knowledge of the legend. Grenier's poem on the subject (1857) may have been inspired by Gustave Doré's designs published in the preceding year, perhaps the most striking of Doré's imaginative works. One should also note Paul Féval, père's La Fille du Juif Errant (1864), which combines several fictional Wandering Jews, both heroic and evil, and Alexandre Dumas' incomplete Isaac Laquedem (1853), a sprawling historical saga.
In England — besides the ballad given in Thomas Percy's Reliques and reprinted in Francis James Child's English and Scotch Ballads (1st ed., viii. 77) — there is a drama entitled The Wandering Jew, or Love's Masquerade, written by Andrew Franklin (1797). William Godwin's novel St. Leon (1799) has the motive of the immortal man, and Shelley introduced Ahasuerus into his "Queen Mab". George Croly's "Salathiel", which appeared anonymously in 1828, treated the subject in an imaginative form; it was reprinted under the title "Tarry Thou Till I Come" (New York, 1901). In "Helena", a novel by Evelyn Waugh, the Wandering Jew appears in a dream to the protagonist and shows her where to look for the Cross, the goal of her quest. In Joyce's master piece Ulysses, Bloom's nemesis, the citizen, says of Bloom in his absence: "A wolf in sheep's clothing, says the citizen. That's what he is. Virag from Hungary! Ahasuerus I call him. Cursed by God." (Bodley Head Ed., page 439)
'The Pardoner's Tale', a piece of literature from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer may also contain a reference to the Wandering Jew. Many have attributed the Wandering Jew to the enigmatic character of the old man. An ancient man who is unable to die and wishes to trade his age for someone else's youth. He also disciplines the 3 rioters when they are rude to him and insult his circumstances, perhaps indicating he has learnt his lesson from tormenting Jesus.
In Russia, the legend of the Wandering Jew appears in an incomplete epic poem by Vasily Zhukovsky (Василий Андреевич Жуковский), "Ahasuerus" (Агасфер, 1857) and in another epic poem by Wilhelm Küchelbecker (Вильгельм Карлович Кюхельбекер), "Ahasuerus, a Poem in Fragments" (Агасвер, поэма в отрывках), written from 1832-1846 but not published until 1878, long after the poet's death. Aleksandr Pushkin (Александр Сергеевич Пушкин) also began a long poem on Ahasuerus (Агафер, 1826) but abandoned the project quickly, completing under thirty lines. The name itself, with a clever plot that does not, however, focus on Ahasuerus per se, appears in the novel "Overburdened with Evil" (Отягощенные злом, 1988) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
In Argentina, the topic of the Wandering Jew has appeared several times in the work of writer and professor Enrique Anderson Imbert, particularly in his short-story El Grimorio (The Grimoire), included in the eponymous book. Anderson Imbert refers to the Wandering Jew as El Judío Errante or Ahasvero (Ahasuerus) indistinctly. Chapter XXXVII, El Vagamundo, in the collection of short stories, Misteriosa Buenos Aires, by the Argentine writer Manuel Mujica Lainez also centres round the wandering of the Jew. The great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges named the main character and narrator of his short story "The Immortal" Joseph Cartaphilus (in the story he was a Roman military tribune who gained immortality after drinking from a magical river and dies in the 1920s).
Brazilian writer and poet Machado de Assis often used Jewish themes in his writings. One of his poems, Viver! ("To Live!") is a dialog between the Wandering Jew (named as Ahasuerus) and Prometheus at the end of time. It was published in 1896 as part of the book Várias histórias ("Several stories").
By the dawn of the 20th century Jewish writers and artists had appropriated the powerful symbol to express the suffering of exile and hope of the rebirth of the Jewish state. The great Soviet satyrists Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov had their hero Ostap Bender tell the story of the Wandering Jew's death at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists in The Little Golden Calf.
In the post-apocalyptic science fiction book A Canticle For Leibowitz, written by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and published in 1959, a character that can be interpreted as being the Wandering Jew is the only to appear in all three novellas. He observes the progress of the world and the abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz in the two thousand years or so after a nuclear holocaust. He is connected to Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus. In 1967, he appears as an unexplained magical realist townfolk legend in Gabriel García Márquez's 100 Years of Solitude.
Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, famous for writing and recording the Ballad of the Green Berets wrote a series of books featuring a character called Casca Rufio Longinius who is combination of two characters from Christian folklore, Longinus and the Wandering Jew.