Judas


Judas
   In folk religion, Judas the traitor and suicide is the ultimate hate-figure, and various supposedly evil or unlucky things are explained by reference to him: he was 'red-haired, he spilt the 'salt at the Last Supper, he was the 'thirteenth person present there and the first to leave the table, he hanged himself on an 'elder tree. In the north of England, c.1850, it was said that anyone with black hair and a red beard was 'false by nature', for that had been Judas's colouring (Denham Tracts, 1895: ii. 24). In such cases, the beliefs are generally on record earlier than their 'explanations' and/or often to be found without them; the appeal to (pseudo-) Scriptural authority seems likely to be a post facto rationalization.
   The earliest surviving fragment of an English ballad concerns Judas (F. J. Child, English and Scottish Ballads, no. 23). Jesus sends Judas into Jerusalem with 30 pieces of silver to buy food; there he meets his sister 'the treacherous woman', who tells him he deserves to be stoned for believing a false prophet; he warns her to be silent, for Jesus would take revenge if he knew what she had said. At this point the poem becomes confused, but it seems likely that (with typical medieval chauvinism) a woman will be blamed for a man's crime.
   Some Lenten customs were validated as being aimed against Judas. The 'Jack-o'-Lent effigy burnt on the beach at Polperro (Cornwall) in the early 19th century was explained thus, as was a more recent Ash Wednesday custom from Lincolnshire:
   When I was about 15 years old, 70 years ago (= 1920s), they used to make an effigy of Judas from straw and hang it up on Boston market place near the old stocks. The idea was for folks to throw a clod of muck at it for betraying Jesus. If any of it was left at the end of Lent it was torn down or set fire to; that was to make sure it got finished properly. (Sutton, 1997: 55)
   In Brighton (Sussex), where fishermen and their families enjoyed long-rope skipping in the fish-market on Good Fridays earlier in the 20th century, it was sometimes said to be instituted in memory of the rope with which Judas hanged himself (Simpson, 1973: 111). Devon people thought it lucky to break a piece of crockery on Good Friday, as its sharp edges would pierce the body of Judas (Wright and Lones, 1936: i. 81-2); no explanation is reported, but it may not be coincidental that in Elizabethan times the corpses of 'suicides were pelted with pottery shards.
   The most recent and dramatic Judas custom was peculiar to the south end of Liverpool Docks in the 1950s. At daybreak on Good Friday crowds of children congregated round dummies made from old clothes, paper, straw, and a comic mask; the leader of each group hoisted this 'Judas' on a pole, and they went from house to house knocking against bedroom windows and shouting, 'Judas is a penny short of his breakfast' till a few coins were thrown down. By mid-morning the collecting ended, and bonfires were built in the streets to burn the Judases before 11 a.m., but police would often scatter the fires and carry off the Judases, to destroy them at the police station - at which the pursuing children would yell 'Judas!' at the police themselves. In any case, the fun had to be over by noon (Frank Turner, Folk-Lore 65 (1954), 47).
   Liverpool people believed their custom arose from watching what was done on Spanish ships docking there in Holy Week (Opie and Opie, 1959: 259-60). Certainly it is very similar to customs common in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. An illustration in the Graphic (15 Apr. 1876), 36), shows Portuguese sailors 'flogging Judas Iscariot' in London Docks on Good Friday, and the Opies give other references to the overseas custom being observed on foreign ships in English docks. The Guardian (18 Sept. 1996), 17, gives further foreign examples of Judas customs. However, now that the Polperro record has been reinforced by one from Lincolnshire, there is a case for thinking English precedents contributed something to the Liverpool effigies.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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