Turkish Folktales: The Contest & The Candle

Across the Muslim world, stories and anecdotes attributed to or about Nasreddin Hodja are as much a part of the collective consciousness as the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in Europe and North America.

Nasreddin was probably a real man who lived in Turkey in the 13th century. Some sources say he was born in Turkey, others that he moved there from Iran. In any case, it seems agreed that he lived and worked as a judge and teacher in or near the city of Konya in central Turkey. He is known for his sly wit, appreciation of the absurd, optimism and genial nature. The honorific Hodja refers to a wise teacher.

With a respectful good riddance to the historically harsh winter much of the US has endured this year, here’s a winter tale from Nasreddin Hodja.

One very cold winter night, Nasreddin Hodja and twelve of his neighbors were enjoying good company in the village teahouse. As they sipped their hot tea, the men took turns voicing their astonishment at the severe weather, each striving to outdo the last in the extent of their suffering. Nasreddin Hodja listened without comment to the tales of winter woe. When all eyes turned to him for his contribution on the topic, Nasreddin made a dismissive gesture and said, “My friends, what a bunch of whiners you are. Is it cold outside? I hadn’t noticed. In fact, this morning I remarked to my wife what a refreshing day it was, and left my coat at home.”

Nasreddin’s boastful contradiction was no surprise to his companions. He rarely let any statement go unchallenged. Life in the teahouse was never dull. “I find this weather so mild, I’m sure I could stay out in it all night long with no coat at all,” he said. “Let’s see about that,” replied one of the friends. “If you can spend the entire night outside without a coat, or any means of warmth beyond your own hot air, each of us will host you for dinner. If you cannot, you will host all of us.” It was a deal.

For the next eight hours, the village men watched from their windows as Nasreddin paced around the town square stomping his feet, blowing on his hands and hugging himself against the bitter night. His wife also kept watch and left a candle burning in the window as a sign of her support. When the faint sun finally peeped over the horizon, Nasreddin went inside, feeling tired but triumphant, and not a little numb.

Later that day, when all the men were gathered in the teahouse, Nasreddin asked who would be the first to invite him for dinner. Altogether they responded, “It is you who owe us dinner!” “How do you figure that?” he said. “I know you saw me outside all night.” “Oh, we saw you outside; this is true. But we also saw the candle burning in your window. Surely that provided you some warmth.” Nasreddin’s expression told his friends what he thought of their implausible argument, but he agreed to feed them dinner anyway.

A few days later Nasreddin welcomed his friends to his home. As dinner was not yet ready, he made them comfortable in the sitting room and they chatted about the weather and politics and local gossip, just as they did whenever and wherever they gathered. After more than an hour, they were getting pretty hungry and asked Nasreddin if he meant to feed them anytime soon. Rising from his chair, he asked them to join him in the kitchen to check the progress of their dinner.

In the kitchen, they found a cast iron pot filled with rice, chicken and vegetables hanging from a beam over a burning candle. “What are you thinking?” they exclaimed. “This small candle will never provide enough heat to cook a pot full of food!” “Huh,” said Nasreddin, cocking his head and knitting his brow in mock wonderment. “You say this candle, mere inches from the pot, is not hot enough to cook the food, but the very same candle was hot enough to warm me all the way across the square?” The friends had no rebuttal and all repaired in good humor to the teahouse for some food that had been thoroughly cooked on a blazing fire.

Poetry Corner: the Song of Moses & Miriam

The Crossing of the Red Sea, Nicolas Poussin, 1634

The Crossing of the Red Sea, Nicolas Poussin, 1634

In honor of Passover, a song of praise from Exodus 15:1-19 ~

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:

“I will sing to the Lord,
    for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea.

“The Lord is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
    my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior;
    the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
    he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
    are drowned in the Red Sea.
The deep waters have covered them;
    they sank to the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, Lord,
    was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord,
    shattered the enemy.

“In the greatness of your majesty
    you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
    it consumed them like stubble.
By the blast of your nostrils
    the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood up like a wall;
    the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy boasted,
    ‘I will pursue, I will overtake them.
I will divide the spoils;
    I will gorge myself on them.
I will draw my sword
    and my hand will destroy them.’
10 But you blew with your breath,
    and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead
    in the mighty waters.
11 Who among the gods
    is like you, Lord?
Who is like you—
    majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
    working wonders?

12 “You stretch out your right hand,
    and the earth swallows your enemies.
13 In your unfailing love you will lead
    the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
    to your holy dwelling.
14 The nations will hear and tremble;
    anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
    the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
16  terror and dread will fall on them.
By the power of your arm
    they will be as still as a stone —
until your people pass by, Lord,
    until the people you bought pass by.
17 You will bring them in and plant them
    on the mountain of your inheritance —
the place, Lord, you made for your dwelling,
    the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.

18 “The Lord reigns
    for ever and ever.”

19 When Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.

Exodus 15:1-19
New International Version

A Halcyon Solstice

Kingfisher, Allen W. Seaby, 1929

Kingfisher, Allen W. Seaby, 1929

Alcyone, daughter of the keeper of the Wind, was married to Ceyx, son of the morning star. They were very much in love and totally devoted to each other, yet Alcyone’s love was powerless to relieve the suffering of her husband over the loss of his brother.

Even from the depths of despair, Ceyx knew it was time to get on with his life and he thought his best hope was a consultation with the oracle of Apollo at Claros. This required a sea journey, which, being daughter of the Wind, Alcyone knew to be perilous, especially in Winter, which it was. She pleaded with her husband not to go to no avail. Continue reading

How the Hodja Saved Allah: a Turkish Folktale

One day, a wise old Hodja (teacher, scholar) in Istanbul was leading his young students as they committed a passage of the Koran to memory. The Hodja himself knew the sacred book backwards and forwards. So many years had he taught it, he could recite it in his sleep without a single error. Although he had recited and listened to that day’s passage countless times before, this time he was seized by the message like never before: “Those who spend their money in the service of God are like a kernel of corn, from which grow seven ears, each containing one hundred kernels. God bestows manifold gifts on whom he pleases.” As he spoke the words, a brilliant light switched on in the mind of the Hodja and he knew he would be secure in his retirement.

He sent his students home for the day and proceeded to count his life savings. Careful figuring based on the compound appreciation promised in the verse would result in a payout of 1,000 piastres, a fortune! The Hodja immediately went into the streets, handing a few coins to each needy soul he encountered, until every last cent was gone. He was flat broke but thought himself a rich man, certain that 1,000 piastres were already on the way. Having helped a good number of destitute neighbors felt pretty good too.

That night, he was grateful for his simple dinner of bread and olives, but found himself dreaming about the occasional roast he would enjoy with his pending wealth. The next day, he had only bread to fill his stomach, and still no 1,000 piastres, but he did not despair.

On the third day, there was still no money and his cupboards were bare. Hungry and weak, his faith tested, he walked into the open fields beyond the city walls, reached to the sky and beseeched the Lord to take pity on His good servant. He cried and moaned and shook his fists.He was preparing to throw himself to the ground and wallow when a fearsome howl stopped him cold.

It was the voice of a certain wandering Sufi monk, who was quite out of his mind and terrorizing the area. Normally, wandering Sufi monks were welcome guests. This one was unpredictable, even violent, and from the sound of it, he was just over the horizon, and heading toward the Hodja. With surprising speed and agility, considering his advanced age, the Hodja climbed high up into a tree, there being nowhere else to hide.

The crazy monk came right up to the tree and sat down beneath it. He was wailing and lamenting, not only for himself but for the whole world. He cried out to God, “Why is there so much pain in the world? What’s the point? Why was I born? Why was anyone born only to suffer and die? Why?? Why?!! All my life, I have prayed for relief but to no avail. Now, I know what I must do to avenge the misery of mankind!”

He reached into a leather pouch at his side and pulled out a small figure, which he addressed as Job. He said, “down through the ages, you have been held up as a great example of patience and faith. In your name we are taught that forbearance brings reward. But this is not true. Many suffer with no end. I will punish you now for your bad counsel.” With his sword, the monk cut off the head of the figure he called Job.

Then he took another figure from his bag. This one he called David. To David he said, “you wrote songs of peace and love, but lived a sinful life. For misleading mankind with your pretty words, I will punish you.” And he cut off the head of the David figure.

The third figure to come out of the bag represented Solomon. The monk said, “Solomon, for centuries, you have been revered for your wisdom and vast knowledge, but you were not always wise. You did some bad things that brought suffering to countless many. I shall cut off your head.” And he did.

Next, the monk pulled a figure from his bag which he called Jesus. “Jesus, you came into the world, suffered and gave your own life so that mankind would know peace. You were a great prophet, yet the church founded in your name brought war after war. All that misery must be avenged.” Off came the head of the figure called Jesus.

The next figure from the bag was Mohammed. The monk said, “Mohammed, like Jesus, you were a great prophet, but so many suffered and died the world over in your name, you also must be punished.” Off came the head of the Mohammed figure.

Then the monk touched his forehead to the ground and stayed there in silence for several minutes. When he rose, he brought another figure from the bag. “Allah, you are all powerful. Mankind is your creation, all the good and all the evil in the world ultimately comes from you. I cannot punish your prophets and not also punish you.” As he raised his sword to chop of this final Ultimate Head, a shout came from the tree above, “STOP! He owes me 1,000 piastres!”

The monk was so startled, he dropped to the ground in a dead heap. The Hodja sat motionless in the tree for a good 30 minutes but the monk did not stir. The Hodja tossed a few twigs down at the monk and got no response. He climbed down from the tree and checked for a heartbeat. Sure enough, the monk was dead.

When he put the Allah figure safely back into the monk’s pouch, he discovered that it was full of gold. He poured the coins on the ground and counted out exactly 1,000 piastres. He looked toward Heaven and said, “Allah, I never doubted you would keep your promise, but,” he added, “not before I saved your life.”

Prometheus, Pandora & the Cost of Fire

Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, Heinrich Friedrich Fuger, 1817

Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, Heinrich Friedrich Fuger, 1817

Prometheus was a surviving member of the Titan generation after the cosmic war between Cronus and his Titans and their offspring the Olympian gods, led by Zeus. Prometheus sat out the conflict and escaped the fate of the Titans, who were banished to Tartarus, the deepest, most torturous pit of the underworld, after their defeat by the Olympians. Continue reading

Nasreddin Hodja: Life is Like a Pan of Baklava

 Across the Muslim world, stories and anecdotes attributed to or about Nasreddin Hodja are as much a part of the collective consciousness as the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in Europe and North America.

Nasreddin was probably a real man who lived in Turkey in the 13th century. Some sources say he was born in Turkey, others that he moved there from Iran. In any case, it seems agreed that he lived and worked as a judge and teacher in Aksehir, near the city of Konya in central Turkey. He is known for his sly wit, appreciation of the absurd, optimism and genial nature. The honorific Hodja refers to a wise teacher. Continue reading

Orpheus & Eurydice

Orpheus and the Animals, by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Orpheus was the son of one of the Muses and the king of Thrace. From a very early age, his musical talents were clear. He was singing before he could speak and dancing before he could walk. Every night he would sing himself to sleep and each morning, the singing from his crib woke the household. It was a sweet start to each day and no one complained. Continue reading