Monday, September 30, 2013

Arab Travelers: The Leopard

Fatimid pottery cup, 11th century.
From here.
Of all the animals, the leopard alone can jump more than forty cubits. In the church at Hunak, there was a window forty cubits in height above the floor. A leopard used to go there during the hottest part of the day, then jump down and go away. At the time, the landlord of Hunak was a Frankish knight called Sir Adam, a real devil of a Frank. He was told the story of the leopard, and he said, 'When you see the leopard, inform me of it.'

The leopard came as usual and jumped up to that window, so one of the peasants went and informed Sir Adam. Sir Adam put on his hauberk, mounted his charger, took up his shield and spear and went off to the church, which was in ruins except for one standing wall where the window was located. When the leopard saw Sir Adam, it pounced down from the window on top of him while Sir Adam was still on his charger and broke his back, killing him. It then went away. The peasants of Hunak used to call that leopard 'the holy-warrior leopard.'

One of the special qualities of the leopard is that if it wounds a man, and a mouse urinates on the wound, the man will die. A mouse never gives up trying to reach a man wounded by a leopard: one person, out of fear of the mice, even had a bed made for himself sitting in the water, with cats tied all around it.

-Usama ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplation, p. 123-124. Trans. Paul Cobb, 2008, Penguin.

Leopard, from "The Benefits of Animals"
Image from here.
"The leopard is a fierce enemy of man, unmanageable and ferocious. He eats only his own game. When satiated, he sleeps for three days and three nights in succession; (...) A sick leopard gets well by eating mice. His skin is tender and if he is wounded it breaks with a slight stroke.

The flesh and fat of a leopard, boiled in the juice of olives, serve as a good salve for the sores, abcesses and pimples that break out on the body; his blood is a preventive liniment for all skin diseases."

-Ibn Bakhtishu, The Benefits of Animals, quoted from 1001 Tales of History's post on the book - which you should totally check out, if only to see the other fascinating pictures and descriptions.

Well. There's clearly something up between leopards and mice, some connection here. But why would these two creatures be connected?

Hmm. I am reminded...
“I am reminded,” said the Mouser, “of what a witch told me about adepts. She said that, if an adept chances to die, his soul is reincarnated in a mouse. If, as a mouse, he managed to kill a rat, his soul passes over to a rat. As a rat, he must kill a cat; as a cat, a wolf; as a wolf, a panther; and, as a panther, a man. There he can recommence his adeptry. Of course, it seldom happens that anyone gets all the way through the sequence and in any case it takes a very long time. Trying to kill a rat is enough to satisfy a mouse with mousedom.”

- “Adept’s Gambit,” Fritz Leiber
Clearly the Mouser is misremembering (or the witch misspoke) and it was leopards, rather than panthers, that were in the adept chain of succession. But what if there were some way to short-circuit this process? What if an adept-turned-leopard-turned-mouse could easily slay a man while as a mouse? Perhaps through a wound that they had made as a leopard?

And this would explain why the mice never give up trying to reach the wounded man. Because if they can work their arts on the wounded...ah, the chance to be a human once more!

Perhaps some adept-leopards (leopard-adepts?) retain their loyalties in life, as the case of the holy-warrior leopard shows. Or perhaps this was merely an opportune moment for the adept to strike at a human and return to a human form. Yet it is curious that it did not attack the peasants...


  1. Do you think maybe saints go the other way? Like as a man, you have to die saving a leopard, the the leopard has to die saving a wolf, etc. Bu then you carry on. The mouse must save the beetle, the beetle the fly, the fly the gnat, the gnat the microbe, the microbe the virus hen the virus dies refusing to infect a man and then BAM you meet Allah and he's like 'two thumbs up dude, you made the set'

    1. Hmm, that's a thought!

      I am wary about the direct symmetry, though - I think that it might gain more through being a unique and one-off thing, "that's just how adepts roll," because of how contrary to nature it is - the prey slaying the predator.

      Something more harmonious with nature might work for a saint, though - or perhaps saving many people...

  2. I read the leopard attack on the Frankish knight as a sign that the leopard (and presumably the locals whole revered it for its act) have a stake in religion. Even the natural world, "an enemy to man" turns on the alien Frank in his crumbled church. The mouse angle is pretty good though - and of course leopards hunt mice, who are out to get them after a few more transformations - or steal their human transformation with shennanigans

    1. The stake-in-religion could well be an aspect of it (and is certainly far more likely than Ibn Munqidh adopting the fanciful idea I've run with here)! It's actually also fairly likely, IMO, that he's just written it off as a leopard that happened to fortuitously kill a Frank. (He oscillates between skeptical and strong supernatural belief, in contrast to someone like Ibn Khaldun, who is a bitter hard-nosed skeptic and damn proud of it!)