Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Enchanting Peri of Persia

                         "Peri at the Gates of Paradise" Corcoran Gallery, Washington DC
                                                   Photo courtesy of Robert Baldwin

     The Peri are a class of mythological beings in Persian lore akin to the Western concept of faerie.  Like fairies, the original version of a Pairika was far more malevolent than later incarnations. In earlier incarnations, the Peris were a race of evil sorcercesses associated with demons and able to be banished with the appropriate Zoroastrian prayer.

     Later, the view of Peris changed to an emphasis on their physical beauty and benign nature.  They were pictured as beautiful winged creatures (usually women) who subsisted on perfume.  The arch-enemies of the Peri, the Dev, were Persian demons who sought to imprison them in iron cages.  In one tale, a human hero names Tahmuras fights off the demons to free a captive Peri maiden named Merjan after her brothers fail to win her release.  Needless to say, he then dies a heroic and dramatic death, and any Peri-human romance fails to materialize.

     Similar to the Jinn in Arabic lore, the Peri live on Mountain Qaf and are mortal, although they live far longer than humans.

     In the 1800s, an Orientalist view of the Peri as fallen angels seeking forgiveness took hold, as in this poem included in Thomas Moore's 1817 romance Lalla Rookh 
                                    Costume sketch from 1912 ballet La Peri by Paul Dukas

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Kohl Rimmed Eyes...

A popular cosmetic, eye medicine and protective ward against the evil eye, kohl (كحل  in Arabic) has been in use since 3100 BC.  It was used by by Egyptians of noble rank to cover the upper eyelid, while green malachite was used for the lower.  Its use spread throughout the Middle East and South Asia, along with North Africa.

Literary references to kohl abound, and sections in 1001Arabian Nights describe feminine beauty with terms such as "kohl-dark eyes" which set off long hair, a slender waist, and of course "heavy buttocks".
Male heroes in the Arabian Nights are no stranger to eye makeup either.  Several noble princes in the tales are described as being smeared with kohl as infants.  This practice continues throughout the world today, to protect the infant from the Evil Eye.  Although the use of traditional kohl on infant's eyes today is not recommended, there's some evidence that ancient kohl preparations may have had some anti-microbial effects against conjunctivitis. 

Kohl is prepared in North Africa traditionally by grinding galena (lead sulfide) and adding various botanical products.  Although this traditional preparation is believed to be superior to modern cosmetics versions, the use of galena has raised concerns about lead poisoning.  The photo above shows a small quantity of traditional kohl I purchased at a roadside shop.  It came wrapped in a small piece of newspaper secured by a rag strip:

Given the lead concerns, I think I'll stick to less exotic cosmetics, like this:

But I have doubts that the latest mass produced eyeshadow offers the same protection against the Evil Eye as my newspaper wrapped treasure.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Ancient Beats

Stringed instruments have been used to entertain for thousands of years.  The oud, an ancient pear-shaped stringed instrument, is still a popular instrument used in Middle Eastern music.  It's thought to be the descendent of the lute.  Both instruments' names are thought to be derived from the Arabic word al-ud (العود ),  meaning "the wood".  This name referred to the the lute's and the oud's wooden soundboard, different than ancient skin-covered musical instrument.    

In Pre-Islamic Iran, the lute became the dominant stringed instrument gradually over a thousand years after its invention in Mesopotamia around 2300 BCE.  This was probably a millennium after the origin of the harp, also a popular stringed instrument in Iran.  The Persian word 'rud' is thought to possibly be an origin for the Arabic word al-ud.

Although the lute is thought to predate the oud in archeology, in mythology the oud came first, and has a gruesome backstory.  According to the medieval Islamic scholar Al-Farabi one of the descendants of Cain,  Lamak, hung the dead body of his son from a tree to decay slowly as it swung.  The dangling skeleton provided the inspiration for the stringed shape of the instrument.

If you were curious what would happen if the ancient oud was used to play more modern music, check out this version of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal. (Link courtesy of the awesome  and )

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Desert Animals Part 1: What Does the Fox Say?

Below is a picture of a Fennec fox, the smallest of the fox family and a common predator found in the Northern Sahara.  This animal was captured by local children and is being shown off to tourists for tips.  The children lure the animals with dried fish and pieces of meat, then keep them on leashes and hold them like lap dogs.

In the desert camps, our guide explained that wild Fennecs will sometimes come into the tents when it was quiet and accept a few scraps of food before slinking away, much like feral cats.

Fennecs are small nocturnal members of the canid family known for their ability to survive in high heat, scarce water environments.  Large birds of prey can attack them, but they are also hunted by humans for their fur, and increasingly, the exotic pet trade.  Their large ears are used to locate their prey: insects, rodents and rabbits.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Jinn Part I: Aisa Qandisa

 The Jinn of Middle East and North Africa legend bear little relationship to the Western caricature of a bare-chested figure arising from an oil lamp to grant wishes.  Created before the race of man from smokeless fire, the Jinn, like humans, are mortal.  They are born, they can marry and bear children, and they die, although they live much longer than humans.  They have a societal structure and heirarchy, and follow different religions.  Like humans, they face eternal judgement for their actions on earth, and therefore have free will to chose a life of good, or a life of evil.

In Morocco, one of the worst of the evil Jinn is a female spirit known as Aisa Qandisa.  According to legend, she was a female shaman, or spirtual healer, who violated the tradition of dressing in white for 40 days after the death of her husband, when his spirit still hovered between the land of the living and the land of the dead.  Her punishment was to become one of the Jinn she bargained with to gain her powers.  Now a Jinn herself, she was tasked with haunting rivers and streams, taking the shape of a beautiful woman to lure young men to a watery grave.

Sitting beside the dying flames of a campfire, I listened as the director of our tour told me his own personal story of an encounter with this dark spirit.  Years ago, as a young man, he left a party late at night to return home.  Close to midnight, he crossed a small river, his car rolling over a rickety wooden bridge.  His headlights glanced off the figure of a solitary woman, her palm raised up in a gesture to ask for a ride.  Surprised that anyone, much less a woman, would be hitchhiking at such an unusual hour, he pulled his car over and invited her inside.

Looking back, he told me that nothing about the woman's appearance seemed out of the ordinary.  He chatted with her briefly about her destination and started up the car again, the wheels chattering along the planks of the bridge.  After a short distance, he decided some music might make his new-found companion enjoy the ride more.  He grabbed for a cassette tape, but it slipped from his hands and fell down in front of the woman's feet.  Expressing his apologies, he stopped the car, and reached down to pick the tape up off the floor.

As his fingers closed around the cassette, he froze.  Instead of human feet, the horned legs of an animal emerged from below her dress.  Bolting upright, he realized that his half-human, half-animal hitchhiker was a Jinn, and an evil one at that.  A fragment of story his grandfather had told him flashed through his mind.  Aisa Qandisa could be banished if a knife blade was thrust through thin air with only a single blow.  Any more strikes, and the Jinn could never be defeated, now matter how powerful the weapon.  He reached for small knife near his seat and thrust the blade downward, adding a prayer as he did so.  His heart pounding in his chest, he looked over to see that his front seat was empty.  The woman who had been sitting there had vanished.  Shaken, he turned back onto the road, driving as fast as he could to Marrakech.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Supernatural in the Souk

Deep in the heart of the souk of Marrakech, small shops sell darker goods than colorful sandals and clanging tea sets.  The stall pictured above has items for sale to aid in the casting of magic spells, both light and dark.  In the middle right of the photograph, small leather necklaces are designed to be hung around the neck of children suffering from nightmares and other ailments of supernatural origin.  On the back of the talisman, a small phrase from the Quran protects the wearer from harm.

The hanging skins of animals, from zebra pelts to the box of dried hedgehogs seen below, can be used to bring back a wayward lover or get revenge for a love affair gone wrong.  They can be strung up or burnt as a version of animal sacrifice.  

Woven baskets hold large quantities of dried plants used in traditional rural medicine.

Next, I'm off to the Sahara to listen to some ghostly tales around a night fire.

Magic in Marrakech

View of the Koutubia mosque from the roof-top restaurant of our hotel.

The hand of Miriam:

This is a beautiful example of a Jewish Hamsa, in an ancient synagogue in the traditional mellah, or Jewish quarter, of Marrakech.  The Star of David, not an  eye, is centered in the palm.  Our guide told us that although the small Jewish community of Marrakech resides largely in the 'French' quarter these days, every Saturday the local rabbi holds services in this ancient temple.  The box these were in also held polished animal horns:

Sometimes the Evil Eye itself can be a positive symbol, as seen in this close-up of a hand-knotted rug below.  Although we enjoyed the dramatic presentation of the rugs and the delicious mint tea, we didn't give into temptation and buy a carpet.  But we still have a free shopping day in Marrakech at the end of the trip....

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Off to Marrakech...

No, seriously, I'm doing research!

So today marks the first day of my vacation, I mean my fact-finding trip to Morocco.  I'm hoping to learn more about traditional beliefs about the Jinn and incorporate them into my novel.  I didn't need to look far to find some beautiful renditions of the Hand of Fatima to ward off the evil eye.  Above is a lovely embroidered hand on the riad's pillow.  Tomorrow we're heading into the twisting alleyways of the souk to look for more examples of the famous hamsa symbol, and perhaps pick up a magic potion or two.  Meanwhile, the weather and the sights in the salmon-pink city of Marrakech are gorgeous:

Above, roof top view of pigeons guarding the castle-like walls of the beautiful hotel we're staying in.  The riad has been renovated with works from local artists and originates from a collection of four buildings first built close to 500 years ago.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Hand of Fatima

Now that you're tossing and turning at night, worrying about the Evil Eye, you're probably eager to hear about ways to protect yourself from it.  In Italy, you might ward off Il Malocchio with the mano cornuto or sign of the horns :

The gesture also became a popular salute in heavy metal, and gained Satanic associations.

In Middle Eastern cultures, a similar hand protection symbol is the Hamsa (خمسة) also known as the Hand of Fatima, the Hand of Miriam, or the Hand of Mary, in Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions.  It's an open right hand with the palm facing forward, sometimes with an eye in the center.  

عين زرقاء the blue eye symbol that protects against the عين السد, the Evil Eye or Eye of Envy

The Hamsa is thought to predate all of these three religions and to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia.  In Islam, the number five has added significance, and the five fingers may represent Mohammed and his household members, or the five pillars of Islam.  Stylized versions are popular in design and jewelry.  Traditionally, silver might used for the amulet, with its associations of purity.

So, if you're looking to hedge your bets about the Evil Eye and perhaps add some luck, a beautiful Hamsa charm might be the perfect thing to shop for...

Friday, September 20, 2013

Il Malocchio


                                            The Evil Eye

         The occult has always fascinated me.  My real world persona is so grounded, so rational, so entirely focused on a linear view of reality that perhaps it's only natural my down-time fantasies should revolve around all that is unseen, unfamiliar, unconstrained by rigid precepts of science and rationality. 
         Before I was born my mother, raised in a Baptist household, lived in uneasy proximity to my father's devoutly Catholic mother.  My grandmother was christened Giuseppina, the feminine incarnation of St. Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary.  She emigrated from the hills of southern Italy, from a medieval era village where vestiges of witchcraft and the curses of the evil eye still gave shivers to the people who struggled to feed themselves far away from the great city of Rome and the wealthier North.  Giuseppina outlived one husband, then another, and supported herself by running a local grocery store and selling bathtub gin during prohibition.  Behind her back, the small group of fellow immigrants who clustered in one neighborhood of a dreary New England mill-town called her La Popessa, the Popess.  She would have been Pope had she been a man, they said.  Or perhaps, a local mafia don. 
         Growing up I knew her only as the perpetual widow, dressed in black, mourning all her dead husbands.  She doled out a percentage of her bootlegging profit to the local monseigneur, who according to local gossip had selected the most beautiful nun in the nearby convent as his mistress.  La Popessa was Catholic to a fault, with pictures of the Pope and images of the saints around her home.  Polytheistic, almost, with the feminine features of the saints looking down upon the small kitchen where she made jars of tomato sauce and pizzelle cookies without a speck of sugar.  They were burnt half-black, dry and flavorless.  I loved their crunch.  They were almost as good as the Communion wafers I snacked on when I rummaged through the back room of the local church, allowed free reign through the empty space by my grandmother's stepson, who cleaned the rooms and took care of the outside grounds of the diocese for little or no pay.
         La Popessa had arranged my father's first marriage, when he was barely in his twenties, ready in his army uniform to be called up for another US intervention in Asia that was and wasn't a war.  The wedding lasted almost as long as the marriage, and my father couldn't afford the hefty price or political pull an annulment required.  So years later, when he married my mother, a Baptist girl just out of high school, they had to get married by a Justice of the Peace.  No flowing white gown, no incense, no solemn incantation by a priest sworn to celibacy to ensure they would be joined together for eternity.
         My grandmother was none too pleased, of course.  Not with the divorce, not with the non-Catholic new wife.  Still, when my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, La Popessa offered to cast a spell and tell her sex of her unborn child.  She practiced witchcraft all the time, my grandmother, in between praying the rosary, one little bead at a time, and collecting saint cards from the funerals she loved to attend.  Most of her magic was dark, casting the evil eye upon a snooping neighbor, or cursing a deadbeat customer.  I can give the malook, she would say, and I can take it away.  But the occasion of my conception called for white magic, good magic.  First, she took down a tall glass from the cupboard, one reserved for company, perhaps even for the monseigneur, not one of the jelly jars she reused as glassware.  Then she filled it with some water from the sink and placed in front of my mother.  She cracked an egg on the edge and allowed just the white to run into the liquid, the tentacles of protein spreading out toward the base.  The signs were indisputable.   A granddaughter would be born, and near Christmas, too.  She pulled out a wrinkled wad of bills, close to a hundred dollars, and promptly tried to bribe my mother into naming me Guiseppina.  My mother turned her down flat. 
         Evil eye or not, I arrived a few days late to be a Christmas baby, with the commonest of Italian names and a bland middle initial I could use to fit in with less ethnic groups.  La Popessa never forgave my mother, but she adored me.  I would spend Sundays with her in church, listening to the service in Italian.  Back home she would push plates of polenta laded with meat sauce in front of me and slip me ten dollar bills on my birthday. 
         La Popessa died when I was in college, and we carefully saved a saint card from her funeral.  It wasn't until we clipped her obituary out from the paper that I realized I had never seen her full name written out.  Guisippina Maria.  In the end, La Popessa had her wish.