Poison-Damsels and Other Essays in Folklore and Anthropology by N. M. Penzer
London: Chas. J. Sawyer, 1952
The present four Essays are based on Appendixes originally published in my edition of C. H. Tawney’s Kathā-Sarit-Sāgara, which I called The Ocean of Story. Somewhat hidden in such a large work—it ran to ten volumes—and in view of the fact that much important new information has gradually accumulated since I first started research work on them thirty years ago, it was agreed between Mr. Sawyer and myself that if revised and corrected in the light of present-day scholarship these studies night merit publication in their new form.
N. M. Penzer
Cambridge, July, 1951
(From the Foreword)
The four essays in this book are
- The Tale of the Two Thieves
- Sacred Prostitution
- The Romance of Betel-Chewing
In the Kathā-Sarit-Sāgara of Somadeva (The Ocean of Story, vol. ii, p.91 [see the notes below for links to the version Penzer is using]) we read of the methods employed by Yogakarandaka, the minister of King Brahmadatta, against the King of Vatsa: “He tainted, by means of poison and other deleterious substances, the trees, flowering creepers, water and grass all along the line of march. And he sent poison-damsels as dancing-girls among the enemy’s host, and he also dispatched nocturnal assassins into their midst.”Penzer begins by looking at other methods of poisoning mentioned in Sanskrit and European sources. While not common in Sanskrit literature, they are advocated in the Code of Manu (also called The Laws of Manu). European writers distinguished between the law of nature and the law of nations, well summarized by Hugo Grotius in his work De jure belli ac pacis. While condemning unnecessary and unethical killing of an enemy, actual practice and literature show many such examples exist whether through poisoned food, water, wells, garments, etc.
The tactics of this minister are as curious as they are unscrupulous. We have read of wells being poisoned and even of diseased clothes being left for the enemy to find, but the poisoning of the vegetation and the dispatching of poisoned women are much more uncommon.
This subject is of great interest from many points of view, and as there appears to be very little published on the matter, especially poison-damsels, the whole question will be considered in some detail. (3)
Although the poison-damsel motif is rare in Sanskrit literature, Penzer looks at the additional works containing it. These examples jumped to Europe with the Secret Secretorum, the inauthentic correspondence from Aristotle to Alexander the Great (which is in the Kaeppel link above). While not authentic, it was widely read and contained a famous example of Aristotle warning Alexander not to trust his care to a woman, reminding him of the time he saved him from a poison-damsel. The legend and example quickly spread through Europe. Penzer mentions examples in Spanish, German, French, Latin, Italian, and English. Among the latter is a variation of the motif in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappacini’s Daughter.” In most examples a woman is raised on poison, immune to its effects, and is able to poison others through some sort of close contact. Examples of poison transference are in a kiss, a look, the breath, perspiration, a bite, or sexual intercourse.
Penzer believes a snake bite, “the sting of the cobra,” to be the “clue to the whole idea.” Death is rapid after the venom enters a large blood vessel, the venom is temporarily exhausted after the strikes (needing to ‘re-form’), and many snake handlers inoculate themselves until immune. Most times, too, a snake can’t poison itself or its own species. From Penzer’s conclusion to his essay:
To summarise briefly, I would say that the motif of the poison-damsel originated in India at a very early period before the Christian era. The poison-damsel herself has no existence in actual fact, but is merely the creation of the story-teller, who derived the idea from what he saw around him. First of all he was acquainted with poisonous herbs and knew something of the uses to which they were put, but he was still more familiar with the ways of the snake-charmer and the methods of his gradual inoculation. He could not help being fully aware of the fatal results of the bite of the cobra and krait, and the reverence and fear of the snake throughout India was everywhere evident. Thus there was plenty of material for the creation of the poison-damsel, and in later days the knowledge of opium and other foreign drugs would merely introduce some new variant of the tale.The Tale of the Two Thieves
But apart from all these rather obvious sources, we must not overlook another, and deeper, origin of such tales, of which even the story-teller himself knew but little and probably cared less. I refer to the psychological fears, ignorance and superstitions that form the basis of so many folk-tales and beliefs—a fertile ground indeed, where the seed of the story teller could produce exotic blooms of fantasy and exaggeration. … [D]espite her many disadvantages, there is much that is attractive about the poison-damsel. (70-1)
The story of Ghata and Karpara as told by Somadeva (The Ocean of Story, vol. v, pp. 142-151) is composed of two distinct tales. The first, ending with the final success of Ghata’s tricks, is a Sanskrit version of the well-known tale of Rhampsinitus in Herodotus (ii, 121). The second consists of several incidents, quite likely of Kashmirian origin, dealing with the favourite subject among Orientals—the inconstancy of woman. (75)Penzer is only concerned with the first part of the story. He quotes from The Ocean of Story how a thief named Karpara, on a mission to steal from the king, enters the bedchamber of the princess and they fall in love. The princess gives Karpara her wealth but he was caught and executed. His accomplice Ghata, holding the money for Karpara, returns to the palace and carries the princess away. He also tricks the king’s guards, sent to watch and safeguard the body of Karpara, and successfully mourns over his friend and steals the bones of his friend for proper burial.
Penzer compares this to Herodotus’ version, told to the historian as an Egyptian tale. The stories are similar, although the surviving thief wins the princess as a reward for the shrewd tricks he plays on the king. Penzer looks at the origin and migration of the story. While many scholars (at the time Penzer was writing) believe the tale of Rhampsinitus could not possibly be of Egyptian origin since several points do not fit in with Egyptian customs. Penzer disagrees on each point raised, although he isn’t sure if it really is of Egyptian origin, either. If not, the story had been semi-“Egyptianized” before Herodotus’ time. Penzer looks at classical versions of the story or references to it in works by Pausanias, Aristophanes, Cicero, Pindar, and Plutarch before looking at medieval and modern versions. Variants in these versions come from the storyteller taking the local environment and motifs into account. Penzer highlights a study of gypsy folk-tales by F. H. Groome who notes that “the gypsies form an important channel of story-migration.” Since there is a version of the story in the gypsy tales, they may be the link in moving the story back and forth through the Balkans.
Penzer finishes his essay by looking at several more versions of the story from Italy, Finland (written in Old Swedish), Tibet, and the gypsies. Penzer believe the “Story of Ghata and Karpara” to be a variant of Herodotus’ tale even if we are unable to trace its migration. Regardless, “The ‘Tale of Rhampsinitus,’ therefore, affords one of the most interesting and perfect examples of the longevity and migration of a really good tale, the history of which can be traced for over two thousand, five hundred years.” (128)
In the story of Rūpinikā (Tale 7 in the Ocean of Story, vol. 1, p. 139) laid in “a city named Mathurā, the birthplace of Kŗishņa,” we read that the lady herself who is described as a courtesan, at the time of worship went into the temple to perform her duty.Penzer looks over time and across many regions at the various texts in what he politely calls the “Science of Erotics” and other works that link prostitution to the temple. Southern India was religiously more consistent (or invaded less) and more examples and details of the ritual are described. That’s not to say prostitution was uncommon in other areas, just that there wasn’t the explicit link with a house of worship. The courtesans were trained in many arts, particularly dancing (there’s a repeated close tie between dancing and prostitution in the quoted stories) and successful ones were held in high esteem. The many examples of dēva-dāsī highlight elaborate ceremonies where the handmaids are married to a deity or item associated with a god—some of these accounts reveal envy since, married to a god, they can never become widows. Marco Polo and other medieval travelers included some descriptions of the temple girls in their writings.
From this passage it is quite clear that Rūpinikā combined the professions of prostitution and temple servant, which latter consisted chiefly in dancing, fanning the idol, and keeping the temple clean. She was, in fact, a dēva-dāsī, or “handmaid of the god.”
Penzer looks at other areas outside India that had sacred prostitution, with Babylonia a central focus since the oldest writings show the first mentions of the profession, particularly in the Code of Hammurabi and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Penzer looks at some of the theories on which the basis of such systems rest but he emphasizes the need for more research.
C. H. Tawney’s translation and Penzer's original essays can be found at these links:
- Volume 1 (Appendix 4: Sacred Prostitution)
- Volume 2 (Appendix 3: Poison-damsels)
- Volume 3
- Volume 4
- Volume 5 (Appendix 2: The Origin of the Story of Ghata and Karpara) [The Tale of the Two Thieves]
- Volume 6
- Volume 7
- Volume 8 (Appendix 2: The Romance of Betel-chewing)
- Volume 9
- Volume 10
The Sacred Prostitution appendix is also available here. Here are the volumes and notes available at the site.