Sefer Shaashuim provides folk wisdom on how wars start

Delacroix lithograph of battle

Sefer Shaashuim, a book written in Hebrew in Spain about the year 1200, collected medical information, folk tales, proverbs, and anecdotes from across western Eurasia. Sefer Shaashuim includes a story about how a war between two families started.  According to this story, the devil, frustrated with his inability to cause mischief, was preparing to depart from a place.  Then the devil met a washerwoman.  She declared that she would show him how to create excitement.

The washerwoman used her social networking capabilities to cause a war.  She whispered in the ear of a lady that she served, telling her that her husband was having an affair with another woman.  The lady was greatly upset.  The washerwoman offered to cure the problem.  She told the lady to take a razor and cut off three hairs from her husband’s beard while he was sleeping.  The washerwoman said that she would compound those hairs into a medicine that would cause the lady’s husband to love no woman but her.  Because of her relational jealousy, along with the usual allure of medicine, the lady agreed to secure the hairs for this cure.

The washerwoman then sought out the lady’s husband.  She told him, “with every sign of distress in voice and manner,”  that his wife and her lover were plotting to kill him in his sleep.  Because men are inferior in guile, the husband believed the washerwoman.

The distrust between the lady and her husband led to deadly war.  Here’s what happened:

The husband returned home, and, pretending to fall asleep, watched his wife closely.  He saw her take the razor to cut the three hairs for the remedy, and, thinking that she meant to kill him, he darted up suddenly, wrested the razor from her hands, and slew her with it on the spot.  Soon the news spread, and the wife’s relatives united to avenge her death and kill the husband.  In their turn the relatives of the husband resolved to avenge him, both houses were embroiled, and before the feud was at an end two hundred and twenty lives were sacrificed. [1]

This story probably arose from real historical events somewhere within the vast historical and cultural space that Sefer Shaashuim encompasses.[2]  In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the devil is a heroic figure.  Paradise Lost is less realistic than Sefer Shaashuim.

Just as for God, the devil is in small events of everyday life.  According to a book written in Old Spanish in 1253, a hunter found some honey in the woods.  He took the honey into a nearby village to sell it:

Upon opening the bag so as to show the honey to the shopkeeper, a drop of honey fell out and a bee lighted upon it.  Now the shopkeeper had a cat, and this cat leaped upon the bee and killed it; the hunter’s dog fell upon the cat and killed it; the cat’s owner came and killed the dog; and then the dog’s master slew the shopkeeper.  At this, the men of the shopkeeper’s village came and slew the hunter, who owned the dog; finally, the men of the hunter’s village marched against those of the shopkeeper, and they fell upon one another and all were killed, not even one remaining alive.  So all were slain for one drop of honey. [3]

Let’s hope that, in different circumstances, peace can emerge from one drop of honey.

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[1] Davidson (1914) p. LXVII.  Sefer Shaashuim is transliterated Hebrew that means the Book of Delight.  Hadas & Sherwood (1932) provides an English translation of all the fables in Sefer Shaashuim.

Tahrid, a genre of early Arabic poetry, describes women inciting men to war. A major work of men’s sexed protest, written in Latin in 1290, declares “woman’s tongue causes almost all wars” (Omnis guerra fere lingua mulieris habetur). Lamentations of Matheolus II. 735, in van Hamel (1892). Ovid, in Amores II.12, lists mythical wars that he claims women started. Men vastly predominate among persons killed in wars.

[2] Sefer Shaashuim encompassed cultures from India to Spain:

It is built in the Arabian style, decorated with fables and riddles of India, inlaid with the choicest products of Greek science, and illumined with the wisdom and maxims of the Orient.

Davidson (1914) p. p. XXXI. The exact figure for the number of persons killed suggests a historical kernel of the tale. Id. p. LXVII.

[3] Book of the Wiles of Women, trans. Keller (1956) p. 28.  Nearly the same story occurs in the 1001 Nights, night 582 ((Macnaghten / Calcutta II edition).  Both texts are part of the Book of Sindibad corpus.

[image] Eugene Delacroix, “The Battle of the Giaour and the Pasha”; lithograph, 1827; U.S. National Gallery of Art, Rosenwald Collection, 1946.II.46.


Davidson, Israel, ed. 1914. Joseph ben Meir ibn Zabara. Sepher Shaashuim: a book of Mediaeval lore. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Hadas, Moses and Merriam Sherwood. 1932. Joseph ben Meir ibn Zabara. The book of delight. New York: Columbia University Press.

Keller, John Esten, ed. and trans. 1956. The book of the wiles of women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Matheolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Matheolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

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