Monday, January 14, 2008


As a child, I was entranced by the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights. Their plots were so intricate, the settings inordinately more exotic than anything that could be found in traditional Greek tales, save those gleaned, polished and refurbished into suitable for child consumption portions, from Greek mythology, which were suitably reconstructed from fragments of archeological finds and were decidedly the quality and finish of Parian marble, quite devoid of the incense, cinnamon or myrrh from the intoxicating East. I would climb on top of the kitchen table, large kitchen spoon in hand, tea-towel wrapped turban-like around my head and pretend that I was Sinbad, or at least Douglas Fairbanks Junior pretending to be Sinbad, rowing my sturdy craft through the Indian Ocean. At some stage, I ventured across the Symplygades, the clashing rocks, too late to discover that I had inadvertedly floated drifted into the wrong myth, whereupon the incensed agents of Appollonius Rhodius, manifest in the guise of my parents, unceremoniously extricated me from the table and relegated me to the Colchis of the backyard, there to seek the Golden Fleece between the garden hose and the rhododendron.
Sinbad the Sailor is a story-cycle of ancient origin about a sailor from Basra in moder-day Iraq during the Abbasid Caliphate, who has numerous fantastic adventures during his voyages in the Indian Ocean. The collection is tale 133 in Volume 6 of Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Book of One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights, which remains the classic translation in English.
The Arabian Nights is comprised of tales told by the beautiful maiden Scheherezade over a period of a thousand and one nights. Each tale must so capture the interest of the King Sharyar that he will wish to hear it continued the next evening, for he has sworn to wed a virgin each night and have her executed the next morning, so convinced is he that a woman of good virtue cannot be found. At the close of the 536th night Scheherazade gives the setting for the tales of Sinbad: a poor porter pauses to rest on a bench outside the gate of a rich merchant's house, where he complains to God about the injustice of a world which allows the rich to live in ease while he must toil and yet remain poor. The owner of the house hears, and sends for the porter, and it is found they are both named Sinbad. The rich Sinbad tells the poor Sinbad that he became wealthy, “by Fortune and Fate,” in the course of seven fantastic voyages, which he then proceeds to relate.
These fantastic stories are based partly on real experiences of sailors around the Indian Ocean. As such, the Arabic tales of draw heavily upon ancient literature including Homer’s Odyssey, Appollonius Rhodius’ Voyage of Argo and Vishnu Sarma’s Panchatantra, and even 6th century Byzantine monk Cosmas Indicopleustes’ account of his voyage to India entitled ‘Christian topography,’ as well as other Indian and Persion epics.
The significant influence and borrowing from the Ancient Greek tradition that becomes apparent these stories seems to suggest that Greek mythology and culture, introduced to the Middle East by the conquests of Alexander and the occupation of the Seleucids and cultivated as a matter of prestige during the Byzantine era, managed to penetrate the local cultures to such an extent that they were informed them and were gradually assimilalted by them.
For instance, in the third voyage of Sinbad, he and his companions are cast up on an island where they are captured by “a huge creature in the likeness of a man, black of colour, ... with eyes like coals of fire and eye-teeth like boar's tusks and a vast big gape like the mouth of a well. Moreover, he had long loose lips like camel's, hanging down upon his breast and ears like two Jarms falling over his shoulder-blades and the nails of his hands were like the claws of a lion.” This monster begins eating the crew, beginning with the Master, who is the fattest. Sinbad hatches a plan to blind the giant with the red-hot iron spits with which the monster has been kebabing the ship’s company, and so he and the remaining men escape. The parallels with Homer’s Polyphemus are inescapable.
In the fourth voyage of Sinbad, he is shipwrecked. The naked savages amongst whom he finds himself feed his companions a herb which robs them of their reason. Again the parallel here with the Lotus-eaters in the Odyssey is glaring. Sinbad refuses to eat the plant, and escapes. A party of itinerant pepper-gatherers transports him to their own island, where their king befriends him and gives him a beautiful and wealthy wife. Here we see a parallel to the isle of the Phaeacians in the Odyssey. Too late Sinbad learns of a peculiar custom of the land: on the death of one marriage partner, the other is entombed alive with his or her spouse. Sinbad’s wife dies, leaving Sinbad trapped in an underground cavern, unable to escape until one day a wild animal shows him a passage to the outside, high above the sea. From here a passing ship rescues him and carries him back to Baghdad. This tale is evidently taken from the escape of Aristomenes the Messenian from the pit into which he had been thrown, a fox being his guide. Its insertion into the narrative speaks volumes as to the esteem the Arabic peoples held Greek literature and their scholarship of it.
Similarly, in Sinbad’s fifth voyage, is enslaved by the Old Man of the Sea, who rides on his shoulders with his legs twisted round Sinbad's neck and will not let go, riding him both day and night until Sinbad would welcome death, in clear parallel to the Triton of Greek mythology.
While Burton and other Western translators have grouped the Sinbad stories within the tales of Scheherazade, the Arabian Nights, its origin appears to have been quite independent from that story cycle and modern translations by Arab scholars often do not include the stories of Sinbad or several other of the Arabian Nights that have become familiar to Western audiences.
They are justified in so doing, since, quite apart from the heavy borrowing from the Greek tradition, the whole tale seems to have been adapted from a much earlier tale, circulating in Greek, purporting to have been written by Syntipas (the Greek form of Sinbad) supposedly an Indian philosopher of 100 BC, in his collection of tales known generally in Europe as The Story of the Seven Wise Masters.
They enjoyed immense popularity, and appeared in many Oriental and Western languages. The Greek tale, probably translated from a lost, early Syriac version, appears to be the earliest specimen of Romaic prose we have and is entitled: The most pleasing Story of Syntipas the Philosopher. It is preceded by an introduction in iambic verse by a certain Michael Andreopoulos, who states that it was executed by order of Michael, probably the duke of Melitine in Armenia. In this tale, the same misogynistic attitudes towards women are employed as in the Arabian Nights, while there are heavy parallels to the story of Joesph and Potiphar’s wife in the Old Testament.
The main outline is the same in the different versions of this tale, although they vary in detail and include different stories. A Roman emperor causes his son to be educated away from the court, in the seven liberal arts by seven wise masters. On his return to court his stepmother the empress seeks to seduce him. Her advances having been rejected, she accuses him to his father, who decides to put him to death. The hapless young stud is unable to defend himself, because to avert some danger presaged by the stars he is bound by one of his tutors to a week's silence. The device of the Arabian Nights is introduced by the wise men of the court, who in turn relate stories to dissuade the king from over-hasty punishment, each story being answered by the queen, who desires instant action to be taken. When the period of silence is over the prince speaks and establishes his innocence.
Such was the power of this tale to capture the imagination that it spread both back to the East, were it was reworked into the Sinbad Tale, and to the West. It was translated from Greek into Latin in the 12th century by Jean de Hauteseille, a monk of the abbey of Haute-Seille near Toul, with the title of Dolopathos. This in turn, was translated into French about 1210 by a troubadour named Herbers as Li romans de Dolopathos; another French version, Li Romans des sept sages, was also made. Various German, English, and Spanish booklets of the cycle were also made, generally based on a different Latin original. Three metrical romances probably based on the French, and dating from the 14th century, exist in English. The most important of these is The Sevyn Sages by Rolland of Dalkeith, published 1837. There is even a traditional Serbian epic folksong devoted to the story.
The Greek Syntipas cycle of tales had an enduring effect upon the formation of Renaissance and indeed world literature. Giovanni BOccaccio used many of them for his Decameron, the Latin romance was frequently printed in the 15th century, and Wynkyn de Worde printed an English version about 1515, one of the earliest printed English books to enjoy a wide circulation. In his Ulysses, James Joyce uses ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ as an alias for the character of W.B. Murphy and as an analogue to Odysseus.
Casting aside such attempts to Americanise our thoroughly Greek, albeit Semitised hero, as are evident in diverse Holywood masterpieces to wit: Popeye the Sailor meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936) (though the Pundits are out as to whether Popeye was actually based upon a notorious real-life Greek-American sailor known as Gourlomatis) and Sinbad Jr (1965), if anything is to be truly drawn from this amazing confluence of tales, motifs and inspiration, it is this: that the roving spirit that motivates humanity to adventure and escape is truly universal. Our literary tradition is venerable enough to permit us to attest that our people have been possesed of it from the outset and we have shared it liberally with our neighbours. What never ceases to amaze, is the manner in which the literary tradition flows down the Greek rivers and rivulets into the great global sea, only to have it wash back up years alter upon home shores, vitally changed, though intrinsically the same.
We leave you this week with a message from the man himself: "Know, O Hammal, that my story is a wonderful one, and thou shalt hear all that befel me and all I underwent ere I rose to this state of prosperity and became the lord of this place wherein thou seest me; for I came not to this high estate save after travail sore and perils galore, and how much toil and trouble have I not suffered in days of yore!” No pain no gain, sailor.


First published in NKEE on 14 January 2008