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 “impossibilities” motif (b)

Note: this text is extracted from Book X, chapter 60.

The story of the iron-eating mice corresponds to the twenty-first of the first book in Benfey’s translation, vol. Ii, p. 120. For references to the various Pañcatantra versions see Benfey, op. cit., vol. i, p. 283. It is the first of the ninth book of La Fontaine’s Fables, Le Depositaire Infidèle. If Plutarch is to be believed, the improbability of the iron-eating mice story is not so very striking, for he tells us, in his Life of Marcellus, that rats and mice gnawed the gold in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.

——The story is in all probability of Buddhistic origin, and first appears in Jātaka No. 218 (Cambridge edition, vol. ii, pp. 127, 128). It is, therefore, the earliest literary example of the “Impossibilities” motif. The motif has already occurred in Vol. Ill, p. 241, where I gave a few variants in a note on pp. 250, 251.

In this note I shall first give references to the present story in Indian fiction, and then add a few further examples of the “Impossibilities” motif.

The “Story of the Mice that ate an Iron Balance” occurs in all the Pañcatantra versions (see especially Hertel, op. cit., pt. i, p. 134; pt. ii, p. 55); in the Śuka Saptati Simplicior (R. Schmidt, 1894, No. 39); and in the Kathā Mañjarī as given in E. J. Robinson’s Tales and Poems of South India, p. 281.

The story, with slight variations, appears in the following collections of folk-lore stories:—

  • G. Jethabhai, Indian Folklore, p. 30;
  • Knowles, Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs, p. 199;
  • U preti, Proverbs and Folklore of Kumaun and Garhwal, p. 403;
  • O’Connor, Folk-Tales from Tibet, p. 23;
  • and Steele, Kusa Jātakaya, p. 250.

These are all described by W. N. Brown, op. cit., pp. 41-43.

The last two examples quoted differ considerably from the story in our text. In O’Connor’s tale a man leaves a bag of gold-dust in the care of a friend, who changes it for sand and tells his friend on his return home that the gold has turned into sand by itself. Somewhat later the dishonest friend sets out on a journey himself, and entrusts his son to the other man. The latter procures a monkey and teaches it to say: “Worthy father, I am turned into this.” The father returns, and on asking for his son is given the monkey, with the information that during his absence his son has changed into this. The monkey verifies this claim by continually exclaiming: “Worthy father, I am turned into this.” Matters are then satisfactorily arranged.

In Steele’s Siṃhalese story a gold pumpkin is alleged to have turned into brass during the owner’s absence. The counter-trick with the monkey is employed with successful results, although it is not taught to say anything. (Cf. Goonetilleke’s tale in the Orientalist, vol. i, p. 256 et seq., as quoted by Bloomfield, Amer. Journ. Phil., vol. xliv, 1923, pp. 113, 114.)

Brown gives the following very useful bibliography of the “Impossibilities” motif:—

  • Mahosadha Jātaka, No. 546, test 13 (Cambridge edition, vol. vi, p. 167);
  • Schiefner and Ralston, Tibetan Tales, p. 140;
  • Hertel, Das Pañcatantra, p. 145;
  • Parker, Village Folk-Tales of Ceylon, vol. i, p. 228, and vol. ii, p. 8;
  • Knowles, Folk-Tales of Kashmir, p. 407;
  • Knowles, Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs, p. 31;
  • Swynnerton, Romantic Tales from the Pañjab with Indian Nights’ Entertainment, pp. 78, 311, 463;
  • Hahn, Blicke in die Geisteswelt der heidnischen Kols, story 17;
  • Rouse, Talking Thrush, pp. 21, 199;
  • Ramaswami Raju, Indian Fables, p. 45;
  • Bompas, Folk-Lore of the Santal Parganas, p. 49;
  • D’Penha in Ind. Ant., vol. xxiii, p. 136;
  • Haughton, Sport and Folk-Lore in the Hīmālaya, p. 294;
  • Upreti, Proverbs and Folklore of Kumaun and Garhwal, p. 189.

For further literary references see Hertel, Tantrākhyāyika, Einleitung, p. 134.

Sir George Grierson sends me the following story from Meerut. It is taken from the Linguistic Survey of India, vol. ix, i, p. 230:

“One day the Emperor Akbar told Bīrbal to bring him some bullock’s milk;

‘Otherwise,’ said he,

‘I shall have you flayed alive.’

[The procedure of this operation is to put the sufferer into an oil-press and squeeze him out of his skin. Hence Bīrbal’s reference to it later on. Bīrbal, as court-jester, should have made some witty retort, and thus got out of the difficulty. His ready tongue failed him on this occasion.]

Filled with anxiety as to how he was to comply with this order, Bīrbal went home and lay down on his bed. His daughter wondered at his condition, and asked him what was the matter.

‘Nothing,’ said he. She persisted in inquiring the secret cause of his evident trouble, and at length he said to her,

‘The Emperor has ordered me to bring him some bullock’s milk, “Or else,” says he,

“I’ll have you squeezed in an oil-press.”

I had no reply to make, and I have come home after having accepted the task.’

Said she,

‘Father, this is a matter of very slight importance. Don’t worry about it.’

So Bīrbal got up and went about his daily business.

“Well, early next morning, what did this girl do but dress herself up in all her ornaments and fine apparel, and carry a lot of soiled clothes down to the bank of the Jamna, where it flowed below the Emperor’s fort. The Emperor was taking a walk on the battlements and saw Bīrbal’s daughter washing clothes in the river.

‘My girl,’ said he,

‘why have you come out to wash clothes so early in the morning?’

‘Your Majesty,’ she replied,

‘because my father was brought to bed of a son this morning.’

This made the Emperor angry, and he cried,

‘You impudent girl; well, upon my word, who ever heard of men having babies?’

She answered,

‘Well, upon my word, your Majesty, who ever heard of bullocks giving milk?’

The Emperor had no reply to make to this retort, so he simply told her to tell her father to come to court the first thing the next morning.

“Early next morning Bīrbal appeared in court, and the Emperor asked him if he had brought the bullock’s milk. He replied,

‘Your Majesty, peace be upon you, I sent it yesterday by my daughter’s hand.’

The Emperor had no reply to make to this.”

The motif travelled westwards and is found several times in the Nights. See, for instance, Burton, Supp., vol. iii (i.e. Supp., vol. iv, in the seventeen-volume editions), where the king is served with a cucumber containing pearls. He expresses astonishment at such a thing and refuses to believe in its genuineness.

Whereupon, referring to a previous miscarriage of the king’s justice, the answer is given:

“How much stranger then is it that thou wast not astonished to hear that the Queen, thy Consort, had, contrary to the laws of Allah’s ordinance, given birth to such animals as dog, cat, and musk-rat.”

Again, in the “Story of the Khazi and the Bhang-Eater” (Burton, Supp., vol. v, pp. 240, 241), we find an incident closely akin to that in the Bihari tale already quoted in Vol. Ill, p. 250. Two men are brought before the Wazir, both claiming ownership of a certain colt. One of the men asserts it is the produce of his cow. The rightful owner brings a she-mouse before the Wazir and calls for a sack which he fills with earth, and then orders some men to load the sack upon the mouse.

Whereupon they cry out:

“O our lord,’tis impossible that a mouse carry a sack full of earth.”

“How then,” answers the other,

“can a cow bear a colt? And when a mouse shall be able to bear a sack, then shall a cow bear a colt.”

For a rather different use of the motif see Nights (Burton, Supp., vol. i, pp. 224, 225). See also Chauvin, op. cit., ii, p. 92, vi, p. 63, and vii, p. 99-In his Popular Tales and Fictions, vol. ii, p. 59nl , W. A. Clouston cites an interesting parallel to the tale in our text from Crane's Italian Popular Tales.

I might note in passing that there is a saying both in Greek and Latin, “Where mice nibble iron,” apparently referring to the land of nowhere. (See Folk-Lore, vol. xviii, 1907, p. 21.)

In Europe the “Impossibilities” motif has long been familiar to us from Grimm's “Die kluge Bauerntochter,” No. 94, which appears in Margaret Hunt’s edition (vol. ii, p. 39 et seq.) as “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter.” As seen from Tawney’s note on page 62 n2, the story closely resembles the one quoted above about the sack and the mouse, except that the man begins casting his net on dry land. For an exhaustive treatment of this story and numerous references, see Bolte and Polivka, op. cit., vol. ii, p. 370 et seq. — n.m.p.

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