On Dale Pendell (1947–2018)

Every plant is a teacher
But as in every crowd
There are always
A few loudmouths

–Dale Pendell

I went to town this morning and drinking my Americano at the coffee house while reading the comments on Kocku von Stuckrad’s memorial to Michael Harner.

But then the screen went all blurry, and I had to stand and walk over to the big window that looks out on Main Street, watching the cars and trucks go by.

Dale Pendell is gone too.

Dale Pendell reactivates the ancient connection between the bardic poet and the shaman. His Pharmako/Poeia is a litany to the secret plant allies that have always accompanied us along the alchemical trajectory that leads to a new and yet authentically archaic future.

—Terence McKenna

If you are a plant person, a “doctor of the poison path,” a student of entheogens, or an herbalist, and you do not have these three books — Pharmako Gnosis: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path, Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft, and  Pharmako/Dynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions, and Herbcraft — you are missing out.

They combine poetry, organic chemistry, alchemy, ethnobotany, mythology, plant shamanism, and art.

If a forest fire were coming at my house, I would grab these three and leave the rest of the ethnobotany/entheogen texts for the flames.

And now there won’t be any more. But as Gary Snyder wrote, sometimes “books are our grandparents,” and these can be yours and mine.

There is more about his final illness on his blog. Here is another tribute:

He paced back and forth, his delivery measured and careful. But this was no timid circumspection. His slow pace tried to give space to the spontaneous, to create deeper spaces for his risk-taking to dive into. At the time I was getting more and more into James Hillman, whose fidelity to the ‘Western tradition’ (not to mention his sobriety) is both edifying and frustrating. Dale rooted around in the same ancient Greek soil as Hillman, but also branched out into Native American shamanic conceptions of ‘soul’, and traces of intoxicated wisdom submerged in Western tradition. I was hooked.

 

My Relationship to Odysseus? It’s Complicated.

Later this month, a new translation of the Odyssey, the first into English by a female scholar, will be published. (Click the cover image for a link.)

This New York Times article about Emily Wilson and her approach to the poem tells how she “places her flag” with her translation of one word at the beginning, polytropos, which she, unlike dozens of previous translators, chooses to translate as “complicated.” So her version opens like this:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

 

The Slut, the Priestess, and/or the Poet

sappho painting

Sappho holding a lyre, by Charles-August Mengin, 1877.

A recent article in The New Yorker, How Gay was Sappho?” re-examines two questions about the famous poet of antiquity:

1. Was her poetry really “personal,” as opposed to something like the Iliad, which clearly was created for public performance?

2. Although she lived on the island of Lesbos, was she really a small-l lesbian? In ancient times, apparently, Lesbos was allegedly famed for a different sexual practice.

But then Sappho is no ordinary poet. For the better part of three millennia, she has been the subject of furious controversies—about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her “sublime” style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works. (“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness,” one theologian wrote, just as a scribe was meticulously copying out the lines that Obbink deciphered.) A millennium passed, and Byzantine grammarians were regretting that so little of her poetry had survived. Seven centuries later, Victorian scholars were doing their best to explain away her erotic predilections, while their literary contemporaries, the Decadents and the Aesthetes, seized on her verses for inspiration. Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage. The last is a particularly loaded issue, given that, for many readers and scholars, Sappho has been a feminist heroine or a gay role model, or both. “As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho,” the critic Judith Butler once remarked.

Every so often a new scrap of her poetry turns up — a recent such discovery sparked this article. Isn’t there a complete scroll of her poems buried somewhere in a jar or a collapsed villa, waiting to be found?

Twenty-seven hundred years later, we still collect her fragments and yearn for more.

New Poems by Sappho

Carbonized scroll. (Credit: Salvatore Laporta/AP)

The possibility of deciphering the carbonized papyrus scrolls from the Villa of the Papyri is exciting. One friend hopes that some day an Etruscan/Greek or Etruscan/Latin dictionary will be discovered. (The Etruscan language used Greek letters, but we cannot completely read it, beyond some kings’ names, etc.)

Me, I hope for a complete edition of Sappho’s poetry, with commentaries by some Hellenistic critic.

That has not shown up, but (how did I miss this?) two unknown apparent poems of hers were discovered a couple of years ago in recycled papyrus used as “cartonnage,” a sort of papier-mâché used in Egypt for mummy cases and funerary masks.

In a paper delivered last month at an academic conference (PDF), Dirk Obbink discusses questions of authenticity and text in the two poems. You can find related links at the website of the Reception of Greek Literature 300 BC–AD 800: Traditions of the Fragment Project.

Obbink notes,

The new fragments show conclusively the alternation in book 1 of poems about family and cult, on the one hand, and personal concerns about love on the other. A cycle of poems concerning sea-faring is revealed, centering on the drama of a mercantile family of wine-traders on 7th-century Lesbos. The presence of Dionysus in the trinity of gods in the Pan-Lesbian sanctuary at Mesa on the island is explained, and the whole complex of love, sea-faring, wine, and trade falls neatly into the context of Herodotus’ story (2.135) of how Sappho’s brother Charaxos spent a great deal of money . . . to free his lover the courtesan Rhodopis (aka Doricha), then a slave at Naucratis in Egypt—for which Herodotus claims a pedigree in a poem of Sappho’s. In fragments 5 and 17 and now the ‘Brothers Poem’ we can see the existence of a song type, a prayer for the safe return of the merchant-gone-to-sea (or going). The prayer may rehearse an occasion leading to the performance of a song (as in the ‘Brothers Poem’), or its actual performance in the past or present (as in fragment 5). The prayer for safe return, introduced as a matter of concern, then expands to envisage what such a return would mean for the family—wealth, and an enhanced social position in the community. A further connection with the poems involving Aphrodite (who dominates book 1 but is virtually missing elsewhere) is suggested, since she is also typically invoked in seaside cult as a protectress of sailors (as we can see at the end of fragment 5, perhaps associated with prostitutes and hetair ae frequented by Charaxos).

 

New Poems by Sappho Discovered

One of my fondest fantasies is that some archaeologist working in Greece or Italy will find a jar of scrolls that when read turn out to be the complete works of the poet Sappho — and just to continue the fantasy, packed in with them are the commentaries of the some erudite literary critic of the later Hellenistic period, reflecting back 500 years to her lifetime.

Despite her fame for centuries, most of her poems are incomplete. One of my favorite translations carries that sadness in its title: If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho.

So it is big news when a little more is found.

“The new Sappho is absolutely breath-taking,” said Albert Henrichs, a Harvard classics professor who examined the papyrus with Dr. [Dirk] Obbink. “It is the best preserved Sappho papyrus in existence, with just a few letters that had to be restored in the first poem, and not a single word that is in doubt. Its content is equally exciting.” One of the two recovered poems, Prof. Henrichs notes, speaks of a “Charaxos” and a “Larichos,” the names assigned by ancient sources to two of Sappho’s brothers but never before found in Sappho’s own writings. It has as a result been labeled the Brothers poem by Prof. Obbink.

A downloadable version of Obbink’s paper is here.