Kathasaritsagara (the Ocean of Story)

by Somadeva | 1924 | 1,023,469 words | ISBN-13: 9789350501351

This is the English translation of the Kathasaritsagara written by Somadeva around 1070. The principle story line revolves around prince Naravāhanadatta and his quest to become the emperor of the Vidhyādharas (‘celestial beings’). The work is one of the adoptations of the now lost Bṛhatkathā, a great Indian epic tale said to have been composed by ...

Note on the “letter of death” motif

Note: this text is extracted from Book VII, chapter 42.

The well-known “Letter of Death” motif has already appeared twice in the present work—firstly in the story of Śivavarman (lc), Vol. I, pp. 51, 52; and secondly in that of Phalabhūti (24), Vol. II, p. 114, where I added a short note on the titles given to the motif.

They are: “Uriah letter,” “Bellerophon letter” and “Mutalammis letter.” As each of these has from time to time been considered the standard example of the motif it will, perhaps, be as well to describe them briefly.

The familiar story of Uriah is told in 2 Sam. 11. After Uriah’s wife, Bath-sheba, had become pregnant by David, he got Joab to send Uriah to him, on the pretence of asking details of the siege of Balbah.

“And it came to pass in the morning, that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah.

“And he wrote in the letter, saying, Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die.

“And it came to pass, when Joab observed the city, that he assigned Uriah unto a place where he knew that valiant men were.

“And the men of the city went out, and fought with Joab: and there fell some of the people of the servants of David; and Uriah the Hittite died also.”

The well-known story of Bellerophon occurs in the Iliad, vi, 155 et seq. Anteia, the wife of Proitos, became enamoured of Bellerophon, but her love was not reciprocated (see Vol. II, p. 120).

“Then spake she lyingly to King Proitos: ‘Die, Proitos, or else slay Bellerophon, that would have converse in love with me against my will.’ So spake she, and anger gat hold upon the king at that he heard. To slay him he forbare, for his soul had shame of that; but he sent him to Lykia, and gave him tokens of woe, graving in a folded tablet many deadly things, and bade him show these to Anteia’s father, that he might be slain. So fared he to Lykia by the blameless convoy of the gods” (trans. by Lang, Leaf and Myers, 1912).

On his arrival at Lykia, Anteia’s father, in accordance with instructions given in the letter, considered the best way of getting rid of Bellerophon was to give him seemingly impossible tasks. Thus at this point the “Letter of Death” motif is blended with the “Tasks” motif. After he had slain Chimaira and conquered the Solymi and the Amazons, the king realised that he was the brave offspring of a god, and so far from putting him to death, married him to his daughter.

The title by which the motif is known in the Moslem East is, however, “Mutalammis letter.” This phrase had its origin in one of the most celebrated incidents of early Arab history. Al-Mutalammis, whose real name was Jarīr, son of ‘Abd al-Masīḥ, was an eminent poet of the middle of the sixth century a. d. His name is inseparably linked with that of his nephew Tarafa, who has been described as the greatest poet of the Arabs after Imr al-Kais. From early youth his genius for poetry, and especially for satirical verse, was remarkable. As time went on he surpassed all his contemporary poets in a life of debauchery and gambling, and after many vicissitudes in Baḥrayn, on the Persian Gulf, he set out with his uncle Mutalammis to ‘Amr ibn Hind, King of al-Ḥira (a.o. 554-570). This king was a warlike ruler and specially noted for his great cruelty. (For a bibliography of his life and times see the Encyclopaedia of Islām, vol. i, 1913, p. 335.)

‘Amr appointed them to attend on his brother Ḳābūs, who, however, treated the two poets with great indignity, which, as can be imagined, gave rise to some verses about him. They began:

Would that we had instead of ‘Amr
A milch-ewe bleating round our tent !”

Tarafa’s brother-in-law was a very fat man, of whom he mockingly said: There is naught good about him but his money, and that waist which is so slender when he stands.” ‘Amr joked the brother-in-law about this and in return was informed of the verse that had been written about him. It was these incidents that started the trouble at the court.  On another occasion Tarafa was seated at table opposite the king’s sister. Struck with her beauty, he exclaimed:

Behold, she has come back to me,
My fair gazelle whose earrings shine;
Had not the king been sitting here,
I would have pressed her lips to mine.”

This further insult decided the king to take action. He summoned the two poets and gave them each a letter sealed with the royal seal and addressed to Abū Kārib, governor of Hajar or Baḥrayn.

Taking the letters, the two men set out, but when they had passed outside the city and were proceeding along the banks of the Euphrates the suspicions of Mutalammis were aroused. He decided to open his letter and find out the contents. As neither of them could read he asked a boy of al-Ḥira to read it for him. It was a request to the governor to put the bearer to death—some say by maiming and burying alive. Mutalammis immediately threw the letter into the river, and implored his nephew to do likewise, but the latter refused, disbelieving what the boy had read, fearing to break the royal seal, and thinking that ‘Amr would never offend the great tribe of Bakr by encompassing his death. All entreaties on the part of Mutalammis were unavailing, so they parted. Ṭarafa, continuing his journey, was immediately put to death, and Mutalammis, turning his camel westwards, escaped to Syria to the court of Ghassān.

For various accounts of the life and works of Ṭarafa and Mutalammis see “Lettre sur les poëtes Tarafah et al-Moutalammis, par M. A. Perron à M. Caussin de Perceval,” Journal Asiatique, 3rd series, vol. xi, pp. 46-69 and 215-257; Hammer-Purgstall, Litcraturgeschichte der Araber, Part I, vol. i, Vienna, 1850, pp. 163-167; T. Chenery, The Assemblies of Al-Ḥarīri, vol. i ( 1869), Oriental Translation Fund, Royal Asiatic Society, 1898, pp. 358-362 (see also p. 162); C. J. Lyall, Translations of Ancient Arabic Poetry, 1885, pp. 79-80; R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs, 1907, pp. 107-109; G. Freytag, Arabum Proverbia, Bonn, 1838, i, 721; and Vullers, Tarafæ Moallaca cum Zuzenii Scholiis, Paris, 1 829. For the two latter references I am indebted to Professor D. S. Margoliouth. A short story about Mutalammis and his wife Umaymah occurs in the Nights (Burton, vol. v, pp. 74, 75), and Burton gives a note on the poet in Supp., vol. vi, p. 94, where an example of our motif occurs.

None of the above three titles seems to be sufficiently explanatory to embrace the numerous varieties of the motif as they occur in folk-lore. In the Uriah story, the scheme succeeds and the victim is killed. In the Greek story of Bellerophon, the letter is delivered untouched and he only escapes because of his divine birth and consequent supernatural powers. In the Arabic story, Mutalammis, who appears only to have been drawn into the trouble owing to his relationship to Tarafa, never delivers the letter at all, but destroys it. Thus in each of the three stories the incidents vary considerably, and there appears to be no reason why any particular one should give its name to the motif But if we call it by a comprehensive name such as Letter of Death” we can take all the above examples as different variants of the motif.

In fiction the theme of tales introducing the Letter of Death” is usually as follows. For some reason or other the hero is considered best out of the way. He is accordingly dispatched with a letter ordering the bearer to be killed. On his way he either meets his rival, who unknowingly delivers the letter for him, or else he falls asleep and the contents of the letter are altered either in ignorance or on purpose, and so the hero escapes his fate.

In the Kathākoça (Tawney, p. 168 et seq.) is the Story of Dāmannaka,” which contains an interesting version which appears in several other collections. The merchant Sāgarapota overhears certain hermits saying that the boy Dāmannaka, a penniless orphan, will be master of his house. He tries various means to get rid of the boy, all of which fail. On one occasion he sends the boy home to his wife with a letter. The story then proceeds as follows:—

Dāmannaka started on his journey. When he reached the garden of Rājagṛha he was tired, and he lay down in the temple of the God of Love to refresh himself. Sleep fell upon him. In the meanwhile the daughter of that very merchant, Viṣā by name, came there to worship the God of Love. She saw Dāmannaka, with his broad eyes and broad chest; and while she was looking at him her eye fell on her father’s letter, so she took it from the end of his stick and read it. It ran as follows: Health and prosperity! Sāgarapota from the cattle farm lovingly embraces Samudradatta, and tells him what is to be done:

‘Before he has time to wash his feet, you must immediately bestow on this man
Viṣa (poison) and so make my heart free from the thorn of pain.’”

She thought: No doubt my father has found here a bridegroom fit for me; as for the marriage having to be performed this very day, it means that to-day is an auspicious day, so the marriage must take place to-day. As for the order that Viṣa is to be given, in his eagerness he has written an anusvāra instead of the long ā, so I will put it right.” Having thus reflected, she took some collyrium from her eyes and made the letter ā instead of a dot; and sealing the letter up again, she left it as it was, and went home. After a short time Dāmannaka reached the house. He gave the letter to Samudradatta. Samudradatta took the letter and read it and considered it. He said: “My fathers order is law to me”; so he collected all the necessary preparations for the marriage, and all the host of his relations assembled. On that very day, as soon as an auspicious moment arrived, Dāmannaka was married.

The story appears in the Bhakta-māla of Nābhādāsa, a work on the history of the saints of the Bhāgavata reformation started chiefly by Rāmānuja and Madhva about the same time as Somadeva wrote the Kathā Sarit Sāgara. See G. A. Grierson, “Gleanings from the Bhakta-Māla,” Journ. Roy. As. Soc., April 1910, p. 295. (For the other two parts of the article see ditto, July 1909, p. 607 et seq., and Jan. 1910, p. 87 et seq.) It was briefly related in Stein and Grierson’s Hatim's Tales, p. xlvi. Cf. also N. B. Godabole, “The Story of Candrahāsya,” Ind. Ant., vol. xi, 1882, pp. 84-86.

The story is also found in Bloomfield, Life and Stories of Pārçvanātha, p. 160, where a useful note is given; in Hertel, “Die Erzählung von Kaufmann Campaka,” Zeit. d. d. Morg. Gesell., vol. lxv, 1911, pp. 458, 459; and ditto in vol. vii of Indische Erzahler, p. 38 el seq.

For other Eastern variants see Velten, Märchen und Erzählungen der Suaheli, 1898, p. 198; Lidzbarski, Geschichten und Lieder aus den neuara - mäischen Handschriften der K. Bibliothek zu Berlin, 1896, p. 267 et seq.; Steel and Temple, Wide-Awake Stories, p. 410; Day, Folk-Tales of Bengal, p. 120; Stokes, Indian Fairy Tales, pp. 53 et seq., and 184 et seq.; Ind. Ant., vol. iii, p. 321.

For variants from all parts of the world see Bolte, op. cit., vol. i, p. 276 et seq.

The most comprehensive article, however, is that by Cosquin, “La Légende du Page de Sainte Elisabeth de Portugal,” Études Folkloriques, p. 73 et seq. —n.m.p.

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