The Hydra of Our Day

Painting by Gustave Moreau – Public Domain

Preface to the Arabic Edition of The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic to be published by Kotob Khan, Cairo, March 2022.

To begin with pizza is to begin with the Hydra of our day.  In 2011 the comrades of Tahrir Square sent the comrades of Zuccotti Park not only a slice or two, but a whole pie.  Cairo and New York, great cities with vast proletarian resources, joined at last.  Signifying the world to come.  Long the bread basket in the world that’s passed, its grains now making the dough rising and spinning in nourishing outreach across seas and oceans.  Grains from the Nile, tomatoes from the Americas, fighting proletarians laughing with each other in the creative joy that surprises amidst the grief and misery of neoliberalism.

Yet the ideas and the inspiration of protesters in Tahrir Square had arrived before the pizza, by various means and circuits, from Cairo to New York.  Occupiers in Zuccotti Park held signs that read “We are all Khaled Said,” whose brutal murder at the hands of police had fired the movement from below in Cairo.  More solidarity arrived in late October 2011 in the persons and voices of Egyptian activists Asmaa Mahfouz and Ahmed Maher, who led a protest march down the streets of lower Manhattan in which the occupiers chanted “Al shaab yurid isqat Wall Street.”

(“The people demand the fall of Wall Street.”)  Maher carried with him the heft of the April 6 Youth Movement, a variant on the tried and true worker-student alliance, that had mobilized in 2008 to support striking textile militants in El-Mahalla El-Kubra.  The Hydra heads changed in the transatlantic passage, but there was a unifying boomerang effect as Egyptian activists had originally claimed inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the masses who had marched with him for civil rights and Black Power in America.

We are inspired by such actions and by the prospect of Arabic readers to explore further the hidden history of sailors, slaves, and commoners we represented as the Hydra.  We picked up the story with the Renaissance, the expansion of Europe, and the birth of capitalism, and ran with it for two and a half centuries.  Yet the story is older.  What is its origin?  The eighteenth-century savant, anthropologist of religion, and orientalist, Constantin Volney, thought it began, like most everything else, with the Nile.

The grandfather of history, Herodotus, was a Greek from a port city in south-eastern Turkey facing, as it were, the Nile delta.   Herodotus reported the genealogies of the rulers, with due acknowledgement that the Egyptians were the oldest human beings, giving us the year and its twelve months, as well as the names of the gods (Hercules included), and the notion of the immortal soul, the musical melody, and much else besides.  He listened with skepticism to what priests told him. He was by no means an “historian from below” yet when he noted the quantity of radishes, onions, and garlics consumed by the pyramid builders we see a practical instinct.  He also respected the common touch. The memory of the cruel kings who caused the pyramids to be built was detested. “Hence they commonly call the pyramids after Philitis, a shepherd [from Philistia, today’s Palestine] who at that time fed his flocks about the place.”  Were the pyramids built on common lands?

Herodotus lived in a world familiar with women like Sappho, and he paid close attention to the powerless: the buying, selling, and stealing of women. Firdaus, the “woman at point zero,” who bravely resisted violent patriarchy even unto death, in the account by Nawal El-Saadawi, was expropriated from a village on the Nile.  Herodotus knew slaves such as Æsop and explored the theriomorphic sides of Egyptian theologies in which gods take the form of animals, for example, Isis with the horns of a cow.  Here we begin to see the creative impulse that produced the Hydra.

Herodotus was not without class analysis: he named seven in Egypt, priests, warriors, cowherds, swineherds, tradesmen, interpreters, and boatmen.  He reported that Isis was a goddess of fertility and of the sea, the offspring of Sky (Nut) and Earth (Geb).  When her worship left the sea “between the lands” (Mediterranean) it was conveyed by sailors and slaves through the Gibraltar Strait, or the Pillars of Hercules.  Hercules who slew Hydra, was he a hero or a god?  Herodotus was not sure and investigated: one of the twelve Egyptian gods, and yet when he voyaged to one of his temples in Tyre, Phoenicia, to investigate further, he advised Greeks to treat him as both, god and man.  In either case Isis preceded him as pantocrator, the almighty, from whom the sufferers might suckle compassion and tenderness.

The worship of Isis began in Heliopolis four or five millennia ago, and then began its watery migration from the river to the sea via the Delta, from the sea to the ocean via the Straits, that is, Nilotic, Mediterranean, and Atlantic waters, and the terræ firmæ of Africa, Europe, and America.

The expansion of maritime trade led by Phoenicians (as Herodotus begins his History), three thousand years ago, began to form the nautical networks of the eastern Mediterranean from its far earlier source in the river Nile, said to have been composed from the tears of the great, polyonymous, goddess Isis.

“I invented seafaring,” sang Isis.  She was worshipped by elaborate processions to the sea or by the carriage of ships, “floats” we call them to this day, in ceremonial processions, then the most prominent of which, the ploiaphesia, or the Roman festival, Navigium Isidis in all its freedom, license, and joy is an origin of the what came to be known in Europe and the Americas as “carnival,” when the world is turned upside down.   Herodotus tells us the followers of Isis invented assemblies, processions, and litanies.

As this civilization swelled beyond the eastern Mediterranean first to the Greek, then to the Roman empire, and finally to the Atlantic, the origin myths began to change.  We find Isis in England.  In 1912 a jug with a graffito inscribed to Isis was dug up in Tooley Street by the river Thames or in 1825 when a statuette of her son, Horus, who was to become Pharoah, was found in the same river.  As Shakespeare wrote, “in the habiliments of the goddess Isis,” Cleopatra enthroned on her barge “beggared all description.”  The ancients had imagined what lay beyond those “pillars.”  Plato and the rest thought that Atlantis was located beneath its waters, the Atlantic mountains as Willliam Blake would say.

We conclude by greeting our readers in Egypt and across the Middle East.  This is not our first visit to Cairo.  An art show and symposium inspired by our work entitled “Hydrarchy: Transitional and Transformative Seas,” curated by Mia Jankowitz and Anna Colin on behalf of the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) Cairo, were staged in December 2011-January 2012, in the aftermath of the Tahrir protests.  The exhibition explored the sea as an alternative political space, the struggles of maritime migrants, and the Gaza Blockade on a ship appropriately called the Tahrir.  It included the Otolith Group’s film Hydra Decapita, which also took its name from this book.  We are proud that over the past twenty years that The Many-Headed Hydra has played a role in various international movements from below and hopeful that it may be able to do the same in Egypt and beyond.  For making this book possible we thank Ahmad Hassane, our translator; Samah Selim, who as leader of the Turjoman Translators’ Collective steered this project through to publication; and Karam Youssef, our publisher at Kotob Khan.

No one should be surprised by our stories for it was the interpreters and the boatmen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who brought us, along with their longings, their wisdom and their food: bread and beer from the grains barley, wheat, and smelt.  And the Hydra no sooner lost one head than grew two more.  The cults and religions of antiquity have been the vectors not only of state religions, and thus false or oppressive consciousness; they have also carried within themselves the contradictions (including class struggle) of the societies that formed them.   As they grow, these myths must include more workers; they cannot succeed as ruling-class tales alone.  Workers may not be appeased by them but they are present in them.  Hence, the many-headed Hydra. If Egypt gave us the first worker’s strike in world history, then Naples brought us the first proletarian revolution, led by the fisherman Masaniello, and along with it the first pizza pie!

We would like to thank our editor Samah Selim, our translator Ahmad Hassane, and our publisher Karam Youssef, all of whom have consented to have the preface published separately in English in advance of their own publication.

Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh are the authors of The Many-Headed Hydra.