Archive for August, 2014


Spinning the Thread of Life

August 25, 2014

That she seventip toe her chrysming, that she spin blue to scarlad till her temple’s veil, that the Mount of Whoam it open it her to shelterer.

James Joyce. Finnegans Wake (562.9-11).

Poised like a mythic ‘mountain mother’, this ‘woman who spins’ embodies for me an image of vitality. She demonstrates the endurance of the colourful mundanity of everyday life, in refuge from the death-dealing spectacle of a religious militancy that is not only contemptuous of earthly life and its pleasures, but even seeks a reward for its anti-human crimes in some immaterial hereafter.


A picture found on twitter. I’m guessing it was taken in a refugee camp in the Kurdish area of Syria, Turkey or Iraq.

A critique of such a one-sided perspective of transcendence, detached as it is from the immanence of lived experience, was articulated in Sumerian mythology over 4000 years ago, when the goddess Ninhursag (‘Lady of the Sacred Mountain’) cursed the god Enki and indicted him as ‘a remote god who did not understand life on the land’. She accused him of ‘abandoning her when her city was attacked, her temple was destroyed, her son the king was taken captive, and she was made a refugee’ (Brock and Parker 2008: 9).

As that ‘prophet against empire’, William Blake, concludes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

For every thing that lives is Holy.


Brock, R.N. and R.A. Parker. 2008. Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press.


Horus and the Boat of Millions of Years

August 19, 2014

Sat by Tipner Lake today I saw a kestrel flitting fast and low along the shoreline, to perch on the prow of the wrecked old wooden boat (which has featured in a previous post here). After a few seconds it flitted to another part of the boat before it flew at speed to some bushes on the old Tipner Ranges, now wasteland.


It’s not the first time I’ve seen a kestrel in this area, but it appeared as I was about to leave, and I’d never seen it perch on the boat before. My first thought, as I saw it on the boat, was of the Egyptian god, Horus, son of Isis and Osiris. Iconographically, he was most often represented as a falcon or a man with a falcon head. This Egyptian-themed reverie continued with the idea that the kestrel was perched on ‘the Boat of Millions of Years’. Further reading revealed (here) that this boat carried the solar god, Ra, on his journey across the sky and through the underworld. Ra, too, was associated with the falcon or hawk, and was also depicted with a falcon’s head, crowned with a solar disk.

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Musing on these random associations I was reminded of what I fear was the distress of a kestrel on a crossing to Norway last summer. It appeared on the open sea, following our ship, periodically landing on the handrails of the deck before resuming its frantic pursuit. I dearly hope it survived its perilous journey.


A kestrel I saw, far from home, on a North Sea crossing in 2013. I hope it made it…

Ra was said to carry the prayers and blessings of the living with the souls of the dead on the sun boat. With so much distress in the world today, from Mount Shingal (Sinjar) to Gaza, Tilbury and beyond, prayers and blessings are surely being conveyed now, both for the living – homeless, hurt, on perilous journeys of their own – and for those so cruelly killed.


“Make each of your days a delight”: Siduri’s Exhortation to Gilgamesh

August 17, 2014

But until the end comes,

Enjoy your life.

Spend it in happiness, not despair.

Savour your food.

Make each of your days a delight.

Bathe and anoint yourself.

Wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean.

Let music and dancing fill your house.

Love the child who holds you by the hand,

And give your wife pleasure in your embrace.

That is the best way for a man to live.

Siduri’s advice to Gilgamesh. Siduri was the divine wine-maker and brewer, who lives on the shore of the sea, in the garden of the sun.

This performance of part of the Epic of Gilgamesh uses the newly-reconstructed (as of 2006) and completed Lyre of Ur, which was found in a grave in ancient Mesopotamia. The original instrument was destroyed when the Baghdad museum was looted, and this reconstruction uses original materials – gut strings, pink sandstone, lapis lazuli, gold. The string tuning is based on pipes which were found in the same grave.

Timeless advice from Siduri…

Gilgamesh and Siduri, a woodcut by Irving Amen (from here).

Gilgamesh and Siduri, a woodcut by Irving Amen (from here).


Life’s Arabesque: Jorn in Djerba

August 17, 2014

The stay of the artist Asger Jorn on the island of Djerba in Tunisia over the winter of 1947-48, was crucial in his development of a theory of art as ‘the cult of life’. This was an organic aesthetic offering ‘an authentic materialist perspective’, counterposed to the ideal of objective depiction of social realism, as approved by official ‘Communism’. As Christian Dotremont, fellow dissident Marxist and Jorn’s future collaborator in the Cobra group observed, social realism was ‘the suicide of revolutionary content by means of bourgeois naturalism’, copying ‘the sad face of bourgeois society in the name of happy tomorrows‘ (Lambert 1983: 166).


Asger Jorn, Djerba (1948)

The deferment of joy to some ideal future or afterlife, in the name of austere todays, is a recurring characteristic of political and religious authority, keen to stamp, punitively, on the kind of earthly pleasure recalled in these lines:

When I finally fall asleep for eternity I desire that there be placed under my head the little pouch with earth from Kubla and the roll of Gazelle-hide, on which, among the golden cypresses, I inscribed all the names I gave to Nagiad when she smiled with closed eyes while my hand caressed her lively curving body.

This is an English rendering of the Danish text inscribed on one of a series of ink drawings produced by Asger Jorn in Djerba in 1948. The text is most likely derived from translations by Carl Kjersmeier of erotic poems by the Persian poet Hafiz (Birtwistle 1986: 143).

Paintings like the evocatively titled Le paradis retrouvé. Les yeux nostalgique. Le chateau ivre (‘Paradise regained. The nostalgic eyes. The intoxicated castle’) mark this as a fruitful period. In his article ‘Levend Ornament’ (Living Ornament), published in Dutch in 1949, Jorn fashions a principle of the arabesque, identified as the formal expression of nature itself, which expresses a ‘spontaneous’ attitude to life opposed to the classical-rationalism of European civilisation. In his argument for the unity of all life, the arabesque becomes the expression of ‘the universal movement we call matter’, realised as much in the paths of migrating birds as in the strokes of the painter’s brush; interrelating all kinds of natural and cultural phenomena (Birtwistle 1986: 100). It reiterates his conviction that the source and goal of our ‘yearning to create and form’ is ‘life’s luxuriant and free growth’ (ibid.: 101).

Asger Jorn, The Tunisian 1948

Asger Jorn, The Tunisian (1948)

A mote of love exceeds all bounds; it gives

The vital essence to whatever lives.

Farid Attar, The Conference of the Birds


Graham Birtwistle 1986 Living Art: Asger Jorn’s comprehensive theory of art between Helhesten and Cobra (1946-1949) Utrecht: Reflex.

J-C Lambert 1983 Cobra London: Sotheby Publications.


Mother Ludlam’s Cave

August 16, 2014



Colour: Asger Jorn’s ‘universally human and animal phenomenon’

August 15, 2014


“In a society in which people live in mutual harmony and peace it is natural that the aesthetic or poetic element develops in extent and richness both in clothing and architecture as well as the other arts, just as it is equally logical that asceticism accompanies fear. We can simply establish that in cultures in which the people repress life they repress colours as well, and in periods in which the culture is ‘folk-ish’ there is a corresponding colourfulness.”


The above quotation is a translated extract from Asger Jorn’s Magi og Skønne Kunster (Magic and the Fine Arts), Copenhagen: Borgens Forlag 1971, p 77. It is the unaltered publication of a Ms. completed in 1948, originally entitled ‘Levende kunst’ (Living art). It appears in Graham Birtwistle’s (1986) Living Art: Asger Jorn’s comprehensive theory of art between Helhesten and Cobra (1946-1949), Utrecht: Reflex, p. 94.


All these pictures (taken from this government site – no support is implied for nationalisms large or small by my sourcing of these images) show some of the colourful cloths which festoon the interior of the Yezidi temple at Lalish. It is the custom to tie knots in the cloth while making a wish and to untie knots to grant others their wish.



August 9, 2014


‘A lover’, said the hoopoe, now their guide,

‘Is one in whom all thoughts of Self have died;

Those who renounce the Self deserve that name;

Righteous or sinful, they are all the same!

Your heart is thwarted by the Self’s control;

Destroy its hold on you and reach your goal.

Give up this hindrance, give up mortal sight

For only then can you approach the light.

If you are told: “Renounce our faith,” obey!

The Self and faith must both be tossed away;

Blasphemers call such actions blasphemy –

Tell them that love exceeds mere piety.

Love has no time for blasphemy or faith,

Nor lovers for the Self, that feeble wraith.

They burn all that they own; unmoved they feel

Against their skin the torturer’s steel.


Heart’s blood and bitter pain belong to love,

And tales of problems no one can remove;

Cupbearer, fill the bowl with blood, not wine –

And if you lack the heart’s rich blood take mine.

Love thrives on inextinguishable pain,

Which tears the soul, then knits the threads again.

A mote of love exceeds all bounds; it gives

The vital essence to whatever lives.

But where love thrives, there pain is always found;

Angels alone escape this weary round –

They love without that savage agony

Which is reserved for vexed humanity.


Farid Attar, The Conference of the Birds.


The Hoopoe speaks to the Peacock Mantiq al-tayr (The Conference of the Birds) of ‘Attar. Persian MS. Add. 7735, f. 30v. British Library.

Like me, the cryptozoologist, Karl Shuker, first encountered the Hoopoe (Upupa epops) as an illustration gracing a page in The Observer’s Book of Birds. He has gathered together some traditions about this enigmatic bird:

According to one ancient Arabian tradition… hoopoes originally bore crests of solid gold, bestowed upon them by King Solomon in gratitude for shielding him with their wings from the burning sun one day as he walked through the desert. So many of their number were killed for this valuable accoutrement, however, that eventually they came before Solomon, who was so wise that he could even understand the language of birds, and beseeched him to help them. Touched by their tragic plight, Solomon agreed to do so, as a result of which the hoopoes’ crests were transformed from gold into feathers, thus saving their species from extinction.

The hoopoes are also said to have brought to Solomon the shamir – described in the Talmud and Midrash as a tiny but very magical worm that could cut through solid stone, and which greatly assisted him, therefore, in building his First Temple in Jerusalem. (In a similar vein, the hoopoe is also credited with knowledge of where to find a mystical plant called the springwort, whose touch can break through the hardest rocks and stones.) And in the Koran, it was the hoopoe that discovered the Queen of Sheba and informed Solomon of her existence. Other Arab traditions claim that the hoopoe could unerringly guide Solomon to undiscovered subterranean springs by using its long bill as a water-divining rod, and consider it to be a doctor among birds, gifted with medicinal powers that can cure any ailment.

Karl Shuker (here).


I think I glimpsed my first hoopoe in Turkey just over two years ago – the above picture shows pretty much what I saw. The family of Hoopoes depicted below is by John Gould.