The Magnetic Mountain Points Home

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Among the tales that captured my imagination in childhood, the maritime adventures from the Arabian Nights stand out as among the most inspiring.  They fed my love of the sea and my eternal craving for sensawunda, and they still do til now.  The Sea Rovers of Syrene setting is inspired by this.

sindbad-1Among those tales, one of the most fascinating elements for me is the legend of the Magnetic Mountain, featured in the story of the Third Kalender Prince.  The Magnetic Mountain was a perilous landmark for sailors, for coming too near was said to draw out the iron nails from a ship causing its timbers to come apart.  Only when the Kalender Prince shot down an idol of a rider in brass with a bow of brass and lead arrows did the menace come to an end.

Now I’ve always known that many of the Arabian Nights voyages were to Southeast Asian waters, but little did I know how close to home this legend was to bring me.  When doing my research for Syrene I came to the conclusion that the Magnetic Mountain story was a fantastic justification for Indo-Arabian ship construction vs. Western and Chinese, the former having hulls ‘sewn’ together with rope while the latter used iron nails.  Ships of this ‘sewn’ construction were apparently better at surviving going aground or colliding with submerged reefs, always a danger in the shallow tropical seas where the Arab mariners traded. The flexible sewn timbers would bend and spring back, while rigidly nailed timbers would shatter.

This was the conclusion of James Taylor in his article for the British Yemeni Society:

According to al-Jahiz, in the last decade of the 7th century CE, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf ath-Thaqafi, the iron handed Marwanid viceroy of Iraq, tried to introduce flat-bottomed, nailed ships like those of the Mediterranean to the waters of the Arabian Gulf. The experiment failed because experience had taught Arab seamen that the ships they were used to, in which the planks were fastened together with coir ropes and daubed with grease, were better equipped to withstand the frequent groundings and collisions with the sandbanks and submerged reefs that abound in the inshore waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf.

But what of the specific landmark, and the action of shooting at something to dispel the evil?  I found this blog post only yesterday, and it was an eye-opener.  Apparently there were indeed  seamounts in the Philippine archipelago where magnetic anomalies caused compasses to go wild, and rough water nearby spelled fatal danger for any ship that made a navigational error here.  As Spanish historian Pedro Chirino relates:

In the island of Mindanao between La Canela and the river, a great promontory projects from a rugged and steep coast; always at these points there is a heavy sea, making it both difficult and dangerous to double them. When passing by this headland, the natives, as it was so steep, offered their arrows, discharging them with such force that they penetrated the rock itself. This they did as a sacrifice, that a safe passage might be accorded them

Compare this to the Arabian Nights version:

On hearing this the pilot grew white, and, beating his breast, he cried, "Oh, sir, we are lost, lost!" till the ship's crew trembled at they knew not what. When he had recovered himself a little, and was able to explain the cause of his terror, he replied, in answer to my question, that we had drifted far out of our course, and that the following day about noon we should come near that mass of darkness, which, said he, is nothing but the famous Black Mountain. This mountain is composed of adamant, which attracts to itself all the iron and nails in your ship; and as we are helplessly drawn nearer, the force of attraction will become so great that the iron and nails will fall out of the ships and cling to the mountain, and the ships will sink to the bottom with all that are in them. This it is that causes the side of the mountain towards the sea to appear of such a dense blackness (Lang 1898, 102-3).

The prince then dreams that he must dig up a brass bow and arrows, and shoot down a brass horseman that is on top of the mountain.  If you account for the story becoming distorted in the telling, with the act of shooting at the mountain becoming an attack on its guardian instead of a propitiatory offering, this jives perfectly with Chirino’s account. 

A legend more than a thousand years old, that first came to me through the Arabian Nights, now revealed to come from practically just outside my door.  How’s that for inspiring a sense of wonder!

Note: the blog of Paul Manansala, a Filipino researcher, has many interesting articles on the ancient Philippines and its maritime links with the rest of Asia.  Very interesting reading!