Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Golden Horns of Sultan Iskendar (Uighur)

There was once a very powerful sultan named Iskendar. Growing out of the two sides of his head were a pair of golden but, at the same time, horrible horns. Now Sultan Iskendar lived in fear that someone might see his horns, for he thought if word got out, he would soon die. So Sultan Iskendar always wore a conical cap lest someone find out. Of course there was always at least one person who would know the Sultan's secret: his barber. Sultan Iskendar had his beard trimmed every Friday--he would have a splitting headache if he didn't. After the haircut, he would have that week's unfortunate barber quietly executed. All the Sultan's subjects knew a barber disappeared in the palace every week, but no one knew why or even dared to ask further about it.

It came to pass that a young barber was selected to cut the Sultan's hair one week; he was told to report to the palace the next day with his tools--brush, mirror and comb.

As this was the same as a death sentence, the young barber was nearly frightened out of his mind. He lay on his cot late that afternoon and thought over the prospects. Was there any escape? Could he refuse? No, there seemed no way out of it. His family was impoverished; maybe the Sultan would provide for them . . .

His mother saw that he was greatly distressed and asked him what was troubling him.

"I am done for, Mother," he replied. "I have been summoned to cut Sultan Iskendar's hair tomorrow morning."

His mother understood why her son was so upset and said, "Don't worry, my child. I know how to help you."

"How can you possibly help me, Mother? No barber has ever left the Sultan's palace alive!"

"Have courage," his mother replied. "Here's what I shall do. Tonight I shall fry you some naan."

"Fried oil cakes! What good will that do?" he cried.

"Wait. Just listen. Take the batch of naan to the palace. The Sultan will want to eat one. After he eats the oil cake, tell him that your mother made the oil cake with batter from her own milk. His eating the cake will make him your brother. How could he kill his own brother?"

The next morning the young barber arrived at the Sultan's palace, where he was ushered into a chamber to await the Sultan for the monarch's haircut. In time, Sultan Iskendar finally showed up.

"What is it that smells so wonderful?" asked the Sultan.

"Some fresh oil cakes fried just last night by my mother, Your Highness," answered the barber. "Would Your Highness care to try one?"

"Yes. Let me have one."

Well, before long, the Sultan had devoured each one in the bag.

"Now cut my hair and trim my beard!" he barked, removing his tall conical cap and revealing his two golden horns.

The barber gasped and cut the Sultan's hair, finishing by trimming his beard. As soon as the barber was finished, the Sultan quickly donned his cap and summoned a guard.

"You shall now be put to death," said Sultan Iskendar.

"Please wait, Your Highness!"

The Sultan turned his head and raised an eyebrow.

"Please wait before a mistake is made," said the barber.

"There is no mistake, barber," replied Sultan Iskendar. "You saw what you saw, and now your time has come."

"The naan, Your Highness, the oil cakes you just ate," stammered the barber. "Do you recall them?"

"Of course. They were delicious. What of them?"

"My mother made the batter for the cakes using her own milk. You ate oil cakes containing my mother's milk! That makes you, Your Highness, my own brother!"

The Sultan was stupefied. Yes, this would indeed make him a brother to the young barber. He couldn't very well kill his own brother. Sultan Iskendar dismissed the guard.

"Very well, barber," said the Sultan, sighing deeply. "So we are now brothers. Now, as my brother, you must swear before me never to reveal my secret."

The young barber knelt before him and swore an oath not to reveal that Sultan Iskendar had a pair of golden horns. The Sultan then instructed the barber to report to the palace at the same time every Friday and then sent the barber home.

The barber was then left with a terrible secret and after a few days could no longer rest. Instead, he paced back and forth in the day and tossed and turned on the cot all night. He felt the weight of his knowledge on his chest smothering him. His mother knew something was wrong and once again asked him what was troubling him.

"I have sworn to Sultan Iskendar to keep a secret, Mother, " he said. "I cannot tell you what it is, yet if I don't tell someone, I will burst."

"To the west lies the dark forest," she said. "In it is a bubbling spring. Go to the spring and say to it three times that which is troubling you. You will then feel better and not have to violate your oath to Sultan Iskendar."

The young barber followed his mother's advice and entered the dark forest. He found the bubbling spring. Making sure no one was around, he then leaned over and said to the spring: "Sultan Iskendar has two golden horns growing out of his head! Do not tell a soul!" He spoke this message a total of three times and left for home.

Days passed and soon a sturdy bamboo shoot grew from out of the spring. A shepherd boy spied the shoot, and thinking that it would make a fine flute, he chopped it down and drilled some holes into it. When he played it, the flute announced: "Sultan Iskendar has two golden horns growing out of his head! Do not tell a soul!" Strangely enough, each time the shepherd played the flute, it always made the same sound.

It so happened one day that Sultan Iskendar was out hunting with his retinue. From afar he heard the plaintive sounds of a flute. He headed in the direction the music was coming from, a village near the forest. He and his company entered the village, and he saw the shepherd boy playing his flute.

This is what he heard as he got closer: "Sultan Iskendar has two golden horns growing out of his head! Do not tell a soul!"

The Sultan was mortified. He asked the boy about the tune he was playing, and the boy answered that no matter what he tried to play, only those particular words would come out this flute cut from bamboo growing out of a spring.

The next morning Sultan Iskendar summoned his barber before him.

"How dare you not keep your word!" thundered the Sultan once he and the barber were alone.

"I don't understand, Your Highness!" the young barber replied. "I haven't told anyone!"

"You must have, you liar! Otherwise how could my secret have gotten out? I'm sure the whole land knows by now, thanks to you, O Brother of mine!"

"Your Highness, I thought I'd die if I didn't get this secret off my chest! All I did was whisper the secret to a spring in the forest . . . "

"A spring in the forest? A spring in the forest? Where bamboo reeds grow?"

Sultan Iskendar's face turned as red as ox blood, and he gnashed his teeth. He then fell stone dead upon his marble floor.

(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)


Liu, p. 40-44

Iskendar is the historical Alexander the Great, a figure much respected in the Islamic world (Cavendish, 115). Ranelagh tells us that Alexander was depicted as wearing ram's horns, which he donned after visiting the Egyptian temple of Zeus-Ammon, the ram's horns being the symbol of Ammon. In time the figure of Alexander became associated with the mythical monarch Dhu al-Quarnain, or "Two Horned" (Ranelagh, 79). In the Greek myth of Midas, it is ass ears, of course, not horns, that the monarch must conceal. Milk is an element that initiates and, to a certain degree, equalizes; accordingly, Chevalier and Gheerbrant relate that Mary's nursing of St. Bernard made him, in effect, Christ's brother (654-655). Motifs: B23.3, "Man with horns on his head"; N465, "Barber who lets secret out"; P313, "Brotherhood through the partaking of milk from the same woman."

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