In October 2008, my friend Will posted on his blog, A Journey Around My Skull, his discovery of a Japanese illustrator, Rokuro Taniuchi. The image of a looming figure on the horizon by Taniuchi reminded me very much of the cover art for a book I read in 5th grade titled Creatures from UFO’s (1978) by Daniel Cohen. On my recent trip back to Cincinnati I fetched the paperback from my old bedroom bookshelf and scanned the cover. Unfortunately, Archway, the publisher, didn’t see fit to credit the cover art illustrator for this book in its young adult series of non-fiction publications. Please comment if you can identify the artist.
The cover artist drew inspiration from chapter 5 of the book, “The Mississippi Fisherman,” that recounts the fascinating tale of two men in Pascagoula, Mississippi on the night of October 11, 1973. Before I continue I should say that I think hypnogogic or hypnopompic states help explain the vast number of encounters with frightening extraterrestrials, angels, demons, ghosts, or molemen depending on the century and culture framing the disturbing experience. Like dreams, these visions tells us more about ourselves and the world of our imagination than the world of nature. Cohen writes,
A door suddenly appeared in the side of the craft. Three strange-looking creatures came out. They didn’t walk. They floated about three feet off the ground.
The two men said the creatures were about five feet tall. They were covered with grayish, wrinkled skin. It was like “the skin of an elephant,” Hickson [one of the two witnesses] said. The creatures didn’t have real faces. Where the nose should have been there was a carrot-like growth. Two similar growths were where ears should have been. The mouth was just a hole. They didn’t have any eyes.
The creatures had two arms, but no fingers. The arms ended in claw-like pincers, like the claws of a lobster. They had what looked like two legs, but the legs seemed to be stuck together. This is why they didn’t seem able to walk. But since they could float they didn’t need to walk…
The story continues to describe how the men were abducted, examined by a machine that resembled a giant eye, and released. I read plenty of books like this when I was in 5th grade, but of all of them, the cover art of this book stuck with me, and so did the story. It reminded me of the tale of the three angels that visited Avraham after his circumcision in Genesis Chapter 18. The fused legs of the UFO creatures reminded me of the idea in Jewish angelology, following Ezekiel’s description of the Ḥayot in Ezekiel 1:5-7,
וּמִתּוֹכָהּ דְּמוּת אַרְבַּע חַיּוֹת וְזֶה מַרְאֵיהֶן דְּמוּת אָדָם לָהֵנָּה. וְאַרְבָּעָה פָנִים לְאֶחָת וְאַרְבַּע כְּנָפַיִם לְאַחַת לָהֶם. וְרַגְלֵיהֶם רֶגֶל יְשָׁרָה וְכַף רַגְלֵיהֶם כְּכַף רֶגֶל עֵגֶל וְנֹצְצִים כְּעֵין נְחֹשֶׁת קָלָל.
And out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. 6 And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. 7 And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.
In imitation of angels, the Talmud in Berachot 10a explains the Jewish practice of standing with one’s feet together during the standing meditation prayer called the Amidah. The idea of a single leg is also related to that of a pedestal (literally, foot stand), the base of a pillar and the foundations of a philosophy. Note the challenge spoken by a Roman soldier to the sages Shammai and Hillel the Elder, recorded in Tractate Shabbath 31a: “Accept me as a proselyte on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand al regal achat (on one foot).” (See below in the illustration by Arthur Szyk.)
In antiquity, to ‘stand on one’s foot,’ was a figure of speech. Horace in his Satires (1.4.9-10) wrote concerning Lucilius, “ in hora saepe ducentos, ut magnum, versus dictabat stans pede in uno.” (In an hour he used to dictate two hundred verses, as a great feat [while] standing on one foot.) But the Hebrew word regal (foot) also sounds similar to the Classic Latin word regula meaning “basic principle.” (Regula is the root of the modern word “regulation”). Hillel’s clever answer reveals the basic principle of the Torah that can be learned by anyone standing on one foot for a short length of time: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah — the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”
In some way, I think this notion of a single premise provides an added ethical meaning to the mythic idea of an Even ha-Shettiyah, the Foundation Stone — that a geological foundation of the world is synonymous with or perhaps even signifies a basic code of ethical behavior. What then is the stone that was cast away that shall become the foundation stone? The considerate and sensitive treatment of each other that is lost and forgotten in times of war and selfish struggle.
As a side note, those actually born with fused legs suffer from Sirenomelia, or Mermaid Syndrome, a rare congenital deformity manifesting in 1 out of 100,000 births. It is usually fatal within one or two days of birth due to related abnormal kidney and bladder development and function.
LATE BREAKING UPDATE: Am I channeling some sort of zeitgeist? Less than a month after this post, this lovely new resource, On1Foot : Jewish Texts for Social Justice was established. Check it out this amazing user-contributable archive of relevant source texts.
“To Stand on One Foot” is shared by Aharon N. Varady with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International copyleft license.