lethargic_man: (Default)
I was telling [personal profile] green_knight yesterday about my reading through Sir Henry Yule's commentary on Marco Polo; [personal profile] green_knight had, it seems, missed my blog posts on some of the coolest stuff in the book, but seemed interested, so I've gone back and tagged them (there's only a few) in case anyone else wants to catch up.

Here's something I thought I blogged last year but evidently didn't. It's fairly well-known that in the Middle Ages people thought salamanders were lizard-like creatures which could tolerate the heat of a fire, and indeed lived in them. Polo sheds some light on how this myth arose, and why (I'm going to quote out of order here, for my own purposes). Polo writes about how fibres made from salamander are:
made into napkins. When first made these napkins are not very white, but by putting them into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow. And so again whenever they become dirty they are bleached by being put in the fire.
Have you figured out what this is yet? Here's some more clues from Polo:
At the northern extremity of [Chingintalas] province there is a mountain in which [...] there is a vein of the substance from which Salamander is made. For the real truth is that the Salamander is no beast, as they allege in our part of the world, but is a substance found in the earth; and I will tell you about it.

Everybody must be aware that it can be no animal's nature to live in fire, seeing that every animal is composed of all the four elements. Now I, Marco Polo, had a Turkish acquaintance of the name of Zurficar, and he was a very clever fellow. And this Turk related to Messer Marco Polo how he had lived three years in that region on behalf of the Great Kaan, in order to procure those Salamanders for him. He said that the way they got them was by digging in that mountain till they found a certain vein. The substance of this vein was then taken and crushed, and when so treated it divides as it were into fibres of wool, which they set forth to dry. When dry, these fibres were pounded in a great copper mortar, and then washed, so as to remove all the earth and to leave only the fibres like fibres of wool. These were then spun, and made into napkins [etc, as above].

Now this, and nought else, is the truth about the Salamander, and the people of the country all say the same. Any other account of the matter is fabulous nonsense. And I may add that they have at Rome a napkin of this stuff, which the Grand Kaan sent to the Pope to make a wrapper for the Holy Sudarium of Jesus Christ.
Figured it out yet? I am ashamed to confess I hadn't, until I read the explanation in the commentary, but I told my father and he got it immediately, as he's had to deal with these white fibres himself: they're asbestos! (Which cures me of all desire to have a napkin of my own which I can clean by throwing into the fire, cool though it would be.)

Yule writes:
"The fable of the Salamander," says Sir Thomas Browne, "hath been much promoted by stories of incombustible napkins and textures which endure the fire, whose materials are called by the name of Salamander's wool, which many, too literally apprehending, conceive some investing part or integument of the Salamander.... Nor is this Salamander's wool desumed from any animal, but a mineral substance, metaphorically so called for this received opinion."

Those who knew that the Salamander was a lizard-like animal were indeed perplexed as to its woolly coat. [etc]
lethargic_man: (beardy)
I am continuing, in odd moments, to plough my way through Sir Henry Yule's commentary on The Travels of Marco Polo. In III.XVII, Polo writes of the province of Maabar in India:
They have in this country the custom which I am going to relate. When a man is doomed to die for any crime, he may declare that he will put himself to death in honour of such or such an idol ; and the government then grants him permission to do so. His kinsfolk and friends then set him up on a cart, and provide him with twelve knives, and proceed to conduct him all about the city, proclaiming aloud: "This valiant man is going to slay himself for the love of (such an idol)." And when they be come to the place of execution he takes a knife and sticks it through his arm, and cries : "I slay myself for the love of (such a god)!" Then he takes another knife and sticks it through his other arm, and takes a third knife and runs it into his belly and so on until he kills himself outright. And when he is dead his kinsfolk take the body and burn it with a joyful celebration.
Which leads Yule into this delightfully morbid (and largely irrelevant) discursion:

I have not found other mention of a condemned criminal being allowed thus to sacrifice himself; but such suicides in performance of religious vows have occurred in almost all parts of India in all ages. Friar Jordanus, after giving a similar account to that in the text of the parade of the victim, represents him as cutting off his own head before the idol, with a peculiar two-handled knife "like those used in currying leather." And strange as this sounds it is undoubtedly true. Ibn Batuta witnessed the suicidal feat at the Court of the Pagan King of Mul-Java (somewhere on the coast of the Gulf of Siam), and Mr. Ward, without any knowledge of these authorities, had heard that an instrument for this purpose was formerly preserved at Kshira, a village of Bengal near Nadiya. The thing was called Karavat; it was a crescent-shaped knife, with chains attached to it forming stirrups, so adjusted that when the fanatic placed the edge to the back of his neck and his feet in the stirrups, by giving the latter a violent jerk his head was cut off. Padre Tieffentaller mentions a like instrument at Prág (or Allahabad). Durgavati, a famous Queen on the Nerbada, who fell in battle with the troops of Akbar, is asserted in a family inscription to have severed her own head with a scimitar she held in her hand. According to a wild legend told at Ujjain, the great king Vikramajit was in the habit of cutting off his own head daily, as an offering to Devi. On the last performance the head failed to reattach itself as usual; and it is now preserved, petrified, in the temple of Harsuddi at that place.

I never heard of anybody in Europe performing this extraordinary feat except Sir Jonah Barrington's Irish mower, who made a dig at a salmon with the butt of his scythe-handle and dropt his own head in the pool! (Jord. 33 ; I B. IV. 246; Ward, Madras ed. 249-50; J. A. S. B. XVII. 833; Rás Mála, II. 387.)

lethargic_man: (Default)
Earlier this year, I read The Travels of Marco Polo. It was the Wordsworth Classics edition, and sadly came without any notes; I decided to rectify this by reading my way through Sir Henry Yule's century-and-more old edition, which I've been doing online bit by bit; and have learned some fascinating things from it, such as the huge changes that have taken place in the route of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, the latter even changing from flowing into the sea on the south side of Shandong Province to the north side.

But perhaps the most astonishing thing I have learned is that the Buddha was revered as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches! I couldn't resist doing a quick web search to see whether this is still the case, now the identification of St Joasaph (or Josaphat) with the Buddha is well-established; the Catholic Encyclopedia recognises this identification and stays silent that Joasaph was ever revered as a saint, but this page suggests the Orthodox Church in America, at least, still revere him as before his real identity was uncovered.

Rabban Bar Ṣauma

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014 01:03 pm
lethargic_man: (Default)
I was reading the Travels of Marco Polo recently. Unfortunately, the Wordsworth Classics edition I read did not have any explanatory notes whatsoever, so afterwards I started reading, bit by bit, through the online edition of the Victorian translation by Sir Henry Yule. Sometimes things I read there led me in the direction of further research on Wikipedia; and at one point I was reading about characters with names like Rabban Bar Ṣauma.

With such an Aramaic name, it was obvious that this character must have been a Babylonian rabbi, of the era of the Gaonim, right?

Wrong. Actually, he was a Nestorian Christian monk, of Uyghur ethnicity, born in or near Beijing. Sometimes it's worth remembering we Jews didn't have a monopoly on the Aramaic language...

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