The Seven Voyages of Sinbad

Posted: May 14, 2017 in Chat
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from The Arabian Nights.

What follows is an earlier version of my Sinbad chapter in Gifts of Rings and Gold




The basic arc of the Seven Voyages is that of the story of the Porter, Sinbad, and his gaining of knowledge, wisdom, and, let’s not forget, entertainment. Financially he does very well out of it too: he is given 100 gold coins every story he attends.

– The Porter begins the series of tales, bewailing his lot as a porter of heavy goods. Stopping for a rest by a wealthy merchant’s house, he finds himself invited in, is introduced to all, and introduces himself to his host: Sinbad, a merchant and sailor.

For six subsequent days he arranges his work around further audiences at the house so he can hear the tales the host has to tell. At the end of the whole tale he is a happier and wiser man: ‘The porter remained a constant visitor at the house of his illustrious friend, and the two lived in amity and peace…’.

There are many translations of the tale; a translation is, almost by definition, a version of the original. When we get to re-tellings of extant versions you get an idea of the variations possible through the ‘Chinese whispers’ of versions, and versions of versions.

For this study I went back to the version by Sir Richard Burton, 1885. The problem with this version is that it is part of the Scheherazade story, which keeps coming in at ‘inappropriate’ moments in the storyline, in the form of breaks in the narrative, then resumptions, reputedly the following night.


– The merchant Sinbad’s story is as follows: he was the son of a wealthy merchant; upon his father’s death he inherited the fortune, and led a carefree and extravagant life. Pulled-up short by the realisation he had nearly squandered it all, he converted the last into merchandise and went out into the world to rebuild, or rescue what he could of his fortune.

There follows seven trading voyages, which turn remarkably odd.

The main thing in favour of this version I am using is that it is still possible to discern an overall pattern to the voyages, which becomes lost in later versions

– the earlier voyages are voyages of acquisition: Sinbad’s whole intent is to regain wealth through trade.

– -the latter voyages are decidedly voyages of exploration.

What is gained by exploration? Knowledge: of market-resources, trading-terrain, of conditions, regions and customs. But also an invaluable network of colleagues and contacts. What is gained is trust, honour and esteem.

Wealth is only a metaphor for knowledge: worldly wealth and spiritual wealth mirror each other in the overall tale.

In Voyage 1 he sets out to sea; the ship sets down at an island, which turns out be a long-basking whale. All escape but Sinbad. He drifts penniless to another island where men take him in; he helps them with their task of luring sea stallions to cover a land mare: the resultant horse is very highly valued. He is taken to their city and introduced to the king. He becomes a trusted courtier, and wealthy merchant; he learns all about the Brahmin castes of India. He finds a ship home, regains his initial merchandise, returns home.

In Voyage 2 he sets out once more, is abandoned on an island: the ship sails without him as he has fallen sleep beside a stream. In the distance is a huge egg, he recognizes it from tales as that of the Roc bird. It arrives at sunset. In order to escape the island he ties himself to it, is taken far away to a cliff top by the bird. He unties himself and the bird flies off. Below him are huge serpents, but also priceless jewels scattered about. The serpents hide away as the sun rises. He loads himself up with these jewels. During the day sheep carcasses are thrown down to stick the jewels to their bloody skins. He has heard of this too; ties himself to one. When the local people retrieve the carcasses he is shunned as an evil spirit, until he is able to convince them otherwise, with his jewels. He is taken to safety and exchanges some jewels for merchandise, sails home trading successfully.

Voyage 3 gets nastier: ship wreck this time involves going off course, and being invaded by apelike creatures from an island, who steal the ship. Inland of the island they discover a huge, well-equipped house where they shelter. It is the house of a giant, who eats them one by one, one per night. They resolve to escape: build a raft during the day, and that night they blind the giant. As they drift off he appears with his mother and hurls rocks at them; some drown, and some escape with him. The next island is the abode of a giant serpent, which also eats them one by one. Sinbad escapes this fate by building himself a coffin out of ship timbers. The serpent cannot break it. Next day he is rescued by a passing ship, the only survivor. In this instance it is he, a man with cunning and wit, who is picked up by a passing ship, and not an apelike creature as at the beginning of the voyage. The captain is amazed at his tale, and he is reunited with previous goods from Voyage 2.

The Fourth Voyage sees all wrecked once more, and the survivors drift to an island. Strange wild men take them to their king; he treats them extraordinarily well; Sinbad is wary, however, and soon finds that his fellow men are being fed adulterated food. They lose their wits, eventually grow corpulent on the fare, and are then eaten, by the king and company. Sinbad grows thinner and thinner. They take no interest in him, and he escapes. On the other side of this vast island he meets a gentle people, who take him in. He provides goods for them and becomes very wealthy by making saddles for their horses, for they have none. As written earlier, he marries, is honoured by their king, then undergoes the ordeal of the grave pit after his wife died. The ring here centres on the subject of the bestiality of living solely in the physical body. He must die in the body and mind in order to be reborn as someone worthy of his life: the man must ride the body, and not vice versa.

I think the question being asked here is: what survives when all else is taken away, one’s lifestyle, honour, even one’s life? It is the life of the spirit, I think.

Voyage 5 we once again encounter the Roc’s egg, and the island – but a member of the crew breaks it, and when the bird returns bombards the ship with rocks until it is smashed. The boat is wrecked. Sinbad lands on an island. There an old man begs him to take him over a stream, which he does. The old man will not let go, though and near strangles him. He has to be carried around like this for weeks, doing ‘his natural filth all down my back’. He is eventually dislodged by trickery, and killed by Sinbad. He is rescued; learns that it was the Old Man of the Sea, who few survive. He is taken to the City of the Apes where he is encouraged to join some workmen throwing stones at apes in trees; they throw back coconuts, which are collected and sold at market. He makes a good profit and heads for home, trading on the way, hiring pearl divers and amassing a good quantity.

In Voyage 6 the ship becomes lost, and eventually wrecked on an island. It was scattered with previous wrecks, and bales of merchandise and treasures.  His crew members die one by one amongst all the wealth and precious jewels scattered about; he himself builds a raft to allow the river to take him away, hopefully to safety. When he wakes he has been rescued. His rescuers marvel at his tale, take him to their king, who takes him in. He becomes a royal courtier in time. He becomes a kind of ambassador for his own monarch, Haroun al-Rashid, and is allowed home with all honours, a fortune, and his story embellished in gold.

The motif of treasures for all to take is repeated here. There is always a price, though. Jewels are, by themselves, useless, that men starve whilst surrounded by such wealth.

In Voyage 7 he sets out, the ship is wrecked by a whale. We have the whale motif again, and the friendly inhabitants. This latter contrasts with the early voyages where the inhabitants of other lands are anything but friendly. He ends up on an island where jewels glitter and liquid amber flows; the crew die of hunger one by one. He is about to give himself, but makes a raft to see where the river would take him. He is rescued in the nick of time and taken-in by an elderly merchant. He becomes rich, marries the merchant’s daughter. After the old merchant dies he discovers he came from elsewhere, that the inhabitants of this land, pleasant as they are, are all worshippers of Satan. They leave, with their fortune intact, and return home.

There is also a religious dimension: the Brahmins, and Indian castes of Tale 1 are here are paralleled with the worshippers of Satan. A bit harsh, perhaps? Both sets of people are very pleasant, and indeed honourable. They just have this unfortunate focus at the centre of their lives.

The Seven Voyages is clearly based in parts on the Odyssey; both books share certain central characters and episodes. However, the Odyssey was not well known in the Arabic world: translations were few and far between. We find in both books the Old Man of the Sea, who plays such a role in Voyage Five. He is surely another take on the Phorcys character in the Odyssey. We also find a Circe story: in Voyage Four, the ship’s crew is entertained by the King who feels them adulterated food until they lose their wits, become bloated and witless creatures. The Cyclops episode is echoed in the Third Voyage down to the giant, and their blinding of him, the giant throwing rocks at their raft as the float away.

Odysseus’ communing with the dead may parallel the death-event in Voyage Four.

A shame about the Sirens; that could have been interesting. In the Seven Voyages woman do not play any role whatsoever: Sinbad marries twice; his first marriage turns to disaster as his wife died; the second marriage, to the old merchant’s daughter in Voyage Seven, marked their joint desire to escape the company of unbelievers, and a final return home.


There is a central voyage where all changes – because, yes, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad are structured in a ring.

Each tale has a repeating pattern of shipwreck, loss, or abandonment; and resolution. This last can come from the restitution of goods/fortune from a previous voyage; or earned honours from the present voyage.

Each tale ends as it begins with the merchant safely back home and turning once more to an indulgent lifestyle. Each tale employs a change of circumstances in the middle section – each tale is a complete ring in itself.

They all add up to the overall ring of the Seven Voyages.

The changeover, in the fourth tale, is very well marked, and prepared for: it is a death experience. Where before, surviving shipwrecks and other catastrophes had been the case, in the fourth tale he is by custom of the land lowered into the grave pit with his dead wife, and a small supply of food, as well as the grave goods.

That he survives is due to his total abasement: he must kill all subsequent burial spouses, and steal their food supplies. He escapes his death-experience by following a carrion-eating animal’s tunnel to a bleak shoreline. He has become that animal almost, crawling on all-fours.

He brings out bales of grave goods as loot. When he is rescued by a passing ship he offers the captain a priceless pearl, but the captain refuses: it is a matter of honour that he was rescued, and not acquisition: honour is more important than wealth.

The changeover is marked, in the Tale 3, by escape from a huge serpent, by way of hiding inside a coffin he constructed from ship’s planks. We get a foreshadowing here of the death-experience to come.


And this brings in another aspect of the Seven Voyages, what the hard-working Porter learns, and what Sinbad the spend-thrift earns: I think maybe what we have is a vestige of a Sufi teaching tale. Either that or it is an approximation of one. The tale may have accrued this ‘atmosphere’ as Orientalism became the fashion.

I’m already on strange ground with this – so might as well go ahead. Think of the Porter as the mind, going through its everyday, then the sailor Sinbad is the heart that sees more, and can learn. The two are in accord at the end.

Think of Sinbad as the Sheik of the Sufi ‘circle’, the leader, whom the novice must submit in spirit to, must ‘become’ to liberate himself from the world, and become wholly ‘spirit’ incarnate. And then see the Voyages as the valleys of the seven ‘nafs’. The trials and tests one must undergo in order to learn the value and meaning of the true way of being, and to rid oneself of falsehood. There are reputedly three stages of nafs: the Inciting nafs; the Self-accusatory nafs; the nafs of Peace.

I do not wish to pursue this further; I am not sufficiently versed in the Quran, or Sufi lore.

So why arrange them as rings? Is this a covert indication of the Sufi circle? Memory plays a big part in Sufism, too: to remember is to remember one’s true nature under the layers of distractions and false fronts that are the world. So, the ring is a device for remembering, but maybe as a Sufi story it is also a device for remembering that the act of remembering is at the heart of one’s true self.

As seen previously the ring device is a mnemonic device: once one can remember the way to the heart, the central change, then one will know the way on from there, by repeating various motifs, events. It is essentially a device of memory. ‘The way of the heart’ is an epithet that Western writers give to Sufism. If my surmises are correct here then we do see a range of metaphors based on the image of a ring. Mary Douglas in Thinking in Circles configured another Sufi tale, the Mudhumalati, (by Manjhan, AD1545) as a complex star shape, of four triangles where chapter reflected chapter in the circle of the construction.

We can posit a construction where the whole of the Voyages are connected on various details e.g. 1 and 2 connect on abandonment; 2 and 3 are connected by serpents; 3 and 4 are connected by cannibalism etc to 7 and 1 connected on royal honour and patronage. There are many possible mappings to the tale but I cannot see a figurative arrangement. Voyages 1, 4 and 6 map out honourable positions Sinbad earns at various courts; Voyages 4, 6 and 7, map out the uselessness of jewels and wealth; and 2, 4 and 7 on the theme of peripheral value: jewels, grave goods and sandalwood.  3 and 5 connect on the theme of apes; 1 and 7 on the whale; 2 and 5 on the Roc bird. There does not seem to be an arrangement I am familiar with in this; the patterns of Muslim architecture are all based on harmony and balance. The ring is the only harmonic structure I can see here.


  1. viennafamous says:

    Fascinating. I love the bit about “the inhabitants, pleasant as they are, are all worshippers of Satan”. Sinbad’s (more probably the translator’s) Christianity is a fragile thing!

  2. Thank you. Yes, if you can’t have some fun with a piece like this, then what the….!?

  3. theburningheart says:

    I enjoyed your post very much, and yes there is an obvious mystical background when the number seven appears, the trials, and tribulations on every trip represent the stages the soul has to travel in order to gain in Wisdom.
    Thank you. 🙂

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