Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

Week 6: Middle East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Tattooed Lion

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 500 words.

The city of Qazwin (or Qazvin) is located in northwestern Iran. In the fifteenth century, Qazvin was actually the capital of Iran. Today it is famous for the nearby fortress of Alamut, the "Castle of the Assassins".

The Tattooed Lion (trans. E.H. Whinfield)

It was the custom of the men of Qazwin to have various devices tattooed upon their bodies. A certain coward went to the artist to have such a device tattooed on his back, and desired that it might be the figure of a lion.

But when he felt the pricks of the needles he roared with pain and said to the artist, "What part of the lion are you now painting?"

The artist replied, "I am doing the tail."

The patient cried, "Never mind the tail; go on with another part."

The artist accordingly began in another part, but the patient again cried out and told him to try somewhere else. Wherever the artist applied his needles the patient raised similar objections, till at last the artist dashed all his needles and pigments on the ground, and refused to proceed any further.

"Tattooing in Qazwin" (trans. Coleman Barks)

In Qazwin, they have a custom of tattooing themselves
for good luck, with a blue ink, on the back
of the hand, the shoulder, wherever.
A certain man goes to his barber
and asks to be given a powerful, heroic, blue lion
on his shoulder blade. "And do it with flair!
I've got Leo ascending. I want plenty of blue!"
But as soon as the needle starts pricking,
he howls,
"What are you doing?"
"The lion."
"Which limb did you start with?"
"I began with the tail."
"Well, leave out the tail. That lion's rump
is in a bad place for me. It cuts off my wind."
The barber continues, and immediately
the man yells out,
"Ooooooooo! Which part now?"
"The ear."
"Doc, let's do a lion with no ears this time."
The barber shakes his head, and once more the needle,
and once more the wailing,
"Where are you now?"
"The belly."
"I like a lion without a belly."
The master lion-maker
stands for a long time with his fingers in his teeth.
Finally he throws the needle down.
"No one has ever
been asked to do such a thing! To create a lion
without a tail or a head or a stomach.
God himself could not do it!"

Brother, stand the pain.
Escape the poison of your impulses.
The sky will bow to your beauty, if you do.
Learn to light the candle. Rise with the sun.
Turn away from the cave of your sleeping.
That way a thorn expands to a rose.
A particular glows with the universal.
What is it to praise?
Make yourself particles.
What is it to know something of God?
Burn inside that presence. Burn up.
Copper melts in the healing elixir.
So melt yourself in the mixture
that sustains existence.
You tighten your two hands together,
determined not to give up saying "I" and "we."
This tightening blocks you.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what kind of tattoo did the man want to get?
  • why did he decide to leave out parts of the tattoo?
  • what kind of tattoo did the man get in the end?

Source: E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi (1898). Weblink.
Source: Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi. Harper Collins, 1995. Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM