slave girl Bid’ah lifted up despondent caliph al-Mu’tadid

12th-century Abbasid bracelet with Arabic lettering

Bid’ah al-Kabirah grew up as a slave in the ninth–century Abbasid caliphate. But she wasn’t a slave like slave men laboring in rags at dirty, dangerous jobs. She was the slave of ‘Arib al-Ma’muniyyah, a fabulously rich and famous ninth-century woman musician.[1] Bid’ah lived with ‘Arib in the household of the caliph. Bid’ah was a beautiful woman and an excellent singer. Most importantly, she knew how to lift up a despondent man.

In the year 900 GC, the caliph al-Mut’adid returned to Baghdad from a difficult but successful military campaign in Syria. Bid’ah greeted him the first day he held court upon his return. Al-Mut’adid, perhaps not up to his usual sexual performance, lamented to her his aging: “Can’t you see how my beard and hair blaze white?” Bid’ah responded:

My lord, may God give you eternal life, and let you see your grandsons’ hair turn white! By God, your silvery hair is more beautiful than the moon. [2]

Bid’ah, who was no unlettered whore, then quickly composed and declaimed a relevant poem:

White hair has done you no harm
your beauty has only increased.
Time has polished you
and you are without flaw.
Flourish and be happy,
set your mind at rest.
With every day that passes,
your good fortune grows
In blessings and contentment —
your star is ascendant.

Al-Mut’adid responded to that poem by giving Bid’ah magnificent gifts. He then sent her home.

The account of Bid’ah cheering the despondent caliph al-Mu’tadid has been transmitted with an alternate report. In that alternate report, Bid’ah said to the caliph:

God, how this expedition has aged you, Sire!

Many men dislike the experience of growing old, especially when their difficult lives contribute to their sense of aging. The battle-weary caliph responded to the highly privileged slave girl:

Lesser things have turned a man’s hair white.

Bid’ah then quickly responded by composing and singing a poem lifting up al-Mu’tadid:

Ruler of all the world, though you’ve aged and matured
through all the hardships you’ve endured
White hair makes you fairer —
wisdom’s sign, perfected in the bearer.
May you live twice as long again
in ease and plenty, in might and main!

Women’s beautiful bodies and lovely voices please men. So too do their sympathetic, encouraging, and praising words.

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[1] ‘Arib al-Ma’muniyya was the most famous woman musician in the ninth century in the Abbasid caliphate. The caliph Harun al-Rashid’s boatmaster bought ‘Arib from a slave-trader. She claimed to be the daughter of Ja’far ibn Yahya, a Barmakid. She rose to prominence and had sexual affairs with numerous caliphs. She died in 890 GC. Toorawa (2015) p. 162 (Glossary of Names).

In Arabic, the word “bid’ah” means innovation or novelty, while al-Kabirah means “the elder.” The latter epithet may be ironic. A man proposed to buy Bid’ah from ‘Arib for 100,000 dinars (an enormous amount of money). Arib asked Bid’ah if she consented to being sold. Bid’ah refused to be sold. Arib then freed her. When Bid’ah died in 915 GC, the son of the caliph al-Muhtaki led her funeral prayers. Toorawa (2015) p. 33, 37.

[2] Ibn al-Sāʿī , Consorts of the Caliphs, entry for Bid’ah al-Kabirah, from Arabic Toorawa (2015) p. 33. Subsequent quotes are from id. p. 35.

[image] Bracelet from Abbasid caliphate, twelfth century. Freer Gallery of Art, item F1950.21. Image available for non-commercial use thanks to Open F|S.


Toorawa, Shawkat M., ed. 2015. Ibn al-Sāʿī . Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad. New York, London: Library of Arabic Literature.

castration culture shows ancient, bloody grip in Hesiod’s Theogony

castration of Uranus

Students wondering how university officials today can support policies that viciously disparage and persecute men’s sexuality should study Hesiod’s Theogony. That influential work, written in Greek nearly 2700 years ago, depicts the earth goddess Gaia plotting to castrate Uranus, the sky god, who was both her son and her husband. Gaia’s unjust and vicious hostility toward male genitals indicates castration culture’s ancient, bloody grip on western Eurasian gynocentric societies.

The sky god Uranus covered the earth goddess Gaia. She then gave birth to three strong sons. Hostility to male sexuality made those births problematic. Greek theogony distinctively celebrates goddesses creating child on their own, without men — reproducing by parthenogenesis.[1] Many government policies now support effectively similar reproduction among humans. Unlike ancient Greek gods, men today are vastly disproportionately forced to make enormous “child support” payments to women holding privileged custody of children. That’s the cultural construction of parthenogenesis.

After she had children with Uranus, Gaia with vague and unsubstantiated charges incited his castration. Gaia said to the children she had with Uranus:

Children of mine and of a wicked father, obey me, if you wish: we would avenge your father’s evil outrage. For he was the first to devise unseemly deeds. [2]

Consensual heterosexual activity isn’t unseemly, nor should it be blamed on men. In ancient Greek theogony, Gaia was the original exponent of parental alienation. Cronus, son of Gaia and Uranus, responded like a well-programmed zombie to her work of parental alienation:

Mother, I would promise and perform this deed, since I do not care at all about our evil-named father. For he was the first to devise unseemly deeds.

Gaia rejoiced at her son’s willingness to commit horrible violence at her behest. She arranged for an ambush:

She placed him in an ambush, concealing him from sight, and put into his hands the jagged-toothed sickle, and she explained the whole trick to him. And great Sky came, bringing night with him; and spreading himself out around Earth in his desire for love, he lay outstretched in all directions. Then his son reached out from his ambush with his left hand, and with his right hand he grasped the monstrous sickle, long and jagged-toothed, and eagerly he reaped the genitals from his dear father and threw them behind him to be borne away. [3]

Fathers understand Hesiod’s Theogony in a deeply personal, deeply painful way. College students not yet fathers are beginning to recognize castration culture.

When Bernardus Silvestris wrote a new cosmogony in twelfth-century France, he confronted the castration culture that Hesiod’s Theogony described. As Roman culture developed with awareness of the earlier Greek culture, the Roman god Saturn assimilated the Greek god Cronus. Bernardus described Saturn as:

an ancient to be most strongly condemned, cruel and detestable in his wickedness, savagely inclined to harsh and bloody acts.
{accusatissimus veteranus, crudelioris quidem et detestandae malitiae, dirisque ac cruentis actibus efferatus.} [4]

Writing under gynocentrism, Bernardus didn’t dare attack long-established castration culture directly. He challenged it figuratively with a new poetic description of Saturn’s violence:

he {Saturn} mowed down with a blow of his sickle whatever was beautiful, whatever was flourishing. Just as he would not accept childbirth, so he forbade roses, lilies, and the other kinds of sweet-scented flowers to flourish.
{insumpto falcis acumine, quicquid pulchrum, quicquid florigerum demetebat. Rosas et lilia et cetera olerum genera, sicut nasci non sustinet, non sustinet et florere.}

Destroying gardens is a poetic metaphor for castration. Bernardus sought to create a new, more humane cosmos. His Cosmographia ends with creating man’s penis and celebrating the importance of the penis’s skillful work.

Penetrating castration culture to implant the seeds of a new imaginative world requires gleaning discarded resources in literary history. For example, classical Latin Priapus poems exposed the brutalizing and commodifying stereotypes of men’s person. Asinus aureus recounted a woman’s delight in a large male member. The medieval French knight Geoffrey de La Tour Landry taught his daughters concern for violence against men. Unlike Hesiod’s Theogony, the medieval Latin Cosmographia of Bernardus Silverstris excludes castration culture. All just, merciful, and loving persons should be striving to create such a world.

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[1] Relative to other western Eurasian creation myths, female parthenogenesis is far more important and marked in Hesiod’s Theogony. Park (2014) pp. 265-9. Scholars today tend to see female parthenogenesis as part of the primordial Golden Age:

The mythic form his {Zeus’s} act of creation assumes completes the trend of the Theogony that began with Earth’s natural parthenogenetic capacity and ends with the male’s imitation of her. The seal is set on the finality of the transition from female dominance to male dominance by conscious male usurpation of her procreative functions, the basic source of her mystery and power.

Zeitlin (1996) p. 108. Students are now thoroughly indoctrinated with these threadbare clichés of anti-meninism:

Evidently, Hesiod merely reflected the opinions of his society onto his story of the gods’ creation of the universe, creating a justification for the philosophical opinions of the society in which he lived.

Could myths like the Theogony have been used to reinforce the patriarchy as it operated in ancient Greek society? It seems likely.

Pelos (2016). Of course it seems likely when you live in a Soviet-style indoctrination camp. See the praise for the good little apparatchik.

[2] Hesiod, Theogony ll. 164-6, from Greek trans. Most (2007) p. 17. Subsequent quotes are from id. ll. 170-2, 174-82. The earlier Loeb edition of Hesiod’s Theogony, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1914), is available online.

[3] Reflecting the fantastic imagination that now drives totalitarian sex tribunals at American universities, Vernant declares:

Ouranos {Uranus} sprawls over Gaia, covering her permanently, and discharges into her without stopping, imposing on her an incessant copulation—at least, at night (Theog. 176). There is neither spatial separation nor temporal interlude between them, in this union without pause.

Vernant (1990) p. 466. This contempt for Uranus isn’t warranted. Without Uranus’s work, ordinary life would be impossible. Uranus provides relief that helps persons begin a new day.

Echoing tenets of today’s dominant castration culture, Park declares:

The emasculation of Uranus is key to progress: it ends his sexual relationship with Gaea and explains in symbolic terms the separation between earth and sky.

Park (2014) p. 271. Castration also occurs in the earlier Hurrian-Hittite Kumarbi Cycle (Song of Kumarbi). In the Hittite version of that theogony (from the fourteenth or thirteenth century BGC), Kumarbi overthrows king Anu by biting off his genitals. For an English translation, Bachvarova (2013). Long-established castration culture has broad bite today in the broad criminalization of men’s sexuality.

While he presented castration culture, Hesiod himself seems not to have been an anti-meninist. Hesiod sought to provide men with prudent counsel in the work of their ordinary days:

Do not let a fancy-assed woman deceive your mind
by guilefully cajoling while she pokes into your granary:
whoever trusts a woman, trust swindlers.

Hesiod, Works and Days ll. 373-5, from Greek trans. Most (2007) pp. 117, 119.

[4] Bernardus Silvestris, Cosmographia, Microcosmus 5.5, from Latin trans. Wetherbee (2015) pp. 101. The subsequent quote is similarly from Microcosmus 5.6, id. pp. 101, 103.

Underscoring his condemnation of Saturn / Cronus for promoting castration culture, Bernardus describes “the barren and frozen wastes of Saturn {infecunda Saturni frigora}” as a place:

where the peace of the sky had been broken and shivered with chill and icy harshness. {ubi gelidis et pruinosis rigoribus demutata caeli tranquillitas inhorrescit.}

Microcosmus 5.7, id. p. 103. I suspect that the Latin gelidus shares a common origin with the Old Norse term gelda (“geld, castrate”).

[image] Cronus castrates his father Uranus at his mother Gaia’s urging. Oil on panel. Giorgio Vasari  and Cristofano Gherardi, 16th century Florence. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Bachvarova, Mary. 2013. “Translation of the Kumarbi Cycle, with Song of Hedammu separated into two different versions.” Pp. 139-63 in López-Ruiz, Carolina. Gods, heroes, and monsters: a sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern myths in translation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Most, Glenn W., trans. 2007. Hesiod. Theogony. Works and Days. Testimonia. Loeb Classical Library 57. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Park, Arum. 2014. “Parthenogenesis in Hesiod’s Theogony.” Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural 3.2: 261-283.

Pelos, Andy. “The Asexual Revolution: Parthenogenesis in Hesiod’s Theogony (Revised).” A Classic(s) Dilemma. May 12, 2016.

Vernant, Jean-Pierre. 1990. “One…Two…Three: Eros.” Ch. 14 (pp. 465-78) in Halperin, David M., John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, eds. Before sexuality: the construction of erotic experience in the ancient Greek world. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Wetherbee, Winthrop, trans. 2015. Poetic works: Bernardus Silvestris. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 38. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Zeitlin, Froma I. 1996. Playing the other: gender and society in classical Greek literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macrobius’s Saturnalia shows social constraints on men’s behavior

Macrobius, Saturnalia

In Rome about the year 431, the Right Honorable and Illustrious Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius wrote a series of books for his son. With these books,  father offered son “a fund of knowledge {scientiae supellex},” an “accumulation of things worth knowing” {noscendorum congerium pollicetur}.” Macrobius didn’t merely heap together bits of ancient knowledge. He subtly ordered them, blended them, and digested them so that they would provide zest in learning and harmony of understanding.[1] Such transmission of knowledge was vitally important for men in fifth-century Rome, just as it is for men today.

For dessert after a banquet of knowledge, Macrobius arranged a series of jests. Macrobius’s concern for verecundia (modesty, discretion, and decorum) prevented him from discussing directly important aspects of gender under gynocentric society.[2] Jests provide an opportunity for communicating aspects of reality not otherwise discussable.

A man visiting Rome from a province attracted crowds because he appeared as if he were Caesar Augustus’s brother. Caesar summoned him and asked, “Was your mother ever in Rome?” The man answered, “No, but my father was many times.”[3]

The bite of this resemblance jest comes from underlying gynocentric reality. If Caesar’s father had an illegitimate child with a provincial woman, that would matter little to Caesar. But if Caesar’s mother had an illegitimate child with a provincial man, that would make Caesar’s father a fool or a cuckold. That “edged barb {iocus asper}” became notorious. Caesar Augustus’s indulgence of it was widely discussed with amazement. The purity of matrilineal descent was crucial for social status. What women did mattered much more than what men did.

Nonetheless, women in ancient Rome were less subject to social control than men were. Julia, the daughter of Caesar Augustus, wore extravagant and provocative clothes. She was known for licentiousness. Caesar himself behaved more modestly. When asked why she didn’t behave soberly as her father did, Julia saucily replied, “He forgets that he is Caesar, but I remember that I am Caesar’s daughter.”[4] Julia ignored her political responsibility to model normative behavior. Unlike Caesar, she acted as her privilege allowed. From the most privileged to the least privileged groups of men and women, men are more constrained in the exercise of privilege.

The cultural construction of gender forces men to struggle to be virtuous and to be recognized as men. Men are commonly disparaged as pigs, or accused of behaving like dogs. Macrobius recorded for his son a jest that Julia made:

When people aware of her outrageous behavior expressed surprise that her sons looked just like Agrippa {her husband}, though she had been so free in letting others enjoy her charms, she said, “I take on a passenger only when the ship’s hold is full.” [5]

The point of this jest isn’t merely Julia’s shrewd and heartless technique of birth control. The narrator immediately instructs the reader:

Compare the mot of Marcus Popillius’ daughter: when someone wondered why other animals sought a mate of the species only when they wished to become pregnant, she replied, “Because they’re animals.”

Women being sexually promiscuous is celebrated in elite culture. In authoritative media today, slut walks signify that women are strong, independent human beings.

Immediately following the women’s jests about being promiscuous while pregnant, Macrobius placed a jest about public contempt for a man. Vatinus was stoned for not offering the public a sufficiently entertaining gladiatorial show. Roman officials subsequently issued a decree that only fruit could be thrown in the arena. When an official was asked if a pine cone was a fruit, he ruled:

If a person is going to throw it at Vatinus, it’s a fruit.

Throwing stones at men, or at boys, like joking about men getting raped, doesn’t violate decorum in gynocentric society. Publicly criticizing women, in contrast, is extremely dangerous.

Men’s subordinate social status generates tighter constraints on men’s sexuality than on women’s. The dessert discussion session ends with an uninvited guest, the aristocratic, bullying Evangelus, urging the men to “act like men”:

As in battle, then, we have to square up to the enemy — pleasures and indulgence in wine — and fight them at close quarters, so that we fortify ourselves against them not by flight or evasion, but by relying on mental exertion, unswerving resolution, and moderate indulgence to preserve our balance and self-restraint.

Unlike women, men must respect norms to be socially recognized as different from animals:

We understand that the two pleasures of taste and touch — that is, food and sex — are the only ones that human beings share with the beasts, and that’s why anyone wholly in the grip of these pleasures is counted among the animals of the fields and the wilds; all other pleasures, which derive from the three remaining senses, are peculiar to human beings. … Will anyone with a shred of human decency, then, exult in these two pleasures, of sexual intercourse and gluttony, which human beings share with swine and asses? [6]

Women can and do exult in those pleasures. Julia and another elite woman were examples that Macrobius recounted under the cover of jests. Men, in contrast, face more social pressure to uphold verecundia and the gynocentric construction of virtue. Macrobius’s son probably would have understood the lesson better than most modern readers have.

Today, men’s sexuality is broadly criminalized, men have no reproductive rights, and cuckolding of men is institutionalized in official paternity establishment procedures. Today, with freedom of expression more constrained in Western countries than it was in the early Islamic caliphates or in medieval Europe, few dare to discuss men’s significant social and political disadvantages. Macrobius points to the importance of men getting together in men-only environments and jesting.

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[1] Saturnalia, Preface, pp. 3-9. The quotes are from p. 5. The discussion reportedly offered “plenty of applications for the conduct of life.” Saturnalia 1.2.8, p. 17. The dating of the Saturnalia to 431 GC is based on the work of Alan Cameron. For discussion, id. pp. xiv-xvii.

[2] On concern for verecundia in Macrobius’s Saturnalia, Kaster (1980) and Long (2000).

[2] I’ve lightly paraphrased the jest from Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.4.19-20, from Latin trans. Kaster (2011) p. 353. All subsequent page references to the Saturnalia are in id. Bill Thayer has commendably made the Latin text of the Saturnalia available online.

A similar resemblance jest is recorded in Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 9.14.3. Valerius wrote that work about 30 GC. The jest, with minor variations, has occurred in a variety of contexts through to the present.

In Macrobius’s Saturnalia, resemblance subsequently frames Augustus’s misunderstanding about his daughter Julia:

when he saw his crowd of grandchildren and their resemblance to Agrippa {Julia’s husband}, he was ashamed of doubting his daughter’s fidelity. And so Augustus deluded himself with the thought that his daughter’s high spirits gave the appearance of license but were innocent in fact

Saturnalia 2.5.3-4, p. 363.


[4] Saturnalia 2.5.8, p. 365. Subsequent quotes are from 2.5.9, 2.5.10, p. 365 (When people aware…, Compare the mot…); 2.6.1, p. 367 (If a person…), 2.8.9 (As in battle…), 2.8.12, 2.8.15 (We understand…). Macrobius’s account of after-dinner jesting (Book 2) ends at 2.8.16 with sexual intercourse being compared to the effects of disease.

[5] Julia had five children with Agrippa. Id. p. 362, n. 73. The recounting of Julia’s jests is subtly set up:

he began to speak about Julia in these terms: ‘She was thirty-seven, a point in life when — if you have any sense left — you know you’re no longer young, but she was abusing her standing as fortune’s darling, and her father’s.

Saturnalia 2.5.1-2, p. 361. When Julia was thirty-seven, Augustus exiled her for adultery. He ultimately refused to allow her to be buried with him in his Mausoleum. Long (2000) pp. 348-9. Saturnalia never mentions Julia’s exile, but surely Macrobius was aware of it. Macrobius’s point was women’s license, not the unusual punishment of Julia.

Modern scholarship confirms Macrobius’s point about women’s license. Mary Beard, probably one of the most powerful figures in classical scholarship today, laments:

One thing that we almost entirely miss in Rome is the tradition of subversive female laughter — what we call giggling — that is a distinctive strand in modern Western culture and can be glimpsed as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer. … this form of laughter, including its cultural and literary construction, is almost exclusively associated with women and “girls”; in its strongest form, it is, in Angela Carter’s words, “the innocent glee with which women humiliate men.”

Beard (2014) p. 157. Many men don’t even understand what’s going on. In a move characteristic of domestic violence scholarship, Beard defines giggling to exclude men:

I am referring here not just to moments when a woman laughs (or women laugh) at a man (or men) but when she laughs, in a gendered role, as a woman, at a man (which is what, in its powerful and positive valuation, the giggle signifies).

Id. p. 259, p. 5. Men should weep that such work stands on the commanding heights of intellectual life today.

[6] Long observes:

Women had a kind of license to admit sexuality. Julia and Populia joke acknowledging desire, whereas Avienus {a man banqueter in Macrobius’s Saturnalia} is squashed for an ambiguous hint about after-dinner music.

Long (2000) p. 354.

[image] Opening page of twelfth-century manuscript of Macrobius, Saturnalia. Manuscript preserved in Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana – Firenze; item IT-FI0100; Segnatura: Plut.51.08. Thanks to Internet Culturale: Cataloghi e Collezioni Digitali delle Biblioteche Italiane.


Beard, Mary. 2014. Laughter in ancient Rome: on joking, tickling, and cracking up. Sather classical lectures, v. 71. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kaster, Robert. 1980. “Macrobius and Servius: Verecundia and the Grammarian’s Function.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. 84: 219-262.

Kaster, Robert A. trans. 2011. Macrobius. Saturnalia, Books 1-2. Vol. I, Loeb Classical Library 510. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Long, Jacqueline. 2000. “Julia-jokes at Macrobius’s Saturnalia: Subversive decorum in late antique reception of Augustan political humor.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition. 6 (3): 337-355.

Luxorius: sixth-century African poet against dinner invitations

social intrigue at dinner

Early in the sixth century in the prominent north African city of Carthage, Luxorius wrote a poem about the burden of receiving hospitality. Arabic tribal culture within Carthage probably contributed to an ethos of generosity. But as al-Jahiz’s masterful work on misers highlights, generosity can be burdensome to its recipients.

I am happy that you frequently feast me
sumptuously, Blumarit, and with proud extravagance.
At whose expense am I being fed? Whatever I own
has been scattered among your guests. I did not want
you to feed and invite anybody else with me lest
anything be given to you for feeding us.
But if you are addicted to this failing,
I beg of you never to invite me.
{Gaudeo quod me nimis ac frequenter
Ambitu pascis, Blumarit, superbo.
Unde sed pascor? Mea sunt per omnes
Sparsa convivas bona. Nec volebam
Pasceres quemquam peteresque mecum,
Ne tibi quicquam detur unde pascas.
Hoc teamen sed si vitio teneris,
Me precor numquam iubeas vocari.} [1]

The sponger or parasite, living off the generosity of others, is a stock figure in ancient literature. Luxorius, in contrast, complains of being impoverished by Blumarit’s hospitality.[2] Blumarit apparently is a Germanic name meaning “flowery.” That probably indicates that he has ties to the the northern European tribe (Vandals) that conquered Carthage in 439 GC. Luxorius seems to have been a government official in Carthage.[3] At Blumarit’s frequent and extravagant banquets for Luxorius, guests apparently competed to offer each other and the hosts gifts. In a comical reversal, the effect was to push Luxorius toward starvation.

Please don’t invite me to dinner! That’s not inconceivable in reality. Human cultural evolution can produce bizarre effects.

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[1] Luxorius, Poem 40 (De eo qui amicos ad prandium clamabat ut plura exposceret xenia / About a Man Who Used to Invite His Friends to a Meal That He Might Ask for Many Gifts), from Latin trans. Rosenblum (1961) pp. 134-7, which also includes the Latin text. I’ve added lineation to make exploring the Latin easier. I’ve also made a few minor changes to the translation.

A Syriac manuscript probably from the sixth century offers related wisdom:

Do not eat food each day with someone who is richer than you, for if you happen upon him, he will receive you with his daily supplies, but if he should happen upon you, you will pay out your gleanings of 30 days on him, and afterwards, you will lay yourself waste.

Sentences of the Syriac Menander (British Library Ord. Add. 14.658) VII.5, from Syriac trans. Monaco (2013) p. 160. Monaco judges the Sentences of the Syriac Menander to be a Jewish pseudepigraphical work from the end of the second or early third century, perhaps from Edessa.

[2] I refer to the poem’s “I” as Luxorius for convenience. The first-person speaker can be read as a constructed poetic voice. Antithesis is a characteristic of Luxorious’s poems. Consider some lines from Poem 43 (In eum qui foedas amabat / Against a Lover of Ugly Girls):

Myrro loves hideous and ugly girls.
On the other hand, he fears any beautiful girl he sees.

Yet I now know why you seek such lovers.
A beautiful girl will never give herself to you; an ugly one may.
{Diligit informes et foedas Myrro puellas.
Quas aliter pulcro viderit ore, timet.

Iam tamen agnosco cur tales quaeris amicas.
Pulcra tibi numquam, se dare foeda potest.

Trans. Rosenblum (1961) p. 137, with my adaptation.

[3] On Blumarit as flowery, id. p. 207, 40 n. 2. Luxorius apparently held the titles vir clarissimus et spectabilis. Holding those titles doesn’t necessarily imply holding public office, but they suggest so. Id. pp. 39-43.

[image] Luncheon of the Boating Party. Oil on convas painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1880-1, France. Held in the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Thanks to Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons.


Monaco, David Gregory. 2013. The Sentences of the Syriac Menander: introduction, text and translation, and commentary. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.

Rosenblum, Morris. 1961. Luxorius: a Latin poet among the Vandals; together with a text of the poems and an English translation. New York: Columbia University Press.

killing Patricida frees men’s inner selves from political oppression

I am the leader, I am the victor, a gift I seek: grant it.
Yet, because he performs honorable services that you bestowed on him,
your king ceases to be king over himself.
Swiftly I lay aside the royal robes, swiftly your king divests himself —
Free, I am my own man again, unimpeded in fulfilling my own desires.
{Dux ego, victor ego, munera quaero: date.
Sed quia muneribus vestri fundatur honoris,
rex ideo vester desinit esse suus.
Pono citus trabeam, vestrum citus exuo regem
liber et explicitus ad mea vota, meus.} [1]

Men to the empyrean

Mathematicus of Bernardus Silvestris isn’t widely recognized as a major medieval work of men’s sexed protest. It has none of the anguished impotence of Matheolus’s outcry. It lacks the daring intertextual reversal of Hildebert of Lavardin’s De querimonia et conflictu spiritus et carnis. Yet with intricate antitheses, Mathematicus eloquently depicts man’s inner struggle against Patricida. Men must shed the deceptive integument of their dominance in serving women and in administering father-killing. Men must assert their value in doing nothing more than being.

Mathematicus tells the fabulous story of a Roman knight and his wife. He was valiant in fighting other men, rich in material goods, and publicly prominent. Like most husbands, he was devoted to his wife.  She was superior to him, or at least his equal, yet modest:

His wife was no less nobly born than her husband, not inferior in character,
no older in years, no less trustworthy;
direct, modest, unassuming, not, as is often apt to be
for a beautiful woman, overbearing with her husband.
{Sponsa vira non stirpe minor, non moribus impar,
non aevo senior dissimilisve fide;
prompta, modesta, timens, non, ut solet esse frequenter,
imperiosa suo femina pulcra viro.}

In describing the wife, Bernardus subtly evokes literature of men’s sexed protest, yet distinguishes the wife: not all women are like that (NAWALT). Subtle manipulation of men’s sexed protest is a vital current throughout Mathematicus.[2]

Although wife and husband ardently sought to have children, they remained childless. The issue wasn’t sexless marriage:

she cannot complain of the frosty age of an elderly husband,
nor he of the chilled limbs of his wife.
{nec senis haec gelidos causari coniugis annos,
ille nec uxoris frigida membra potest.}

She consulted an astrologer. His calculations foretold that women’s cosmos-changing new creation “will bring fertility to your sterile womb.” The wife would give birth to a son who would have characteristics of excellent men and women, e.g., beautiful, but not overbearing.[3] This son was fated to kill his father.

When the husband realized that his wife was upset and weary with worry, he asked her about her troubles. She told him of the astrologer’s calculations. He listened to her attentively and was filled with sorrow. Lacking reproductive rights himself, as men have been throughout history, he begged her to have a post-birth abortion:

I thus pray, my wife, my love, my sole delight,
sharer of my soul and half of my being:
when the child has been conceived by this evil genius,
and your womb has given forth its timely burden,
forgetting tender feelings, forgetting motherhood,
do not hesitate to put your son to death.
{Unde precor, meus uxor amor, mea sola voluptas,
altera pars animae dimidiumque meae:
cum fuerit soboles genio concepta sinistro
et tua maturum fuderit alvus honus,
affectus oblita pios oblitaque matrem
ne dubites puerum mortificare tuum.}

The “evil genius” to which the husband referred was his penis, fated according to the astrologer’s calculations. That night the wife and husband lay together and conceived a child.

Like many mothers throughout history, the wife loved her new-born son. He was beautiful, smiled with joy, and seemed to be the image of divinity in human substance. She couldn’t bear to kill him. She feigned his death and sent him far away. She ordered that his name be Patricida:

His name was ambiguous, but Patricida he is called,
as ordered by the secret shrewdness of his parent,
so that the youth at such great crime, such great madness,
might shudder as often as he heard his name.
{Nomen in ambiguo, sed Patricida vocetur
imperat arcana calliditate parens,
ut iuvenis tantumque nefas tantumque furorem
horreat audito nomine saepe suo.}

Patricida means killing the father. Relative to mothers, fathers today are vastly disproportionately legally exiled from physical custody of their children, as well as vastly disproportionately incarcerated and killed. Patricida is personally horrifying, but it is socially supported in gynocentric society.

Patricida, not surprisingly, came to rule Rome. Patricida charged into an enemy horde of Carthaginians and overturned the Roman army’s defeat. Men’s battles against men put Patricida in power. Having men rule doesn’t indicate victory for men.

With Patricida ruling Rome, the issues of men’s sexed protest became prominent. Patricida’s mother understood that his father was now in grave danger. Yet she was reluctant to tell her secret to her husband. Like wives in the literature of men’s sexed protest, the husband made various emotional plays to get his wife to divulge her secret:

He rushes to embrace and tenderly kiss his beloved
wife, then breaks off and asks her why she is sad.
But she tells him nothing; he holds her roughly and clings to her,
he is insistent and overbearing, and he entreats her endlessly.

He asks, invoking the trust of marriage and its sacred rites,
what is the meaning, what is the cause from which her sorrow has arisen.
If a matter for deliberation, it will enter trustworthy ears;
if a crime, a loving husband can accept this.
{Currit in amplexus et dulciter oscula carae
coniugis irrumpit et rogat, unde dolet.
Cui tamen illa nihil; premit importunus et haeret,
instat et incumbit multiplicatque preces.

Quaerit perque fidem thalamique sacros hymeneos,
quis, quibus ex causis fluxerit iste dolor.
Si res consilii, tutas descendet in aures;
si scelus, hoc poterit scire maritus amans.}

Like husbands in the literature of men’s sexed protest, the wife eventually revealed her secret to her husband. But before she told her secret, she forcefully rehearsed themes from men’s protests against women:

Mine is the sex to which simplicity is an enemy,
to which shame is unknown, to which trust is foreign.
Mine is the sex which detests integrity,
which claims as its right any crime whatsoever.
If it please the gods, be destroyed that wicked gender
womankind; then let man live for himself in a world of his own.
A destructive wind, the swelling waves of the ocean, the fury of war
do not result in murders equal to yours, ominous woman.
A plant or tree, to prolong life through the ages, has
seeds that ensure the perpetuity and continuity of its kind.
A woman likewise has the root of crime within herself,
seeds and substance of evil she harbors.
If the ancient days of open honesty should return,
and the spirit of crafty ingenuity should perish,
woman would be capable of restoring the destructive arts,
and might well add some new work of treachery.
In time, lions grow tame, laying aside their fierceness,
in time, tiger and bear usually become pacified.
Her step remains fixedly faced toward crime,
woman alone never changes her perverse nature.
Should any woman wholly separate herself from her sex,
she would make herself more of a marvel than a snow-white raven.
{Is meus est sexus, cui simplicitas inimica,
cui pudor ignotus, cui peregrina fides.
Is meus est sexus, qui detestatur honestum,
qui, cuicquid scelus est, vidicat esse suum.
Si libeat superis, genus evertatur iniquum
femina, vivat homo tum suus orbe suo.
Aura nocens, maris unda tumens irataque pugna
non necat ad numerum, femina dira, tuum.
Planta vel arbor habet, quibus extendatur in aevum,
semina; perpetuant continuantque genus.
Femina non aliter radicuem criminis in se
sementemque mali materiamque tenet.
Tempora si redeant antiquae simplicitatis
argutique cadat spiritus ingenii,
femina sufficiet artes reparare nocendi
perfidiaeque noveum forsitan addet opus.
Tempore mitiscunt posita feritate leones,
tempore leniri tigris et ursa solent;
fixa pedem manet ad facinus numquamque malignam
mutat naturam femina sola suam.
Si qua suum penitus descivit femina sexum
plus niveo corvo prodigiosa fuit.} [4]

The concluding reference to a “snow-white raven” inverts the coloring of Juvenal’s black swan. Juvenal, however, merely and sensibly urged a friend not to marry. The wife’s categorical condemnation of women is better understood as similar to Andreas Capellanus’s sophisticated rhetoric of men’s protest. Working polarities like Andreas did, the wife repudiated her own rhetoric:

But why to a natural failing, why to innate
behavior do I ascribe the burden of this crime?
What evil, what vile, what monstrous, what damned acts
that I basely impute to my sex, I myself have done.
No elegant argument can disguise what my guilt colors;
my crime has no way to hide itself.
{Sed quid naturae vitio vel quid genuinis
moribus ascribo criminis huius onus?
Quod mala, quod nequam, quot atrox, quod perdita feci,
ad sexum refero turpiter ipsa meum.
Non bene causa nitet, qua se mea culpa colorat;
seque meum facinus non habet unde tegat.} [5]

The mother preserved the life of Patricida, destined to kill his father. To do otherwise would have been to defy the order of fate. Yet she insisted on her own guilt in doing so. That guilt implies the inner freedom and responsibility associated with personal being.

Mathematicus extends personal being to men in the face of Patricida. The father that Patricida must kill is the man whom his mother addressed with pity:

Perhaps by obedience and tender devotion
you believed that you had won my heart.
From our earliest stages, your only desire,
your only affection, your only care was for me.
{Forsitan obsequiis et blanda sedulitate
credebas animum promeruisse meum.
A primis aevi gradibus tuus unicus ordor,
unicus affectus, unica cura fui.}

In short, the father was an exemplar of the men that uphold gynocentrism. That’s a path of misery for men:

But your generous acts, responding poorly to your hopes,
did not receive a return of equal merit.
We counterbalance obedience with injury, hatred for love,
praise with abuse, trust with betrayal.
{Sed benefacta tuis male respondentia votis
aequalis meriti non habuere vices.
Obsequium damnis, odiis pensamus amorem,
opprobrio laudem, proditione fidem.}

That summary applies equally well to recent activity for “gender equality.” With an allusion to the self-consciousness and magnanimity of Photis, the wife implored:

Husband, seek out a new form of punishment, draw your sword,
scatter my entrails on the earth, tear apart my limbs on the wheel!
{Quaere, marite, novum poenae genus, exime ferrum,
viscera funde solo, distrahe membra rotis!}

In the radical medieval pastourelle Lucis orto sidere, dramatic masculine assertion redeemed men sheep from gynocentrism. But the husband here wasn’t the sort of man who would proudly and fearlessly display his sword. The husband welcomed and honored Patricida.

In a brilliant poetic figure, Patricida garnered public assent to destroying father-killing and asserted his personal freedom to realize men’s masculine being. He acted with guile, an art in which women typically are far superior to men. Patricida, king and hero to the Roman people, requested a gift from them. He requested “an ambiguous gift, concealing its name.”[6] The gift he requested was named Patricida. He guilefully secured from the Roman people the gift of himself. Men must recognize the value of their own being. By any means necessary, they must reclaim their being from gynocentric society.

Just as his request was ambiguous, the gift of Patricida goes two ways. After he received that gift, he described its political meaning in reference to his external covering as the ruler maintaining gynocentrism:

Instead, I seek what could be granted by a cruel enemy:
that it be permitted me to inflict my own death,
and hasten the last day of my wretched life.

Your gift, O Rome, is my death; you sin unknowingly,
the burden of beclouded error defends you.
{ut liceat propriamque mihi consciscere mortem
et miseram vitae praecipitare diem.

Munus, Roma, tuum mors est mea; nescia peccas,
defenditque tuum nubilus error opus.}

Gynocentrism defines the socially sanctioned meaning of sin and error. Destroying gynocentrism is a cosmopoietic task. Mathematicus ends with dual clarity. Patricida — father-killing — is no longer clothed in royal robes. In the transcendent order, that’s the fated suicide of Patricida. Patricida — the man in his essential being — goes his own way. His own way, no longer within the cage of gynocentrism, abounds in possibilities. Don’t prescribe what he must do.[7]

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[1] Bernardus Silvestris, Mathematicus (The Astrologer), vv. 850-4, from Latin my translation, adapted from the translations in Wetherbee (2015) p. 241, Godman (2000) p. 266, Stone (1988) p. 55, and Dronke (1974) p. 134. Wetherbee (2015) and Stone (1988) feature full translations and the Latin text. The latter translation has been published as Stone (1996). The Latin text I quote is that of Wetherbee. Even persons with no knowledge of Latin can benefit from reading the Latin text. On the surviving manuscripts of Mathematicus, Stone (1988) Ch. 7.

These final lines of Mathematicus are polysemic. Liber explicit is a common concluding statement in a Latin text. The final line of Mathematicus could be translated alternately as “The book is finished to my satisfaction.” Stone (1988) p. 96. Wetherbee translates the final two lines:

I quickly lay aside my royal robes, quickly cease to be your king — my own man, set free to pursue my goal.

The translation “my goal” seems to incorporate Wetherbee’s judgment that Patricida, definitely or most likely given the weight of textual support, commits suicide. Id. pp. xxxvii-xxxviii, Wetherbee (1972) p. 157, n. 8. Dronke has “my own desires”; Stone, “my desires.” Godman (2000), p. 267, strongly dissents from Wetherbee’s judgment that Patricida commits suicide.

Subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from Mathematicus. I’ve adapted Wetherbee’s translation (in unlineated prose) to lines corresponding to the Latin text. I have also made a variety of small changes to that translation. None of my changes have meaning outside the overall range of meaning that Wetherbee’s and Stone’s translations support.

The subsequent quotes, cited by Mathematicus verse numbers and translation page numbers in Wetherbee (2015), are vv. 7-10, p. 185 (His wife was no less…); vv. 33-4, p. 187 (she cannot complain…); vv. 75-80, p. 189 (I thus pray…); vv. 107-10, p. 191 (His name…); vv. 309-12, 315-18, p. 205 (He rushes…); vv. 327-46, p. 207 (Mine is the sex…); vv. 347-52, p. 207 (But why…); vv. 355-8, p. 209 (Perhaps by obedience…); vv. 359-62, p. 209 (But your generous acts…); vv. 363-4, p. 209 (Husband, seek out…); vv. 739-40, 747-8, pp. 233, 235 (Instead I seek…).

[2] Godman characterizes the wife’s description with the threadbare cliché “patently misogynistic.” Godman (2000) p. 246. It’s actually sophisticated poetry important within a larger literary design.

Mathematicus is based on the fourth declamation of pseudo-Quintilian’s major declamations. Andreas Capellanus’s De amore similarly builds upon rhetoric of the Second Sophistic. Stories in the Gesta Romanorum are less imaginatively based on Seneca’s Controversiae.

[3] Compare the description of the wife, Mathematicus vv. 7-20, with the description of Patricida, id. vv. 51-4, and his concern about his proneness to lechery and vice, vv. 137-8.

[4] Today, women’s privilege within the criminal justice system makes a travesty of ideals of equal justice under law.

[5] Godman reads this invocation of themes of men’s sexed protest as similar to that of Hildebert of Lavardin and Marbod of Rennes. Godman (2000) pp. 253-4. Hildebert wrote a searing indictment of socially constructed gender in stimulating humans’ desire for death. Marbod of Rennes was an exponent of gender-equality double-talk. Men’s sexed protest in those two authors’ works is only superficially similar to that in Bernardus’s Mathematicus.

Stone describes the wife’s speech as “an anti-female tirade put in the mouth of a woman.” She associates it with text Heloise wrote to Abelard, and with De coniuge non ducenda. Stone (1988) p. 73. De coniuge non ducenda is a short romance about angelic intervention that saved Gawain from marriage. Most scholars now recognize Heloise to have been a strong, independent, highly intelligent woman who wrote her own words. She courageously urged Abelard not to marry her.

L.S. Davidson reads Mathematicus to present conflict that is “generational rather than sexual.” Davidson understand the text to offer an affirmation of love in which the “misogynistic rave emerges as parody.” See Davidson’s appendix in Stone (1988) p. 55. Deploying terms such as “misogynistic rave” and “parody” can function as an easy alternative to engaging in the specificity of the text. In a poem concerned with gynocentrism, Bernardus deploys rhetoric common under gynocentrism. He describes King Patricida’s behavior to his mother:

lofty power, not forgetful of its origin,
assumes the character of servility.
{naturaeque suae non immemor alta potestas
personam servae conditionis agit.}

Mathematicus, vv. 469-70. That the wife, husband, and son Patricida deeply love each other seems to me beyond reasonable question.

Scholars today seem unable to imagine medieval women writers’ loving concern for men. While scholars now commonly assert false consciousness in men’s sexed protest by medieval women writers and medieval women characters, these scholars themselves seem to lack consciousness of the reality of men’s social position today. If scholars encountered greater diversity in viewpoints, they would recognize that influential voices of men’s sexed protest today include strong, independent women authors.

[6] Mathematicus, v. 665: ambiguum sublato nomine munus. Godman (2000), p. 260, mistranslates the gift as “nameless.” That error points to misunderstanding the theme of Patricida as a gift.

[7] Dronke highlights the elevation of men’s personal being:

{Patricida} reveals and affirms a more fundamental freedom: the freedom to solve one’s own guilt, the freedom to take the decision that seems finest, regardless of the pressures of the outside world. … The hero at the close establishes not so much his freedom to commit suicide as, more fundamentally, his freedom to choose.

Dronke (1974) pp. 136-7. Men’s liberation from their instrumental roles requires an assertion of being. Yet the pressures and constraints that the outside world places on men must be addressed. Godman highlights liberation from office as the meaning of Patricida:

Patricida’s separation of the two parts of his gemina persona amounts to an act of liberation from office. Liber through parricidium {killing the ruler} rather than despite it, Patricida, the exemplary ruler, has answered the question raised earlier in the poem about the civic doctrine of Cicero’s De inventione with ambiguous eloquence.

Godman (2000) p. 267. Godman, however, fails to recognize that the fundamental office of the ruler is to serve women. Public authorization for the death of Patricida is a particular, necessary political act. Silverstein insightfully explains the poetic strategy of Bernardus:

If he has seemed daring to certain modern critics, this is because the times and his group were daring, as they sought to understand the Christian universe. But within this group Bernardus himself was singularly circumspect. In a day when literature and philosophy were in a special sense still indissolubly allied, he possessed an instrument which his more prosaic colleagues very much missed. In its use he was perhaps more skilful than profound, elegant, and highly imaginative. He was, in short, a poet. And what philosophy could not do, poetry might.

Silverstein (1948) p. 116.

[image] Photograph by Douglas Galbi.


Dronke, Peter. 1974. Fabula: explorations into the uses of myth in medieval Platonism. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Godman, Peter. 2000. The silent masters: Latin literature and its censors in the High Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Silverstein, Theodore. 1948. “The Fabulous Cosmogony of Bernardus Silvestris.” Modern Philology. 46 (2): 92-116.

Stone, Deirdre M. 1988. The Mathematicus of Bernardus Silvestris. Ph.D. Thesis. Department of History, University of Sidney.

Stone, Deirdre M. 1996. “Bernardus Sivestris, Mathematicus: Edition and Translation.” Archives d’Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen-Âge 63: 209-283.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1972. Platonism and poetry in the twelfth century: the literary influence of the school of Chartres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Wetherbee, Winthrop, trans. 2015. Poetic works: Bernardus Silvestris. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 38. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

absurd others: al-Jahiz declares laughing alone safer

two Arabic physicians (Abbasid period)

After prayers at the Jama Masjid, al-Naqqāsh and al-Jahiz left together for the journey home. Al-Naqqāsh invited al-Jahiz to spend the night at his house, which was much closer to the Jama Masjid. Al-Naqqāsh implored al-Jahiz:

Where will you go in this rain and cold, given that my house is your house, and you are in darkness and you have no lantern? I have some colostrum the like of which no one has seen and some excellent dates which can only be eaten with colostrum. [1]

In Arabic culture, hospitality is obligatory. Al-Naqqāsh not only offered hospitality, but also boasted of the fine food he would provide. Al-Jahiz accepted his offer of hospitality.

Within his home, al-Naqqāsh delayed awhile in serving his guest. Then he brought a bowl of colostrum and a palm-tray of dates. When al-Jahiz reached out his arm to take some food, al-Naqqāsh said:

O Abū ‘Uthmān {al-Jahiz}, this is colostrum with its thickness, and it is nighttime with its sluggishness. Besides, it is a rainy and damp night and you are a man already advanced in age, and you still complain of partial paralysis. You get extremely thirsty and, in principle, you do not eat dinner. If you eat the colostrum and do not overdo it, you will be neither an eater nor an abstainer, you will irritate your nature and then will stop eating, no matter how appetizing it might be for you. If, however, you overdo it, we will spend a bad night worrying about your state, and we will not prepare any wine or honey for you. I have only said this to you lest you say tomorrow: it was such and such. By God, I have fallen between lion fangs. If I did not bring it to you after having mentioned it to you, you would say: he has been miserly with it and has changed his mind about it. But if I brought it to you and did not warn you nor mention all that would happen to you with it, you would say: he had no pity on me and did not advise me. Now I have entirely absolved myself of both responsibilities to you. If you wish — eat and die, and if you wish — a little restraint and a sound sleep! [2]

That’s a veneer of hospitality placed over various, intricately wrought, over-dramatic reasons given to the guest for not consuming the offered food. In al-Jahiz’s account of misers, miserliness is thoroughly mixed with generosity.

The food presented no problem to al-Jahiz, but relations with other persons were troubling. Al-Jahiz explained:

I have never laughed the way I laughed that night. I ate it all and it was only the laughter, liveliness, and delight which digested it, as far as I know. If there had been someone with me who understood the sophistication of his logic, the laughter would have destroyed me or killed me. But the laughter of he who is alone is not like that shared with friends. [3]

Eating with al-Naqqāsh at his table, al-Jahiz was alone and laughed alone. Al-Naqqāsh apparently was in a separate world of regret and anguish. Even more troubling, if another who understood the absurdity of the situation had been with al-Jahiz, the laughter would have killed him. The potential harm from eating food is less severe than the potential harm from associating with others.[4]

Cultural failures can deeply trouble human relations. Across decades of extensive discussion about abortion and women’s reproductive rights, the position of men in relation to “choice” has been largely ignored. Although establishing reproductive rights for men would not require authorizing the killing of anything, men have no reproductive rights whatsoever. To make the situation even more absurd, paternity is established through patently unjust procedures and enormously significant “child support” obligations are imposed with Orwellian doublespeak. Anti-men discrimination in child custody awards and in incarcerating persons have far more human significance than much more publicly prominent concerns such as the mythic wage gape and the share of women working as computer programmers (but not the share of women working as elementary school teachers). In such circumstances, speaking honestly with each other is almost too painful to contemplate. Remaining alone, even while with others, is safer.

When you see an ordinary person eating alone,
or a poet with no desire for songs and music,
you may conclude that the ordinary man has lost
half his life and the poet half
his craft. They’re both barely alive. [5]

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[1] al-Jahiz, On Misers (al-Bukhalāʼ), from section “Various Tales” following “The Tale of Tammam ibn Ja’far,” from Arabic trans. Malti-Douglas (1985) p. 126. Colostrum (also called biestings) is milk from an animal that has just given birth.

[2] Id., with some changes in the English translation for style and clarity, drawing upon the translations in Serjeant (1997), p. 106, and Colville (1999) p. 118. The subsequent quoted translation is similarly constructed.

Regarding eating colostrum, the twelfth-century Arab physician ibn Hubal wrote:

It cools the stomach and liver and harms the nerves. It quickly gives off fumes in the stomach and taking overmuch of it harms through colic and stones in the kidneys but eating it with honey makes it all right.

Ibn Hubal, Mukhtarat 1.25, from Arabic trans. Serjeant (1997) p. 106, n. 481.

[3] Al-Jahiz’s claim about dying from laughter is more complex than earlier claims about dying from laughter. The Greek comic poet Philemon and the Greek Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, both whom lived during the third century BGC, reportedly died from laughter after watching a donkey consume figs and wine. Valerius Maximus, Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium (Memorable Deeds and Sayings) 9.12.ext 6 (death of Philemon); Diogenes Laertius, Βίοι καὶ γνῶμαι τῶν ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ εὐδοκιμησάντων (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers) 7.185 (death of Chrysippus).

[4] While Malti-Douglas doesn’t highlight this point, her explication of the anecdote is insightful. Malti-Douglas (1985) pp. 126-32. She declares, “It is, in my opinion, a comic masterpiece.” Id. p. 131.

[5] Alexis, quotes in Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters 2.47d, from Greek trans. Olson (2006) p. 267.

[image] Two physician preparing medicine. Detail from Arabic translation of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides (ca. 40-90 GC). Iraq (Baghdad), 1224. Calligrapher: Abdallah ibn al-Fadl. Item F1932.20, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Images available for non-commercial user via Open F|S.


Colville, Jim, trans. 1999. Abū ʻUthman ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ. Avarice & the avaricious {Kitâb al-Bukhalāʼ}. London: Kegan Paul.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. 1985. Structures of avarice: the Bukhalāʼ in medieval Arabic literature. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Olson, S. Douglas ed. and trans. 2006. Athenaeus of Naucratis. The learned banqueters {Deipnosophistae}. Vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library  204. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Serjeant, R.B., trans. 1997. Abū ʻUthman ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ. The book of misers: a translation of al-Bukhalāʼ. Reading: Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization.

al-Jahiz on miser thwarting kid’s pissing ploy for eating dates

harvesting dates at top of palm tree

Ninth-century Arabic literary master al-Jahiz took mundane stories and weaved them into subtle, complex literature. In his book On Misers, al-Jahiz recounted many stories that he explicitly attributed to named others. But a story about a man from Banu Assad al-Jahiz attributed to himself:

By us, here’s a story about a man from Banu Asad. When a fieldworker’s son climbed a palm tree of his to pick ripe dates for him, he filled his mouth with water. For this, others made fun of him, saying: “He swallows it and eats some while up the palm tree. When he wants to come down, he pisses in his hand and holds it in his mouth.” [1]

Al-Jahiz injected a discrediting comment into his own story:

Ripe dates are much too easy to come by for field labourers’ boys, and for those whose fathers are not field labours, for anyone to resort to half of so disgusting a trick as this or even some of it.

Al-Jahiz then immediately continued with an apparent third-personal reference to himself:

He continued: “After this, he would fill his mouth with water coloured yellow, red or green, so that he would be unable to do any such thing at the top of the palm tree.”

Making sense of this story seems to hinge on the color of the boy’s piss making it indistinguishable from water. That’s incredible. Are you as a reader willing to allow that? Interpreted narrowly, this miser story is disgusting. But it also invokes wonder about willingness to tell stories. Are you generous enough to recognize its larger literary merit?

Classical Arabic literature developed within a culture of broad-minded, generous reading. A tenth-century commentator collected the best lines of early Arabic invective poetry.  Among those lines were these:

People who, when the approaching guests make their dogs bark, say to their mother, “Piss on the fire!” [2]

In a tight-minded reading, those people are misers. They don’t want to extend hospitality to guests. In the U.S., “piss on the fire and call in the dogs” is a reputed, probably fabricated, cowboy saying. But can you imagine telling your mother to piss on a fire? Can you imagine her quickly doing that in front of you? The literary merit of this invective includes imagining reasoned behavior far more outrageous than not being hospitable within a culture that exalts hospitality.

Persons can be crude and disgusting in many ways. Embedding such behavior in a meaningful context and giving it perverse force of reason requires literary genius.

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[1] al-Jahiz, On Misers (al-Bukhalāʼ), from “A Miscellany of Eccentricities” (following “The Tale of Ibn al-‘Uqadi”) from Arabic trans. Serjeant (1997) p. 115, adapted non-substantially for readability. The subsequent quote is from id.

[2] Abu ‘Ali Muhammad Ibn al-Hasan al-Hatimi (died 998 GC), Hilyat al-muhadara i.345-9, from Arabic trans. Van Gelder (2000) p. 11. Ouyang observes:

Al-Hatimi may be a minor poet, but his career, manifest in his prolific writings on poetry, defines him as a ‘serious’ commentator on poetry, if not an important critic, distinguished by his knowledge of poetry, understanding of poetics, and mastery of the poetic craft, well, at least in theory.

Ouyang (2007) p. 117.

[image] Man harvests dates. Sept. 14, 2010, Camp Ramadi, Iraq. Photo by Tanya Thomas, U.S. Army. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Ouyang, Wen-chin. 2007. “Literature as Performance: The Theatre of al-Hatimi’s Al-rasila al-mudiha.” Pp. 115-145 in Chraibi, Aboubakr, ed., Classer les recits: Theories and pratiques. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Serjeant, R.B., trans. 1997. Abū ʻUthman ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ. The book of misers: a translation of al-Bukhalāʼ. Reading: Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. 2000. Of dishes and discourse: classical Arabic literary representations of food. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon.

Telesphorus tortured & killed for witty criticism of Arsinoe

Arsinoe, vomiting woman according to Telesphorus

Just as it is today, men criticizing women in the ancient world was dangerous. Whether it was the foolish lad Ascalabus criticizing the goddess Demeter for boozing, or the high official Telesphorus criticizing King Lysimachus’s wife Arsinoe for vomiting, the results were the same: disaster for the man.

The goddess Demeter threw her drink onto Ascalabus’s face when he criticized her. She had come thirsty to his mother’s house. His mother generously gave her a potent drink. Ascalabus laughed at Demeter for drinking so eagerly. He may have called her greedy. He may have sarcastically offered to give her a full cask to drink. Whatever words he said, she got offended and threw her drink into his face. The results were cataclysmic:

His skin, absorbing it, became spotted, and where he had once had arms, he now had legs. A tail was added to his altered limbs, and he shrank to a little shape, so that he has no great power to harm. He is like a lesser lizard, a newt, of tiny size. [1]

Ascalabus’s mother wept as her son, turned into lizard, scampered away. Mothers must teach their sons that a man’s life matters no more than a tiny newt when a woman gets offended.

Telesphorus was tortured and killed for witty criticism of King Lysimachus’s wife Arsinoe. At a party, Arsinoe was forcing herself to vomit so that she could drink more. Telesphorus made fun of Arsinoe with a quip to the persons who came with her:

You are causing trouble by bringing in this vomiting woman [2]

That line adapted the first line from Euripides’s couplet:

You are causing trouble by bringing in this Muse,
idle, lover of wine, careless of money.

Telesphorus didn’t explicitly call Arsinoe a boozer or a drunkard, even though that’s what she apparently was. Lysimachus responded brutally to Telesphorus’s witty words:

He mutilated his own friend, Telesphorus the Rhodian, cutting off his nose and ears. He kept him for a long while in a den, like some new and strange animal, after which the hideousness of his hacked and disfigured face, assisted by starvation and the squalid filth of a body left to wallow in its own dung, made him no longer appear to be human! Besides this, his hands and knees, which the narrowness of his abode forced him to use instead of his feet, became hard and callous, while his sides were covered with sores by rubbing against the walls. His appearance was no less shocking than frightful. His punishment turned him into so monstrous a creature that he was not even pitied. [3]

Historically, men who consensually “got a woman pregnant” were castrated for their loving effort. If not outright violence against men, men’s criticism of women tends to produce quickly defenses of women and apologies to women.

In addition to being a drunkard, Arsinoe was a violent, vicious woman who bedded her brother. She reportedly killed a step-son of King Lysimachus in order to ensure that her children would inherit the throne. When Lysimachus died, she married her half-brother. That marriage failed after she conspired against him. She then fled to the household of her full brother, Ptolemy II, in Egypt. There she instigated the exile of her brother’s wife and then married her brother. The poet Sotades warned Ptolemy II:

You’re thrusting your poker into an unholy slot [4]

For that frank warning, Ptolemy had one of his generals administer an early form of cement shoes to Sotades:

{the general} stuck his feet in a jar full of lead, took him out to sea, and drowned him.

A caring friend might consider warning a man against his plans to marrry. But even warning a man about marrying his vicious, alcoholic sister can be dangerous.

Given the realities of gynocentric society, Arsinoe was soon deified. She was worshiped in cult shrines from Alexandria to Athens. Her face was imprinted on gold coins issued over 2200 years ago. Ptolemy II named various streets in Alexandria with her name and honorary epithets for her, such as “the Queen,” “the Consoler,” “of Victory,” “the Saving One,” and “she who brings things to completion.” Arsinoe, of course, in recent writing has been rapturously celebrated as a powerful woman ruler.[5]

Men’s deaths matter relatively little in gynocentric society. Men should squarely recognize that reality before they dare to criticize women.

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[1] Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.438-461, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline. Antoninus Liberalis recorded:

Demeter in anger poured over him what was left of her drink. He was changed bodily into a multi-coloured gecko {askalabos} which is hated by gods and mankind. He passes his life along ditches. Whoever kills him is cherished by Demeter.

From Greek trans. Celoria (1992) p. 83. For other ancient references to this story, Overduin (2015) Appendix 2, pp. 543-6.

[2] Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters 14.616c, from Greek trans. Olson (2010) p. 101. The subsequent couplet is from Euripides’s Antiope, from Greek trans. Milanezi (2000) p. 410. Here’s more on Arsinoe (ancient references), who would be more fastidiously referenced as Arsinoë II.

[3] Seneca, On Anger 3.27, from Latin trans. Stewart (1889). The powerful tend to seek to suppress verbal “abuse”:

Those who love insulting jokes are dangerous perhaps because they often unveil truths that must be kept covered for the sake of kings, rulers, politicians and rich individuals.

Milanezi (2000) p. 410. The most fundamental aspect of the dominant social order is gynocentrism. Mockery and sarcasm are threats to gynocentrism. Thus those who engage in such verbal expression are labeled “the incarnation of disorder.” Id. p. 411. For another example, Stratonicus the Athenian, as described in Athenaeus, Learned Banqueters 8.352.

[4] Athenaeus, Learned Banqueters 14.621a, trans. Olson (2010) p. 139. The subsequent quote is from id. Theocritus provides an instructive counterpoint to Sotades’s courageous truth-telling. Functioning as today’s apparatchik journalists, Theocritus wrote a panegyric of Ptolemy II and praised Arsinoe:

his fine noble spouse, who makes him a better wife than ever clasped bridegroom under any roof, seeing that she loves with her whole heart brother and husband in one.

Theocritus, Idyll 17, from Greek trans. J.M. Edmonds (1912) for the Loeb Classical Library. I’ve modernized the English.

[5] Here are documentary references to the cult of Arsinoe. Carney (2013) provides a less unbalanced evaluation of Arsinoe. See esp. id. pp. 143-4.

[image] Gold octadrachm depicting Arsinoe II on obverse. Minted 253-246 BGC. Held in Altes Museum, Berlin. Thanks to Sailko and Wikimedia Commons.


Carney, Elizabeth Donnelly. 2013. Arsinoë of Egypt and Macedon: a royal life. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press. (review)

Celoria, Francis, trans. 1992. The Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis: a translation with a commentary. London: Routledge.

Milanezi, Silvia. 2000. “Laughter as Dessert: On Athenaeus’ Book Fourteen, 613-616.” Ch. 29 (pp. 400-12) in Braund, David, and John Wilkins, eds. Athenaeus and his world: reading Greek culture in the Roman Empire. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Olson, S. Douglas, ed. and trans. 2010. Athenaeus of Naucratis. The Learned Lanqueters. Vol. VII. Loeb Classical Library 345. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Overduin, Floris. 2015. Nicander of Colophon’s Theriaca: a literary commentary. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

Stewart, Aubrey, trans. 1889. Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Minor dialogues: together with the dialogue on clemency. London: G. Bell.