David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
When I was a boy with milk on the nose as they say, and still at primary school, a rather perspicacious friend of mine, a little too world-wise for his age if you ask me, but not so bright in other ways, told me about a book he called “The adventures of Odysseus” and willy-nilly introduced me to Greek mythology.
I did not know the word “empathy” then, but as Peter Cheyney’s Lemuel G.H. Caution, the big detective, would say, you could have bet your sweet life that I was, by wish and by inclination, Odysseus himself going on adventure after adventure and always narrowly escaping all sorts of dangers, slaying humongous giants and savouring the harrowing experiences.
I did not, of course, at the time know that I was reading from Homer the blind Greek bard who wove stories so phenomenal and fantastic as to be almost unbelievable.
That kind of fantasy is what, for me, made reading such an uplifting experience. I found I could indulge my imagination and let it embark on limitless flights of fancy.
Nothing was impossible. To a 10 or 11-year old boy still trying to make sense of the world, the distinction between fact and fiction is very thin indeed. Thus, I believed in all the creatures that Greek mythology conjured up. Only much later when I became aware of literature as a discipline and as an experience did I begin to relate to Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad in a much more reasoned and controlled way. But it took a while to isolate historical fact from imagined traditions or fabrications.
The much romanticised story of Helen of Troy, a woman whose face was so fabulously beautiful that as is often claimed, she launched a thousand warships.
According to Greek mythology, Helen was the daughter of Zeus, the Greek God, and Leda. She was known as Helen of Troy but also sometimes called Helen of Sparta and was considered the most beautiful woman in the world.
Helen got married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta. This is the Menelaus who took a thousand ships to invade the City State of Troy after Helen had been abducted to that city by Paris, the Prince of Troy. Paris was on an official visit to Troy when he saw Helen and was completely overthrown by her beauty, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, the Hallelujah bard. Once Paris had fled to Troy with Hellen, war against Sparta became unavoidable.
A long and bitter war was fought over Helen and when it looked like the war could not be won and the walls of Troy could not be breached, it was time for ingenuity and trickery.
We all know about the Trojan horse and how that image has become part of modern discourse. The funny thing is that we learned Greek mythology as if it was history. None of us ever wondered about gods and goddesses interacting with human beings in all sorts of ways including marriage.
Strange how people never learn from the experiences of others!
The world over, stories abound about conflict emanating from rivalry over women.
Ugandan writer, Okot p’ Bitek’s Lawino in the classic poem “Song of Lawino” makes the poignant observation: Who has ever stopped men from wanting women. In other words, men left to their devices are naturally covetous when it comes to women, especially when such women are bewitchingly beautiful and are spoken for or attached.
In the Old Testament of the Bible we hear that when Abraham and his beautiful wife Sarah went to live in Egypt for a while, Abraham made her swear that she would say she was his sister. The man feared for his life. The worst of his fears was realised when the reigning pharaoh took a fancy to Sarah and took her for a wife. Sarah must have been really something to have stirred interest in such high places as the palace.
Another Bible story, that of David and Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife comes to mind. As told in 2 Samuel 11, the story of the seduction of Bathsheba by David is one of high intrigue and lust.
David, while walking on the roof of his palace, one evening, saw Bathsheba, then the wife of Uriah, having a bath. The beauty of her nakedness in the moonlight aroused such desire in the king that he resolved to take her away from Uriah. Bathsheba became pregnant by David. He used the war that his soldiers were waging to eliminate Uriah by having him deployed in the thick of things where he could not possibly survive.
This story is one more illustration of the things that men do because of women. Whether men admit it or not, they are all tied to their wives’ apron strings! A man can go to the moon and back, on foot, just to please ‘his’ woman. The question is, Is she his woman or is he her man?
Throughout history, women have inspired a multiplicity of things, including priceless works of art. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa portrait has enthralled the world for centuries and inspired a classic song about the woman’s mystic smile about which speculation is endless. People wonder what she was smiling at. Da Vinci was able to make Mona Lisa smile through her eyes only. Fascinated by the enigmatic picture, Nat King Cole, the jazz maestro, sings:
Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you /You’re so like the lady with the mystic smile/Is it only ‘cause you’re lonely they have blamed you?/For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?/Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa?/Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep/They just lie there and they die there/Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?/Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?/Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa?
Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?/Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep/They just lie there and they die there/Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?/Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?
A work of art is both beautiful and enduring. It casts a long shadow across the ages as has Da Vinci’s portrait of Mona Lisa. The portrait defines excellence and accomplishment and is among the early forerunners of photography as art.
In Sonnet number 18, Shakespeare is at a loss for words in trying to describe the beauty of woman. Like a pilgrim in trance Shakespeare wonders out loud:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Our own inimitable Safirio Madzikatire, that great comedian, did “Katarina” a song whose lyrics loosely translated from Shona to English say:
Katarina, you’ll be the death of me
One of these days you’ll get me killed
Should that happen Katarina
You’d better run for your life
I shall be the avenging spirit come to haunt you.
The idea of a woman causing danger to her spouse simply by being beautiful is what brought about the pet name “Chibayiso”, a name that literally means a woman who causes a man’s demise. In Shona romance and courtship, Chibayiso speaks of a beauty that is both hypnotic and dangerous.
I once worked with a man who when called by his wife rushed home like one whose life was in danger. The woman had no qualms about embarrassing him. One day she was heard to shout, “Sharon’s father, if you don’t come and chop the wood right away, today you’re going to sleep outside.”
The naughtier among us said she was threatening to withdraw his conjugal rights. “You’re going to sleep outside . . .” Shona metaphors can be so rich and deep.
Some women only have to frown a little to get their men shaking in their boots. Strength does not always have to be in physical terms.
There are subtler ways of demonstrating that one is in control. Women are aces at doing this. They even allow themselves to be roughed up a little just to give a man the illusion of power. Women can be terribly shrewish if they so choose. If you know what is good for you, you just crawl into a hole somewhere and die. Alternatively, you can let her have her way in all things.
Humour abounds where man-woman relationships are concerned. On the street I grew up in there was a man who would threaten other men with violence from his wife if they annoyed him.
His wife was an Amazon, huge, tall, stately and strong as an ox. She disposed of any male challengers disdainfully, casting them aside as if they were no more than an annoying physical distraction. That woman could box!
- David Mungoshi is a writer, social commentator and retired teacher.