Born and raised in Asmara (Eritrea), Tedros Abraham studied at the University of Asmara and at the University of Delhi. He taught English, Eritrean Literature, and Oral Traditions at the University of Asmara and at the College of Arts and Social Sciences (Mai-Nefhi and Adi-Keih campuses). He served as a member of the Eritrean Film Rating Committee and as editor at Hidri Publishers. As a journalist, he worked for Eritrea Profile  and published several newspaper articles on literary, film, art and music criticism. He has been living in Sweden since 2013. He works at the Arbetsförmedlingen (Swedish Employment Services) and is the Treasurer of PEN Eritrea in Exile.

Guest contributor: Tedros Abraham

The poets

Sappho from Greece, Mirabai from India[1] and Mammet from Eritrea are from three different continents and lived in different times – centuries apart. Sappho lived between the 7th and the 6th century BC, Mirabai’s around the 16th century AD, and Mammet between the 17th and 18th century AD, based on the reference in her poems to Batsié, present-day Massawa, Eritrea.

Very few details are known about Sappho’s life. She lived in the Greek island of Lesbos. It is known that she was born to an aristocratic family; she was married and had a daughter. Her adult life is spent in the city of Mytilene on Lesbos where she ran an academy for women who were devoted to the goddess of love, Aphrodite. “Sappho wrote much, but very little is extant today. Some of her best fragments only survive as examples of linguistic curiosities in late antiquarian texts. Much so-called biography is unreliable, often late, anecdotes,” states Richar Hawley (1992: 3). In her Hymn to Aphrodite, she asks the goddess to help her in seducing a young girl whom Sappho loves (Buck 1992: 990).

Mirabai is a well-known bhakti saint poet of India. She was a “[…] princess who lived in Rajasthan in the 16th century, and whose poetry celebrates her relationship with the god Krishna, whom she deemed her true husband and lover” (Jaggi 1992: 221). She led an itinerant life as a sadhu, moving from place to place, in contravention of her family’s demand that she stayed at home as tradition prescribed. Mirabai’s devotion to the Hindu god Krishna is expressed through both direct references and through metaphors and allusions. “Her devotional songs are sung all over India today, even where little other Hindi is known” (Buck 1992: 817).

What is known of Mammet is also very little. She was a harlot who played the mesenqo (string instrument). She was a daughter of a man named Tsebaú from the village Qelay Bealtet (Rossini 1904: 361). Her beauty and attraction to many suitors can very well understood from her existing poem. Unlike Sappho and Mirabai, Mammet’s references to god is not so direct nor of devotional; but they appear to be sarcastic, at least in some cases.

All three of the poets have biographies that are controversial, and mostly reconstructed from their poems. The interpretations, therefore, result in differing points of view depending on who analyses the poems. Sappho is said to have lived in the island of Lesbos, Ancient Greece, before she was exiled to Sicily. The debate regarding Sappho’s sexuality has continued until today. Scholars, over centuries, debated about who her love poems were directed to. Some scholars suggested that she was a lesbian; others the opposite. The same goes with Mirabai and Mammet, whose poetry have been handed down orally over generations. It is unclear how many poems attributed to Mirabai are actually hers. Sangari states: “if a straightforward reading of [Mirabai’s] life is unavailable, eliciting certainties from her songs is equally problematic. The written texts assembled from oral traditions are part of a collective oeuvre. Certain parts must have been re-accentuated, certain potentials in the images actualised, others allowed to fade over time” (1990: 1465).

As for Mammet, only one of her poems survives and we lack reliable information on her identity. Solomon Tsehaye, who researched and collected Tigrinya oral poetry over a long period of time, could not come up with information that leads either to the poet Mammet or other women poets who lived earlier than 20th century (2012: 127). Her only surviving poem was included by Carlo Conti Rossini in his collection of Tigrinya poetry titled  Canti Popolari Tigrai (“Tigrinya Folk Songs”, three volumes 1903, 1904 and 1906). While Rossini includes Mammet’s poem in a generic “Miscellanea” section of the book, Ghirmai Negash characterized Mammet’s poem as a masse type of Tigrinya oral poetry – which is often recited in social gatherings such as commemorations of local chiefs and marriage ceremonies (1999: 98). I consider both arguments as valid. The poem that Rossini attributes to Mammet doesn’t seem to be a single, complete poem. It rather looks like an assemblage of several different poems. It is very long, 84 lines, and a song this long is unheard of in Tigrinya oral poetry. This leads me to speculate that they were originally several  songs, as Rossini stated, sung accompanied by mesenqo. The repetitions of Mammet’s genealogy and references to the village of her origin is however typical of the masse genre, thus validating, at least in part, Negash’s argument.

Whatever facts that have been gleaned from their available works are extensively being employed as “tombs set out to immortalize” them, to use Belsey’s metaphor, in attempts to recover what has been lost of the poets’ lives and works (2005: 64-65).“Inscriptions and effigies invite us to speculate about their subjects”, says Belsey, “but exactly because our knowledge remains at the level of speculation, we are in a stronger position to focus on the way commemoration works as a cultural form” (2005: 64-65). We can follow Belsey in speculating about the three poets starting from their poems, as if they were an inscription or tombstone immortalising its subject.

The poems

Sappho, Mirabai, and Mammet composed lyrical poems, possibly sung with the musical accompaniments of string musical instruments – lyre, dotara, and mesenqo respectively. This oral quality could have contributed to the fact that their poems were not preserved.

Gregory Nagy, discussing his translations of Sappho’s poetry, suggested that they were sung at wedding parties, wherein the bride and bridegroom are likened with Aphrodite and Ares (2010: 158).

He appears [phainetai] to me, that one, equal to the gods [īsos theoisin],

that man who, facing you

is seated and, up close, that sweet voice of yours

he listens to,

and how you laugh a laugh that brings desire. Why, it just

makes my heart flutter within my breast.

(lines 1-5)

Nagy translates phainetai as “he appears”, in the sense of “he is manifested in an epiphany”.  The manifestation of the gods in the form of the bride and bridegroom during the wedding, considered as ritual, merges human and superhuman beings. This is alluded by the combustive passion of the newly weds who morphed into Aphrodite and Ares. Nagy states that the climactic peak of a ritual is the death of the old self and the rebirth of a new one. One is never the same again after such an experience. This immortalising effect of the the human couple through the gods in the poem draws a parallel immortalising effect on the poet through the poem itself (2010: 158).

Something similar happens in Mirabai’s devotional songs to the Hindu god Krishna. The following quote from fragment 37 shows a devotional dance of yogis to which Mirabai belonged as a bhakti saint poet[2]. Hawley clarifies that “to become a yogi is to leave behind one’s marriage and everything that goes with it – family, home, and all […] Bhakti is a force that propels a person beyond the confines of ordinary life.” (1988: 133). The poem works through various levels of sensation, beginning with the sight (the colour of dusk), then hearing (the rhythm of the drum), finally, in a climax, the feeling that the saints are present:

I’m coloured with the colour of dusk, oh rana[3],

coloured with the colour of my Lord.

Drumming out the rhythm on the drums, I danced,

dancing in the presence of the saints

coloured with the colour of my Lord.

(…)

The rana sent me a poison cup:

I didn’t look, I drank it up,

coloured with the colour of my Lord.

(line 1-5, 9-11, Song no. 37, as translated by Hawley & Juergensmeyer)

Getting coloured with the colour of dusk is suggestive of Mirabai’s union with Krishna, known to be dark in colour. The lines about her drinking of poison with no effect is an indication of her quality as an immortal being. The union with Krishna, in addition, alludes to her immortality, and is particularly suggestive considering that we have no historical record of her death. The label saintly given to Mirabai also strengthens the quality of immortality she gets in her poem. Mirabai survives “in the collective cultural consciousness of the people” (Jain and Sharama 2002: 4647).

Mammet is also immortalized in her poem through a comparison between herself and a superhuman being. The following translated stanza refers to the Tigrinya custom to offer gifts or sacrifices to god in exchange for blessing and forgiveness. In a similar manner, the people give gifts to Mammet just to be with her and feel like they have entered the kingdom of heaven. The Christian belief is that one gets to heaven through Christ, who is equated with God, therefore here Mammet is bestowed Christ-like qualities.

One gives her a long cotton cloth (fergi), another a shorter piece (qerana)[4];

One, a little calf; another, a bullock;

One, a measure of grains; one, another measure;

One gives her a long cotton cloth; one, a smaller piece.

Everyone gives her something,

because when with her it is as if entering the kingdom of heaven.

(line 2-6, translation mine based on Rossini 1904: 361)

This divine quality reaches its peak in a climax from a village dignitary, going incrementally through different stages of power to the level of the lord, synonym to god, who can kill and give mercy. This superhuman quality means immortality:

You make one wander by night like a village-crier.

Like a diviner you impel one to confess at night.

(…)

Twenty inside (your house), thirty in the cold,

Give us refuge for the night in any manner you wish

Some of us will fetch water; [some] will collect fire-wood

Like our lord, you kill and give mercy.

(line 28-34, as translated by Negash 1999: 98)

Mammet’s poem is considered one of the best in the Tigrinya tradition. One of the leading contemporary poets in Tigrinya language, Meles Negusse, composed the poem “We Miss You, Mammet” that eulogizes Mammet. In his poem, Meles reaches to a conclusion that no good poetry has ever been composed after Mammet’s, and that he misses her poetry. She is, therefore, immortalised both in her own and others’ poems.

Women in revolt

The new experience Nagy speaks about regarding the climactic peak of the ritual is a sign of revolt by Sappho. If not against cultural norms, Sappho is rebelling against death:

You see, the moment I look at you, right then, for me to make any sound

all won’t work any more.

My tongue has a breakdown, and a delicate –

all of a sudden – fire rushes under my skin.

With my eyes I see not a thing and there’s a roar my ears make.

Sweat pours down me in a trembling, seizes all of me.

Paler than grass am I, and a little short of death do I appear, phainomai, to myself.

(lines 6-12, as translated by Nagy)

The experience of her new self which was reborn in the ritual makes her transcend her physical situation. What appears to her as “a little short of death” is by itself the result of the trance-like ritual experience.

Mirabai and Mammet rebel more openly against cultural and/or social norms. Mirabai’s staunch devotion to Krishna and her refusal to return to her husband is against the norms of Indian society . At the time, “such deviants were surely condemned… [Mirabai’s] personality is enshrined in public memory as a […] courageous rebel” (Jain and Sharama 2002: 4647). The following poem depicts how the societal mechanism tries put Mirabai under control, yet she does not flinch from what her heart tells her:

Life without Hari is no life, friend,

And though my mother-in-law fights,

my sister-in-law teases,

the rana is angered,

A guard is stationed on a stool outside,

and a lock is mounted on the door,

How can I abandon the love I have loved

in life after life?

Mira’s Lord is the clever Mountain Lifter:

Why would I want anyone else?

(Song no. 42, as translated by Hawley & Juergensmeyer)

Although Mammet’s poem is written from the point of view of one of Mammet’s suitors, Conti Rossini believes that Mammet herself recited her verses. Being a harlot came with a strong social stigma for a woman. Yet, Mammet proudly describes her beauty head-to-toe, a beauty that obfuscates the moon and makes the sun blush. She boasts about the number of her suitors: “Twenty inside (your house), thirty in the cold”, meaning queuing outside.

Daughter of the Egghela, daughter of Aya Enqefu!

Whose hair is supported by a forked pillar;

Whose eyelashes kohl is their cover

Not only the secular, but also priests went crazy for her.

(line 35-38, translation mine)

Her visitors are from all sections of the society. Counting back her genealogy and unashamedly divulging the identity of her suitors defies the custom to keep such things secret. By listing the priests, one of the high-ranking dignitaries in the society, in the line of her suitors, Mammet ridicules the society for its hypocrisy.

The poems by Sappho and Mirabai describe a spiritually-guided revolt; whereas Mammet uses her sexuality, which society attempts to control, as a means to gain power. More research is needed to take this comparative perspective further, and analyse women’s revolt through poetry across time and space.

***

[1]  Mirabai is also written in three other variants: Mira, Meera, or Meerabai. The suffix -bai attached to the name is used to respectfully address females of royal background.

[2]  In India there is a group of poets known as saints who are also divided into those who are devoted to gods with attributes (bhaktas), and without attributes (sants). Mirabai, along with Surdas and Tulsidas, belonged to the saint poets who were devoted to god/s with attributes. Poets such as Ravidas, Kabir, and Nanak belonged to the group who were devoted to god (nameless) and without attributes (Hawley 1988: 4-5).

[3]   rana is the term Mirabai used to refer to her husband.

[4]   fergi is about 12 cubit long fabric woven from cotton; it is double, soft, and warm. Qerana is about 10 cubit long cotton fabric; it is thinner than fergi and single weave.

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