In Brief

Bloom calls Zoe "houri," a Persian and Arabic word which has no relation to the English "whore." Houris are the voluptuous young women who, according to the Quran, consort with virtuous men in the afterlife.

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The OED lists early uses of the word in Samuel Johnson's play Irene (1730s) and Byron's The Siege of Corinth (1816), both in plural forms indicating familiarity with the Islamic doctrine that believers who have observed prescribed rites and done good deeds will be rewarded with multiple physically perfect wives in paradise. Johnson: "Suspend thy passage to the seats of bliss, / Nor wish for houries in Irene's arms." Byron: "Secure in paradise to be / By Houris loved immortally."

Joyce might have encountered the word in various English-language texts, but another detail in Circe suggests that he may have known something of its eastern origins. In another exchange with Zoe that occurs many pages earlier in the book but perhaps just a minute earlier in the conversation (their dialogue is interrupted by the long hallucinatory sequence in which Bloom becomes lord mayor, king, emperor, president, messiah, and mother), he says, " I never loved a dear gazelle but it was sure to...," after which a stage direction notes that "Gazelles are leaping, feeding on the mountains."

Bloom's "I never loved a dear gazelle" alludes to a Thomas Moore poem and Lewis Carroll's parody of it. But the Arabic word 'ḥūr' (حُور) can be translated as "gazelle-eyed." The OED translates two forms of the word as "gazelle-like in the eyes" and "to be black-eyed like a gazelle."

Might the mention of gazelles just before the dream sequence, and the mention of houris just after it, cohere with Jimmy Henry's observation that Bloom's enlightened rule inaugurates "the year I of the Paradisiacal Era"? That proclamation comes in the middle of the hallucination, at line 1632 of Gabler's lineated text, 310 lines after the references to gazelles and 357 lines before Bloom calls Zoe "houri."

John Hunt 2017
Cover of Mehrdad Balali's autobiographical novel about Tehran in the aftermath of the shah's overthrow. Source: www.amazon.com.