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Hand of Isis epigram

A reader asked me a question about the epigrams that begin each of my books -- where do they come from and what's the reason I choose them. Fun question! Really, each one is different. But let's start with the one for Hand of Isis.

The epigram for Hand of Isis is by CP Cavafy, one of my favorite poets, from a poem titled The Glory of the Ptolemies written in 1911. Cavafy is a fascinating person in his own right, and actually may appear as a character in one of my own books that I'm playing with. In addition to a wonderful body of work on modern topics, as a native of Alexandria he wrote extensively about the City as he knew it, and as he imagined it in days long past. In many ways Cavafy is my window to Charmian's Alexandria.

Here is the poem in full, not my favorite of his works, but the most appropriate to Charmian.

The Glory of the Ptolemies

I am of the house of Lagos, King. The absolute possessor
(With my power and wealth) of pleasure.
No one can be found, neither Macedonian nor barbarian,
Who equals me or even comes close. The Selucid
Is laughable in his vulgar hedonism.
If you are searching for something else, look, it is here, clear.
The city Alexandria is teacher, apex of Panhellenism,
And in all fields of knowledge and all the arts, wisest.

And this is perhaps my personal favorite, his poem about Caesarion,

In part to verify an era,
In part to pass the time,
Last night I chose a collection
Of Ptolemaic epigraphs to read.
The extravagant praise and flattery
Was the same for everybody. All are splendid,
Glorious, powerful and altruistic,
Every undertaking very wise.
If you talk about the women of that generation, they too,
All the Berenices and Cleopatras, were marvelous.

When I succeeded in verifying the era,
I would have put down the book if a small
And unimportant note about King Caesarion
Did not immediately attract my attention.

Ah, here you came with your ambiguous
Charm. In history only a few
Lines about you exist,
And so I created you more freely in my mind.
I created you handsome and sensitive.
My art gives your face
A dreamy, amiable beauty.

And I imagine you so fully
That late last night as my light
Went out -- I let it go out on purpose --
I imagined you came into my room,
It seemed to me you stood as before, as you would have
In the vanquished Alexandria,
Pale and tired, ideal in your sorrow,
Still hoping they might show you compassion,
The vicious ones -- who whispered, "too many Caesars."


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 4th, 2012 12:31 am (UTC)
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Mar. 5th, 2012 01:07 pm (UTC)
Oh I love that poem so much! That's a favorite too.

(I did a Sanctuary story with that poem, actually, she says quietly under the carpet.)
Mar. 5th, 2012 08:43 am (UTC)
When they saw Patroklos dead
—so brave and strong, so young—
the horses of Achilles began to weep;
their immortal nature was upset deeply
by this work of death they had to look at.
They reared their heads, tossed their long manes,
beat the ground with their hooves, and mourned
Patroklos, seeing him lifeless, destroyed,
now mere flesh only, his spirit gone,
defenseless, without breath,
turned back from life to the great Nothingness.

Zeus saw the tears of those immortal horses and felt sorry.
“At the wedding of Peleus,” he said,
“I should not have acted so thoughtlessly.
Better if we hadn’t given you as a gift,
my unhappy horses. What business did you have down there,
among pathetic human beings, the toys of fate.
You are free of death, you will not get old,
yet ephemeral disasters torment you.
Men have caught you up in their misery.”
But it was for the eternal disaster of death
that those two gallant horses shed their tears.

Mar. 5th, 2012 01:08 pm (UTC)
So lovely! I love Cavafy so much!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )