Saturday, February 12, 2005

Midrash and Serendipity

The 5th-century CE midrash collection Lamentations Rabbah contains this interesting story:
An Athenian came to Jerusalem to learn wisdom. He spent three years there and left, having learned nothing. As he was about to leave, he bought himself a slave, blind in one eye. The one who sold it to him said, "I promise you that he is very wise and far-seeing!"

As they were going out the gate, the slave said, "Hurry, so we can catch up with the caravan in front of us." The Athenian said, "What caravan in front of us?"

The slave said, "There is a she-camel blind in one eye, pregnant with twins, and bearing two skins, a skin of wine on one side, and a skin of ointment on the other, and the camel-driver is a Gentile. They are four miles distant."

The Athenian said, "How do you know that the she-camel is blind in one eye?" He replied, "Because she grazed on one side only."

"And how do you know she is pregnant with twins?" "Because here she laid herself down and I see the marks of twins."

"And how do you know she is bearing two skins, a skin of wine on one side and a skin of ointment on the other?" He said, "From the drops of wine that soak in [on this side] and the ointment that bubbles up [on that side]."

"And how do you know that the camel-driver is a Gentile?" He said, "Because he urinated on the road, and no Jew urinates on the road."

He said, "How do you know that they are four miles distant?" He replied, "From the hooves, for the tracks are recognizable for four miles, but further than that they are not recognizable."

The pleasure of this anecdote lies in the Sherlock-Holmesian deductions of the slave; but its purpose is to show that even a half-blind Jewish slave is smarter (and more refined) than an Athenian Gentile.

Interestingly enough, a short Google search turned up no less than three further versions of the story: one from the Talmud, one from Islam, and one from Ceylon.

The Talmudic story (from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 104b) is in most respects the same as the tale told in the midrash. The slave has become two Jews captured in battle, and the Athenian has become their Gentile captor, and the five details about the camel in front have become three; but the ultimate point is the same, that "wherever [Jews] go they become princes to their masters."

An Islamic version (originally from Persia?) is found here (scroll down about halfway), in which the four sons of Nizar meet a camel-driver looking for his lost camel, which they are able to describe to him, giving four details, one provided by each brother. The only point of the story is to demonstrate the cleverness of the brothers, who go on to have other adventures. In this version, the only detail about the camel shared with the Jewish story is the half-blindness of the camel.

The last example comes from a tale published in 1557 called "The Three Princes of Serendip." In this tale the three princes have many of the same adventures as the four sons of Nizar, including the discovery of the lost camel. This version combines the four details of the Islamic version with others reminiscent of the Jewish version: the camel was carrying butter and honey (instead of wine and ointment) and the passenger was a pregnant woman, who, they surmised, had urinated in the road.

When I started reading the midrashic story, I had no idea that I would wind up following parallels to Serendip, which is apparently an old name for Ceylon. It's a perfect example, in fact, of serendipity. This is no idle pun, for it was the reading of "The Three Princes of Serendip" which led Horace Walpole in 1754 to coin the word serendipity, inspired by the three princes' "accidental sagacity." Walpole of course had no idea that the tale had a history connecting it to Jewish literature. The author of the essay in the link given above says:
The book ["Three Princes of Serendip"] contains fables from the Indian Panchatantra, but some of them are known in other lands. The tale with the widest currency is that of the one-eyed camel. The same tale is found in the Jewish Talmud and in the folklore of Korea, Ukraine, Serbia, and Croatia.
As far as I can tell, the version of the camel story contained in Lamentations Rabbah is the oldest written version. That does not necessarily imply that it is closer to the original tale — the later versions could preserve earlier traits — but it does seem to have been less studied by those investigating the origin of the more famous "serendipitous" version.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: The excerpt from Lamentations Rabbah that I translated above is from Gustav Dalman, Aramäische Dialektproben (1927), pp. 18-19.

1 comment:

Simon Gregg said...

Just googled to this - thatnks for the Midrash source and other links.
I came on the tale through Idries Shah's World Tales which contains the story "The Lost Camel", also accessible here:,M1

(if the link doesn't work - Google books - lost camel alakesa)

Interestingstly, in the light of all these ancient versions, some scolars believe that the author of "The Three Princes of Serendip' made up the tale, rather than getting it from eastern sources!