Riding a moonbeam


Sen McGlinn
by Sen McGlinn

The thief and the moonbeam

This is a story from Nasrollaah Monshi’s version of Kalila va Demna, which he prepared for Sultan Bahraamshaah of Ghazna sometime after 1144 AD. Kalila va Demna is a cycle of fables, strung together by two jackals called Kalila and Demna, who have adventures and tell tales. The tales enter history as the Panchatantra, a Sanskrit text from Kashmir dated around 300 AD. Barzuyeh made a Pahlavi translation for King Anushirvan (a.k.a Chosroes I) in the sixth century, Ibn al-Muqaffa` translated that into Arabic in the eighth century, and Abu’l-Ma`alii Nasr-Allar Munshi made his Persian prose version from that.

The thief and the moonbeam is the second story told in the chapter for a physician (pages 49-50 in the annotated University of Tehran edition of 1343sh/1964-5 AD). We studied it in our class on Persian literature beyond Iran, at Leiden University, taught by Gabriella van den Berg. My translation is in “creative Commons.”

The situation is that one of the characters in the fable is being compared to a certain ignorant and unperceptive man:


One night, he went stealing with his friends. The master of the house woke from the noise they made moving about, and knowing that those on the roof were thieves, he quietly woke his wife and explained the situation. He told her: “I will pretend to be asleep, and you start to speak to me in such a way that they hear your voice. Then ask me as urgently as possible, ‘where did you get all this wealth?’” His wife did as he said, and the question was asked as planned. The man said,

“Don’t ask this, for if I tell you the truth, someone will hear and it will be revealed to the people.” His wife repeated the question and insisted urgently. The man said,

“All this wealth I have came from stealing, for I am a master of the craft. I know a spell: on moonlit nights I would stand in front of the walls of the houses of the rich and powerful, and say seven times, ‘shaulam, shaulam,’ and put my hand in the light of the moon, and I was carried to the roof in one movement. Then I would stand above an airshaft and say again seven times, ‘shaulam,’ and the moonbeam would carry me down into the house. Once more I would say shaulam seven times. All the coins in the house would become visible to me; I would take as much as I could carry and once more say seven times, ‘shaulam’ and go up through the airshaft of the house on a moonbeam. Thanks to this spell, no-one could see me and no-one suspected me. I acquired the wealth that you see little by little. But be careful that no-one learns this word, for that would do great harm.”

The thieves heard this and were very happy to have learned that spell. They waited for some time. When they imagined that the people of the house were asleep, the leader of the thieves said ‘shaulam’ seven times and stepped out over an airshaft. That was that: he fell down head-first. The master of the house had a club and hit him over the shoulders, and said,

“Have I worked hard all my life and earned wealth so that you can put it on your back and make off with it, you cur? Speak up! Who are you?"

The thief said,

“I am that ignorant fool: your beguiling words (lit: hot breath) have led me up the garden path (lit: have seated me on the wind), until I imagined I could lay a prayer mat on the surface of the water. As the flame seizes on dry tinder, fire has fallen on me. I’ve suffered a blow to the neck: now throw a handful of dust after me, so that I may be heavy.


The last idiom (اکنون مشتی خاک پس من انداز تا گرانی ببرم) must have a history, and I would love to know it. Was throwing dust after someone’s heels the 12th-century equivalent of throwing your shoe at them? Has it something to do with funeral rites?


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by Anonymous today (not verified) on

as far as throwing dust or dirt goes, I wonder if that's the opposite of throwing water after someone who's leaving. Instead of the clarity of water, you have the dirt which probably means they should never come back?

or does "khak bar sar" come from the same meaning as the idiom you mentioned?

these old stories have a way of making room for themselves in our culture and it'd be nice to read about the roots of idioms and connections to the old kalileh Demneh stories or others for that matter.
very interesting blog

Thank you!