Land of Dairy Milk Bars and Honey

Tonight, I’m going to take a look at British Israelism, the movement popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that insisted the British were descended from refugees from Israel. This was essentially a way to be pro-Semitic and anti-Semitic at the same time. It acknowledges that Jewish ancestry is something noble and desirable, but also allows for the dismissal of actual ethnic Jews. After all, according to this theory, the British have more claim to be the Chosen People than modern Jews do. Wikipedia identifies one of its adherents as a Russian anti-Semitic Zionist. It makes me think of how fundamentalist Christians make a point of being vehemently pro-Israel, yet do so with a heavy dose of condescension. Nations and ethnic groups generally have mythology regarding their distant ancestry, some based on actual sources and others entirely invented. There’s a legend about the founding of Britain that links to Greek and Roman mythology, crediting its discovery with a Trojan-Italian named Brutus, grandson of Aeneas. In the ninth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth came up with a list of British monarchs of dubious historicity, from Brutus in the twelfth century BC up through Leir of Shakespearean fame in the eighth, Coel in the third or fourth century AD who is supposedly the grandfather of Emperor Constantine, Uther Pendragon and his son Arthur in the sixth, and so on up through the better attested monarchs of the seventh century. There was also a Scottish legend about their kings being descended from the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh, whose name (the daughter’s, that is) was Scota.

There are several different components of the idea of the Brits being descended from Israelites.

For one thing, British Israelites held that the Lost Ten Tribes, or at least one of them (Ephraim, tribe of the rulers of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, is a popular choice) eventually settled in Britain after leaving Assyria. As with the idea that the seafaring tribe of Dan relocated to Ireland and became the Tuatha De Danann, the support for it is mostly based on word manipulation. The Assyrians referred to the Cimmerians as Gimirri, which British Israelites connected to Khumri, the Assyrian name for the Israelite House of Omri. Also similar is Cymru, the Welsh name for the British. Also, Hibernia, the ancient name of Ireland, resembles the word “Hebrew.” I suspect Robert Howard was influenced by at least some of this in making his most famous character a Cimmerian with an Irish name who swears by a Celtic god. There’s also a passage in Isaiah that, in the King James translation, refers to the displaced Israelites as living in “isles,” and that they’ll eventually return to their ancestral homeland from the north and west. The Hebrew word apparently doesn’t even have to refer to islands, just remote areas; and even if it did that could mean a lot of different places.

The second theory is that the British monarchy is descended from King David, an idea that I believe dates back to the Middle Ages. The last King of Judah in the line of David was Zedekiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar installed as a vassal ruler in place of his brother. King Zedekiah decided to rebel against Babylon, so the Babylonian forces razed Jerusalem, captured the king, killed his sons right in front of him, and gouged out his eyes.

Presumably based at least partially on the fact that the Bible doesn’t specify that his daughters were also killed (assuming he had any), it is said that his daughter Tea Tephi married an Irish king, and James of Scotland who became King of England as well was a descendant of theirs.

While it seems appropriate that the rulers of Britain would have an ancestor with “Tea” in her name, I don’t know of any actual evidence for this figure. The names Tea and Tephi do appear in Irish poetry, but not in one person, and definitely not as someone specified to come from Judah. Some nineteenth-century accounts have it that she was accompanied by the prophet Jeremiah to Britain.

Another key figure in the legend is Joseph of Arimathea, the guy who had Jesus’ body buried after the crucifixion. The story that a young Jesus visited England with Joseph is referenced in the song “Jerusalem,” and the man was also said to have come back later with the Holy Grail and founded a church in Glastonbury.

His daughter either married or was the mother of a Welsh king named Beli Mawr, who might have been the same as the Heli listed by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Heli is also given as the name of Jesus’ grandfather in the Gospel of Luke. Joseph was also said to be Jesus’ uncle, possibly so his descendants could be closely related to Jesus without requiring the Christ to have had children. (That’s a different conspiracy theory altogether.) In the fifteenth century, John of Glastonbury wrote that Heli and Anna were the ancestors of King Arthur’s mother Igraine. Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII of England, claimed descent from King Arthur, so that’s another supposed connection between the British and Judaic monarchies. Another person who appeared in some of the Grail stories was the husband of Joseph’s sister Enygeus, who is known as Bron, Brons, or Hebron. He would have been the first Fisher King who kept the Grail in England, the ancestor of Sir Percival, or in later versions of the tale, Sir Galahad. In the Galahad account, his mother Elaine was the daughter of the Fisher King Pellas, who tricked Lancelot into sleeping with his daughter so their son would be the descendant of both King David (ancestor of Lancelot’s mother, also called Elaine) and Joseph’s sister. Bron might well have been intended to be the same as Bran the Blessed, or a relative of his, with the Grail legend partially based on that of Bran’s magic cauldron. In The Once and Future King, T.H. White writes Pellas as a parody of British Israelites.

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