Easter Season in Egypt, 1834: ‘Smelling the Breeze’, Making Kishk, Eating Colored Eggs & Salted Fish

kishk, an Egyptian dish made with thickened mi...

A bowl of kishk topped with sautéed onions, an Egyptian dish made with thickened milk or yogurt and topped with fried onions. It is described in the following text as a 19th century treat. In the village where I lived, it was still a great treat that was made by some of the older women.  It is a dish that transcends religious sects and socio-economic strata, as well as ethnicities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manners and Customs of The Modern Egyptians, by E. Lane, is a two-volume set filled with lore about Egypt during the author’s time (1834). And although it makes for fascinating reading, the book is now largely ‘put down’ by post-colonial theorists who are troubled by the Orientalist mind-set of Lane and his colleagues.

Nevertheless, taken at descriptive value, it – as so much of the colonial literature of exploration – provides views both into lifestyles of local people at the time and their (presumed) thoughts – as well as mindsets of the authors themselves; of colonial mentality.

The following excerpt describes common practices during Orthodox Easter time in Egypt (1834), and includes a recipe for kishk, which was eaten as part of the celebrations for Good Friday. Kishk is still a very popular dish, eaten year-round, and I remember the delicious kishk that was made in the Izba (hamlet) in Upper Egypt where I lived while doing research.

Salted fish ( فسيخ), lettuce, and onion are also eaten as part of this spring celebration, which is commonly organized as a picnic.  It is said that these practices can be traced back to ancient Egypt, though I cannot find solid information about this.  Nevertheless, it is a celebration that encompasses both Muslims and Christians and transcends socio-economic strata.

An izba in Upper Egypt, similar to the one in which I lived. Kishk was a great treat, as made by some of the older women.  It is a dish that transcends religious sects and socio-economic strata, as well as ethnicities.  Source - Village by Ahmed Moustafa

An izba (hamlet) in Upper Egypt, similar to the one in which I lived.  The green matter on the roofs is fodder, crop leavings, and oven fuel.  Source – oilpaintingsonline.com, the painting is by Ahmed Moustafa, of Alexandria.

Of particular interest in the following description, is the melding of Muslim, Coptic, and non-religious activities into one ceremony – called, as still today,  Shamm al-Nasim (شم النسيم – literally, ‘sniffing the breeze’).  Some of the activities described below are still found, while others, such as ritual washing with a particular plant, are no longer to be commonly found.

Until the presidency of Nasser (mid-20th century), there was a large Jewish community in Cairo and it is possible that the Jewish celebration of Passover, which takes place during the same time period in Egypt, also incorporated aspects of the Shamm al-Nasim celebration.

IT is remarkable that the Moos’lims of Egypt observe certain customs of a religious or superstitious nature at particular periods of the religious almanac of the Copts [Orthodox Christians of Egypt]; and even, according to the same system, calculate the times of certain changes of the weather.

Thus they calculate the period of the Khum’a’see’n [khamsiin], when hot southerly winds are of frequent, occurrence, to commence on the day immediately following the Coptic festival of Easter Sunday, and to terminate on the Day of Pentecost (or Whitsunday); an interval of forty-nine days.

Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo...

Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Wednesday next before this period is called Ar’ba’a Eiyoo’b, or Job’s Wednesday. Many persons, on this day, wash themselves with cold water, and rub themselves with the creeping’ plant called raara’a Ei-yoo’b, or ghoobey’ra (inula Arabica, and inula undulata), on account of a tradition which relates that Job did so to obtain restoration to health. This and other customs about to be mentioned were peculiar to the Copts; but are now observed by many Moos’lims in the towns, and by more in the villages.

The other customs just alluded to are that of eating eggs, dyed externally red or yellow or blue, or some other colour, on the next day (Thursday); and, on the Friday (Good Friday), a dish of khul’tah, composed of kishk*, with foo’l na’bit**, lentils, rice, onions, &c.

Washing before a meal, a necessary task. Source: Lane, Manners and Customs…

* Kishk is prepared from wheat, first moistened, then dried, trodden in a vessel to separate the husks, and coarsely ground with a hand-mill: the meal is mixed with milk, and about six hours afterwards is spooned out upon a little straw or bran, and then left for two or three days to dry. When required for use, it is either soaked or pounded, and put into a sieve, over a vessel; and then boiling water is poured on it: what remains in the sieve is thrown away: what parses through is generally poured into a saucepan of boiled meat or fowl, over the fire: some leaves of white bete, fried in butter, are usually added to each plate of it.

** foo’l na’bit are Beans soaked in water until they begin to sprout, and then boiled.

On the Saturday, also, it is a common custom of men and women to adorn their eyes with kohhl. This day is called Sebt en-Noo’ r (Saturday of the Light); because a light, said to be miraculous, appears during the festival then celebrated in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

A custom termed Shemm en-Nesee’m* (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khum’a’see’n. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon, many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, generally northwards, to take the air, or, as they term it,smell the air, which, on that day, they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country.

This year (1834), they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the nesee’m: but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to smell it.

*شم النسيم

Source: Edward William LaneAn Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Written in Egypt during the Years 1833, -34, and -35, partly from Notes made during a Former Visit to that Country in the Years 1825, -26, -27, and 28. In Two Volumes
Posted in Colonial, Colonialism, Cuisine, Egypt, Food, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments



I’ve planted quite a bit; very hardy, the cats like it – but not the mozzis.

Originally posted on Herbology Manchester:

by Jemma

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a dense, clump-forming grass that is found in tropical and subtropical grassland  throughout southeast Asia. It can reach a height of around 2 metres with leaves that are white on the top and green on the underside. Lemongrass flowers are red to reddish-brown in colour.

Lemongrass Image taken from http://www.gardensonline.com.au/GardenShed/PlantFinder/Show_2229.aspx Lemongrass
Image taken from http://www.gardensonline.com.au/GardenShed/PlantFinder/Show_2229.aspx

Culinary uses

Cymbopogon citratus is abundant in the Philippines and Indonesia, where it is known as tanglad or sereh. Lemongrass leaves are too tough for the body to digest, so they either need to be removed before eating or chopped vary finely. Both the stems and leaves feature in Asian, African and Latin American cuisine in teas, soups and curries. It has a subtle citrus flavour that complements poultry, fish, beef and seafood dishes in particular.

Materia Medica jar containing Cymbopogon citratus  Materia Medica jar containing Cymbopogon citratus

Medicinal uses

Lemongrass is sometimes used in folk medicine, particularly…

View original 236 more words

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Mungo Park, Explorer and Scientist in Sumatra and Africa

Following his trip to Sumatra [described below] Park traveled to west Africa under the tutelage of the Africa Association, which was keen to obtain more information on the river Niger and groups inhabiting the area.


Transactions of the Linnean Society, Vol.3, in which Park describes his field trip in Sumatra and description of new fish.  Source – The Linnean Society, Vol.3 –

Park's first scientific trip was to Sumatra Source -

Park’s first scientific trip was to Sumatra where he described and drew pictures of eight new fish.  Source – The Linnean Society, Vol.3

First page of Park's scientific articel

First page of Park’s scientific article, The Linnean Society vol. 3

Park’s love of travel had no doubt been stimulated by his voyage to Sumatra; thereafter, Sir Joseph Banks assisted in facilitating his expedition to west Africa supported by the Africa Association.  In this endeavor, Park sought to scientifically detail local activities :

 In researches of this kind, and in observing the manners and customs of the natives, in a country so little known to the nations of Europe, and furnished with so many striking and uncommon objects of nature, my time [recovering from sickness] passed not unpleasantly, and I began to flatter myself that I had escaped the fever, or seasoning, to which Europeans, on their first arrival in hot climates, are generally subject.

My recovery was very slow, but I embraced every short interval of convalescence to walk out, and make myself acquainted with the productions of the country.

… The grains which are chiefly cultivated are—Indian corn (zea mays); two kinds of holcus spicatus, called by the natives soono and sanio; holcus niger, and holcus bicolor, the former of which they have named bassi woolima, and the latter bassiqui.  These, together with rice, are raised in considerable quantities; besides which, the inhabitants in the vicinity of the towns and villages have gardens which produce onions, calavances, yams, cassavi, ground nuts, pompions, gourds, water-melons, and some other esculent plants.

I observed likewise, near the towns, small patches of cotton and indigo.  The former of these articles supplies them with clothing, and with the latter they dye their cloth of an excellent blue colour, in a manner that will hereafter be described.

In preparing their corn for food, the natives use a large wooden mortar called a paloon, in which they bruise the seed until it parts with the outer covering, or husk, which is then separated from the clean corn by exposing it to the wind, nearly in the same manner as wheat is cleared from the chaff in England.

The corn thus freed from the husk is returned to the mortar and beaten into meal, which is dressed variously in different countries; but the most common preparation of it among the nations of the Gambia is a sort of pudding which they call kouskous.

It is made by first moistening the flour with water, and then stirring and shaking it about in a large calabash, or gourd, till it adheres together in small granules resembling sago.  It is then put into an earthen pot, whose bottom is perforated with a number of small holes; and this pot being placed upon another, the two vessels are luted together either with a paste of meal and water, or with cows’ dung, and placed upon the fire.

In the lower vessel is commonly some animal food and water, the steam or vapour of which ascends through the perforations in the bottom of the upper vessel, and softens and the kouskous, which is very much esteemed throughout all the countries that I visited.  I am informed that the same manner of preparing flour is very generally used on the Barbary coast, and that the dish so prepared is there called by the same name.  It is therefore probable that the negroes borrowed the practice from the Moors.

Their domestic animals are nearly the same as in Europe.  Swine are found in the woods, but their flesh is not esteemed.  Probably the marked abhorrence in which this animal is held by the votaries of Mohammed has spread itself among the pagans.  Poultry of all kinds, the turkey excepted, is everywhere to be had.  The guinea-fowl and red partridge abound in the fields, and the woods furnish a small species of antelope, of which the venison is highly and deservedly prized.

On the 23rd we departed from Jillifrey, and proceeded to Vintain, a town situated about two miles up a creek on the southern side of the river. This place is much resorted to by Europeans on account of the great quantities of beeswax which are brought hither for sale; the wax is collected in the woods by the Feloops, a wild and unsociable race of people:

Mitchell-An accompaniment to Mitchell's map of the world on Mercator's projection ...

Mitchell-An accompaniment to Mitchell’s map of the world on Mercator’s projection …

Their country, which is of considerable extent, abounds in rice; and the natives supply the traders, both on the Gambia and Cassamansa rivers, with that article, and also with goats and poultry, on very reasonable terms. The honey which they collect is chiefly used by themselves in making a strong intoxicating liquor, much the same as the mead which is produced from honey in Great Britain.

Rice Farmers,Niger River Near Niamey search.library.wisc.edu

Rice Farmers,Niger River Near Niamey search.library.wisc.edu

In their traffic with Europeans, the Feloops generally employ a factor or agent of the Mandingo nation, who speaks a little English, and is acquainted with the trade of the river. This broker makes the bargain; and, with the connivance of the European, receives a certain part only of the payment, which he gives to his employer as the whole; the remainder (which is very truly called the cheating money) he receives when the Feloop is gone, and appropriates to himself as a reward for his trouble.

The language of the Feloops is appropriate and peculiar; and as their trade is chiefly conducted, as hath been observed, by Mandingoes, the Europeans have no inducement to learn it.

Source- Park, Travels in the Interior of Africa, vol.1 of 2. 1795, first publishing.

On an assessment of local people Park stated that:

Whatever difference there is between the negro and European, in the conformation of the nose, and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature.

As for slaves, he comments:

They were all very inquisitive, but they viewed me at first with looks of horror, and repeatedly asked if my countrymen were cannibals. They were very desirous to know what became of the slaves after they had crossed the salt water. I told them that they were employed in cultivating the land; but they would not believe me …

A deeply-rooted idea that the whites purchase negroes for the purpose of devouring them, or of selling them to others that they may be devoured hereafter, naturally makes the slaves contemplate a journey towards the coast with great terror, insomuch that the slatees are forced to keep them constantly in irons, and watch them very closely, to prevent their escape…

Source – Wiki-Mungo Park [explorer]

However, we will see in a later entrée how Park deviated from attempts to retain an objective view in describing local people and groups, and why.

Posted in Africa-West, African rice, Agriculture, Colonialism, Explorers & exploration, Mungo Park | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mungo Park, an 18th Century Ethnologist Explores West Africa

Mungo Park is the first explorer/writer of the 18th century to interpret local people and places from a local point of view   He was influenced by principles and practices of the Enlightenment, which he took to the field and carried over into his writings.

source - www.vialibri.net

picture source – http://www.vialibri.net

In this entry we find him as a short-time prisoner in the western Sahel, but continuing to interact with local people in line with their own thoughts and behavior:

March 28.—This morning a large herd of cattle arrived from the eastward, and one of the drivers, to whom Ali had lent my horse, came into my hut with the leg of an antelope as a present, and told me that my horse was standing before Ali’s tent.  In a little time Ali sent one of his slaves to inform me that in the afternoon I must be in readiness to ride out with him, as he intended to show me to some of his women.

Cattle crossing the Niger River.  Source - philintheblank-net

Cattle crossing the Niger River. Source – philintheblank-net

About four o’clock, Ali, with six of his courtiers, came riding to my hut, and told me to follow them.  I readily complied.  But here a new difficulty occurred.  The Moors, accustomed to a loose and easy dress, could not reconcile themselves to the appearance of my nankeen breeches, which they said were not only inelegant, but, on account of their tightness, very indecent; and as this was a visit to ladies, Ali ordered my boy to bring out the loose cloak which I had always worn since my arrival at Benowm, and told me to wrap it close round me.

Park in his britches.  Source - www-heatons-of-tisbury-co-uk

Park in his nankeen britches. Source – www-heatons-of-tisbury-co-uk

We visited the tents of four different ladies, at every one of which I was presented with a bowl of milk and water.  All these ladies were remarkably corpulent, which is considered here as the highest mark of beauty.  They were very inquisitive, and examined my hair and skin with great attention, but affected to consider me as a sort of inferior being to themselves, and would knit their brows, and seem to shudder when they looked at the whiteness of my skin…


The camp of Benowm, source – index-digitalcollections-npl

The Moors are certainly very good horsemen.  They ride without fear—their saddles being high before and behind, afford them a very secure seat; and if they chance to fall, the whole country is so soft and sandy that they are very seldom hurt.  Their greatest pride, and one of their principal amusements, is to put the horse to its full speed, and then stop him with a sudden jerk, so as frequently to bring him down upon his haunches.

Imported from North Africa many hundreds of years before, horses were then locally raised and widely used in developing mounted cavalry and in war.  Ashantee horseman equipped for war, Ashanti, Africa, 1824. From: Joseph Dupuis,Journal of a Residence in Ashantee 1824.

Imported from North Africa many hundreds of years before, horses were then locally raised and widely used in developing mounted cavalry and in war. Ashantee horseman equipped for war, Ashanti, Africa, 1824. From: Joseph Dupuis,Journal of a Residence in Ashantee 1824.

Ali always rode upon a milk-white horse, with its tail dyed red.  He never walked, unless when he went to say his prayers; and even in the night two or three horses were always kept ready saddled at a little distance from his own tent.

The Moors set a very high value upon their horses; for it is by their superior fleetness that they are enabled to make so many predatory excursions into the negro countries.  They feed them three or four times a day, and generally give them a large quantity of sweet milk in the evening, which the horses appear to relish very much.

Source – Park, Travels in the Interior of Africa, vol.1 of 2. 1795 – first publishing.

Park frames his descriptions and analyses against a backdrop of 18th century travel and exploration .  His texts aim to ‘scientifically ‘ present social facts that will inform Mercantile interests, general readers,  and colonials or would-be colonials.  He attempts to present social facts objectively, whereby moralizing is not a central focus – such as  the inappropriateness of his nankeen britches, slavery, and the fatness of Ali’s wife’s.  Treatment of horses is similarly described without judgement.

However, as we will see, this was not an easy task and he has been criticized for not reporting negatively on, e.g., slavery, many wives, etc.

To be continued …

Posted in Africa-West, Agriculture, Arab traders, Colonial, Cuisine, Ethnography, Food, Mungo Park | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Affairs of Associations of Goat-herders and Goose-herders in Ancient Egypt

In the late period of ancient Egyptian history (712-332 BC) and into the Graeco-Roman period  (332BC-395AD), papyri are found that are written in demotic, abnormal hieratic, or hieratic, and that record a variety of contracts – many documenting a loan.  During this time and before, associations were formed around  occupations, for example: goose-herders, goat-herders, donkey-drivers, ship-contractors. etc.  In earlier times,  guilds of mummifiers and undertakers, etc, are also known.

Members of these voluntary groups could stand up for one another and offered a form of joint,  non-hereditary grouping that is still found in Egypt today, where it is called al-jamiyah al-khiriah – voluntary societies. This is the first of several entrees about associational activities in ancient Egypt.

The following loan contracts are two examples of legal documents for members of voluntary associations, the first pertaining to goat-herders and second to goose-herders:

  1. A manuscript featuring two goat-herders written in abnormal hieratic explains the new arrangement of a debt:

The goatherd Paiuiuhor son of Nesamun states to the goatherd Ityaâ that the latter has paid his (i.e. Paiuiuhor’s) debt to the goatherd Tjaynahebu and that he now owes this amount to Ityaâ. If he tries to go back on this deal the amount owed by him will be doubled. Source – K. Donker van Heel, ‘A day in the life of the ancient Egyptian goatherd Ityaa: abnormal hieratic P. Michaelides 1 and 2 (P. BM EA 10907 and 10906)’, in JEA 90 (2004), p. 153-166

The top half of the contract is shown below:

K. Donker van Heel, ‘A day in the life of the ancient Egyptian goatherd Ityaa: abnormal hieratic P. Michaelides 1 and 2 (P. BM EA 10907 and 10906)’, in JEA 90 (2004), p. 153-166 and

Source – K. Donker van Heel, ‘A day in the life of the ancient Egyptian goatherd Ityaa:
abnormal hieratic P. Michaelides 1 and 2 (P. BM EA 10907 and 10906)’, in JEA 90 (2004), p.

2. The following manuscript details a money loan between two goose-herders.

Of interest, are first, the various ways in which the contract identifies the two parties, and second, the inclusion of the signatures of four witnesses. thereby lessening chances of malpractice by either of the two parties.

Pap. Hou 12, A Persian period loan of money written in demotic, 16 Year 35, 2d month of the shemu season (Payni) under Pharaoh [Darius].

Says the [Goose] herd [of the Domain of Amon, Petash] otmef, son of Inarou, his mother Te[te]tichy, to the Gooseherd of the Domain of Amon

(2) [……….., son of In]arou, his mother Obastorer: [I have received from you] 3 [kite silver] of the treasury of Ptah, [refined, which you gave] me; it is I who will give you 6 kite silver of the treasury of Ptah, refined17,

(3) [because of] them, in year 36, 1st month of the peret season (Tybi). If I fail [to give] you [these] 6 kite silver of the treasury [of Ptah, refined], in year 36, 1st month of the peret season (Tybi) they will bear (interest) against me, 1/10th of silver to

(4) each (kite of silver), from year 36, 2d month of the peret season (Mecheir) onwards, while they don’t stop as interest [in any month (and) any year] that they will be with me, while interest (will) bear as interest against me

(5) again, and also this interest which is (mentioned) above, till whatever ever they would reach; and I will give then [ to you and also their interests]. This(?) money which is (mentioned) above and also their interests [will] befall on me

(6) (and) on my children, and also (on) the pledges that you will want [from me, all, all, (as) houses, slave, (female) slave, cow,] donkey, and cattle, barley, emmer,

(7) silver, bronze, clothing, everything as chattels, and you will take them [to you] because of them, till [you have filled them with the above money and their interests]. [I shall not be able to say], ‘I have given to you money (or) interest among them, while

(8) this document is in your hand. [In writing of Onnôfri, son of Tethotefônch. Four witnesses signed on the verso of the contract.]

Sources – 

S.P. Vleeming, The Gooseherds of Hou (Pap. Hou). A Dossier Relating to Various Agricultural Affairs from Provincial Egypt of the Early Fifth Century BC (Leuven, 1991)

J.G. Manning, The Last Pharaohs: Egypt under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC.  2010 by Princeton University Press.

 Background on Associations in ancient Egypt –

Certain private associations in Ptolemaic Egypt engaged in distinctly Egyptian religious activities and compiled rules in native Demotic. These rules closely parallel those written in Greek and Latin, however, and examination of several rules from Tebtunis further suggests that their associations played social roles analogous to those played by associations elsewhere in the Graeco-Roman world.

Source – Muhs-Membership in private associations in Ptolemaic Tebtunis.  Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. Vol. 44, No. 1 (2001), pp. 1-21 Published by: BRILL

Posted in Associans, Demotic, Egypt-Ancient, Graeco-Roman era, Ptolemaic | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Missionaries in Nineteenth Century Africa – A Few Considerations

The Rev. Robert Nassau, who first landed in West Africa in 1861, spent the following 30+ years in this region, as a religious official and graduate of Princeton University.  And while there is much to be criticized in these early years of missionary service in Africa, there is also a great deal of knowledge and perspective towards local people that can be considered.



For example, the growth of ethnographic theory and fieldwork techniques, which took place during the same period,  borrowed heavily from the work of missionaries:  the importance of learning local languages and viewing indigenous perspectives from local points of view, are two key methodologies adopted in ethnographic fieldwork – though, reduced from several decades  in the 19th century to about 12 months today.

Regarding changes over the years between 1890 and 1900, Rev. Nassau is highly critical of European powers and associated merchants, while also assuming that indigenous Africans would, ultimately, ‘progress’ from native to Christian:

… in the ten years that have since passed, a stranger would find some of them [general features of tribal groups] are no longer exact. Foreign authority has removed or changed or sapped the foundations of many native customs and regulations, while it has not fully brought in the civilization of Christianity.

Nassau. PrincetonAlumni  Weekly Vol.1 April 28,1900.not

Nassau. Princeton Alumni Weekly Vol.1 April 28,1900.  His work was in West Africa, Not South Africa, as stated here.

Travelling into the interior of West Africa was a hazardous Business.

Travelling into the interior of West Africa was a hazardous Business.

Nassau.PrincetonAlumniWeeklyVol.1 April 28,1900 1

Nassau.Princeton Alumni Weekly Vol.1 April 28, 1900.  Translation of local dialects into biblical texts was a key activity of 19th century missionaries.

The Rev. Nassau had few kind words regarding the activities of colonials in the regions of West Africa in which he worked and traveled:

The result in some places, in this period of transition, has been almost anarchy, — making a despotism, as under Belgian misrule in the so-called Kongo ” Free ” State ; or commercial ruin, as under French monopoly in their Kongo-Francais ; and general confusion, under German hands, due to the arbitrary acts of local [European] officials and their brutal black soldiery…

Moving through the rapids of the Ogone.  Source -  www.delcampe.net

Moving through the rapids of the Ogowe. Source – http://www.delcampe.net

I read many books on other parts of Africa, in which the same customs and religion prevailed. I did not think it reasonable to dismiss curtly as absurd the cherished sentiments of so large a portion of the human race. I asked myself : Is there no logical ground for the existence of these sentiments, no philosophy behind all these beliefs ?

The central belief ot Nassau - as well as colonial powers of th 19th century, rested upon a belief that local populations would 'progress' from nativism to civilization, as shown in this picture. Source -

The guiding paradigm  of Nassau – as well as all colonial powers of the 19th century, rested upon a belief that local populations would ‘progress’ from nativism to civilization, as shown in this picture. Source – Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa; ‘A civilized family in Gabon’.

1 began to search; and thenceforward for thirty years, wherever I travelled, wherever I was guest to native chief, wherever I lived, I was always leading the conversation, in hut or camp, back to a study of the native thought [my underlining].

Source – Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau, M.D., S.T.D. for Forty Years a Missionary in the Gabun District of Kongo-Francaise.   University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A.  1904

Below are links related to some of the findings of the Rev. Nassau that are related to cuisine:

 The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa

 The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon

The Magicality of Cuisine 3: A Dish of Fish and Plantains to Guarantee Successful Fishing, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa

The Magicality of Cuisine 4: A Special Dish for a Woman Cultivator, 19th Century Liberia, West Africa

The Magicality of Cuisine 5 – A Spicy Warriors’ Stew, Gabon West Africa

Posted in Africa-West, Christianity, Colonialism, European colonizers, Explorers & exploration, Robert Nassau | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Unicorn and the Ark: A Talmudic Story

As we are the time of Passover for 2015, I have updated the following entry that features a popular topic – the unicorn. Legends of the unicorn are numerous, spreading from China and India, across the Middle East and into Europe, and extending back into Persian and Babylonian history.

Found in the lore of Jewish, Islamic and Christian sources, these creatures have been variously described and depicted, culminating in some versions of  medieval European tales as a composite animal that could be caught only by a virgin with bared breasts.

Unicorn seeking refuge with a virgin, whose bare breasts are discretely blocked from view by the unicorn’s head. Source: British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 10v. bestiary.ca

The demand for unicorn horns during the Middle Ages was such that the elongated teeth of narwhal whales was sold throughout Europe as being unicorn horns [see below video]:

As recognized wards against poisoning, one of the functions of these objects [narwhal teeth taken to be unicorn horns] may have been to discourage assassination attempts (Faidutti 1996), indeed Olivier de la Marche refers to the duke’s habit of keeping a piece of unicorn horn close by at meals to test dishes for poison (Cartellieri 1929:68).

Sometimes unicorn horn was used as a raw material – an inventory of the duke records a small piece of unicorn horn carved with the image of the Virgin holding Christ (Faidutti 1996). But the only unicorn products acquired by the duke to have survived are a single narwhal tusk and the duke’s ainkhürnschwert or ‘unicorn sword’ – the hilt, pommel and scabbard incorporating plates of narwhal tusk:

Detail of the narwhal plates incorporated into the hilt and scabbard of the ‘unicorn sword’, Imperial Treasury (Schatzkammer), Vienna.  © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. source. Pluskowski-Narwhals or Unicorns (reference below)

Source: Aleksander Pluskowski – Narwhals or Unicorns? Exotic Animals as Material Culture in Medieval Europe. European Journal of Archaeology 2004 7: 291

Narwhals tusking with their single tusks. They were sometimes called the unicorns of the sea and their single tusks were commonly sold as being unicorn horns. Source: Wikipedia

Narwhals tusking with their single tusks. They were sometimes called the unicorns of the sea and their single tusks were commonly sold as being unicorn horns. Source: Wikipedia

Such confusions between unicorn horns and narwhal ‘teeth’ have figured into analyses of fable ‘versus’ zoology, as suggested here:

It is often difficult to distinguish between the animals of fable and those of zoology. The sphinx, the chimera, the centaur and the hippogriff belong, and always have belonged to the first category. But animals such as the unicorn have long been catalogued and described in works of natural science.

In the seventeenth century, a catalog such as John Johnston’s A Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts, written in Latin, translated into English and published in London in 1678, still distinguishes eight different types [of unicorns] with corresponding illustrations. Indeed, a unicorn is no more improbable than a narwhal, whose horn, incidentally, was long thought to be the unicorn’s.

Source: Roger Caillois and Rosemary Kew – The Logic of Imagination : (Avatars of the Octopus). Diogenes 1970 18: 74

And as mentioned above, legends of the unicorn are found throughout Asia and the Middle East:

In Persia, the unicorn is the total animal of the Bundahish (Ch. XIX). A three-legged ass living in the middle of the ocean, it has six eyes, nine mouths, two ears and one horn. It is as large as Mount Alvand. Its single horn is hollow and like gold. A thousand branches grew from it, large or small, appropriate for the camel, the ass or the cow.

With this horn the animal dissolves and eliminates all evil corruption coming from harmful creatures. Its tiniest movement or softest cries have cosmic effects. Its excrement is grey amber.

According to the Talmud, the unicorn is also a colossal animal. It could not fit in the ark and escaped the Flood by being tied to the outside of the vessel [as depicted below]. It is apparent that this word denotes any animal of fantastic proportions and growing a single horn.

This latter quality is not even always guaranteed or specified. In the Bible, in fact, the unicorn is a monstrous creature, related to Behemoth or Leviathan. The words monoceros or unicornis used to translate the Hebrew word allow for a wide margin of interpretation.

Source: Roger Caillois and R. Scott Walker – The Myth of the Unicorn. Diogenes 1982 30: 1

The unicorn legend explored here is that found in the Talmud, where in spite of (or perhaps because of) etymological difficulties a legend was developed that depicted the unicorn of great size being ridden by a giant:

The Talmud has for “re’em” or , which etymologically recalls the Arabic “ghazal” (= “gazel”), but is said to be the name of an animal of such size that it could not enter the ark of Noah, but had to be fastened thereto by its horn (Zeb. 113b; comp. B. B. 74b; Shab. 107b; Yalḳuṭ Shim’oni, ii. 97d, where it is said that the re’em touches the clouds)…

Source: The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906. A charming story, published in 1919, telling of the procurement of a giant unicorn for the ark and of Og (the giant who captured and rode him), together with details on the voyage of the ark and aftermath, is given here: The Giant of the Flood

Og riding a unicorn behind the ark, the unicorn being tied to the ark because it was too big to enter (according to some interpretations of the Talmud).  Certainly, the unicorn looks very amazed at being tied – in other versions it is said that he hooks his horn to the ark.  Picture Source: Landa –  ‘Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends’

Just before the world was drowned all the animals gathered in front of the Ark and Father Noah carefully inspected them. “All ye that lie down shall enter and be saved from the deluge that is about to destroy the world,” he said. “

Ye that stand cannot enter.” Then the various creatures began to march forward into the Ark. Father Noah watched them closely. He seemed troubled. “I wonder,” he said to himself, “how I shall obtain a unicorn, and how I shall get it into the Ark.” “I can bring thee a unicorn, Father Noah,” he heard in a voice of thunder, and turning round he saw the giant, Og. “But thou must agree to save me, too, from the flood.”

“Begone,” cried Noah. “Thou art a demon, not a human being. I can have no dealings with thee.” “Pity me,” whined the giant. “See how my [28]figure is shrinking. Once I was so tall that I could drink water from the clouds and toast fish at the sun. I fear not that I shall be drowned, but that all the food will be destroyed and that I shall perish of hunger.”

Noah, however, only smiled; but he grew serious again when Og brought a unicorn. It was as big as a mountain, although the giant said it was the smallest he could find. It lay down in front of the Ark and Noah saw by that action that he must save it.

For some time he was puzzled what to do, but at last a bright idea struck him. He attached the huge beast to the Ark by a rope fastened to its horn so that it could swim alongside and be fed.

Og seated himself on a mountain near at hand and watched the rain pouring down. Faster and faster it fell in torrents until the rivers overflowed and the waters began to rise rapidly on the land and sweep all things away.

Father Noah stood gloomily before the door of the Ark until the water reached his neck. Then it swept him inside. The door closed with a bang, and the Ark rose gallantly on the flood and began to move along. The unicorn swam alongside, and as it passed Og, the giant jumped on to its back. [29]

“See, Father Noah,” he cried, with a huge chuckle, “you will have to save me after all. I will snatch all the food you put through the window for the unicorn.” Noah saw that it was useless to argue with Og, who might, indeed, sink the Ark with his tremendous strength.

“I will make a bargain with thee,” he shouted from a window. “I will feed thee, but thou must promise to be a servant to my descendants.” Og was very hungry, so he accepted the conditions and devoured his first breakfast.

The rain continued to fall in great big sheets that shut out the light of day. Inside the Ark, however, all was bright and cheerful, for Noah had collected the most precious of the stones of the earth and had used them for the windows. Their radiance illumined the whole of the three stories in the Ark. Some of the animals were troublesome and Noah got no sleep at all. The lion had a bad attack of fever.

In a corner a bird slept the whole of the time. This was the phoenix. “Wake up,” said Noah, one day. “It is feeding time.” “Thank you,” returned the bird. “I saw thou  wert busy, Father Noah, so I would not trouble thee.” “Thou art a good bird,” said Noah, much touched, “therefore thou shalt never die.” One day the rain ceased, the clouds rolled away and the sun shone brilliantly again.

How strange the world looked! It was like a vast ocean. Nothing but water could be seen anywhere, and only one or two of the highest mountain tops peeped above the flood. All the world was drowned, and Noah gazed on the desolate scene from one of the windows with tears in his eyes. Og, riding gaily on the unicorn behind the Ark, was quite happy. “Ha, ha!” he laughed gleefully. “I shall be able to eat and drink just as much as I like now and shall never be troubled by those tiny little creatures, the mortals.”

“Be not so sure,” said Noah. “Those tiny mortals shall be thy masters and shall outlive thee and the whole race of giants and demons.” The giant did not relish this prospect. He knew that whatever Noah prophesied would come true, and he was so sad that he ate no food for two days and began to grow smaller and thinner. He became more and more unhappy as day by day the water subsided and the mountains began to appear. At last the Ark rested on Mount Ararat, and Og’s long ride came to an end.

“I will soon leave thee, Father Noah,” he said. “I shall wander round the world to see what is left of it.” “Thou canst not go until I permit thee,” said Noah. “Hast thou forgotten our compact so soon? Thou must be my servant. I have work for thee.” Giants are not fond of work, and Og, who was the father of all the giants, was particularly lazy. He cared only to eat and sleep, but he knew he was in Noah’s power, and he shed bitter tears when he saw the land appear again.

“Stop,” commanded Noah. “Dost thou wish to drown the world once more with thy big tears?” So Og sat on a mountain and rocked from side to side, weeping silently to himself. He watched the animals leave the Ark and had to do all the hard work when Noah’s children built houses. Daily he complained that he was shrinking to the size of the mortals, for Noah said there was not too much food.

One day Noah said to him, “Come with me, Og. I am going around the world. I am [32]commanded to plant fruit and flowers to make the earth beautiful. I need thy help.” For many days they wandered all over the earth, and Og was compelled to carry the heavy bag of seeds. The last thing Noah planted was the grape-vine. “What is this—food, or drink?” asked Og. “Both,” replied Noah. “It can be eaten, or its juice made into wine,” and as he planted it, he blessed the grape. “Be thou,” he said, “a plant pleasing to the eye, bear fruit that will be food for the hungry and a health-giving drink to the thirsty and sick.”

Og grunted. “I will offer up sacrifice to this wonderful fruit,” he said. “May I not do so now that our labors are over?” Noah agreed, and the giant brought a sheep, a lion, a pig and a monkey. First, he slaughtered the sheep, then the lion. “When a man shall taste but a few drops of the wine,” he said, “he shall be as harmless as a sheep. When he takes a little more he shall be as strong as a lion.”

Then Og began to dance around the plant, and he killed the pig and the monkey. Noah was very much surprised. “I am giving thy descendants two extra blessings,” said Og, chuckling. He rolled over and over on the ground in great glee and then said: “When a man shall drink too much of the juice of the wine, then shall he become a beast like the pig, and if then he still continues to drink, he shall behave foolishly like a monkey.”

And that is why, unto this day, too much wine makes a man silly. Og himself often drank too much, and many years afterward, when he was a servant to the patriarch Abraham, the latter scolded him until he became so frightened that he dropped a tooth.

Abraham made an ivory chair for himself from this tooth. Afterwards Og became King of Bashan, but he forgot his compact with Noah and instead of helping the Israelites to obtain Canaan he opposed them. “I will kill them all with one blow,” he declared. Exerting all his enormous strength he uprooted a mountain, and raising it high above his head he prepared to drop it on the camp of the Israelites and crush it.

But a wonderful thing happened. The mountain was full of grasshoppers and ants who had drilled millions of tiny holes in it. When King Og raised the great mass it crumbled in his hands and fell over his head and round his neck like a collar. He tried to pull it off, but his teeth became entangled in the mass. As he danced about in rage and pain, Moses, the leader of the Israelites, approached him.

Moses was a tiny man compared with Og. He was only ten ells high, and he carried with him a sword of the same length. With a mighty effort he jumped ten ells into the air, and raising the sword, he managed to strike the giant on the ankle and wound him mortally. Thus, after many years, did the terrible giant of the flood perish for breaking his word to Father Noah after the flood.]

Source: Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, by Gertrude Landa.  1919 A few other depictions of the unicorn and of the ark: The story of Noah’s ark and its animals has been celebrated in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Virgin with a wavy-horned unicorn, basilica of San Savino Piacenza, c. 1107. Source: Tagliatesta – Iconography of the Unicorn.

Babylonian unicorn-type beast, with a wavy horn.  Source: eld3wah.net

Ark of Noah and the cosmic covenant. 2-4 century AC Catacombes noe et la colombe saints pierre. Source: Wikipedia

16th century Mogul miniature giving a Moslem interpretation of Noah and the Flood. Source: Wikipedia

Noah and the ark on Mt. Ararat. North French Hebrew Miscellany, Ms. 11639, fol. 521a 13th.c. Source: Wikipedia

Noah having arrived at Mt. Arafat. Islamic miniature.  Source: guide-martine.com

Animals entering the ark. Jacopo Bassano 1570-1579. Source: Wikipedia

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Penmeru: Director of the Dining Pavilion – 1

A number of very interesting features are associated with the mastaba of Penmeru in the Western Cemetery at Giza.  This is just a preliminary blog; I will be following with entries about his mastaba. Below is one of the statue groups of Penmeru and his family.  In this grouping he is shown two times, together with his wife, who is to the far right.  Two children are by his legs.

The two statues of Penmeru shown here is a method of displaying likenesses of a tomb owner several times – and there has been quite a lot of discussion about the multiple figures of the tomb’s primary person.  There are also several other statues of Penmeru from the same tomb and I will talk about them in a later blog.

In this entry, just note the multiple titles that he held – and particularly the title “director of the dining pavilion,” which appears in several other mastabas of the Old Kingdom.

Penmeru (2x(, his wife and his two children.  Source: Boston Museum of Fine Arts pseudo statue

Penmeru (2x), his wife and his two children. Source: Boston Museum of Fine Arts pseudo statue


  • 1. jmy-rA Hm(w)-kA, “overseer of ka-priests.”
  • Niche. 2. wab nswt, “king’s weeb-priest.
  • Niche. 3. rx nswt, ”royal acquaintance.” Statues 1, 2.
  • 4. Hm-nTr Mn-kAw-Ra, ”priest of Mycerinus.”
  • Niche, 5. xrp sH, “director of the dining pavilion,” (Statues 1 and 2)
Description Painted limestone pseudo-group statue depicting two figures of Penmeru, his wife Meretites, his son Seshemnefer, and his daughter Neferseshemes from G 2197, serdab S (detail of text, niche face, lower proper right): MFA 12.1484
Photographer: Peter Der Manuelian
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