Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

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


The Travellers and the Young Elephant (trans. E.H. Whinfield)

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 400 words.

Earlier you read the story of the elephant in the dark room, where the elephant was more like an object than a character in the story. In this story, however, the elephant will be a leading character in the story, an agent of justice, and thus a symbol of God.

A party of travellers lost their way in a wilderness, and were well nigh famished with hunger. While they were considering what to do, a sage came up and condoled with them on their unfortunate plight. He told them that there were many young elephants in the adjacent woods, one of which would furnish them an ample meal, but at the same time he warned them that if they killed one, its parents would in all probability track them out and be revenged on them for killing their offspring.

Shortly after the travellers saw a plump young elephant, and could not resist killing and eating it. One alone refrained. Then they lay down to rest; but no sooner were they fast asleep than a huge elephant made his appearance and proceeded to smell the breath of each one of the sleepers in turn. Those whom he perceived to have eaten of the young elephant's flesh he slew without mercy, sparing only the one who had been prudent enough to abstain.

O son, the pious are God's children,
Absent or present He is informed of their state.
Deem Him not absent when they are endangered,
For He is jealous for their lives.
He saith, "These saints are my children,
Though remote and alone and away from their Lord.
For their trial they are orphans and wretched,
Yet in love I am ever holding communion with them.
Thou art backed by all my protection,
My children are, as it were, parts of me.
Verily these Dervishes of mine
Are thousands on thousands, and yet no more than One;
[...]
Thou art asleep, and the smell of that forbidden fruit
Ascends to the azure skies, -
Ascends along with thy foul breath,
Till it overpowers heaven with stench; -
Stench of pride, stench of lust, stench of greed.
All these stink like onions when a man speaks.
Thou thou swearest, saying, "When have I eaten?
Have I not abstained from onions and garlic?"
The very breath of that oath tells tales,
As it strikes the nostrils of them that sit with thee.
So too prayers are made invalid by such stenches,
That crooked heart is betrayed by its speech,
The answer to that prayer is, "Be ye driven into hell,"
The staff of repulsion is the reward of all deceit.
But if thy speech be crooked and thy meaning straight,
Thy crookedness of words will be accepted by God.


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

  • why did the men kill the young elephants?
  • what happened to the men who killed the elephants?
  • what happened to the men who refused to kill them?

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