As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words –
that would make this a a very long post indeed…
But since actual information on the “Book of Wonders” is sparse, I’ll retrace the steps that led me to this relatively obscure work of Islamic mythic and magical oddities.
I started thinking about isolation.
Myths of being trapped, imprisoned.
First, I considered Dybbuks:
In Jewish mythology, a dybbuk is a nasty.
It’s a clingy spirit.
You know, you’ve dated this person.
We’ve all dated this person.
I’d heard of these malevolent souls.
And thanks to Zak Bagans, the P.T. Barnum of the Undead, I knew these Dybbuks could be trapped in boxes.
P.S. I’m starting to question some of Zak’s advice.
Alas, while Dybbuks are a real feature of Hebrew myth, going back to at least the sixteenth century, they don’t live in boxes.
The Dybbuk infested wine box is only as terrifying as e-bay, which is the portal it slipped through:
Owners of the box claim it is authentic.
The producers of the horror movie The Possession wanted people to believe it was true.
And Zak Bagans? It’s part of his haunted museum.
There’s a sucker born every minute.
That’s why I’ve only gone twice.
So then I thought about Aladdin’s Jinn, trapped in a lamp.
That’s obviously rooted in myth, right?
The Arabian Nights is from Islam’s Golden age, from the 8th to the 14th century.
That makes Aladdin an old tale, correct?
Just like a Dybbuk box, my beliefs proved empty:
In the early 1800s, a Syrian Maronite storyteller from Aleppo named Hanna Diyab was traveling to Paris.
Along the way, he met one Antoine Galland, a French translator who was working on the Nights.
Galland was also collecting stories – ‘orphan stories’ as they would later be deemed.
Ironically, these include probably the two best known tales “from” the Nights.
Aladdin, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
It turns out the classical, Islamic and Pre-Islamic Jinn aren’t trapped in objects.
First the Dybbuk, now the Jinn…isn’t any mythic being trapped?
I would have switched topics entirely, but then I found this gem:
The Kitab al-Bulhan,Book of Wonders, or Book of Surprises, a 14th century Arabic illustrated manuscript which includes texts on astronomy, astrology, geomancy and a section of illustrations of things…
The entire manuscript is available from the Cambridge Digital Library for free.
Here’s their description of the book:
ʻAjāʼib al-makhlūqāt (MS Nn.3.74)
The text is structured according to a hierarchical cosmological order, with the celestial spheres, incorporating the fixed stars, the 12 signs of the Zodiac, stellar constellations and the surrounding spheres, which make up the observable celestial phenomena, followed by the invisible phenomena, the “Guardians of the Kingdom of God” and other angels, and the division of time and calendars.
In the second section of the work the elemental division of the sublunar sphere is classified into the four elements fire, wind, water and earth. The seas, oceans and islands including their inhabitants, are governed by Water, while Earth contains the mountains, wells, rivers, minerals, plants and the animal kingdom, including human beings and their cultures.
Numerous illustrations of commonly known mammals, birds, insects and reptiles can be found, along with strange beings, which conclude the text.
What’s the take away?
There are many Books of Wonder out there, waiting to be discovered
Sometimes that’s the best you can hope for, when you’re
Trapped like a Dybbuk in a box