The thoughts, dreams, symbols, and ideas that men use may be their own, but once they are uttered aloud or written down, they become the property of others as well. Legends grow, stories spread, symbolism multiplies, old ideas generate new ideas, and gradually these stories and symbols become the universal property of mankind. The legend grows and is used over and over again, changing, fusing, and transmuting. One of these legends is the story of the Wandering Jew. The plot of the early versions of the story is vague and conflicting. The sources are even more varied. The legend was well known throughout Europe, particularly in England, France, and Germany, during the Middle Ages as a folk tale and as a story in which the people firmly believed. During the Romantic period of literature, the figure captured the imaginations of writers, artists, and musicians. Today, Ahasuerus is a well-known symbol used by many writers.
Another interesting legend originated in the Americas, the legend of the Three Nephites. Several studies have been made of this legend. The general conclusion of scholars seems to be that it is an outgrowth of the legend of the Wandering Jew. They claim that the origin is equally vague and that its prominent position in the Americas is due to the fact that Joseph Smith was familiar with the European legend; when he "wrote" his Book of Mormon, he decided to include this legend with a new, original twist. They argue that the stories exist in oral abundance because immigrating converts from Europe brought with them their native folklore and adapted it to their new theology.
This study compares these two cycles of folklore in two main areas: the traditional form and the art form, discussing the origin and development of each. The study is of value for several reasons. The stories of the Wandering Jew have been misunderstood by many; and, as a result, many of the legends that scholars actually classify into this group do not belong there at all. They are, rather, simply legends that use an eternal wanderer motif. Among these legends one finds those of John the Beloved, the Flying Dutchman, the Wild Huntsman, and Cain, These people are not of the some legend as Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew. They all use the sane central motif, that of an eternal wanderer; but each of these figures has a cycle of legends entirely his own. Too many scholars, in doing what they feel to be the definitive work on the subject, allow these figures to become fused and confused in their minds. They try to point to the Bible as the origin of the legend. Some refer to the Old Testament, some to the New Testament. Still other scholars tend to confuse Ahasuerus with another of the some name, an ancient Persian king living several centuries before Christ. These stories are all, of course, very interesting; but they are not versions of the legend of the Wandering Jew.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Smith, Merilynne Rich, "A Mirror Brought by Truth: A Study and Comparison of the Folklore of the Wandering Jew and the Folklore of the Three Nephites" (1968). Theses and Dissertations. 5117.
Jews, Folklore, Wandering Jew, Three Nephites, Mormons