Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harun ar-Rashid and the Golden Apples of the Hesperides

I recently heard a rather good folk tale from my father about the adventures of (a completely mythologised) Hārūn ar-Rashīd during his foreordained seven years of hardship, living as a poor man dressed in goatskin nicknamed Bou-Krisha (بو كريشة). One element of the story fits nicely with the previous two posts' theme of cultural survivals from the classical era. The king gathers his sons-in-law and his would-be son-in-law Bou-Krisha, and tells them that he is terribly ill, and to cure him they must go and bring him:
ət-təffaħ ən-nifuħ التّفّاح النّيفوح
əlli yṛədd əṛ-ṛuħ اللي يردّ الرّوح
m-əs-səb`a jbal مسّبعة جبال

the fragrant apple
that restores the soul
from the Seven Mountains
For the tale's purposes, of course, all that matters about this evocative phrase is that it refers to something that it will take a long and arduous quest to get. But the historically minded listener may be excused for speculating on the phrase's origin.

Etymologically, the phrase is mildly interesting. nifuħ is unexpected, and possibly distorted to fit the rhyme - a more normal term, with obvious Classical Arabic origins, would be nəffaħ; it might have arisen by contamination from əlli yfuħ “which smells” (especially since əlli in Kabyle is ənni.) But it may be possible to look deeper.

Ceuta (Arabic səbta سبتة) is an ancient Moroccan port town at the edge of the Straits of Gibraltar which has been part of Spain since 1668. Its name derives from a longer Latin one - Septem Fratres, the Seven Brothers, said to be a reference to seven hills around the city; it was a wild area, among the last places in North Africa where elephants were found (as noted by Pliny.) And the region around the Straits of Gibraltar is where the gardens of the Hesperides were supposed to be located - where the Golden Apples grew. Is ət-təffaħ ən-nifuħ one of the Golden Apples?


John Cowan said...

It's generally thought that the "golden apples" were oranges -- there is no Classical Greek word for either the fruit or the color. The etymology can be found at the AHD4 page for "orange".

Is there any tradition in Arabic of confounding oranges and apples, even poetically?

Lameen Souag said...

Not that I know of, but the confusion could in this case have been passed on from Greek.

SimplyMoroccan said...
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Lameen Souag said...

They are great, aren't they? I wrote مسّبعة since it's pronounced like one word, with the n disappearing.