This interesting image, created by the artist William Harvey (c. 1796-1866), depicts a tale featured in The Thousand and One Nights, an imaginative collection of Indian, Persian and Arabian stories that were compiled and edited between the 9th and 15th centuries. In particular, this image re-creates a scene from a tale called The Fisherman and the ‘Ifrit, which begins on Night 3 of the bulky collection. The story introduces its readers to an odd fisherman who restricts himself to only four casts of a net per day. He would unfortunately catch all sorts of debris that day, never snagging a single fish. For his first cast, the fisherman hauled up a dead donkey. On the second cast, nothing but a jar full of mud and sand emerged from the water. His third cast was similarly uneventful, bringing up only shards of pottery and bones. As the three preceding casts had proven unsuccessful, the fisherman laid all of his hope on his fourth and final cast. What emerged from the water this time was as mundane-looking as the previous objects. His catch was a single brass bottle with a lead seal as a plug to keep in the contents. The Thousand and One Nights described the supernatural scene that would soon occur:
“He took out a knife and worked on the lead until he had removed it from the bottle, which he then put on the ground, shaking it in order to pour out its contents. To his astonishment, at first nothing came out, but then there emerged smoke which towered up into the sky and spread over the surface of the ground. When it had all come out, it collected and solidified; a tremor ran through it and it became an ‘Ifrit with his head in the clouds and his feet on the earth” (The Thousand and One Nights, The Fisherman and the ‘Ifrit, Night 3).
Unfortunately for the fisherman, the jinni (or genie) in the bottle that he had pulled from the water was in an angry mood from being held captive so long. The spiritual being’s first impulse was to kill the fisherman. Nevertheless, the human was a quick-witted fellow who was able to save his life by telling stories to the ‘Ifrit, causing the powerful jinni to decide to spare the fisherman. The ‘Ifrit instead brought the fisherman to a magical fishing spot, which, as is the nature of The Thousand and One Nights, soon erupted into an entirely new bizarre story.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Tales from 1,001 Nights, Translated by Malcolm c. Lyons and Ursula Lyons. Penguin Classics, 2010, 2019.