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Poetry ology: wars, words, and women

By A.J. Cave

Valentine cartoon by Firoozeh Mozaffari, Shargh daily, Tehran

St. Valentine’s Day is that time of the year we wallow in all sorts of sweet things pink and red in celebration of romance and romantic love.

The day is named after Saint Valentine who is listed in the Christian Martyrology, and is celebrated by a number of Christian denominations (sans Catholics) as the Feast of Saint Valentine.

But it is not exactly clear who this saint was. Many early Christian martyrs were named Valentine, and a tradition grew around one of them from the 3rd century CE who supposedly united in matrimony those who were forbidden to marry by the order of the Roman Emperor Claudius II (ruled 268-270 CE). Valentine was tortured and executed by the Romans on 14 February close to the Milvian Bridge (north of Rome)-site of the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE that set the path of the Roman Empire toward Christianity.

The day became associated with courtly love in the 14th century medieval England, and in the 18th century English sweethearts started to exchange flowers, love letters, and sweet things to mark the occasion. In 1929, on the day remembered in U.S. history as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, red blood flowed when Chicagoan mobsters from the North Side Irish (Bugs Moran) and the South Side Italian (Al Capone) gangs exchanged metal bullets instead of paper hearts. Sounds like (some) modern divorces.

These days near a billion valentine cards change hands around the world (mostly among kids in schools) and maybe one day soon many more would float in emails, instagrams, snapchats, texts, tweets, and the next cool communications channel someone would dream up someday on the back of a napkin.

And why not? Affairs of the heart account for some of our sweetest memories and our most bitter heartbreaks. And who doesn’t like a fancy box of yummy chocolate?

We can’t, of course, talk about romance without talking about poetry, and to the majority of Iranians poetry usually means the works of the great medieval Persian poets, the likes of Khayyâm, Nezâmi, Rumi, Sa’adi, Hâfez and many others.

Even with all sorts of poetry about all kinds of love these days, the celebrated Persian (love) poetry remains in a category all by itself.

We might think that ancient Persians invented poetry. But the first poet we know by name was a poetess by the name of En-hedu-anna (Sumerian, meaning: high priestess of the god of heaven, 2285-2250 BCE).

En-hedu-anna was no ordinary woman. She was the royal daughter (princess) of Sargon the Great (Akkadian: Sarru-kin, ruled 2340-2285 BCE)-the first of the ancient Near Eastern empire builders, who rose from obscurity and brought the lands from the Upper Sea (Mediterranean) to the Lower Sea (Persian Gulf) under his rule.

Sargon called his empire: “mat sumeri e mat akkadai, Lands of Sumer and Akkad”. It was such a prestigious position that when the Ansanite Warrior-King Cyrus the Great (Persian: Kurus, ruled 559-530 BCE) conquered Babylon nearly 18 centuries later, the title of sarru sumeri u akkadi, King of Sumer and Akkad, was one of his kingly titles:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world...

Sargon meant to keep the coveted Land of Sumer under his royal thumb, and to do that he needed (to appear) to have the approval of the Sumerians great gods and goddesses-among them Inanna, the Lady of Heaven, the revered Sumerian goddess of love and fertility.

Enter the extraordinary En-hedu-anna who was not only apparently highly literate (had scribal training), she was exceptionally smart and gifted. She was consecrated by her royal father to the temple of Nanna, the Sumerian moongod, at the city of Ur. It was to become the highest ranking priestess position exclusively held by a royal daughter of a ruling king. En-hedu-anna wrote a series of hymns (The Exaltation of Inanna) and in her hands (and by her words), the gentler Sumerian Inanna was poetically fused with the more warlike Akkadian Istar.

And Istar turned out to be the consummate insider goddess of the Akkadian pantheon-the original Akkadian bombshell.

When the famous Warrior-King Hammurabi (or Ammurapi, ruled 1795-1750 BCE) became the king in Babylon centuries later and patiently got rid of all the petty kingly competition around him to create a unified kingdom, the Babylonian priesthood promoted Marduk, the obscure resident-god of Babylon to the head of Babylonian pantheon and eventually all the Lands (Babylonia).

Istar not only survived the temple coup, she retained her central position as the great goddess of love and war, handing the kings their scepters, their thrones and their standards, and protected them from their enemies. She became an astral goddess, the brightest star Dilbat-Venus-standing between the sungod and the moongod. Her name eventually became synonymous with goddess. She was simply called: Belit, meaning: Lady.

Assyrians had their own pantheon of gods that somewhat overlapped with the Babylonian gods. An elaborate image, called Sacred Tree of Life by modern Assyriologists, was used extensively on Assyrian monumental reliefs. The meaning of it has not been explained in the Assyrian cuneiform texts deciphered so far, but it could have represented the perfect order of the universe, with Istar at the heart of the tree and the only great goddess in the assembly of the great gods-the only woman in the men-only board of divine directors, and one woman more than in the top ranks of all the major world religions today-totaling zero!

In my retelling of the old Babylonian story of Descent of Istar to the Netherworld (dating to the 2nd millennium BCE, rooted in an older Sumerian original), one day Istar decided to go visit her only sister, Ereskigal who ruled over the Netherworld-a place from which there was no return.

And here is sibling rivalry between two sisters par excellence. Ereskigal, suspicious of Istar and her unexpected visit, ordered the gatekeeper of the seven gates of Arallu (Netherworld) to open the gates to Istar, and if Istar wanted to visit bad enough, she had to shed all her worldly fineries. And Istar did, and passing through the seventh gate she was clothed in her own lovely luminosity-utterly naked.

Ereskigal looked at her sister with eyes of death and Istar died.

As the saying goes, “Love makes the world go round and round.” And with the goddess of (sexual) love dead, the world started to slowly die.

Even the great goddesses, consorts of the great gods, started to suffer from something similar to that womanly condition commonly known as the “headache”, and love-starved great gods complained to Êa, the great god of magic and wisdom (and father of Marduk) and asked him to do something.

Êa rolled up his godly sleeves and created a good-looking guy-one of those tall, dark and handsome hunks-to go down to the Netherworld and seduce Ereskigal with his manly prowess, and when Ereskigal was drunk with love, ask her to give him the “water(s) of life”.

The godly plan worked and once Ereskigal found out she had been tricked and trapped, she cursed her lover and ordered her assistant Namtar, the harbinger of death, to go sprinkle Istar with the water of life, give back her fineries, and send her back to the world of the living.

But this was not the end of the story.

As they say, you can’t cheat the goddess of deadlands and get away with it, and even Istar had to send someone else to take her empty place in the Netherworld.

When Istar returned to heaven, she expected to find her lover brokenhearted, weeping and wailing for her. But, NO, Tammuz (Sumerian: Dumuzi) was partying with a bunch of pretty young goddesses. Men!

And Istar did what any woman would have done. She handed her two-timing lover to Namtar to take her place in the Netherworld.

Tammuz was the great god of green grasslands and his death meant dusty disaster for the foodlands. So his sister Belili, one of those obscure lesser goddesses, made a cameo appearance and volunteered to take the place of her brother in the Netherworld for half a year each year. So Tammuz became the great god who died every autumn and was reborn every spring to reunite with Istar and ensure the fertility of the greenlands and fruitful harvests.

A great story that would make a great movie!

Imagine Angelina Jolie as Istar and Ereskigal-two sisters (two sides of the same coin) ruling over life and death, lust, love and loss.

Another great story worth telling is the story of the cracking of the code of cuneiform script.

Exquisite stories of the people who once lived and loved in the Cradle of Civilization (the ones who had invented writing, literature and poetry) died when the center of gravity shifted from the Lands between the Two Rivers (called Mesopotamia by the ancient Greeks) eastward to the Highlands of Persia, and then westward to the sunny shores of the Upper Sea (Mediterranean).

Palace and temple libraries and public and private archives were eventually swallowed up by earth when mud-bricks reverted back into mud. Whatever was written on perishable things, perished, and whatever was written on clay tablets passed through the seven gates of Arallu, waiting patiently to be sprinkled with the water of life again.

Unlike Cyrus the Great who conquered the world and left behind a small clay cylinder (now known as the Cyrus Cylinder) buried in the great inner wall of Babylon, Darius the Great (Persian: Darayavaus, ruled 522-486 BCE) not just saw the big picture thingy of history, he wanted to make sure everyone else saw (and a handful read) his own version of his spectacular rise to absolute power as the Great King, King of Persia and the 4 Quarters-King of the World.

Darius might well have been a ruthless warrior, a shameless usurper, and a shrewd administrator, but he understood the power of publicity! The people he wanted to persuade (and impress) were the powerful Persian aristocracy and his own kith and kin, not us.

Whether the royal inscription of Darius on the rock-face of Bagastana (meaning: place of god or gods in Old Persian, Middle Persian: Behistun, Modern Persian: Bisotun) is historical fact or fiction is not important here. What matters is that he ordered his scribes to write the (hi)story in 3 different languages: Elamite: the language of their nearest neighbors (if not their dearest friends), Akkadian: the prestigious political language of the time, and in the newly minted cuneiform script for ârya: the language of the king (now called Old Persian). It was written in Aramaic on parchment and papyrus too.

As I wrote in my idol-worshiper’s guide to god-stan (2012), in the 19th century, the (civilized) world was about 2,500-years-old. Cracking the codes of (forgotten) cuneiform and hieroglyph scripts added another 3,500+ years, or so.

The imperialist Persians had an oral tradition and left us very little of their own stories in writing, but they left us a key, hidden in plain sight, to unlock a forgotten past that turned out to be more awesome than any story they could have written themselves.

The knowledge of cuneiform script opened the doors to the textual treasures of Sumerians and Babylonians and Assyrians and others, but it didn’t do much for the Persians themselves. While poetry became the lingua franca of the Iranians over time, we don’t know much of Persian poetry (or prose) until almost a thousand years later.

Most of the Persian records of all kinds did not survive the brutal Arab conquest of the Sasanid Empire in the 7th century CE. But the Persian influence was felt in the courts of Arab caliphs, Turkish sultans, and Christian kings.

Among all the ancient civilizations that fell to the Muslim Arabs, Persians were unique in keeping the flames of their past (fact or fantasy) burning.

For some reason, Persia had always been the hotbed of new religious flavors. Mandaeans, Manichaeans, Mazdaeans, Mazdakians, Mithraeans, Zoroastrians, Zrvanians and pagans, lived cheek-by-jowl with the mostly (Nestorian) Christians and Judaeans under the rule of the Sasanid great kings, with all the religions of the time benefiting from complex cross-cultural communications.

It was this rich knowledge of the past that allowed the Persians to accomplish something extraordinary. They created another religion by persianizing the Arabian Islam, which later came to be known as the Shi‘a branch of Islam and its many offshoots.

The second Persian line of defense against the Arab invasion was the underground fermentation of the (Middle) Persian language by a long list of Persian poets (not politicians) until time was ripe.

In the 11th century CE when the next wave of conquerors, the Muslim Turkish Selchuks from the east, rode through Persia and kicked out the Arabs, they needed a language for their newly minted administration. Their own Turkish tongue was obscure and Arabic was the language of their enemy, and “after all, they all speak Persian, don’t they?” So Persian language became the lingua franca of the Selchuks and the successive dynasties in the greater Iran.

By then the Iranians had ingeniously persianized the features of Arabic language that were greatly lacking in the Middle Persian (Pahlavi) and had discarded the rest, thus modernizing the ancient language. In the process, the writing script based on Imperial Aramaic (of the Achaemenids) was replaced by the Arabic script. Akkadian, Aramaic and Arabic were Semitic sister languages and switching from one script to another was not easy, but was not that painful either. The Persian language itself had retained its ancient Indo-European lineage.

Ferdowsi (or Firdausi, 940-1020 CE) was the Poet of Persia par excellence and the author of the Shah Nameh (Book of Kings, 1010), the Iranian epic masterpiece, written (almost) entirely in the modern Persian language (Farsi). He spent some 30 years writing nearly 50,000 couplets packed with the spectacular adventures, triumphs and tragedies, histories and stories of the ancient kings and heroes of Persia before the Arab occupation.

But while Shah Nameh was entirely in verse, it was neither poetry nor (pseudo) history, it was political commentary and ideology-a recipe for revolution and a roadmap for secularization. It was about what Iranians had and what they had lost. The Persian Camelot. No wonder the Muslim Turkish Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud (998-1030 CE) who had commissioned the work, didn’t like it and didn’t pay for it.

Ferdowsi died in 1020 CE and was denied burial in the Muslim cemetery by the local clergy, who judged him a heretic. He was buried in his own Persian walled garden, what the Hellenes (ancient Greeks) used to call paradeisos, paradise-a more fitting resting place for a man whose name (Ferdowsi) means: citizen of paradise.

As long as Iranians can read and appreciate the Shah Nameh of Ferdowsi, the new wave of arabization of Iran is going to have as much luck as the old one did.

Go ahead. Live a thousand years and prove me wrong!

Ferdowsi wrote: “... And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim, when I have gone, my praises and my fame...” I reckon a few women would do too! To echo a line from a popular song, “I have loved you for a thousand years, and I will love you for a thousand more...”

And speaking of love, the medieval Persian poets, the likes of Khayyâm (1048-1123), Gorgani (11th century), Nezâmi (1141-1209), Rumi (1207-1273), Sa’adi (1213-1292), Hâfez (1315-1390), and many notable others, endeared themselves to kings and commoners alike with their love poetry.

Before Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde), Romeo and Juliet, and Lancelot and Guinevere, there were Vis o Ramin, Khusrow o Shirin, Shirin o Farhad, and Layli o Majnun.

It is late and getting dark outside, so let’s close with that famous quatrain from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (as interpreted by the Anglo-Irishman Edward FitzGerald):

A book of verses underneath the bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

It means: surrendering to an eternal heavenly love that is beyond ephemeral worldly existence.

a bit of bread and a cup of wine...
and then,
let whatever is to come,


About the author: A. J. Cave is an Iranian-American writer. Her Book an idol-worshiper’s Guide to god-stan: a trilogy in 7 parts (2012) is the story of cracking the code of cuneiform script in the 19th century and its political and theological aftermath.

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