Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, August 7, 2020

Why Face Masks may be Here to Stay

 Wearing a mask is a burden but, in some cases, also an advantage, especially for women in a patriarchal society. Traditionally, a mask allowed a certain anonymity and a chance for occasional sexual license. Could it be that the current diffusion of the habit of wearing face masks is a reaction to the more and more invasive "surveillance state" in the West? In this post, I explore this issue also in relation to the biblical story of Tamar and Judah  (above, Tamar and Judah in a painting of the Rembrandt school)

The fashion of wearing face masks in the West is surprising, especially after that the epidemic has practically vanished from Western Europe. Yet, Westerners cling to their masks as if their life depended on them, even in conditions when they are not needed, for instance in the open air.
The new fashion of face masks in the West is all the more surprising if you consider that practically no known society in history has ever enforced wearing face masks or veils for everyone, except in areas where protection is needed against sand blown by the wind. In the standard Western iconography, someone who wears a mask is a criminal or an outlaw. Who would need to hide his face if not for some evil purpose? True, sometimes a mask is worn by good characters in fiction, such as Batman, but there is always a dark side to the story.
The only exception to the rule is the veil worn by married women. It is sometimes said to be an Islamic tradition, but there is nothing specifically Islamic in it. In Southern Europe, up to less than one century ago it was common for married women to wear a veil in public and, even today, a Western bride sometimes wears a veil at her marriage. In general, it is typical for women to be veiled in public in patriarchal societies, as it is still the case in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

I would argue that the veil can be seen as a burden, but also as an advantage for women. Nothing exists if it doesn't have a reason to exist and, over history, women accepted to wear veils because it gave them some advantages. A certain degree of anonymity that allowed them to occasionally indulge in behaviors that were not allowed by their society. Indeed, wearing masks remains a characteristic of the Western carnival festivities, where a certain tradition of free sexual encounters remains alive to this day. 

So, could it be that the current explosion of face masks in the West is the result of the diffusion of the "surveillance state"? With more and more oppressive ways to control people being deployed, with face-recognition techniques, surveillance drones, spy cams, and all the rest, wearing a mask provides a certain advantage for the wearer. It is not a coincidence that the "anonymous" hackers are represented as wearing a mask. Anonymity is an advantage and there is safety in numbers.
If this is the case, then, that face masks are likely to become a stable feature of the Western society, independently of their usefulness as anti-virus barriers. They are uncomfortable, but if they can hide you from those pesky drones, well, it may be worth wearing them. Masks as a form of freedom from oppression? Maybe.

To understand more the meaning of wearing masks, let me discuss an ancient story where a face mask played a fundamental role: the biblical story of Tamar and Judah. I already discussed this story in a previous post, but here let me go into some more details.


Tamar and Judah: The Veil as a Life-Saving Tool

 by Ugo Bardi, Aug 2020
In the book of Genesis of the Bible, we read how Tamar prostituted herself in order to have children from her father-in-law, Judah. It is a fascinating story that tells us of remote times, but not so remote that we can't understand the plight of the people who lived and struggled in a world very different from ours. 
The story of Tamar is often commented for its moral and religious meaning, but let me retell it with a more down to earth purpose: understanding how the habit of married women to wear a veil affected ancient patriarchal societies and, occasionally, could be a definite advantage for women.

So, let's start with the protagonists. Judah was one of the patriarchs of the Israelites, the great-grandson of Abraham in person. He was endowed with a certain degree of wickedness and we are told of how he attempted to kill his brother, Joseph. Later on, he seemed to have gained some of respectability, he got married and had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Tamar enters the story when she marries Er, the oldest son of Judah. We are not told much about the origins of Tamar. Sources other than the Bible say she was a Canaanite, others that she was the daughter of a high priest. The Bible doesn't mention a dowry, but it is unthinkable that Tamar wouldn't have brought one to Er. Dowries are typical of patriarchal societies were men are considered more valuable than women. In these societies, a woman can gain access to a high rank man by paying for the privilege. 
So, Tamar marries Er and everything seems to be going well in the best of worlds, when Er suddenly dies. The Bible explains to us that God was angry at Er for some reasons, but the real issue is that Tamar is left as a childless widow. In this case, patriarchal societies had a tradition called the "Levirate" that favored, or even imposed, that the younger brother of a deceased man would marry the widow. The law applied when the widow was childless, as it was Tamar's case. 
The Levirate laws are grounded in financial matters, as most marriages were in antiquity, and still are. In a patriarchal society, a woman would gain access to a high-rank man by paying a dowry. But if the man died before having children, the woman would have paid for nothing, because being female she couldn't inherit the possessions of her deceased husband. The levirate law protected the widow, making sure that she would have a husband and a chance to have male heirs. It seems that the children sired by the brother of the deceased husband would be considered as sons and daughters of the first husband in regard to inheritance matters. 

So, we read that Judah's family followed the levirate customs and that Tamar's brother in law, Onan, married her. That might have settled all issues, but there is a new problem: Onan is not interested in having children from Tamar. We are told that he "spilled his seed on the ground," something we would call today "coitus interruptus." Why Onan did that is probably still related to the financial implications of the levirate. If Tamar had sired a male heir to Onan, his own inheritance would have been diminished because the son would have counted as Er's son. The story may have been much more complicated than this, anyway what happens is that Onan dies, too. Maybe he was smitten by God for his bad behavior, but the point is that Tamar finds herself a childless widow for the second time. 

At this point, things become really complicated. The levirate law says that Tamar should now marry Judah's remaining son, Shelah. But he is too young, and so Tamar finds herself betrothed to a child with the perspective that when he will be grown up enough, he will behave like Onan, for the same reasons. Then, after having buried two husbands, we may imagine that Tamar's reputation would be a bit tarnished, to say the least. Maybe she is a witch? Don't forget that the Bible says in the Exodus "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." About Shelah, he must not have been so thrilled at the perspective of having to marry a woman who may have been 10 years older than him. And Judah, what could he do? Maybe he could send Tamar back to her family, but then he would have had to pay back the dowry he had received -- not a perspective he would relish, of course. 
Thus being the situation, we seem to have a classic no-win situation. But then something happens that changes everything. Let's read the story from the book of Genesis
13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.

14 And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?

18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.

20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman's hand: but he found her not.

21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.

22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.

23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.

24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.

25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.

26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

Now, this story has such big holes in it that you could pass a caravan of a hundred camels through them. Let's see to explain. 

First, the idea that a prostitute awaits for customers in "an open place by the way to Timnath" is already suspicious. Prostitutes tend to frequent busy places and for one of them to sit and wait for customers in an "open place" would be dangerous if they were to meet a rough customer. In ancient times, prostitutes operated mainly in temples as "hierodules." That gave origin to the legend that Tamar was a sacred prostitute of some cult. But hierodules were not sacred, they were just a service provided by the temple that also guaranteed their safety and that they were paid. I describe that in a previous post. This is mostly a detail, but one of the many weaknesses of the whole story. 

Second, we are told that Judah "thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face." This is totally absurd. In ancient times, prostitutes did not veil their face. That was a no-no. Period. Here is how I discuss this point in a previous post

According to Michael Astur (1966), a Babylonian hierodule was strictly forbidden from wearing a veil and harshly punished if she did. So, how could Judah mistake a veiled woman for a prostitute? Astour, here, goes through a truly acrobatic leap of logic, noting first that a woman could abandon her hierodule status and marry and, in this case, she was allowed to wear a veil. Then, assuming that Tamar had been a hierodule before marrying, her wearing a veil could be "a privilege evidently extended into widowhood." Even if we were to agree on this perilous chain of assumptions, the explanation still makes no sense. How could Judah know that the veiled woman he had met was a former prostitute when her aspect, instead, was that of a married woman?

Third, we are asked to believe that Judah has sex with his daughter-in-law who has been living in his family for at least a few years and that he doesn't recognize her because she wears a face veil. Now, this is reminding of how Lois Lane in our "Superman" stories is so dumb that she can't recognize that her fiancée Clark Kent and Superman are the same person, just because Kent wears glasses. Maybe Judah wasn't the sharpest pair of scissors in the shearer's toolbox, but the story that the Bible tells us is supposed to be a true story. And Judah cannot have been that dumb. According to some sources, he said he was drunk. Yeah, sure.

Finally, there is the story that the supposed "prostitute" asks Judah for a pledge in the form of "Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff." That's another no-no: from the earliest days of monetary history, prostitutes have been paid in cash. It is unthinkable that Judah would go to the market of Timnath without taking at least a little silver with him. He was there to shear his sheep, and what would he have paid the shearers with? That silver could also have been used to pay for whatever he would have needed while there, including the services of a prostitute. That the supposed prostitute, Tamar, had asked for such a degree of commitment from Judah as to leave something that made him recognizable was weird at least, even suspicious.

So, how do you explain this series of apparently unsolvable contradictions? Well, as Captain Kirk of the Starship "Enterprise" would to say, there are always ways to avoid to put oneself in a no-win situation. And that was what may have happened. 

Let's go back to the impasse: Judah doesn't want to give Tamar to Shelah but he doesn't want to send her back to her family, either. In the meantime Judah's wife dies and suddenly there appears an obvious solution for Judah: take Tamar as his own wife. A good idea that keeps the money at home and still gives Tamar a chance to bear a heir to Judah's family. Besides, it is not hard to imagine that that a woman in full flower, such as Tamar, would have been attractive for a widower, such as Judah. But for Judah to marry her is legally impossible: Tamar is betrothed to Shelah and for Judah that would be seen as adultery, a grave sin, punishable even with death. 

But let's imagine that Judah and Tamar have an affair well before the Timnath story. Then, let's imagine that Tamar gets pregnant. Ouch, big problem: now they are adulterers, sinners, and both punishable by law. Of course Judah could deny being the father of Tamar's child, but that would condemn Tamar to death as a harlot and bring upon Judah the wrath of Tamar's family.

Then, before Tamar's pregnancy becomes obvious, a theatrical performance is organized. Tamar doesn't even need to go to Timnath disguised as a prostitute. Judah just comes back from there without his signet, bracelets, and staff. Then he goes through the charade of sending a friend to Timnath with a goat, supposedly to pay for a prostitute, but well knowing that there has never been one there. When the scandal breaks up, Judah's staff and stuff miraculously reappear in Tamar's hands, lending substance to an otherwise unbelievable story.

See how things fit together? Tamar did misbehave, but her father in law cannot punish her because she carries his child (actually, children, twins will be born). Then Judah is not an adulterer because he didn't know he was having sex with his daughter in law (oh, yeah, he was drunk!!). Tamar's relatives, then, are happy because Tamar's children will inherit Judah's wealth. And everyone his happy to pay no attention to the many inconsistencies of the story. The only one who may not be so happy is Shelah, who has lost the privilege of being the oldest son to Judah because Tamar's children will be considered heirs to the deceased Er. But so is life and you can't have everything.

You see how many details click together in this fascinating story. It is so fascinating because it describes the plight of normal people who weren't so concerned about grand things such as the house of David, but about their own survival in a difficult moment. And we can understand them and their plight, even millennia afterwards. But the most fascinating detail of the story is the role played by the veil. Had there not been the use for women to wear a veil, Judah couldn't have convincingly argued that he didn't know whom he was having sex with. The veil literally saved Tamar's life and ensured that her children would become the founders of the Davidic line of the tribe of Judah. And, as I said at the beginning, for everything that exists, there is a reason for it to exist


In this 1969 song by the Italian singer Lucio Battisti, we hear the story of a man who is told that his wife, Francesca, has been seen with another man. He says that it cannot be, that the woman they saw looked like Francesca, dressed in the same way and with the same hair color. But that cannot be because, he says, "Francesca lives for him." If veils had been worn by Italian married women in the 1960s, this song couldn't have existed.

Lucio Battisti - It's not Francesca (English translation)

you're wrong, who you saw is not
is not Francesca
she's always at home waiting for me
it's not Francesca
if there was a man, then
no, it can't be her
Francesca never asked for more
who's wrong, I'm sure, it's you
Francesca never asked for more
'cause she lives for me
like the other one, she's blond but
it's not Francesca
if she was dressed in red, I know
it's not Francesca
if she was hugging(him) then
no, it can't be her
Francesca never asked for more
who's wrong, I'm sure, it's you
Francesca never asked for more
'cause she lives for me
she lives for me
she lives for me


Astour, Michael, Journal of Biblical Literature, 85,2 (1966) 185-196.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)