Thursday, September 4, 2014

Wax and Gold

In my last post I included a detail of a painting by Wosene Worke Kosrof named Wax and Gold X. Here is the entire painting:
Wax and Gold X is actually available for sale at the Terra Firma Gallery.
The X in this case stands for ten. Just to prove it, here is Wax and Gold IX:
Wax and Gold IX, 2002, Mixed Media, 18 x 18 in.
So Wosene has created at least ten works with the same name. Why is he using the same title over and over? Doesn't he have any imagination in the English language? That's what I was wondering until Lulit showed me this book:
Levine's book was first published in 1965, so the writing is of that time when anthropologists made universal claims in patriarchal language, but it remains a seminal work in Ethiopian Studies.
It turns out that the phrase ሰምና ወርቅ (sam-enna warq), or wax and gold, is a fundamental concept in Amharic and, as Donald N. Levine argues in his pioneering book of the same name, in Amhara culture generally. The phrase wax and gold refers literally to the goldsmith's technique of making a clay mold around a wax model, draining the wax, and then pouring the molten gold into that mold. In Amharic poetry, the phrase has come to signify the hidden, often spiritual meaning (the gold) beneath the apparent meaning (the wax) of the language. Once the ሰም (sam) is removed, the ወርቅ (warq) can be appreciated.

Though the sam-enna warq tradition has its roots in the ancient Ge'ez language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Levine explains that it informs secular verse and even everyday Amharic conversation as well, being used to insult people or criticize authorities in a socially approved manner. Writing when Haile Selassie was still in power, Levine tells us that sam-enna warq has enabled "witty individuals to satirize the monarch himself and still live to repeat the witticism—so long as its subject was himself duly appreciative of the cleverness of the lines."
I can't help but think that if Zone 9 had engaged in a little more sam-enna warq they might still be blogging freely today. (Not that it is their fault, of course!)
Mohammad Girma, a social philosopher who has also written about the wax and gold tradition, relates a story about Aleka Gebre-Hana, a famous Ethiopian priest, who, when invited to a friend's house for dinner, sees a rat jump out of the መሶብ (mesob), the traditional breadbasket for storing injera. As the story goes, the family does not realize Gebre-Hana has seen the rat, but when it comes time for him to give the blessing after the meal, he says:
በላነው ጠጣነው ከእንጀራው ከወጡ
እግዚአብሔር ይስጥልኝ ከመሶቡ አይጡ
Belanew tetanew ke enjeraw ke wetu
Egziabeher yestelegne ke mesobu aytu
The double meaning comes in that last phrase. Aleka Gebre-Hana first says he has enjoyed the meal (the injera, or bread, and the waT, or stew) and then he prays to God (Egziabeher) that you may not lack (aytu) for your mesob. That's the wax. The gold here is that aytu also means rat, and so he subtly announces that he has indeed seen the rat, criticizing his friend for serving him unhygienic food.

Sam-enna warq, then, provides the medium for an inexhaustible supply of humor, "for the Amhara tends to regard the pun as a very high form of humor," writes Levine. Just like "the Amhara," I've always loved wordplay, and I confess that I too regard the pun as a high form of humor. I also enjoy reading and listening to poetry, anticipating that "a-ha" moment when life wisdom emerges from the precise combination of the poet's words, and rarely on the first hearing. In fact, just the other night one of the teachers in Anemo's second grade held a reading to celebrate his latest book of verse. Anhvu read his poems only once, and quickly, so it was a challenge to catch each message, but I will spend time with them later to discover what gold they contain.
Anhvu Buchanan reading at Press on 24th Street.
I wish I could jump right into the world of sam-enna warq, but I am struggling just to put together simple sentences. I need to spend a lot of time with sam before I can wax poetic with warq. In fact, Jan, my language acquisition coach, recommends I "embrace clichés" and look for common "word clusters" in Amharic. The more frequently a phrase is uttered by native speakers, the more I should know it.

I've been collecting common phrases that should help me. For instance:
በምን መንገድ (buhmin menged) = by what way (መንገድ = road)
ስለ  መነጋገር እፈልጋለሁ (sila X menegagar ifeligalew) = I want to talk about X
 X  እንዴት ይባላል (indeyt yibalal) = How do you say X?
እንደ እዚህ  or  በዚህ ዓይነት (indeh izih or bezih aynet) = like this
ጥሩ ነው (Tiru nahw) = is good (heard at the end of many sentences)
Yet even while I am absorbing the most common expressions, my ear is ready to catch words that sound similar for future punning. As Lulit and I were going through the colors, for example, a few connections came to mind.
ቢጫ (beeCHa = YELLOW) reminded me of ብቻ (bicha = ONLY)
ቀይ (qay = RED) sounded something like ቀኝ (qany = RIGHT, i.e. direction)
and ብር (birr = SILVER) is, perhaps not surprisingly, the same word for the currency.
Writing about colors reminds me that the scarf I ordered from Wosene Worke Kosrof arrived last week. Here is Suzanne wearing this "golden" accent with her "waxy" black outfit. So here is my feeble attempt at sam-enna warq: Suzanne stands on the RIGHT and the scarf is her outfit's ONLY color. I'll have to thank Wosene personally for the splash of color if I run into him at next week's Ethiopian New Year festivities. Incidentally, his middle name—Worke (ወርቄ)—means "my gold."


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