Ibn Sahula’s Tale of the Egyptian Sorcerer: A Thirteenth Century Don Yllán

Ibn Sahula’s Tale of the Egyptian Sorcerer: A Thirteenth Century Don Yllán

By David A. Wacks

eHumanista, Volume 4 (2004)

Introduction: The tale of Don Yllán and the Deán of Santiago (ejemplo 11 in Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor) has a Hebrew language analogue, written in the late 13th century, that has eluded Hispanists completely for centuries. This exemplum is an excerpt from the frametale of Isaac ben Solomon ibn Sahula (b. 1244), Mešal Haqadmonī (=MQ), or ‘Tale of the Ancient One.’ It was written in Castile in approximately 1281, toward the end of the reign of Alfonso X of Castile and Leon (r. 1254-82). MQ is a wide-ranging work of rhyming prose interspersed with poetry in the style of the maqāma. Its narrative framework contains fables and poetry as well as discourses on such topics as astrology, medicine, and optics. Appearing in part 4, “On Humility,” Ibn Sahula’s exemplum of the Egyptian Sorceror is interpolated in a discussion between two characters, the Dove and the Crow, as a negative example of one who did not respect the learning of his elder.

In Ibn Sahula’s tale, a young man from Jerusalem travels to Egypt in search of instruction in the magic arts. He finds a sorcerer who agrees to teach him, but the young man’s insolence toward the former prompts the sorcerer to put him to the test. This comes in the form of an illusion in which the youth imagines he arrives in a foreign land where he rapidly climbs the ranks at court, eventually becoming king and fathering a male heir. At this point the illusion is dispelled and the young man realizes he is back in the sorcerer’s home, back to the day of their first meeting. The young man’s remorse for his error is apparently genuine, and the sorcerer agrees to keep him on as apprentice for one year.

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