Once again, we come to the days in late-mid-November in which we commemorate an actual historical event, but one which is intimately connected to Divus Hadrianus, but even more so to Diva Sabina and Julia Balbilla Sancta. As you may know from previous years’ observance of this particular holy-day (from 2010, from 2011, and from 2012), this first day is one of disappointment and even desolation, since the famed singing statue of Egypt did not sing for the Lord of the Two Lands when he came all the way from Rome to hear it. Given the heavy emotions of the preceding weeks with the death of Antinous, this couldn’t have been taken as a good sign. But, this is only the first day of the three-day festival, so things shall turn (even though tomorrow also has elements of desolation due to International Trans* Day of Remembrance).
This is a day dedicated to two famous poetic Sanctae as well: Julia Balbilla, as already mentioned, and Sappho of Lesbos, the “original” of Julia Balbilla (at least in the poetic, if not the sexual, sense!). I’d like to give a bit of Sappho’s poetry for the day, but also something else, which might be something of a surprise after a number of tangents, but just go with me on it…
Perhaps some of the poems below, no doubt known in their full versions by Julia Balbilla, Hadrian, and Sabina, might have been recited in those weeks after Antinous’ death, and even on the eve or the day of their first visit to the statues.
Be here, by me,
Lady Hera, I pray
Who answered the Atreides,
They gained great things
There, and at sea,
And came towards Lesbos,
Their home path barred
Till they called to you, to Zeus
Of suppliants, to Dionysus, Thyone’s
Lovely child: be kind now,
Help me, as you helped them…
The stars around the beautiful moon
Hiding their glittering forms
Whenever she shines full on earth….
He is dying, Cytherea, your tender Adonis,
What should we do?
Beat your breasts, girls, tear your tunics…
Some say horsemen, some say warriors,
Some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
Vision in this dark world, but I say it’s
What you love.
It’s easy to make this clear to everyone,
Since Helen, she who outshone
All others in beauty, left
A fine husband,
And headed for Troy
Without a thought for
Her daughter, her dear parents…
And I recall Anaktoria, whose sweet step
Or that flicker of light on her face,
I’d rather see than Lydian chariots
Or the armed ranks of the hoplites.
Stand up and look at me, face to face
Unloose the beauty of your eyes…..
Love shook my heart,
Like the wind on the mountain
Troubling the oak-trees.
He’s equal with the Gods, that man
Who sits across from you,
Face to face, close enough, to sip
Your voice’s sweetness,
And what excites my mind,
Your laughter, glittering. So,
When I see you, for a moment,
My voice goes,
My tongue freezes. Fire,
Delicate fire, in the flesh.
Blind, stunned, the sound
Of thunder, in my ears.
Shivering with sweat, cold
Tremors over the skin,
I turn the colour of dead grass,
And I’m an inch from dying.
What a loss, dear gods, has the works of Sappho been to human civilization since the ancient world–!
But now, a short passage from part of the final tale of Lukian of Samosata’s Philopseudes:
“But I’ll tell you another story, one in which I was a participant, not one I heard from someone else. When you hear this, Tychiades, perhaps even you will be persuaded of the truth of the narrative. I was in Egypt at the time. I was still a young man, and had been sent there by my father for my education. I was eager to sail up to Coptus and from there to go to the statue of Memnon to hear the marvelous sound it makes before the rising sun. The common experience is to hear some meaningless voice from it, but Memnon actually gave me a prophecy, opening his mouth to utter seven words. If it were not irrelevant, I would have told you the words.
“We happened to be accompanied on the voyage up the Nile by a man of Memphis, one of the sacred scribes. His wisdom was marvelous and he had had the full Egyptian training. It was said that he had lived underground for twenty-three years in crypts whilst being trained in magic by Isis.”
“You’re speaking of Pancrates,” said Arignotus. “He was my teacher, a holy man, shaven, linen-clad, always thoughtful, speaking his Greek with a heavy accent, long and thin, snub-nosed, with protruding lips and rather skinny legs.”
“Yes, that’s Pancrates!,” he said. “At first I didn’t know who he was, but when I saw him performing all sorts of miracles every time we put to, most notably riding on crocodiles and swimming with the animals, whilst they fawned upon him and wagged their tails, I realized that he was a holy man, and by being nice to him I became a friend and comrade by gradual and imperceptible stages. As a result, he shared all his secrets with me….
What, dear friends, might the connection be, other than the mention of the colossoi of Memnon?
The mention of a very specific goddess: Isis. And that goddess, I have no doubt, is in mourning at present, not for Osiris, but for a human woman who over the last nearly seventy years did more to spread the religious devotion to Isis than anyone has since, very likely, Apuleius in late antiquity: Lady Olivia Durdin-Robertson, the principal foundress of the Fellowship of Isis.
Lady Olivia was born on April 13, 1917, and recently died on November 14, 2013. She was, truly, one of the most important individual pagans, I think, of the 20th and early 21st centuries, and I think that Isis most certainly inspired and came through her to many others.
Here is a short video clip of her on her 96th birthday earlier this year:
There is also a documentary about her life, filmed a few years ago, which is available here.
Sadly, I never was able to meet her, or to get to Clonegal Castle while I was in Ireland; however, a friend of mine did, and spoke very highly of Lady Olivia and of her experiences there in general.
May Isis enfold her wings around Lady Olivia, and may she be guided swiftly into the west, with a thousand ushabtis of turquoise to carry out her works for her!
And may the great hero Memnon be praised today; may the Tenth Muse Sappho be remembered and hailed; may Sancta Julia Balbilla and Diva Sabina Augusta be celebrated; and may the desolation of Hadrian over Antinous soon be soothed!