Septentrion, the child who danced to death

Probably the best known and most loved remnant of the Roman era at Antibes is the funerary tablet of Septentrion, the young boy who danced himself to death.  This happened in the third century a.d., some decades before Christianity brought the ancient world to a close.  I am not sure that for me, in poetic terms, this is not the most piquant moment in history.

The original tablet, about 70 cm X 40 cm

I have come to know the tablet from an accurate copy mounted on the wall of the Hôtel de Ville in sight of the Cathedral.  I can say it is accurate because the original is on view in the Museum of Archaeology.

I have taken the text engraved on the tablet from the French translation of the original Latin.

To the Mânes, the gods of the child Septentrion, twelve

years old who, in the theatre at Antipolis, danced for days

in the rain.”

That the child died is implied by this text, together with the symbolism.  Mânes refers to the god spirits in the realm of the dead.  The theatre itself, we are told, was where the bus terminus in central Antibes is today, about 10 minutes’ walk from the Cathedral.

What absorbs me is that the text of this funerary tablet is expressed in joyous words, admiring, removed from the somber matter of death.

Septentrion, a Greek name meaning northwards, had probably been a slave and thereby hangs many tales.  Was this twelve-year-old from Africa?  Gaul?  From northern Europe?  The Middle-East?

Engraved along the top ridge of the tablet there are seven cypress trees.  In the frame representing the ash crucible there is a kantharos (a ritual cup/vase) with two olive branches hanging limply from it.  I had to come up close to the original tablet and after that use the zoom facility with the image to see the two radiating star flowers on either extreme of the kantharos, itself symbolic of rebirth and resurrection.


Questions loom.  Is the tablet a notification of the child’s death and /or a memorial?  Was the child in some kind of Dionysiac trance?  Did the child, after two or three days of dancing in pelting rain, crumble, collapse and die?  Did he, as a young slave, realise what the years ahead held for him and so danced himself to death?

The writer, Jules Michelet, was deeply touched.  “I know of nothing more tragic with such a short-lived span, nothing that so portrays the harshness of the Roman world.”

For me it is a vision of a dream seen in the haze of rain, with strong rhythmic voices, deep drums and the arabesques of arms and body, curls and swirls, legs like wings, a visage of blind ecstasy.  And hundreds of eyes gleaming in fascination, they who would in the end witness the fall and then stand in unearthly silence.

The Canadian poet Raymond Radiquet who visited Antibes in 1920, included in his anthology Cheeks of Flame the poem Septentrion, god of love.  I offer an extract, freely translated.

If our fire lasts three days

Is it worth the name of love?

My beautiful, unknown dancer,

Conspire with Venus about it

Even if she does not see

You as the true god of love.

Must we believe like immortals?

The true god of love is this beloved child

The Septentrion dancer

And with this dance, his heart ceases to be

And our love perishes

As soon


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

October, 2019



E. Delaval, R. Thernot : Objets d’Antipolis. Mémoires Millénaire edition, 2011. 

Wikipedia: Kantharos



My photograph of the original tablet

Roman theatre –  E. Delaval, R. Thernot:  Objets d’Antipolis.  Mémoires Millénaire editions, 2011.

My drawings


I would believe in a God that knows how to dance  –  Nietzsche






Hoy’s Koppie, Hermanus

A koppie is a rock-fringed hillock, one that we would expect to find in the semi-desert plains of the Karoo.  There is such a koppie slap-bang in the middle of the suburbs of Hermanus, the town on the southern coast of South Africa  —  amid the golf course, a school, houses, streets, a cemetery.  It’s a sudden hill which geologists estimate at 400 million years.

Criss-cross sedimentary patterns on the pathway suggesting the age.

Previously, this hill was called Steenkop (Stone Head), but the citizens of Hermanus wanted to honour Sir William Hoy (1868-1930) and today this gentleman and his wife lie buried on the summit of the hill.  There is a paradox in Sir William’s history with Hermanus.  In spite of the fact that he was a senior official in the South African railways, he did not want the town to be spoilt by trains running through it.  The station had already been built when the plans were cancelled.  It is there today  the station that never was.

On the slat walkway to the koppie you are surrounded by fynbos (lit. fine bush), a flower species unique to the Cape with its own classification in the biological kingdoms.

After a short walk we came to a cave in the rock face.  Entry was forbidden:  a signboard announced that this was an archaeological site.  In this cave, we were told, human beings wrought an existence fifty to seventy thousand years ago.  These findings were made between 1925 and 1935.

The cave – what still awaits us here?

From that time more discoveries of prehistoric human beings have been made on the southern coast.  I mention only Blombos Cave at Still Bay which has yielded implements dated at 100,000 years.  International archaeologists come in droves.

On the summit then, the graves of Sir William and Gertrude, woefully vandalized so that I couldn’t tell which was which.  On all sides lies Hermanus until it disappears in the curve of the bay all the way to Danger Point in the misty distance.  Behind us, the mountains.  Along that mountain ridge is the Rotary Road.  From those crags people leap with glider wings and float over the suburbs like sea gulls.

Murmuring presences

On the way down we passed rock formations that reminded me of the Heads of Easter Island.  Their murmur was without sound.

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

October, 2019


My photographs


My gratitude to Graham and Elna Randall


Heads by Anton Smit

I know little about the South African sculptor Anton Smit.  The work of his that I saw at Imibala Gallery in Somerset West, Western Cape, was impressive.  One of his images has become a personal icon.

I took a number of photographs of the heads that were exhibited and I have treated the images with my graphics programme.




(c) Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

September, 2019


My photographs


















Tanch’ŏng – colours of joy

The Drum balcony, Bongeunsa

The first thing that struck me in the temples of Korea was the colour.  I was hypnotized.  I was told that there is an ancient aesthetic principle that guides decoration.  It is called tanch’ŏng and there are rules about the primary colours — red, blue, yellow, light brown, black and white.  Colours are applied in traditional patterns, especially where the motif of the lotus appears.

Ceiling of the Reception Hall, Bongeunsa

The application of colours on the intricate wordwork invite comparison with filigree patterns.  This work can only be done with deep affection for and dedication to the task.  I saw some of the best examples on the beams of the temples at Bongeunsa and Bulguksa.

Eaves at one of the Bulguksa temples

Remarkable too, is the way in which the figurative and non-figurative blend.

Tile painting of a dragon

The use of colours could only come from feelings of joy, evoking admiration and wonder.  I was inspired.  And you see it too, in other aspects of Korean life  –  traditional costumes, fans and embroidery.

Modern fans at Insa-Dong


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

September, 2019


My photographs

Bongeunsa lotus



The French Resistance

It is fitting for me to honour the French Resistance at a time (Nov 2018-March 2019) when the Gilets jaunes protest movement in France has betrayed, in its destructive path, elements of neo-nazism.

Monument to the French Resistance, Antibes

In the Côte d’Azur the honouring of those who resisted the Occupation strikes me from time to time  –  the naming of a school, of a street, of a place, the museum, plaques and the monuments.

Monument aux Morts, Nice

“To the Resistance 1940 – 1945, came the time of oppression.  And freedom found, on our soil, men and women who, so that it lives on, accepted torture and death”.  The cross is the Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the Resistance.

Plaque to Baron Buchet who was deported by the Germans. Nice.

When you talk to people about the Resistance, their faces darken.  The times were indescribably cruel and the Resistance were as opposed to the collaborators as they were to the Germans.  Ian Ousby believes that the greatest tragedy of the Occupation was the French turning on the French.

A sculpture from the Museum of the French Resistance, Nice

A political student said to me Don’t believe that the whole of France supported the Resistance who numbered a few thousand.  Thus, betrayal of members of the Resistance was a lucrative business.

An English Resistance poster in the Museum, Nice

In The Plague by Albert Camus, the plague that befalls an Algerian town is in fact an allegory for the Occupation of France: “We are all involved”, says the main character.  Camus himself edited Combat, the main underground newspaper of the Resistance.

At Villefranche, the coastal town near Nice, there is a garden of remembrance on the fort ramparts.  It honours Jean Moulin who led the Resistance until he was betrayed in 1943.  It is said that he was tortured to death by Klaus Barbie, a member of the Gestapo, who was eventually extradited from Ecuador to France in 1967.  I am haunted by the face of Jean Moulin.


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

September, 2019 (written March, 2019)



Ian Ousby: The Occupation.  Pimlico, 1999.



My photographs


See as well

Shadow over France 1.7.2018






Second in a series of two

For those interested in pagodas, there is a feast at the National Cultural Museum of South Korea, Ichon, Seoul.  While some of them are old, my feeling is that some of them were made in our time.

It struck me that in the vicinity of temples, in surrounding woods, for example, that small stone piles were made by devotees from time to time.  I wondered whether pagodas and this urge or ritual for piling stones are related.

In the National Cultural History Museum, I saw the tallest pagoda I’ve seen.  I become confused trying to count the levels which, I am told, should always have an uneven number.  Pagodas, I was also told, played an important role in communities, perhaps like roadside chapels in Europe.  See the people at the bottom of the pagoda.  I had to mount three flights of stairs to get the photograph at this height.

If I look at the traditional forms of architecture in Korea, which also occur in China and Japan, I imagine that the pagoda with its ancient form, has had an influence, consciously or unconsciously, on architects.  Here is the main building in the other cultural history museum in Seoul.


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

September, 2019


My photographs



South Korea





First in a series of two

A pagoda in the garden of the National Cultural Museum, Ichon, Seoul.

I became aware of pagodas in the vicinity of temples in South Korea.  The architectural history of these constructions is probably prehistoric, as old as the building of towers.  In one form or another they are found throughout Asia — India, South Asia, China, Japan and Korea.  It is said that they were originally part of Taoism and that means that Buddhism would easily absorb these symbolic structures.

Another pagoda from the same garden.

Pagodas are associated with meditation, with the performing of certain rituals and have been a storing place for sacred objects.

This is the Seogatap pagoda at Bulguksa, in the south of South Korea, built in the 8th-century a.d.  

When I saw this pagoda I wasn’t aware of the history.  My Korean colleague insisted on being photographed with it.  I later discovered, this pagoda had for centuried been made of wood and after the destruction of Japanese invaders in the 1590s it was restored in granite form.  It is said that the first movable block printed texts were discovered in the second level of this pagoda.  Considering the history, I feel that this discovery must have been made prior to the invasions.

To protect their patrimony, the Koreans decided over the years to bring pagodas from various regions to the capital.  I had some doubt as to whether this one was in fact a pagoda, but the form is flexible.

The other well known pagoda at Bulguksa


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

September, 2019



Wikipedia pagodas

Note:  I mentioned the first wood block printed texts.  There is a good case to made that the Koreans, probably under the tutelage of Chinese monks, produced the first printed texts eighty years before Gutenberg did so in Europe.    


My photographs  

Pagoda garden at the National Cultural History Museum, Seoul





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