Blind / Follow

Marjana blindfolds the cobbler and leads him to the house of her master. Once there, she removes the cobbler’s blindfold; he sews the four parts of the corpse back together. In a different fairy tale, this might be enough to bring the dead man back to life; in this one, the integrity of Cassim’s body is restored only for him to be washed, wrapped in a shroud and given a proper burial — to send him on his last journey. Still, the cobbler senses that he is in the vicinity of dark magic. To overcome his reluctance, Marjana gives him three gold coins: two in advance and one after the task is done.

The next morning, when one of the robbers visits him in his shop in the town square, the cobbler immediately brags that he has just sewn a corpse back together. The adventure seems to have exhilarated him; he feels like a shaman, able to move between the land of the living and the land of the dead. The gold coins prove that he has really been there. But although it wasn’t a dream, he is unable to find the house with his eyes open; as with falling asleep, the passage can only be made with eyes closed. So the robber blindfolds him and, guiding and supporting each other, they find their way to the house.

The cobbler needs the robber just as much as the robber needs the cobbler. The cobbler needs the robber not only to help him stay on his two feet and avoid running into things, but also to retrace the steps that he has learned at the hand of Marjana. It is only as part of a couple, and as the blind, following part of a couple, that he is able to find the way. Having learned the macabre dance from Marjana, he now is to teach the robber while still remaining in the role of follower, leading the leader, each recipient movement necessitating its active complement — a technique, or failure of technique, known as ‘backleading’. The cobbler backleads the robber into the underworld.

The cobbler’s handicap is reminiscent of the blind poet or prophet, whose clumsiness in the light is compensated by vision in the dark. In an older version of the story told by Herodotus, the certainly fictional pharaoh Rhampsinitos descends into “what the Hellenes think of as Hades” while still alive. Once there, he plays dice with Demeter (Egyptian Isis), winning some games and losing others, until he returns to the world above with a final gift from her: a golden handkerchief. Like the gold coins that Marjana gives to the cobbler, the handkerchief proves that he has really been in the underworld, underground, which is where gold is found.

Even today, Herodotus writes, a festival is held in Egypt commemorating his return. A priest is clad in a new white robe and blindfolded. While he holds his robe, his fellow priests lead him to a road; there two wolves take over, who lead him down the road to the sanctuary of Demeter, more than two miles from the city. The blindfold represents the golden handkerchief that Demeter gave to Rhampsinitos, which in turn suggests that he was only allowed to make the journey blindfolded. The two wolves, of course, represent creatures of the night whose luminescent eyes - or so people tend to imagine - allow them to see even in complete darkness.

© 2009–2024, Martijn Wallage