Camphor in a Medieval Greek Sinbad Story
This post is about references to camphor and sandalwood in a medieval Greek text from the Roman (‘Byzantine’) empire. This is only my second foray into Greek material on the blog, so please let me know if you notice any errors.
In the late eleventh century a teacher named Michael Andreopoulos translated a book from Syriac into Greek. This book, reportedly called (The Book of) Syntipas the Philosopher (Συντίπα τοῦ Φιλοσόφου), contained the story, as he tells us, of
‘the fable writer Syntipas as told by the Syrians, or rather, as written down by the wise Persian authors’.
Andreopoulos’s book is the oldest surviving version of this work, which was indeed probably originally written in Persian and transmitted west in various guises. Andreopoulos bundled The Book of Syntipas the Philosopher with a series of fables attributed to this Syntipas, most of which are drawn from the Aesop tradition (although several aren’t); whether the Syriac text on which Andreopoulos drew also put these works together isn’t clear.
Andreopoulos was from Melitene (Μελιτηνή), a town in what is now eastern Turkey, known today as Malatya. He lived quite far east of Constantinople in a borderland contested between the Seljuks and the Romans. (1) It’s not hard to see how he could have acquired knowledge of Syriac in such a place (Figure 1):
An edition of Andreopoulos’s Syntipas texts — The Book of Syntipas the Philosopher and the fables associated with him — has recently been published for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library with an English translation by Jeffrey Beneker and Craig A. Gibson (Andreopoulos 2021). The title chosen for this edition is the inherently curiosity-arousing “The Byzantine Sinbad”. This is because the ‘Syntipas’ of the Greek text is the same name as Persian Sendbâd and Arabic Sindibād (سندباد) — the source of the ‘Sinbad’ of ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ fame (Figure 2).
The two story traditions are entirely different, however. The ‘Sin(d)bad the Sailor’ stories appear later and are unconnected to the earlier tales of Sindbad/Syntipas the Philosopher. The only real link is the name — which was in any case abandoned in the ‘Sinbad the Philosopher’ tradition in several cases, particularly in the ‘Seven Wise Masters’ version of the work popular in Latin Christian Europe.
What may connect the stories, sort of, in a way, is the number seven. In the ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ stories, Sinbad (vel sim) goes on seven voyages in seven tales. In the Book of Syntipas the Philosopher, meanwhile, Sinbad/Syntipas trains the son of King Cyrus (probably to be identified with Cyrus the Great of Persia) in philosophy for six months, promising to release the prince to the monarch as soon as the period is over. When the six months have nearly elapsed, Syntipas conducts an astrological reading for the young prince, concluding that it would be extremely unwise for him to talk, or for Syntipas to meet with the king, for another full week. Syntipas then goes into hiding and the prince goes mute for seven days. One of Cyrus’s concubines takes the opportunity to scheme against the prince and accuses him of having assaulted her; Cyrus, looking around for Syntipas, who is nowhere to be seen, commands that the prince be executed.
Seven wise men then tell brief stories to Cyrus, one a day for seven days, to convince him not to kill his son. The concubine then tells Cyrus stories of her own on the mornings of days 2 to 6 to persuade him to carry out the execution. These stories are often rather strange, involving extraneous genitalia and monkey assaults and other odd and exotic phenomena, but they’re all linked by the Syntipas-related frame story and by the attempt to convince Cyrus to kill his son (or not).
In the end Syntipas shows up, the prince reveals the extraordinary erudition granted him through Syntipas’s teaching, and the philosophers set to debating the concubine’s guilt or innocence. The Book of Syntipas the Philosopher ends with Cyrus grilling the boy about various moral matters. Andreopoulos concludes by saying (2021:199 — translated by Beneker and Gibson):
‘With God’s help, this is the end of the intricate narrative about Cyrus, king of the Persians, and one of his many wives, who was wicked and malicious, and his legitimate son and his seven philosophers and his son’s teacher, whose name was Syntipas.’
All very interesting, but what does it have to do with Indonesia? Well, there is a reference to an Indo-Malaysian substance (and word) in the text: a mention of camphor during the debate over the concubine’s guilt.
Camphor is a white crystalline substance produced by several tree species, including Cinnamomum camphora from China and Northeast Asia and several tall gregarious forest trees in the genus Dryobalanops from island Southeast Asia, notably D. aromatica and D. lanceolata (Figure 3). Dryobalanops camphor from Sumatra and Borneo almost certainly made up the bulk of the medieval trade in the stuff. The earliest surviving description of these trees and their processing was written by Táng-era author Duàn Chéngshì (段成式, d.863) in chapter 18 of his Miscellaneous Morsels from Yǒuyáng (酉陽雜俎), although an almost contemporaneous description in Arabic by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradādhbih also survives. (We’ve looked at both of these texts on the blog.)
Significantly, the Malay word kapur is the source of many of the world’s words for ‘camphor’ (including English ‘camphor’). Kapur originally meant ‘chalk’ and ‘lime (calcium oxide)’, but it was applied to camphor because it, like chalk and lime, is white and crumbly. (2) This Malay loanword appears fairly early on in western Afro-Eurasian texts — indeed, ‘camphor’ is one of a handful of words from the languages of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago that had reached the Middle East and Europe well before the sixteenth century. The substance occurs as kāfūra (كَافُورًا) in the Qur’ān (76:5 — early seventh century, of course) and as kāpūr in the mid/late-first-millennium Zoroastrian Greater Bundahišn (Anklesaria 1908:118), as well as in several other early texts (including, a little dubiously, a Sogdian ‘Ancient Letter’ from Dunhuang).
Camphor was rather versatile stuff; it was consumed in food and medicine across the hemisphere, but it also cropped up in gunpowder recipes, particularly European ones, in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the Aristotelian tradition of western Afro-Eurasian medico-gastronomic thought, medicines and some foods were thought to possess one or other of four essential qualities: hot, cold, moist, and dry. As you’ll see in the Greek extract below, camphor was typically considered superlatively cold and dry. (Opinions could differ on this sort of thing, though; lettuce was sometimes thought to be ‘cold’ and at other times thought to be a neutral nourishing foodstuff with no extreme qualities.) In medieval Arabic texts, camphor (كافور) is said to be, as Nawal Nasrallah summarises it (2010:655),
‘…used for heat-related conditions. In summertime, it is used to flavour dishes. It is believed to induce euphoria, check tooth decay, and prevent it from spreading. However, over sniffing it will cause insomnia, inhibit sexual desires, and whiten the hair. Its cold and dry properties can be balanced by mixing it with musk and ambergris.’
Camphor in the Byzantine ‘Sinbad’
In an eleventh-century Middle Eastern context it isn’t too surprising to see references to camphor; they’re actually rather common. In any case, in the passage from The Book of Syntipas the Philosopher below (section 101, on pages 126–7 in the Dumbarton Oaks edition), one of the philosophers argues that blame should fall on the concubine for falsely denouncing the prince and not on King Cyrus for commanding his execution, saying that, much as rubbing two ‘cold’ woods together can produce heat, even a dispassionate and intelligent man can be distracted and made to err by associating with desirable women:
“Οὐχ οὕτως ἐστὶ ὡς σὺ λέγεισ· οὐ γὰρ ὁ βασιλεὺς τοῦ πράγματος αἴτιος, ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ οὐδὲν ψυχρότερον τῆς τε καφούρας καὶ τοῦ ξύλου ὅπερ καί σάνταλον ἡ συνήθεια οῖδε καλεῖν, ἀμφότερα δὲ ἀλλήλοις παρά τινος συγκατατριβόμενα σπινθῆρας πυρὸς μᾶλλον ἀποτελοῦσιν, οὕτω καὶ ἅπας ἀνήρ, κἂν ἄγαν εἴη συνετὸς καὶ ἀγχίνους, ἅμα τῷ αὐτὸν γυναικὶ προσομιλῆσαι, καὶ μᾶλλον τῇ παρ’ ἑαυτοῦ ποθουμένη, σὐθὺς ὑπ’ αὐτῆς τοῦ ἰδίου σκοποῦ πρὸς τὸ ἐκείνης μεθέλκεται θέλημα. ‘Η γυνὴ τοίνυν τούτου ἐστὶν αἰτία τοῦ πράγματος, ὅτιπερ ψευδῶς τοῦ παιδὸς κατειποῦσα πρὸς ἀπώλειαν αὐτοῦ τὸν βασιλέα παρώτρυνε.”
‘“The situation is not as you say. For the king is not to blame for the act, but just as nothing is colder than camphorwood and the wood that in everyday language is called sandalwood, but then, when someone rubs these two types of wood together, they produce sparks of fire, (3) so also every man, though he may be very intelligent and clever, as soon as he associates with a woman, and especially one that he desires, is immediately diverted by her from his own aims and toward her will. The woman, therefore, is to blame for this situation, because by falsely denouncing the boy she incited the king to kill him.”’
The word for ‘camphor’ in this extract (καφουρά — Romanised: kaphourá) lacks the nasalisation present in later Greek καμφορά (and modern English ‘camphor’), and is therefore closer to Malay kapur — presumably because it is a transliteration of the Syriac (ܟܐܦܘܪ kāpūr). It is also interesting that the camphor here is explicitly wood. Camphor often appears to have been sold in pure form, as a white crystalline powder, but most of the time it was probably brought down from the hills of Sumatra still in the timber, and it is entirely feasible that it was exported in that form as well. (See R. A. Donkin’s Dragon’s Brain Perfume  for a description of this.)
You will have noticed that we also have a reference to sandalwood (σάνταλον — Romanised: sántalon) here. The Greek word comes from Arabic ṣandal (صَنْدَل), which in turn came from Persian čandal, in turn from Sanskrit candana (and that probably from a Dravidian original). The Persian form is attested in the mid/late-first millennium CE, in the aforementioned Greater Bundahišn, and there is little doubt that it is the direct source of the Arabic word (Figure 4).
As you might expect, the Sanskrit word candana was also borrowed by a number of languages in Southeast Asia. It appears in the Old Javanese kakawin Rāmāyaṇa, the oldest extant kakawin, dated to the second half of the ninth century or the early tenth (e.g. 9.16a — hana ta kayū candana ‘there were sandalwood trees there’ — translated by Stuart Robson [2015:241]). It also appears with the same form in Bujangga Manik, the fifteenth-century Old Sundanese narrative poem that I edited for my Ph.D thesis (and which you’re probably tired of hearing about by now) (Figure 5).
Red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus) is native to India, and is probably the original referent of the word candana. White sandalwood (Santalum album) grew best in Timor, in eastern Indonesia, and the island was frequently visited by foreign traders as a result (although the trees also grew in smaller quantities and with less dense timber elsewhere in the archipelago, and eventually also in India). In western Afro-Eurasia, though, all the sandalwood varieties — which aren’t closely related but which nonetheless produce similar scents — were believed to be ‘cooling’, and all were called ‘sandal’ (vel sim) (Nasrallah 2010:775). Unfortunately we cannot therefore identify which of the sandalwoods is being referred to in the Syntipas passage. Still, English ‘sandal’, Greek σάνταλον, and Sanskrit/Old Javanese/Old Sundanese candana are all ultimately the same word — and this shows a link across medieval greater Afro-Eurasia of a different kind.
In the next post we’ll look at some more Indo-Malaysian things in medieval Greek contexts (and also one word that went the other way).
A. J. West — Leiden, 2021.
(1) Where possible I am going to refer to the dominant ethnic group of the ‘Byzantine’/Roman empire as ‘Romans’. (The work of Anthony Kaldellis has convinced me to be rigorous about this.)
(2) In modern Malay, camphor is called kamper, after the English word ‘camphor’ — which derives ultimately from the Malay word kapur. It’s one of a few words that went halfway around the world and then came back again. I should point out, by the way, that in old Indo-Malaysian texts we can find the word kapur with the meanings ‘chalk’, ‘quick lime (calcium oxide)’, and ‘camphor’. Kapur seems to have referred to almost any white chalky substance depending on context. Not all kapur was chalk or camphor — and not all camphor was referred to as kapur Barus (‘Barus chalk’, a common term for camphor in Malay and Old Sundanese). The word was loaned into Old Javanese with the meaning ‘camphor’; the Javanese cognate of kapur is apū ‘lime (calcium oxide)’. In the Old Javanese Añang Nirartha (19.7c), for instance, a text written in Bali in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, there is a reference to camphor under the name kapur (with no modifiers) (Fletcher 2021:158–159).
(3) This is — entirely incidentally — somewhat similar to an analogy used in Bujangga Manik (lines 863–869), which I mentioned above. Addressing a would-be female ascetic (tiyagi wadon) who wants to share his hermitage with him, Bujangga Manik says:
· bawaing apus sata(m)bi · ngaran(n)a na Siksaguru ·  carék di na apus téya · kad(i)yangganing ring geni · lamun padeket deng | e(ñ)juk · mu(ng)ku burung éta senget · kitu lanang dengen wadon ·
· “I’ve brought a book with me. · Its name is Siksaguru. ·  This book speaks of this: · “Just as with fire · if it approaches sugar palm fibre · it will not fail to ignite it · so it is, men with women.”” ·
Andreopoulos, Michael. 2021 (late s.xi). The Byzantine Sinbad. Jeffrey Beneker and Craig A. Gibson (ed and trans). Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge MA/London: Harvard University Press.
Anklesaria, Tahmuras Dinshaji. 1908. The Bûndahishn. Bombay: British India Press, Byculla.
Donkin, R. A. 1999. Dragon’s brain perfume. Leiden: Brill.
Fletcher, Margaret. 2021. Transcending the syllables. The Añang Nirartha. Edited by Peter Worsley. Javanese studies 6. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
MacKenzie, D. N. 1971. A concise Pahlavi dictionary. London: Oxford University Press.
Nasrallah, Nawal. 2010. Annals of the caliphs’ kitchens. Leiden: Brill.
Robson, Stuart. 2015. Old Javanese Rāmāyaṇa. Javanese studies 2. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.