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.

COB-83: every detail matters in bureaucratic work

The relationship between the forest and the trees is widely mis-perceived.  Every forest is made up of trees.  Without trees, there is no forest.  Stay focused on the trees.  After all, if you fail to see a tree, you could run into it and get a bloody nose.

points showing work of punctator

Just like every tree in the forest matters, details are essential in bureaucratic work.  Remember the celebrated bureaucratic career of Berechiah ha-Nakdan.  He was a thirteenth-century Jewish intellectual worker living in France or England.  Probably in part because writing materials were expensive, ancient Hebrew texts were written without vowels.  Missing vowels, like incompletely filled-in forms, pain bureaucrats to the very soft outer skin of the souls of their feet (they spend most of their time sitting).

Berechiah ha-Nakdan evidently worked in a department that addressed the problem of missing vowels in Hebrew texts.  He was a “punctator,” probably a Senior Managing Punctator (SMP).  Punctators added points (dots and other small marks) below the letters of Hebrew texts so that the vowels would be fully specified.  A page of Hebrew text containing a thousand letters could easily require two or three thousand additional individual points.  Thirteenth-century punctators faced a crushing burden of important bureaucratic work.  But like many heroic bureaucrats through the ages, they sat through the challenge.  Berechiah ha-Nakdan’s monumental work as a SMP was recognized in his very name: “ha-Nakdan” means “the punctator.”  Other than Ali Kazma the Rubber Stamper, no one else in history has made for himself a name as distinguished as Berechiah ha-Nakdan.

In other bureaucratic issues this month, the Standing Committee for the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCOFCAH) of the European Union (EU) has established new rules that make importing giraffes easier. The EU’s SCOFCAH should be commended for this tall achievement.

Jona Lendering and Bill Thayer at New at LacusCurtius and Livius explain that an elderly historian in 2040 will find that the humanities departments have closed.  Closing departments is a serious challenge for bureaucrats struggling to hang on to their positions.  Lendering and Thayer see the closing of humanities departments as a self-inflicted catastrophe:

The historian will conclude that the humanities had committed suicide.  Still, there had been people, inside and outside the universities, who had done their best.  People who had refused to join the academic rat race, who had not been interested in the length of their publication list, who were really interested in the dialog with the larger audience.

The job of bureaucrats in universities is to lengthen their publication list by producing documents.  Producing documents has no relation to any audience whatsoever.  That’s why academic journals are distributed in a limited number of paper copies.  University bureaucrats should not be punished for following their job descriptions.

When Andrew Mason was fired as Groupon CEO this past February, he wrote a farewell memo.  That’s standard bureaucratic practice.  Unfortunately, some entrepreneurs posted his standard letter on the innovative, interactive text platform rapgenius.  This new platform threatens corporate-speak.  For example, Mason wrote:

I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today.

That’s a bad enough breach of standards.  But then Marc Andreessen, a leading funder of ventures hostile to bureaucrats, added an annotation:

Over the last 20 years it has become customary in business for executives to claim to be “resigning to spend more time with my family” when they have actually been fired. It has become such a cliche that it is now a sort of running joke in corporate-speak.

(The additional subtext to the joke is that most executives are not liked by their families, who would prefer that they not spend more time at home and try to get them into a new job as quickly as possible.)

Bureaucrats must resist these sorts of textual innovations.  As newspaper journalists have repeatedly reported, nothing can replace the feel of paper.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

false accusations of rape in world literature

In world literature throughout history, a prevalent motif is a man being falsely accused of rape.  Sex and violence are common features of animal life.  False accusations of rape are matter of higher culture. False accusations of rape provide insight into human sociality and communication across millennia.

metal grate imprisons falsely accused

A false accusation of rape prompted male sexual renunciation in the ancient Egyptian story of two brothers.  In this story, which was written about 1225 BGC, the older brother’s wife sexually propositioned the younger brother.  He rebuffed her sexual advance.  She then made herself look beaten and sick.  She told her husband that his brother sought to have sex with her and beat her.  She demanded that he kill his brother, or she would kill herself.  Moreover, she urged her husband not to let his brother speak; she claimed that otherwise the younger brother would escape and attack her again.  The older brother prepared to ambush and kill his younger brother returning home in the evening.  But the cows that the younger brother was herding home warned him of his older brother’s ambush.  The younger brother fled, with the older brother in murderous pursuit. The Sun God intervened in the chase to separate the brothers by a river containing crocodiles.  The younger brother explained what happened. After he finished explaining with words, he cut off his own penis and threw it in the river.[1]  Recognition of men’s inferiority in guile prompted a man’s sexual renunciation before his brother.

In Homer’s Iliad, a false accusation of rape forced Bellerophon to demonstrate extraordinary heroism.  Bellerophon was residing as a guest of King Proteus.  Proteus’s wife Antea lusted for Bellerophon.  Bellerophon refused her sexual advances.  Antea then told Proteus that Bellerophon was attempting to seduce her forcefully.  She urged Proteus to kill Bellerophon.  However, in ancient Greek ethics, killing a guest is immoral.  Without giving Belleropon a hearing, Proteus sent Bellerophon to Antea’s father Lycia with a private message requesting Bellerophon’s death.  Lycia sent Bellerphon on tasks intended to bring about his death.  Bellerophon killed the fire-breathing monster Chimaera with the heat of her own breath, he defeated the fiercely violent Solymanas tribe, and he overcame the Amazons.  Bellerophon also wiped out an ambush that Lycia himself set with his strongest men.  Lycia then embraced Bellerophon as a son.[2]  Few men would have the strength to overcome such mortally dangerous obstacles to earn basic human acceptance.

The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife shows a false accusation of rape ultimately failing to overcome blessedness.  Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, became a slave in the house of the Egyptian Potiphar.  Potiphar was the Pharaoh’s captain of the guards.  Potiphar’s wife became infatuated with Joseph.  “Lie with me. Lie with me!” she ordered him.  He refused.  He could not report this workplace harassment to the HR Department’s EEOC Officer, because that didn’t exist in ancient Egypt.  So he fled, leaving behind Potiphar’s wife clutching his garment.  She took the garment to Potiphar and falsely accused Joseph of attempting to rape her.  Without giving Joseph a hearing, Potiphar imprisoned Joseph.  But God made this imprisonment work for the good of Joseph.  Joseph gained through his imprisonment key opportunities for dream interpretation.  He subsequently rose to be the Pharaoh’s chief executive.[3]  Few men have faith that they are so blessed.

The younger Egyptian brother, Bellerophon, and Joseph faced false accusations of rape in cosmopoetic literature.  False accusation of rape was also a motif in less symbolically prominent, popular literature.[4]  One such example is the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages of Rome corpus.  This corpus became widely distributed in western Eurasia from 500 to 1500 GC.[5]  In the frame narrative of that corpus, the king’s wife propositions her step-son.  He rejects her sexual advance.  She then tells the king that his son attempted to rape her.  Without a hearing from his son, the king orders his son killed.  The king’s counselors intervene and urge restraint with cautionary fables.  The king’s wife pushes for death with competing fables.  The king vacillates:

  • {counselor} “Sir, I have not related this fable to you for any reason except that you may understand the deceits of women, whose wiles are potent and numberless.” And the king ordered that his son should not be killed.
  • {wife} “Sir, if you do not see to the punishment of your son before he commits further atrocities, he will destroy you.” And the king ordered his son put to death.
  • {counselor} “Sir, I told you this story only so that you would not execute your son on the word of a woman, for in women are contained deceits without number.” And the king ordered the execution stayed.
  • {wife} “Sir, I have related this tale to you so that you will not depend upon your wicked counselors.  If you do not wreak justice for me on the one who has wronged me, I shall destroy myself with my own hands.”  And the king ordered his son put to death.
  • {counselor} “Sir, I have related this tale to you so that you will not execute your son until you know the truth, and will not be sorry.”
  • {wife}”If you do not give me satisfaction against this prince, you will see what these wicked counselors will do for you.  After I am dead we shall see what you will get from their advice.  And when you stand before God, what will you say, having committed such a great wrong in letting your son live and having refused to see justice done?  And how can you, failing to do what is just in this world, permit him to live, on the recommendation of your wicked advisors and privy-counselors?  I know that you will be called to account by God!” … the king feared that she would take the poison she was carrying in her hand, and he ordered his son slain. [6]

Not this story competition, but the son finding his voice resolves the matter.  The son tells the truth of what happened to him.  The king believes the truth that his son tells him.  In various versions, the wife is then alternatively hanged, burned in a dry caldron, thrown into the sea with stone tied to her foot, or paraded through the city shamefully on an ass.[7]  But that’s not all.  In the Hebrew version, the son pardons his step-mother and “the King and the officers that were with him, and the whole nation, were happy to forgive her sin.”  The king gratefully offers to fulfill any request his leading sage, who had educated his son, makes.  The sage declares: “my petition and my request is that what is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor, and love your neighbor as yourself.” [8]

False accusations of rape are a serious public problem today.  Consider the painful and damaging situation that Michael Arrington had to confront.  Or the experience of the man accused of making a sexually threatening post on Facebook (further developments in the case).  The Committee of the Wrongly Accused provides impressive case records and analysis of the injustice of false accusations of rape.  The number of men whose lives are destroyed through false accusations of rape surely is much smaller than the number of men who die from accidents.  But terrible injustices in addressing false accusations of rape aren’t individual misfortunes.  They are a systemic problem that undermines the legitimacy of the justice system.

Few persons today take seriously the problem of false accusations of rape.  Just as most men wouldn’t rape a woman, most women wouldn’t falsely accuse a man of rape.  Men tend to be afraid to discuss false accusations of rape, because those seeking to silence them might call them “antifeminists” or “misogynists.”  Women generally aren’t interested in discussing false accusations of rape, because they don’t understand how addressing this problem is in their interests.  Similar communicative circumstances have probably existed for millennia.  Stories of false accusations of rape probably circulated widely because false accusations of rape was a serious public problem difficult to discuss directly.

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[1] John A. Wilson’s translation of the relevant part of the story is available in Pritchard (2010) pp. 11-14 (online here).  The two brother’s names were Anubis and Bata.  The text is from the Papyrus D’Orbiney in the British Museum.  The British Museum’s summary of the story fails to mention that Bata cut off his own penis.

[2] Homer, Iliad, Bk 6, ll. 155-203.  A translation of Bk. 6 is available online.

[3] Genesis, Ch. 39-41.  A version of the story exists in the Qur’an, Surah 12.  Over time writers developed excuses for Potiphar’s wife’s false accusation (Joseph was handsome and good-looking, he incited her, etc.)  The sex-specific aspects of the problem have also been obscured.  Goldman (1995) well illustrates these trends.

[4] Thompson (2008) provides relevant citations under the motif K2111: “Potiphar’s wife.  A woman makes vain overtures to a man and then accuses him of attempting to force her.”  This gynocentric description reflect the typical social distribution of concern.

[5] Versions in the area of the eastern Roman Empire and Mesopotamia tend to be called the Book of Sindibad.  Version in the area of the western Roman Empire tend to be called the Seven Sages of Rome.  From the fifteenth century or earlier versions of the Book of Sindibad survive in Persian, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, and Old Spanish.  An early western version is a Latin work called Dolopathos, dating to about 1200.  Versions subsequently appeared in all the European vernaculars.  In Europe, 40 different versions have survived in over 200 manuscripts.  Epstein (1967) p. 3.  A version exists in the 1001 Nights, across nights 578-606 (Macnaghten / Calcutta II edition).  Within the 1001 Nights, the Book of Sindibad is known as the story of the seven viziers.  Clouston (1884) provides English translations of the Persian and Arabic versions.  Scholars have argued that the original source was either Indian, Persian, or Hebrew.  See, e.g. Perry (1960) and Epstein (1967).

[6] El libro de los engaños e asayamientos de las mugeres (The Book of the Wiles of Women), trans. from Old Spanish in Keller (1956), pp. 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 32.  This text, a version of the Book of Sindibad, was written in 1253.

[7] Epstein (1967) p. 295, n. 2.

[8] Mishle Sendebar (Tales of Sendebar), trans. from Hebrew in id. pp. 295, 297.


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

Goldman, Shalom. 1995. The wiles of women / the wiles of men: Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, and Islamic folklore.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

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

Perry, Ben Edwin. 1960. “The Origin of the Book of Sindbad.” Fabula. 3 (1): 1-94.

Pritchard, James Bennett. 2010. The ancient Near East: an anthology of texts and pictures. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, Stith. 2008. Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, medieval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.