father almost kills son: who is to blame?

In the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages of Rome corpus, a king nearly kills his son in response to a false accusation of rape.  The framing narrative in this literature has the king’s sages and the king’s wife offering competing fables to urge, respectively, the king to spare his son or kill his son.  After the king learns the truth that the accusation of rape was false and does not kill his son, the king asks who would have been to blame if he had killed his son.  In an Old Spanish text of the Book of Sindibad, written in 1253, the question “who would have been to blame?” prompts a dispute among the sages.  The winning position avoids answering the question of personal blame.

The dispute is a direct response to the king’s question about blame.  The king asks his sages:

who would have been to blame had I executed my son?  Would the blame have been mine?  My son’s?  My wife’s?  The teacher’s? [1]

One sage declares execution would have been the son’s teacher’s fault for failing in his professional responsibilities.  Another sage responds to the first: “It is not as you say.”  The second sage declares the fault would have been the king’s “because he ordered his son put to death on the word of a woman, when he did not know if her story was true or false.”  A third sage objects: “It is not as you say.”  The third sage declares that the woman is to blame for lying to the king about rape.  A fourth sage contradicts the third, saying that the woman is not to blame.  It is the son’s fault.  The woman accused him of rape because he is “handsome and well-made” and refused her sexual advance.  Moreover, since the woman had tried to entice the son with an offer to help kill his father and place the son on the throne, the woman had to get the son executed to ensure that she was not executed for attempted treason.  The woman thus acted in self-defense and is not to blame. The fault for the son being executed for being falsely accused of rape would have been the son’s.

Blaming the son for him being falsely accused of rape ends the first analytical disputation and leads into the son telling a fable.  After the fourth sage reasoned that the fault would not be the woman’s but the son’s, another sage declares:

It is not as you say, for the greatest of all wisdom lies in speaking.

Hearing the son speak had made clear the truth about the false accusation of rape and had saved the king from killing his son.  Yet the wisdom of speaking is more abstract than that particular case.  In response to the sage’s claim about the wisdom of speaking, the son tells a fable about the death of many persons:

They say that a man prepared a feast and invited his guests and his friends, and dispatched his maidservant to the market for milk for them to drink.  Now she purchased it and was carrying it home on her head.  Above her a falcon flew.  It was carrying in its claws a serpent which it squeezed so tightly that the venom ran out of it and fell into the milk.  They drank the milk and all of them died from it.  Now the tell me whose fault it was that all of those people perished? [2]

One sage reasons that the host was at fault for his guests’ deaths.  A second sage contradicts him, reasoning that the falcon was to blame.  A third sage responds to the second, “It is not as you say,” and reasons that the serpent is to blame.  A fourth sage contradicts the third and gives reasons for blaming the maidservant.  Another sage, the son’s teacher, says that all of those four sages are wrong, and he explains their errors.  The king turns to his son to explain who is to blame.  The son declares:

None of these was to blame, for the hour in which each was to die was at hand.

The king acclaims his son’s wisdom.  His son’s teacher declares of the son, “No one is wiser than he.”  The other sages do not disagree.[3]  The winning position is the wisdom of recognizing fate.

This highly structured, relatively elaborate dispute about blame seems to be a distinctive feature of the Old Spanish text of the Book of Sindibad.  Scholarly disputation was central to Jewish rabbinical and Latin scholastic practice.[4]  In thirteenth-century Spain and France, Jews were being summoned to dispute with Christians about theological questions.  In the Old Spanish text of the Book of Sindibad, the competing fables and stories of the sages and the king’s wife failed to convince the king definitely of the right course of action.  To determine subsequently who would have been to blame if the king had executed his son, the king’s sages engaged in principle-based moral reasoning.  That reasoning also failed. The son regaining his natural voice prompts the king to recognize definitively his wife’s false accusation of rape against the son.  The son’s acclaimed analysis of blame denies attribution of blame and asserts fate.  The winning arguments aren’t arguments, but affirmations of nature.

Perhaps more truthful understanding of human nature can help to address the systemic social problem of false accusations of rape.

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[1] El libro de los engaños e asayamientos de las mugeres, trans. Keller (1956) p. 42.  All the subsequent quotes are from id., pp. 42-4.

[2] I’ve changed the translation’s term “kite” to “falcon” for ease of understanding.  This tale apparently goes back to ancient India.  It appears in ancient Sanskrit texts.  Clouston (1884) pp. 99-101.

[3] In response to the king asking the sages whether anyone is wiser than his son, “They replied that no one should speak evil of what seems good.”  That’s diplomatically vague and professionally shrewd.

[4] Disputation about sensational questions was a central feature of intellectual competition in the Roman Empire.  The Hebrew version of the Book of Sindibad (Mishle Sendebar) doesn’t include the dispute about blame.  It does, however, refer to the question of blame.  Regarding the woman who falsely accused him of rape after he rejected her sexual advance and her proposal of treason, the king’s son declares:

Let her not be condemned to die, for every man fights for his life.  And now I will ask of the King and his counselors to pardon her sin, and not to execute her.

Trans. Epstein (1967) p. 295. Other versions of the Book of Sindibad include brief, unstructured discussions of alternate parties at fault if the king had killed his son.  Some also include the subsequent story of the maidservant.  See, e.g., Persian version of Mohammad ‘Ali Zahiri Samarqandi, Sendbad-name, written about 1161-1164, trans. Clouston (1884) pp. 48-9, and Arabic version, “Story of the Seven Viziers,” 1001 Nights, nights 602-3 (Macnaghten / Calcutta II edition), trans. Lyons (2008) v. 2, pp. 602-3.


Clouston, William Alexander. 1884. The book of Sindibad, or the Story of the king, his son, the damsel and the seven vazirs: from the Persian and Arabic. Privately printed.

Epstein, Morris. 1967. Tales of Sendebar. An edition and translation of the Hebrew version of the Seven sages, based on unpublished manuscripts. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

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

Lyons, Malcolm C. 2008. The Arabian nights: tales of 1001 nights. vols. 1-3. London: Penguin.

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