O house, wild cow
O Urim, bull standing in the wet reeds
O house, right arm
O Enegir, great libation pipe
O house where lustrous herbs are strewn upon the flowery bed
O mighty Keš, form of heaven and earth1
The first author whose name is known to us is En-ḫedu-ana (ca. 2285–2250 BCE), the High Priestess of the moon god Nanna in the Sumerian city of Ur. While holding the most prestigious religious title in Sumer, she composed hymns dedicated to each of the forty-two main temples in the territory, today the southern part of Iraq. This collection of songs, the first of its kind, are known as the ‘Sumerian Temple Hymns’.2 In the final lines, the poet signs off:
The compiler of the tablets was En-ḫedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.3
En-ḫedu-ana directly addresses each temple, describing the presence that dwells inside as if the brick work and its occupant are indistinguishable. In Betty De Shong Meador’s translation of ‘Temple Hymn 7’, we encounter Ninhursag, mother goddess of the mountains, in her temple at Kesh.4 Her house is built on the ‘form-shaping place’, a site both terrifying and radiant; her walls are an organ made with the ‘brick of birthgiving’, bringing to mind the soft-strength of a placenta, its meaty luminescence; her ‘twilit interior in which moonlight does not shine’5 is bathed in the shifting hours between daylight and darkness, with no determinate direction—are we heading into night or emerging from it? And here, we encounter the goddess attending to form-shaping, an act which inspires awe—that black coiled plait of terror, wonder, and reverence. The poem is Ninhursag’s dwelling place, where she rises with each reading. Her house at Kesh is fixed in place by ‘incantations’, in the same way it is fixed to the world by the hymn of En-ḫedu-ana. With each line it grows, birth-giving brick by birth-giving brick, while it falls away—its making its undoing. Through the hymn we enter the time of form-shaping, the twilit place of the indeterminable.
The compiler of the tablets carries the forty-two temples with her. In her body they are stored. Through her voice the most important buildings in Sumer rise and fall, mapping the territory of her father, King Sargon of Akkad—religion and power, never not entangled. Whichever hymn the High Priestess sings, she travels to its door. As she sings, it ushers the poet and her listeners in, swelling around and inside them, enabling an encounter with the deity within. And each time she leaves, through the high lintel of the last note, she returns with something, some small thing on an incomprehensible scale, gathered in the space of the song. The hymn does not describe an experience, it is an experience.
A painting by my grandfather, I Gusti Made Rundu, depicts a scene based on the Bhomāntaka, a twelfth-century Javanese epic poem by an unknown author. In the first stanza, the poet prays that a temple for the ‘God of Love’ be built from poetic language.
Let his temple be built of poetic language thus, and be made a worthy place for the deity of amorous longing to be given a visible form,
For in the invisible world Anangga (the Bodiless) is what he is called by the musing poet who is expert in allegorical narrative.6
The unknown author writes a song where Anangga might come and dwell on Earth. Long syllables roll out like tendrils and are punctured by short syllables like new leaves. A latticed arbour, composed of sixty-two varieties of metre, unfurls on holy ground, where, in the dappled interior of its song, you might encounter the Bodiless. In the introduction to their 2005 translation of the text, A. Teeuw and S.O. Robson write: ‘Just like a temple which is a well-thought out building, made of well-ordered, skilfully worked stones and provided with ornament, reliefs, images, colours, a language temple is a creation built up of sounds, words, sentences, similes, figures of speech, rhythmic and metrical patterns.’7 And dwelling in these temples of song, carpentered by the tongue of the High Priestess and the unknown ‘language priest’,8 is that which flies from language.
I met my father for the first time in 1998. He picked me and my mum up from the airport and drove us to the ancestral home in Sanur. This was their first meeting in eighteen years, plus now me, swarming with both their bloodlines, all that history churning and trembling inside the chill of his air-conditioned Mitsubishi.
The compound’s open-air courtyard was flanked on three sides by separate buildings. We were taken on a tour, and in the final room, inside the third dwelling, found ourselves in a large, windowless bathroom. It was in the Western style and everything, floor to ceiling, was pink. Today, my memory of it is infected by images someone later showed me of Jayne Mansfield’s Sunset Boulevard bathroom—and I guess it did have the slightly grotesque magnetism of a fantasy long out of date. ‘What is this?’ my mum asked. My dad turned on the tap above the sink, and all three of us watched the water fall into the basin and disappear down the drain in a reassuring unbroken line. Sometimes the only thing left to grip on to is the comfort that comes from checking things are in good working order, that they can be turned off and on, that what is meant to happen does. I glance up and see us reflected in the mirror—our first family portrait, lurid in the fluorescent light against the room’s blushing dimness.
I keep this image with me, and I unfold it often. It’s 1998 and, fresh off the plane, I am standing in a temple. Here, holy water flows through metal taps and everyday ablutions are an act of dedication. Pink tiles, pink walls, pink toilet, pink bath, pink sink, a cool sanctuary from the endless humidity outside, where the lolling dogs can only muster a raised eyelid as you pass by. It turned out the bathroom was built for my mother on the hope she’d one day return. Enclosed in the interior of the third dwelling, this inner sanctum, whose doorway only ever saw the hem of sunlight from the adjacent room, was given over to the ever-present desire for her presence. A three-dimensional hymn, never the same, shifting each day with the sounds of a body cleaning itself and being cleaned, childlike in its faith that when you turn on a tap, water will flow.
I returned on my own a few years later and was given the room next to the bathroom. In the mirror I studied the body that the song of my father’s daily wash had actually summoned: its indeterminate shades, always darker or lighter, too much or never enough, depending on the context, an illegitimate body, whose mix presents both the promise of conformity and its undoing. In 1942, the French anthropologist René Martial wrote that: ‘Instability, the dominant characteristic of métis [people born of interracial unions in French Indochina], … is contagious, it stands in opposition to the spirit of order and method, it generates indeterminable and futile discussion and paralyzes action.’9
But you know, the early goddesses were unstable also. These ‘wild cows’ were unpredictable, paradoxical entities. The house of Nanše in Sirara, associated with water, is water in all its ways:
O house, wild cow … your lady Nanše, a great storm, a mighty flood, born on the shore of the sea, who laughs on the foam of the sea, who plays on the water of the flood.10
Instable! Contagious! In opposition to order and method! Creator of indeterminable and futile discussion! O house, wild cow! Your lady Nanše, in foam and in flood, in laughter and in torrents, is they that allow themselves all of their own lives.
She stretches out, holding up a bat detector to the creatures whose echolocation she records in the dusty streets leading to the beach at dawn, while listening to her father talk about selling postcards and cigarettes in those very streets, singing in bars, and learning English. Forget everything else: just learn English. Through her body these and the stories of her grandfather leave little imprints, impressions recorded in the tissue like bruises, the little ones you never notice getting, as if made by unseen things. He would stay up late drinking coffee and reading the Ramayana, painting figures of monkeys with intertwined tails. He liked animals. Did you also know he liked to party?
And a grandmother, whose numerous miscarriages meant that in order to keep my father they had to give him away in a ceremony where he was passed over to his aunt and, moments later, passed back. She stretches out, taking in all that history, all those crossings rippling towards the deep heart of the matter, which always darts away—like a family portrait in a bathroom mirror. All that history pumped round and round. She stretches out, shimmering in the fold they folded her into, where on one side they stamped ‘east’ and on the other ‘west’. ‘Best of both worlds’, they said while sharpening the crease with the edge of a thumbnail, making a Rorschach test where they only ever see what they want to see.
I have a friend who is a medium. Do you trust me? One night while sitting at her kitchen table in Wales, my grandfather showed up:
And this is for the churning of the blood
And this is for the hearing of the blood
And this is for the knowing of the blood
And this is for the tasting of the blood
And this is for the pouring of the blood
‘What is “this”?’ I ask, but my friend is back. I guess I’m writing this to scavenge some sort of answer. A creator of indeterminable and futile discussion just feeling her way through, asking the body what it knows.
The sixteenth-century Spanish mystic Teresa of Ávila wrote the Interior Castle in 1577. In it she pictures the soul as a castle made of crystal. She leads her reader on a journey through seven dwellings: ‘enter, then, enter within yourselves, my daughters.’11 In the last room dwells her god, described in metaphors ranging from the sun, to the heart of an edible palmetto, to an overflowing fountain, to a creature with divine breasts quenching her sisters’ thirst with shimmering rivulets of milk. In her cosmology, each of us is a sanctuary on the move and deep inside is something to be savoured.
The Spanish mystic was not taught Latin, the language of authority, the church, official communication, and scholarship. How to speak then? She finds a way. She sounds out Latin quotes phonetically, rendering them almost indecipherable. She untethers them, rolls them around in her mouth, and sends them back out onto the bright plains of her page, where they are subsequently corralled and shot by future editors and translators. She wrote in Castilian, the everyday language of the home, of things near at hand, of the market, of gossip. She approaches a sixteenth-century god with a language considered not up to the task: ‘The vernacular appeared simply and totally inadequate. Its use, it would seem, could end only in a complete enfeeblement of meaning and a general abasement of values.’12 Unfurling her mother tongue, she wraps it around her god. She enfolds the high in the low, the sacred in the profane, the divine in the imperfect, the spiritual in the erotic. Spirit meets matter, meets a silver fish, the reflection on a copper pot, a ripe tomato. God is drawn down, the word made flesh, flesh of a woman.
She explores ideas normally addressed in Latin, at times hesitantly—so many doubts peck at her text—other times, savouring and enjoying—literally feeling things out through her phonetic version of the language spoken by her confessors. And its foundation in the colloquial draws us in. She divulges: ‘I confess that I do not know.’ This effort, which caused her immense physical pain, as witnessed in the headaches that literally split into the text—‘As I write this, the noises in my head are so loud that I am beginning to wonder what is going on in it’—is for her sisters:
And considering how strictly you are cloistered, my sisters, how few opportunities you have of recreation and how insufficient in number are your houses, I think it will be a great consolation for you, in some of your convents, to take your delight in this Interior Castle, for you can enter it and walk about in it at any time without asking leave of your superiors.13
A voluptuous style seeps out of these cloisters. An inadequate vernacular, a phonetically pronounced gargle, drawn through its mammary plumbing, slowly swells, spreads, finds the cracks, trickles out. Weeping it rises, drooling it rolls. It moves where the enclosure cannot, down the hill, echoing in the valley, and still it comes. Teresa’s style, born of necessity, enacts something akin to what Michel de Certeau calls ‘an erotics in language’, opening up holes in the vocabulary it borrows. In describing the relationship Christian mysticism has to the religion whose shadow it haunts, de Certeau writes: ‘The spring born by surprise in the basement must bear the same Name of the house beneath which it appeared.’14 The promise of conformity or its undoing? Can the spring, gurgling up, slowly rot the foundations, flood the basement, create an ecology of its own that gradually seeps through and around the ailing structure? I confess that I do not know.
Her lungs a scroll
Her ribs its keeper
Her veins a script
Her heart its metre
Her supervisors set limits
and she presses back
Her walls an oscillating border
Of laws and visions
Of rules and revelations
Above the lintel a sign:
‘They that allow themselves all of their own lives’
I wander into her and find
I have wandered into me
Here the centre is everywhere
where sister enters sister
Her lungs a scroll
Her ribs its keeper
Her veins a script
Her heart its metre
En-ḫedu-ana’s hymn The Exaltation of Inana was written while in exile. Cast out from the city by the Sumerian rebel Lugal-Ane, her plight ignored by the god Nanna whom she served as High Priestess, she turns instead to Inana, goddess of love and war. She cries out:
He has turned that temple, whose attractions were inexhaustible, whose beauty was endless, into a destroyed temple. While he entered before me as if he was a partner, really he approached out of envy.
My good divine wild cow, drive out the man, capture the man!15
Inana must have heard her entreaties because she was eventually reinstated. I picture En‑ḫedu‑ana outside the temple walls, cut off. I picture her standing at a distance, squinting towards the Ziggurat of Ur. I picture her beginning to intone ‘Temple Hymn 8’: ‘O Urim, bull standing in the wet reeds.’16 Through the invocation of the O, she plunges, defiantly entering into the presence of Nanna, entreating him to return to her, through the carpentry of her tongue. En-ḫedu-ana shed of her En (priest) still carries the song within.
It is in his most private moments that she is there. Cleaning the day away, she is there. In the pink tiles, whose hue speaks of the best parts of bodies and a decade long past, she is there. In the echoes of his movements reflecting off the hard tiles, she is there. In the gentle scoop of the bath, she is there. Someone given away as a baby on the promise of being returned in order that they may live must know something of a nearness that is inseparable from distance. And as ‘we carry history in our genes’, things must repeat. Round and round goes the churning of the blood in the form-shaping place.
- En-ḫedu-ana, The Temple Hymns, Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, lines 101, 520, 179, 210, and 87.
- En-ḫedu-ana, The Temple Hymns.
- Ibid., lines 543–544.
- En-ḫedu-ana, ‘Temple Hymn 7’, in Enheduanna: The First Known Author, trans. Betty De Shong Meador, American Translators Association, p. 19.
- En-ḫedu-ana, The Temple Hymns, lines 87–95.
- A. Teeuw and S.O. Robson, eds., Bhomāntaka: The Death of Bhoma, trans. Teeuw and Robson (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2005), p. 69.
- Ibid., p. 1.
- ‘The kawi as a language priest works on par with other priests who utilize prayers and mantras, sacrifices and rites, asceticism and meditation. All these priests have their own ways and means, but the goal is always the same: to bring about communication between the divine and the human world.’ Ibid., p. 1.
- René Martial in Ann Laura Stoler, ‘Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers: European Identities and the Cultural Politics of Exclusion in Colonial Southeast Asia’, in Tensions of Europe: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 225.
- En-ḫedu-ana, ‘Temple Hymn 7’.
- Teresa of Ávila, Interior Castle, commentary by Dennis Billy, trans. E. Allison Peers (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2007), p. 78.
- Geoffrey Shepherd, ‘English Versions of the Scriptures before Wyclif’, in The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 2, The West from the Fathers to the Reformation, ed. G.W.H. Lampe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 366.
- Teresa of Ávila, Interior Castle, p. 35.
- Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable. Vol. 1, The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. Michael B. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 181.
- En-ḫedu-ana, The Exaltation of Inana (Inana B), Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, lines 90–91.
- En-ḫedu-ana, The Temple Hymns, line 101.