Tuesday, December 23, 2014

What is an Ebenezer?

It's that time of year when even the less churched among us are likely to hear that priceless, special old hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. And like every other time you ever heard it, you will stumble for a tick on that enigmatic line:

"Here I raise my ebenezer"

And like every year you will say to yourself, "The hell is an ebenezer? Like Scrooge, right? I drive by five or six Ebenezer Baptist Churches on the way to work. I gotta Google that." But like every year, sugarplums and wassailing will derail your good intentions. No worries, I got you covered.

A linguistic relic far beyond the realm of archaism, "ebenezer" is almost entirely a mystery to speakers of English. The most recent study to have even made brief mention of the word was conducted in 1936. Horace Watts and Jan Derfunkel said "the word ebenezer, for example, has endured a thousand years after the last ebenezer was seen."

Watts and Derfunkel collaborated with Hebrew and Ethiopian scholars for sixteen years on the subject. Their conclusion is that an ebenezer was originally an ancient form of identification which gradually became an heirloom that evolved into a weapon, swag, party gift, and finally a horrible insult.

It is presumed that the original word was simply "ezer" and that the finest ones were made in the region of Eben, where the Jordan separates Pash from Ban'taal. If the head of a tribe or large family needed to punish someone with impunity, he would beat them across the thighs with a long flat paddle called an ezer. No examples of such punishment exist; merely the carrying of the ezer was enough to denote authority. The patriarch would pass his ezer to the oldest son. There is record of one such heir being crowned before his tribe, wherein "the whole assembly bowed with (fore)heads to the ground as he raised his mighty ezer."

Ezers were carved with the family name or, in a few extant artifacts, detailed genealogies. It is agreed by most scholars that ezers were strictly practical and that these engravings were only to show ownership, but by the time the Dunnites were exiled to Herebon, they were clearly used for identification at large gatherings of important persons. If a man wanted a servant to bring him wine, we would raise his ezer. The head servant would then send help fitting to the man's station.

As is typical, working classes eventually followed the practice of their rulers and by the time Ptarchis had penned his lengthy Customs and Rituals of All People and Also Some Women, every father carried an ezer bearing his name, even if he could not afford a shovel or hoe. He could fight with it, use it as a crutch, or even attach strings to it to make music.

In less than a century it became so that a man was known by his ezer, and men with enough money could have an ezer carved of hard wood embellished with silver and precious stones. Sanskrit tablets speak of "men to the West who are wildly fascinated by Sticks of Ostentation." In Eben, crafting an ezer became such a profitable trade that at one point 80% of the men were employed in the making of them. Men might spend their entire fortune on an Ezer from Eben. An Eben Ezer was described by one enthusiastic young recipient in Holliday's Really Old Mail: "The messenger came yesterday with my new ezer from Eban(sic). Our name is spelled now in rubies, and the spikes on the tip are shaped like the teats of grandmother. No one will refuse me in the marketplace now."

It is easy to imagine a busy street of proud men sauntering about with their Eben Ezers on their shoulders. Regional and cultural differences spawned sundry rules about the purpose of ezers. For many peoples, buying an ezer from Eben meant you were willing to fight anyone at any time, and the raisers of Eben Ezers were referred to as Wassailants, from which we get the modern word "assailant." In other cases the raising of one's Eben Ezer was a punishment; it meant the mob decided your taste was so poor and your ezer so tacky that you had shamed the custom.

The trend changed eventually from heavy, valuable Eben Ezers to lighter, cheaper versions. To try and save their considerable income, the Ezer Guilds of Eben began to promote the usage of them not only for men but women and children and slaves as well. On a parchment in Cairo one can read an ancient flyer advertising the latest models of "Eben Ezers." But with the lower standards of an acceptable ezer, competition eventually drove Eben craftsmen out of business, leading to the great evacuation of the area by 312 B.C. Desperation led to the eventual degradation of the product until it became barely a hand-held stick bedecked with bells, spangles, and bright paints. Eben-Ezers were bought in the same manner a modern person might buy a hat or mask for a special party, and it was not unusual for them to be thrown away after only one use. But it was then that the concept of raising one's Eben-Ezer took on the penultimate meaning, which was basically a metaphor for becoming drunken, rowdy, or debaucherous. If a young person wanted lots of attendees at his wedding or goat-neutering, he need only put out a basket of home-made ebenezers.

By the Reformation, ebenezers existed only in language, and not at all graciously. The Viscount of Mercane wrote to one of his tenants: "Send thy prettye sister for to paye thy debts. She will help me to raise mine ebenezer." And in St. Cauther's Third Gangrenous Sonnet we read:

Thy words be more fit for privvy than ear;
I extend thee my finger, a raised ebony-zeer(sic).

In more recent years, some have tried to make an association of the line in Come Thou Fount with the biblical Eben-Ezer, but such claims have not been the subject of much debate.

1 comment:

  1. Great historical research... we had heard mention of these in parts of our research...