Friday, February 22, 2013

Off the Beaten Track in the Classics by Carl Kaeppel: Poison Damsels and the Pseudo-Aristotle

Off the Beaten Track in the Classics by Carl Kaeppel (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1936)

Now the poison-damsel legend is that of a girl who, being poison herself but immune to it, brings death to all she comes in contact with; in some forms of the legend her mere look is fatal, in others it is her touch, usually it is her embrace. Sometimes, again, she is born a poison-damsel, and sometimes turns into one by being nourished on poison. …

The poison-damsel of Sanskrit literature was regarded with the greatest dread and it was, as it were, the hall-mark of a clever minster to be able to recognize one at sight and save his master. There can be no doubt that the poison-damsel motif originated in India. It is found there long before the Christian era; but outside India it is not found till the sixth century A.D., and then in a Persian version of an Indian original, The Fables of Bidpai. She does not appear in European literature until the twelfth century, but a few years later figures prominently in the literature of every European nation.

Kaeppel doubts the origins of the poison-damsel legend was based on communicable diseases unrecognized as such, preferring instead that it was tied to snakes. He points out that in some of the early Indian legends the poison-damsel embraces and kills a man but then a second man can embrace her—similar to some snakes she has used up her ‘venom’ and must develop more. Kaeppel then goes into detail about the introduction of the poison-damsel legend to European literature.

[T]here appeared in European literature the Latin translation of an Arabic work. The Arabic claimed to be translated from the Greek, but no Greek version is extant, and there are very good reasons for believing that there never was one and that the Arabic is the original. The work in question is entitled Secreta Secretorum or De Secretis Secretorum. It claims to be nothing less than the collection of the most important and most secret communications sent to Alexander the Great by his tutor Aristotle when the latter was too old to attend in person and thus to comprise a treatise on political wisdom and statesmanship, ‘on the correct conduct of body and min,’ and on all the mysteries of the occult arts and sciences.

No book has ever achieved a more instantaneous popularity or exercised a more immediate influence.

The combination of Alexander the Great and Aristotle guaranteed its popularity. Different versions appeared and nearly every European language had a translation. Copyists added or deleted chapters. A Hebrew version was made early in the thirteenth century, translated directly from the Arabic. This version reflects the work in its earliest state, before all the additions and deletions.

Taking the Hebrew text, we find Aristotle warning Alexander not to entrust the care of his body to women and to beware of those deadly poisons which had killed so many kings in the past. To drive home his warning he reminds Alexander of the great danger which he himself was able to frustrate. ‘Remember,’ he says, ‘what took place when the King of India sent to thee splendid gifts and among them was that beautiful maiden whom they fed on poison till she was deadly as a snake, and had I not perceived this by my arts, for I feared the craft of the clever men of those countries, and had I not found by proof that she would kill thee by her embrace, most surely she would have killed thee.’

The methods by which the poison-damsel would have killed Alexander vary in other translations, but regardless of the language the legend was introduced to Europe and quickly spread. Kaeppel attributes Norman Mosley Penzer with my favorite quote on the legend: “despite many disadvantages, there is much that is attractive about the poison-damsel.”

See the Wikipedia entry on Visha Kanya for more information and links on the poison-damsels. I’ve put in a request for one of Penzer’s books, which I look forward to reading and passing along.

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