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A Cruise on Joseph’s Canal

God, Ibis, Farmer, and Cows

Ptolemeos Philadelphos the foreign Greek per-aa ruling Misr, or Mizraim as the Hebrews would have it, paid his hired troops well to keep them twice as loyal to himself as they might be naturally. Raised on meat and not the yet unknown potato, bigger and more powerful than native soldiers, accustomed to brutal battle conditions, hardened to the tasks that campaigning imposed on men, the Irish Celts were much in demand and lived up to their reputation of fearless, loyal, well-trained, nearly invincible warriors. But even a greedy, aggressive, perpetually warring king like Ptolemeos II ran out of wars now and then, and then the time stretched for the men in the fortresses when there was no battle forthcoming. Restless, the men were given leave by the captains to go to the local women and inns for drinking themselves into stupors, and--for those weary of such vapid amusements--there remained only cruises on the Great River. Surprisingly, the soldiers had seen little of the land that they, for pay, fought to defend with their lives and limbs. Most of them were studying Greek, which was the language of the Greek dynasty ruling the land, but the language of the subject people, the natives, remained incomprehensible, since there was no reason to learn the argot of cringing slaves, field serfs, and sandal-licks. Besides, the god of learning happened to be an ibis, a bird he shot by the dozens just for sport!

Ibis-god of Learning

How could such a god of feathers, beak, and skinny legs do him and his men any good? What language and learning they had brought from Limerick was good enough for them, he reasoned.

Kassidoros, who like many mercenary captains in Ptolemeos’s employ had Hellenized his name, foresaw the difficulty he and his band of platoon of twenty men would have if he went out touring the country without an interpreter.

Kassidoros the Celtic Mercenary

Fortunately, the band employed a native man to run errands and perform little services between the company and the native shopkeepers and also certain women who kept houses of pretty girls for foreign troops. Kassidoros had roared with laughter when he first learned the man’s name, for it came out as “Take-Lot” when they worked out the lettering with a stick in the sand of the fortress’s chariot ground.


“You will take whatever we are pleased to give you!” Kassidoros had said to the man, who had dumped his bribe of a few bread loaves and thrown himself, in native fashion, face down on the ground. “But I like your name! You may keep it, you scoundrel and whoreson of a she-ass in heat!”

Bowing seven times, the errand-boy, or “gopher,” arose, his face beaming with joy and something else--the roguish cunning in his eyes could not be altogether disguised by gratitude. “Takelot will serve you, Splendid Great Ones from--from--afar! Takelot will serve you very well! You will be most happy here in the land of Kem!”

Takelot’s speech was very broken, mixing pidgin-Greek and his native tongue with some words he had just picked up from listening to the soldiers--for the man’s ear was like a sun-dried sponge. Yet with gestures, he could be understood, and Kassidoros nodded, then turned to other matters while the gopher scurried about looking for ways to make himself useful to the men. The captain, of course, had no idea the hireling had, in the native tongue, just called him worse than the offspring of a donkey--something closer to being the issue of a she-hyena coupling with a he-camel, though some slaves present heard and ducked their heads in silent laughter. They wouldn’t have dared laugh openly. Kassidoros was bigger than most foreigners. He was like the sacred ox, and his hands could easily snap a man’s neck when he squeezed it. Once they had seen him strike the side of a painted pylon, and the whole wall shuddered, and sheets of dust and paint came loose and cascaded down, destroying records that had been there for many hundreds of years telling of times before Misr when "White Land Kings" ruled the earth from the center of the "True Sea."

One day the jaded captain threw a punch at his chief aide for no reason, knocking him clean out, then sent to bring in Takelot from the outer gate, who came scraping and bowing as usual, eager for opportunities to perform services for pay.

“Yes, Glorious Master, O Effulgence of Ra the Life-giver! Morning of fragrance to you! More pretty girls with sparkling eyes and shapely limbs? More wine of the gods and sweet honey-cakes? More musicians, dancers, and butter-fried fishes of the Great Sea from the inn? Just name it, and I will get it for--”

“No, no! They bore me! All that confounded charcoal and galena and perfume wax comes off on my hands and face so I must wash with pumice to get rid of it! And enough of that greasy food that knots my gut, and sweets that make my teeth ache and loosen! No, I must have something different! Think of something different! Or I’ll throw you into the river to the crocodiles!”

The man winced, then thought hard. “A lovely pleasure cruise! That’s it, sire! Buto, Sais, Basaris, Alexandria--these modern cities are nothing yet to the unspeakable glories I can show you up the Great River!” He rolled his eyes, describing the beauties they would see from a tall-sailed falcon-ship, and the wonders that the “Dawn Kings,” the double kingdom’s most ancient rulers, had erected, that would utterly amaze their eyes.

Kassidoros pondered the man’s offer, then, for nothing better to do, nodded slowly with his massive head of plaited hair.

Takelot beamed, then bowed quickly too many times, and ran off to get things ready down at the river wharf that served the army. When that was accomplished, he ran back to the company quarters and called Kassidoros and his men to come forth, arrayed in their holiday best, to “partake of the elegant and eternal joys and wonders of the divine land of Kem.”

Grumbling, wearing the full war-time regalia of a Celtic chief (which is say very little clothing along with a lot of weaponry), the utterly bored and dangerous Kassidoros followed with his men. Takelot led them to the ship he had hired for them--which looked quite silly like all the others, flat-bottomed as a barge, the falcon god’s crowned head at the bow, evil eye on each side of the hull, and snubbed, “sacred” duck-billed prow to cleave the waves of the river and keep off the snapping jaws of crocodiles and river cows, with another “sacred” animal’s posterior and tail to supposedly “protect” their rear from the same evils.

Kassidoros refused the gilded chair set under an awning--actually two built together to take his weighty bulk and set in the most prominent place--and went to the prow, dropping down to sit, shirt stripped off his soldier's kilt and with his bare feet dangling to the waterline on each side. Shaking his head, Takelot ventured to protest, “But Great Master! Only children and slaves sit naked like that on their little boats of reeds. This is a fine ship, fit for a king. You must sit like a lord of the land, in the noble chair I have for you, and attired like the great ruler you are!”

The captain roared back, “No, I’m staying here just as I am, to catch the first breeze. Off with you!”

Now the captain was no man of mere words--he usually added a degree of physical force to give his words substance. A fist the size of a palm trunk thrust a fraction short of flattening his face, Takelot backed away diplomatically, and the voyage, at his sign, began, the native oarsmen pushing the craft away from the wharf once its mooring lines were released.

The current flowed north to the Great Sea, the prevailing winds blew south. They were heading south, upriver toward the ceremonial capital of Thebes, so the oars were useless. Unfurling the forty-foot-tall lateen sail, the craft began to move slowly against the river’s current, and the captain got no refreshing breeze as he had hoped since the wind came from behind. The better to see the gold-capped Houses of Eternity, ben-bens, palaces, quays, richly flowered avenues and towering temples, the ship kept close by the banks, where oftentimes the natives, which were mostly farmers out plowing with their cows, stood gaping wide-eyed at strange, nearly naked beings with fair skin and golden-glinting hair sailing on their sacred river.

Farmer Plowing his Field

Hot and steamy, the insects swarming onto him, Kassidoros soon grew impatient looking at farmers staring back at him. He hadn’t seen much of anything after the passage of several miles of riverbank except a lot of looky-yous with yoked cattle dragging plows.

“Takelot!” he bellowed. “Turn this excuse for a curragh around. I’ll tell you where it will go!”

“Of course, by your pleasure!” the sandal-lick agreed though his heart sank, it felt, right down through the deck.

After frantic instructions from Takelot, the ship turned, and the sail fell and was quickly pulled down, while the oarsmen went back to their places.

The current pushing them along, the breeze full in his face, Kassidoros felt much better, and pleased with his decision.

Now, with all the delta spread before him, with a thousand canals connecting with the river, he would decide where to go, and they might spend a week or more exploring the labyrinth of water and land mixed together like uncountable islands. Passing close to villages, they paused at the first of them and natives boated out to them and sold them anything they had on hand--fresh dates, wine, sweet breads with honey and stewed fruit pudding inside, and such.

People Bearing Fruits and Bread

The captain relaxed, beginning to enjoy the cruise. They spent the first night tied to a reedy sandbar, a native musician strumming a harp-like instrument, and plenty of wine and sweets and good fresh-caught fish cooked over braziers.

The second day of the outing they left the ship to explore old temples that had been abandoned, but they found them hazardous, full of crocodiles, with serpents running up and down the columns. Kassidoros took his sword and chipped at a forgotten Per-aa’s image on one of the columns.

“Who was he--this old dead king of yours?” he asked Takelot idly.

Takelot swallowed hard, then his eyes brightened. “Not our king, Great Master. Maybe one of yours! He came from a wonderful foreign people like you, and his name was called ‘Khian,’ and [he was reading the column, having studied as a scribe for a year before giving it up for something more lucrative than a priest’s scribe] and his chief minister’s name was--”

“Oh, I don’t care for all that--you named the king, that is enough! Tell me something interesting he did! How many enemy did he slay single-handedly in battle? How many waggons of booty did he collect from a campaign? What great cities did he sack and put to the torch? That sort of thing. Or was he nothing, spending all his time with his harem women?”

Takelot’s eyes roved over the columns, seeking the best and most interesting account. His face grew worried. He stopped at inscriptions carved along with portraits of the pharaoh and his queen.

Pharaoh and Queen

With a low bow, Takelot began his translation. “This king isn’t speaking of himself, Mighty Ray of the Sun! No, he is telling of the deeds of his chief minister, the one called--”

“Well, tell me of him then!”

“Yes, O Eternal and Beneficent One! This chief minister and Royal Signatory, the Grand Taty Joseph, whose canal has borne your ship here on watery wings, this great one not only dug the canal but saved my people--”

Kassidoros paused. “Howso? Speak quickly, or my heel will follow your teeth down your throat!”

“It was the time of the Years of the Hyena. The crops failed for seven years in a row. This man Joseph gathered much grain during the good harvests before the famine, and then he sold it for the king during the bad years, thus saving the people.”

Kassidoros shook his head. “Evidently, he was a man with many good heads in one, as you people say here. But is that all?”

“No, the king says this Joseph saved the world. For the famine took the food out of people’s mouths everywhere, and so they came here to the land of Kem to buy food, which the Grand Taty had stored in granaries all through the land on both sides of the Great River.”

Kassidoros, who had never heard such an account or of such a man before, returned to the ship to think.

Finally, he decided what to do. He knew his gopher could write as well as read in the old native script.

“I will go on with my men, then return for you, and you will stay here and write down all that you find here about the man Joseph. I want it all done for me, and I will pay you well for your labor, for I require your love because of my goodness to you, not merely your abject submission.”

The gopher’s eyes widened with alarm. “Leave me alone here, Great Master? The sacred beasts and the sacred cobras--they protect the temple and won’t allow me to remain alive!” Kassidoros laughed. “Well, then I will leave you a sword, and you can use it to fend them off. Now do as I say!” What choice did the gopher have? He prostrated himself, thanking his master for sending him to a certain death by cobra bite or a more painful death in the jaws of a crocodile.

A week later the ship returned, finding the spot with great difficulty, for it was much overgrown in that time, and the temple was hidden in the jungle-like growth of reeds, palms, and vines.

Smiling, his clothes in tatters, a skeletal version of the formerly plump and oily gopher scrambled out onto the temple’s dangerously decaying wharf. The poor man was overcome with tears of joy and real gratitude. “Here I am, Great Master! Here I am, your loyal and affectionate servant, waiting every moment to serve you!”

Kassidoros was tired of the cruise, the cramped, smelly quarters on board the ship, and was eager to stretch his legs a bit on land. He strode up and down the wharf as the gopher dogged his steps. “Well! What have you written! Read it to me now as I take a little walk!” Takelot pulled a scroll out of his rags and began jabbering. “Slow down! Slow down!” But all the excitement and the effects of his ordeal--marooned in a dangerous spot for a week--were too much for the poor gopher. He fainted.

Kassidoros grunted with disgust, ordered the man brought on board, and given wine and something to eat to restore his strength.

“Pfui, how you stink, Takelot! Scrub first before you read to me again. I want what you have written!”

Later, Takelot returned to his master’s presence, and began the reading of his scroll.

“This temple wrought by Lord Potiphar, servant of the Grand Taty of the King--”

“Yes, yes!” the captain broke in. “Get to the better part--where the famine began and the man saved the people and the nations. I want to know why he did it, and why anyone would care what happened to people, who are always starving anyway!”

Takelot seemed to take effront. “But Ineffable Breast of the Cow-Goddess! This man was different. He was not of my people, he came from afar, a slave sold into slavery by his brothers, and here he served a foreign god, one called El Elyon, the Most High God--”

This made no sense to the captain, and he waved his hand threateningly. “Slow down and read! I don’t want your words, I want them just as they were cut into the stone.”

Swallowing his own feelings, Takelot began as ordered.

When he was finished, Kassidoros remained silent, pondering the account.

“No man could be so good in heart,” he was thinking. “Yet his former master, this Potiphar the commander of the king’s palace guard, he testifies that this Joseph was good, despite the treachery of his brothers and despite what the commander’s own wife did to him, accusing him of assaulting he at home, so that Potiphar was forced by her testimony to cast Joseph into prison.”

As for the rest of the account, how the man remained faithful, serving the jailer with excellence just as he had served Potiphar his slave master, and how he had been called out of prison by the per-aa who had heard of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, and how Joseph had masterfully explained the king’s troubling dreams when no wise man in the land could do it, and how the grateful per-aa had appointed Joseph to Grand Taty, and how the new Grand Taty had gathered the land’s bounty to save it for the coming times of dearth--indeed, Kassidoros had never heard the like before, and he had much to ponder.

His men, too, heard the account, and they sat and discussed it for long hours.

Finally, Kassidoros gave the order to go, and the ship was oared away from the temple of Lord Potiphar’s, which had not been dedicated to any native god but to the former servant’s worship, “El Elyon.”

Later, as the ship neared the fortress, Kassidoros turned to Takelot.

“Tell me, Licker-of-my-dunged-sandal, what god was this El Elyon--a foreign god, you say?”

“Yes, for He was only One, and had no peers, as ours do in my land. The foreigners, the hikau Khasut and their confederates, brought Him here, and they took Him away, when they were expelled.”

“Expelled? After doing you so much good as you have described? You contemptible wretches!”

Kassidoros’s oxlike roar near blew the gopher off the deck.

The gopher turned waxen white in his cheeks, fully assured the commander would run him through with a sword on the spot. When a moment or two passed, and he still lived and breathed, he looked up again and found his master puzzling again over the account, his wrath forgotten (like so many of his rages, they came and passed with incredible swiftness).

Takelot could even see the commander needed him for the answers he might be able to give, thus giving value to his life. Seeing this, he took heart, and color returned to his ashen face.

“Tell me, good Takelot, why would you not keep this man’s people and his god, if they were so good to you, saving you all from starving to death?”

The man dared show honest doubt after the commander addressed him with his name, restoring his status as a human being instead of a mere slave or dog. “I do not know, Great One! But a king of ours arose to restore our ancient glory, threw the foreign usurper and his people out, and we returned to our old gods and old ways. The inscriptions telling of this Joseph and his deeds and his god were also destroyed--but for this one, which was so hidden in the reeds and escaped notice, not being so large as the great temples along the River.”

Kassidoros returned to his work refreshed, and an exciting new war had broken out in Syria, and he was ordered to participate. It was high time! His muscles and sword arm were aching for action. Not so keen on battle, liable to hang back with the baggage train, Takelot survived the campaign. The captain, who caught a stray arrow in the lung, did not. Takelot’s transcription of the temple writings was sold in the market of Sidon, and the victorious army of Ptolemy II returned home with wagons piled with booty. At least the well-paid temples proclaimed it as a victory with much booty.

What the temples priests did not report on their stone columns and walls was the meeting of chief importance, held between the per-aa and certain emissaries of hitherto unknown race and nation. Exciting a tremendous stir at the court and in the general population, the envoys arrived in a flying ship that set down in an open space near the palace and the chief temples. Thinking at first that the envoys were gods, all honors were accorded them, and disembarking the divine ship the “gods” appeared pleased by their reception. They took liberally of the wine, pretty girls, and fine clothes and jewels heaped beside the door of their ship.

Escorted to the per-aa, a secret meeting was arranged, as requested by the “gods.”

The per-aa was then told the reason for the visit.

“We have come to arrange for a transfer of a precious gift to Your Majesty,” the beings informed him. “It is too precious to tell your people about at this time, so what we say must be held in strict confidence.”

The per-aa, attended only by his Chief Cupbearer, nodded assent. After all, what could he do against gods--for such they appeared!

“We wish to give you a burning stone, a weapon that will look upon your enemies just as your eye gazes, and one glance will burn them up utterly!”

The Burning Eye

The per-aa was bewildered. What need did he have for such a thing? He had elephants and armies enough. He was well supplied with weapons. A burning stone-eye? It seemed a silly thing for a king to want added to his arsenal.

His expression prompted the visitors to continue. “You will use it according to the terms of the treaty with us. We will be given rule over the Earth, and you will exact the tribute--er, the sacrifices--that we demand from all the nations. We have chosen you to represent the Earth, and will hold you responsible.”

The per-aa liked the sound of this treaty less and less as they went on talking about it. He was one king among many in the Earth. There were many wars for supremacy, and so far no one since Alexander had succeeded in seizing the world’s helm. With this burning stone, they claimed he would attain Alexander’s empire, but for what purpose? To supply the gods with what? Weren’t they already being given ample sacrifices?

Wishing to know exactly how much the gods required of him under the treaty, the per-aa presseds the point as soon as he could.

“Noble Ones of the gods, I must ask one thing. What are the sacrifices demanded, and when and where shall they be offered unto thee?”

The visitors brought out a long document that itemized what the gods required. At the top of the list was “blood,” to be drawn and put in special wineskins so thin they could be seen through that they themselves would supply. The blood was to be kept cold until it was taken by the gods. Captives, too, were required.

The per-aa signed for the Cupbearer to go and examine the document more closely than he could without risking his royal dignity. The Cupbearer returned after a lengthly viewing of the treaty, and whispered in the per-aa’s ear the advice that it seemed to be reasonable enough. He was convinced the burning stone-eye would be of practical use to the king's army. With it they would finally be able to subdue all the northern rivals who claimed to be Alexander’s successor, and he, the triumphant lord of the land, would be safe and secure forever to enjoy his royal possession of Alexander’s capital, Alexandria. With all rivals eliminated, it would be an easy matter to place the entire burden of supplying the blood sacrifice, as well as the tributes of captives, gold, jewels, and fine linens the gods were demanding, on whomever he wished and not fear an insurrection that foreign kings might exploit. They might even find opportunity to profit even more on the transaction--since the ox that treads the grain is allowed to tread it unmuzzled, is it not?

The per-aa smiled at the homely image the Cupbearer called forth at the end of his appraisal of the treaty’s conditions. Feeling that all would go well, he turned back to the divine gods seated on golden thrones like his own--for he too was a god, was he not?

“Fellow gods, I will happily supply you with the pleasures and things you have favored us with in your requests. We will be happy to receive your gift of the burning Eye as well! I will call my scribes and they will set my seal to the document.”

The visiting gods smiled, and the document was sealed by the per-aa.

After the gods departed, the per-aa held another secret council with his Cupbearer.

“I charge you responsible to keep this treaty secret. The document must not be seen by others. Put it away in a safe place. When the Burning Eye arrives, I will deal with it. Now tell no one, on pain of death, about what I have said to you.”

The Chief Cupbearer, trembling within himself, went away with the document, and the per-aa changed his mind. “All the rulers will hate me if I gain mastery over their kingdoms. How long will I live then? They will send assassins and I will not enjoy one moment of peace even if I fight them all off! Do the gods really care if I, Ptolemaos, live or die? Kings come and go, and no one pays it any regard once one king is gone and another sits in his place. The eternal gods can always choose someone else to do their bidding. What gods are these anyway? I have heard no priest able to tell me from the temple records what gods they could be! I shall not be tricked--though they appeared as gods in their great ship sailing out from the heavens! No, I will delay--delay--delay--and not show any opposition they can charge me with. Perhaps they will tire of this treaty and find someone else! That is just as well--for I want no part of it!”

The Burning Eye was delivered, not intact, but in a set of instructions. But the per-aa, skilled in putting things off, delayed the project. Eventually the plans disappeared somewhere into the vast, convoluted archives of the temples. It was never found to be the per-aa’s fault, when the gods confronted Ptolemeos on the missing plans for the Burning Eye.

Just as the per-aa hoped, the gods wearied of his promises to do something to get the project re-started once the plans were located, and they turned elsewhere.

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