Tabib al-Bahr

Variations: Doctor of the Sea, Sea Doctor

Tabib-al-bahr

The mysterious Tabib al-Bahr, the “Doctor of the Sea”, is found in the writings of the alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. Its appearance is not very clear; we know that it is a fish with a yellow gemstone in its forehead, and that it is also human in shape. This marine animal, despite its considerable magical powers, is very caring and altruistic. It derives its name from the gemstone in its head, which can heal any ailment; it attends to other sea creatures by rubbing its head twice or thrice on their injuries, healing them instantly. Perhaps because of this self-sacrificing nature, the tabibs also do not resist capture by humans, instead waiting patiently for the right time to escape.

The gemstone of a tabib al-bahr is of great value to alchemy. If the creature is slaughtered and its stone taken out of its head, it can be used to create gold out of silver. It was that gemstone that drew Jabir ibn Hayyan into seeking out the tabib al-bahr.

After enlisting the aid of a number of skilled sailors, Jabir set sail into the Indian Ocean. He eventually found a group of tabib al-bahrs near the unknown island of Sindiyyāt. The net was cast, and one of the creatures was caught. It started striking its cheeks in a feminine act of desperation, and Jabir realized that the tabib they had caught was a young woman of great beauty. She was taken on board and imprisoned in a small cabin; she seemed incapable of speech beyond mumbling in an unknown language. Jabir was given the chance to test her powers by bringing in a sailor with torticollis. After the tabib rubbed her gemstone on his arms and legs, he was immediately cured.

This situation was not to last long. One of the sailors, a young man, fell in love with the strange creature, and Jabir allowed them to live together in the cabin. Eventually she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, human in all aspects except for a marvelous, shining forehead. As the boy grew, the mother was eventually given free reign of the boat, as she seemed attached to the crew, keeping them company, tending to their injuries, and caring for her son. Unfortunately that was not the case, and after a long inspection of all possible escape routes, she finally climbed over the railing and dove into the water. Her husband was brokenhearted, but he swore to care for the son she left behind.

Eventually the ship sailed into a storm from which there seemed to be no escape. Throwing anchors into the water did nothing to hold the ship, and it was on the verge of capsizing. That was when they saw their tabib al-bahr sitting calmly on the surface and waving to them. All the sailors begged her to save them, and in response she transformed into a colossal fish, big enough to stretch from one end of the sea to the other. By swallowing huge quantities of seawater, she lowered the sea level enough for the storm to be quelled. While the sailors worried over whether or not she’d swallow them next, her son dove into the sea after her. The next day he returned to the ship, and his forehead now had a yellow gemstone in it.

Later on Jabir had the opportunity to catch two more tabib al-bahrs, one of which was sacrificed for its gemstone. Jabir marveled at it, a wondrous artifact the likes of which humans would never make.

This tale may not be meant literally, and it has generally been taken as some kind of alchemical allegory. His scribes agreed, noting that it is “very symbolic”, with elements representative of fire and water.

The alchemist-poet Ibn Arfa’ra’sahu dedicated several verses to the tabib al-bahr, saying that “the truest of scientists have vouched for it, Plato and his student Aristotle”.

References

Mahmud, Z. N. (1961) Jabir ibn Hayyan. Maktabat Misr.

Kraus, P. (1986) Jabir Ibn Hayyan : Contribution à l’historie des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam. Société d’Édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris.