Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

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

The Man who asked Moses to teach him the language of animals. (trans. E.H. Whinfield)

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 600 words.

Here is another story about someone who speaks the language of animals - although in this case, this knowledge tells the man more than he wants to know. Moses appears in this story as the incarnation of a magical kind of wisdom. This "animal language" story is a popular folktale type found in many cultural traditions; Dan Ashliman has compiled a collection of these "Animal Language" stories, including similar stories from India, the Middle East, and Europe.

A certain man came to Moses and desired to be taught the language of animals, for, he said, men used their language only to get food and for purposes of deception, and possibly a knowledge of animals' languages might stimulate his faith.

Moses was very unwilling to comply with his request, as he knew such knowledge would prove destructive to him, but, on his persisting, took counsel of God, and finally taught him the language of fowls and dogs.

Next morning the man went amongst the fowls, and heard a discussion between the cock and the dog. The dog was abusing the cock for picking up the morsels of bread which fell from their master's table, because the cock could find plenty of grains of corn to eat, whereas the dog could only eat bread. The cock, to appease him, said that on the morrow the master's horse would die, and then the dog would have enough and to spare. The master, hearing this, at once sold his horse, and the dog, being disappointed of his meal, again attacked the cock.

The cock then told him the mule would die, whereupon the master sold the mule. Then the cock foretold the death of a slave, and the master again sold the slave.

At this the dog, losing patience, upbraided the cock as the chief of deceivers, and the cock excused himself by showing that all three deaths had taken place just as he had predicted, but the master had sold the horse, mule, and slave, and had thrown the loss on others. He added that, to punish him for his fraudulent dealing, the master would himself die on the morrow, and there would be plenty for the dog to eat at the funeral feast.

Hearing this, the master went to Moses in great distress, and prayed to be saved. Moses besought the Lord for him, and gained permission that he should die in the peace of God.

Why freewill is good for man.
God said, "Do thou grant his earnest request,
Enlarge his faculty according to his freewill.
Freewill is as the salt to piety,
Otherwise heaven itself were matter of compulsion.
In its revolutions reward and punishment were needless,
For 'tis freewill that has merit at the great reckoning.
If the whole world were framed to praise God,
There would be no merit in praising God.
Place a sword in his hand and remove his impotence,
To see if he turns out a warrior or a robber.
Because freewill is that wherewith 'we honor Adam,'
Half the swarm become bees and half wasps.
The faithful yield honeycombs like bees,
The infidels yield store of poison like wasps.
For the faithful feed on choice herbs,
So that, like bees, their chyle yields life-giving food,
Whilst infidels feed on filth and garbage,
And generate poison according to their food."

Men inspired of God are the fountain of life;
Men of delusions are a synonym for death.
In the world the praise "Well done faithful servant!"
Is given to freewill which is used with prudence.
If all dissolute men were shut up in prison,
They would all be temperate and devout and pious.
When power of choice is absent actions are worthless;
But beware lest death snatch away your capital!
Your power of choice is a capital yielding profit,
Remember well the day of final account!

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

  • why is Moses reluctant to grant the man's wish?
  • how does the man profit from the animals' conversation?
  • what happens when the man learns of his own impending death?

Source: E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi (1898). 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