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  • Fighting Sea Monsters with Vinegar in Medieval Iran December 28, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback


    One of the joys of ancient and medieval geographies are the small ethnographic details that sound strange, but that might just possibly be based on fact. The following comes from the works of Chang De, a thirteenth century ambassador and informant for a famous Chinese work, The Record of an Embassy to the Regions of the West. Chang De spent, for example, more than a year in what is today Iraq where he may have witnessed the fall of Baghdad in 1258, coming home in 1259. This passage related to Shiraz in south-western Iran. Beach has taken the quotation from Hyunhee Park’s excellent Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds (95).

    The kingdom of Shiraz produces pearls. The name of the ruler is Aosi Atabei. To the country’s southwest is located a sea, and pearl fishing flourishes. They use a leather bag. In order not to bother their hands, they attach a rope to their loins, and thus they glide down to the sea. They take pearl-oysters along with sand and mud, and put them in the bag. When they encountered sea monsters, they squirt vinegar against them and drive them away. When they have filled the bag up with oysters, they pull the rope so that the men above in the boat hoist them up. Sometimes some pearl-fishers die.

    Park has some useful glosses on this passage. She notes that Aosi Atabei must relate to ‘Atabeg’ a common title ‘for a Turkish governor of a province in Mesopotamia from the twelfth century’. She notes that the pearl fishers have a rope round their waists to leave their hands free. But even Park comes up hard against this curious detail of sea monsters, putting sea insects as an alternative translation. What are these monsters and perhaps just as interestingly what are the vinegar weapons that the divers carry? Are we to imagine them having a bag that could be opened if an animal came close or some kind of simple underwater  water pistol? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Chang proved a reliable witness in so much that he saw. But we cannot be certain that he actually witnessed the pearl fishing or that he travelled to Shiraz, where, though, it should be noted, pearl fishing goes on happily to this very day. But apparently there is no vinegar on hand for ‘sea insects’… Can anyone please put this painful passage out of its misery? Pretty please.

    30 Dec 2014: An old friend of the blog JT writes in: ‘Vinegar has long been used as an antidote to the sting of the box jellyfish, probably the most deadly creature in Australia, definitely a sea monster’, a misunderstanding then in transmission? Another old friend, Chris from Haunted Ohio Books echoes, ‘Perhaps the sea monsters were the very venomous and aggressive sea snakes of the Persian Gulf, which is also inhabited by sharks and jellyfish. As to the vinegar–it is recommended for neutralizing jellyfish stings, but I have never heard of it being used to repel anything other than bad smells. Being wildly theoretical here: Since sharks are highly sensitive to smell, could it somehow have deterred them from attacking? Syringes were known to the medical profession and might have been used to deploy the vinegar. Here is a strange story of castor oil being employed as an anti-sea-serpent specific. Is it significant that both vinegar and castor oil have a strong odor?  Then, yet another old friend of the blog, KMH echoes these thoughts: The sea-monsters may be no more than the normal creatures dangerous to divers such as sharks, manta rays, eels, jelly fish (the Portuguese man-of-war comes to mind), etc. It is easy to imagine a diver regarding any underwater threat to his trade as a sea monster. The vinegar may be a special recipe with vinegar as its main ingredient. Today have pepper sprays which ward off attacks from dogs and petty criminals and are especially useful for postmen delivering mail.’ Thanks to all!