Nesi Hensu

Posted on December 16th, 2009 by


Nesi Hensu

 The Zagrebacka Mumija lies in a small dedicated room at the back of the Archeological museum in Zagreb.

 The museum is set back from the road, with a delightful garden in front where I love to sit under the enormous chestnut trees, drinking the fantastic espresso that they make there. The trees have so far escaped the city council’s policy of denuding public spaces of any tree  of beauty and age. Under the trees in this garden, the café tables are spaced out amongst the wonderful collection of Roman (Riminski) statuary, sarcophagi and gravestones. I am often made grateful for my school Latin lessons, much of which focused on the abbreviations on Roman graves (D.M.-Dis Manibus. “To the gods of the dead” and so on). When I sit here alone, I play a game with myself, imagining the lives of the families and city luminaries of ancient Illyria celebrated here. I wonder how they would feel about my drinking my coffee around them; although I suspect that a ‘café among the tombs’ is far closer to the festive, peopled necropolis of the ancient world, than the mossy silence of a decaying English churchyard.

 The Mummy herself is in near darkness, dimly lit to preserve her colour. ‘She’ is, or was a young Theban woman named Nesi Hensu, wife of a tailor, Paler Hensu. Her sad naked figure lies in a vitrine in the middle of the room. Unrolled on the wall next to her, the linen winding sheet in which she was wrapped when she was discovered in the 1920’s. Her hair, curled in Roman style, is henna-ed red. She has all of her teeth. Her finger and toe nails are apparently painted orange, and she was buried in her shoes, fragments of which cling to her feet. On her forehead is a small piece of gilded material, probably the remains of a headdress. Her body has been eviscerated and prepared for burial in ancient Egyptian manner, and she has been stuffed with straw, wisps of which are escaping from her stomach. Her skin has the colour and texture of old leather. She seems to have died tragically young. As I enter the room, I always catch my breath. She is so much a person, young, naked, alone, and far from the home of her people.

 The linen winding sheet, her shroud, has been unwound and displayed on the wall of this curious mausoleum. The long snaking cloth is covered in the writing of the ancient peoples of Italy, known in Latin as ‘Estrusci’ or ‘Tusci’, in Greek as ‘Turenoi’; the Etruscans. This is no ordinary shroud, but the ‘liber linteus zagrebiensis’. It is a codex, a book of religious ritual, which incorporates the largest collection of Etruscan vocabulary to be found in any one source. There are 1200 words in all. This was a language of Indo-European origin and its alphabet is visually indistinguishable from Greek but written, like most Semitic languages, from right to left. I now realize that it is fundamentally identical to Phoenician. Carbon-dating has put the codex at about 400BC. Peering at the script, I am able to pick out the alphabet, once I become accustomed to the letters written backwards and running the wrong way. But I am bewildered by the unbroken script; there are no gaps between the words, so I rapidly become confused by the fog of ancient words and letters.

 Back outside in the garden, I sip my espresso by an armless Hercules, and worry about Nesi Hensu. It is autumn, and the grass is covered with chestnuts. I realize that the real problem with her is that I cannot decide where to look. I cannot even decide what to look at.

This might be seen as a similar problem to a modern performance of Mozart’s 1789 transcription of Handel’s ‘Messiah’. This reworking was made just over half-a-century after the Dublin premiere of the original, in order to rectify the perceived archaisms of instrumentation, to render it ‘modern.’ To play this version now, on instruments of today would seem even less ‘right’ than to perform the original Handel thus, throwing not one, but two ‘veils’ over the orginal. The revision was made to suit the Messiah for late 18th century ears; even if we are able to recreate the instruments and techniques of Mozart’s players, the presence of the modern audience renders the endeavour questionable. It exaggerates the already manifold question of why we ‘perform’ rituals. The function of many of these pieces has often lost relevance to a sizeable proportion of the listeners, and the works are almost never played in the context of religious observance or liturgy. In that respect, the actual nature of these pieces is long-defunct for most of the listeners.

 Nesi Hensu’s ancestors came from Egyptian Thebes. The city had lost most of its power in the 7th century BC, when it had been razed to the ground by the Assyrian king, Assur-bani-pal. By Nesi Hensu’s time, Thebes, her family’s home town, was no more than a collection of tented villages and shanty towns. It is likely that she and her husband are evidence of the Diaspora after the destruction of the city. Perhaps generations of Thebans grew up and lived in modern day Croatia, then Illyria. So, she is the refugee from one effectively dead culture, wrapped in the discarded texts of another vanished one, whose sacred religious texts were being put to good use by Egyptian style embalmers to wrap their customers. Perhaps, she would have been able to read the ‘codex’. Maybe her own written language was a mixture, like many of the texts of this time, of the Hieratic of her ancestral forefathers from destroyed Thebes, the Phoenician spoken by the traders who dominated the Mediterranean sea routes on which she and her husband would have depended, and the languages of Asia Minor, mixed in with the encroaching Greek and incipient Latin, or indeed Etruscan itself. Perhaps her family chose to wrap her in this enormous and enigmatic text for a symbolic reason, be it religious or superstitious. After all, this was the age of religious uncertainty, and a few centuries later, the apostle Paul would be preaching at theAthens altar to the ‘Unknown God’, the ultimate ‘belt and braces’ religious insurance policy. As a Huguenot myself, I have, little sense of my long forgotten culture, so I can identify with these Thebans, far from their forgotten homeland, reaching out for any spiritual security in a times of change.

 In the 19th Century, the manuscripts of the Bach solo Sonatas and Partitas’ was allegedly found in a pile of scrap paper that was about to be used to wrap butter. The music was not unknown, and had been published by Nicholas Simrock in 1802. But in truth, no one quite understood quite what these curious works for violin alone were for. Very few people dreamt that these highly complex pieces, for a solitary violin, going on, unsupported for hours and hours, were anything more than technical exercises, or some kind of ‘head music’, an intellectual game. It took the composer Mendelssohn, and a violinist, the Hungarian Joseph Joachim, to reveal that these works could have a public life and relevance. Till then, they lay dead and mute like this Theban woman and her Etruscan codex.

 I am not sure whether I should be in the room at all. Even if it is a corpse stuffed with straw, I am looking at a person, stripped of the dignity with which she was wrapped at death. I would probably feel more comfortable if I was not in the room alone, I feel uncomfortably like a voyeur, my looking worryingly necrophiliac. But it is equally difficult to leave. Like the silent score of a beautiful piece of music, I find it appalling that Nesi-Hensu might be left alone and silent, naked and cold in this empty museum. 

 Getting very close to a composer through their music feels uncomfortably akin to this. Music natural tends to be a confessional art. The simpler, the smaller-scale that the music is, the more intimate this confessional becomes; unwillingly, perhaps, composers throw themselves open to our prying scrutinies. Building an interpretation can feel very intrusive and I am often relieved, like, I suspect, many of my colleagues, that my music is non-vocal.  Their personal, explicit narratives can be, conveniently, presented as wordless paradox, in the contradiction of an explicit language whose meaning remains obscure.