February 2, 2016

Attributed to al-Khalīl ibn Aḥmad (2011 throwback)

Attributed to Khalil ibn Ahmad resized for blog

January 22, 2016

A latter-day Pentheus

I am not fond of myth, because its concerns are bound up with those of theology. To investigate the beliefs and myths of the past is a necessity for religious studies, due to the ancients' habit of airing their cognitive impulses in the form of riddles and putting myth before science. To unravel all their riddles, and to do it accurately, is no easy thing, but if a statistically significant corpus of mythic productions were to be assembled, including not just those that agree with each other but those that are in disagreement, then one might arrive more readily at a picture of the truth.

For example, in mythic narration the wilderness retreats and ecstasies of religious devotees are combined with wilderness tales of the gods themselves. This probably happens for the same reason that the skies are thought to be inhabited by gods with altruistic foresight that they manifest through signs. Now there are life-sustaining enterprises, like mining and hunting, that obviously have things in common with wilderness retreats, but ecstatic worship and mantic prognostication are more of a matter for mountebanks and charlatans, as are all the clever arts - above all, the arts of Dionysian rite and Orphic song.

Strabo, Geography X.3.23

December 21, 2015

This is happening


An excerpt from my translation of the Names of the Lion 
by Ibn Khālawayh will appear in the expanded 2016 edition
of Technicians of the Sacred, ed. Jerome Rothenberg.
Thanks, Jerry!

November 30, 2015

A letter for ‘Umar

No mortal [eye] ever beheld a letter like the one that came to me
      full of camphor, musk and ambergris.
Candied in black and yellow, the letter was redolent
      with blond-red musk imbued by a [smoky] censer.
It was written on a sheet of Quhistani [silk], and its tie-cord
     was bedolled with a limpid ruby. The seal upon it
was pressed in gold dust instead of clay, and the embossment 
     read: "I pledge to you my life and the lives of my whole family."
Inside, the greeting [said]: "To you from me,
     the long-distracted by my memory and pining for you."
And the address: "To one who is [no less] love-crazed,
     The heart of an infatuate [is here enclosed]."

A poem by ‘Umar ibn Abī Rabī‘a

October 20, 2015

Guest lecture by Martin Schwartz


September 29, 2015

Al-Jahiz on pre-Islamic prayer for rain

In time of severe drought, the early pagan Arabs used fire to beg for for rain. When their tribulations multiplied without abating, and they were obliged to resort to rain-supplication, they would get together and round up as many cattle as they could. To their tails and between their hamstrings, they lashed [sticks of] sala' and 'ushar, and then drove them up to the mountain wastes, where they set fire to them, raising a din with their prayers and entreaties. Their belief was that rain would be induced by this procedure. This is what the poem by Umayya [ibn Abi 'l-Ṣalt, fl. early 7th c.] is about (meter: khafīf):

   Out in the thorn-trees, the folk you see, they of the droning clamor,
         have suffered visitation by a year of biting [drought].
   They who, in times gone by, did not [condescend to] eat
         unleavened things now gobble dry flour.
   Out of the flatlands and up the mountain's side they drive
         emaciated cattle, harrying them with fear of their demise,
   with burning torches tight in the short hairs of their tails,
         tied there so that “seas” be stirred [out of the skies]
   - until they are roasted through, and a cloud rears up above them,
         and another upward-rearing cloud is driven to its side,
   and the divinity sees it mark [the earth] with precipitation
         when a rain-bringing South wind finally blows up for [the tribe].
   The lofty cloud pours down its water – a rain to put
         an end to great [suffering], now averted
   by a quantity of sala'-wood, and 'ushar-wood to match it:
         no easy burden for the cattle burdened with it.

The Book of Animals IV.466-7.

September 17, 2015

If in Berkeley


Lyric genres poster

September 1, 2015

Buddhist Nights

Once there was a young nobleman of uncommon beauty, who fashioned the image of a girl out of gold. He said to his mother and father: "I will marry a girl like this, if she can be found."

At this time, in another kingdom, there was a girl as beautiful as he, who fashioned the image of a man out of gold. She said to her mother and father: "I will marry a man like this, if he can be found." Both sets of parents made inquiries, and across the distance they contracted a marriage between the two, and solemnized their union as husband and wife.

It happened after this that, clutching a mirror, the king of the realm demanded of his ministers: "In all the world, is there a man whose face rivals mine?" They responded: "We who are your subjects have heard it said that there is another man in the kingdom whose beauty surpasses all others." At once the king dispatched a messenger in search of him.

On finding him, the messenger said to the young man: "The king desires the benefit of your wisdom." Straightaway the young man prepared his chariot, and had already set off for the palace when the thought hit him: "It is for my intelligence that the king summons me." To gather the teachings he thought he would need from his books, he therefore returned to his home, - where he found his wife in a state of abandon with a complete stranger. The emotional distress this caused in him had an altering effect on his face, producing an extraordinary physiognomic change for the worse that only worsened as time went on.

[Outside the palace,] the young man's reduced state did not escape the notice of the king's minister, who thought the rigors of the journey were what had thinned his face. And so he had a place set aside for him in a stable, - where, in the middle of the night, the young man spied the king's own consort entering the stable and joining one of the grooms in illicit union. His heart at once was lightened: "If this is how the wife of a king conducts herself?" he thought. "No wonder my wife does the same." At this, his worries evaporated and his face regained its former beauty.

The time came for his interview with the king, who asked: "Why have you lodged outside the palace for the past three days?" The young man responded: "After setting off with your messenger, I thought I had forgotten something, and went back along the road to my house in order to get it. There I found my wife in a state of abandon with a stranger. It pained me sharply, and in my extremes of pathos and rage, my face became altered. For three days I rested in a stable, O King, - where I saw your consort in illicit union with one of the grooms.

"If this is how your wife conducts herself," the young man continued, "then no wonder my own wife does the same. My worries have evaporated, and my face has regained its composure."

"If this is what my own wife is like," said the king, "then how much more so ordinary women!"

Thereupon, both men took off to the mountains together. They cut their beards and shaved their heads and became ascetic devotees. Adopting the view that the company of women makes sacred occupations and devotions impossible, their progress toward excellence was uninterrupted, and both men attained the way of the Pratyekabuddha.

From the Jia za pi yu jing (Ancient Book of Various Metaphors) attributed to Kang Senghui (d. ca. 280 CE), and included in the Taishō ed. of the Chinese Buddhist canon; French tr. by Édouard Chavannes, Cinq cents contes et apologues extraits du Tripiṭaka chinois (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1910-34), vol. 1, 374-6.

August 16, 2015

A Bacchic scene by ‘Ali ibn al-Jahm

A flute pours out its woes with a plaintive sob, to the
     tumult of the bows and strings. And the rose is laughing.
It is a breezy day's debut into the bloom of spring,
     highlit like a bride's outfit in pearls and gold.
The revels of night become day-drinks. Frivolity keeps
     [the cup] going round in the same order, whether
          willed [by the drinker]
or pressed upon him. Were we heated! I swear, it was
     the sun's own beams that swirled in our cup and
          heated us.
The people were a brotherhood of truth. The tie uniting
     them was a love surpassing kinship by descent.
Nursed together on the squirting stream of a pale pink
     [quantity of wine], each gave his fellow nursling
          his due,
and the drunken man's offense was not held against him.
     No doubt about their character need trouble you.
The best teachers are the days themselves, and time's
          long stretches, and those
     moments when defects of fortune are overturned.

January 26, 2014

Shame and fear

In Aristotle's book of Problems, we find it written [fragment 243]: "Why is it that, despite the similarity between shame and fear, those who feel the former turn red, but those who feel the latter turn pale? It is because the blood of the ashamed is diffused from the heart to the other parts of the body, and so to the body's surface; the blood of the fearful, meanwhile, abandons the other parts of the body and gathers in the heart."

I was in the company of our own Calvisius Taurus at Athens when I read this, and I asked how much sense he thought it made. He said: "As an account of what happens when the blood is diffused or concentrated, it is accurate and true. But he has not said why these things happen. The question of cause is still open: why does fear concentrate the blood, and shame scatter it? After all, shame is a sub-category of fear, as the philosophers define it: 'Shame is the fear of deserved blame.' "

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 19.6

December 26, 2013

Diet of words

Ambrosius, whose supply of parchment, funds and copyists enabled our Adamantius des entrailles de bronze to produce his innumerable commentaries, remarks to Origen in a letter he wrote from Athens that he had eaten no meal in his company without something being read aloud, nor lain in his guest-bed unaccompanied by a reading from Scripture by one of the brethren, whose readings and prayers were made to follow each other day and night.

We creatures of the belly, did we ever thus? We, who can't manage more than one hour's reading without yawning and rubbing our eyes, our annoyance barely contained? Then, as if after some great task, we go back to troubling ourselves with the business of the world. Of the heavy meals that depress our faculties I say nothing, and am ashamed to mention the time lost every day to anticipation of visitors, or to social calls we pay on others. Straightaway the prattle starts, and our words are wasted on tearing apart third parties. Sounding the lives of others, we bite and in turn are bitten, and even as we take our leave we are busy chewing.

The friendly gathering dispersed, our reckoning continues. Resentment makes a lion's face to flash across our own, and forward-looking plans run through our minds in obsessive bursts, heedless of the Gospel's warning: "Tonight your dumb ass will be stripped of your soul. And what you've stored up will belong to whom, exactly?"

Jerome, Letter 43 (to Marcella)

December 23, 2013

Palmette II


From a terracotta bell-krater (ca. 465-460 BCE) attributed to the Altamura Painter. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Ferrara
 (currently on loan to the Met).