Thursday, September 03, 2015


Where are the roots of this story in the world?


I will not compare this version with the one we find on Amazon-Kindle, the translation of the Arabian Nights by Richard Francis Burton published in 1885. There are as for Sindbad the Sailor some serious differences, since Burton keeps the Scheherazade fictional character as the story teller, hence the numerous references to the Prophet and Allah as well as the cutting up of the tales on the night pattern hence not necessarily at the end of a voyage in our case. Burton opposes Sindbad the Sailor to Sindbad the Porter whereas Andrew Lang opposes Sindbad the Sailor to Hindbad the Porter. I am not going to decide on that point which one is right.

The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885), subtitled A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, is a celebrated English language translation of One Thousand and One Nights (the “Arabian Nights”) – a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age (8th−13th centuries) – by the British explorer and Arabist Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890). It stood as the only complete translation of the Macnaghten or Calcutta II edition (Egyptian recension) of the "Arabian Nights" until the Malcolm C. and Ursula Lyons translation in 2008.” (Wikipedia, accessed September 3, 2015)

I will not discuss the supposedly heavy sexual content of Burton’s translation. Andrew Lang provides a translation that has erased Scheherazade and the references to Allah and the Prophet. The sexual content in this tale is reduced to very little. He apparently also cancelled a couple of smaller episodes here and there. He probably did not use the same manuscript or original, or took drastic editing decisions.

The question that is for me central is not so much what Sindbad the Sailor is telling us about his seven voyages, but why this tale was integrated in these Arabian Nights that we may think are landlocked and even desert-locked. This particular story is centered on not only the Persian Gulf but essentially the Indian Ocean. Sindbad the Sailor is a merchant from Baghdad who is systematically going on sea voyages to carry out his business. All voyages, except the last one are at his own initiative with the sole objective of making a great profit by selling the goods he takes along and bringing goods he will be able to sell in Baghdad. The last voyage is required by Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid to deliver a letter of thanks and presents to the King of the Indies, aka the Sultan of the Indies, aka the King of Serendib. This character is often thought to be the ruler of Sri Lanka, except that he could never be referred to as a sultan if he were because never was Sri Lanka governed by a Muslim ruler, in spite of the fact that “Serendib” is supposed to be an old name of Sri Lanka, but then I doubt the king of this island would pretend to be the king of the Indies. And that leads to a mystery: never India per se is present in these voyages. Sindbad the Sailor always ends up in islands of all sorts.

That island fixation is important since the Indian Ocean is reduced to being a vast and dangerous expanse of water with a few islands in the middle of it, or all around, exactly the reverse of any Persian or Arab vision of vast expanses of land, among which vast expanses of desert, with seascapes and ocean being marginal, on the fringe of the stories. The most famous stories are entirely land-contained if not land-limited. Sindbad the Sailor is an exception, the major exception along that line. This is a cultural fact that has to be explained.

Then Sindbad became superbly famous because of this very contrast. The second reason I can think of is the fact that it is repetitive with seven voyages and yet every single time it is different in the dangers Sindbad meets and in the people or animals he has to deal with, in other words it is suspenseful. But every voyage will confront him with the possibility to be annihilated, destroyed, killed and he will escape that fate a little bit by chance and a lot by ingenuity, inventiveness and his creative survival instinct. The main objective of these stories is to frighten the audience with the monstrosity of the dangerous beings Sindbad is confronted to.

Black cannibals, one black one-eyed cannibal giant, what he calls “rocs” which are giant snake-eating birds, giant snakes, a herd of wild elephants, pirates and many others. We can note the black people are generally hostile and in the sixth voyage the black people who rescue him are servants or subjects of the King of the Indies and we can wonder their degree of freedom since this King of the Indies will offer a slave woman to Caliph Haroun-al- Raschid. Slavery is thus a common state in these stories. That would have to be studied in more detail because the slave trade in the Indian Ocean mainly if not only concerned black Africans. The negative vision of black people could reinforce this fact that for the Muslim world black Africans were pagans and only potential slave commodities from workers to servants to farmhand to eunuchs castrated level to the abdomen.

At the same time some episodes like the fourth voyage when he marries a woman in a distant community where he is stranded and then learns that the spouse of a married dead person has to be buried alive along with his or her spouse and Sindbad ends up buried alive. That practice of the wife or wives, generally, being put to death in a way or another when the husband dies was common in the Hindu and Indian world, including Sri Lanka. This wife or these wives could be burned alive along with the corpse of the husband, or they could be given the water, meaning given some poison to drink, or probably some more imaginative solutions. And yet that country is not identified as India and it is one of the communities reached by sea and left the same way that is not declared to be an island per se though it is never really said to be a continental entity.

The next reason for the great success of this story is that Sindbad is always successful in his escape even when he is the last one to survive out of some kind of miracle. Then every single time he comes back from his perilous voyages rich and with goods that are worth fortunes. Sindbad the Sailor is a success story and this simple pattern has been imitated and multiplied in all kinds of adaptations that have most of the time little to do with the original story like his confrontation to Medusa. Modern authors seem to love crossing this Indian Ocean tale with Greek mythology and Mediterranean Sea stories. If we stay within the original story there is no allusion to the Mediterranean Sea and no direct allusion to Greek mythology. We can maybe see some parallel here and there in some episodes, like the Cyclops, but it is in no way a real imitation especially since Cyclopes have no reason to be considered originally and uniquely Greek in nature. In the same way rocs and eagles, giant birds globally, are more universal than connected to Prometheus or some other Greek mythological hero. Elephants are of course not Mediterranean, even those of Hannibal, and the total absence of blood drinking monsters is also the absence of any allusion to the old Bon civilization of Tibet, before the arrival of the Buddhists, a rare case of blood-drinking humans. Dracula seems along that line a recent invention with no direct sources or roots either in Turkic or Indo-European cultures and heritage.

One last reason for the popularity of this tale is the fact that Sindbad the Sailor is generous. He shares his riches easily like with Hindbad the Porter who gets some important sum of money after the telling of each voyage, but also when Sindbad comes back from his voyages he shares a lot of his profit with the poor of his community and with all the local mosques in Baghdad, though this case is only mentioned once at the end of the fourth voyage. Generosity is praised as a fundamental virtue in the Muslim world. Note it is also part of the tradition in the Buddhist and Hindu worlds. Note too there is absolutely no allusion at all to Buddhism, which makes me doubt that the friendly Indies of the sixth and seventh voyages is Sri Lanka whose dominant religion has always been Buddhism.

If the ocean seen as the main adventure space in this story is striking for an essentially land-locked and desert-dominated culture it is a basic and universal trait in most cultures. Yet this story based on international merchants do not refer to the famous silk roads and China, and that is also striking though China was essential in this Indian Ocean up to 1433 when Admiral Zheng He died and China decided under the influence of Confucian Mandarins to close itself from all sea commerce and ocean travelling, but yet the vast tradition of land Silk Roads was maintained and kept alive with caravans from China through Afghanistan, Iran and what is today Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey to Europe via Venice. That is also surprising, though it might be a sign that this story was integrated later in the Arabian Nights when the main Muslim empire was the Ottoman Empire and in India the Mogul Empire:

Mughal dynasty, Mughal also spelled Mogul, Arabic Mongol, Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin that ruled most of northern India from the early 16th to the mid-18th century, after which it continued to exist as a considerably reduced and increasingly powerless entity until the mid-19th century. The Mughal dynasty was notable for its more than two centuries of effective rule over much of India, for the ability of its rulers, who through seven generations maintained a record of unusual talent, and for its administrative organization. A further distinction was the attempt of the Mughals, who were Muslims, to integrate Hindus” (Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed September 3, 2015).

There could be a lot more to say about this particular tale by analyzing every single episode in full detail. But I have here examined the main interests and the main questions of the story. We must though keep in mind the number seven is deeply anchored in the Semitic tradition of the Genesis and the Old Testament’s creation of the world that is common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, though you cannot be surprised by the allusion to Solomon in the sixth voyage since six is Solomon’s number. There are other symbols of this type that should be examined. We just wonder from which oral tradition this tale is coming from.


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