Thursday, June 16, 2016

A. V. Koshy writes

An Epic on Childhood - 25 - The Barber and the Sea

the connections the mind makes are so strange

the barber would come home with his junior
a nice old man with hair growing from his ears
then under the common jack fruit tree
would be laid a chair and he would cut his hair
with a funny looking thingummie
the name of which he never found out

the crab moved sideways, at the sea
the shells were precious, more than cash
the sand, the ocean, the sky, the trees
never had he felt so happy and free
in his family's company

odd the conjunction one finds
between the barber and the sea
by happiness were both defined
to be akin, making merry.

 The Sphinx of the Seashore -- Elihu Vedder


  1. In 1879, Elihu Vedder painted “The Sphinx of the Seashore,” long before he visited Egypt in 1889, but he had always been fascinated by the subject. One of his first big successes, painted when he was 27, was “The Questioner of the Sphinx” in 1863, which was based on the limestone royal portraits in Dr. Henry Abbott’s collection, on exhibit at various venues in New York beginning in 1853. The city itself was awash in pseudo-Egyptian architectural motifs, including the House of Detention (still familiarly known as “The Tombs”), the Halls of Justice, and the Croton Reservoir. His Sphinx was less eroded than the one on Giza, with most its elaborate headdress still intact, and it was half-buried in sand, though the statue had long been freed from them. A few discreet bones and a half-buried skull alluded to the fate of those who failed to answer the riddle correctly. Vedder also made it considerably smaller in scale and replaced Oedipus with an old, emaciated Arab, who is the questioner; the Sphinx’s power to enlighten or devour waned with time, and the riddle of life’s purpose remained unanswered. When he returned to the subject in 1879, the Sphinx was transformed into a living feline-human hybrid, reclining in lurid sunset light on a beach littered with the debris of civilization. As he wrote, “The all-devouring Sphinx typifies Nature, the Destroyer, eminent above the broken forms of life….in time even man himself must disappear from the face of the earth.” When he finally visited the Sphinx itself in April 1890, he saw his subject with the eyes of a painter rather than a tourist or mystic: “I was simply struck dumb…. Words are vain but the grandeur the strength the ineffable softness and richness of the color tempt one to try to describe that which could only be represented in painting and even that but faintly.” His attempts to capture the “bright yellow sand of the Golden Libyan desert streaming down from the heated plateau to the cool of the glimpse of that intensely blue, cloudless far of African Sky” led to a number of sketches and paintings, including “The Sphinx” rising from behind a sloping foreground dune, with a dark stone half-wall in front, and “The Sphinx, Egypt,” with an Arab crouching on a camel’s back to reveal the monument’s scale; both oils emphasized the bright yellows of the sand and the Sphinx contrasted with the deep blue of the sky.

  2. In his poem “The Sphinx,” Oscar Wilde noted her “monstrous miracles” as well as her “curved archaic smile,” and indeed the sphinx is one of the oldest figures in human art history. Just under a foot tall, the 40,000-year-old Löwenmensch, a human with a lion head, is the oldest known anthropomorphic (human-shaped) or zoomorphic (animal-shaped) statue. Carved out of woolly mammoth ivory, it measures 29.6 x 5.6 x 5.9 cm. Most of its pieces (sans head) were found in 1939 in Stadel-Höhle im Hohlenstein (Stadel cave in Hohlenstein Mountain) in the Lonetal (Lone valley) in Germany but was forgotten about during World War II and only rediscovered thirty years later. Initially, the figurine was classified as male by Joachim Hahn, but additional pieces were discovered between 1997 and 1998, and the head was reassembled, causing Elisabeth Schmid to conclude that determined that the figurine was that of a woman with the head of a European cave lioness. More recent sphinxes have generally been associated with architectural structures such as royal tombs or religious temples; the oldest of these (9,500 BCE) was found in Turkey, at Nevali Çori, near Gobekli Tepe, or possibly at Kortik Tepe, 120 miles to the east. The Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent but with ferocious strength. A lamassu was an Assyrian protective deity with a human head, a body of a lion or ox, and bird wings; in some writings, it represented a female deity, and its male equivalent was a shedu. It first appeared during the reign of of Tiglath-Pileser as a symbol of power and was prominently placed at the entrances of cities and palaces. It encompassed all life within them and thus were depicted as protective deities. To protect ordinary homes, it was engraved in clay tablets which were then buried under the door's threshold. The iconography influenced the Jews (for example, in Ezekial’s invocation of a human/lion/eagle/bull), and by the early Christians (who ascribed each of the four Gospels to one of these four aspects). Perhaps the first sphinx in Egypt depicted queen Hetepheres II of the fourth dynasty (2650–2480 BCE), but the most famous one is on the outskirts of Cairo, adjacent to the Great Pyramids. Although the date of its construction is uncertain, the head of the Great Sphinx is believed to be that of the fourth dynasty pharaoh Khafra (2558-2532 BCE), the builder of the second-largest pyramid, Wer(en)-Khafre ("Khafre is Great"), of which the sphinx may have been erected as a guardian. At some point in time it became associated with the solar deity, Sekhmet, a lioness. Khafra was the son of Khufu, the dynasty’s second pharaoh, who built the largest pyramid, and he followed his brother Djedefre on the throne. Millennia later, the Greek historians Diodorus and Herodotus depicted “Khêphren” as a heretic and tyrant who succeeded his father “Khêops” after the death of that megalomaniac; after their combined reigns of 106 years, “Mykerînós” (Menkaure) took the throne and restored peace and piety to Egypt and built the last and smallest of the pyramids.

  3. From early times, the Greeks had trade and cultural contacts with Egypt, and Hēsíodos (ca. 700 BCE) referred to the Phix. It was on Chios coinage from the 6th century BCE, and before Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE, was known to the Greeks as a “sphinx” (perhaps a corruption of the Egyptian "shesepankh" [living image], although it is usually derived from “sphíngō” ["to squeeze"], referring to lionesses strangulation of their prey). The Greek sphinx was female, unlike the Egyptian male, sometimes had eagle wings and a serpent-tipped tail, and was portrayed as merciless. The Sphinx was a daughter of Orthos (the two-headed dog who was killed by Heracles while guarding Geryon's cattle) and Echidna ("She-Viper"), a half-woman/half-snake monster; but various other, incompatible, genealogies were given to describe the legendary Greek monsters. Hera or Ares sent the Sphinx from her Aethiopian homeland to Thebes in Greece to question all passersby, "What is that which in the morning goeth upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the Evening upon three?" She then strangled and ate anyone unable to answer. Oedipus solved the riddle by answering: Man crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age. (Another version of the riddle was, "There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?" The answer to this one is "day and night" [both words are feminine in Ancient Greek]). The Sphinx then committed suicide by throwing herself from her high rock or devoured herself. (In Jean Cocteau’s 1934 play, “La Machine Infernale,” the Sphinx told Oedipus the answer herself so she could kill herself and thus not have to kill anymore, and also to make him love her.)

  4. Sphinx-like beings continue to thrive in parts of Asia, possibly influenced in part by Hellenistic motifs after the reign of Alexander. In South India, the "human-beast" (purushamriga in Sanskrit, purushamirugam in Tamil) guards temples by removing the sins of devotees when they enter and ward off bad luck. Narasimha (man-lion), an avatar of Vishnu, was known primarily as the “Great Protector” and was extolled to bring good luck, cure all diseases, and destroy all enemies. After slaying the demon king Hiranyakashipu, his wrath continued unabated until, at the request of Brahma, Shiva took the form of Sharabha (part-lion/part-bird, with eight legs, eight tusks, enormous horns, two heads, a cluster of manes, a thousand arms, and a long tail) and immobilized Narasimha until he was pacified, then decapitated and skinned him in order to wear his remains as a garment. Then Vishnu resumed his normal form. ("Sharabha" may mean "the Destroyer [of those who transgress the bounds of ethics]") In another version, Narasimha struck Sharabha and groaned in pain, causing him to recognize Shiva; he bowed and praised Sharabham and then Shiva blessed Vishnu and authorized his killing of demons. But the gods urged Shiva to give up his Sharabha form, so he dismembered himself and gave away his limbs; his torso became a kāpālika (“skull-man”), a tantric ascetic who carried a skull-topped staff and cranium-shaped begging bowl, imitated the fierce aspect of Shiva, and flaunted Vedic impurity rules (by covering himself in cremation ashes and propitiating the gods with blood, meat, alcohol, and jizzum). In yet another version, after Narasimha became the calm Vishnu again, Sharabha became a lingam, the phallic symbol that represents Shiva. In the “Kalika Purana,” Vishnu’s boar avatar Varaha and his three boarish sons went on a rampage, and even Vishnu, unable to control himself in that form, asked Shiva to destroy Varaha; Shiva became Sharabha to fight Varaha, and Narasimha came to Varaha’s aid, but Sharabha killed them both and Vishnu reabsorb their energies and then defeated Sharabha. In Sri Lanka, a nara-simha is part of the Buddhist tradition and functions as a guardian of the northern direction, while in Myanmar, the manussiha was created by Buddhist monks to protect a new-born royal baby from being devoured by ogresses. In Thailand, the norasingh (“man-lion deity” but often portrayed as a male-female couple) has a human upper body and walks upright but has a leonine lower body and, as usual, serves a protective function.


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