Gold In The River

I had meant to post this Antinous poem back in October, but was stricken by the death of my brother at that point (and a lot of attendant responsibilities).

But as we end this unpleasant year, here it is.


Gold in the River

A body drifting down, veiled by the murky and turbulent waters,

Kissed by electric fish, drifting along where many others had drowned

Beauty and tragedy, screened off by the dark waters that had

Witnessed the scattering of a primordial god’s body in time immemorial

Who was acutely aware of others drowning in the great river

That had eternally given life to the Two Lands—

To the black alchemical soil gift of the river that was Egypt.

The gold of that myth, guarded by the sacred oxyrinchus fish,

Deep in the mud, flashing, a fluctuating glimmer.

Here once upon a time the elephant-nose fish had eaten Osiris’ phallus,

And the goddess Isis, having re-membered his dismembered body

But not being able to find his penis had crafted a golden phallus

By which she impregnated the seed of the god into her womb.

Things like that are not forgotten even by a river.

A golden lamp in the murk:

How a lost swimmer aims for that promise.

Another has taken the water road of Osiris, that golden road,

And will be brought into the halls of the Underworld.

Only they can now touch and attend the sacralized body;

Long will be the myriad rites of god-making.


Ave Antinoe!


Once In Arabia

Once there was a land with cities that thrived on the incense trade, cities with names like Tayma, Qaryat al-Faw (the City of Paradise), Thaj, Dedan, and many more cities of the Incense Roads of Arabia. They had a near monopoly on frankincense and myrrh, so important to worship in the Mediterranean world, in Persia, in Mesopotamia, and in Egypt. The trees grew (and still do) in the southern deserts, their resins harvested from the bark and transported in caravans. Great wealth was generated. Agatharchides writing in the 2nd century BCE reported, “From their trafficking both the Sabaeans and the Gerrhaeans have become the richest of all; and they have a vast equipment of both gold and silver articles, and very costly houses; for doors and walls and ceilings are variegated with ivory and gold and silver set with precious homes.”

Altar, 500-300 BCE, from al-Hamra temple of Tayma, with Apis-like bull
Altar, 500-300 BCE, from al-Hamra temple of Tayma, with Apis-like bull

Their homes and temples were also set with beautiful sculptures and paintings. Some can be seen at the fascinating exhibition Roads of Arabia at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (through Jan. 18, 2015). What surprised me was to see this rich figurative art tradition, a lot of it obviously sacred in a land that has long been under the interdict of Islam’s forbidding of representation of the human form. It’s also intriguing to see how interwoven with the neighboring regions of classical civilization polytheistic Arabia was. Besides many indigenous gods mentioned in inscriptions, there are sculptures of Herakles Bibax (the Drinker associated with Dionysos) and other classical ones.

Herakles Bibax, 1st-3rd century CE Qaryat al-Faw
Herakles Bibax, 1st-3rd century CE, Qaryat al-Faw

Recent archaeology is bringing to light a lot more knowledge. One is of the Red City, Qaryat-al Faw in the southwest, “at the edge of the Empty Quarter, the great desert that occupies so much of southern Arabia. At Qaryat al-Faw, Saudi archaeologists made one of their most spectacular discoveries, uncovering a city that contained material typical of southern Arabia alongside Hellenistic figurative sculpture from Syria and Egypt” (Asian Art). This city has yielded much banqueting equipment, unsurprisingly the worship of Dionysos was popular. There are haunting anthropomorphic stele form extremely ancient dates of 4th and 5th millennia BCE; I think these are likely ancestral figures. There is so so much more offering tantalizing glimpses into barely known ancient polytheistic cultures. Call me an Orientalist if you will, but thinking of these long vanished cities evoke images from a 30’s sword and sorcery novel for me.

4th mill BCE
4th millenium BCE

If you are in the region, the exhibition is highly worth visiting.

Incense burner
incense burner 1244