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

www.willwilltravel.wordpress.com

Les Semboules, Antibes

October, 2019

 

Sources

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

Wikipedia: Kantharos

 

Images

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

 

 

 

 

One Response to Septentrion, the child who danced to death

  1. Jo Koemer says:

    That is news to my old eyes!

    On Sun, Oct 13, 2019 at 3:23 PM Will Will Travel wrote:

    > Will van der Walt posted: “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 wor” >

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