August 19, 2015

Sinbad the Horse Wrangler


Sinbad has always been one of my favorite fictional characters. Lately my reading of Indian medieval history in between jobs led me to an interesting idea about Sinbad: Sinbad as a horse trader, or even thief.

In the first voyage of Sinbad, the young merchant-adventurer is marooned when the island they land on turns out to be the back of a sleeping whale that dives when a fire is lit upon it. Sinbad washes onto a strange shore, where he happens upon a strange sight. A groom is tending a fine-looking mare, and tells him to wait with him for the seahorse stallions to come ashore and mate with the mare.

They succeed in seeing the mare through the mating, then drive the seahorse off before it can drag the mare into the sea. Afterward Sinbad learns the trade, helps the king make a saddle, and so gains royal favor.

Now, here’s the interesting historical tie: India was a great market for Arabian horses in the Middle Ages and even up to early modern times. And one of the great rackets of the day was to steal horses from the caravans wending their way up from the ports along the Gujarat and Malabar coasts to the interior.

Moreover, Hindu rajahs were anxious to crossbreed the Arabians with their own horses to improve their stock, while of course the Arab merchants would’ve frowned upon any use of their merchandise as studs until they’d been paid.

The fascinating ploy in which Sinbad took part may actually have been a distorted retelling of a horsey heist of some sort. The ‘seahorses’ referred to the Arab horse traders and their merchandise. A mare in heat could be used to lure stallions out of a paddock, either to steal them outright or more subtly, to steal their genes. ‘Driving off the seahorses’ afterward meant preventing the Arab merchants from recovering their horses, or from apprehending the guilty mare and her attendants.

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