Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Book of Tobit and the Grateful Dead

The earliest example of a Grateful Dead tale can be found in scriptures. From my introduction to The Grateful Dead Tales From Around the World (SurLaLune Fairy Tale Series):

One of the earliest recorded instances of a Grateful Dead tale can be found in the Book of Tobit. The Book of Tobit is part of the scriptural canon of both the Eastern Orthodox Churches and Roman Catholic Church, but it was relegated to the Apocrypha by Protestant religions, such as the Church of England, most likely because it was not deemed canonical by the Jews. More recent discoveries in the Dead Sea Scrolls challenge Tobit’s apocryphal status, but that is not important to the present topic of study. While the book is set in the eighth to seventh centuries BC, the scholarship majority considers Tobit to have been written no later than 100 BC to AD 25, although it may have been written as early as circa 300 BC.

Tobit is a faithful Jew residing in Nineveh who secretly provides proper burial rites to the Israelites slain by King Sennacherib. For his actions, the king seizes Tobit’s property and exiles him. Tobit returns to Nineveh after Sennacherib’s death and once again buries a man his son finds murdered on a city street. As a reward for his faithfulness, God sends the angel Raphael to guide Tobit’s son, Tobias, on a journey to Media, a far away land. Raphael, disguised as a human kinsman named Azariah, accompanies Tobias, providing protection and counsel which results in Tobias’ marriage to Sarah. Sarah is cursed with a demon who has killed her previous seven husbands on her wedding nights. With Raphael’s help, Tobias marries Sarah and vanquishes the demon instead of becoming its next victim. When Tobias returns home to his father with his new wife, Raphael also instructs Tobias on how to cure Tobit’s blindness. Raphael then reveals his true identity and returns to heaven.

The Grateful Dead is rarely re-interpreted in modern literature and art, but when it is, Tobit is usually the inspiration. Some examples include:

NOVEL: Vickers, Sally. Miss Garnet's Angel. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001.

NOVEL: Buechner, Frederick. On the Road with the Archangel. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

PLAY: Bridie, James. Tobias and the Angel: Biblical Drama in Three Acts. New York: Constable, 1931. [This has been filmed at least four times, most recently as the ITV Play of the Week, aired on December 23, 1973 in the UK.]

PLAY: Lan, David, and Jonathan Dove. Tobias and the Angel: A Community Opera. London: Oberon Books, 2007. [World Premiere was at Almeida Opera, Christ Church, London on July 7, 1999. Also performed at The Young Vic Theatre, London, in October 2006.]

NOVEL: Yerby, Frank. Tobias and the Angel. New York: Doubleday, 1975.


  1. How interesting! Thanks for doing this whole series on Grateful Dead tales. I had never heard of this story-although I know the Bible pretty well I know basically nothing that's in the Apocrypha

    1. Tobit is one of the better known Apocrypha books. I was vaguely familiar with it over the years primarily from my visits to many art museums. Tobit and Raphael are fairly popular topics of religious art--even Rembrandt interpreted the story. Here's a link on Google images to many of the artistic representations of the story:

      The Apocrypha itself is fascinating, too. Until I researched it I didn't realize that it was removed so recently even from Protestant versions of the Bible. The original King James Bible--assuredly not a Catholic bible--has the Apocrypha in it--that is the version I share in the book. But I also find the history of Bible translations fascinating. All those martyrs for something I take for granted every day...

    2. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing. I really should do more research into the Apocrypha/Bible translations too