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Sinbad the Sailor

Sinbad the Sailor (also spelled Sindbad; ; Arabic السندباد البحري Al-Sindibaad Al-Bahri) is a story-cycle of ancient Middle Eastern origin. Sinbad is a Persian word hinting at an Iranian origin - although the oldest texts of the cycle are in Arabic. Sinbad, the hero of the stories, is a sailor from Basrah, living during the Abbasid Caliphate. A variation of this name, Smbat, can also be found in Armenia, as well as the version Lempad of his father's name Lambad.

The stories themselves are based partly on real experiences of sailors around the Indian Ocean, partly on ancient poetry (including Homer's Odyssey and Vishnu Sarma's Panchatantra), and partly upon Arab, Indian and Persian collections of mirabilia. They recount the fantastic adventures of Sinbad during his voyages throughout the seas east of Africa and south of Asia.

The collection is tale 133 in Volume 6 of Sir Richard Burton's translation of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). This remains the classic translation in English (famed as much for Burton's footnotes as for the tales themselves), but modern readers are perhaps more familiar with abridged versions produced for a more juvenile audience. While Burton and other Western translators have grouped the Sinbad stories within the tales of Scheherazade in 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.

The tales

Sinbad the Porter and Sinbad the Sailor

Like the 1001 Nights' the Sinbad story-cycle has a frame story, which goes as follows: in the days of Haroun 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, 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 wondrous voyages, which he then proceeds to relate.

The First Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor

After dissipating the wealth left 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 fish on which trees have taken root. The fish dives into the depths, the ship departs without Sinbad, and Sinbad is saved by the chance of a passing barrel sent by the grace of Allah. He is washed ashore on an island, where the king befriends him and appoints him harbour-master. One day Sinbad's own ship arrives in port, and he reclaims his goods (still in the ship's hold). The king makes him rich presents, and he 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.

The Second Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor

On the second day of Sinbad's tale-telling - but the 549th night of Scheherazade's, for she has been breaking her tale each morning in order to tease the interest of the homicidal king - Sinbad the sailor tells how he grew restless of his life of leisure, and set to sea again, "possessed with the thought of travelling about the world of men and seeing their cities and islands." Accidentally abandoned by his shipmates, he finds himself stranded in an inaccessible valley of giant snakes and even more gigantic birds, the rocs, which prey upon them. The floor of the valley is carpeted with diamonds, and merchants harvest these by throwing huge chunks of meat into the valley which the birds then carry back to their nests, where the men drive them 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 Sailor

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 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. (Burton notes that the giant "is distinctly Polyphemus").

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. After further adventures (including a gigantic python from which Sinbad escapes thanks to his quick wits), he returns to Baghdad, wealthier than ever, where "I gave alms and largesse and clad the widow and the orphan, by way of thanksgiving for my happy return, and fell to feasting and making merry with my companions and intimates and forgot, while eating well and drinking well and dressing well, everything that had befallen me and all the perils and hardships I had suffered".

The Fourth Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor

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 refuses to eat the madness-inducing plant, and, when the cannibals have lost interest in him, 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 entombed 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").

The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor

"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, then Sinbad kills him after he has fallen off and 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 Sailor

"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 ("and whoso sitteth upon it never sickeneth"), and "a hundred thousand miskals of India 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 Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor

The ever-restless Sinbad sets sail once more, with the usual result. Cast up on a desolate shore, Sinbad makes 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 Allah! Extolled be the perfection of Allah!" 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 Allah 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 Sinbad is asked by Haroun al-Rashid 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 misfortunate 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 gainsayed, and Sinbad sets forth on this, his uniquely diplomatic voyage. The king of Serendip is well pleased with the Caliph's gifts (which include, inter alia, 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 - sometimes Sinbad the Porter receives 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.

Sinbad in popular culture

Sinbad's quasi-iconic status in Western culture has led to his name being appropriated for a wide range of uses in both serious and not-so-serious contexts, frequently with only a tenuous connection to the original tales.

Films, TV, animation

Many films, television series, animated cartoons, novels, and video games have been made, featuring Sinbad not as a merchant who happens to stumble into adventures, but as a dashing dare-devil adventure-seeker.

In high culture

  • In Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's suite Scheherazade, the 1st, 2nd and 4th movement focus on portions of the Sinbad story. Various components of the story have identifiable themes in the work, including Rocs and the angry sea. In the climactic final movement, Sinbad's ship (6th voyage) is depicted as rushing rapidly toward cliffs and only the fortuitous discovery of the cavernous stream allows him to escape and make the passage to Serindib.
  • In The Count of Monte Cristo, "Sinbad the Sailor" is but one of many pseudonyms used by Edmond Dantès.
  • 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. He also puns mercilessly on the name: Jinbad the Jailer, Tinbad the Tailor, Whinbad the Whaler, and so on.
  • Edgar Allan Poe wrote a tale called "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade". It depicts the 8th and final voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, along with the various mysteries Sinbad and his crew encounter; the anomalies are then described as footnotes to the story.
  • Polish poet Bolesław Leśmian's Adventures of Sindbad the Sailor is a set of tales loosely based on the Arabian Nights.
  • In John Barth's "The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor", "Sinbad the Sailor" and his traditional travels frame a series of 'travels' by the thinly anonymous 'Somebody the Sailor'.

In pop culture

In science

  • Copeland CS, Mann VH, Morales ME, Kalinna BH, Brindley PJ. "The Sinbad retrotransposon from the genome of the human blood fluke, Schistosoma mansoni, and the distribution of related Pao-like elements." BMC Evol Biol. 2005 Feb 23;5(1):20. PMID: 15725362
  • Marcelli A, Burattini E, Mencuccini C, Calvani P, Nucara A, Lupi S, Sanchez Del Rio M. "SINBAD, a brilliant IR source from the DAPhiNE storage ring." J Synchrotron Radiat. 1998 May 1;5(Pt 3):575-7. Epub 1998 May 1. PMID: 15263583
  • Favorov OV, Ryder D. "SINBAD: a neocortical mechanism for discovering environmental variables and regularities hidden in sensory input." Biol Cybern. 2004 Mar;90(3):191-202. Epub 2004 Mar 12. PMID: 15052482 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

Notes

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