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A query about quatrain one – what does the ‘Stone’ signify?

October 15, 2012

Bob Forrest poses an interesting question.  Can anyone out there provide an answer?

FitzGerald’s note on “the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight” in the opening verse of his first edition tells us that, “Flinging a Stone into the Cup was the Signal for ‘To Horse!’ in the Desert.” Again, in the final version of Salaman and Absal, which was published with the fourth edition of The Rubaiyat in 1879, p.89, Fitzgerald talked in a footnote of: “A pebble flung into a Cup being a signal for a company to break up.” And in part of a letter to Cowell, dated June 29 1857 (Terhune & Terhune Letters, vol.2, p.280-1), FitzGerald said: “you must remember how often we have read about the Stone in the Cup etc.” Does anyone know of any volume of traveller’s tales which actually mentions this custom ? Fitzgerald himself cited none, unfortunately.

In Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, with their Original Persian Sources (1899), p.5, Edward Heron-Allen mentions flinging a stone into a cup or pot, “which is the signal for ‘striking camp’ among tribes of nomad Arabs.”  Presumably he is following Fitzgerald’s note on “the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight”, but where have the “striking camp” and “tribes of nomad Arabs” come from ? Heron-Allen cited no actual source for this, unfortunately.

Again, R.A.Nicholson, in a note in the A & C Black edition of 1909, p.187, said: “Among some nomadic tribes the signal for striking camp was given by casting a stone into a bowl.” Again, no source is given.

Does anyone know of any volume of traveller’s tales which actually mentions nomadic tribes striking camp in such a way? I have trawled through a number of such volumes without success, to the point where I am starting to wonder if it has any basis in fact at all.  If that is the case, both Heron-Allen and Nicholson do indicate the likely origin of it – namely, a confusion in the original Persian between the words for “stone” and “wine”. But is that all there is to it ?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Garry Garrard permalink
    October 29, 2012 11:42 am

    Until Bob Forest’s last contribution on this topic, I inclined quite strongly to the opinion that the stone in the cup was the result of an error in transcription somewhere along the line; I had several reasons for that opinion.
    • Such a mistake must be a possibility; the Persian words for “wine” and “stone” each have three symbols and the last of the three is the same character in each word. In poor light or in haste, or in carelessness, a mistake could be made (although some Persian speakers I have talked to are more sceptical).
    • The stone appears in only one out of about 20 recorded mss in 1898 (apart from a lithograph owned by the Nawob of Tonk and copied from the original ms in the Kiblah). The number of mss identified has since grown considerably but I am not aware of the stone being identified anywhere else
    • Fitz’s note to his first quatrain is unreferenced and we have to treat it as unreliable.
    The other test is to investigate the opposite route; to find a reference to stones/cups/striking camp in books about Arabia, and I too have searched. Anything I’ve found that ventures into the field of Arab culture deals with the big issues like honour and hospitality and not lesser details of behaviour. T.E. Lawrence’s (of Arabia) Revolt in the Desert, starts off with his desert journey with Emir Feisal on camels for 4 or 5 days; plenty of overnight camps and early morning starts in the company of 500 arabs on camels. There are perceptive detailed descriptions of Feisal’s morning routine and of leaving their camps – but no mention of a stone or a cup. There was a drum at one point but that’s all.
    That to me is all pretty negative. Now Bob has pulled together several snippets that suggest something more positive. He mentions:
    1) Fitz’s original note which reads “Flinging a stone into the cup was the signal for “To horse!” in the desert.”
    2) In the fourth edition (1879, p.89), Fitz’s footnote to Salámán and Absál reads: “A pebble flung into a Cup being a signal for a company to break up.”
    3) In a letter to Cowell, June 29 1857, FitzGerald said: “you must remember how often we have read about the Stone in the Cup etc.”
    Putting those quotes together suggests to me that the idea of the stone in the cup did come to FitzGerald from a real source. The question is – what source (I know that is not a new question!)
    Also, Edward Heron-Allen mentions flinging a stone into a cup or pot, “which is the signal for ‘striking camp’ among tribes of nomad Arabs.”
    R.A.Nicholson too said: “Among some nomadic tribes the signal for striking camp was given by casting a stone into a bowl.”
    I don’t believe that either of these clever men would blindly copy Fitzgerald’s words without something more solid.

    I suggest that Fitz did find a reference somewhere to a stone in a cup and that the same book was read by both Heron-Allen and Nicholson. The book must have been published before 1859 and it could have been in English, or Persian (all three characters mentioned spoke Persian). I can suggest two candidates for investigation:
    • “Journal of two years’ travel in Persia, Ceylon, etc.”, by Robert Blair Munro Binning (1814-1891) (2 volumes, London, 1857).
    • Sir William Jones Grammar of the Persian Language
    Doubtless there are others. And since cultures evolve all the time; it is quite possible that throwing a pebble in the cup was the custom once upon a time, but fell out of use many years ago, which is why it is never mentioned by travellers now.

    • October 29, 2012 5:35 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Garry. We go along with the logic of your argument, but can any of us find EFG’s source? Binnings’ work is in the Cambridge University Library and we’ll have a look when we are in there next. Jones’s Grammar too. It would be good if we could find some experts on early Arab culture to ask.

      • Bob Forrest permalink
        October 30, 2012 2:16 pm

        I agree with Garry that it is difficult to believe that Heron-Allen and Nicholson both followed FitzGerald blindly without being aware of a source for ‘the Stone’, and yet the fact is that neither of them actually cited a source – itself unusual for two such meticulous researchers. The source isn’t Binning, though – I’ve read both volumes of this from cover to cover. It is certainly a key source of FitzGerald’s – but not, alas, for ‘the Stone’.

        In my earlier posting, I asked two slightly different questions. The first relates to dropping a stone into a cup, which could be a customary way in which, say, a drinker indicates to his fellows around a table that the party is over for him, and it’s time for him to go home – by horse, or otherwise. This, I suspect, is the custom referred to in “Salaman and Absal” and FitzGerald’s letter to Cowell. The second relates to dropping a (presumably very big) stone into a (presumably very big) bowl as a signal for an entire camp to set off. This appears to be the custom referred to by both Heron-Allen and Nicholson, and it is clearly a scaled-up version of the former. The trouble is that it sounds so implausible, if for no other reason than that of simple acoustics. Gun shots in the air, the blowing of horns or the banging of drums, would surely do things far better. If the first custom did prevail, but the second was a largely imagined extension of it, then it may well be that there are travellers’ accounts of the first custom, but not of the second. Basically, though, we are on the lookout for two different ‘stone’ customs, albeit related. Having said that, though, I myself haven’t come across any reference to either!

        True, as Garry says, books of travel in Arab lands often seem to concentrate on anything except what one is looking for, but there is material to be found. Here, for example, is another of FitzGerald’s travel books, J.B. Fraser’s “Narrative of a Journey into Khorasan in the Years 1821 and 1822” (1825). Fraser is describing the rather disorderly departure of his own caravan, and though it doesn’t involve a stone – or gunshots or horns or drums for that matter – it does give us a glimpse of one method by which a camp was roused to action:

        “By the bright but uncertain moonlight, and the gleaming of the numerous fires, the busy and tumultuous scene reminded me strongly of Scott’s description of a Scottish camp or Highland army, where clansmen were calling out to each other continually the names and watchwords of their clans; “a Campbell, a Campbell,” ” a Seytoun, a Seytoun”, “a Beatoun, a Beatoun”; here in like manner each was shouting to his fellow, but it was “Allee Mahummud, Allee Mahummud,” “Caussim, Caussim,” “Ibrahim, Ibrahim,” ” Hoossain, Hoossain ;” and the jingling of bells, the roaring of camels, the neighing of horses, the braying of mules and asses, the shouts of sarwans and muleteers, echoed and re-echoed at all distances, and in all keys, formed a confusion of sounds, not incongruous with the wild and varied costume both of men and of beasts.” (p.358)

        So, if there is a source out there that was known to FitzGerald, Heron-Allen and Nicholson – a source so ‘obvious’ than none of them deemed it necessary to cite it – what was it ? I suspect that we might profitably ask this question on a web-site devoted to 19th century travel books – so, does anyone know of one ?


  1. Yet more on the puzzle about quatrain one – what does the ‘Stone’ signify? | Omar Khayyam Rubaiyat

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