Update: an excavated fragment

Today’s brief post is a departure from the usual literary criticism/book review I’ve found myself writing this year. I realise I had stopped posting the occasional ‘random’ piece, to use a term favoured by my students, and which I’d usually gleaned from old notebooks.

I recently read on Jonathan Gibbs’s excellent Tiny Camels blog a post he called an ‘excavated fragment’. While searching for something among the files on his computer he came across a piece called ‘Sex and Death’, dated 2003. He had no idea what it was intended for. I liked his conclusion:

Memory is obsessive-selective self-narration. The rest is work for archaeologists.

In a similar spirit, then, here’s a piece – sort of a found poem, I suppose – that I came across in an old notebook that I keep by what I believe is called in the US my nightstand. It’s dated Feb. 2013.

I have no recollection of writing it, but quite like the notion of a dialogue with one’s computer. There’s the strangled syntax and dismaying jargon of the disembodied. It was written before I’d read reviews of a recent Spike Jonze film in which the protagonist falls in love with the Siri-type operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) of his computer. This excavated fragment of mine (maybe I should call it a ‘random gleaning’) appears to represent a more fractious relationship. Here it is.

Update

An update is available to your software.

                Continue?

[What happens if I don’t?]

The update will resolve some contradictions

in the social system

and reduce battery usage.

                [Continue]

Here are 2 pp of T&C.

                [Accept]

Well done. Your social system will update

within 24 hours.

Your software is updating

and will take 3 minutes.

You will need to restart.

Restart now?

[What happens if I don’t? Had I stopped?]

You will be held responsible

for all the contradictions in your system.

                [Restart]

Anything else today?

                [Return]

Werewolves and fleas: Gerald of Wales, ‘Topographia Hiberniae’, part 2

Two Connaught men in a boat; a rider, f. 29 of the BL Royal MS 13. BVIII, f. 29

Two Connaught men in a boat; a rider, BL Royal MS 13. BVIII, f. 29

Last time I introduced Gerald of Wales (c. 1146-1223) and his Topographia Hiberniae, a Latin guide to twelfth-century Ireland, in the invasion and settlement of which the Norman branch of his family had played a prominent part.  I described some of the material found in the first of the three parts of the text, which focused on flora and fauna.  Here I shall turn my attention to part 2: Wonders & Miracles.  Translation from the Latin into English is by John J. O’Meara in the Penguin Classics edition, published as The History and Topography of Ireland.  Images are from the detailed record for BL Royal MS 13 B.VIII in the Catalogue of Illuminated MSS held in the British Library.

Man killed with axe, f. 28

Man killed with axe, f. 28

O’Meara points out that this section of the book consists largely of tall tales which would have been told to Gerald during his visits to the island, but he also made use of written Irish sources (themselves probably arising from an older oral tradition; see O’Meara, n. 15, p. 130).  As we saw last time, he makes use of the familiar hagiographic topos of insisting on the truth of his stories:

I am aware that I shall describe some things that will seem to the reader to be either impossible or ridiculous.  But I protest solemnly that I have put down nothing in this book the truth of which I have not found out either by the testimony of my own eyes, or that of reliable men found worthy of credence and coming from the districts in which the events took place (p. 57)

The fish with golden teeth, f. 16v

The fish with golden teeth, f. 16v (and a deer)

After relating the miraculous qualities of various natural phenomena such as wells and islands, he tells of the fish from Ulster ‘with three gold teeth’.   Strangely, this creature ‘seemed to prefigure the imminent conquest of the country’ – but Gerald neglects to explain how.

Royal 13.B.viii,  f. 17v. detailIn section 52 comes my favourite story in the book: the ‘wolf that talked with a priest’.  While travelling from Ulster to Meath this priest spent the night in a wood.  As he sat by the fire a wolf came up to him and said: ‘Do not be afraid!’  Naturally he and the small boy who was with him were terrified.  When the wolf spoke of God in a ‘reasonable’ manner the priest adjured him not to harm them, and to explain himself.

The wolf’s story was that he was a native of Ossory, where every seven years, because of the imprecation of abbot Natalis, a man and a woman are compelled to go into exile from their territory in the form of wolves.  If they survive seven years they will then be replaced by another couple, and restored to their former status.  The wolf’s companion, he went on, was lying nearby, close to death.  He begged the priest to perform the last rites for her.

The wolf led the priest to a tree in the hollow of which lay a she-wolf ‘groaning and grieving like a human being’.  He performed the last rites, but did not give the viaticum, insisting that he did not have with him the elements of communion.  The wolf pointed out, however, that he knew the wallet hanging from the priest’s neck contained consecrated hosts, and begged him not to deny his partner the ‘gift and help of God’.  Thereupon he pulled the skin off the she-wolf from the head to the navel, ‘folding it back with his paw as if it were a hand.’  He thus revealed the the torso of an old woman.  The priest, terrified once more, administered the sacrament and the skin resumed its former place.

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18

The wolf spent the rest of the night with the priest by his fire, chatting amiably, and in the morning directed him the best route onward.  As they parted he thanked the priest.

Gerald says that two years later when passing near Meath his advice on this matter was sought, for the priest had passed on his version of these extraordinary events.  As a result the priest was sent to the Pope ‘with his documents in which was given an account of the affair and the priest’s confession’.  Sadly we never hear whether the wolf ever made it back to human shape.

I may return, in a future blog, to the subject of werewolves in medieval literature.

Bearded woman and man-ox of Wicklow, f. 19

Bearded woman and man-ox of Wicklow, f. 19

Other stories follow, mostly illustrated in the BL MS.  There’s the bearded woman with a mane on her back ‘like a one-year-old foal’.  She is no centaur, however, and followed the court of Duvenaldus, king of Limerick, ‘wherever it went, provoking laughs as well as wonder.’  Gerald seems to approve of her wearing the beard long, for such is the custom of her country (albeit among the men, not women).  Other hybrid creatures appear, and some less salubrious tales of bestiality.

St Kevin and his blackbird, f. 20

St Kevin and his blackbird, f. 20

Then comes the most famous story of all: St Kevin and his blackbird.  When taking eremitical refuge in a remote cabin he put his hand out of the window, as was his custom, and prayed.  A blackbird settled there, nested,  and laid its eggs.  St Kevin was so patient and sympathetic that he waited in that same posture ‘until the young were completely hatched out’.

The rats of Fernegigan, wandering bell of Mactalewus, f. 21v

The rats of Fernegigan, wandering bell of Mactalewus, f. 21v

St Colman’s teal, the fleas banished by St Nannan, the rats expelled from Ferneginan by St Yvor, the tame falcon of Kildare and other wonders follow, some involving bells, miraculous fires and books.

Part 3 deals with the history of Ireland, but even Gerald is sceptical about the veracity of some of these old legends.  It seems, for example, that the Basques were early settlers there.  He goes on to describe the contemporary condition of the Irish in fairly unflattering terms.  They are, he says, barbarous: ‘wild and inhospitable’, primitive, hirsute, lazy, ‘deplorable’, ‘wallowing in vice’, and largely heathen, despite the best efforts of saints such as Patrick and Bridget. All

St Colman's ducks, f. 21

St Colman’s ducks, f. 21

Irish saints are confessors; there were no Irish martyrs, he asserts.

As my surname attests, I’m of Irish ancestry myself, but it’s hard to find Gerald’s criticisms of my ancestors too offensive.  He writes in the medieval spirit of recounting tales collected from various sources, attested and unattested.  Notions of credibility were different from ours.  As the frequent Christian morals attached to the stories indicate, God is considered capable of all kinds of wonder, and it is therefore to be expected that miraculous events and objects abound in His world. Everything is a lesson to be interpreted by the cleric.

The Kildare Gospels falcon, f. 22

The Kildare Gospels and falcon, f. 22

As the Viking exhibition opens at the British Museum, I’m more inclined to marvel at the artistic skill and psychogeographic acumen of early medieval travellers.

 

 

 

Dérive part II: birds, beasts, explorers in Africa

Busy couple of weeks, hence the  posting hiatus.  My last post was about the wonderful collection of digital images made available by the British Library, via their Digital Scholarship Blog.  I came across a wonderful illustrated Portuguese book: Expedição portugueza ao Muatiânvua. Descripção da viagem á Mussumba do Muatiânvua … Edição illustrada por H. Casanova. [With plates, including portraits and maps.] vol. 1-3
Author: DIAS DE CARVALHO, Henrique Augusto (Lisboa, 1890); there’s an online facsimile edition available online at the Internet Archive site.

I focused on images of birds.  Today I shall finish with a few more lovely bird pictures, then move on to animals, people and places.

Let’s start with a few more birds whose images appealed:

 

Online edition p. 277

Online edition p. 277

First is Coracias Spatulata, or the Racket-tailed Roller.  Largely found in Angola, but also in other southern and central African countries.

There are some lovely public domain photographs of this bird:

The Secretary Bird, Sagittarius serpentarius, has a raptor’s body rather like an eagle’s, but with crane-like legs:

Called 'Secretario' in the 1890 book illustration

Called ‘Secretario’ in the 1890 book illustration

 

 

 

 

A Wikimedia Commons photo provides a slightly less dishevelled-looking portrait:

300px-Sagittarius_serpentarius_Sekretär wikiIt’s an unusual predator, in that it hunts terrestrially: it walks about the sub-Saharan savannah, flushing its prey out with its stamping.  Previously thought to subsist largely on snakes, hence the Latin name, it’s now known to eat all kinds of small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates.

Aca I’ve selected just a couple of animals, largely on the grounds that they resembled nothing I’d ever seen (in the 1890 illustrations): this is called ‘Aca’ in the book, but looks like a pangolin (or scaly pangolin) to me.  Named from a Malay word meaning ‘something that rolls up’ (in a ball, not arrives unexpectedly) – they’re found in tropical Africa and Asia – they have sharp claws for digging up termite nests.

Cavallo-marinho p26 The text calls this next creature ‘cavallo-marinho’.

No idea what this is.

Here it is on the online edition p. 400:

 

 

Here’s an image, from p. 671, of a lizard (or maybe a chameleon) eating an insect:

p671 lizard eats fly

 

 

 

 

 

 

And something called a Pelumba in Carvalho’s text, but all I can find is that’s the name of a place in Moxico region, Angola; this little chap looks like some kind of sloth to me.

Pelumba

 

 

 

 

 

Dias de Carvalho, photo from the BN de Portugal album

Dias de Carvalho, photo from the BN de Portugal album

These engravings can be compared with the extraordinary photos in an online album found here, taken from his expedition 1884-88, from the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. Here is Carvalho himself (1843-1909), who explored extensively in Africa, ending up in Lunda in 1895, where he ended up as governor.

 

 

 

I’ll finish this second part of the dérive with three typical portraits from BL site, compared with one from the online edition of the book:

Cacuata Tambu

Cacuata Tambu

 

 

'Major', from p. 291

‘Major’, from p. 291

O chefe p 475 online

O chefe p 475 online edition

O sub-chefe p89

O sub-chefe p89

A virtual dérive

This will be a virtual derive:

Theory of the Dérive, by Guy Debord: Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956)
reprinted in Internationale Situationniste #2 (December 1958)

Translated by Ken Knabb (link here)

ONE OF THE BASIC situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science — despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself — provides psychogeography with abundant data.

The average duration of a dérive is one day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep. The starting and ending times have no necessary relation to the solar day, but it should be noted that the last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for dérives.

 

My drifting, however, was initiated this morning when I came across this link to the British Library’s blog, The Mechanical Curator: Randomly selected small illustrations and ornamentations, posted on the hour.   Rediscovered artwork from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th Century books.  I browsed the links and followed this one:

Exped cover pg online edExpedição portugueza ao Muatiânvua. Descripção da viagem á Mussumba do Muatiânvua … Edição illustrada por H. Casanova. [With plates, including portraits and maps.] vol. 1-3
Author: DIAS DE CARVALHO, Henrique Augusto (Lisboa, 1890)

The image which first caught my eye, from the hundreds of thumbnails on offer at this site, was this one of an egregiously sulky-looking bird:

Sulky bird(Helotarsus ecaudatus)

aka ‘jester’, or Gaukler in German; I found this out from this site, which has been translated with customary inattention to idiomatic English, by

Bing (which gave up, evidently, on many words, and left them untranslated):

‘A beautiful matte black, head, neck, back and the whole bottom engaging, stands by that, Graulich Brown on the internal flag is made white, decorated with a wide, black end edge last four hand – and the consummation scapulars lively off from the bright chestnut coat, the similarly-colored tail, slightly thinner lower back, as well as a broad wing bandage, in opposition to the deep black first flight. The deck spring of the primaries are black, the arm swings brown-black with Brown Endsaume, the other upper deck feather wings dark brown, lighter margins who know under deck spring wing. The eye is nice and Brown…’

The bird is also called Short-tailed eagle (or kite), Bataleur (or Bateleur) eagle (‘tumbler’, or ‘tightrope walker’ in French), the name given by the ornithologist François Le Vaillant.  Born in Surinam in 1753, he studied in Metz (where I once lived – a nice situationist coincidence).  I found this about him at Wikipedia:

As a traveller in Africa, Le Vaillant tended to describe the African people without prejudice. He shared Rousseau’s idea of the “Noble savage” and condemnation of civilization. He described the beauty of Narina, Khoekhoe woman in Gonaqua named after a flower in terms that were not to be found later in the colonial period.[3] He was infatuated with Narina, and she stopped painting her body with ochre and charcoal and lived with Le Vaillant for many days. When he left, he gave her many presents but she was said to have sunk into deep melancholia.

Le Vaillant parrot by Jacques BarrabandThere’s this lovely image on the same site of this parrot from Le Vaillant’s Histoire naturelle des perroquets, 2 vols, 1801-05, illustrated by Jacques Barraband.

I wondered how accurate an image of the Bateleur eagle the one above was, so did some online searching…Bateleur Eagle (NY Public Library, image ID: 820528)

Bateleur Eagle (NY Public Library, image ID: 820528): from Gustav Mützel (1839-93), ‘The Royal natural history’, Warne 1894-96.

This bookplate doesn’t look much like the Portuguese one: nobler, less grumpy.  Digging deeper I came upon this alternative name for the bird:

Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, s.n. mountebank,  n. 3: The short-tailed African kite, Helotarsus ecaudatus: so called from its aërial tumbling. (via Finedictionary.com).

The online images at the NYPL led me on to this plate of a collection of Accipitres (diurnal birds of prey):

Bateleur eagle is no. 6

Bateleur eagle is no. 6

 

 

 

Next was a bird called ‘bucorax’ (or Cazovo, I think the text in the caption to Carvalho’s image reads; it’s not very clear.)

Here it is: Bucorax p384 online edn

 

 

 

 

 

This is from an online edition of the book found via Google booksearch.   Mützel has a clearer image (also at the NYPL site, Image ID: 820820) where it’s called Hornrabe, Bucorax Abyssincus Bodd. It’s also called the Ground Hornbill, I discovered.Bucorax Mutzel

And now I’ve run out of time.  I’ll continue this post next time, with more images of birds, animals, people, places.

 

Bee

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

I was enjoying the late summer sunshine in my front garden, sitting on the driveway in our fancy new double seat with a table in its middle, when I noticed a bee crouching on the tarmac a few metres away.  It was as big as a mouse.  A small mouse.  Its body was a beautiful deep tawny colour, with a black band across the middle, like a unistripe tiger.  It seemed sluggish, unwilling or unable to move.  I was concerned that our visitors, due to arrive any time, would run it over when they drove through the gates.

I returned to the Guardian, and a curiously tedious piece by Jonathan Franzen on Karl Kraus, which seemed to be more about Franzen.  I remembered the bee, and it was no longer there.  I looked around – it had moved down the drive and was just by the open front door, examining a fallen dead leaf.

It crawled slowly on to the leaf, and relaxed there.  It looked like a life-raft.  The bee turned around and tucked its head under the curled edge of the leaf.  It seemed to fall asleep.  My wife returned from her bike-ride into town and I showed her the bee.  She wondered if it was ill or dying; maybe it had stung somebody, she suggested, and was moribund.  It was certainly not very vivacious.

Photo: RHS website

Photo: RHS website

I read the rest of the review section of the Guardian.  Twenty minutes must have passed.  I noticed the bee walking slowly back up the drive.  It stopped halfway up.  The wind had dropped and the sun was beating down warmly.  The bee seemed to bask.  It rubbed its furry body with a long black back leg.  After a few minutes it took off like a helicopter and flew vigorously away, sluggish no more.

bees

I looked them up online: it was possibly a bumblebee, judging by the images I found (as posted here).  I discovered the phenomenon of the ‘Zombee’: honey bees that have been parasitised by the Zombie Fly Apocephalus borealis.   They behave as if intoxicated, displaying zombie-like behaviour such as nocturnal departures from their hives on a ‘flight of the living dead’ (from a depressing website called ZomBee Watch).

I don’t think mine was a zombee, though I feared for his state of mind until he took off so brashly.

Townley’s dogs

Townley's dogs

Townley’s dogs

© Trustees of the British Museum: the Townley Collection – Wolfson Gallery, Room 84

This is a Roman marble statue of a pair of dogs – a bitch (probably a greyhound) caressing a dog, nibbling his ear, dating probably from the 2nd century.  I thought it rather charming when I came across it on the ‘explore’ feature of the British Museum website.

It was acquired by a certain Charles Townley (1737-1805; also spelt Towneley) in 1774 from the Scots dealer/agent, archaeologist and painter Gavin Hamilton (1723-98), who had carried out excavations at Monte Cagnolo, or Dog Mountain, near Civita Lavinia (modern name Lanuvia), Lazio in 1772-73.  Hamilton, who came from a prominent family after whom the town of Hamilton, Lanarkshire is named, recognised the significance of this archaeological site’s name, and found there other similar marble pieces, as well as a sphinx with the body of a dog, and two statues representing the tearing apart by hunting hounds of Actaeon; he supplied Townley with several other ancient pieces of artwork during his digs in the Lazio area.  Hamilton was a colleague of Piranesi, and advised the young sculptor Canova.

Bust of Townley by Joseph Nollekens, 1807. Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Townley by Joseph Nollekens, 1807. Wikimedia Commons

The British Museum also preserves a 13-page letter written by Hamilton to Townley (one of over 120 such examples written over a 25-year period), in which he describes these excavations – p.3 of that letter is displayed on the BM website.

Hamilton letter to Townley, BM website

Hamilton letter to Townley, BM website

In this letter Hamilton suggests that the site was the home of the emperor Antoninus Pius, who reigned AD 138-161, but this is now believed to be inaccurate, and the precise date of the statue’s creation is unknown.

Also on the BM website is Hamilton’s list of marbles found by him near Rome since 1769, many of which he indicates were acquired by Townley.

Townley was a wealthy English gentleman, with a country house (called Towneley Hall; Charles favoured the alternative spelling) near Burnley; he was an antiquarian and collector of antiquities, who made three Grand Tours to Italy.

Zoffani's portrayal of Townley's sculpture gallery, 1782

Zoffani’s portrayal of Townley’s sculpture gallery, 1782. Wikimedia Commons

 

Flaubert, Alcibiades, and Laelaps the dog

“Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim.” Shakespeare, King Lear (III.6)

ALCIBIADES – Famous on account of his dog’s tail. A kind of debauchee. Visited Aspasia. (Flaubert, Dictionary of Received Ideas, Oneworld Classics edition, 2010, from the Alma Classics website).

Flaubert made the notes for this ironically banal spoof of the platitudinous mentality of the bourgeoisie of the Second Empire in the 1870s; it remained unpublished until 1913. 

The Jennings Dog (also known as The Duncombe Dog or The Dog of Alcibiades) is a Roman sculpture of a dog with a docked tail.  Named after its first modern owner, Henry Jennings, it is a 2nd-century AD Roman copy of a Hellenistic bronze original, probably of the 2nd century BC.

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

Jennings (1731-1819) saw it in a pile of rubble in a workshop in Rome between 1753 and 1756, bought it and took it back to Britain.  The sculpture became famous on its arrival in Britain, and its importer became known as ‘Dog Jennings’.  The sculpture was praised by Horace Walpole; copies proliferated and were said to make “a most noble appearance in a gentleman’s hall”, according to Dr Johnson.

A story in Plutarch’s life of Alcibiades tells of the Athenian statesman, orator and general owning a large, handsome dog; he cut off its tail so as to invoke pity from the Athenians and distract them from his worse deeds. The broken tail of his sculpture led Jennings to link it to this story, calling it “the dog of Alcibiades”.

Under this title a pair of copies were installed by Robert Adam at Newby Hall, Yorkshire, about 1780, and in the later 19th century a pair was set in the gardens at Basildon Park, Bedfordshire.

The Basildon Park dogs

For 150 years the sculpture stood guard in the entrance hall of Duncombe Park, the family mansion in Yorkshire of its next English owner.  It remained there until 1925, when the Duncombes rented out the hall to a girls’ school, whose pupils were rumoured to feed the dog unwanted sandwiches.  It was acquired by the British Museum in 2001, where it was identified as a Molossian guard dog, so it is assumed to have been associated with some civic monument in Epirus, and to have been brought to Rome.

The Molossian hound, according to Nicander (quoted by Pollux, Onomasticon, XXXIX) was a descendant of a dog (Laelaps, “Whirlwind” or “Tempest”) forged in bronze by Hephaestus and given to Zeus.

In Greek mythology the Teumessian fox or Cadmean vixen was a gigantic animal that was impossible to catch.  It was one of the offspring of Echidna, a draikana– a female dragon with the face and torso of a beautiful woman and the body of a snake. This fox was said to have been sent by the gods to punish the people of Thebes for some crime.  Creon, the ruler of Thebes, assigned Amphityron the impossible task of destroying this animal. He called upon the services of the magical dog Laelaps.

This prodigious hound was said to have been a gift from Zeus to Europa.  He was passed down to Europa’s son, King Minos of Crete, and then to Procris, whose husband, Cephalus, had been seduced by Eos the goddess of dawn while he was out hunting.  She handed him back to his wife after an interval of eight years because he was pining for her so much – but made disparaging comments about Procris’ lack of fidelity as she did so.  Once reunited with Procris, Cephalus tested her by returning from the hunt and seducing her while in disguise.  Procris fled in shame to the forest to hunt.  On her return, Procris brought two propitiatory magical gifts, a spear that never missed its target, and Laelaps, who never failed to catch his quarry.

Piero di Cosimo, Death of Procris, with Laelaps and faun

Piero di Cosimo, Death of Procris, with Laelaps and faun

Zeus, faced with a paradox in the mutually cancelling qualities of Laelaps and the fox, turned the two animals into stone so that the one might not catch the uncatchable and the other not escape the inescapable. The pair were petrified and cast into the heavens as stars.

The Molossus (Μολοσσὸς) is a breed of dog that is now extinct, but which gave its name to the modern group of dogs known as Molosser, solidly built, large dog breeds that all descend from the same common ancestor.

From the Encyclopedia Romana: “The Molossian is mentioned in the literature more often than any other breed…[including] Aristophanes (Thesmophoriazusae, 416), where it frightens off adulterers; Aristotle (The History of Animals, IX.1), where as a sheep-dog, it is considered superior to other breeds in size and courage; Plautus (Captivi, 86), where the parasite is like a greyhound (venaticus) when business is put aside and a Molossian when it recommences; Statius (Thebaid, III.203), where the maddened hounds do not recognize Actaeon, their master; Lucretius (De Rerum Natura, V.1063ff), where the dog growls and bays, fawns over its pups, howls when left alone, and whimpers when threatened with the whip; Horace (Satires, VI), where the country mouse has his fill of the city when the house resounds with the barking of Molossians. 

The Molossian hound may have similarities to the Alaunt, the dog of the Alans- a group of nomads of the first millennium AD.  The Alans were known as superb warriors, herdsmen, and breeders of horses and dogs.

The Ayran Flock Guardian or Sage Koochi Asian steppe breed was used to domesticate the horse and control and defend large livestock preceded these types. The steppe nomads, such as the Kurgan, introduced the use of the horse and chariot, as well as the Mastiff-Alaunt war dogs.

J. del Sallai, Alaunt sheep guard

J. del Sallai, Alaunt sheep guard

The Molossus reached Epirus in about 1200 BC.  They differed from the Mastiff prototype, having a long nose of a narrow type, and a long mane. Varro, however, described a herding dog of Epirus which was white and large headed, used to defend sheep and goats.  Molossis of Epirus is located in Southern Albania. It is most plausible the Alaunt gave rise to the fighting dogs of the Molossi, which were introduced to Britain by Roman Invasion in 55BC. The Alans provided cavalry for Rome and in 50AD, 5,500 Alans were sent to Britain to guard Hadrian’s Wall.  In this way the Alaunt  were probably the genetic ancestors of the British Pugnances, fighting dogs which English Mastiffs and Bulldogs descend from.

Mastiffs are often referred to as Molossus dogs or Molossers. It is one of the best-known ancient breeds; however, its physical characteristics and function are questionable. Though the Molossus breed no longer exists in its original form, it is noted as being instrumental in the development of modern breeds such as the St Bernard, Rottweiler, Great Dane and Newfoundland. (Some of this text is derived and adapted from Wikipedia).

Alma Classics edition of Flaubert's 'Dictionary of Received Ideas'

Alma Classics edition of Flaubert’s ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’

 

 

 

Rhyming Byron: Orioles and Eliot

 ‘I also like to dine on becaficas’: T.S. Eliot, epigraph to The Sacred Wood

In  Beppo (written in Venice in 1817) stanza 42 Byron’s narrator says he likes ‘on Autumn evenings to ride out’ without worrying too much whether the weather will be clement, for in Italy everything is less mundane than in England.  He goes on, in the next stanza, with further examples of why he finds Italy superior to England:

I also like to dine on becaficas,

To see the Sun set, sure he’ll rise tomorrow,

Not through a misty morning twinkling weak as

A drunken man’s dead eye in maudlin sorrow,

But with all Heaven t’himself: the day will break as

Beauteous as cloudless, nor be forced to borrow

That sort of farthing candlelight which glimmers

Where reeking London’s smoky Caldron simmers

We can still find genuine pleasure in the playful pararhymes in Byron’s verse; ‘becaficas’ clearly chimes visually as well as in a sonic sense with ‘weak as’ – the vowel sounds are identical if one adopts a vaguely Italian pronunciation for the ending of the first line, and the consonants are also symmetrical (although the sibilant Italian terminal ‘s’ clashes with the ‘z’ sound in ‘as’).  But this pattern is subverted when, according to the rhyme scheme, we expect line 5 to chime with lines 1 and 3; instead we get ‘break as’ – which only rhymes if we pronounce this already irregularly sounded word falsely, as if it were an ‘ee’ vowel, not ‘ay’.  It’s an eye-rhyme, a sonic corruption, and it thwarts the very pattern established by the preceding stanzas.

It’s this subversive teasing with words and sounds that is one of the reasons I enjoy Byron’s lighter poems: he refuses to take himself or anyone or anything else seriously; it’s the opposite of po-faced (‘smiling’?)  Here’s another delightful example (he’s writing about Venetian ladies’ pretty faces):

And like so many Venuses of Titian’s

(The best’s at Florence – see it if ye will),

They look when leaning over the balcony,

Or stepping from a picture by Giorgione’…

Once more he’s teasing his pretentious readers with their smug awareness that the Italian name ‘Giorgione’ is pronounced ‘George-oh-nay’, and that therefore one’s reading of ‘balcony’ renders the next line-ending problematic – he’s forcing us to consider pronouncing the artist’s name ‘GEORGE-oh-nee’, with the stress on the first syllable, to rhyme with ‘balcony’; or else we have to consider the ridiculous possibility of retracing our readerly steps and retrospectively re-pronouncing ‘balcony’ as ‘bal-CONE- y’, with the stress on the second syllable!  As the academic F.V. Bogel helpfully explains, this produces for the reader a ‘division…between visual and auditory modalities’ (The Difference Satire Makes: Rhetoric and Reading from Jonson to Byron [Cornell UP, 2001]).  While we’re looking at Beppo, here’s one of my favourite lines, a beautifully balanced and modulated artifact in words: the narrator is mockingly praising England – ‘Our cloudy climate, and our chilly women’.

So what on earth IS a ‘becafica’?  The OED spells it ‘beccafico’(although an ‘a’ ending is one of its variant forms), deriving from the Italian for ‘fig-pecker’:   ‘A name given in Italy to small migratory birds of the genus Sylvia, much esteemed as dainties in the autumn, when they have fattened on figs and grapes: they are identified with the British Pettychaps and Blackcaps’.  Marquez often writes about his characters eating such small fowl, maybe baked in pies.  Conrad Aiken in an essay about Eliot defines ‘becafica’ as a small bird, a warbler, a garden oriole, loosely termed by Italians as one of the ‘uccellini’.   He says that by using Byron’s line as an epigraph to this book published in 1920 Eliot was suggesting that he likes to ‘dine on song-birds’, apprizing us, ‘with a gleaming and slightly sinister politeness, that he is about to do so’.  He intends, that is, to be ‘severe to the point of destructiveness’ (‘The Scientific Critic’, in Freeman, 2, [2 March, 1921], pp. 593-94).

How fitting that Eliot should choose to head his collection of essays  about poetry, published in 1920, two years before The Waste Land, with this particularly ambiguous line; while delineating the modernist notions of technique, feeling and a  ‘tradition’ in poetry, (here we find his famous pronouncement: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’) Eliot illuminates the text and prepares us for the bombshell of The Waste Land with jewel-like fragments like those ‘becaficas’, which fail to sate our appetite, but  charm us with their song.