Paul of Tarsus rewrote Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab


Traveling to Damascus with tribal companions, Paul of Tarsus fell to the ground from a flash of great light.  He was blinded.  Paul’s companions took his hand and led him to Damascus.  Three days later, they parted, as did the su‘lūk and his tribe in Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab:

Get up the chests of your mounts
and leave, sons
of my mother.  I lean to a tribe
other than you.

What must be was at hand.  The tribal outcast adopted others as kin.  The su‘lūk described a fierce trinity:

I have three friends: a brave
heart, a bare
blade, and a long
bow of yellow wood,

Smooth and taut,
bedecked with jeweled tokens,
secured with a crossbelt,

And when it lets the arrow slip
it twangs,
like a child-bereft mother,
grief-struck, who moans and wails.

The beautiful bow delivers death.  The whole of creation was groaning in labor pains for a new man.

Paul was such a man.  He was set apart from the lives of men of his time:

I’m no quick-to-thirst,
herd ill-pastured at dusk,
calves ill-fed
though their mother’s udders are untied,

No foul-breathed cringer,
asking her in every affair
what to do,

No ostrich,
gangly, stupified,
as if a sparrow were beating up and down
in his heart,

No malingerer, stay-at-home,
evening and morning coated with kohl
and perfume,

No tick,
worthless, indolent
leaping up, when startled,

Nor bewildered by the dark
when the towering emptiness
turns astray the traveler, lagging,
frantic, losing his way.

They gloried in their shame.  Their god was their belly.  The su‘lūk learned the secret of contentment in being well-fed and in going hungry:

Sometimes I have nothing,
sometimes all I need.
Only one who gives himself,
far-seeing, will prosper.

The new way was unafraid of suffering:

I have trodden through darkness and drizzle,
on fire with hunger,
grinding inside, shivering,
filled with dread.

Five times I have received from the Jews forty
lashes minus one. Three times I was
beaten with rods.
Once I received a stoning.
Three times I was
for a night and a day I was adrift
at sea. On frequent journeys,
in danger from rivers,
danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles,
danger in the city, danger in the wilderness,
danger from false brothers and sisters
in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night,
hungry and thirsty, often without
food, cold and naked.

He walked on, proclaiming death’s defeat.

As the sun set in the desert, from a summit in the midst of chaste females, he gave thanks for a child.

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Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab (Arabian Ode in “L”) is “by common consent … recognised as one of the greatest of all Arabic poems.”  Jones (1992) p. 139.  Scholars have debated at length whether the poem is from fifth or sixth century Arabia, or was forged in the eighth century by Basran poet-transmitter Khalaf al-Ahmar.  Nothing above is meant to claim literally that the poem pre-dated Paul of Tarsus.  The quotations from Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab are from the translation in Sells (1989) pp. 24-31.  Other translations are Jones (1992 ) pp. 142-84 (with line-by-line analysis) and Stetkevych (1993) pp. 143-50.  The Arabic text is online here.

Su‘lūk (plural form, saālīk) is an Arabic word now typically understood as meaning a brigand or a destitute man, a man separated from his tribe.  Su‘lūk poetry is a recognized type of pre-Islamic poetry.  Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab is the most famous su‘lūk poem.

Paul of Tarsus was of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin.  Paul described himself:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city {Jerusalem} at the feet of Gamaliel {a prominent rabbi}, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God

Acts 22:3.  See also Philippians 3:4-6.  The quotation above from Paul is from 2 Corinthians 11:24-27, with added lineation of the prose.  For other allusions above to Paul’s words, see Acts 9:1-22, Romans 8:22-23, Romans 1:1, Philippians 3:19, 4:11-2, and Romans 5:12-17.

With appreciation for Paul of Tarsus, the su‘lūk gains moral and imaginative complexity.  The su‘lūk typically has been understood as an outcast in this world:

The traditional definition of the world su‘lūk — poor, needy, having no property, no reliance on anything; a thief, robber — lends support to the interpretation of the su‘lūk as a liminal, antisocial character.  … In psychological terms, we might view the su‘lūk, then, as one whose course of development is arrested, perverted, or diverted.

Stetkevych (1993) p. 87.  Apart from “thief, robber” and the moral shading of an atypical path of development, that description could well characterize types of holy men and women in a variety of cultures.  A proposed etymology roots su‘lūk in “to travel along a road.”  Id.  Paul of Tarsus and other holy persons understood themselves to have chosen to travel along a different road.

Ancient Arabic poetry has provided important insight into Christian scripture.  In the context of figuring the coming of God’s kingdom, Jesus declares:

Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

{ ὅπου τὸ σῶμα ἐκεῖ καὶ οἱ ἀετοὶ ἐπισυναχθήσονται }

Luke 17:37; similarly, Matthew 24:28.  Vultures are a common motif in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry of blood vengeance.  The Arabic poetry of blood vengeance suggests that the correct translation of the Greek ἀετός in Luke 17:37 and Matthew 24:28 is vulture, not eagle. Stetkevych insightfully explained:

we can surmise that the vultures that feed on the carcasses of those slain in vengeance may be an expression — mythic or metaphoric — for the souls of those slain kinsmen who are thereby avenged, or perhaps even the souls of the ancestors of the clan in general.  … Such an assumption would complete the logical structure of the poem of blood vengeance: the vital forces of the slain enemy would serve in a direct way to nourish the souls of the dead kin, and the repeated occurrence of the image of the vulture in the poetry of blood-vengeance would thus be explained by its requisite role in this ritual code.

Stetkevych (1993) p. 69.  For related discussion, id. pp. 67-73.  In Paul of Tarsus’s terms, Jesus suffered death as the sacrificial victim whose blood redeemed his kin, all of humanity, from sin-determined death for all time.

The aphorism “where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” exists in many other instances of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin literature. For Hebrew, see Job 39:30. For Latin, see Seneca, Epistles 95.43; Martial 6.62.4, and Lucan 6:550-1. For Greek, see Lucian, Navigum (The Ship) I, and Claudius Aelianus, De Natura Animalium 2.46. The Greek and Latin references all post-date Jesus’s death. For discussion, Ehrhardt (1964) pp. 53-8.

Jerome’s late-fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) used aquila {eagle} for the Greek ἀετός in Luke 17:37 and Matthew 24:28. Subsequent Latin literature followed Jerome’s translation. For example, the monk Peter Damian in eleventh-century Italy wrote:

Where the body is, there by right the eagles congregate,
where with the angels the holy souls are refreshed,
citizens of the fatherland together eating one bread.

{ Ubi corpus, illic jure congregantur aquilae,
Quo cum angelis et sanctae recreantur animae,
Uno pane vivunt cives utriusque patriae. }

Peter Damian, “At the font of eternal life, the parched soul thirsts {Ad perennis vitae fontem mens sitivit arida}” st. 15, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 179, my English translation benefiting from that of id. Here are a Latin text and alternate English translation, and a sung version.

[image] Swiss sword, dating about 1500. Image thanks to Rama and Wikipedia.


Brittain, Frederick. 1962. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: with plain prose translations of each poem. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Ehrhardt, Arnold. 1964. The Framework of the New Testament Stories. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Jones, Alan. 1992. Early Arabic Poetry. Vol. I. Marāthī and ṣu’lūk poems. Reading: Ithaca Press.

Sells, Michael Anthony. 1989. Desert Tracings: six classic Arabian odes. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.

Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. 1993. The Mute Immortals Speak: pre-Islamic poetry and the poetics of ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Decameron's self-government confronts sex differences in guile

US Capitol, seat of self-government

Boccaccio’s Decameron presents a self-governing society of seven women and three men.  They, the brigata, tell each other stories of deception, sex, and violence.  Those stories are merely entertainment, like singing and dancing, and generate only laughter or a few evaluative comments.  The persons of the brigata self-consciously act toward each other with honesty, chastity, and harmony.  Their ideal self-government encounters serious conflict only when brigata member Dioneo proposes telling stories about women’s superiority in guile.  That conflict leads to the pretense that sex differences in guile don’t exist.

Dioneo is the brigata member most critical of the brigata’s facade of self-government and persons’ underlying personal desires.  After being chosen ruler for the day, Dioneo declares:

tomorrow I want us to talk about the tricks that women, either for the sake of love or for their self-preservation, have played on their husbands, whether those tricks were ever discovered by them or not. [1]

That’s a courtly, pedestalizing formulation.  Love and self-preservation are surely not the only interests that women pursue with guile.  Nonetheless, for the first time, members of the brigata rebel against their ruler:

Speaking about such a subject seemed quite unsuitable to some of the ladies, and they asked him to change the topic he had proposed.

Women naturally prefer to keep men ignorant about paternity and other issues of particular interest to men.  Yet ignorance is inconsistent with a reasoned foundation for self-government.

With sophisticated arguments, Dioneo manages to overcome the women’s objections to stories about women’s guile.  Dioneo appeals to the cataclysmic times as justifying free discussion:

the times we are going through permit all subjects to be freely discussed.  Are you not aware that since everything has been turned upside down nowadays, judges have forsaken their tribunals, the laws, divine as well as human, have fallen silent, and everyone has been granted ample license to preserve his life however he can?  Consequently, if you go somewhat beyond the bounds of decorum in speaking, not with the intention of behaving indecently, but only of providing pleasure for yourselves and others, I do not see what plausible argument anyone in the future could make to criticize you.

Dioneo equates preserving life with providing pleasure.  That’s a narrow, reductivist view of life.  Free discussion beyond the bounds of stale decorum can strengthen truthful self-government in times of collapse.  But beyond the sign of reason, appeals to pleasure make a better argument.

Dioneo also reformulates the threat of exposure.  Men aware of women’s guile can respond appropriately.  Women thus might prefer for men to remain ignorant. Yet suppressing discussion raises suspicions:

The truth of the matter is that if anyone were to discover that you had refrained at some point from talking about these trifles, he might suspect that you did not want to discuss them because you were actually guilty of having misbehaved.

Wives’ sexual fidelity to their husbands is no trifling matter.  That’s particularly true within legal regimes that attribute paternity to men in denial of the obvious.  Stories of strong, independent women tricking their husbands now tend to be condemned as being antifeminist.  Calling those stories trifles works to undercut suppression of them.

Dioneo, with extraordinary masculine guile, supports in other sophisticated ways free discussion of women’s guile.  Dioneo appeals to the women’s social persona:

is there anyone who is unaware of your virtue?  I doubt that even the fear of death, let alone these pleasant discussions of ours {about women’s guile}, could ever shake it.

Dioneo insinuates that the women would be insulting him as ruler if they rejected his proposal for stories about women’s guile.  He further declares that scruples about such stories are “more appropriate for the wicked than for us.”

After listening to Dioneo’s arguments, the women relent.  They accept Dioneo’s proposal to tell stories about women deceiving and abusing their husbands.  That’s a remarkable achievement in medieval Europe.  After all, such stories are now on the verge of being banned in liberal democracies.

The Decameron’s day of stories about women’s guile in deceiving and abusing their husbands presents little new to the knowledgeable.  In the stories, wives guilefully contrive to have extra-marital sex.  Such stories are common in the ancient Sanskrit work Shuka Saptati, the ancient, widely dispersed Sindibad / Seven Sages corpusmedieval French fabliaux, and medieval Latin literature.  In some of the Decameron’s stories, husbands are not merely cuckolded, but also physically beaten.  In one story, a wife falsely accused her husband of coming home drunk every night and lying about her actions.  The wife’s family then “beat him until he was completely covered with bruises.”[2]  In another story, after having sex with her lover, the wife sent her lover to beat her husband “black and blue with a stick.”[3]  In yet another story, to prove her love to her lover, a wife contrived to yank out a perfectly healthy tooth from her husband’s mouth.  As a final tour de force, she had sex with her lover right in front of her husband’s eyes and convinced him not to believe what he saw.[4]

Brigata member Lauretta responds to these stories by obscuring sex differences in guile.  Lauretta was appointed ruler for the Decameron’s next day of stories.  She declared:

Yesterday, Dioneo proposed that we talk today about the tricks that women play on their husbands, and if it were not for the fact that I do not want to be thought of as belonging to that breed of snapping little curs who immediately retaliate for everything, I would insist that tomorrow we talk about the tricks that men play on their wives.  But letting that go, I want each of you, instead, to think up a story about the tricks women are always playing on men, or men on women, or men on other men.  This, without a doubt, will be a topic just as pleasing to talk about as the one we had today. [5]

Lauretta obscures sex differences in guile within marriage.  She pretends that sex differences in guile have no social significance.  She positions herself as morally superior.  That’s a guileful discursive move.

Women’s superiority in guile is a pillar of gynocentric human society.  Rightful aspirations for gender equality and reasoned self-government must confront the challenge of sex differences in guile.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 6, Conclusion, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 512.  All the subsequent quotes, except the final one, are from id. pp. 512-3.  Dioneo proposes the story topic for Day 7.

[2] Decameron, Day 7, Story 4, id. p. 541.  Elissa tells this story of the wife being locked out, threatening suicide, and throwing a stone in a well to fake suicide.  A earlier, similar story in the Seven Sages / Sindiad corpus is known as Puteus.  The tale also exists in Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis (fable 14).  A similar story from Shuka Saptati (tale 16) doesn’t include the wife summoning her family and their beating her husband.  Instead, the Shuka Saptati tale ends harmoniously, “The couple agreed that they would never again speak against one another.”  From Sanskrit trans. Haksar (2009) p. 65.

[3] Decameron, Day 7, Story 7, id. p. 561.  Filomena tells this story.

[4] Decameron, Day 7, Story 9.  Panfilo tells this story. Day 7 also includes an adaptation of the Tale of the Wife’s Tub in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (story 2); a faked religious ritual that successfully serves the interests of the deceiving wife (story 3);  the failure of husband’s attempt to trick his wife into revealing to him her infidelity and the wife’s success in further tricking him (story 5); a version of a faked rescue known in the Sindibad corpus as Gladius (story 6); and a wife who ties a string to her toe to enable her to signal to her lover and who gets her brothers to threaten her husband for his attempt to uncover her trick (story 8).  Dioneo, who concludes with story 10, states, “I cannot think of anything on the particular topic that would stand in comparison with the things you have already said.”  Id. p. 583.  Dioneo tells the story of two Sienese men who loved a married woman.  One, the godfather of her child, managed to have sex with her.

[5] Decameron, Day 7, Conclusion, id. p. 588.  Four stories in Day 8 involve men playing tricks on women, all of whom are not their wives.  In two stories, men trick women into having sex with them without paying the women the money they demanded for having sex (stories 1 and 2).  Two other stories involve men successfully retaliating with tricks on women who tricked them (stories 7 and 10).  The other stories on Day 8 involve men tricking men.

[image] U.S. Capitol, thanks to Martin Falbisoner and Wikipedia.


Haksar, A. N. D. 2009. Shuka Saptati: seventy tales of the parrot. New Delhi: Rupa Co.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

sexual selection theory has weaknesses relative to field reports

Like current law governing reproductive rights, the traditional theory of sexual selection emphasizes female choice.  A leading biological anthropologist has explained, “it is the female who is ultimate arbiter of when she mates and how often and with whom.”[1]  According to that understanding, the female directs a male to copulate with her whenever she desires, and he obeys.  Another anthropologist has explained:

Men must compete for sex but what is there for women to compete for?  Not for copulations – any male would be more than happy to oblige her [2]

This theory reduces men to brainless, indiscriminate vagina-seeking penises.  Scholars have criticized this traditional theory of sexual selection as undervaluing female sexuality.[3]

monkey ponders choice of mates

Much less authoritative field studies of human sexuality indicate very different sexual behavior.  According to these studies, men prefer young, beautiful women with long hair and who like men.  According to these studies, most men have absolutely no interest in copulating with old, ugly women who hate men, even if those women have socially impressive job titles and long lists of scholarly publications.  According to these studies, men also are generally averse to copulating with obese women.  These studies tend to be dismissed as superficial or hateful.  But much the same could be said of the above highly credentialed scholarship on traditional sexual selection.  Sexual selection theorists should adopt more inclusive thinking and consider uncredentialed field reports in relation to their theories.

Scholars of sexual selection have lamented lack of appreciation for female sexual aggressiveness and female sexual promiscuity.  An anthropologist has observed:

Females have been observed soliciting copulations in virtually every primate species that has been studied, and in the majority of species, females initiate the majority of copulations. [4]

Another anthropologist lamented:

In retrospect one really does wonder why it was nearly 1980 before promiscuity among females attracted more than cursory theoretical attention. [5]

Could that be because gynocentrism creates belief that women exist on a higher moral plane than men do?  On the other hand, in gynocentric society, everything, including failure to discuss sufficiently the prevalence of those the uneducated call sluts, is the fault of socially constructed belief in patriarchy.

All aspects of female sexuality surely are worthy of attention.  A highly respected scholar noted:

In her piece entitled “Bride Wore White, Groom Hopes for Parole,” journalist Donatella Lorch (1996) describes women from a wide range of professions – bankers, journalists, judges, teachers, for whom resources are obviously not the issue – who marry men whose freedom of mate choice is severely circumscribed by the fact that they are in prison. … This vignette of sex-reversed claustration makes a serious point about just how little we know about female choice in breeding systems where male interests are not paramount and patrilines are not making the rules. [6]

Once again, fieldwork-based applied studies are far in advance of narrow-minded academics.  Persons seriously engaged in field studies have long recognized that chick dig jerks.  More conventional social-scientific experiments are starting to explore that long-established practical principle.

If the science of sexual selection is to advance beyond misandry and fashionable cultic nonsense, it must take seriously the amazing body of work that uncredentialed, applied researchers are producing.

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[1] Hrdy (1981) p. 18.  This statement refers to male and female organisms in general, not just humans.  Commodity markets for sperm (sperm banks) make sufficiently wealthy women the ultimate arbiter of when, how often, and with which sperm donor she is inseminated.

[2] Campbell (2002) p. 310.

[3] Small (1993) Ch. 4.  The alleged disparagement of female sexuality in sexual selection theory contradicts the women-are-wonderful effect.

[4] Smuts (1987) p. 392.  See also Small (1993) Ch. 5.  In the European Dark Ages, persons were more enlightened about female sexual ardor and female promiscuity.

[5] Hrdy (1986) p. 127.

[6] Hrdy (1997) p. 32.  Of course, male interests have never been paramount, and male rulers make rules to serve females.  Thus in the thirteenth-century French popular romance, The Romance of the Rose, an old woman declares:

I called all the others lovers, but it was he alone that I loved.  Understand, he didn’t value me at one pea, and in fact told me so.  He was bad — I never saw worse — and he never ceased despising me.  This scoundrel, who didn’t love me at all, would call me a common whore.  A woman has very poor judgment, and I was truly a woman.  I never loved a man who loved me, but, do you know, if that scoundrel had laid open my shoulder or broken my head, I would have thanked him for it.  He wouldn’t have known how to beat me so much that I would not have had him throw himself upon me, for he knew very well how to make his peace, however much he had done against me.  He would never have treated me so badly, beaten me or dragged me or wounded my face or bruised it black, that he would not have begged my favor before he moved from the place.  He would never had said so many shameful things to me that he would not have counseled peace to me and then made me happy in bed, so that we had peace and concord again.  Thus he had me caught in his snare, for this false, treacherous thief was a very hard rider in bed.

From c. ll. 14480-14520, trans Dahlberg (1995) p. 247. The figure of being caught in a snare is common in the historical literature of men’s sexed protests.

[image] A young White-fronted Capuchin Monkey.  Thanks to Whaldener Endo and Wikipedia.


Campbell, Anne. 2002.  A mind of her own: the evolutionary psychology of women. Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.

Dahlberg, Charles, trans. 1995.  Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The romance of the Rose. 3rd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The woman that never evolved. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1986. “Empathy, polyandry, and the myth of the coy female.” Pp. 119-146 in Ruth Bleier, ed. Feminist approaches to science. New York: Pergamon Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1997. “Raising Darwin’s Consciousness: Female Sexuality and the Prehominid Origins of Patriarchy.” Human Nature 8 (1): 1-49.

Small, Meredith F. 1993. Female choices: sexual behavior of female primates. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Smuts, Barbara B. 1987. “Sexual competition and mate choice.” Pp. 385-399 in Barbara B. Smuts, Dorothy L.  Cheney, Robert M. Seyfarth and Richard W.  Wrangham, eds. Primate societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.