As May draws to a close, RT offers this photograph of a magnificent frieze at Karnak, the temple district of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. Karnak is the largest ancient religious site in the world, and RT is beginning to suspect that Thebes played a primary role in the evolution of ancient Mediterranean religion.
In part, RT’s interest in Thebes is based on its frequent appearance in Greek myth, in part on the fact that the ancient crown of Upper Egypt, the Hedjet, looks remarkably like the crown worn by Baal, the chief god of ancient Phoenicia. Though Thebes was not the capital of pre-dynastic Upper Egypt, it was the administrative center of Upper Egypt under the Pharaohs (and is located not far from Nekhen, which was the capital of p-d Upper Egypt.) How did the epochal unification of Egypt (c. 3000 BC) under Narmer (or Menes), king of UE, affect developing religious beliefs?
Unfortunately, RT can say little at the moment about the significance of the scene recorded in the frieze, other than that it is located in the precinct of Amun-Re. A date and translation of the inscription would help greatly; there’s more research ahead for RT.
Photograph: Panorama of a frieze at Karnak. Author/Source: Bialonde. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Reading a book is like visiting a city you’ve never been to before. The city must be glamorous in some way, if not overtly, than in the details of its construction and history, the beautiful building or courtyard that reveals itself via a quick glance aside from the street, and the story that glance implies of the building’s occupants. The city may be dirty, crime-ridden, a den of vice, but it must be intricate. It must be a navel of the world.
You are being born again. Forget whatever has come before; it’s been reduced to a reference chart, an album of old photographs. This is the best kind of culture shock; you chose it.
Reading a book is always true. You the child progress through the pages. You learn and you grow, you marvel and you despair. Situations arise that you can’t understand or even comprehend. The woman who tells you she runs the large school you attend may be your mother. The man wearing the jacket of a naval captain may be your father. He may be going to his death. He gives you a silver coin.
Reading a book is like falling in love. Serendipity. Somebody is waiting for you, someone who stops you in argument or conversation. Outside the chocolate shop, at the old library, in an empty room. Someone calls out from an open window, asking about the bicycle you’re riding or offering to take you where you’re going in their boat. They are the person you can’t believe is interested in you, so different, so crazy you wonder how they can exist at all. They are the one who brought you here.
You are dying. You have no family, no friends, no work. You have only this passion.
Surely one of the finest portraits painted during the 19th century! Anselm Feuerbach, superb colorist and classically inspired painter, deserves to be remembered among the greats. RT
Painting: Self-Portrait, Anselm Feuerbach (1873). Alt Nationalgalerie, WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Manners: 3 a. The socially correct way of acting; etiquette. b. The prevailing customs, social conduct, and norms of a specific society…
Moral: 1. Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character: 2. Teaching or exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior…
So, this post is going to be a little complicated: RT is warning folks that there’s a lot of territory to cover. On the plus side, we’re going to be looking at how poetry arrived in western Europe and how poetry is connected to other, important aspects of behavior, such as 1) deciding on the right course of action and 2) minding our manners.
A. Europe in its Cradle
Dark ages are never fun. One civilization collapses and over a period of centuries another rises up from the ruins. Along with the usual payback, rapine, and despair, the conquerors mimic or forget the finer accomplishments of the former time. Something new is struggling to be born, and like any act of creation, it is attended by the most basic considerations: survival and the preservation of what has already been achieved. Nobody has time for poetry.
In the case of Europe, after the final collapse of the Roman Empire in 476, the single most important change was the incorporation of northern Europe into the cultural world established by Rome; the center of Europe was no longer Rome, but the Rhine River. But northern Europe immediately began exerting its cultural differences from the south, perhaps most importantly, in the struggle between the Arian aristocracy of the new Germanic kingdoms and the Catholic Church centered in Rome. By the 8th century, this conflict had been resolved in favor of Rome. And with the defeat of Muslim armies at the Battle of Tours in 732, Europe as a cultural entity was confirmed. Still, on the northern frontier, the Vikings began their long series of raids and invasions, engaging part of the new culture’s military strength until the 12th century.
Great poetry, RT notes, did in fact continue to be written in vernacular languages: Beowulf, the Ulster Cycle and the Mabinogion, and the mythology of the Vikings. But these works were all the product of the dying pagan societies of pre-Christian Europe. So far, no great works written in Latin or its descendant languages had yet been created. No one had found a voice for Europe’s new feudal society, which began to emerge in the 9th century. In fact, the modern languages of Europe were still evolving out of Latin.
B. Reversal of Fortunes
Until the 11th century, Europe was tightly constrained by its powerful neighbors: the Vikings in the north, the Abbasid Caliphate in the south, and the Byzantine Empire in the east; indeed, few would argue that Constantinople and its magnificent cathedral, Hagia Sophia, constituted the center of Christian culture in those years.
But power rarely lingers in one place for long: the conversion of the Sweden to Christianity by the 12th century, the collapse of the unified Caliphate of Cordoba in 1031, and the destruction of the Byzantine army by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert (1071), started a process of cultural migration and absorption that prepared the ground in Europe for the Renaissance. And perhaps no clearer sign of the quickening of Europe could have been given than the Crusades.
C. The Crusades
Persecution strengthens community. As long as a clear threat exists, any community will huddle together and work to make the danger pass. When the problem goes away, people start to argue with each other. Then they need diplomatic skills to heal the wounds.
But the clock is ticking away, and RT has a busy day tomorrow. The story of how Europe fell into disunion even as it acquired its poetic sensibilities will have to wait till later…
Photo, top: Queen, Spanish Chess Piece; 12th century, Walter Art Museum. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Brooch: Anglo-Saxon openwork silver disk brooch, from the Pentney Hoard. Author: Johnbod. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported. Illustration: The Seljuk Turk Alp Arslan Humbling Romanus IV. 2nd quarter of the 15th century; Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscrit Français 232, folio 323. Author: Boccace, De Casibus. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Out of the organic soup of his mind, RT has recently retrieved a powerful memory: of spending an afternoon at the Arlington County Library, engrossed in browsing through the Cambridge Ancient History. He was entranced by the fine writing and descriptions. Here is a passage from volume 1:
“Still more than the contract tablets the private letters give us the daily life of the people…Even a love letter from Sippar is extant, dating back to the First Dynasty. ‘To Bibiya say: thus, Gibil-Marduk. May Shamash and Marduk give thee health for ever for my sake. I have sent (to ask) after thy health; let me know how thou art. I have arrived in Babylon and see thee not; I am very sad. Send news of thy coming that I may be cheered; in the month of Markheswan thou shalt come. May thou livest for ever for my sake.'”
Perhaps this isn’t the sweetest love letter ever penned, but at least it’s honest (and quite ancient): Gibil-Marduk’s health (and perhaps even his life) depends on Bibiya’s attentions. Whether this is true or not, Bibiya must decide. Nothing much has changed.
We live for such encounters with other people’s spirit and lives, and a powerful fascination is added when the information comes from our past, however distant. In addition, this sample from the CAH offers the beautiful prose of its authors and the careful attention to detail invested in its preparation and printing. We are dealing with a rare book, informative, entertaining, and plainly (and elegantly) written. The authors never allow their erudition to cloud their meaning.
RT is working his way through Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, another marvelous history, this time the work of an independent scholar. Comparing these books gives the reader some idea of how individual an author’s approach to history can be.
The writing of history is a much maligned art: history books are supposed to be pedantic and filled with trivialities. Nothing could be farther from the truth: the great historians never lose sight of style and entertainment as they present intricate tapestries of humanity’s past. Since writing was invented, human nature hasn’t changed. We study the past to learn ourselves. RT
Map: Spruner Map of the World Under the Assyrian Empire (1865). Karl Spruner von Merz. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
This story is pretty much RT’s first dollar bill, framed. In his salad days, RT was deeply influenced by Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, and the stories in this collection plus extended searches through dictionaries of symbols resulting in “The Contest.” Understanding the connections between symbols, RT opines, is one of the basic skills of poetry, and today he would consider this story to be an example of a prose-poem. As might be expected with such writing, the story came quickly, and RT typed it out the next morning on a floppy-disk computer at work. Of course, he immediately wanted to write other stories in the cycle, but they appeared only after much more reading and reflection. Inspiration, often in youth, gets things going; deep study (plus a healthy dash of persistence), gets them over the finish line. RT
THE CONTEST FOR SHEL (told by Neb the Poet)
The Poets say that the first of all things was the night, and the firstborn of night was Shel, daughter of the night.
Shel danced, and with the joy and beauty of that dance the stars came forth. So Zochi the Dreamer and Aruna the Singer desired her. They came to her and declared their love.
But Shel could not choose between the two suitors, and she told them that she would accept the love of whoever brought the finest gift to her.
Zochi and Aruna went away and considered what they would make. When each had given long thought to his love, and put forth all his powers, each made a gift.
Aruna brought a harp of gold with seven strings. The harp shone brightly, and Aruna played a lament that told of his loneliness without Shel. But Zochi brought a silver swan, and the swan shone with a pale and lovely light.
Shel could not choose between the gifts, so she said that they would have to make a home for her.
Again Zochi and Aruna went away, and they made the earth. The two spirits made oceans, rivers, streams, and lakes. And beside the shore of an ocean Aruna made a golden city.
The city rose in three tiers from the water to the summit of a tall hill. The lowest tier was built around the wharves, and in the wharves were sixty ships that would not run aground, or burn, or sink. The second tier held perfumed and jeweled gardens. In the gardens were trees of gold and silver and copper. On the branches of the trees flowers of crystal and sapphire and ruby blossomed, and in the garden sang birds whose beaks were cunningly inlaid with golden and brazen wire. In the highest tier Aruna built the Palace of Shel, and next to the palace he built a tall tower from which one might watch the stars of the lady. And when Aruna finished the city, he went into the palace and played the golden harp.
But Zochi the Dreamer went north of the city, and there he made a forest of trees and animals that grow and die. The trees of the forest were close together, and there was little light, so Zochi made a pond of clear water in the center of the forest. And the Dreamer took the silver swan, and he placed it on the pond, so that its light filled the dark forest. And when he was finished, the Dreamer wandered though the forest thinking of Shel.
Yet Shel still could not choose between Zochi the Dreamer and Aruna the Singer.
Zochi thought of the shining city that Aruna had made, and he guessed what the Singer would next make. So Zochi took water of the pond, and he made a man and woman. But the Dreamer wrought poorly, and the couple were ill-made. They were ugly and crippled; and they were frail and mortal. Yet despite their flaws, Zochi loved his children, and he brought them to Shel and Aruna.
Now Aruna rejoiced when he saw what Zochi had done. Then the Singer took light of the golden harp, and he took its music, and he made from them a man. The man Aruna made was beautiful and skillful of hand; and Shel was pleased with him, and because of him decided to accept the love of Aruna.
Shel went to the shining city, which she named Anados, and stayed with Aruna in the palace. And the man Aruna had made lived in the city and was happy–for Shel did not tell Aruna or his child of her estrangement from En, or that suffering had come into the world.
But Zochi placed the man and woman he had made into a sleep of forgetting; and he wandered in his forest thinking of Shel. And the golden harp and the silver swan were hung in the sky as a memorial of the contest. So were made the sun and moon.
Copyright © 2013, The Rag Tree.
Engraving; Cygnus Columbianus; James Audubon (Birds of America). WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Waking people up, as we all know, can be difficult. Often what they need is not less, but more, sleep. Unfortunately, to some extent, writers are in the business of rousing people. So when we rush that cup of coffee to those of our audience who have pulled the comforter over their head, the morning joe had better hit the spot.
And as regards the story that follows, the second installment in RT’s incomplete cycle of creation stories, the term “morning joe” is appropriate. Even more so than the opening story of the cycle, “The First Words,” “The Messenger” has been a labor of love. How to encapsulate fundamental truths in a way that carries authority and delivers its message quickly? The great problem of all short story writers, of course. But when the stage is cosmic, the stakes go up. So here is a cup of extra-strong morning brew:
2. THE MESSENGER (told by Min the Poet)
Shel floated on the waves; En breathed in, out, in, out.
“Open your eyes,” she whispered.
“What are you thinking about?” Shel asked.
“Language,” En said. “Now that we have it, why don’t we make something?”
“Because we just did,” Shel said.
“What do you mean?”
“Wait and see.”
It didn’t take long. Over the course of a day Shel’s body swelled until the next morning she gave birth without pain. She took the child, a girl, and gave it to En to hold.
The couple cared for the child, creating whatever food she needed. They called her Shelen.
Splashing woke En up. Something was splashing water into the boat. Now on the left side, now on the right side, En looked over once, twice, then saw a flashing silver tail beat the water. Then a fish stuck his head up out of the water and said: “I am Utara, the messenger of the uncreated world.”
En was too shocked to speak for a moment; then he recovered and said, “How can you exist? We didn’t make you!”
“That doesn’t matter,” replied Utara, “I’m here because your daughter won’t be happy. She needs a world to play in and explore. You’ve forgotten about making the world, and the world is getting impatient.”
“Of course you’re right,” said En, realizing that Shelen had driven his desire to make the world clear out of his mind. Then he raised himself up and said with an expansive gesture: “Earth, be!” Immediately large continents and islands rose up from the ocean. En and Utara went to the new land and continued creation….
Ice and rock and tree bark, moon rabbits and talking spiders and feathered serpents, people big and tiny, brown and black and green and white, all these things En and Utara made. They lost count of all the things that had made, and yet they did not slow down or grow tired. Everything was fine until, until
a tree got sick and died, the earth shook and a crack opened up in it and swallowed everything near it, people made weapons and killed each other. En looked at Utara and said: “Why is this happening?”
“There are more purposes in you than you know,” Utara said. “We need Shel’s help to do it right.”
En agreed, and to stop more suffering he unmade all the things that he and Utara had made. They were back at the boat, and only Shel was there. She was crying uncontrollably.
“She’s gone!” Shel said, “Our daughter just disappeared. What happened?” When En told her what he and Utara had done, Shel was furious. “You killed her! You killed our daughter! Get out, get out, I don’t want to see you ever again.”
En said that they could start over again and make a new daughter, that they could make the world better than they had done the first time, but all the time Shel flailed at him, beat him about the shoulder and then En lashed out and struck Shel on the mouth.
It was over. What they said to each other no longer mattered. Utara said, “You shall not see each other for long ages, and the worlds you make shall be caught up in bitterness and suffering. And yet there is hope of healing your Estrangement, for the world desires Reconciliation.”
When these things had happened Shel rose up into the sky, and En continued on his way in the boat. God was broken and the Divine Purpose forgotten. In this way suffering came into the world.
Copyright © The Rag Tree, 2013
Painting: Leaping Trout (1889); Winslow Homer. WikiCmns; Public Domain.