Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Empress and her red-hot lover, Jesus

Empress Zoe does not appear to mind that the emperor has installed his official mistress in the Grand Palace, right opposite her own apartments. She has her own red-hot lover, Jesus.
    The rapture she shares with him is not a disembodied transport of the spirit. She has helped to create a physical body in which she may commune with Jesus in her private chamber. This is a full-size statue, anatomically complete, that has many properties that seem bizarre or impossible to the modern mind, though not to the minds of crafters of "breathing images" in many cultures, from Egypt and Mesopotamia to the crumbling Byzantine empire to Hindu or Tibetan Buddhist temples today.
     The empress believes her statue to be fully alive and ensouled. She kisses and caresses it. In moments of distress, she alternately clasps the icon, speaks to it as to a living person, addresses it as her lover, or flings herself to the ground, wailing and beating her breast.
     Beyond this, the complexion of her savior of the bedchamber is quite changeable. She uses the changes in color as a mode of divination. When Jesus turns pallid, she is stricken with fear than an evil event will take place, to the point where she may throw herself to the floor and beat her breast and rend her clothes. When Jesus turns ruddy, however, she is assured that her affairs - and those of the empire - will go well. She gives advice to her husband, the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, based on the skin tone of her holy statue.
    She feeds the spirit in the statue with perfumes and incense, in immense quantities. Any necromancer knows that spirits don't feed on gross food and drink, but on the essence or vapor of things; they are sniffers rather than swallowers. Fires burn in braziers day and night in the empress' chambers, even in the full heat of summer, as she keeps her retainers working to produce new aromas to please and feed her spirit lover and keep him lively in the body she has crafted for him. Aromatic substances are placed inside the effigy, to fuel and recharge its spirit.
     A fantasy story? No more than other episodes of Byzantine history, carefully recorded in the 11th-century Chronographia of Michael Psellus and available in a Penguin translation retitled Fourteen Byzantine Rulers. Psellus [1]was no minor clerk who gathered gossip; he was the foremost philosopher and orator of his day and an imperial counselor who rose as high as prime minister. He became a monk but loved the Neoplatonists more than the scriptures, on the evidence of his books, and did more than anyone in his age to rescue their w0rks from obscurity. Byzantine scholar John Duffy says of Psellus: "Singlehandedly, he was responsible for bringing back, almost from the dead, an entire group of occult authors and books whose existence had long been as good as forgotten." [2]
    His understanding of what was going on between Zoe and her Jesus statue was informed by first-hand observation, and also by the study of works on theurgy: a lost commentary by Proclus, and the intriguing text known as the Chaldaean Oracles. Psellus was not only a learned man; he sought "a wisdom which is beyond all demonstration, apprehensible only by the intellect of a wise man, in moments of inspiration." [3]
     I pulled Michael Psellus from my shelves when I learned that I will be staying at the site of the Grand Palace of the Byzantine emperors during my visit to Istanbul next month. I marveled at the legible signature and date on the flyleaf; I purchase this book as an undergrad in Canberra, Australia in May, 1967. I knew more then about the Byzantines, in my conscious mind, than I do now, and write a poem about the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. My mind went sailing - and still does - with Yeats:

At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit

(W.B.Yeats, "Byzantium")

I wonder now what errant flames of memory await me at the side of the Grand Palace.

Graphic: mosaic Zoe at Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

1. Psellos, in Greek, means "Stammerer". Maybe Michael Psellos (like Demosthenes) had to overcome an early speech defect; he was certainly no stammerer when it came to winning the ear of emperors. His surname is widely latinized as Psellus.
2. John Duffy, "Reactions of Two Byzantine Intellectuals to the Theory and Practice of Magic: Michael Psellos and Michael Italikos" in Henry Maguire (ed) Byzantine Magic (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1995) p. 83.
3. E.R.A. Sewter (trans) Fourteen Byzantine Rules: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966) p.175


Wanda Burch said...

What fabulously fun research for your upcoming sure-to-be adventure, starting with your sojourn at the Grand Palace. I can hardly wait to find how the Empress Zoe begins to manifest in your dreaming before you leave and while you are there. And who will you find nearby in your rooms in the reception hall of the 19 Accubita [Nineteen Couches]? I do hope to hear more as you go "sailing" with Yeats with the Empress sharing more and more of her exotic adventures. Watch out for aromatic substances swirling in the corners of your dreaming!

Robert Moss said...

This may be the most entertaining "bon voyage" message I have ever received, Wanda. Thank you (I think).