For over two weeks now, this picture’s been getting a lot of hits here at Big Other:
364 total page views, and counting. Just the image, mind you—not an actual post. What makes this even funnier is that this JPEG never appeared in a Big Other post (well, until now). Instead, it’s a leftover from my discussion with Jeremy M. Davies about X-Men: First Class; there was at one point a part where I said something about Azazel, but it was dumb, so I cut it, and I thought that when I did, I deleted the image. I was wrong.
But since he’s here and people are eager to peer at him, let’s see if we can’t make him earn his keep…
As for his behavior, he’s bright bright red and can teleport quickly, and he runs many insignificant soldiers through with curved knives. He also frequents a pretty good tailor.
The masses are curious about him. I understand; I googled him myself, before the X-Men movie came out, because I didn’t recognize him in the promo posters and photos. His first appearance occurred in Uncanny X-Men #428, October 2003, which was long after I quit reading that comic book (which I did read, and avidly, between 1985 and 1994—or from issues 197 to 308, roughly speaking). (Nervous laughter.)
Azazel, though, of course, enjoyed a long life well before he entered the X-Men’s fold. There was, for instance, in the DC comic The Sandman, another Azazel. That one was a demon who lived in Hell, and who threatened to eat Dream’s ex-lover, Nada, if he (Dream) didn’t give him (Azazel) the key to Hell. (Don’t ask how Dream got it.) But Dream tricked Azazel and made him small and trapped him inside a bottle; before and after that he looked like myriad flashing eyes and sharp teeth gnashing in the darkness:
I don’t think that people are googling him; they’re looking for the first one.
And there was an Azazel long before that; it’s a very old name. Azaz in Hebrew means “rugged, rough, strong”; el means “mighty” (just like in Kal-El). Scholars aren’t 100% sure who Azazel was, but with a name like that, he was probably plenty tough. In some traditions, he was a demon, either another name for Satan or a character in his own right, a fallen angel who, after he landed on the Earth, seduced human women and sired monsters. He also taught men how to manufacture weapons, and women the art of wearing cosmetics (I guess that’s how he got around). The Lord, displeased with this monkey business (which instruction peeved him more?), had Raphael bind the galoot and trap him in total darkness, where he awaits the day of judgment.
That’s one of the versions. In the more interesting set of stories, Azazel was a pagan desert god to whom the Israelites made sacrifices. They would take two goats, both basically the same, and designate one for God, the other for Azazel. The latter they kicked out into the desert; that was, of course, the source of our “scapegoat.”
Actually, the ancient ones were much crueler to the goat. More likely, they shoved it off a cliff, or down a very steep incline, leaving the poor beast a bloody wreck before it staggered to the bottom. Either way, its sacrifice—supposedly—bore off sins. (Azazel can also mean “absolute, total removal”—powerful word!)
Some scholars have noted that the “rugged” and “rough” of azaz might in fact designate some particular cliff or mountainside, in some particular section of some desert. And so the name might once have been a place name that, over time, acquired a particular tradition, then came to designate that tradition, then the justification for that tradition—Azazel becoming thus some supernatural monster hungry for goats. I, being a native Pennsylvanian, can understand that; in Punxsutawney, over on the western side of the state, on every February 2nd the folks insist on manhandling a groundhog, asking the chubby creature to predict the weather for them:
They’ve named that groundhog (a series of groundhogs) “Punxsutawney Phil.” And it’s probably the case that “Punxsutawney” today refers more to that groundhog, or to that tradition, than to anything else. Even though it was originally a Lenape word that meant “place that’s home to many mosquitoes.” (Algonquian languages like Lenape have played a large role in my life. I grew up on the Susquehanna River, and now I live in Illinois.)
Back to Azazel. Both the Marvel and DC comics know at least some of this word’s ancient history, and reference it. When Neil Gaiman, writer of The Sandman, had Dream trap the demon in a bottle…
…he was making a pointed reference to other desert monsters, the jinn of Arabic folklore, whom the famous King Solomon similarly kept trapped (so they’d do his bidding). (The word shares a root with the Arabic janna, “hidden, concealed,” but which also means “garden”—a pairing also expressed in the English: our word’s Indo-European root, gher-, means “to grasp, enclose,” and was the source of “girdle” and “court.” Gardens were once kept hidden behind walls—the first one, Eden, being so well concealed that none today can find it.)
Hey, Kal-El had a city that he kept inside a bottle…
Furthermore, that comic’s depiction of Azazel, as “a giant black flame filled with eyes and teeth,” might reference the torturous fate that Azazel was said to have suffered at the hands of Raphael. It’s possible.
The Marvel Azazel is no less educated. He’s an actual demon, too (or claims to be), and is the father of the X-Men hero Nightcrawler, who was the product of his seduction of Mystique (check siring monsters). His curvy knives obliquely reference his past as a dark Prometheus, instructing men in swordcraft (though no word on whether or not he sells cosmetics). And his talent for teleportation might even hint at his origin as the scapegoat, or the scapegoat’s motivation—perhaps when he pops off, he takes away other people’s sins? (The X-Men storyline that introduced him, “The Draco,” revolved around his needing to sacrifice his offspring in order to create a giant portal so he could escape from some dimension ahead some conquering demon army, &c., &c.)
His appearance is somewhat cute as well: the devil, Satan, has been depicted as a goat-man ever since Christians vilified Pan (the god of herders). Azazel loved goats. Put those two together, it equals a red, Satanic Azazel—pretty thrifty. (There’s even a neat connection here between Pan and Azazel’s respective fondness for the ladies.)
Well, all of this is a lot of fun, but what should we do with this Azazel? I could of course simply delete the image. Perhaps that might cleanse Big Other of its sins? (And what would those sins be? Yes, I’m looking directly at you, Mr. Gerke.) Deleting this image might also allow me to shed certain sins of my misspent childhood, sprawled out on the floor of my bedroom, reading an unhealthy number of comics, learning world history through the X-Men. Which now obliges me, I often feel, to keep ties with that franchise, to watch the new X-Men movies, to write about them online. (Deleting the image would certainly have saved me the trouble of having to write this post.)
But I don’t think it’s really ever that easy. I don’t think the past can or should be escaped. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s better to keep an eye on wherever it is one hails from, whatever the place. It’s sad but true; I am a child of the ’80s. As Yahweh put it, “I am what I am.” I’d rather admit that, then try to gain some critical understanding of that time and place, that culture, those comics and movies that still sandbag. (Although I can understand the impulse to turn one’s back on them. But can one?)
Perhaps that’s to be, then, Azazel’s fittingly devilish function at Big Other: keeping me honest. Although I’ve written posts on David Markson and Yuriy Tarnawsky and other lesser known authors and topics in literature and art, not to mention all sorts of critical theory, readers have mainly wanted to read my posts on Inception and Batman comics and X-Men movies—even the Crash Test Dummies! And I understand why. Those things are more popular, and people will always gravitate toward what they know. (I’m guilty of doing that myself, many times a day.) And thoughtful critical writing about such popular things is, perhaps, fun and rare. (That’s assuming my writing’s thoughtful. And critical. Well, I dare say that it is. Ah, but is that enough?)
As for now, Mr. Azazel, you rugged goat-man, rough and mighty, it looks as though you’re welcome to stay. Please don’t impale me, or try to seduce me, or sire monsters.
Keep looking dapper.