Tag Archives: Persia

P.S. on Kamyar Jarahzadeh’s piece on Sayat Nova

9 Nov

Thank you Kamyar for your posting.
Your comments however are somewhat incomplete.
Sayat Nova, born name “Harutyun Sayatyan” would have been a perfect peace ambassador in today’s Caucaus region. As far as I know, only Armenians have honored his true work for people. He was a true peoples’ singer, musician besides being accepted in Georgian court. It is sad that Azeri’s don’t appreciate the work of a genius.
He became a monk in an Armenian monestery (Haghpat) after he was expelled from Georgian court. Because he refused to convert his religion to Islam, he was killed and beheaded by the order of Persian king Agha Mohammad Khan of Ghajar during his invasion to Caucasus…

Sorry.  Kind of a moral mission on my part: can’t let celebration of cosmopolitan, tolerant Islam (or any monotheism) get away with exaggerations.

A tableau/scene — the still, fabulous compositions of Paradzhanov’s style, that make so much of his work “our parts” pornography, in essence — from Color of Pomegranates:

sayat-nova,jpg

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

 

From the Ajam Media Collective: Sayat Nova by Kamyar Jarahzadeh

9 Nov

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 5.18.09 PM

The Bard of the Caucasus” by  

A popular rendering of Sayat Nova.

For those unfamiliar with his legacy, Sayat Nova’s story can seem like the stuff of myth. His life is fascinating even in broad strokes: he was an ethnic Armenian musician and Orthodox Christian who lived in the Caucasus in the 18th century. He created a unique style of music, and wrote hundreds of songs in Armenian, Azeri, and Georgian. His talent was so great that even though he was born in a humble background, he rose to become the court musician of a Georgian king and founded his own school of musicians.

Sayat Nova was part of a tradition of bards known in Armenian as ashough — synonymous with the Turkish aşiq or Persian ashegh, terms used to refer to travelling musicians but literally meaning lover. Such bards worked across a vast cultural landscape that included the territory of modern Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and similarly transgressed the Persianate, Armenian, Azeri and Georgian speaking cultural worlds.

Just like other artisans, during this era being an ashough was like joining a class of professionals. But Sayat Nova’s style of music was unusual, he created new musical forms and compositions in all three languages.

Despite the formidable and cosmopolitan legacy of this bard, his appreciation has largely been confined to the domain of Armenian cultural heritage. Sayat Nova is mostly associated with and remembered for his works in Armenian. The reasons for this are largely due to what history has passed down to us (or failed to preserve), but that still begs the question: what more could we understand about Sayat Nova, if we were to further explore his story and music beyond his Armenian identity?

A Sayat Nova composition being performed by a modern ensemble.
To understand how an 18th century bard could create such a corpus of work, it helps to start with the basics of the musician’s biography. Although there is contention over the details of his life, Sayat Nova was likely born in the northwest of modern-day Armenia. Supposedly, he was to become a trained weaver only to instead travel to India and fight in one of Nadir Shah’s invasions of the Mughal Empire. He eventually returned to enter the ashough guild and officially gained the moniker Sayat Nova, from the Persian sayyad-i nava, or “hunter of songs.”

As he rose to fame for his musical ability, he became the court musician of King Heracle II of Georgia in Tiflis (modern-day Tblisi). He composed and performed his famous repertoire of work during this period, until legend has it he was kicked out of the court for falling in love with the King’s sister. He lived out his final years as a monk.

A map of the Afsharid dynasty detailing their campaigns against the Mughals in modern-day India. Sayat Nova is claimed to have participated in these battles.

In the 17th and 18th century, despite conflict between empires of different ethnolinguistic makeup and demographics, linguistic and cultural cosmopolitanism was the norm in royal courts. Sayat Nova was particularly valued in the Georgian Court for his ability to contribute Persianate culture and Persian-style music (although the music he performed in the court was almost exclusively in Georgian, Armenian, and Azeri).

Fortuitous timing also gave Sayat Nova the space to create his particular repertoire and be appreciated. In the 17th century, Western and Eastern Armenia had been split by the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, respectively. The Safavid Empire fell to Afghan invaders in 1722 who were then overthrown by Nader Shah and his Afsharid dynasty — the rulers of the empire during the century between the Safavids and the Qajars.

The multiple transfers of power allowed the Kingdom of Georgia a chance to shake off years of Persian meddling, tribute taking, and general interference. While the Afsharids were occupied fighting against the Mughals in the East, Georgia had a chance to cultivate its own court culture — enter Sayat Nova.

A Sayat Nova composition in Georgian from a film biopic about his life. The Armenian version is titled “Dun el Glkhen.”
Many parts of Sayat Nova’s musical legacy survive to this day. His songs are still widely performed in Armenia, with countless recordings available in a variety of formats. But the nature of his enduring legacy doesn’t match the transcultural life and music of Sayat Nova: most of the available recordings of his music are exclusively in Armenian.

The significant cultural projects that attempt to continue his legacy are tied to the Armenian community and diaspora, including the upcoming Sayat Nova festival that will be held in Yerevan. While there are Sayat Nova monuments in Armenia and Georgia, there is no monument to Sayat Nova in Azerbaijan, even though the majority of his surviving poems are in the Azeri language. Most of his Azeri and Georgian poems, in their original language, are out of print or nearly-impossible to find.

Part of this is due to the difficulties of historical preservation. We have many of Sayat Nova’s lyrics in all languages thanks to his biographers and the documents gathered by his son, but his melodies are less well-preserved. Musical notation was not common in Sayat Nova’s time and milieu, so the Armenian melodies that survived were passed down orally for 150 years until they were finally notated. The projects to track down these melodies (that continues to this day) were mostly Armenian initiatives. While it is likely that Georgian and Azeri melodies of his still survive and are being performed, they are not as widely available as his Armenian repertoire.

It seems unfitting that Sayat Nova is solely remembered through the lens of Armenian culture. Of his surviving works, scholars have located 117 Azeri poems, 72 Armenian poems, 32 Georgian poems and six Russian poems. It is this cosmopolitan legacy that arguably makes Sayat Nova unique.

Sayat Nova compositions notably used Persian and Arabic poetic meters with Armenian melodic structures. With these techniques, Sayat Nova founded the Tbilisi “school” of ashough, a tradition that was notable at the time for performing Georgian music in the Persian style. Even people unfamiliar with these languages, when listening to a Sayat Nova composition, will notice that the final couplet of his ghazals often refer to Sayat Nova in the third person — a trademark of the ghazal form that many associate with Persianate poets such as Hafez and Rumi.

At the end of this song, Sayat Nova refers to himself in the final couplet. This is very common in the ghazal form in other languages as well, such as Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Urdu.

 

A bialphabetical Sayat Nova manuscript from his notebook. The text is one composition written in both the Armenian and Georgian scripts.

Sayat Nova was unable to read the Perso-Arabic script, but his Armenian poems often blended Persian words with the language. This speaks to the role Persian played as a language of high culture: it was a language of literacy in the Caucasus that transcended ethnic boundaries.

In his handwritten manuscripts Sayat Nova would even switch between scripts mid-poem. Picture this: his Azeri poems are written in a mix of Georgian and Armenian scripts, and his Armenian poems are often written in both Armenian and Georgian scripts. His songs in colloquial Tbilisi Armenian were written in the Georgian script, and the Armenian script was reserved only for the classical Armenian language — widely considered “sacred” by devout Armenian Christians.

Why then, are the cross-cultural celebrations of Sayat Nova so few and far between? Azeris and Georgians have just as much to celebrate in Sayat Nova as the Armenian cultural mainstream.

Unfortunately a more pancultural perspective of Sayat Nova is not just difficult due to the historical record, but politically fraught. This video of an Azeri version of Sayat Nova’s song “Kamanche” highlights the vehemence of the arguments that often accompany celebrations of Sayat Nova.

An example of a Sayat Nova composition adapted into Azeri Turkish, framed by the uploader as an example of “plagiarism.”
The video shows clips of the song being used to celebrate Azerbaijan and Turkey’s form of pan-Turkic ideology that arose in the 20th century  — an incarnation with anti-Armenian ideology — while criticizing Azerbaijan for cultural theft.

This is doubly confusing: Azerbaijani nationalists using Sayat Nova for pan-Turkic goals, while Armenian reactionaries respond by disavowing the fact that this bard actually had strong ties to Azeri culture. Comments on a video of a Georgian translation of an Armenian Sayat Nova song meanwhile try to excuse or explain his non-Armenian works, rather than acknowledge that they are a significant part of his canon.

This is a tragedy, as some of the most integral parts of Sayat Nova’s identity were linked to his non-Armenian cultural capital. For example, 19th century Sayat Nova biographer and documenter Akhverdian recorded a story in which the ashough, as a retired monk, hides his identity in order to meet a young new ashough visiting the city in search of the infamous Sayat Nova.

When the youngster meets a disguised Sayat Nova and asks where to find the renowned bard, Sayat Nova’s answers are a series of Azeri plays on words: bilmanam, tanimanam, and gormanam, Which could either be translated as “I don’t know,” “I don’t recognize him,” and I “have not seen him,” or, “know, I am him,” “recognize, I am him,” and “see, I am him.” The beauty of this word play brings the young bard to surrender his instrument to Sayat Nova, to show that he has been humbled in the face of the master.

These sides of Sayat Nova’s legacy are often forgotten or glossed over. It appears that Sayat Nova’s Georgian and Azeri sides have been both lost on accident and forgotten on purpose over the course of time.

The Sayat Nova Project, now renamed Mountains of Tongues, seeks to document and explore musicological phenomena in the Caucasus beyond a nationalist lens.

There is great interest in reviving a multicultural Sayat Nova. Mountains of Tongues (formerly known as the Sayat Nova project), is a multicultural ethnomusicological research project that attempts to document the region’s musical heritage while breaking free of nationalist tropes. But that work has unfortunately become politically tenuous. The borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan remain closed in the face of the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Funding for Caucasus-based musical research is often tied to a single culture and involves the explicit practice of nation and identity building. If Sayat Nova was alive today, far-right nationalists from all three communities in the Caucasus would likely denounce him for daring to perform in the languages of the “others,” whoever they may be.

But just as a modern Sayat Nova would be denounced, there would perhaps be those awaiting his return. Could there be a radical, transformative potential in remembering the multicultural Sayat Nova? Over three centuries on, the natural cosmopolitanism that Sayat Nova embodied seems lost to us. In the face of ethnic homogenization and conflict in the Caucasus, there are no easy answers. The clichés of past cultural fusions are no panacea for the contemporary political problems that the region faces. Cultural dialogue and civil society is important in such a situation, but it is important not to overemphasize the role of shared cultural heritage in examining contemporary political problems.

But at the very least, the very work of filling out our collective image of Sayat Nova could bolster a longstanding cultural unity in the region. The mix of knowledges it takes to appreciate Sayat Nova’s oeuvre is no longer easily found: people knowing Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Persian and Russian is no longer as common as it once was. Perhaps filling our mutual gaps of knowledge could bring fans of this famous ashough together to at least remember what once was, and dream of what again could be. Until then, the very least that fans of Sayat Nova can do is heed his own hand-written introduction to his second written song:

“This divani (type of song) is very good

If you learn it, pray for my soul.”

And here is the poem he was humbly boasting about:

Special thanks to Hasmig Injejikian’s dissertation on Sayat Nova. Please refer to her publication for more specific information on Sayat Nova’s life and the academic discourse surrounding his biography, works, and legacy.

***************************************************************************************

Odd that this piece left out two masterpieces of Georgian-Armenian Soviet director Sergei Paradzhanov; one: Aşık Kerib, that tells the story, in Azeri, of exactly the kind of bard-troubadour-“lover” Sayat Nova was:

He directed the Armenian-language stunner, The Color of Pomegranates, which was a highly abstract biography of Sayat Nova (below):

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Do Kurds need to do this right now, just at this very moment?

22 Sep

At the end of 2015 I wrote this piece: Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything where I expressed my hopes that Iraqi Kurds not declare de jure independence, since that would destabilize the region even further:

The Kurds: ‘I have a dream,’ as they say, for Kurds: that they will recognize the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan with a capital at Erbil is already a de facto independent state and not complicate things in the neighborhood by please resisting the urge to declare de jure independence.

Kurds

Kurdish-inhabited regions of the Middle East and Caucasus, according to tribal break-down.

“This centrally located political entity can serve as the hub of a wheel of still-to-be-worked-for, autonomous, Kurdish regions encircling it, and by not insisting on independence and union, they will be able to put more resources and energy into developing what they have and not fighting to defend it forever. I don’t know; maybe the future of the world will involve the devolving of nation-states into affiliated groups of semi-autonomous units with perhaps overlapping or varying degrees of jurisdiction – Holy Roman Empire style – and the Kurds may be the first to experience this as a people and benefit from it: that is, to see diaspora (if that word really applies to a non-migrating group), or political ‘multiplicity,’ as a finger in every pie and not as separation, and be able to reap the advantages of that.”

And my what-to-do suggestions:

“The Kurds: Give the Kurds EVERYTHING they need. They’re creating a society, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the internal socio-political life of Turkish Kurds that is nothing short of revolutionary in its civic-mindedness, democratic tendencies and secular steadfastness. Yes, nothing’s perfect there either but it’s by far the best we have. And the loose confederation of Kurdish regions that I spoke of earlier may have perhaps an even more strategically valuable position to offer the rest of the world than Turkey does. Beg Turkish Kurds to swear to abide by ceasefire terms despite all provocations by the Turkish state; insist that Iraqi Kurdistan not declare independence. And then give them everything they need, even if it means billions in aid. Because, along with the Russians, they’re the ones who’ll probably have to do even more of the ground fighting when the airstrikes campaign reaches its inevitable limits – and starts harming civilians, which it unfortunately already has — even though they now insist that they’re not spilling any more of their own blood for anything outside of Kurdish-inhabited regions.”

Well, it looks like “Hope” as Poles say, “is the mother of stupidity” and nobody cares about my wish-list.

The above was written before the relationship between Turkish Kurds and the Turkish government went to hell again and descended into crazy violence, before supposed anti-Erdoğan coup, massive purges, HDP’s Demirtaş’ imprisonment, and all the other fun stuff that’s happened in Turkey since.  I hate, more than anybody, to look like I’m catering to Erdoğan’s peeves, but an Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence just at this time is a provocation for him that may turn out to be disastrous.  Erdoğan is already massing troops on Turkey’s southern borders, and though I doubt he’ll have the balls to invade what’s pretty much an American satellite, Iraqi Kurdistan, I don’t put it beyond him to send troops into the Idlib region in Syria — maybe even hold a “referendum” and annex it like the Turkish Republic did to the neighboring region of Antiocheia in the 1930s.  A friend in C-town thinks that the third and newest Bosporus bridge is named after Sultan Selim 1st (“the Grim”) not just to stick it to Alevis (he was the ruler who committed widespread massacres of them during his reign, 1512 – 1520) but to emphasize Selim’s wresting of Mesopotamia from the hated Safavid Shia of Iran and the Levant from the Mamluks of Egypt and underline Erdoğan Turkey’s role in the region.  His Neo-Ottomanism may yet find its perfect expression in post-ISIS Iraq/Syria.

Read Barzani in the Guardian: Barzani on the Kurdish referendum: ‘We refuse to be subordinates’: “Iraq’s Kurdish leader tells the Guardian why the independence vote is so vital, and how he will defy global opposition”.

Interesting times.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

My favorite Annunciations

25 Mar

For why I love the Annunciation, my bashing of Greek Independence Day, the Massacre of Tripolitsa, Lauryn Hill, the smell of bacalao, Mithraism and my Everything-is-Persian theory, see my last year’s post for the date: The Annunciation: “And I thank you for choosing me…”

Orazio Gentileschi AnnunciationOrazio Gentileschi (1623)

M Dante_Gabriel_RossettiDante Gabriel Rossetti (1850)

M Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_1898Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)

raphael_soyer_xx_annunciation_1980Raphael Soyer (1980)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The Feast of St. John the Baptist, Tirgan, Bonfires and “things long dead…”

24 Jun

Malagac07_17161026People dance around a bonfire during Saint John’s night in northern Spanish town of Oviedo, late June 23, 2011. (Reuters/Eloy Alonso)

Today, June 24th is the feast day of St. John the Baptist.  It’s actually one of several.  June 24th is his birthday and August 29th is the day of his death (the whole Herod and Salome and head on a silver platter story).  But the Orthodox Church has a tradition of setting aside the day after a particular holiday as the synaxis of the main “player,” shall we say, in the previous day’s events.  Thus the Feast of the Holy Spirit comes on Monday after Pentecost, which marks its descent and illumination of the Apostles.  December 26th is the synaxis of the Virgin, but there are so many other holidays dedicated to the Virgin that her synaxis the day after Christmas mostly goes unobserved.  But January 7th, the synaxis, is the most important of the three St. John’s days of the Church — not his birthday, nor his death, but the day after Epiphany, January 6th, when he baptized Jesus Christ.  So as opposed the Catholic West, where June 24th, today, is the most important of his feast days, what most Greeks refer to as του Άη Γιαννιού is usually January 7th and most Greek Johns celebrate their namedays on this day as the closing date of the Christmas season.

And yet his birthday is not ignored.  If we remember (or ever knew) Christ and St. John were cousins, as were their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth.  On March 25th,  the of day the Annunciation, the first thing the Virgin Mary does after the visitation of Gabriel is run — flustered and shocked — to her cousin Elizabeth to tell her what had happened to her. (This love between the two teenage Jewish cousins has always touched me.) Elizabeth at the time was already six months pregnant with the young John, and the “babe leapt in her womb” upon hearing that his beloved cousin had been conceived, for it was John’s purpose — the “Forerunner” — to lay the groundwork, baptize Him and set Him on His mission.  Three months later, at the Summer Solstice, John was born.

And so again we have the formidable astrological and astronomical symmetry that the Church most likely inherited through Zoroastrianism.  Exactly three months after the Annunciation on the Vernal Equinox (Nowruz), John is born on the Summer Solstice (Tirgan), and then six months later Jesus Himself is born on the Winter Solstice (Yalda).  According to Iranian friends, Tirgan is not celebrated nearly as widely as Yalda and especially not Nowruz, and even less than the Autumnal Equinox (Mehregan), but is still present as a holiday in the Iranian consciousness.  Apparently there’s a certain symbolic ritual table set-up for Tirgan, like there is for Nowruz and Yalda, and I had located an image of it before but now can’t find it.

Throughout the Christian world it has traditionally been a time for building bonfires, though why this should be so in the middle of the heat and lengthy days of late June and not at the Winter Solstice has always kind of baffled me.  In northern Europe (for our civilization’s perhaps greatest treatment of the season, see Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” and starkly intense film version of Strinberg’s Miss Julie by Liv Ullman and starring Colin Farrell — as perhaps our civilization’s greatest treatment of the season), Scandinavia and Russia (oh, yeah, Dostoevsky’s White Nights too) this time of the year has also always been associated with a kind of — especially — erotic license and carnivalesque freedom, or even temporary bouts of lunacy or mental illness, which probably comes from not sleeping for several weeks when the sky only goes dark for about an hour every night.

The bonfire tradition still persists in parts of Greece as well, but as all such practices, is probably slowly being forgotten.  The disappearance of practices like this, and the subsequent impoverishment of humanity’s symbolic consciousness and imagination that these losses entail always saddens me.  As I’ve written before, a friend once said to me: “History is a personal emotion for you, N.”

There’s a song by the recently deceased Demetres Metropanos that I love which refers to St. John’s Eve and its bonfires.  Metropanos was a singer very popular in Greece from the 1970s to the early part of the previous decade.  I’ve never understood why so many people considered him to be slightly skylé as a singer — meaning, oh, I dunno, crudely if not underworldly, working-class.  I think much of his music is lovely.  This song, the lyrics of which I don’t totally understand, meaning not that I don’t understand the Greek; I don’t understand the imagery:  Η σούστα πήγαινε μπροστά — “The spring (which means wire coil? shock absorbers?  spring, as in both mattress and ‘jump,’ when its the name of a dance in Crete or the Dodecannese? Something else? I don’t know…) led the way forward” is one of them.  But it’s a testimony to the high quality of Greek popular music at the time, that composers and singers (I don’t know who Metropanos’ lyricist was) were unafraid to use the most abstract and associative poetic imagery in their music, even if it was destined for middle and even lower-middle class audiences. as opposed to the lyrics of rebetika, which often consist of mostly repetitive, “tough-guy,” metallic jangling.

The lyrics, in Greek:

Η σούστα πήγαινε μπροστά
κι ο μάγκας τοίχο τοίχο
δεν έτυχε στα χρόνια αυτά
τίποτα να πετύχω

Ανάβουνε φωτιές στις γειτονιές
του Άη Γιάννη αχ πόσα ξέρεις και μου λες
αχ πόσα τέτοια ξέρεις και μου λες
που ‘χουν πεθάνει

Με βάλαν πάνω στην κορφή
στ’ αγριεμένο κύμα
στης Σμύρνης την καταστροφή
στ’ άδικο και στο κρίμα

Ανάβουνε φωτιές στις γειτονιές
του Άη Γιάννη αχ πόσα ξέρεις και μου λες
αχ πόσα τέτοια ξέρεις και μου λες
που ‘χουν πεθάνει

(Again, very difficult, odd to translate)

The spring led the way
With the “tough guy” (manga, maganda) hugging the wall
I never managed, in all these years, to accomplish anything.
They light bonfires in the mahallades on St. John’s Eve,
which you like telling me about.
Oh, all those things you know and tell me of,
things that are long dead.
They set me up on top,
with the furious waves,
At the destruction of Smyrna,
Amidst the injustice and the pity.
They light bonfires in the mahallades on St. John’s Eve,
which you like telling me about.
Oh, all those things you know and tell me of,
things that are long dead.
“…things that are long dead…”
And the song:

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The Annunciation: “And I thank you for choosing me…”

25 Mar

AnnunciationSantaMariaMaggiore

The Annunciation of the Virgin mosaic from Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore (click)

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to a terrified, barely post-adolescent Jewish girl in a village in Galilee and told her that she was going to become God’s mother.  And in one of the greatest acts of moral bravery in history, this — what? fourteen-year-old? — Jewish girl said: “Yeah…ok.”

This is a “yes” which we should all pray to be given the opportunity to offer up to some one or to some greater thing, in even the tiniest of manners, at some one point in our lives.  It, oddly enough or not, always puts me in mind of the name “Reza,” which I’ve always loved on Persian men, since as far as I understand it, it means “willingness, acceptance, consent…” a saying-yes to Life or to the Divine Will.  (The other is “Peyman,” with its comparable sense of promise and commitment.)  Except in Mary’s case it’s a “saying-yes” that’s particularly female in its bravery, since she barely understands what’s being asked of her and she consents out of pure love, and most men find such consent difficult without first knowing what glory there is in it for them.  Instead Mary does the glorifying:

Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν Κύριον καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ Θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,
ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αυτοῦ. ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί,
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός, καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς τοῖς φοβουμένοις αυτόν.
Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ, διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν·
καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς, πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς.
ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ, μνησθῆναι ἐλέους, καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν τῷ Αβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

54 He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

That’s March 25th: the Annunciation of the Virgin.  The rest — by which we mostly mean Greek Independence Day — is bullshit.  Nothing that led to the establishment of the first independent Kingdom of Greece happened on March 25th.  There were sporadic outbreaks of rebellion, some semi-coordinated, among Ottoman Greeks throughout the Empire in the early spring of 1821, but there was no raising of any standards, or launching of any campaigns or declarations of any kind made on March 25, 1821 as far as we know.  Except for sporadic massacring nothing much occurred at all that year until the fall, when, only with foreign help, the Greek rebels were able to finally take Tripolitsa in the Peloponnese and butcher the majority of its Muslim and Jewish — meaning practically its entire — population.  And eventually all that happened is that the Greek statelet slapped its observation of Independence Day onto the Annunciation in a conscious-or-not appropriation of the holiday’s already inherent meanings of conception, inception and beginning (I think that, the Julian Calendar still in operation at the time, March 25th was also Easter Sunday that year so, with the theme of Resurrection added, the temptation was irresistible) and so Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus smothered one of the loveliest holidays of the Church with flags and parades and tanks and national anthem sap and all the other cheezy trappings of N/S patriotism.

But by the same token, the Annunciation itself was slapped by the Church onto the pre-existing observation of the Vernal Equinox (by a few days), the Persian Zoroastrian New Year, Nowruz, the first day of spring, the first day of the month of Aries — with its already inherent meanings of conception, inception and beginning.  And fast forward nine months, exactly (she was nothing if not on-time our Pantanassa*) and we have Christ born on (or near) another Zoroastrian holiday, Yalda, which marks the Winter Solstice and the beginning of the lengthened days and the Sun’s return to our lives.  The Winter Solstice, in more ancient Iranian religion, was the birth date of the deity Mithra, often associated with the Sun, and who — guess what? — was often said to be born in a cave, of a virgin mother, and who saved the world through the sacrifice of a bull along with a whole other complex of shifting tales and myths that I’m not an expert on.

But though Mithra seemed to fade into a secondary deity in classical Sassanian Zoroastrianism, he was accepted with great fervor and enthusiasm into the highly eclectic polytheism of the late Roman world, where he was especially popular in the Roman army.  Many of the latter emperors were devout followers and there are historians that believe — seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me — that the West came close to being a Mithraic civilization instead of a Christian one.  But the Church slapped Christ’s December 25th birthday onto Mithra’s (I’m simplifying some) and that was the end of Mithraism.  Which is a bummer, because by the Second Century A.D., Mithraism had evolved, in Roman hands, into a super-butch, male virility bull-cult for an initiated military elite, all wrapped-up in the full panoply of Hermetic-Alexandrian-Astrological wisdom, where Roman officers and soldiers gathered in caves and commemorated the sacrificed bull and honored its blood  (we don’t really know what occurred because it was only for the initiated but a sacrifice and subsequent shared meal of some kind was probably involved) and Christianity is kinda — well — is kind of lacking in those kinds of thrills.  One of my best beloved Roman ancestors, Julian the Apostate (the subject of four Cavafy poems), a fascinating figure, who was both a devotee of Mithra and an initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries, tried to reverse his uncle Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the Roman state religion and give support to the traditional pagan cults, their rites, rituals and sacrifices, but it was already too late.  People just wanted their blood as metaphor by then, a shift in consciousness that has always been considered psychic or intellectual progress of some kind though — like the shift to monotheism itself — I could never quite understand why.  Those of us who still like reality better still have and have always had Spain though; that’s unless the European Union and PETA and the Catalans take their sanitary Handy-Wipes to the corrida too and that’ll be the real end.

Ah, but even then we’ll still have Mexico…

"Tauroctony" - Mithras slaying a bull

Mithra and the Bull, from the Vatican Museum (no other info) (click: it’s a huge and beautiful file)

What conclusions can we draw from all this?  One, is that humanity is not particularly imaginative and just kinda copies itself over and over ad infinitum.  Second, is the idea that often comes up when looking at our zone, thinking about “our parts,” more closely — and that’s the simple conclusion that everything is Persian.  Not just our food, our music or dance, our dress, our color palette, our poetic sensibility and ideas about love, but our common penchant for narrative cycles of martyrdom and rebirth (see: “Ashura 1435: a poem from Agha Shahid Ali”) and the deeper structures of our spiritual psyches.  It’s tempting; instead of the inane arguments about what’s Greek and what’s Arab and what’s Indian and what’s Turkish — everything is Persian, and be done with it.  Alexander seemed to have gotten it; shouldn’t be too hard for the rest of us.  But probably the truth lies and always will lie with Jung: and that is that all of the imaginary activity of the human unconscious operates on one, unified, symbolic grid of archetypes.

Chronia Polla to those whose namedays are today.  And signing off this post with R&B singer Lauryn Hill’s beautiful “To Zion” where the subtitle of this post comes from.  This was a song that came from her real-life experience of having to choose between having an unexpected baby and sticking with her career.  “One day…you gonna understand…”  Lyrics are below:

“To Zion”

Unsure of what the balance held
I touched my belly overwhelmed
By what I had been chosen to perform
But then an angel came one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For unto me a man child would be born
Woe this crazy circumstance
I knew his life deserved a chance
But everybody told me to be smart
Look at your career they said,
“Lauryn, baby use your head”
But instead I chose to use my heart

Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

How beautiful if nothing more
Than to wait at Zion’s door
I’ve never been in love like this before
Now let me pray to keep you from
The perils that will surely come
See life for you my prince has just begun
And I thank you for choosing me
To come through unto life to be
A beautiful reflection of His grace
See I know that a gift so great
Is only one God could create
And I’m reminded every time I see your face

That the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Marching, marching
Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Beautiful, beautiful Zion
[repeat to end of song]

*************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

*”παντάνασσα,” pantanassa, is one of my favorite epithets for the Virgin, but whether it means “all-breathing, giver-of-breath, breath-granting” I can’t tell, nor can anybody else I know.

**Latest addendum note: Beloved dinosaur cousin — who is the always the one one should go to for these question, since he’s a monster of erudition in most fields, but especially Greek language, informs us that Pantanassa has nothing to do with breath or breathing, as many of us must assume, but: Η άνασσα είναι το θηλυκό του άνακτος (ονομαστική: άναξ), του βασιλέως (εξ ου και ανάκτορα).  “Anassa” is the feminine form of “Anax,” meaning king, same root as “Anaktora,” or palace.  So it simply means “Queen of Queens,” which is kind of disappointingly Catholic-sounding.  Speaks to a whole history of Greek and Latin vocabulary mixing itself up, replacing, re-replacing, disappearing and then appearing again, especially in titles of government or military due to initial composite character of Byzantine state structure.  I’m assuming, i.e., άνασσα was already an archaically Greek word at the time, for example, the Chairetismoi were written.

And a personal sensory note:  According to the guidelines of Orthodox fasting, which if observed carefully constitute the most elegantly designed spiritual economy of partaking and abstaining one can imagine (probably only Hinduism could produce a more intelligent  schema) — again, the guidelines, not the rules, meaning it doesn’t affect your G.P.A. at the end of term if you slip up, like if you’re Catholic — fish is considered meat, and is not eaten during Lent.  But there are festive days, essentially the Annunciation and Palm Sunday, which even in the sorrow of Lent, should be marked as Feasts, and then the eating of fish is practically obligatory.  Today in the streets of Greek neighborhoods, therefore, here in Athens or in Astoria, in apartment house corridors and restaurants, the smell of fried bacalao is all-pervasive.  One of my strongest sensory memories of Holy Week as a child is being taken to the matins for Holy Monday on Palm Sunday evening, the first of the so-called “Nymphios” or “Bridegroom” services (the reference being to Christ coming to Jerusalem for Passover and to meet his fate) and all the old women in church smelling like fish fritanga.

And a really interesting article from Wiki about “Tauroctony” or “Bull-slaying” if you’re interested in the phenomenon religio-anthropologically.  Again, the best book, that’s both an anthropology of Mediterranean bull cults and the best sociological history of Spanish bullfighting there is, is Timothy Mitchell’s “Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

سال نو مبارک — Happy New Year to everyone

19 Mar

Sabzeh_Wheat Sprouts

“Verdes como el trigo verde y el verde, verde limón.” — Rafael de León

And two spectacular Chahārshanbe Suri (click) photos from a Kurdish town in Turkey.

6998093001_6052622796_b

Chaharshanbeh-Suri-Persian-Fire-Jumping-Festival-2013(click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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