29 July 2010

Word origins

If you have been reading this blog at all you know I like to play with words and to learn where they came from (I also like weird little cars). Today in my morning reading of Marco Polo I found the following among the translator's notes:

The same romance brings in the story of the Stone of Samarkand [used for the throne of Timur-i-lang), and accounts for its sanctity in Saracen eyes because it had long formed a pedestal for Mahound!

And this notion gave rise to the use of Mawmet for an idol in general; whilst from the Mahommerie or place of Islamite worship the name of mummery came to be applied to idolatrous or unmeaning rituals; both very unjust etymologies. Thus of mosques in Richard Coeur de Lion:

"Kyrkes they made of Crystene Lawe,
And her Mawmettes lete downe drawe." (Weber, II. 228.)

So Correa calls a golden idol, which was taken by Da Gama in a ship of Calicut, "an image of Mahomed" (372). Don Quixote too, who ought to have known better, cites with admiration the feat of Rinaldo in carrying off, in spite of forty Moors, a golden image of Mahomed.

I read Don Quixote once, and think the writer misses the point. Cervantes was nothing if not ironic, and sometimes downright sarcastic.

Mummery! A much neglected word. Now I know where it came from.


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At 29 July, 2010 23:58, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What did Cervantes mean by it? I haven't read it, so please forgive my ignorance.


At 31 July, 2010 13:38, Blogger Clemens said...

Cervantes "Don Quixote" is huge and has dozens, if not hundreds, of little stories embedded in it. I don't remember the one with the golden image of Mahomed, but the whole book is a send-up of such tales of chivalric daring do, so I assume he is being ironic, and knows, and perhaps assumes his reader to know, that the story is ridiculous. He certainly frames the whole book as a work originally written in Arabic which he has translated.

And in one story I remember the Don and Sancho Panza meet a group of Christian pilgrims from Germany. One of the "Germans" turns out to be Sancho's former neighbor, a Morisco (a Muslim turned Christian) who had been banished from the kingdom along with all others suspected of being secret Muslims. Homesick, he was trying to sneak back home. Sancho and he are friends and he is treated with some sympathy.

I think that in general Cervantes did know something about Islam and was sympathetic to the plight of the Moriscos in Spain, but of course can not come right out and say it. And Cervantes was a man who had been maimed fighting real Muslims at the battle of Lepanto.

You can learn a lot from reading "Don Quixote" so I was delighted yesterday to learn that a teenage friend (and Wilkes county native) has started reading it and LOVES it.


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