Obsequy for an Oxyrhynchus

They found you floating belly-up
Within the sacred pool
Drifting by the lily-pads
Above your grieving school.

Where once you flashed and shimmered
Now your scales grow dim
Sinking to Osiris’ realm—
And after what you did to him!

Let these water be your grave
Let them float you up the Nile
No more wrapping round in musty rags—
Rancid ichthyomummies in a pile.

No, drift within the current
To lands cloaked within a hush
Leave your fins and worries
Beneath the sun-kissed land of Kush.

Oxyrhynchus: The sacred fish of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (scientific name: Mormyrus Kannume). These long-snouted fish were nurtured and, upon death, mummified by attendant priests. They were hated in the rest of Egypt because it was believed these fish ate Osiris’s penis after he was chopped to 14 pieces by the villainous Set (the other 13 pieces were reassembled). According to Plutarch, who also blamed “sea bream and pike” for the meal, this is why Egyptian priests did not eat fish (a contradictory variation of this myth, claimed that Osiris’s penis was indeed recovered and ceremoniously laid to rest in the Egyptian capital of Memphis).

Other fish mummies (usually of the Nile perch) were buried in a special cemetery in Esneh. The reason for treating these fish in such a manner is debated; however, the lepidotus and phagrus fish were occasionally blamed for the mastication so perhaps the oxyrhynchus did not act alone.

Although fish was a major source of nutrition for the Egyptians, religious beliefs varied from city to city. A fish considered sacred in one city might be considered cursed in another. Some priests were forbidden from eating any fish. Hatmehty (“She who is in front of fish”), a fish goddess, appeared as a dolphin-headed woman, a rare example of an Egyptian fish deity.

When the people of Oxyrhynchus discovered that their neighbors in the Egyptian region of Cynopolis regularly ate these fish, it sparked a minor civil war.

Obsequy: funeral song or formal lyric mourning of the dead. Technically, Kush (“Nubia”) was south of Egypt and it’s impossible to float dead fish against the northern current but I plead an extreme case of poetic license.

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  1. […] Obsequy for an Oxyrhynchus […]


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