Folk-lore of the Holy Land, Moslem, Christian and Jewish, by J. E. Hanauer , at sacred-texts.com
A CERTAIN man was living with his wife and her bed-ridden mother in a two-storeyed house when the house caught fire. The man, having thrown all the furniture of the upper storey out of the windows, was looking round for anything else worth saving. He espied his wife's mother. Seizing her in his arms, he carried her to a window and threw her down into the street. Then, rolling up her bed with care, he carried it downstairs. When he emerged, his neighbours asked him what he was hugging so tenderly. "My mother-in-law's bed," he replied. "And where is your mother-in-law?" "Oh," said the bewildered man, "I dropped her from the window " It was agreed that he had done wisely.
There is nothing craftier and more to be feared than an old woman. A person of this description,
walking out one morning, met Iblìs, and asked him where he was going. "Oh," he replied, "about my usual business, getting people into trouble." "There is nothing in that," said she; "any fool can do that." "So I have often been told," said Iblìs. "I have heard that not only fools, but old women like yourself, can beat me at my own trade." "Well," she said, smiling, "let us have a match." The devil agreed, and offered her first innings; but she declined, saying that, as he was the acknowledged author of evil, he should have the precedence.
Near to where they stood champed a fiery stallion fastened to a tent-peg. "See," said Iblìs, "I just loosen this peg, without drawing it from the ground; now mark the mischief." The horse, tugging at his tether, at once pulled up the peg and rushed off, trampling all he met, so that before he was caught he had killed two men, and injured several women and children.
"Well," said the old woman, after reckoning up the damage, "that was a villainous piece of work. But now undo it!" "What!" cried the devil. "That is something I never attempted. Indeed, it is beyond my power." "Then I am the more skilful," chuckled the woman, "for I can repair what harm I do." "I should like to see you," sneered Iblìs incredulously. "You have only to watch me," was all she took time to say as she proceeded to make good her boast.
She hurried home to get some money, and then went to the shop of a dealer in silk-stuff, a man newly married. "A happy day, O my lord," she
said, stopping before the bench where he was sitting. "I want the most beautiful dress you have for sale." "For your daughter," said he. "No, for my son."
"He is going to be married, then," remarked the merchant. "Alas! no," said the woman plaintively, "but he is in love with a young woman recently married to another man, and she asks a rich dress as the price of her favour." The merchant, astonished at the confession, said, "A respectable old woman like you should not countenance such wickedness." "Ah, my lord," she moaned, "he has threatened to beat me unless I do his will." "Well," said he, "here is the dress, but the price is five hundred dinârs, and after what you have told me, my conscience will not allow me to sell it at a lower price." After a deal of haggling, he accepted two hundred dinârs, and the old woman took the dress and went her way.
Iblìs, who witnessed the transaction, exclaimed, "O foolish woman, you have harmed no one but yourself by paying two hundred dinârs for a dress that is not worth half that amount." "Wait and see," was the reply.
The old woman went home again, and changed her apparel for that of a derwìsheh, throwing a green veil over her head and hanging a great rosary with ninety-nine beads around her neck. It was noon when she again set out, taking with her the dress she had just bought, and went to the private house of the merchant from whom she had bought it. She arrived just as the muezzin of a neighbouring mosque was calling to prayer. She knocked, and, the door
being opened, begged for leave to enter and say her prayers there, giving as the reason for the request that she could not reach home in time. She was, she explained, a devotee of mature age, ceremonially clean, and no longer subject to the infirmities of women. The servant told her mistress, who, happy to receive so venerable a visitor, herself came to greet her, and showed her up to a room, where she might perform her devotions.
But the old woman was not easy to please. "My dear," she objected, "the men have been smoking in this room. Now, I have just bathed myself and am perfectly pure, but if I took off my yellow boots here my feet would be defiled."
She was taken to a different room. "Ah, my daughter," she complained, "meals have been eaten here. My mind would be distracted by carnal things. Have you not some quiet chamber?" "I am sorry," answered the hostess: "there is no other chamber except our bedroom." "Take me there," said the old woman.
"When shown the bedroom, she professed herself satisfied, and asked to be left alone at her prayers, promising to include in them the petition that her hostess might bear a son.
As soon as she was alone, the old woman hid the parcel containing the silken dress under the pillow of the bed, waited long enough to have said her prayers, and then took her leave, with blessings on the house and its kind owners.
The merchant came home as usual, supped, smoked his pipe, and went to bed. Finding the
pillow uncomfortable, and trying to put it right, he felt the parcel, and, opening it, found in it a dress he knew. Recalling what the crone who bought it of him had said about the destination of that dress, he jumped out of bed, seized his wife by the arm, dragged her to the door, and, without a word, thrust her forth half-dressed into the street, bolting the door behind her. Fortunately it was a moonless night and no one saw her disgrace, except the author of it, the old woman, who was on the watch. She found the unhappy lady crouching, terrified, in the darkness, and asked with assumed horror what was the matter. The poor soul replied that her husband had suddenly gone mad. "Never mind, my daughter," said the old woman soothingly. "Allah has sent me to help you. Come to my house for to-night, and trust me to arrange matters."
The old woman's dwelling consisted of a single room, in which her son was already fast asleep upon a mattress spread upon the floor. His mother fetched two other mattresses and as many cotton quilts out of the alcove, and spread them on the floor beside her son's bed. She then lay down on the bed next her son, and invited her guest to rest on the other. Thus the old woman lay between her son and the guest, who was soon wrapped in slumber. The old woman, however, lay awake, listening to the noises of the night. At length she caught the sound for which she was waiting, the tramp of the watchmen going on their rounds, when she sprang up, and flinging open the window, cried, "Come, O true believers! Come and see
the disgrace that has befallen my old age. My son has brought a harlot into the house, and I am obliged to sleep in the same room with them." The watchmen, hearing the clamour, entered the house, seized the innocent young people, and took them off to prison.
Next morning, as soon as it was light, the old woman, wrapped in a long veil, repaired to the prison. Having got leave from the keeper, a man well known to her, to speak with the young woman who had been arrested during the night, she said, "Fear nothing. I will set you free. Change dresses with me, and cover yourself with this veil. So you can pass the guard and reach my house unrecognised. I will join you there." The young wife did as she was told, and escaped without difficulty. The old woman waited until the prison-keeper made his round, and then began to shriek for justice. The official, seeking the cause of the uproar, was surprised to find that it came from an old acquaintance. The night watchmen must have been drunk, she screamed, to enter her house and take her and her son to prison without a pretext. The gaoler saw clearly the trick played on him, but he had broken the regulations by admitting a visitor so early, and was averse to any fuss about the matter; so he ordered the couple to be set free.
The young man went to his work as usual. The old woman waited till the city was well astir, and then set out to visit the merchant she had bedevilled. He saluted her with an imprecation, but she motioned him to be silent, and, taking him aside, explained
how, after visiting the shop, she had been hospitably entertained by his wife and permitted to perform her devotions in their bedroom, how she had carelessly left the parcel she carried under the pillow of one of the beds in that room, and how his lady, whom she had now the honour to entertain in her humble dwelling, was quite guiltless of the intrigue ascribed to her.
The merchant was stupefied, but at the same time vastly relieved, to hear all this. He loved his wife, and, moreover, now that he had no evidence against her, feared to be called to account by offended relatives. Presenting the old woman with the price of the dress, he besought her to intercede for him. She consented graciously, and invited him to her house. He came there, met his wife, confessed his error, and was forgiven. Thus the pair were united as before, and none but the old woman ever knew that they had been separated. The lady, in delight at the reconciliation, gave the old woman a handsome present. And only Iblìs had cause to grumble, being convinced of the truth of the saying, "The Devil is no match for an old woman."
The ladies of King Solomon's harìm, jealous of his favourite for the time being, paid an old woman to make mischief between her and the king. The crone, after praising the charms of the favourite till the latter was as wax in her hands, declared that the king ought to manifest his love for her by granting
some extraordinary request. As Suleymân knew the language of birds, and had power over all things living, it would be easy, the old woman suggested, to build for his love a palace of feathers floating in the air. The favourite took the hint, and when next the king came to her she sulked with him and pouted, as one aggrieved. By dint of coaxing, Suleymân learnt her grievance. He at once ordered all the birds to come before him and devise some measure to content his love. All obeyed except the owl, who flatly refused. But Suleymân sent word that if she persisted in disobeying him he would cut off her head; when she changed her mind, and asked forgiveness for her first refusal. The king promised to overlook it, but only on condition of her answering aright some questions he was going to put to her.
The Hakìm asked her why she had not come when he first called her. The reply was, "Because a wicked old hag has turned your fair one's head and egged her on to ask an impossible thing, for who can build a palace without foundations?" Pointing to the thousands of birds there present, the king asked, "Which of all these birds do you think the handsomest?" "My son," replied the owl. "Which are more numerous, the living or the dead?" "The dead," said the bird. "How do you prove that?" "All who sleep are dead, as far as the business of life is concerned." "What is more abundant, day or night?" "Day." "How so?" "Because when the moon shines it is daylight and people travel." "Only one more question,"
said the king: "Which are the more numerous, men or women?" "Women." "Prove it." "Count up all the women, and then add all the husbands who are governed by their whims," replied the owl. At that the wise king burst out laughing, and told the owl that she might go in peace.
Whenever King Solomon went abroad, the birds of the air, by his command, hovered in flocks over his head like a vast canopy. On the occasion of his marriage, he commanded his feathered slaves to pay the like honour to his bride. All obeyed but the Hoopoe, 1 who, rather than flatter a woman, went and hid himself.
The king, on his wedding day, missing his favourite bird, ordered the rest to go and find the hoopoe. The birds flew north, south, east, and west; and at length after many months the fugitive was discovered crouching in a hole in a rock on an island in the most distant of the seven seas. "You are many, and I but one," said the hoopoe, "there is no escape now you've found me. I go with you against my will to Suleymân, whose folly in asking us to do homage to the most worthless of creatures exasperates and disgusts me. But before we start, let me tell you three true stories of the nature of woman, that you may judge in your minds between the king and me.
A certain man had for wife a most beautiful woman of whom he was consumedly fond; and
she was even fonder of him, for he was very rich.
"Were I to die," she would sometimes sigh in his ear, "you would soon dry your eyes and take a better wife; whereas, if you died first, I should end my days in grief." "Nay, by Allah," replied the man fiercely. "Were you to die, I would renounce my business and weep on your grave seven years." "Would you?" she cried, enraptured. "Oh, I would do more than that for your sweet memory!"
The woman, as it was decreed, died first, and the man, true to his vow, gave up his business, and mourned at her graveside night and day for seven long years, subsisting upon scraps of broken meat thrown to him by the charitable. His clothes turned to rags; his hair and beard hung about him like the fronds of maiden hair; his nails grew as long as eagle's talons, and his body became as emaciated as that of the leaf insect. 1
At the end of the seven years El Khudr, being sent that way, saw the strange mourner, and inquired his story.
The saint asked him whether he really believed that his wife, had she outlived him, would have done as much. "Of course," was the reply. "Do you think that, if she were now alive, she would still love you?" "Of course I do." "Well," said El Khudr, "we shall see." He struck the grave with Moses’ rod and bade it open, when the woman arose in her shroud, young and lovely as ever. El Khudr,
having hidden behind a monument, the woman saw only her husband. Horrified by his appearance, she cried, "Who are you, dreadful creature, more like a beast than a man? Why am I here in the graveyard? If you are a ghûl, I pray you not to eat me."
She shuddered still more when she learnt that the frightful creature was her faithful husband, and deferred going home with him till nightfall, saying that people would talk if she went through the streets in her grave-clothes. He sat down beside her, laid his head in her lap, and in the relief of again possessing her, fell sound asleep.
A sultan, journeying by that way, saw the couple near the open grave, and, struck by the woman's beauty in her shroud, he invited her to be his love. She laid her husband's head on the ground, and stepped into a litter that was in readiness.
When the cavalcade was gone, El Khudr came and woke the husband, telling him how his wife had been carried off, and suggesting that they should follow her. They started in pursuit, and reached the palace soon after the Sultan's arrival there. El Khudr demanded an audience, which, on account of his commanding presence, was instantly granted. The sultan was incredulous and very angry when El Khudr proclaimed the identity of his companion, while the woman vehemently declared that the old fright had never been her husband. The saint offered to settle the question, and commanded that the woman should resume her shroud and be taken back to the graveyard. The sultan, in awe
of El Khudr, was bound to submit, and the woman was brought to the brink of her former grave. She suddenly fell into it, a lifeless corpse; some say in consequence of a withering look from El Khudr, and others, as the result of a blow from the beak of a great eagle, which suddenly swooped down out of heaven.
El Khudr then closed the grave with a stroke of his rod; and by the command of Allah, her husband regained the seven years which he had lost. He was thus enabled to marry again and live long and happily with another wife, whom, having lost his illusions, he was wise enough to keep in her place.
Two good friends, who were merchants, went into partnership. The one, a fat man, had a wife who loved him; the other, a lean one, was tethered to a shrew who made life wretched for him. When the fat man asked his partner to go home with him and spend the evening, his wife, though not a party to the invitation, made them heartily welcome; but when the lean man ventured to return the hospitality, he was met with abuse and driven forth with his guest. The fat man simply laughed and carried off the hen-pecked husband to his own house, saying: "Now I know the cause of your thinness and your sad looks; and I think I know a remedy. Take my advice, and travel with our merchandise for, say, six months, then send me a report that you are dead. Your wife will then realise the good
fortune she has lost and repent of her ill-treatment of you. When I and my wife perceive that she is really humbled, I will let you know, and you can return." The lean man approved of the plan, and in due time started on his travels. Six months later his partner received the letter announcing his death. The fat man then informed the widow that the shop and all the merchandise were his alone. He further seized all her belongings under pretext of some debt or other, leaving her destitute. As a well-known virago, she could find no employment, and was at last compelled to ask the fat man's help. He reminded her coldly of the rudeness she had formerly shown to him, and reprehended her ill-treatment of his friend, her late husband. It was purely out of respect for that husband's memory that he finally prevailed upon his wife to employ her as a servant. The excellent couple contrived to make her life with them so wretched that she thought of her former life as paradise, of her husband as an angel of light. When, therefore, the lean man reappeared she fell at his feet, and thenceforth to the end of her life was submissive.
There was once a merchant who knew the language of beasts. But this knowledge had been granted him only upon condition that, if he told the secrets learnt by its means, he should die instantly. No one, not even his wife, was aware that he was gifted beyond the common.
One evening, standing near his stables, he heard
an ox, which had just returned from ploughing, complaining bitterly of his hard labour, and asking the ass on which the merchant rode to business how he might lighten it. The ass advised him to be very ill, to leave his food untouched and roll on the ground in pain, when the ploughman came to take him to the field. The ox took this advice, and next day his master was told he was too ill to work. The merchant prescribed rest and extra food for the ox, and ordered that the donkey, which was strong and fat, should be yoked to the plough in his place.
That evening the merchant stood again by the stable, listening. When the ass came in from ploughing, the ox thanked him for his advice, and expressed his intention to act upon it again next morning. "I don't advise you to do that," said the ass, "if you value your life. To-day, while I was ploughing, our master came into the field and told the ploughman to take you to the butcher's to-morrow, as you seemed ailing, and have you killed to save your life; for should you sicken and die, he would lose the value of your carcase." "What shall I do?" cried the ox in terror. "Be well and strong to-morrow morning," said the ass. At that the merchant, unaware that his wife stood near him, laughed aloud, and excited her curiosity. His evasive answers only made her more inquisitive; and when he absolutely refused to satisfy her, she lost her temper, and went to complain of him to her relations, who soon threatened him with a divorce. The poor man, who really loved his wife, in despair resolved to tell her all and die; so he
put his affairs in order, made his will, and promised to content her on the morrow.
Next morning, at a window overlooking the stable yard, where a cock was gallanting with a number of hens, he heard his watch dog reprove the bird for such light conduct on a day of grief. "Why! what is the matter?" inquired the cock. The dog told the story of their master's trouble, when the cock exclaimed: "Our master is a fool. He cannot keep one wife in order, while I have no trouble with twenty. He has only to take a stick and give the mistress a sound thrashing to make her amiable." These words came as light to the merchant's gloom. Forthwith he called his wife into an inner room, and there chastised her within an inch of her life. And from that hour she gave him no more trouble. 1
"You see from these true stories," concluded the Hoopoe, "what silly, vain, and tiresome creatures women are, and how wrong it was of Suleymân to ask us to do homage to one of them. When you find a good woman, like the fat man's wife, you may be sure that her virtues are the fruit of the stick."
The assembled birds acquiesced in the soundness of the Hoopoe's remarks. They considered that, if these valuable facts were known to Suleymân he would mend his ways with the sex, and perhaps reward the Hoopoe for having dared, from such humane motives, to disobey him. They all returned
to the king, who, when he had listened to the Hoopoe's three stories, took the crown off his head and placed it on that of the bird, whose descendants wear it to this day. 1
254:1 Upupa epops.
255:1 Mantis religiosa, called by the natives of the Jerusalem district "St George's mare," or "The Jew's mare."
260:1 This will he recognised as the identical story in which the wazìr, her father, delicately conveyed a threat to Sheherezâd when she persisted in asking him to give her to the murderous Shahriâr (v. "Arabian Nights").--ED.
261:1 For this reason the hoopoe is called by the fellahìn "the wise man's bird," or "the bird of Suleymân el Hakìm."