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Having balanced my cargo exactly

Sinbad the Sailor: "Having balanced my cargo exactly..." Drawing by Milo Winter (1914)

"The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor" (also spelled Sindbad; Arabic: السندباد البحري ‎ as-Sindibādu al-Baḥriyy) is a folk tale about a fictional sailor and the hero of a story-cycle of Middle Eastern origin; he is described as living in Baghdad, during the Abbasid Caliphate. During his voyages throughout the seas east of Africa and south of Asia, he has fantastic adventures going to magical places, meeting monsters, and encountering supernatural phenomena.

Origins and sourcesEdit

The tales of Sinbad are a relatively late addition to the One Thousand and One Nights – they don't feature in the earliest 14th-century manuscript, and appear as an independent cycle in 17th and 18th century collections. The first known point at which they are associated with the Nights is a Turkish collection dated 1637.

Traceable influences include the Homeric epics (long familiar in the Arabic-speaking world, having been translated into that language as long ago as the 8th century A.D., at the court of the Caliph al-Mahdi), Pseudo-Callisthenes's "Life of Alexander" from the late-3rd/early 4th century A.D. via the 9th century "Book of Animals" of al-Jahiz, and, even earlier, in the ancient Egyptian "Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor". More "recent" sources include Abbasid[disambiguation needed] works such the "Wonders of the Created World", reflecting the experiences of 13th century Arab mariners who braved the Indian Ocean.

The Sinbad cycle is set in the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid. It first appeared in English as tale 120 in Volume 6 of Sir Richard Burton's 1885 translation of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

The talesEdit

Sinbad the Sailor and Sinbad the PorterEdit

Like the One Thousand and One Nights, the Sinbad story-cycle has a frame story which goes as follows: in the days of Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad, a poor porter (one who carries goods for others in the market and throughout the city) pauses to rest on a bench outside the gate of a rich merchant's house, where he complains to Allah 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, finding that 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 wondrous voyages, which he then proceeds to relate.

The First Voyage of Sinbad the SailorEdit

After dissipating the wealth left to him by his father, Sinbad goes to sea to repair his fortune. He sets ashore on what appears to be an island, but this island proves to be a gigantic sleeping whale on which trees have taken root ever since the world was young. Awakened by a fire kindled by the sailors, the whale dives into the depths, the ship departs without Sinbad, and Sinbad is saved by the chance of a passing wooden trough sent by the grace of Allah. He is washed ashore on a densely wooded island. While exploring the deserted island he comes across one of the king's grooms. When Sinbad helps save the King's mare from being drowned by a sea horse (not a seahorse as we know it, but a supernatural horse that lives underwater), the groom brings Sinbad to the king. The king befriends Sinbad and so he rises in the king's favour and becomes a trusted courtier. One day, the very ship on which Sinbad set sail docks at the island, and he reclaims his goods (still in the ship's hold). Sinbad gives the king his goods and in return the king gives him rich presents. Sinbad sells these presents for a great profit. Sinbad returns to Baghdad where he resumes a life of ease and pleasure. With the ending of the tale, Sinbad the sailor makes Sinbad the porter a gift of a hundred gold pieces, and bids him return the next day to hear more about his adventures.

The Second Voyage of Sinbad the SailorEdit

On the second day of Sinbad's tale-telling (but the 549th night of Scheherazade's), Sinbad the sailor tells how he grew restless of his life of leisure, and set to sea again, "possessed with the thought of traveling about the world of men and seeing their cities and islands." Accidentally abandoned by his shipmates again, he finds himself stranded in an island which contains roc eggs. He attaches himself to a roc and is transported to a valley of giant snakes which can swallow elephants (like the Bashe); these serve as the rocs' natural prey. The floor of the valley is carpeted with diamonds, and merchants harvest these by throwing huge chunks of meat into the valley: the birds carry the meat back to their nests, and the men drive the birds away and collect the diamonds stuck to the meat. The wily Sinbad straps one of the pieces of meat to his back and is carried back to the nest along with a large sack full of precious gems. Rescued from the nest by the merchants, he returns to Baghdad with a fortune in diamonds, seeing many marvels along the way.

The Third Voyage of Sinbad the SailorEdit

Restless for travel and adventure, Sinbad sets sail again from Basra. But by ill chance 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 large canine 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 Reis (captain), who is the fattest. (Burton notes that the giant "is distinctly Polyphemus").

Sinbad hatches a plan to blind the beast (again, obvious parallels with the story of Polyphemus in Homer's Odyssey) with the two red-hot iron spits with which the monster has been kebabing and roasting the ship's company. He and the remaining men escape on a raft they constructed the day before. However, the Giant's mate hits most of the escaping men with rocks and they are killed. After further adventures (including a gigantic python from which Sinbad escapes using his quick wits), he returns to Baghdad, wealthier than ever.

The Fourth Voyage of Sinbad the SailorEdit

Impelled by restlessness Sinbad takes to the seas again, and, as usual, is shipwrecked. The naked savages amongst whom he finds himself feed his companions a herb which robs them of their reason (Burton theorises that this might be bhang), prior to fattening them for the table. Sinbad realises what is happening, and refuses to eat the madness-inducing plant. When the cannibals have lost interest in him, he 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.

Too late Sinbad learns of a peculiar custom of the land: on the death of one marriage partner, the other is buried alive with his or her spouse, both in their finest clothes and most costly jewels. Sinbad's wife falls ill and dies soon after, leaving Sinbad trapped in an underground cavern, a communal tomb, with a jug of water and seven pieces of bread. Just as these meagre supplies are almost exhausted, another couple—the husband dead, the wife alive—are dropped into the cavern. Sinbad bludgeons the wife to death and takes her rations.

Such episodes continue; soon he has a sizable store of bread and water, as well as the gold and gems from the corpses, but is still 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, where he gives alms to the poor and resumes his life of pleasure. (Burton's footnote comments: "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. The Arabs in an early day were eager students of Greek literature.") Similarly, the first half of the voyage resembles the Circe episode in The Odyssey, with certain differences: while a plant robbed Sinbad's men of their reason in the Arab tales, it was only Circe's magic which "fattened" Odysseus' men in The Odyssey. It is in an earlier episode, featuring the 'Lotus Eaters', that Odysseus' men are fed a similar magical fruit which robs them of their senses.

The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad the SailorEdit

"When I had been a while on shore after my fourth voyage; and when, in my comfort and pleasures and merry-makings and in my rejoicing over my large gains and profits, I had forgotten all I had endured of perils and sufferings, the carnal man was again seized with the longing to travel and to see foreign countries and islands." Soon at sea once more, while passing a desert island Sinbad's crew spots a gigantic egg that Sinbad recognizes as belonging to a roc. Out of curiosity the ship's passengers disembark to view the egg, only to end up breaking it and having the chick inside as a meal. Sinbad immediately recognizes the folly of their behavior and orders all back aboard ship. However, the infuriated parent rocs soon catch up with the vessel and destroy it by dropping giant boulders they have carried in their talons.

Shipwrecked yet again, Sinbad 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. (Burton's footnote discusses possible origins for the old man—the orang-utan, the Greek triton—and favours the African custom of riding on slaves in this way.)

Eventually, Sinbad makes wine and tricks the Old Man into drinking some. Sinbad kills him after he has fallen off, and then he escapes. A ship carries him to the City of the Apes, a place whose inhabitants spend each night in boats off-shore, while their town is abandoned to man-eating apes. Yet through the apes Sinbad recoups his fortune, and so eventually finds a ship which takes him home once more to Baghdad.

The Sixth Voyage of Sinbad the SailorEdit

"My soul yearned for travel and traffic". Sinbad is shipwrecked yet again, this time quite violently as his ship is dashed to pieces on tall cliffs. There is no food to be had anywhere, and Sinbad's companions die of starvation until only he is left. He builds a raft and discovers a river running out of a cavern beneath the cliffs. The stream proves to be filled with precious stones and becomes apparent that the island's streams flow with ambergris. He falls asleep as he journeys through the darkness and awakens in the city of the king of Serendib (Ceylon, Sri Lanka), "diamonds are in its rivers and pearls are in its valleys". The king marvels at what Sinbad tells him of the great Haroun al-Rashid, and asks that he take a present back to Baghdad on his behalf, a cup carved from a single ruby, with other gifts including a bed made from the skin of the serpent that swallowed the elephant[a] ("and whoso sitteth upon it never sickeneth"), and "a hundred thousand miskals of Sindh lign-aloesa", and a slave-girl "like a shining moon". And so Sinbad returns to Baghdad, where the Caliph wonders greatly at the reports Sinbad gives of the land of Ceylon.

The Seventh and Last Voyage of Sinbad the SailorEdit

The ever-restless Sinbad sets sail once more, with the usual result. Cast up on a desolate shore, he constructs a raft and floats down a nearby river to a great city. Here the chief of the merchants weds Sinbad to his daughter, names him his heir, and conveniently dies. The inhabitants of this city are transformed once a month into birds, and Sinbad has one of the bird-people carry him to the uppermost reaches of the sky, where he hears the angels glorifying God, "whereat I wondered and exclaimed, 'Praised be God! Extolled be the perfection of God!'" But no sooner are the words out than there comes fire from heaven which all but consumes the bird-men. The bird-people are angry with Sinbad and set him down on a mountain-top, where he meets two youths who are the servants of God and who give him a golden staff; returning to the city, Sinbad learns from his wife that the bird-men are devils, although she and her father are not of their number. And so, at his wife's suggestion, Sinbad sells all his possessions and returns with her to Baghdad, where at last he resolves to live quietly in the enjoyment of his wealth, and to seek no more adventures.

Burton includes a variant of the seventh tale, in which Haroun al-Rashid asks Sinbad to carry a return gift to the king of Serendib. Sinbad replies, "By Allah the Omnipotent, O my lord, I have taken a loathing to wayfare, and when I hear the words 'Voyage' or 'Travel,' my limbs tremble". He then tells the Caliph of his misfortune filled voyages; Haroun agrees that with such a history "thou dost only right never even to talk of travel". Nevertheless, a command of the Caliph is not to be negated, and Sinbad sets forth on this, his uniquely diplomatic voyage. The king of Serendib is well pleased with the Caliph's gifts (which include, among other things, the food tray of King Solomon) and showers Sinbad with his favour. On the return voyage the usual catastrophe strikes: Sinbad is captured and sold into slavery. His master sets him to shooting elephants with a bow and arrow, which he does until the king of the elephants carries him off to the elephants' graveyard. Sinbad's master is so pleased with the huge quantities of ivory in the graveyard that he sets Sinbad free, and Sinbad returns to Baghdad, rich with ivory and gold. "Here I went in to the Caliph and, after saluting him and kissing hands, informed him of all that had befallen me; whereupon he rejoiced in my safety and thanked Almighty Allah; and he made my story be written in letters of gold. I then entered my house and met my family and brethren: and such is the end of the history that happened to me during my seven voyages. Praise be to Allah, the One, the Creator, the Maker of all things in Heaven and Earth!".

In some versions we return to the frame story, in which Sinbad the Porter may receive a final generous gift from Sinbad the Sailor. In other versions the story cycle ends here, and there is no further mention of Sinbad the Porter.

See alsoEdit

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