Sardanapalian

This is a luxuriously long word; it avails itself of six vowels, five of which are spelled with a – a sort of AAAAA rating, like a five-star restaurant. It mostly taps the tip of the tongue, with a little pop of /p/ in the midst of it all. It presents a platter of mixed and sometimes exotic flavours: sardine, Sardinia, sardonic, sardonyx, Naples, Neapolitan, Nepal, pall, appalling… wait. The pal is actually said like “pale”, so the tastes become pay, pale, pail, paling, alien… and the whole word smacks a bit of Sarah Palin.

Well, the sound does. How about the meaning? You can guess from the capital S on it that it’s a proper noun or is based on one – either a place or a person. You will likely guess (correctly) from the ian ending that it’s an adjective. The echoes of place names might lead you to think it’s geographical, but in fact it’s formed from Sardanapalus, a probably at least partly mythical person: the last king of Assyria, as presented by Diodorus and, more recently (and influentially), Byron and others.

The image we have of Sardanapalus from these stories is of a man devoted to luxury, a hedonist, a voluptuary, a sybarite, an oral-retentive thelemite (so, really, rather Lord Byron’s kinda guy, one might say), an omnivorous omnisexual who liked to wear rich, “effeminate” clothing and make-up. Ruling was almost too much bother for him; he just liked the luxurious perks and the attention. And then, when a misjudgement led to the imminent threat of certain defeat, he had all his goods and treasures and servants piled together around him (yes, the servants and assorted odalisques too) and immolated himself and all of them. If he can’t win, why try – might as well take everyone down with him, eh? You get the picture – by Eugène Delacroix.

Not that it likely happened exactly like this in real history. The last king of Assyria, Ashurbanipal (on whose name Sardanapalus appears to be based), was rather more of a warrior. And it was his brother who was burned to death, not voluntarily either. And it was in Babylon, not Nineveh.

Oh, yes, Nineveh. That’s where Sardanapalus is supposed to have been for all of this. Does that name seem familiar? In the Bible, Jonah went to warn Nineveh that the wrath of the Lord was coming upon them and they had to repent. (Well, first he tried to escape having to do this, and there was a little adventure with a whale or big fish and so on.) Jonah was of course not Sardanapalian; he was the sort of agelast who wanted to see all Sardanapalians suffer and be destroyed. He was not inclined to mercy, and so he was mighty upset when, after the Ninevites repented as instructed, God actually spared them. (God gets one of His best lines, often quoted in the King James Version: “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”) Clearly this was a different story line just happening in the same place! The king in the story of Jonah repented in sackcloth and ashes. Sardanapalus wouldn’t be caught dead in sackcloth – though he was, of course, caught dead in ashes.

So anyway, Sardanapalus liked to throw a good orgy, rather like Varius Flavus and Curius Odus in Asterix in Switzerland. (Yes, my image of orgies comes first from Asterix comics. Obviously nudity and copulation were not an early key feature for my definition.) He just wanted to party all the time; he loved luxury. It is this aspect of his life – the clothing, makeup, luxuries – that Sardanapalian refers to. Actually doing work and facing adversity was too much for him; he gave up readily and took his retinue with him. So you tell me… is the resonance of Sarah Palin appropriate?

Thanks to Allan Jackson for suggesting today’s word.

2 responses to “Sardanapalian

  1. Pingback: odalisque | Sesquiotica

  2. I knew there was another place I’d seen this word… in Eugène Ionesco’s play The Lesson (quoting Donald M. Allen’s translation) the professor says, “And now, miss, Spanish is truly the mother tongue which gave birth to all the neo-Spanish languages, of which Spanish, Latin, Italian, our own French, Portuguese, Romanian, Sardinian or Sardanapalian, Spanish and neo-Spanish—” etc. The play is, as you may know or have guessed, of the absurdist school.

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