Above is one item from Dubuffet´s wide collection of global oustider art:The Drunkard by Antônio Roseno de Lima (1926-1988). Roseno de Lima supported himself as an itinerant photographer in and around the Brazilian cities of São Paolo and Indaiatuba.
Below is a picture of Carl Fredrik Hill (1849-1911) one of Sweden's foremost landscape painters. He was living in France when he in 1888, after neighbours had complained about his desperate, nightly screams, was brought to an asylum in Passy. Carl Fredrik Hill was born in Lund and therefore ended up at Lund’s Hospital, which later was renamed St. Lars’s Hospital. After reperated claims about severe mistreatment Hill was allowed to be cared for by his mother and a sister (his father had been a renowned professor of mathematics at Lund University). He remained i their care for 28 years. On a daily basis carl Fredrik made numerous drawings, mainly with chalk and pastels. There are several thousand drawings preserved, but just as many have disappeared. It has been told that Hill could sit in drawing by the open window in his room and throw down his sketches to children who were playing in the street below.
Dubuffet samlade och ställde ut särlingskonst från hela världen, ovan är en brasiliansk tavla ur hans samling - Antônio Roseno de Limas Den berusade. Roseno de Lima (1926-1988) försörjde sig som kringvandrande fotograf i och kring de brasilianska städerna São Paolo och Indaiatuba.
Nedan en bild av Carl Fredrik Hill (1849-1911), en av Sveriges främsta landskapsmålare. Hill vistades i Frankrike då han 1878 fördes till sinnessjukhuset i Passy, efter det att grannar klagat på hans förtvivivlade skrik om nätterna. Hill var född i Lund och hamnade därför på Lunds Hospital, som senare döptes om till Sankt Lars sjukhus. Efter hans protester mot behandlingen, vårdades Hill under 28 år i hemmet hos modern och en syster. Dagligen gjorde han en stor mängd teckningar, främst med krita och pastell. Det finns flera tusen teckningar bevarade, men många har försvunnit. Det har berättats att Hill kunde sitta vid det öppna fönstret i sitt rum och kasta ner sina alster till barn som lekte på gatan.
Speciellt genom Dubuffets insatser har det estetiska, såväl som det kommersiella, värdet hos särlingskonst uppmärksammats alltmer. Flera mentalsjukhus har vinnlagt sig om att specialbehandla begåvade konstnärer som de funnit bland sina patienter. Österrikaren August Walla (1936-2001) levde i en värld inom vilken han trodde sig vara en "naziflicka" som under den sovjetiska occupationen klonat
s till att bli en "kommunistisk tvilling". Walla dekorerade väggarna och taket i sitt rum på Maria Guggings Psykiatriska Kliniks "konstnärshus" utanför Wien med text och bilder som skildrade hans imaginära tillvaro.
En schizofren artist som också ofta använde sig av silhuetter var den italienske Carlo Zinelli (1916-1974). Han hade varit soldat, men under Spanska inbördeskriget genomgick Zinelli en svårartad kris och fördes efter två månader, diagnostiserad som schizofren, till ett mentalsjukhus i Verona, där han under tio år satt inspärrad i total isolering.
Vid slutet av femtiotalet ansågs Zinelli vara så pass lugn att han tilläts deltaga i ett experiment inom vilket mentalpatienter uppmuntrades till fritt skapande. Under en tioårsperiod skapade Zinelli under åtta timmar om dagen uppemot tvåtusen stora konstverk. Efter att ha blivit lugn och stillsam upphörde Zinelli plötsligt med sin konstnärliga verksamhet och under de sista fem åren av sitt liv målade han i stort sett ingenting.
I continue to revisit my collection of art cards and in these days when cities and towns are emptied by the Coronavirus I came to think of anonymous Renaissance depictions of ideal cities, inspired by the writings of classical writers like Vitruvius. Some kind of harmonious dream spaces, though to me they look somewhat eerie and cold. Predecessors to Chiricos´s empty piazzas?
La cittá ideale (1490-1500) in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie.
However, most portraits were still of wealthy people. Through these increasingly realistic portraits we meet persons who look like we could encounter them in the street today. Such down-to-earth depictions became increasingly prominent in religiously inspired paintings. The twenty-three-year-old Hans Holbein’s picture The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, now in Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel, presents Jesus Christ as a corpse with signs of putrefaction. The word is made flesh, and the flesh is dead. It is not remarkable that Fyodor Dostoevsky became utterly captivated when he was confronted with the painting during a visit to Basel in 1867. His wife had to drag him away from the panel, fearing that the impressive sight might induce an epileptic fit in the sensitive author. Dostoevsky saw in Holbein an impulse similar his own preoccupations; a desire to confront Christian faith with everything that negated it, for example a realization that suffering, unredeemable death, and putrefaction appeared to invalidate any hope of resurrection.
My blog is among other things a Memory Palace where I store whatever fascinates me. What I like to delve into; thoughts and opinions I like to share and above all it serves as an appendix to my often confused, forgetful and disordered brain. I am a hoarder; a collector of books, CD:s and above all art cards. I have been collecting them since I was seven or maybe eight years and I now have several thousands of them. My art card collection is one of the few things I keep in meticulous order. I often take out the cards from their boxes, watching and thinking about them, probably my method of transcendental meditation.
Roman portrait heads; lifelike, strong and merciless, like this severe old man from 80 BCE.
Superior serenity in the facial expression of a 3rd century Buddha from the Kushan Empire, which mixed the styles of Greco-Buddhist art from Gandhara with influences from Indian Mathura. The utterly self-discipined, starving 2nd century Buddha from the museum of Lahore is pure Gandhara art.
Thirteen years old I became fascinated by this dragon slayer from a manuscript painted in Dijon sometime in the 12th-century – St Gregory´s Moralia in Job. I copied it several times.
In the Grandes Heures de Rohan in Paris´s Bibliothèque Nationale, painted between 1418 and 1425, we find a dying man who does not lie at home in his bed, but outstreched and helplessly exposed on a silk duvet placed in a cemetery. Old, naked and emaciated, he surrenders his soul to God while the Devil and the Archangel Michael are fighting over it above his head. God Father bows down, he holds a sword in his hand. Will the dying man be saved from Hell?
Giovanno Francesco Caroto´s Boy with a drawing of a puppet from 1523 is maybe not a flawless masterpiece, though it is a charming statement of an artist´s pride in his own work and the joy of showing works of art to others.
Superior serenity in the face of a 3rd century Buddha from the Kushan Empire, which art mingled Greco-Buddhist art from Ganhara and influences from Mathura. The utterly self-discipined, starving 2nd century Buddha from the musuem in Lahore is pure Gandhara art.
At the very first glimmer of a brightening dawn
there rose on the horizon a dark cloud of black,
The stillness of the Storm God passed over the sky,
and all was bright then turned into darkness.
He charged the land like a bull on the rampage,
he smashed it in pieces like a vessel of clay.
For a day the gale winds flattened the country,
quickly they blew, and then came the Deluge.
Like a battle the cataklysm passed over the people,
One man could not discern another,
nor could people be recognized amid the destruction.
The godess cried out like a woman in childbirth,
Belet-ili wailed, whose voice is so sweet:
It is I who give birth, these people are mine!
And now, like fish they fill the ocean!”
In the beginning, only gods populated the earth. Like humans, they too had to sow and reap, to use animals and crops of the soil for their sustenance. It was tiring. The gods who took care of the earth lamented and in the end they refused to work. The Divine Assembly decided to create servants who became entirely dependent of the gods. The god of freshwater, Ea, created together with the mother goddess Belet-ili, a thinking creature. Belet-ili shaped man from clay and through blood from a sacrificed god Ea provided life to the contraption.
Unfortunately, the sacrificed god, Kingu, was not a perfect being. He had been a dragon god, like his mother the saltwater monster Tiamat, who, by the way was mother of all gods. Kingu had been Tiamat's vizier and warlord, though his name means "ignorant worker" and he had been endowed with a belligerent and violent character.
The people now cultivated the land, cared for and slaughtered the cattle. They did everything believed to favour the gods. However, Kingu's blood flowed in their veins, meaning they were not entirely manageable. Furthermore, like gods they did not age and could thus not die of old age. The easily annoyed storm god Enlil found the noise of humanity intolerable and also considered that humanity took up too much space. Three times, Enlil tied to decimated their numbers – first by plague, then through drought and crop failure and finally with the help of starvation. Unlike most of the other gods, Enlil was an active being, constantly in motion. He did not mind hard work and thus assumed that people were entirely unnecessary creatures. More troublesome than beneficent. It was Enlil who succeeded in persuading the gods to wipe out humanity through a Deluge.
As a matter of fact, it was only the creators of the humans Ea and Belet-ili who nurtured any warmer feelings towards humanity. The other gods considered the only function of earthlings was to be a source for their sustenance and well-being. If the human midges tried to assert themselves or obstructed work and functions, they could stomp them out as if they were a horde of ants
Some gods entertained themselves with the humans, though their feelings for them were not much warmer than a child has for its dolls. The Mesopotamian gods could maybe be likened to the old god in the Swedish author Bo Bergman's poem The Marionettes:
You ancient old lord up in heaven’s hall,
when will you finally tire?
The puppets´ dance in spring and fall
displays the same lack of desire.
A jerk on the string – and everything’s gone
and all humans may sleep on, and on
while sorrow and evil rest from endeavour
in your great toy-box for ever.
(based on a translation by John Irons)
Approximately 8,000 years BCE, people living by the rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris began to settle in villages and with the help of canal systems and hoes they cultivated the surrounding land. Five thousand years earlier they had begun raising sheep and goats. Three thousand years later than that, they were domesticating bulls and cows, as well as raising pigs.
Every farmer knows that no matter how well organized his/her business is, how much s/he can count upon the help of neighbours and superiors, how much success s/he has in managing domestic animals and the land, with the help of refined seeds, ploughs and irrigation systems, s/he is nevertheless exposed to the capricious favours of weather gods – sun, rain, wind, sweet water and drought. At any moment s/he and his/her family may suffer from illness, plague, war, flooding and miscarriage. How could s/he, his/her family and neighbours be able to please the powers/gods? Make them benevolent and not constantly threaten the precarious existence of humanity?
Peasants seek refuge in order, in repetition. They follow paths trampled by their ancestors. The Sumerians had bred animals to adapt them to human needs. Plants had been refined, becoming more appetizing, more nutritious and full-flavoured. By jointly disciplining nature through irrigation systems and farming methods human existence had become more predictable.
If humans could prove they could take good care of themselves and the earth, wouldn't the gods become grateful? If the human creeps could show the gods their reverence by demonstrating their determination that even gods had to enjoy the same order and security they were trying to obtain? To that end, the Sumerians built magnificent palaces for their gods and served their images in the same way as they served the lords they had chosen to organize their societies – they brought them food and drinks in the form of sacrifices. They provided them with servants, luxury and concubines. Temples of the gods became copies of the palaces underlings had constructed for their earthly rulers. Stories evolved around the gods, similar to those told about powerful people, lords and kings.
If order ruled life on earth, would it not also prevail in Heaven? Equal creates equal. Good people deserve fair and gentle treatment. Did not the gods then assume it would be decent to behave in an affable manner towards those who served them well and demonstrated their appreciation? ”What is below is like what is above and what is above is like what is below.” Maybe the gods did not exist, but nonetheless there appeared to exist some kind of cosmic order, a natural balance that could be dangerous to upset. When we exploit and abuse nature, a deadly imbalance arises which ultimately might affect and even destroy the entire humanity. Chaos is constantly threatening our fragile order, our Cosmos. This is told in one of the oldest stories ever told – Gilgamesh. However, before I embark on retelling it, let me examine the phrase ”as above, so below”.
Isaac Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. In this Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy he provided an account of the laws of motion and attraction, the composition of light, geometric concepts such as tangents and auras, the movements of celestial bodies, ebb and flow, the ellipticity of the globe and many other things that could be derived from the law of gravity, discovered by him. An astonishing genius of a man who constantly sought the eternal laws of the Cosmos.
This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. […] This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God παντοκράτωρ [Pantokrator], or Universal Ruler. […] The supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect;
Among Newton's left behind papers and books a number of alchemist writings were found. There was for example his own English translation of Tabula Smaragdina's Latin text. The Emerald Tablet is an alchemical text supposedly written by a mythical Egyptian called Hermes Trismegistus, though it probably finds its origin in Mesopotamia. The tablet described how The Philosophers´ Stone could be created. This ”stone” is a fictional substance with miraculous properties – it was assumed to transform common metals into precious ones, cure all diseases and prolong life.
The first sentences of the Emerald Tablet read:
This is true without lying, certain and most true. That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing. And as all things have been and arose from one by the mediation of One so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The tablet’s text consists of just fifteen sentences and they were for certain not written by any Hermes Trismegistus, the Thrice-greatest Hermes, a composite of the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth, and the Greek god, Hermes, messenger of the gods. These gods were related to the power of words, to magic and secrets. Thoth had created language and knew ”the words that bind and those that dissolve”, ”those that opened and those that closed.” Hermes was a threshold deity, resident between two spheres and roamed freely between them, united or closed them. While doing so he became the god of roads, friendship, hospitality, love making, trade, games and theft, as well as he accompanied the dead to the Netherworld. Hermes could decide whether something would be kept as a secret, if it was going to be ”hermetically sealed”. The sign for remaining silent, or to keep a secret, generally consisted of holding a finger to your mouth.The Greeks assumed that the Horus child, who was depicted as sucking a finger, in reality hold a finger in front of its mouth. Under the name of Harpocrates this child became the god of silence and confidentiality, and the fact that he kept an index finger in front of his mouth was interpreted as a sign of silence and secrecy. A sign that since then came into general use. Now everyone knows that an index finger in front of the mouth means silence.
- However, it is not silence that is the main tool of communication. God created heaven and earth with words and Thoth had done the same. Words create order and the word of God is Law. In Nordic, medieval ”landscape laws” it was stated that ”Land is built by law” and Sumerians would have been in complete agreement. Most of them assumed that human laws should be compatible with the laws of nature. It is believed that Hermes Trismegistus conveyed such an insight. The sky was always close to the Mesopotamian riverland and it was assumed that the movements of celestial bodies and seasonal change indicated the rules that govern our entire existence. An activity that went on for millenia.
- In the town of Kufa on the banks of the Euphrates lived in the 7th century CE Abū Musā Jābir ibn Hayyān. Like Isaac Newton, he was a scientific Jack of all Trades, constantly in search of the laws of existence. Jābir ibn Hayyān was head chemist of the legendary Harun al-Rashid and left behind so many writings on alchemy, cosmology, numerology, astrology, medicine, mysticism and religion that his existence has been put in doubt.
- Quite a number of Arabic manuscripts bearing Jābir ibn Hayyān´s name can be found in libraries in Leiden, Paris and London, while several Latin translations of his writings are stored in the Vatican and Oxford, among them are seventy books, which were translated during the Middle Ages. They carry names like the Book of Venus and the Book of the Stones. There are also ten books which together form the corpus of The Books on Rectification, interpreting the world on the basis of theories presented by philosophers such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The most important of Jābir ibn Hayyān's writings are the so-called Books on Balance and especially the one called Theory of the Balance in Nature, which claimed that everything in nature through constant transformations act in different ways, but emanates from a basic substance and it is actually through change that balance and harmony are maintained.
- Abū Musā Jābir ibn Hayyān's books are obviously compendiums of all kinds of knowledge, interpreted through a filter of complicated expressions and letter magic. Jābir ibn Hayyān, or Geber as he was called by his medieval interpreters, wrote:
- One must not explain this art in obscure words only; on the other hand one must explain it so clearly that all may understand it. I therefore teach it in such a way that nothing will remain hidden to the wise man even though it may strike mediocre minds as quite obscure; the foolish and ignorant, for their part, will understand none at all.
- Jābir ibn Hayyān claimed to have written 1,300 books on the Art, a term that seems to denote the manufacture of machines, automata and chemical equipment. It is maybe Jābir’s reputation as some kind of ancient Gyro Gearloose that made Marvel Comics´ author Jonathan Hickman portray Jābir ibn Hayyān as a superhero, a member of a secret organization named S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage and Logistics Directorate) told to have been created in ancient Egypt by Imhotep, who among other things was heading the construction of the first pyramid. The Organization initially had its headquarters in the catacombs beneath Rome, but now it hovers high above the earth's surface within the flying battleship Helicarrier. A number of famous scientists and artists have throughout the years been active in the S.H.I.E.L.D., which consider it as its duty to protect the world before the realisation of the Ultimate Destiny of Man. Unfortunately, it has been proven that the brilliant scientists and inventors active in S.H.I.E.L.D. not always have been immune to power struggles, jealousy and forgery. For example did Isaac Newton kill Galileo Galilei and other scientists who opposed his desire for supreme power and leadership of S.H.I.E L.D.
- In his time, Jābir ibn Hayyān was supreme leader of the Brotherhood of the Shield and then constructed a machine that was intended to absorb the dreams, inspiration and desires of a thousand powerful men and pass them on to one single man. Unfortunately, the machine turned out to be uncontrollable and ultimately destroyed the men whose power it was to exploit.
S.H.I.E.L.D. and Habibi, an acclaimed comic book by Craig Thompson where Jābir ibn Hayyān also appeared, may be considered modern myth-making and especially Thompson's work are to be found within a Mesopotamian fantasy universe where both Gilgamesh and Arabian Nights find their origins. Jābir ibn Hayyān also seems to have been an integral part of this powerful, extremely imaginative and at times thought-provoking flora of legends and fairy tales. It is in one of his many books that Hermes Trismegistus´s Emerald Tablet made its first appearance.
In Jābir ibn Hayyān's Kitab Ustuqus al-Uss al-Thani, The Second Book of the Basic Elements, the Emerald Tablet is said to have been discovered by a man named Balinas, hidden within a secret vault beneath the Temple of Hermes Trismegistus in Tyana. Something that brings us into the mysterious traditions of the Christlike figure Apollonius of Tyana, whom I have written about in a previous blog. Balinas told how he had wrestled the Emerald Tablet from the dead grip of a mummy who had been placed on a golden throne.
During the eleventh century, the Emerald Tablet was translated into Latin by the Spanish priest Hugo of Santalla. It was this translation that was included in Crysogonus Polydorus´s book De Alchemia, which was printed in Nuremberg in 1541 and subsequently ended up with Isaac Newton in London. Crysogonus Polydorus was a pseudonym for Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), an evangelical Lutheran theologian who popularized Copernicus’s epoch-making theories about the sun as the centre of our planetary system and later came into conflict with his brethren about Luther's doctrine of “salvation through faith alone.”
It is not particularly remarkable that a polyhistor like Andreas Osiander was interested in alchemy. He lived during an epoch that Marshall McLuhan has called the era of the Gutenberg Galaxy, when the entire world was transformed by the enormous impact of book printing. Already in 1962, McLuhan saw where humanity is heading, that the time of the Gutenberg Galaxy had already begun to be replaced by computer technology:
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrinian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.
During the 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg had devised a method for printing books with movable, reusable types. Between 1455 and 1458 Gutenberg printed a Latin translation of the Bible – 45 copies on parchment and 135 on paper. Accordingly, it took him three years to complete an edition of nearly 200 books, which were partly hand-coloured, the same amount of time it had previously taken to print a single book of the same size as his Bible. Soon there were printing presses in all of Europe's major cities. It was a revolution, Europe was fundamentally changed. The printed book has been called the most useful, versatile and most enduring technology in world history. What happened in the 16th century may be compared to the recent decades' electronic information explosion with its avalanche of social media, which is also the result of rampant technological innovations.
The printing press procedure was an alchemical process by which matter was miraculously transformed into a means of change of thoughts and reality. The printed book was indeed a Philosophers´ Stone. Behind each printed word were letters manufactured when a 1110o F fire had converted the exact proportions of lead, antimony and zinc into a metal type, which was placed in a wooden letter case to be loaded in a composing stick and joined with other letters in a galley placed in a forme that was placed on a flat stone. The text was coated with ink made permanent by resin and soot and spread with two pads, made of dog leather, since it has no pores. A damp piece of paper was placed on a tympan and hold in place by small pins. The impression was made with the help of a screw pressing down the forme on the paper. Printed pages were dried, tied to books and spread to readers hungry for learning and/or entertainment.
The fact that each printed word was composed of letter units joined in a mind-altering unit made several philosophers and theologians ponder about the creation of languages. An alchemist tried to break down our entire and utterly complex existence into small, individual fragments, which could then be re-joined to reshape, or recreate, existence. Similarly, linguists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, who generally were alchemists as well, studied the smallest units of language and tried to puzzle them together in attempts to reconstruct the language through which God, or the gods, had created the universe. According to the alchemists, nature was a great melting pot, their art was about discerning its details and turning small ingredients into a refined unit.
The Bible told us that God had created everything through his words alone. The question was which language he had used. Just as the Philosophers´ Stone was assumed to have the ability to turn common metals into precious ones, God's original language could possibly transform the world, or perhaps even create something new. Was there a divine language preceding our current human tongues? The Bible told that before the humans began to build the Tower of Babel, they all spoke the same language. Could it be the same language that God spoke?
Some alchemists assumed that Hermes Trismegistus had indicated the path to a solution to the thorny issue about God’s language. In his writings the assumed Egyptian sage had explained that the “original language” had been written down in Egypt. The signs used to depict God’s words were by the Greeks called hieroglyphs, sacred engravings. According to the Bible, Moses had brought the People of Israel out of Egyptian bondage and from Mount Sinai he had brought down the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God. Could they possibly have been written with hieroglyphs? The People of Israel had been in Egypt and many of them could probably read hieroglyphs. As we have noted Hermes Trismegistus was assumed to be an incarnation of the Egyptian god Thoth, the god who created the hieroglyphs. Scribes and priests were Thoth's servants.
Unfortunately, Renaissance scholars could no longer read hieroglyphs. Some of them, such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, were nevertheless gifted linguists. All three could read and to some extent also speak Greek, Latin and Hebrew. However, they did not assume that any of those languages could be God's language. Hermes Trismegistus/Thoth had once in the past claimed that his writings were doomed to be
entirely unclear when the Greeks eventually desire to translate our language to their own, and thus produce in writing the greatest distortion and unclarity […] The very quality of the speech and the [sound] of Egyptian words have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of.
The German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who worked at the Jesuits' headquarters in Rome, was fascinated by Hermes Trismegistus and his indications that hieroglyphs could mirror God’s language. To that end, Kircher learned Coptic, the language still spoken by Egyptian Christians. Through his knowledge of Coptic, Kircher then tried to interpret the hieroglyphs. Athanasius Kircher has been called a Baroque Leonardo da Vinci or Master of a Hundred Arts. He could benefit from the information his missionary brethren had gathered in different parts of the world – Latin America, Congo, India, Japan and China. He compared their stories with his reading fruits and developed a method meaning that he compared what he read and heard in order to try to build a system that could explain the structure and function of the universe – all in accordance with the Jesuit motto Ad maioren Dei gloriam, To the greater glory of God.
Athanasius Kircher failed in his interpretations of the hieroglyphs. In fact, he was wrong about most of the things he wrote about, but that doesn't hinder his writings from being both fascinating and imaginative. However, Kircher was on the right track when it came to Coptic as an important step towards the interpretation of hieroglyphs. It was first after the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion learned Coptic that he realized that hieroglyphs were in fact a combination of image - and phonetic writing, where most of the characters represented a consonant, or a consonant combination. Thus, in 1822 Champollion was able to find a system that solved the riddle of the hieroglyphs.
Kircher's writings constitute a confusing combination of facts and wild speculations. He was a convinced alchemist and his reading of Hermes Trismegistus writings made Athanasius fascinated by Hermes´s caduceus, the god's winged heraldic rod with its two coiled serpents. Quite correctly the Jesuit perceived the serpent rod as a fertility symbol associated with both the earth, snakes were considered to be underground creatures, and the birds in the sky. By sloughing off their skin, snakes stand for transformation and renewal, while the winged birds, like the angels, constitute a contact between earth and sky. Snakes are abundant in the Egyptian art, which Athanasius was well acquainted with. Furthermore, he observed that Moses used a rod entwined by a copper serpent to drive out poisonous reptiles that attacked the People of Israel in the wilderness. A similar rod was the symbol of the Greek god of healing, Asclepius, while Athanasius' Jesuit brethren could tell him about Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec's winged swerpent and the Indian king Ashoka's snake rod.
Athanasius Kircher was also well aware of the fact that the first conversation recorded by the Bible occurred in the Garden of Eden between Eve and the serpent, “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.” The snake asked Eve:
“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
However, Athansius Kircher was once again mistaken. Had he studied his Bible more closely, he might have been ended up on the right track. The Bible claims that after the Deluge people settled in Shinar, where began to build a tower that would reach Heaven. At that time they all spoke the same language. To put a stop to their crazy endeavour, God made people speak in different languages and then dispersed them across the globe. In the Bible, God does not tumble the tower, since for him it was sufficient that it could not be completed due to the linguistic confusion.
Shinar is the Hebrew name for Mesopotamia and it probably originates in Shene Neharot, two rivers. Kircher could maybe also have been inspired by the fact that the oldest known representation of a rod entwined by two snakes was the symbol of the Sumerian god Ningishzida, ruler of trees, guardian of the gates to heaven and god of medicine. Furthermore, it could have been illuminating for Kircher to realize that the Sumerian cuneiform writing, which came into use during the latter part of the fourth millennium BC, was slightly older than the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The snake obviously had some connection with knowledge. Jesuits who returned from China could tell Kircher about Fu Xi, assumed to have invented the Chinese writing characters and who had written a Serpent/Dragon Book, ”dealing with mathematics and astrology.” When they presented Athanasius Kircher with Chinese writing, as well as also a picture of Fu Xi and his twin brother Nüwa, portrayed as a pair of intertwined snakes, Kircher was convinced that Chinese writing must have a connection with the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Hermes’s serpents.
According to Kircher, since the two written languages, i.e. Coptic and Chinese, were so geographically separated this could be an indication that they actually reflected a divine and universal language. He identified at least a hundred Chinese characters as being derived from the forms of ”living snakes and dragons” taking the shape of ”the vast variety of things they signify". Fu Xi is identical to Fuxi/Fu Hsi, also known as Paoxi, who according to the legends was the author of the much-revered I Ching, the Book of Transfiguration, a title worthy of an alchemical manual.
However, Athanasius Kircher was once again mistaken. Had he studied his Bible more closely, he might have been ended up on the right track. The Bible claims that after the Deluge people settled in Shinar, where began to build a tower that would reach Heaven. At that time they all spoke the same language. To put a stop to their crazy endeavour, God made people speak in different languages and then dispersed them across the globe. In the Bible, God does not tumble the tower, since for him it was sufficient that it could not be completed due to linguistic confusion.
Shinar is the Hebrew name for Mesopotamia and it probably originates in Shene Neharot, two rivers. Kircher could maybe also have been inspired by the fact that the oldest known representation of a rod entwined by two snakes was the symbol of the Sumerian god Ningishzida, ruler of trees, guardian of the gates to Heaven and god of medicine. Furthermore, it could have been illuminating for Kircher to realize that the Sumerian cuneiform writing, which came into use during the latter part of the fourth millennium BCE, was slightly older than the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Martin Luther also wondered if there could not be an older language than Hebrew, which he nonetheless assumed was one of the two languages God preferred to express himself with:
Not for nothing did God have His Scripture written down in these two languages alone: the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. The languages, therefore, which God did not despise but chose above all others for His Word we, too, ought to honour above all others. And let us be sure of this: we shall not long preserve the Gospel without languages. Languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained. They are the case in which we carry this jewel. They are the vessel in which we hold this wine. They are the larder in which this food is stored.
We now know that Hebrew is akin to the Akkadian (with sub-dialects such as Babylonian and Assyrian) which after Sumerian (of unknown origin) for thousands of years was spoken in Mesopotamia, before it eventually was replaced by Aramaic, the native tongue of Jesus.
During the fifteenth century, the Venetian traveler Giosofat Barbaro had seen strange writings engraved on ruins around the Persian city of Shiraz and also brought with him clay tablets engraved with the wedge-shaped signs. Another Italian, Pietro Della Valle, had in 1621 brought with him to Rome a number of transcriptions of wedge-letter characters, which he had copied during a trip to Mesopotamia. Several theologians now began to speculate whether those signs could possibly have a connection with the lost “original language”, i.e. God's own speech, for they were becoming more and more convinced that the Garden of Eden must have been somewhere in Mesopotamia.
The interpretation of the cuneiform script was initiated through the efforts of two adventurers; Paolo Emilano Botta (1802-1870) and Austin Henry Layard (1817-1894). Botta was born in Italy but studied botany in Paris where he in 1826 was asked by August Nernard Duhaut-Cilly if he, as a medical doctor, was willing to sail around the earth onboard his ship Le Héros. In the mid-1829, Le Héros returned to France, after making long stopovers in California and on Hawaii. Botta had obtained a taste for adventure and after his return to France he travelled to the Middle East where he spent several years studying botany, until in 1842 he was appointed French consul in Mosul. He returned to France only to die there in 1870.
During his spare time in Mosul, Botta collected alabaster figurines he bought in the villages surrounding the city, or managed to dig up by himself. One day a couple of men turned up and told Botta that they knew of a place where there were sculptures several times larger than the small statuettes Botta was collecting. They took him to Korsabad, just north of Mosul, where Botta was confronted with the remains of Sargon II's palace, with its magnificent reliefs and huge sculptures. Botta wrote:
What can all this mean? Who built these structures? In what century did he live? To what nation did he belong? Are these walls telling me their tales of joy and woe? Is this beautiful cuneiformed character a language? I know not. I can read their glory and their victories in their figures, but their story, their age, their blood, is to me a mystery. Their remains mark the fall of a glorious and a brilliant past, but of a past known not to a living man.
Austin Layard was born in France, though he spent most of his childhood and youth in Italy. His father had been employed by the British colonial administration in Ceylon. At the age of twenty-two, Layard wanted to become an employee in the Ceylon administration as well and decided to travel there by land. However, after getting acquainted with members of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe he spent several months wandering around with them through northwestern Persia. Layard abandoned his Ceylon plans and instead devoted himself to exploring the Middle East. He applied for a job with the British ambassador to Constantinople and after working for a couple of years in the European part of Turkey, he succeeded to convince the ambassador, Stratford Canning, to give him permits and support to investigate the Assyrian ruins that had been discovered in and around Mosul. Layard then spent several years exploring and documenting the remains of the city of Nineveh. Layard's investigations and the excellent drawings he himself and others made on site and the reconstructions they elaborated in London, were collected in a lavishly illustrated book, which became highly influential and much appreciated.
In the ruins of Nineveh, Layard had in 1849 unearthed the remains of King Sennacherib's (705-608 BCE) library containing numerous fragments of clay tablets, filled with cuneiform inscriptions. Three years later, his Assyrian-Christian co-worker (adherent to the Chaldean Catholic Church) Hormuzd Rassam found the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal's (668-627) extensive library, where a huge amont of clay tablets had been preserved, amomg them the story of Gilgamesh and the Mesopotamian Deluge.
The cruel, but at the same time intellectual, Ashurbanipal could both read and write Sumerian, by his time an already classical, extinct language, like Latin or Sanskrit are nowadays. He sent scribes and courtiers throughout his empire to collect as many texts as possible so that he, as he wrote, could ”obtain rites and enchantments that might be crucial for the preservation of my royal power.” Several scribes worked within his palace copying and in some cases even rewriting the collected texts. Large quantities of clay tablets from Nineveh's libraries were brought to the British Museum where the fragments are still sorted out and assembled. More than two thousand tablets have so far been reconstructed, but at the time Layard and Rassam brought them to London, no one could read what was written on them.
Seventeen-year-old Henry Rawlinson was in 1835 stationed in the city of Kermánšáh in western Iran, or Persia as it was called at the time. The British intended to counter the southern expansion of the Russian Empire and did to that end support the Persian Shahs against the Russians, among other things by training their officers. The stationing of young Rawlinson in Kermánšáh was part of that programme. However, after two years Shah Mohammad Qajar expelled the English, though they soon returned. The decision of the British Empire not to try to conquer Persia was probably due to the fact that this big nation and its relatively strong army would have been too costly to subdue. Furthermore, the British needed the Persian Empire as a buffer zone between their Indian Crown Colony and the Russian Empire, which was equally militant and expansive as the British one. Had the Brits at the time realized the future importance of the Persian oil fields, their ambitions would certainly have been different.
The village of Bīsotūn is not far from Kermánšáh and on a cliff wall just outside that village is a huge relief that the Persian Shah Dareios (522-484 BC) had ordered to commemorate events connected to his ascension to the throne of the Achaemenid Empire, the largest and most successful to that date. Dareios was a skilled administrator and under his rule the mighty empire was divided into 23 satraps, overseen by men with personal ties to the Shah. The different parts of this vast reign were connected by an efficient and well maintained road network. Most important of all these routes was the Royal Road, which stretched from Sardis (near present-day Izmir on the Turkish west coast) across Mosul and Babylon down to Susa, Dareios’s capital. In Susa, the Royal Road turned north-east in the direction of Ekbatana, former capital of the Medes, where it linked up with the legendary Silk Road.
It was on a rock face of the Zargos Mountains by the road between Sardis and Ekbatana that Dareio's huge relief with accompanying texts had been carved, one hundred meters up on a vertical mountainside. During Rawlinson's time in Kermánšáh it was extremely difficult to access the relief. Dareios had, after the impressive work of art had been cut, ordered the removal of the entire mountain slope in front of it. Only a twelve-inches wide ledge ran beneath the relief. Dareios had probably taken the drastic measure to remove masses of stone and gravel partly to make the engraving as visible and impressive as possible, and partly because no one would be able to hack away, damage, or change the relief. The extensive text, which encloses an image sequence depicting how Dareios punishes alleged "traitors and conspirators", is written in ancient Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian and impossible to make out from ground level.
The curious, young Henry Rawlinson could not refrain from climbing up the cliff wall and balancing on a ladder he managed to copy a large part of the ancient Persian cuneiform writing, which was inscribed at the lowest part of the relief. By comparing the cuneiform characters with the letters of a Persian king list that the historian Herodotus had written in Greek not long after Dareio's death, Rawlinson managed to decipher several of the cuneiform characters.
Having learned ancient Persian, Rawlinson was soon able to read the entire Persian text, though he had had to wait patiently for six more years until 1843, when after being stationed as an officer in Afghanistan, he was able to return to Bīsotūn, obtain a longer ladder and with great difficulty succeeded in copying the Alamite and Babylonian inscriptions as well. A life-threatening endeavour that could have ended very badly since the ladder slipped on the narrow cliff ledge and Rawlinson entered a free fall towards a certain death. Luckily a certain death was prevented when, as if by a miracle, he ended up on the narrow ledge and the riddle of the cuneiform could thus come closer to a solution.
When Rawlinson had returned to London he corresponded with an Irishman, Edward Hincks, and they had soon succeeded in interpreting and identifying 200 cuneiform letters from Rawlinson's copies of the now famous Behistun Inscriptions. In 1851, they met with a German - and an English linguist who had applied Hincks and Rawlinson's cuneiform keys to clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform texts written in Elamite and Babylonian. Shortly thereafter, the four researchers declared that the riddle of cuneiform writing finally had been solved.
Now Layard and Rassam could begin to piece together the clay tablet fragments they had brought with them to the British Museum. Soon they obtained help from even more skilful and patient cuneiform experts. Foremost among them was George Smith, who in 1872, with rising wonder on a pieced together clay tablet read the text I cited as an introduction to this essay. Deeply fascinated, Smith continued reading and discovered that he had found a long, and largely coherent text telling how a certain Uta-napishti by the god Ea had been commissioned to build a gigantic boat to save his ”kith and kin, the beasts of the field, the creatures of the wild, and members of every skill and craft” and thus salvage them all from a Deluge through which the gods intended to kill all humanity. The similarities to the Bible's flood story and Noah's ark were evident. Smith was captivated and in his boundless enthusiasm he did not know what he was doing and cried out aloud: "I am the first to read all this after two thousand years of oblivion!" and to the great amazement of people around him, he got up from his chair and began to undress.
When Smith in front of an enthusiastic congregation in 1873 read aloud the "Babylonian Flood Myth" and declared it was just one part of a great Mesopotamian epic about an ancient hero called Gilgamesh, the general exhilaration knew no bounds. The Daily Telegraph offered British Museum the large sum of 1,000 guineas to send Smith to Mosul and resume Layard's and Rassam's excavations of the clay tablet libraries. Unfortunately, Smith was shortly after his arrival lucky enough to find yet another virtually intact clay tablet, which in even greater detail reproduced the entire Flood Myth, after this great success the expedition was immediately interrupted, before Smith had managed to find other equally intact tablets reproducing the Gilgamesh story.
Nineveh was for the most part located under the multi-million city of Mosul. Excavations of ancient Nineveh have mostly taken place on the hills of Koyunik and Nabi Yunis. This is where the remains of the cuneiform libraries were found. However, large parts of Nineveh are still unexplored.
When ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, conquered Mosul on July 10, 2014, a group of its warriors plunged into the city's museum where they were filmed while destroying the priceless Mesopotamian world heritage with sledge hammers and pneumatic drills. In a few hours, an almost three thousand years old and extremely rich culture was totally destroyed. If the ancient gods had existed they would undoubtedly have crushed these villains, who apart from destroying their holy effigies had murdered, executed, and taken as sex slaves those whom they referred to as ”God Deniers”. I do not understand why this kind of murderous fanatics always abide to what is evil and reprehensible within any religious doctrine. Is it general idiocy, or just inhuman insanity? Did not these brutal maniacs realize that their venerated prophet was a result of the culture they so enthusiastically crushed with their sledge hammers?
“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul.” Muhammad, the seal of the prophets, was well acquainted with the cultural environment of his time and was probably familiar with the traditions connected with Hermes Trismegistus as well. For example, the Qur'an mentions Idrīs twice as one of the Prophet's precursors:
Also mention in the Book the case of Idrīs: He was a man of truth [and sincerity], [and] a prophet: And We raised him to a lofty station.
And [remember] Isma´il, Idrīs, and Dhul-Kifl all [men] of constancy and patience;
We admitted them to Our mercy: for they were of the righteous ones.
Idrīs? Traditionally, he has been identified with the Bible's Enoch, who was said to have ”walked with God for three hundred years,” but it is equally likely that Idrīs is more or less identical to Hermes Trismegistus. Legends state that Idrīs was born in Babylon and was a companion to Adam's son Seth. In those days Babylon was a sinful nest and the Prophet Idrīs brought with him the righteous Babylonians to Egypt. Standing on the banks of the Nile, Idrīs raised his hands and paid homage to Allah with the word Subhanallah, Glory to Allah. Commentators of the Quran attributed Idrī's with ”great wisdom and great knowledge.” Several traditions consider him to be the inventor of writing and that he was the ”first to observe the orbits of the stars and determine the proper value of weights and measures.” This has made several Muslim theologians and writers to identify Idrīs with Hermes Trismegistus and the Egyptian Thoth, a tradition which apparently was particularly common among the Sabians of southern Arabia. Muhammad obviously did not regard them as Muslim believers, but nevertheless accepted their beliefs and in three places the Qur´an states that the Sabians have nothing to fear on the Judgement Day:
Indeed, the believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabians—whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good will have their reward with their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.
Now, let us leave Hermes Trismegistus and alchemy aside and devote ourselves to Gilgamesh. We find us around 2,800 BCE in the southern part of Mesopotamia. A flat and warm landscape with swamps and plains, very fertile if drained and irrigated by canals and ponds, but apart from date palms virtually without timber, metals were also lacking and had to be imported. Most of the inhabitants were farmers who lived in fortified cities. Out of reach from the irrigation systems, the fertile fields were replaced by a more hostile terrain where herds of sheep and goats were grazing. Their shepherds had constantly be on the watch out for wolves and other predators. Further afield, there was a vast wilderness. There, the few inhabitants were not organized within any fortified cities and villages, but sustained themselves with hunting and fishing, or as bandits. Several day trips to the north and the west there were uninhabited mountain regions and forests with huge cedar trees. Most impressive of them all was the sacred Cedar Forest where some claimed the gods had their abode. It was guarded by the monstrous Humbaba, protected by seven deadly auras.
For there it was not only a concrete landscape that surrounded the Mesopotamians. They also lived within a mythical sphere where the distant Father of All Gods, God of the Sky, Anu, in solitary majesty resided in his heavenly palace, far above his mighty kingdom. The god of winds, Enlil, was on the other hand constantly present in the space between earth and heaven, and also within temples erected by his fearful believers. The wise and thoughtful Ea lived in his freshwater daomain beneath the earth's surface. Ea usually acted as a friend and protector of the human race, but could nevertheless turn into a fearsome creature. Most of the gods were unpredictable. They could at times prove to be benevolent, but just as often cruel and ruthless. Enlil's majestic son, Sîn, the Moon God, whose son Shamash, the Sun, was the companion of lonely wanderers but nevertheless he did also have his wicked traits. Shamash's impulsive sister Inanna (Ishtar), was the goddess of war and love. Beneath Ea's watery domain, deep down in the Netherworld was Death's bleak kingdom ruled by the bitter Ereshkigal, who was Shamash's sister as well. There she lay stretched out in perpetual wailing, waited upon by her minister, the eerie Namtar, and other demons of her awe-inspiring household.
Like in so many other places in the world the concrete landscape of Mesopotamia was covered by a mental one and it is there the stories about Gilgamesh are played out. Myths and legends, just like our own lives and thoughts, are not one-sidedly simple, but multi-faceted. They include concepts and imaginations that have developed over time and space and can thus be interpreted and understood at different levels. One approach need not exclude another.
For example, the strange stories about the adventures of the god Ea. His sexual exploits with young virgins and mature matrons may be amusing, or disturbing, fairy tales, though at the same time they may also be metaphorical descriptions of intricate irrigation systems, seasonal change, precipitation, the flow of rivers, the fertile power of springs and groundwater, ebb and flood, drought and inundations. Likewise, Inanna's love for the young and sadly deceased shepherd Dumuzi (Tammuz) may be considered as a moving story of love and passion, betrayal and death, though at the same time it is a depiction of nature's death and resurrection, fertility, capricious passions, sorrow, life and death, and much more. Not the least may the intricate story even constitute a detailed, allegorical description of how to make milk, cream and butter. ”As above, so below.”
The Gilgamesh epic is the world's oldest, preserved literary work and our second oldest religious text, after the Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Gilgamesh's literary history begins with five poems about Bilgamesh, King of Uruk. Texts that originated during the third dynasty of the city of Uruk (c. 2100 BCE. Stories that more than a thousand years later were used as part of the source material for an epic written in Akkadian in Babylon. Author was a scribe named Sîn-liqe-unninni and his epic has now been traced to 73 ”manuscripts”, i.e. collections of clay tablets, 35 of which were found in the remains of Ashurbanipal's library in Nineveh.
There is still no intact version of Sîn-liqe-unninni's ”manuscript” called Sha naqba īmuru, He Who Saw the Abyss. All versions are composed of assembled clay tablet fragments. It is estimated that one third of the text is missing. Most Assyriologists agree that the missing fragments are to be found somewhere among the large amount of clay tablets stored in museum magazines around the world. It will take a long time before we have the entire Sha naqba īmuru. The Assyriologists who systematically and patiently work their way through piles of broken clay tablets are a dedicated, but very small group of people.
Let us now travel more than four thousand years back in time and meet people who lived in the mythical, Mesopotamian world.
He who saw the Deep, the country´s foundations.
He came a far road, was weary, found peace.
and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.
He built the rampart of Uruk-the-Sheepfold,
of holy Eanna [Temple of Ishtar], the sacred storehouse.
See, its wall like a strand of wool,
view its parapet that none could copy!
Take the stairway of a bygone era,
draw near to Eanna, seat of Ishtar, the godess,
that no later king could ever copy!
See the tablet-box of cedar,
release its clasp of bronze!
Lift the lid of its secret,
pick uop the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out,
the travails of Giglamesh, all that he went through.
Gilgamesh was a lugal, an autocratic ruler of Uruk and thus in possession of a complete power over his subjects. Blinded by boundless authoritarianism he forced his underlings to perform exaggerated day labour while he had sex with the wives of his worn-out workers. Becoming desperate by their ruler's abuse of power the people of Uruk prayed to the Ruler of Heaven – Anu: "a savage bull you have bred in Uruk-the-Sheepfold, he has no equal when his weapons are brandished.” Gilgamesh was a ruthless tyrant whom no one was safe from, neither virgins nor young men. Through his strength and superior skills, Gilgamesh humiliated and oppressed everyone. He thought himself to be unique, invulnerable and sovereign. The people asked Anu to create someone who was equally strong and powerful as Gilgamesh. Someone who could vanquish him and make him human and empathetic.
Now the myth comes to reflect the contradiction between what the Greeks called physis, nature and nomos, law/tradition, and perhaps also what the ancient Romans called cultura, i.e. culture. In ancient Mesopotamia there was a boundary between fertile plains and the wastelands; densely populated, walled cities and sparsely inhabited wilderness. A contrast that is often personified in the Bible; Abel and Cain, Jacob and Esau, or John the Baptist. About Adam and Eve's sons it is said that "Abel became a herder of sheep while Cain was a tiller of the soil", and ”Cain said to Abel his brother, ´Let us go out to the field,´ and when they were in the field Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him.” Isaac had two sons, one
was red-haired, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau [Īsaw, hairy/rough] The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Jacob deceived his brother and took his power away from him. About John the Baptist the Bible says:
A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. [He said] the ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
In Gilgamesh, Enkidu emerges, an individual who united the qualities that the biblical figures above seem to imply. Like Abel, he was not a farmer, but lived outside the cultivated sphere. The peasant Cain regarded Abel as a threat and killed him. Like Esau, Enkidu was shaggy and spent his time in the wilderness, an innocent creature who had no idea about the falsehood of settled and cultivated humans. Like John the Baptist, Enkidu was also a prophet who came from the wilderness and brought change to the ”civilized world”.
By bringing the savage Enkidu into Gilgamesh's ”cultured” existence the autocrat changed and became a better person. However, to achieve that Enkidu also had be changed, the wild man had to be civilized. It was a woman who defeated him. A woman who represents home, motherhood, security and desire. It was she who through her love for Enkidu, combined with her alluring sensuality, managed to curb the savage’s wildness and through his sexual desires succeeded, at least to some extent, to enslave him. A hunter had got annoyed by Enkidu´s presence:
Coated in hair like the god of animals,
with the gazelles he grazes on grasses,
joining the throng with the game by the water-hole,
his heart delighting with the beasts in the water.
But not only did Enkidu behave like a wild animal, he also protected the wildlife by destroying the hunter's traps and refilling his pitfalls. The frustrated hunter went to Uruk to seek the advice of the dreaded Gilgamesh, who despite his brutal reign was regarded as a wise man. Gilgamesh advised the hunter to go to Ishtar's temple and from there bring with him a temple prostitute out into the wilderness. If Enkidu fell victim to a woman's attraction, the animals would turn away from him. They would come to realize that he was a human being after all.
The hunter brought the beautiful woman to the water hole where Enkidu used to hang out and explained to her:
This is he, Shamhat! Uncradle your bosom,
bare your sex, let him take in your charms!
Do not recoil, but take in his scent:
He will see you, and he will approach you.
Spread your clothing so he may lay on you,
do for the man the work of a woman!
Let his passion caress and embrace you,
his herd will spurn him, though he grew up amongst it.
For six days Enkidu stayed with Shamhat, but when he had become “fully saturated” he wanted to return to his wild life, though to his great dismay he found that his friends the gazelles fled from him and the lions roared when he approached them. Enkidu also felt that his stamina had deteriorated and that he had begun to think differently from what he had done before. After some time in the wilderness, Enkidu felt alone and abandoned, gave up and returned to Shamhat, who knew how to take care of him.
Shamhat let a barber shave Enkidu's body, lubricated it with fragrant oils, and cut his hair and beard. She dressed the former savage in beautiful clothes. Enkidu, who neither had tasted bread nor drank any beer, ate and drank with relish. After seven cups filled to the brim, he felt comfortable and began to sing. After a while, Enkidu realized that he was stronger and bolder than any other man, while he at the same time understood that he would never be like the animals again. Instead of protecting them from the hunters, he now defended the herdsmen and their sheep from the predators, killing wolves and lions.
Enkidu now identified himself with the humans and just as he previously had been the friend and protector of the animals, he now became upset by injustices affecting the weak and the poor. When Shamhat told him that Gilgamesh relished the jus primae noctis, the right of the first night, which meant that he allowed himself to make love to the bride before the groom, Enkidu became violently upset and went to Uruk to make a halt to the dictator's sexual abuse.
Coming to Uruk, Enkidu witnessed a wedding procession and how Gilgamesh brutally snatched the bride away from her groom and forcibly brought her to the “wedding house”. The enraged Enkidu placed himself in the doorway and when Gilgamesh tried to push him aside the huge, former savage threw himself upon the king and a violent fight ensued. Finally, Enkidu got Gilgamesh down upon his knees and the defeated dictator saw no other resort than to extend his hand to Enkidu. The triumphant Enkidu magnanimously embraced the humiliated king. Gilgamesh became transformed. He had found his pal, a young strong man who, just like him, was brave and clever. Neither Enkidu nor Gilgamesh were alone anymore – Enkidu as a stranger and Gilgamesh as ruler. They were now a couple, a team.
Gilgamesh had come to power when he was far too young and accordingly suffered from a severe Peter Pan complex. In Enkidu, he thought he had found the perfect companion. Not long after they had become the best of friends, he suggested that he and Enkidu would embark on a great adventure. They would head to the Cedar Forest, a vast woodland that was also called The Place of the Living, maybe because it was assumed that gods dwelt there. However, Enkidu knew better - the forest was up in Kur, the land of the mountains, though Kur was also the name of the Netherworld, the Kingdom of Death, from which no one could return alive. Enkidu had also, like the natural child he was, met with the monstrous guardian of the Cedar Forest, the horrifying Humbaba, Enil's servant. Enlil, the storm god who hated humans.
To Gilgamesh, the entire endeavour appeared as a brilliant adventure, a youthful defiance of the gods. With the strong, confident child of nature, the mighty Enkidu by his side Gilgamesh felt invincible. Furthermore, if he could bring the cedars down to Uruk it would be a means to win Uruk's residents' favour and appreciation. He presented his plans to the Council of the Elders and explained that if he and Enkidu could vanquish the forest demon Humbaba, chop down the valuable cedar trees and bring their timber down to Uruk, built only by bricks, then their brave enterprise would make Uruk more beautiful and powerful than any other city on the face of the earth. Despite some doubt, Gilgamesh finally won the Council's trust and consent, perhaps the old men felt reassured that Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s departure would mean a respite from the violent and powerful youngsters. If they were to die in their battle against Humbaba, it would actually not be a great loss. If, on the other hand, they were to succeed with their reckless mission, the huge cedar trees would be an excellent addition to Uruk's economy and prestige. Gilgamesh was overjoyed at the support he found, but as he enthusiastically prepared for the adventure, he found that his friend Enkidu was unusually gloomy. Why did Enkidu hesitate to embark on such a great adventure and the possibility of ridding the world from the despicable monster like Humbaba:
I will conquer him in the Forest of the Cedar
let the land learn that Uruk´s offshoot is mighty
Let me start out, I will cut down the cedar
I will establish forever a name eternal.
Enkidu considered the endeavour in completely different light. To him it was an unforgivable assault on nature, a childlike defiance of the divine powers, a disdain for everything that he once been a part of. At the same time, Enkidu did understand that there was no turning back from the path he had taken after losing his virginity to the harlot Shamhat and after Gilgamesh had become his best friend. Enkidu knew he could not possibly convince a gung-ho adventurer like Gilgamesh, though he nevertheless tried to make his friend realize the great dangers lying in store. The young, passionate Gilgamesh could not understand who, or what, Humbaba really was, a force of nature protected by seven divine ”auras”. Enkidu had met him, he knew the monster:
This Humbaba, his voice is the Deluge,
his speech is fire, his breath is death!
He hears the forest murmur at sixty leagues´ distance:
who is there who would venture into his forest?
Adad [the Hurricane] ranks first, and Humbaba is second.
However, Enkidu could not endure his friend's mockery while he stated that Enidu spoke like a spineless tenderfoot. Where did this miserable fear come from? Enkidu's great courage had been tested in battle. Any man fled in panic from this savage's unchecked anger. He could with his bare hands strangle a fierce lion. Why did a giant like Enkidu tremble at the mere thought of Humbaba? The only thing a man could do during his short lifespan was to try to make a name for himself. ”As for man, his days are numbered, whatever he may do, it is but wind,” it is only through superhuman accomplishments your name can live on.
Enkidu gave in and as when he left the forest he knew now that there was no return, he had to follow the commenced path to the bitter end, accept his destiny and fight against everything he once had belonged to. Enkidu was no longer a child of nature, now he was a civilized man. Nothing could be as it had been. You cannot twice descend into the same river. On the way to his meeting with Humbaba, Gilgamesh was haunted by terrifying dreams that warned about impending disasters. The closer they came to the Cedar Forest, the more Gilgamesh doubted the soundness of his whim. Instead, it was now Enkidu who urged him on.
As they faced the mighty Cedar Forest and then stepped in under its impressive canopies they knew they were on sacred ground and shuddered at the thought that they were going to defile it. Gilgamesh was overwhelmed by the forest’s vastness and beauty. They did also in the depths of the woodland come across paths broken up by Humbaba when he did his rounds, watching for intruders. The mighty macho Gilgamesh now hesitated even more and cursed his mindless daring. It was Enkidu who had become the driving force and who pointed out which trees Gilgamesh should cut down, soon the forest echoed from the axe blows and the cedar giants´ crushing to the ground.
Suddenly the trees trembled and the earth shook as the approaching Humbaba's auras of ice, fire and winds swept through the forest. Soon the monster revealed himself and let his fiery anger wash over the traitor Enkidu:
Come, Enkidu you spawn of a fish, who knew no father
hatchling of terrapin and turtle, who sucked no mother´s milk!
In your youth I watched you, but near you I went not,
would your poor flesh have filled my belly?
Now in treachery you bring before me Gilgamesh,
and stand there, Enkidu, like a warlike stranger!
I will slit the throat and gullet of Gilgamesh,
I will feed his flesh to the locust bird, ravening eagle and vulture!
The enraged and wounded Enkidu incited Gilgamesh to attack Humbaba and the young hero from Uruk cut off the monster's head, while Enkidu ripped out its lungs. Humbaba's auras swept through the air, while their radiation diminished, faded away and died.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu returned to Uruk bringing with them Humbaba's head in triumph. When the Cedar Forest had lost its guardian, the gods could no longer do anything to protect their sacred forest and huge quantities of priceless timber were dragged and shipped down to Uruk.
Ishtar, the capricious war- and love goddess, became captivated by the powerful and god defying Gilgamesh and could not abstain from making amorous approaches. Like so many other deities, Ishtar thought it was significantly more attractive and satisfying to seek lovers among mortal men and women than among other gods. Gilgamesh, who after spurning the gods and defeating Humbaba, felt invulnerable and thus had the audacity to repudiate the mighty and indescribably beautiful Ishtar. It had never happened to her before and in addition Gilgamesh had had the impudence to mock the goddess for her pathetic horniness and the perfidious love she had feigned while luring mortal men into her yarn, a passion that always ended badly for the lovestruck men, who had been turned into hapless prey or deplorable wretches, if they did not suffer horrific, and humiliating deaths. No, a hero like Gilgamesh would never fall for Ishtar's seductive love games.
He feared neither gods nor humans and beasts. The enraged and scorned Ishtar went to her father Anu, mighty ruler of heaven and earth and pleaded with him to let loose the dreaded Celestial Bull so it could gore and trample Gilgamesh and Enkidu to death. After Ishtar had threatened to ”let Death swallow up everything alive” Anu reluctantly released the raging bull.
But, like a couple of seasoned butchers, Gilgamesh and Enkidu were prepared for the Celestial Bull’s attack. Gilgamesh stuck his knife straight into the "slaughter point" between the bull’s horns, while Enkidu got it down on the ground by twisting its tail and putting one foot on its back.
An old cowboy trick that made me remember the two buddies Augustus ”Gus” McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, who in a TV series based on Larry McMurty's wild-west novel Lonesome Dove were played by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. They joined forces in a quite insane adventure involving the drive of a huge, mainly stolen, cattle herd from Texas to Montana. Gus was the stronger and bolder of the two, while Woodrow was more reserved and thoughtful. Gus was romantically inclined with an eye for beautiful women, whores as he called them. However, Gus treated ”his” women relatively well and admired them to some extent, though he refused to be sincerely engages in a relationship, constantly driven by his longing for the free life in the wilderness. Gus died when his legs were amputated and he was deeply mourned by Woodrow. Gus’s and Woodrow's friendship was like Enkidu´s and Gilgamesh´s – two self-indulgent men with opposite personalities, rivals in a constant battle with each other, yet united in joint, ”masculine” and daring adventures and a camaraderie that continued beyond the other's death.
After killing the Celestial Bull, Enkidu suffered from a deep depression. He felt that he had betrayed nature, the wild beasts and the gods by being instrumental in ravishing the sacred Cedar Forest and assissting in the killing of violent and primeval natural forces like Humbaba and the Celestial Bull. During nights, he walked down to the huge temple gates made from the Cedar Forest's mightiest tree. He leaned his head against the timber and complained loudly to the silent door ”as if it were a living man”:
Your tree had no rival in the Cedar Forest:
six rods is your height, two rods your breadth, one cubit your thickness.
Your pivots, top and bottom, are all of a piece;
I fashioned you, I lifted you, I hung you in Nippur [the site for Enlil´s temple].
Enkidu went to bed and did not rise again, complaining about the hunter who denied him his freedom and Shamhat who seduced him and brought him to Gilgamesh; it was through them he became excluded from his free life as part of nature, a traitor to his origins. Nature´s enemy and destroyer. Enkidu waisted away and died. Gilgamesh was inconsolable, left his palace, Uruk, his men and women. Gilgamesh forgot about his appearance, let his hair and beard grow long and unkempt, dressed in animal skins, and roamed the wilderness, not as a child of nature like Enkidu, but as a mad beast, a killer, and destroyer.
Shamash, the sun god, companion of solitary wanderers, who occasionally could be overwhelmed by compassion, saw Gilgamesh´s mindless rambling and cruelty:
Shamash grew worried and bending down
he spoke to Gilgamesh:
”O, Gilgamesh, where are you wandering:
The life you seek, you never will find.”
Shamash had understood Gilgamesh's problem. Like so many other immature youngsters before him, Gilgamesh was not able to understand that death was definitive and a part of human existence. That his friend Enkidu was gone forever and that he himself would eventually die. But, Shamash's revelation gave Gilgamesh an idea. He knew that the Sun God every night travelled through a long tunnel and then went to rest on the other side of the Eastern Ocean. There lived Gilgamesh's ancestor Uta-napishti, who with his ship had escaped the Deluge that killed all the animals and humans who had not found a refuge on his boat. The idea gave Gilgamesh a goal, he would go to Uta-napisthi and through him find the secret of life.
Between Mount Mashu's twin peaks was the Sun's tunnel, its gates were opened and closed by two Scorpion Men
whose terror was dread whose glance was death
whose radiance was fearful, overwhelming the mountains -
at sunrise and sunset they guarded the sun
Their looks were so abominable that Gilgamesh initially hid his face while he approached them, but when he took his shielding hand away and boldly looked the hideous monsters straight into their eyes, they became surprised by his bravery and allowed him to enter the pitch black tunnel.
Then Gilgamesh rushed hour after hour through the compact darkness, worried about not being able to get out before the sun entered, and through his concentrated heat would burn him to ashes.
After a night of a blind race against an invisible sun Gilgamesh, just before dawn, reached a paradisical garden, though he did not indulge himself in any rest but hurried on toward his goal. Soon he was standing on the beach looking out across the Eastern Ocean, which no mortal, except Uta-napishti and his wife, previously had set his/her eyes upon.
Now follows a strange episode. On the shore by the End of the World was a tavern – who could possibly visit such an establishment? People couldn't get there and why would a god frequent such a place? I wonder if Douglas Adams had had Gilgamesh in mind when he placed a restaurant by the end of the universe in his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, that place was much livelier than the joint in Gilgamesh, where we find only the proprietor, a woman whose age we are not told, but I suspect she was young.
Neither does the story tell us who she was, or what her name was, nor did any of the books I read to write this essay. Nevertheless, I assume she was identical to Ishtar. She was certainly a mighty goddess of love and war, though she could nevertheless manifest herself as a simple prostitute, not only someone who lived in the temples, but one who frequented the simple taverns that farmworkers visited while returning from their daily chores.
When the tavern hostess saw the unkempt stranger, who with a ragged beard and ferocious appearance was approaching her establishment, she locked the door, leapt up to its flat roof and from there called down inquiring who the stranger was. Gilgamesh told her that he was king of Uruk mourning his friend Enkidu and that he himself was afraid of death. The innkeeper then let the haggard and tormented fellow enter her tavern. Ishtar knew quite well that he was the same one who had betrayed her love, killed the Celestial Bull and a multitude of lions, animals that were devoted to her. Still, if she now really was Ishtar, she did not seem to be angry with the downtrodden, pathetic Gilgamesh. She offered him beer and food while advising him:
The life you seek you never will find
when the gods created mankind
death was dispensed to mankind,
life they kept for themselves.
But, you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,
enjoy yourself always by day and by night!
Make merry each day,
dance and play days and night!
Let your clothes be clean'
let your head be washed, may you bath in water!
Gaze on the child who holds your hand,
let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!
For such is the destiny of mortal men.
It was the privileged existence of a wealthy aristocrat that Ishtar described. A civilized, well-groomed man, not a savage. A gentleman capable of enjoying what he had accomplished. Why, then would Gilgamesh, in maddened sadness and despair chase after wind? Every man would die. However, Gilgamesh insisted with his wild goose chase and the wise Ishtar realized that only experience would change Gilgamesh. She told him that Shamash's ferryman Ur-shanabi could take him across the Eastern Ocean. If Gilgamesh could pass across The Sea of Death, which mighty currents pierced through the middle of the Eastern Ocean, then he could on its other shore meet with Uta-napishti and his wife, though he would never be deemed worthy of an eternal life.
Frustrated and disappointed, Gilgamesh walked down to the ocean shore. Imprisoned by his boundless annoyance he managed to kill the Stone Men he met on the beach, irritated by their silence and what he perceived as their refusal to take him across the sea. However, the slain Stone Men turned out to be Ur-shanabi's crew and Gilgamesh therefore had to, with great difficulty, punt Ur-shanabi's boat across the ocean, making use of three hundred, twenty-five metres long punting poles, which he lost one one after the other.
After reaching the other shore of the Eatern Ocean, Gilgamesh was welcomed by Uta-napishti, who told him the flood story that made George Smith to take off his clothes at the British Museum. That Uta-napishti was granted eternal life by the gods was due to them being grateful to him for their own survival. The thing was that when the gods unanimously had decided to exterminate humanity through the Deluge, the wise freshwater god Ea, the creator of human beings, secretly opposed their decision and contacted Uta-napishti who built his vast ark to rescue the animals, the seed and human craftsmanship from a sure extinction.
When the gods after the devastation had found that they actually had destroyed life on earth, they realized that they had to work hard for their own survival, if that actually could be done now when they so thoughtlessly had destroyed the prerequisites for a good, leisurly life. When Uta-napishti, after his successful rescue were sacrificing meat and fruits to the gods as an act of thankfulness for his rescue and the kindness they had shown him, the gods flocked to the sacrificial meal:
The gods did smell the savour.
The gods did smell the savour sweet.
The gods gathered like flies around the man making sacrifice.
The gods thanked Ea for his resourcefulness and were delighted that Uta-napishti, his fellow hiuman beings, the animlas and the seed had all survived and could recreate the wealth that previously had prevailedon earth. They decided to continue to preserve humanity, but in order to limit its numbers they decreed that women from now on had give birth to their children in pain and hardship and that all humans, if they did not die in battle, hardship, or sickness, would die from old age – with two exceptions, namely Uta-napishti and his wife, who were rewarded with eternal life.
Uta-napishti assured Gilgamesh that no man except himself and his wife could escape death. To alleviate Gilgamesh's horror of death, Uta-napishti immersed him in deep sleep, thereby proving that death itself is not painful – it just equals forgetfulness and emptiness, nothing else. A sleep you don't wake up from. It is life that counts, the memories you leave behind, and even they disappear over time.
Uta-napishti assured Gilgamesh that the purpose of his existence was to serve others through his leadership. Was Gilgamesh born and raised to become a brutal savage? No, he was a leader and a man of action. If he who now denied that role he would surely become a nullity, his death would be like a gust of wind in the desert. After Gilgamesh, through hard work and intimate conversations, had convinced Uta-napishti of his prowess and together with the ferryman Ur-shanabi was about to return to Uruk, Uta-napishti's wife said to his husband that he would leave a bad impression if he was to be remembered as someone who did not give their guest a farewell gift. Uta-napishti then told Gilgamesh of a place in the depths of the Ocean where a spiny plant grew, looking like a mixture of box-thorn and dogrose. If Gilgamesh cooked and ate it, he would become like he was in his youth and remain like that until his death.
The information enlivened Gilgamesh, although he was now absolutely convinced that death was inevitable, though a long life as a powerful and youthful man was certainly something to desire. When they had come out upon the open sea he wondered if the ferryman knew where the youth's plant was growing. Sure, Ur-shanabi knew that, but how would Gilgamesh be able to get hold of it? When they reach the spot where the plant grew, Gilgamesh let himself be lowered down into the sea with heavy stones tied to his feet. He managed to hold his breath for as long that he could pick one of the prickly plants and in joyous triumph he freed himself from the stone weights and swam up towards the sun-glittering surface.
However, during the journey Gilgamesh did not find an opportunity to cook and eat the prickly plant and had to wait until they arrived at Uruk. During one of the nightly sojourns when Gilgamesh had fallen asleep on the shore of an island, a snake came out of the sea and stole the precious Plant of Youth. When Gilgamesh woke up he was horrified by the theft, though he soon calmed himself down and smiled at the thought that he was on his way back to his former life, to his wife and children, and to the city he ruled over, which he had provided with such magnificent buildings. What was eternal youth compared to such achievements and the joy to know that you can love and be loved back?
As they along the wide river were approaching Uruk and caught sight of its sunlit, mighty walls, Gilgamesh exclaimed:
O, Ur-shanabi, climb Uruk´s wall, and walk back and forth!
Survey its foundation, examine its brickwork!
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations?
Thus ends the epic about Gilgamesh, just as it began – with a tribute to Uruk and its mighty walls. A depiction of civilization's victory over nature – Uruk with its date plantations, brick ovens, walls and magnificent temple dedicated to Ishtar, goddess of love and war. However, as we have seen in the epic, civilization had been created at the expense of nature and it could not have existed without parts of nature being defiled and killed, as Enkidu was vanquished and died in agony, as the natural forces of Humbaba and the Celestial Bull were killed, as the mighty, sacred Cedar Forest were cut down and destroyed. In the epic of Gilgamesh death is constantly present, in symbiosis with life and creation, and it is always victorious.
I give the last word to the remarkable poet from Prague, Rainer Maria Rilke. He was a romantic and a dreamer and far from being a diligent reader of classics. Rilke willingly admitted that he just had read bits and pieces from Hamlet and Dante's Divine Comedy and not a line from Goethe's Faust. During the mass slaughter and general despair during World War I, Rilke was completely taken by Gilgamesh. In 1916, after reading a rather deficient translation of Gilgamesh, he wrote to a female friend:
Here we find a gigantic book in which there exists a force, as well as individuals I found to be among the greatest that the magic words have ever bestowed upon every imaginable age. Most of all, I would like to tell you that here we find an epic about fear of death, which in all human thought has emerged as an incomprehensible concept, unthinkable since the fact that a separation between death and life would be definite and catastrophic.
Chambers, John (2018) The Metaphysiclal World of Isaac Newton: Alchemy, Prophecy and the Search for Lost Knowledge. New York: Simon and Schuster. Ebeling, Florian (2007) The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus from Ancient to Modern Times. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press. George, Andrew (2003) The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other texts in Akkadian and Sumerian, translated with an introduction by Andrew George. London: Penguin Classics. Glassie, John (2012) A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change. New York: Riverhead. Jacobsen, Thorkild (1976) The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press. Kirk, Geoffrey S. (1970) Myth: Its Meaning & Function in Ancient & Other Cultures. London: Cambridge University Press. Lloyd, Seton (1980) Foundations in the dust: The story of Mesopotamian exploration. London: Thames and Hudson. McLuhan, Marshall (1962) The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Moran, William L. (1980) ”Rilke and the Gilgamesh Epic,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies Vol. 32, no. 4. Sandars, Nancy K. (1972) The Epic of Gilgamesh. English Version with an Introduction by N.K. Sandars. London: Penguin Classics. Thompson Craig (2011) Habibi. New York: Pantheon.
- Bland Newtons efterlämnade papper fann man en mängd alkemistiska skrifter. Där fanns exempelvis hans egenhändigt gjorda översättning till engelska av Tabula Smaragdinas latinska text. Smaragdtavlan är en alkemistisk text som antogs vara skriven av den mytiske egyptiern Hermes Trismegistos, men den finner antagligen sitt ursprung i Mesopotamien. Tavlan beskriver hur De vises sten skulle kunna skapas.
- De vises sten är ett fiktivt ämne med mirakulösa egenskaper – den kan omvandla oädla metaller till ädla, bota alla sjukdomar och förlänga livet. Smaragdtavlans första meningar lyder:
- Tavlans text består enbart av femton meningar och de har säkerligen inte alls skrivits av någon Hermes Trismegistos, Den Tre-gånger Högste Hermes, en sammanblandning av den egyptiske vishetsguden Thoth och den grekiske Hermes, gudarnas budbärare. Dessa gudar relaterades till ordens makt, till magi och hemligheter. Thoth hade skapat språket och kände ”de ord som band och löste upp”, ”öppnade och tillslöt”. Hermes var en tröskelgud, hemmahörande mellan två sfärer och rörde sig fritt mellan dem, förenade eller stängde dem. Därigenom var han vägarnas, vännernas, gästfrihetens, älskogens, handelns, lekens och stöldens gud. Bestämde Hermes att något skulle hemlighållas blev det ”hermetiskt tillslutet”. Tecknet för att vara tyst, eller för att hemlighålla något var i allmänhet att hålla ett finger framför munnen. Grekerna hade fått för sig att Horusbarnet, som sög på ett finger och under namnet Harpokrates blev tystnadens och förtrolighetens gud, i själva verket höll sitt finger framför munnen som ett tecken på tystnad och hemlighållande. Ett tecken som sedan dess kommit i allmänt bruk. Nu vet alla vad ett pekfinger framför munnen betyder.
- Men det är inte tystnad som styr tillvaron, utan kommunikation. Gud hade skapat jorden med ord och det hade även Thoth gjort. Ord skapar ordning och Guds ord är lag. Land skall med lag byggas stod det i de medeltida, svenska landskapslagarna och sumererna skulle ha varit fullt eniga med det konstaterandet. Många ansåg att landets lag borde vara förenlig med naturens lagar. Det är en sådan insikt som Hermes Trismegistos ansågs ha fömedlat. I det mesopotamiska flodlandet är himlen alltid närvarande och man sökte där genom himlakropparnas rörelser och årstidernas växlingar finna de regler som styr tillvaron. En verksamhet som pågick under årtusenden.
- I staden Kufa vid Eufrats strand levde på 700-talet e.Kr. Abū Musā Jābir ibn Hayyān. Likt Isaac Newton var han en vetenskaplig mångsysslare, ständigt på jakt efter tillvarons lagar. Jābir ibn Hayyān var hovkemist hos den legendariske Harun al-Rashid och lämnade efter sig en så stor mängd skrifter kring alkemi, kosmologi, nummerologi, astrologi, medicin, mystik och religion att man har betvivlat hans existens.
- En mängd handskrifter på arabiska som bär Jābir ibn Hayyān namn finns i bibliotek i Leiden, Paris och London, medan flera avskrifter på latin förvaras i Vatikanen och Oxford, bland dem finns sjuttio böcker som översattes under Medeltiden. De bär namn som Venus bok och Stenarnas bok. Där finns också tio böcker som sammanlagda bildar Rättelsernas bok som tolkar världen utifrån teorier framlagda av filosofer som Pythagoras, Sokrates, Platon och Aristoteles. Mest betydelsefulla bland Jābir ibn Hayyāns skrifter är de så kallades Balansens böcker och bland dem speciellt Teorin om Naturens balans som hävdar att allt i naturen, även om det ändrar form och verkar på olika sätt, emanerar från en grundsubstans och att all förändring gör så att balans och harmoni upprätthålls.
- Abū Musā Jābir ibn Hayyāns böcker är uppenbarligen kompendier av allsköns kunskap som tolkats genom ett filter av komplicerad tal- och bokstavsmagi. Jābir ibn Hayyān, eller Geber som han kallades av sina medeltida uttolkare, skrev:
- Jābir ibn Hayyān påstod sig ha skrivit 1 300 böcker om konsten, en term som tycks beteckna framställandet av maskiner, automater och kemisk apparatur.
- Kanske är det hans rykte som en slags forntida, arabisk Uppfinnar Jocke som fick Marvel Comics Jonathan Hickman att skildra Jābir ibn Hayyān som en superhjälte, medlem i en hemlig orgnaisation vid namn S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage and Logistics Directorate) som i det forntida Egypten skapades av Imhotep, som bland annat ledde det första pyramidbygget. Organisationen hade till en början sitt högkvarter under Rom, men svävar nu högt över jordens yta på det flygande slagskeppet Helicarrier. En mängd berömda vetenskapsmän och konstnärer har genom tiderna varit verksamma inom S.H.I.E.L.D., som ser det som sin plikt att skydda världen innan Människans yttersta öde inträffar. Det har desssvärre visat att de geniala forskarna och uppfinnarna inom S.H.I.E.L.D. inte alltid har varit immuna mot maktkamp, avundsjuka och ränksmideri. Exmpelvis så mördade Isaac Newton Galileo Galilei och andra vetenskapsmän som motsatte sig hans maktbegär och ledarskap av S.H.I.E L.D.
Under fjortonhundratalet hade den venetianske resenären Giosofat Barbaro sett märkliga skrivtecken inhuggna på ruiner kring den persiska staden Shiraz och även tagit med sig lerskärvor inristade med de kilformiga tecknen. En annan italienare, Pietro Della Valle, hade 1621 till Rom tagit med sig en mängd avskrifter av kilskriftstecken, som han kopierat under en resa i Mesopotamien. Flera teologer började nu spekulera om de där tecknen möjligen kunde ha ett samband med det försvunna ”urspråket”, d.v.s. Guds tungomål, de var nämligen övertygade om att Edens Lustgård måste ha legat någonstans i Mesopotamien.
Början till kilskriftens tolkning inleddes genom två äventyrares insatser; Paolo Emilano Botta (1802-1870) och Austin Henry Layard (1817-1894). Botta var född i Italien men studerade botanik i Paris då han 1826 av August Nernard Duhaut-Cilly blev tillfrågad om han som läkare var villig segla jorden runt på hans fartyg Le Héros. Vid mitten av 1829 kom Le Héros tillbaka till Frankrike, efter längre uppehåll i Californien och på Hawaii. Botta ägnade sig sedan flera år åt botaniska studier i Mellanöstern, tills han 1842 utnämndes till fransk konsul i Mosul.
Shamash blev oroad och böjde sig ner,
han talade till Gilgamesh:
”O, Gilgamesh, vart vandrar du?
Livet du söker kommer du aldrig att finna.”
When I was ten years old I surprised my parents when I on my own initiative registered for violin lessons. I assume they thought it was a somewhat remarkable initiative since it is probably more common that it is parents who force their children to play an instrument. My decision was also somewhat strange considering that at the time, and it probably remains like that, most of my friends considered it to be geeky to devote yourself to such as mossy activity as violin playing when there were more important things in life, such as rock music and football.
A few years ago, I once again encountered a classmate I had not seen in fifty years. He had become a high-ranking municipal politician. Laughingly he, who remained a football and rock music fan, remarked that "you were already then a strange fellow who played the violin." I recall that when we ended up in high school he enthusiastically introduced me to the stereo effects in Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and how we together used to visit Hässleholm´s Jazz Club. His taste was not particularly sophisticated. His favorite was Glenn Miller, whom he zealously tried to convince me had been "a great innovator", this despite the fact that I stubbornly insisted that Miles Davis was much cooler. For hours, I could in darkness and loneliness lie and listen to his So What and Bitches Brew.
Like me my father was not particularly musically gifted. However, my youngest sister had a beautiful and confident voice, while my mother had a good ear and played excellent piano. Without difficulty, she could perform advanced pieces by Schubert and Beethoven. However, in spite of my lack of musical talent I enjoyed listening to all kinds of music.
Although I dutifully went each week to my violin lessons, year after year, I found them to be quite painful, especially since I was poorly prepared and my progress accordingly was non-existent. My first violin teacher was Kopsch. I have forgotten his first name. Since I was afraid of him I did not become as familiar with him as I later became with my other violin teachers. Kopsch told me strange and often scary stories that certainly found their source in an exceedingly gruesome imagination. For example, he told med about of a German tenor who lived sometime in the eighteenth century. This man had two faces and could thus sing duets with himself. I could not fathom why Kopsch told such stories to a little guy like me. He used his bony fingers, with sad-edged nails, to push my fingers hard against the fingerboard. He wanted to force me to find the right finger positions, maybe it was an effective method. I don't recall I was playing particularly false, though I never learned a proper vibrato and my capacity to keep the rhythm remained very bad indeed. To overcome such incapacities I probably needed much more patience, as well as disciplined training.
On my walks to Kopsch's lessons I passed with heavy steps the gloomy brick house of the Bible-trusting Friends. Every time I read the sign in front of the entrance to their assembly hall – Consider the brevity of life, the certainty of death and the length of eternity, an exhortation I did not find particularly encouraging.
Kopsch’s classroom was located in the attic of Kyrkskolan, The Church School, and was reached by a wide creaking staircase. While waiting for my lesson I sat on a wooden bench just outside the closed door, watching a reproduction of Gaugin’s Ta Matete, the Market, which hung on the opposite wall. Through the door I could hear the pleasing sounds from the violin of the girl who was having her lesson before me. She was more skilled than I could ever become. She was diligent and did her homework. All members of her family played some instrument. I knew her brother who played both the clarinet and the oboe. She sat next to me among the Youth Orchestra's first violins. I couldn't understand why I had ended up among the best violin students, as bad as I was at keeping my pace.
Maybe the conductor, Leif Jansson, was in agreement with Kopsch who used to point out: Jan, you are a hopeless Schüler, with bad Rhytmus Sinn, but you hast an unbestreitbar Schwung. The violin teachers who in new premises succeeded Kopsch – Ole Hylstrup and Ferenc Piller – also used to complain about my lack of any sense of rythm, though both asserted they were quite pleased with my posture and passion the few times I succeeded in playing a piece without my usual insecurity. According to my my memory I only learned two pieces properly – Bach´s Air, not the one played on the G-string but the original one from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in d major and Tale of the Heart by Wilhelm Åström:
There´s a spring in the forest´s shadow.
There´s a flower in every meadow.
Each heart shelters the truth,
of love that we had in our youth.
I don't know what happened to Kopsch. He was succeeded by Ole Hylstrup, who had a completely different personality. He was a good-natured prankster who made me think of the womanizing travelling salesmen who frequented Stadshotellet, the City Hotel. Hylstrup had for several years performed in a restaurant trio on ocean liners between Scandinavia and the U.S. He used to tell me Jeg have been in Sverige for so lang tid that jeg have completey fogotten the Danske sprog. Like Kopsch, Hylstrup liked to tell stories, though unlike the German violin teacher's more morbid tales the Dane’s stories were mostly pointless jokes. I can remember only one of them: What vermin walks around in a fur-coat? ... I do not have the slightest idea. A louse! Hylstrup laughed heartily at his own wittiness, it wasn't until much later that I understood the joke and it wasn't funny at all. Hylstrup also shared of his more or less fantastic business ideas. I didn't understand why. He sold me a violin, which low price made my father wonder if the instrument could really be as good as Hylstrup assured him it was.
The year before, during one of our camping holidays with the family's Renault Gordini, we had passed the small town of Mittenwald, located on the Alpine slopes just after Germany's border with Austria. After seeing some signs advertising violin sales, we stopped the car and visited a shop belonging to a luthier, violin builder. The shop owner greeted us in a polite manner, though we soon realized that he that immediately had spotted that we did not have the faintest idea about neither violins nor their value. Kindly laughing, the bearded gentleman explained that he did not sell his violins to little amateurs like me, but to world-renowned virtuosi, or wealthy collectors. That is why it surprised me when I a few months ago took out my violin from its more or less forgotten nook and found that the label inside the sound box stated that it had been made in Mittenwald. Probably it is a fake and I will bring the violin to my good friend Per Rudebjer, who is not only a skilled luthier but has many other strings on his lyre. He is, for example, a forester and a UN expert. It is Per who inspired me to write this blog post and he also helped me find some essemtial violin reading.
Well, even though I was a bad ensemble player, I was forced to play solo every year at the Municipal Music School's annual performance in the Linnaeus School's auditorium. Always Bach's Air and Åström´s Tale of the Heart. My piano accompanist was a girl some years older than me. In my opinion she was quite cool and beautiful. She was able to follow my erratic rhythm and smooth over my shortcomings and mistakes. Her skill was probably the reason to why we had to repeat the performance year after year sometimes extended with a Largo from Bach´s Concerto in f minor.
Just before my appearance was announced I became indescribably nervous, though as soon as I entered the stage it turned out that I could pass the fire test, something I found incomprehensible. It felt as if each performance had been a complete fiasco. I assumed my knees had been shaking uncontrollably and that the unstoppable trembling in my fingers caused every single note to sway. However, that was apparently my own personal opinion since afterwards I quite often heard from my teachers that my playing had exceeded their expectations. It had actually been quite good. Maybe it was because every time I played my pieces in front of a large audience I did so as if I had been in a trance, far beyond time and space, trapped within my own little world.
For some reason, Ole Hylstrup disappeared and was replaced by Ferenc Piller. Ferenc was of a different caliber than Hylstrup, more serious, he was also a rabid anti-communist and did not even want to hear anything about Russians like Stravinsky or Shostakovich, who were definitely not any communists. Of course, his great idol was Ferenc Lizt.
When Ferenc showed up and I heard him play, I finally realized that there was absolutely no future for me as a violinist and soon I put my violin on the shelf, or rather – hid it in the depth of a wardrobe.
A lasting benefit from my failed time as a violinist was that my performances had blown away all my concerns about acting and talking in front of an audience. The violin had been like an outgrowth of my body, the slightest sensation, minmal shiver, movement or posture affected the instrument. I suppose a violin, more than a cello and even more than a wind instrument or piano, possesses such characteristics. This is probably one of the reasons to why the violin has become so venerated and demonized, more so than any other instrument.
In any case, I found that as soon as I didn't have to face a crowd without the violin I was a free and carefree man. It felt wonderful, so incredibly easy and simple just to talk, to dodge the cumbesome and extremely sensitive violin. Just talking, nothing could be easier. Since then I have not had the slightest worry about expressing myself publicly. Even if I am capable of uttering a lot of stupidities I do not find that to be as embarrassing as the false tones and sqeeking I emitted from my violin.
On a closer reflection, it was probably the mystical power manifested through violin music that almost sixty years ago brought that ten-year-old boy to his failed violin lessons. The idea struck me when I recently listened to The Danish String Quartet´s CD – Prism II, Beethoven, Schnittke, Bach, which I had bought on impulse just before the Corona virus isolated us at home. Trios and string quartets have always attracted me. Over the years I have been partiularly intrigued by Schubert's chamber music.
The Danish String Quartet was an exciting acquaintance. On my CD they perform a fugue from Bach's solo pieces for piano, Das Wohltemperirte Clavier, arranged for string quartet by Beethoven's friend Emanuel Förster. This track leads to Alfred Schnittke's Third String Quartet from 1983 and the CD is concluded by one of Beethoven's last string quartets, No. 13 in ess major. The four young Danes describe their CD as "a musical beam split by Beethoven's prism" and explain that it was a result of their struggle with Beethoven's seemingly simple, but in fact extremely complicated and multi-faceted late string quartets. I don't understand much of that, but I find it exciting how the music passes from one level to another, from epoch to epoch, between different harmonic systems and between both familiar and unknown tunes. This creates dynamics and tension, sometimes torn apart and renewed by surprising dissonances.
It was Alfred Schnittke's name between Bach's and Beethoven's that made me buy the CD. All I knew about that composer was that he was a "modern" Russian, a master in the aftermath of my much appreciated Sjostakovich. I already owned a compilation CD with Russian film music, where Schnittke's beautiful, slightly romantic music was juxtaposed with Sjostakovich's equally pleasant soundtracks. I expected Schnittke to be almost as capable as Shostakovich when it came to create dynamic and stunning chamber music. The Danish String Quartet´s CD proved that I had not been mistaken. Alfred Scnittke´s chamber music became a new, dramatic acquaintance and the
music´s strength, that previously had been completely unknown to me, will henceforth make me seek out more about and by Alfred Scnittke.
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) proved to be an excellent choice for a CD with mixed chamber music. His string quartet was like a house which doors open and close; irony, sentimentality and confusion follow one after another. The music rises and falls, calms down – only to unexpectedly attack the listener. It is such dynamics that make chamber music exciting, soothing and agitating, similar to slightly besotted, nightly coversations among friends, filled as they are with repetitions and inspiration.
Arthur Schnittke was one of those strangely composed European figures who in their multifacted personalities and through their colourful and sometimes disturbing origins summarize a wealth of impressions and experiences from a Europe characterized by war, art and the Cold War. Something that probably rendered him with a dark view of the world, maybe similar to the one of Shostakovich. Schnittke noted that "the history of humanity has not at all demonstrated any development from the worst to the better".
Schnittke was born in Engels, a port city on the Volga. It had in 1747 been founded in by chumaks, Ukrainian ox drivers and traders and was then called Pokrovskaya. Catherine the Great, who originally was a German (daughter of Frederick Augustus, Prince of Anhalt) invited Germans to settle in her sparsely populated empire. The immigrants were guaranteed tax relief, self-government, exemptions from military service, free language - and religious practice. Furthermore, each settler family was allocated 30 hectares of agricultural land. By the end of the 19th century there were more than a hundred so-called ”German villages” along Volga and nearly one million ”German-Russians”. In 1941, the Supreme Soviet decreed that all ”Volga-Germans” should be deported to Siberia, where many of them died. After the fall of the Soviet Union, two million ”Germans” emigrated from Russia, while 800,000 ”German descendants” remain, most of them living in Siberia.
Like many other intellectuals who grew up in Russia during the twentieth century, Alfred Schnittke's life was unique and remarkable. His father, Harry Schnittke, descended from several generations of Baltic Jews and had emigrated to Germany together with his parents. As a young writer and journalist he settled in Pokrovskaya, which by Stalin in 1931 had been renamed Engels. When all the ”Germans” in Engels were deported to Siberia, Harry Schnittke managed to prove that he was a Jew. His family was thereby allowed to remain in the city while he, in order to protect them, volunteered for the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union. By being both ”Germans” and Jews, his remaining family members met a fierce destiny, though they managed to survive and after the War they were reunited with Harry Schnittke, who in Soviet-occupied Vienna was working for Austria's first German-language newspaper after World War II – the Österreichischen Zeitung, which had both German and Soviet employees. The paper existed until 1955.
During his two years in Vienna, young Alfred Schnittke's life changed – he discovered the magic of music:
I felt every moment there to be a link of the historical chain, all was multi-dimensional; the past represented a world of ever-present ghosts and I was not a barbarian without any connections, but the conscious bearer of the task in my life.
That is how Schnittke came to create his polystylistic music, which was influenced by and ”preserved” impressions from earlier music. Occasionally Schnittke even verbatim reproduced small parts from previous music works:
There is a remarkable unity – primarily of the artist´s world (what he sees), but also of meaning (how he interprets it). There is a remarkable sense of the multidimensionality of time, in which eternity and the moment are one and the same thing, with the multiple facets of reality lying between them. […] The polystilistic tendency has always existed in concealed form in music and continues to do so, because music that is stylistically sterile would be dead.
Of course, Schnittke has been accused of plagiarism, but if such is the case a great modern and at the same time classical master like Igor Stravinsky may also be labeled as a plagiarist. Or Johannes Brahms, who for twenty years struggled with his First Symphony, constantly reworking it while he time and time again postponed its premiere. To a friend, Brahms wrote: "You cannot imagine how it feels to listen to the footsteps of a giant behind your back." The giant was Beethoven, who with his Ninth Symphony had broken down all barriers previously erected around the classical symphony and he thus opened the flood gates for the surge of Romanticism. When Brahms finally premiered his First Symphony he had to suffer the ignominy of having it called Beethoven's Tenth, something he nevertheless was secretly proud of. However, when it was repeatedly pointed out how numerous the similarities were with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Brahms became annoyed and quipped ”Das bemerkt ja schon jeder Esel! Every donkey can notice that!”
To refer to an admired master in your own works of art is actually not tantamount to plagiarism, it is rather an interpretation and can sometimes even be an improvement. As Picasso once pointed out, ”good artists copy, great artists steal.” If an artist creates a masterpiece, it generally contains allusions to and inspiration from other works of art. A symphony is a vast, extensive creation, or as Gustav Mahler pointed out: “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is talking to a giant, hookah-smoking caterpillar which presents itself herself as a Know-it-all. In Disney's surreal version of the fairy tale, which does not slavishly follow the original, Alice begins to read a poem, but the caterpillar interrupts her.
Alice: Oh. Yes sir. How doth the little busy bee improve each...
It is probably such an inhibition-free, surprising ease and elegance I seek in and often assume myself to have found in chamber music. Presumably it may also be something I unconsciously strive for in my writing – whimsical dynamics, developments that tend to go astray but nevertheless may return to a red thread – all done for my own pleasure, while ignoring the presumptive reader. Maybe akin to when I in my early youth played the violin in front of an audience. At that moment I did not really care about the listeners. I didn't even notice them. However, writing is much easier than playing the violin. The keyboard is not part of my body and as I type, no one can criticize me for what I am writing. It is only at a later stage that criticism may emerge, but then I am prepared for it, well aware that my texts do not at all meet all the requirements that should be expected from them. I am not a champion and I am completely satisfied with that. Like a footballer who enjoys playing within the lower subdivisions with no ambition whatsoever to end up with the national team. The game is joy enough, not the competition and the money.
All creation is intimately connected and many writers have been tempted to mix different genres, often in an amateurish fashion, a daring activity that may easily end up in disaster. There are plenty of musically sounding poems, but not so many novels. One is however Birger Sjöberg's summer-fresh, uninhibited nostalgic and charming description of a Swedish small-town by the beginning of the Twentieth Century, which unfortunately is not translated into English – The Quartet That Split Up. The entire novel is written in the same charming, slightly ironic manner as Birger Sjöberg's songs, of which several have been translated into English by Colin MacCallum. To get a impression of these songs you might listen to Den första gång jag såg dig, The First Time I saw you, that my youngest sister used to sing:
The first time that I saw you, it was a summer’s day;
The morning sunshine – oh, so bright and clear
And all the meadows’ blossoms, in marvellous display
Were bowing, bending, swaying, far and near.
The first time that I saw you, it was a summer’s day,
The first time that I dared to take your hand, dear.
And therefore when I see you, even on a winter’s day
With snowdrifts lying glittering and cold,
I hear the lark’s sweet cadence, feel summer breezes play
And hear the ocean’s rushing waves unfold.
Here sung in the original Swedish by Sven Bertil Taube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TvAbraUyPY In the novel, just like in Sjöberg´s entertaing songs there is always an almost impereceptible undercurrent of loneliness, death and and sorrow.
Music is present in Sjöberg´s delightful novel, though it is not at the centre stage, on the other hand it is at the very centre of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, a tragic love story between a self-centered violinist and a pianist, who is married and also about to become deaf. A number of string quartets, foremost among them Beethoven's Piano Trio, Opus 1, have a major part in the novel, which in its prose from time to time seems to capture the power, mystery and spirituality of music. Seth, who like Birger Sjöberg is a melodic and often rhyming poet, can actually be considered to have succeeded quite well in obtaining an effect where music and his tale are intimately intertwined. However, in spite of its obvious skill, not least through a credible and profound portrayal of the protagonists and impressive insights in the lives and existence of professional musician's live, An Equal Music became somewhat too sophisticated for my taste. Nevertheless, it is perhaps one of the best novels written about music. It is undoubtedly extremely difficult to capture in words such an evasive phenomenon as music, without becoming overly sentimental, wordy and contrived.
I came to think of these novels since I, with some anticipation, recently picked up Violin written in 1997 by Anne Rice. According to the promotional blurbs on its cover the novel would be about an enchanted Stradivari violin, a demonic, Russian, aristocratic and a lady from New Orleans who travel together through the ages and to various cities, such as Vienna and Venice, where they encounter composers such as Paganini and Beethoven. According to a review on the cover, Rice's novel ”flows like blood - of the life-giving, life-celebrating kind.” It certainly sounded somewhat tacky, though the novel could still be exciting.
Maybe Violin could be comparable to the movie The Red Violin, which through five centuries follows a ”red” Cremona violin as it is passed on from one hand to another – from the violin builder to his orphaned daughter and after her death further on to a German prodigy at the same orphanage. The young virtuoso brings the violin with him to Vienna. After his death the enchanted violin ends up with wandering Roma who take it to Oxford, where a beautiful Roma, violin-playing girl ends up as the mistress of an English aristocrat. When he has killed himself, the violin is brought by his Chinese servant to Shanghai where it re-surfaces during the Cultural Revolution. Following the death of its persecuted owner Chinese authorities send the violin to Montreal for evaluation and sale. However, the evaluator, a rude, unscrupulous New York-based violin restorer, steals the violin from the auction house, after replacing it with a copy. Before that, he has found that the violin's red color is due to the violin builder having mixed his dead wife's blood with the varnish. The film ends with the violin evaluator telling his daughter has a gift for her.
It is a beautiful film that may be helped by a soundtrack recorded by the sympathetic virtuoso Joshua Bell, but despite that I found it overloaded with embarrassing clichés and John Corigliano's music to be strangely bland. The film did not catch on. It appeared to be fragmented into a number of rather lifeless tableaux, without internal and external tension and depth. Completely different from a lush masterpiece like Miloš Forman’s Amadeus. Like his Hair it is a multifaceted and truly musical film. An exciting story packed with unforgettable scenes, complete with an original and acute dialogue that lingers in memory. A delightful rhythm, splendid imagery and solid performances. All executed in harmony with a richly flowing music and creative joy. Amadeus and Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni are my absolute favorites among movies made about classical music.
The Violin began on a promising note. An HIV-AIDS-deceased millionaire dies in a sumptuous mansion. His inconsolable wife spends several confused days maddened by grief close to the rotting corpse. Triana's hallucinatory state of mind made me think of Sadegh Hedayat's surrealistic novel The Blind Owl in which an opium intoxicated pencil-box painter roams within a distorted dream world, obsessed by guilt and death he is apparently constantly close to the rotting corpse of his wife, who he presumably has murdered. However, here ends all similarities between Hedayat’s astonishing masterpiece and Rice’s befuddled Violin.
In the Violin, the reader is confronted with a wealth of suggestive, but inchoate hints at Anne Rice's own life; her alcoholism, memories of her mother who died of acute alcohol poisoning, as well as her six-years old her daughter who died of leukemia, all against a backdrop of a moisture steaming New Orleans. But soon it all collapses in a jumble of stilted dialogues, unbearably overloaded dream visions, silly clichés constituted by, among other things, a possessed, sensual violin virtuoso, who furthermore is dead, awkwardly inept attempts to describe music and silly encounters with famous composers. What happened to Anne Rice? How could she derail in such a catastrophic manner? Does she nor have a literary agent/editor able to tell her that this was an unfortunate mishmash? Schmaltz of the most exasperating kind. I couldn't finish reading this debris from a pen craft that once had been quite good.
Something else could have been expected from a horror writer who from a New Orleans perspective wrote about music and possession. This is voodoo land soaked in breathtaking music. New Orleans is not that far from the birth place of the Mississippi Delta Blues and blues is for sure the Devil's music, as music ethnologist Alan Lomax had noted:
In fact, every blues fiddler, banjo picker, harp blower, piano strummer and guitar framer was, in the opinion of both himself and his peers, a child of the Devil, a consequence of the black view of the European dance embrace.
And it was more bluesmen than the great Robert Johnson who learned to play from the Devil himself. Maybe it was probably just as common there down in the Mississippi Delta as it was in the deep forests in bygone Sweden that spooky creatures like the Swedish Näcken, or whatever they were called down there in the Bajou - The Devil, Papa Legba or Baron Samedi – on condition that he was willing to sell their souls to them taught musicians to perfect their skills at cross roads or on tombstones. Such creatures could even give their victims their own violins, or guitars.
Enchanted violins could probably there, as in Sweden, cause all kinds of misery. As in the small village of Hårga in the Swedish district of Hälsingland, where during a late Saturday evening, sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, a fiddler with a wide-brimmed hat and ”glowing” eyes during a barn dance suddenly stepped out of the shadows. He played a tune that made everyone step out to dance. Nothing could stop them. They danced and danced. When the day was dawning, just before the church bells rang for the morning mass, they had danced after the demonic fiddler all the way up to the Hårga Mountain, where they continued to dance until their bones and knuckles jumped up and down on the ground. It was the Devil who had lured the unfortunate lot up to the mountain, this was known since a girl had fallen to the barn floor and passed out when she trampled on by the possessed dancers. When the others danced away, she had been laying there, unconscious and with a broken leg. After waking up she could tell the village priest that she had clearly seen how the fiddler had stomped the beat with a cloven hoof.
In Igor Stravinsky's suggestive septet L'Histoire du soldat, The Soldier’s Tale, in which the Devil, among other things acts as violin virtuoso, the outcome of the tale is opposite to the one in Hårga. In L'Histoire du soldat it is the Devil who is becomes captivated and vanquished by the soldier's violin playing. The Devil's power over the soldier does not lie hidden in music but in greed and lust for power.
In Sweden most often, just like in the United States, it was not the Devil himself who bewitched people with his violin playing, but a fiddler who had learned to play from a demon in the sevice of the Devil. In the case of Sweden it was generally a nature creature called Näcken - the foremost fiddler of all. This wicked, but tragically lonely figure, did with his fiddling lure people to drown themselves in lakes and wells. Of course, it was tempting for a fiddler to learn to play from Näcken and he willingly obliged if you were fearless enough to make contact with the dangerous water sprite. There were countless ways to make the Näcken show up and provide you with lessons. The best time to contact Näcken was during the Midsummer´s night, but with the right approach it was possible to contact him almost every Thursday night, waiting for him by the edge of a river or lake.
It would then be appropriate to bring your own violin and play for Näcken, even more effectively it would be to sit naked on a rock at the edge of a lake or stream and pass your bow over a smoked leg of mutton, which you gave to Näcken when he appeared. The demon then asked if he could borrow your violin. Näcken then carefully examined the instrument before asking:
- Shall I tune the violin to the fingers, or the fingers to the violin?
A wise fiddler obviously chose the first option. The Näcken then twisted and bent your fiddle before handed it back to you. Despite Näcken's brusque handling the instrument it appeared to be unchanged, but after Näcken´s treatment the violin never had to be tuned again and it played very nicely.
It also happened that Näcken made the fiddler forfeit his soul to the powers of evil, often by swapping fiddle with him. He then took the fiddler’s violin and asked him to turn away. When the fiddler at Näcken's request turned around again and looked down at the ground, he saw two identical violins lying there. If the fiddler chose the right one, he got his magically tuned violin back, but if he chose the wrong instrument, he brought Näcken's violin home with him home and he was then doomed by the end of his earthly existence to enter Hell's eternal fire.
The fiddle of the Näcken was extremely dangerous. The fiddler could easily lose control of it, enter a state of ecstasy and play as if possessed. Then the same thing could happen as in Hårga – that the fiddler could not stop playing and people could not stop dancing. Before dawn the player had danced himself and his audience into a swamp or lake, where they all drowned. Once upon a time, however, both the fiddler and the dancers were saved. A stone deaf farmworker realized what was going on and managed to cut the strings from the violin of the possessed fiddler.
Näcken, or the Devil, could also give the violinist a piece of music, for example the eerie Näcken’s polka (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90Eii0EYnC0). Most famous in the genre of devilish tunes is probably Giuseppe Tartini's (1692-1770) Sonata in g minor, the so-called Devil´s Trill, Il trillo del diavolo. Three years before his death, Tartini told Jérôme Lalande, a French astronomer and diarist, how the music came to him::
One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the ”Devil's Trill”, but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me.
According to an Italian comics magazine, Dylan Dog: Sonata Macabra, Tartini was for the rest of his life tormented by his inability to accurately reproduce the music he had heard in his dream. Tartini constantly struggled to rewrite his Trillo del diavolo, though he could not even approach the immense perfection he had heard during the fateful night.
In my opinion, Pasquale Ruju's comic is more sophisticated than Anne Rice's tangled opus. By Rujo a young and beautiful Russian violinist is manipulated by a group of Satanists, who imagined that with her help they would be able to reconstruct the original Devil’s Trill and thus find a language through which the Devil could manifest himself and enter the mind of people. Through this magical music, they believed they could change everything to their own benefit. The road to such perfection of the Devil's work here on earth would obviously lead though a variety of violent crimes inspired and promoted by a diabolical millionaire. A not quite unusual combination of the ingredients of a true horror story – magical violins, millionaires´ boundless greed, overly skilled and beautiful violinists and the Devil's constant scheming, which in the end is frustrated.
The association of body and soul can possibly be reflected through the connection between a violinist and his/her violin. A symbiosis through which the instrument becomes a means of expression conveying the violinist's inner being, perhaps even his/her desire to ”become someone”, to become visible to his/her surroundings. It is therefore not only the music but also the aesthetics of the instrument and its users that are provided with a great importance. The violin is a beautiful work of art. Its design, for example the scroll, the black intarsia along its edges, the ebony of the fingerboard, the luster of the varnish and many other details do not really have such a great impact on the sound as they have for aesthetics. They may occasionally apply to the musician who handles the instrument, and from time to time a great emphasis is placed on his/her appearance and performance.
Some male violin virtuosi seem to be vying for some kind of outsider image, like David Garrett and Nigel Kennedy, who obviously cultivate an image as eccentric geniuses. It was no coincidence that Bernard Rose chose David Garrett to act as Niccolò Paganini in his movie The Devil's Violinist.
Paganini is considered to be the archetype of a demonic violinist with a fatal appeal on women. His physique was not quite normal. He obviously suffered from Marfan´s Syndrome, a hereditary disease affecting connective tissue, and thus the cardiovascular system, skeleton, joints and eyes. The disorder made Paganini lean, with long arms, fingers and toes. It also provided him with extremely flexible joints, a characteristic that probably contributed to his incredible skill while handling a violin.
Like so many other prodigies, Paganini was whipped on by his parents and at a young age he became a full-fledged violinist, in demand at the princely courts in northern Italy, though he mainly gained admiration and income through celebrated tours throughout Europe. Paganini was almost universally recognized as an incomparably talented violinist, though many became enraged or disappointed by his exaggerated and glaring showmanship during concerts that attracted hordes of captivated groupies. Constantly harassed by illnesses, not the least tuberculosis and syphilis, Paganini compensated for his physical shortcomings and complexes by acting as a demonic womanizer, while abusing alcohol and opium, as well as suffering from recurring, severe depressions. Part of his image consisted in fueling rumors that he had made a pact with the Devil, which caused controversies with the Catholic Church and, among other things, delayed his Christian burial in Genoa. It wasn't until 1870 that his corpse found a lasting resting place in Parma.
It was with some anticipation I looked forward to The Devil's Violinist, especially since I had appreciated Bernard Rose's previous film about Beethoven, Immortal Beloved. A very musical film in which Gary Oldman makes an impressive performance as Beethoven. However, The Devil's Violinist was a disappointment; a historical tableau without depth and excitement. Admittedly, David Garrett makes an convincing effort as a violin-playing Paganini (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjAzqZMLMHY ), though as an actor he is next to disastrous, especially compared to the skilled Oldman. To me, the film fell flat to the ground, though Garrett's violin performances were well worth the ticket price, despite their somewhat superficial flashiness.
The Devil's Violinist wallowed in the myth of the demon-possessed violin virtuoso, but not as much and shamelessly as in the only film directed by the undoubtedly somewhat crazy Klaus Kinski, who even named his bizarre opus Kinski/Paganini. It seems as if Kinski had almost completely identified himself with what he believed to be a self-obsessed, misunderstood genius and sex maniac. The film is an outlandish concoction, almost without dialogue and filled to the brim with frantic violin playing and lovemaking with young women. Two years after the film, Kinski was dead and thus his movie became a fitting epitaph for this extremely strange actor.
If some male violinists strive for an image as unpolished, Bohemian geniuses, several female virtuosi appear to be impeccably elegant and cool beauties, in stylish accessories. For example, it is common for a virtuoso like Ann-Sofie Mutter to receive compliments not only for her impeccable violin playing but also for her custom-made dresses from Chanel, Givenchy, Dior and Nicholas Oakwell, often in colours that match her Stradivarius.
Other highly skilled, young and female violin virtuosos such as Hilary Hahn and Sarah Chang receive accolades for their looks and dresses, which some music lovers consider to be a detriment to the appreciation of their great talent. It may be understandable, though music performances are after all also displays of showmanship and pageants, something many solo artists seem to be well aware of it.
Music purists may also be annoyed by the genre transcendent tendencies that some great violinists demonstrate. For example has Hilary Hahn become known for so-called cross-genre collaboration with various ”popular artists”. To a greater extent, Nigel Kennedy has drawn criticism for his ”diva behaviour” combined with ”crowd-pleasing tricks”. The now deceased, but once extremely influential ”cultural personality” Sir John Drummond with his backing from BBC did for example demean Nigel Kennedy by among other things criticise him for wearing a black cape and ”Dracula like” make-up while performing Alban Berg's violin concerto. Drummond attacked Kennedy's ”ludicrous clothes” and ”self-invented accent” and appointed Kennedy as the ”Liberace of the Nineties”.
I don't care about that at all. To me Nigel Kennedy is the great entertainer on one of my absolute favorite CDs – East Meets East. Appearance and stage performance does not mean much to me. The self-assured and powerful David Oistrakh, with his mellow, heartfelt and confident style is and remain