As published in Volume 11, NO 2, June 2014

by Walter Reichel

“Nothing we have said is certain

concerning either halcyons or nightingales ”

– Lucian

You see, Dionysis  

nowadays it is not easy for us to speak  

of halcyons 

nor of nightingales 

as we have not lived in houses on whose foundations 

cocks were sacrificed 

nor have we slept on mattresses 

with crosses at their four corners sewn   

where coins fell 

of silver and of gold 

and seeds of cotton and of sesame 

nor have we poured into the streets 

deep into the night 

and into houses brightly lit 

with Lazaruses in yellow flowers adorned  

their blossom-filled beds beset with 

garlands and grains 

birds lizards petals 

flour fennel candles and honey 

softer than sleep 

That’s why, Dionysis, 

in the “general turmoil 

of uncertainty of feelings” 

drinking coffee 

on a Friday morning, 

I just have to tell you 

that I’ve missed you very much

(Translation: Stephanos Stephanides)

It is these big eyes which have given rise to a unique fascination. They look at their observer intently, but the longer one holds their gaze, the more foreign they become, and the greater the distance separating us from those people who confront us in this and many other Fayum mummy portraits – for that is what we are dealing with here. This feeling of foreignness may, however, also come from the fact that, some 2000 years ago, these people were able to perceive their world in a manner forever beyond us present-day mortals.

They too were probably charmed by the melancholically beautiful song and colourful feathers of a kingfisher, which glittered in the sun as it shot past the riverbank. But unlike us, they also knew that it was actually a halcyon, as Lucian (2nd century AD) tells us in his dialogue “Halcyon or on Transformations”:

“They say that it was once a woman, the daughter of Aeolus, son of Hellen, that she yearned for the love of her dead husband, Ceyx of Trachis, son of the Morning Star, handsome son of a handsome father, and lamented for him, and then, acquiring wings by some divine dispensation, she began to fly like a bird over the seas, once she had wandered over the whole earth without being able to find him.” 

And every spring, they would stand on the beach of Alexandria to pay homage to the dead and the resurrected Adonis in a dazzling display, as described in the little flash drama “The Syracusan Women at the Festival of Adonis” by the Hellenic poet Theocritus (3rd century BC):

“But all together, at daybreak, with the dew, will we bear him out to the waves that splash upon the shore; and there with ungirt hair, breasts bared and raiment falling to the ankle, will we begin our clear song. 

Thou dear Adonis, alone of demigods, as they tell, dost visit both earth and Acheron. Such lot fell not to Agamemnon, nor mighty Aias, that hero of the heavy anger, nor Hector, eldest of Hecabe’s twenty sons; no, nor to Patrocles, nor Pyrrhus, when he came back from Troy, nor yet to the Lapiths of an earlier age, nor Deucalion and his kind. Not to the house of Pelops and the Pelasgian lords of Argos. Look on us with favour next year too, dear Adonis. Happy has thy coming found us now, Adonis, and when you comest again, dear will be thy return.” 

And together with the others, they poured into the streets deep into the night

“into houses brightly lit 

with Lazaruses in yellow flowers adorned

their blossom-filled beds beset with

garlands and grains

birds lizards petals

flour fennel candles and honey

softer than sleep.”

And when they celebrated Lazarus’ revival in this way – which continues to be the case in Larnaca even today, every year on the Saturday before Palm Sunday – they joined the priest in singing the Palm Sunday Troparion:

“O Christ our God, when Thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead, before Thy Passion, Thou didst confirm the resurrection of the universe.”

Lazarus, and then Christ, were, at least for now, the last to return from the Kingdom of the Dead, though they were not the first, for others before them, such as Dionysus and Adonis, had also conquered death – and this memory was always present, even though the resurrected now bore different names.

And they stood behind the bridal couple as they emerged from the church, and the rooster’s head was chopped off with an axe, its red blood dripping onto the foundation stone of their home to bring good luck and longevity to the house and to the marriage.

And together with the neighbours, they embroidered the four corners of the marital bed’s mattress with red crosses,

“where coins fell

of silver and of gold

and seeds of cotton and of sesame.”

and carried them into the bedroom accompanied by music and dance.

Friedrich Nietzsche impressively described what this was ultimately all about at the start of his work “The Birth of Tragedy” (1871):

 “Under the magic of the Dionysian, not only does the bond between man and man lock itself in place once more, but also nature itself, no matter how alienated, hostile, or subjugated, rejoices again in her festival of reconciliation with her prodigal son, man. The earth freely offers up her gifts, and the beasts of prey from the rocks and the desert approach in peace. The wagon of Dionysus is covered with flowers and wreaths; under his yolk stride panthers and tigers. […]. Now the slave is a free man; now all the stiff, hostile barriers break apart, those things which necessity and arbitrary power or “saucy fashion” have established between men. Now […] every man feels himself not only united with his neighbour, reconciled and fused together, but also as one with him, as if the veil of Maja had been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around in the face of the mysterious primordial unity. Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community: he has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. The enchantment speaks out in his gestures. Just as the animals now speak and the earth gives milk and honey, so something supernatural also echoes out of him: he feels himself a god; he himself now moves in as lofty and ecstatic a way as he saw the gods move in his dream. The man is no longer an artist; he has become a work of art: the artistic power of all of nature, to the highest rhapsodic satisfaction of the primordial unity, reveals itself here in the intoxicated performance.”

Those rules which are seemingly set in stone, which refer every single one of us back to ourselves, which separate us from one another, which restrict our lives and threaten to deprive us of any freedom and all hope in the name of the irreversible causality of all life processes, do not apply in the Dionysian world. But in a world enchanted by the Dionysian, everything appears possible, and as one.

The magic radiated by an enchanted world is that it transforms our life completely and makes even the dark sides of our life appear in a brighter light, making the light lighter and the dark less dark. For the horizon of an enchanted world it makes a difference if one lives in a house instead of an anonymous flat…

“…on whose foundations

cocks were sacrificed

and sleep on mattresses

with crosses at their four corners sewn

where coins fell

of silver and of gold

and seeds of cotton and of sesame”

In such a house nothing and no one can harm one – and even if they should, that is, if disaster, illness, and death should move in, then this would only touch the inhabitant of such a house tangentially; they would know that this is not the whole truth.

However, “nowadays” no one lives in such a house anymore. This is the bitter truth that the poet and her readers have to face – on a banal Friday morning, perhaps in the kitchen of an equally banal apartment flat. In the same way, “today” does not witness any more mourning widows being transformed into halcyons, no desperate mothers being turned into nightingales, and no one being raised from the dead.

Max Weber referred to this as the inescapable “disenchantment of the world” – a well known term which has been constantly cited ever since. Although the phrases from Lucian’s dialogue, which were quoted by Niki Marangou in the first few lines of her poem and put in Socrates’ mouth, very concisely describe the epistemological pre-requisite for an enchanted world, namely our ignorance, they are not used to support the fact that a metamorphosis is uncertain/impossible; indeed quite to the contrary, they justify the possibility thereof: We cannot say with certainty that halcyons and nightingales are not transformed humans, so that this reasoning turns unlikelihood into something akin to likelihood:

“Since, then the powers of the immortals are great, we, who are mortal and quite infinitesimal, who have no insight into matters great or small, but are even perplexed by most of the things which happen around us, cannot speak with assurance either about halcyons or nightingales.” 

But this sentence does not have the same meaning “today” as it did 2000 years ago. When we say, “nowadays it is not easy for us to speak of halcyons nor of nightingales,” then we mean: unlike the Lucianian Socrates we do not have the option of believing the unlikely to be possible on the basis of our ignorance. Our modern concept of disenchanted reality does not allow for this and that is why we do not recognise the transformations: to us, a halcyon will always remain no more than a halcyon, and a nightingale always a nightingale. We could only utter Lucian’s/Socrates’ sentence with the same meaning as in the past – i.e. using our ignorance as an argument for the possibility of the unlikely – if we forgot all the knowledge about the world and about ourselves that has been made accessible to us. But that would only be possible at the expense of self-abandonment.

Thus houses, whose foundation stones were daubed with sacrificial blood from a cock, have turned into plain buildings made of stone, wood, and iron. Beds that formerly had crosses at the four corners of the mattress are now simple frames of wood and cloth. Gold and silver are just metals, submitted to speculation on financial markets. Adonis will be forever dead and Lazarus lies lifeless on his deathbed. The night remains dark and silent. Instead of candles we use energy saving lamps. Cotton and sesame are recreated by “Monsanto” or “Pioneer.” Flour, fennel, and honey are bought in supermarkets. Our myths have turned into made-up stories, first written down by ethnologists, then analysed by philologists, then demythologised by theologians, and finally disposed of “harmlessly” between book covers.

If that is the case: Where is the sacred? How can we still speak of God? Whom are our prayers directed at, our grievances and our thanks? In front of whom do we light our candles? To whom do we offer our sacrifices? Who looks at us from out of holy pictures? For whom do we make the sign of the cross? For whom are the flowers with which we decorate our altars? As painful as the answer may be, it is nevertheless clear: in a disenchanted world that has lost its soul, we only encounter ourselves. We are the addressees of our own prayers. The flowers decorating our altars are for us, and we look back at images of ourselves in holy pictures.

There she sits, on a Friday morning, writing a letter to Dionysis/Dionysos; perhaps she is only vaguely aware of the fact that this is not a normal weekday, but the day commemorating the death of the Christian God. On the other hand, perhaps she knows it only too well. Indeed, perhaps that is why her letter, with its unexpressed yet ever-present longing for the magic of the sacred, for certainty and salvation, is not addressed to the Christian God, who died on the cross and was resurrected, but to his “brother,” the “pagan” god Dionysos, as sworn by Nietzsche, here called Dionysis. Of all the gods he is perhaps the one most like the Christian God, but she seems to have more faith in his strength to effectively resist the disenchantment of the world and its consequences; indeed, she may even believe him to be a source of inspiration for a re-enchantment of the world.

The Christian god is no longer considered as a source of inspiration, or if he is, then “only” in connection with his “brother” Dionysos; this may be due to the fact – again referring back to Max Weber – that Christianity, together with its predecessor Judaism, has played an important part in the disenchantment of the world, to the extent that it faces self-abolishment and is thus both “perpetrator” and “victim” in this respect.

Dionysos (and, formulating it more abstractly, the Dionysian) has always been immune to this disenchantment because of his archaic and anarchic savagery; unlike his “brother” Christ, Dionysos has thus never faced the threat of being degraded to an object of philosophical and especially theological speculation. What is left of Christ’s existence and promise, made manifest in the Last Supper, is a simple cup of coffee on a Friday morning. 

That is why her letter and her longing for enchantment, certainty and salvation are not addressed to this fading and vanishing Christian God, but to the god whose powerful and still-felt freshness and dynamism seem to represent all the things the loss of which she bemoans so impressively in her letter.

But is this the whole truth? After all, the letter is addressed to Dionysis, not Dionysos. This seems to suggest that even Dionysos has not survived the disenchantment of the world unscathed, that he, too, has been drawn into evanescence, perhaps not to the same decree as his “brother” Christ, but nevertheless to the extent that he, too, can now only be addressed indirectly, through his disenchanted, “representative” Dionysis embodied at a human level. By referring to the “general turmoil of uncertainty of feelings” in this context, and thereby quoting a verse from T.S. Eliot’s poem “East Coker,” the poet merely underlines the perplexity clearly emerging here, because it is this very perplexity, not to mention hopelessness, which is addressed by Eliot’s great poems, particularly “The Waste Land,” which could just as easily be called “The Disenchanted Land”.

That would mean, however, that there would be little hope of receiving an answer to the letter; the last line of the poem would then be a closing statement. After that, the letter writer gets up, puts her coffee cup into the dishwasher and turns towards other things.

But if “I’ve missed you very much” actually were the last word for the time being, then, to put it bluntly, we wouldn’t just be left with the choice between Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” (“Superman”) introduced in “Thus spoke Zarathustra” and Sigmund Freud’s “ehrlichem Kleinbauern” (“honest smallholder”)? The former is able to create and embody his own values in a disenchanted world, while the latter is so busy cultivating the plot that feeds him that he has no ambitions beyond that.

There have constantly been new attempts to re-enchant the world to get around this dilemma, from the “new mythology” of the “coming God” preached during the romanticism era, to the “return of religion” currently being diagnosed – concepts which have all failed, or will fail, because they replace the uncomfortable view that the world’s disenchantment cannot be reversed, and therefore “cheat,” as Camus once put it.

Instead of following such artificial concepts of “religious engineering,” wouldn’t it be better to seek answers which have long been in existence already?

In recent times, there has been an increasing number of people who point out that all the possibilities of life from a once enchanted world which are today provided to us should not be rejected simply because they appear foreign, dysfunctional, irrational, and therefore unfounded. Because even if we don’t know it, we all still basically live with and off these “relics” (as defined by Michel Deguy and Jean-Luc Nancy), or could at least do so if we were able to identify/rediscover their meaningfulness in a disenchanted world and thus gain access to the “overflowing treasuries of practice knowledge,” for

“now it is time to call to mind anew all those forms of the practising life that continue to release salutogenic energies, even where the overelevations to metaphysical revolutions in which they where initially bound up have crumbled. Old forms must be tested for reusability and new forms invented. Another cycle of secessions may begin in order to lead humans out once again – if not out of the world, then at least out of dullness, dejection and obsession, but above all out of banality, which Isaac Babel termed the counter-revolution.” (Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life)

Could this also be an option for the person drinking a cup of coffee in her kitchen on a Friday morning, rather than waiting for an answer to her “Letter to Dionysis” that will never arrive? To consider life possibilities that are as yet unknown to her, but which are at her disposal? To perceive and acknowledge what she has been mourning as a loss (“I’ve missed you very much”) as something gained? She is no longer dependent on the epiphany of the sacred and the magic of miracles, on certainty and clarity; rather, the disenchanted everyday, in all its banality, ambiguity, and uncertainty is accepted and endured, while she can use her own strength to live, think and act as if “the other” still existed, that is:

“as if it were nowadays still easy for us to speak

of halcyons or of nightingales

and as if we lived in houses on whose foundations

cocks were sacrificed

and as if we slept on mattresses

with crosses at their four corners sewn

where coins fell

of silver and of gold

and seeds of cotton and of sesame

and as if we poured into the streets

deep into the night

and into houses brightly lit

with Lazaruses in yellow flowers adorned

their blossom-filled beds beset with

garlands and grains

birds lizards petals

flour fennel candles and honey

softer than sleep.”

Then she would not have to send her “Letter to Dionysis.”

However, she would still never be able to get rid of a quiet sense that something was missing.

For Niki Marangou, the lost world she evokes in her “Letter to Dionysus” is not a foreign one. It is the world of her homeland, Cyprus. But she also knew that this world, or large parts of it, had gone forever, much like the people and the culture associated with them in the great painting by Adamantios Diamantis, “The World of Cyprus” – a world that tends to disappear. And because she knew the price of this loss, her poems bear a thin, sometimes almost invisible veneer of melancholic nostalgia which has never consumed her, but which – to the contrary – has always been an important driving force behind her work.

The last trip she made was to Fayum in Egypt, the home of the impressive mummy portraits mentioned earlier on. And like those people from a long lost era, Niki Marangou also had the gift of seeing the “other world” behind the surface of our world, while still remembering that this world no longer exists. It is to this – paradoxical – tension that we owe her finest poems.

Translation: Anna Grabolle-Çeliker (Istanbul); E.P. (Lingua-World)


In our new section “Worldview” we feature an essay sent to us by German author and journalist Walter Reichel, at his own initiative, that discusses the poem by Niki Marangou, “Letter to Dionysis.”

Walter Reichel, a deep scholar of Niki Marangou’s poetry, frequently visited her in Cyprus with his wife. Born in Bremen, Germany, and now retired, he lives in Constantinople.

In Focus thanks him for this excellent contribution and looks forward to more in the future.  – The Editor

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