Tahbib al-Bahr

April 1, 2018

The mysterious Tahbib al-Bahr, or Physician of the Sea, is mentioned in several documents collected by the Abbasid Caliphate (the third of the Islamic Caliphates to succeed Muhammad). The Abbasid dynasty was known for their interest in the study of the oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. They were also known for their patronage to Jabir ibn Hayyan; a renowned alchemist and the first person to mention the Tahbib al-Bahr.

 

This creature has been described as a large fish-like being with a large golden gemstone in its forehead. However, the Tabib al-Bahr can transmute into human shape, or can remain in an intermediate merman-like form.

 

Despite having immense magical powers, the Sea Doctor is a caring and altruistic being. The second part of his name al-bahr means "the ocean" and while many have interpreted it as indication of his habitat, it’s also a reference to the vastness of his knowledge (i.e., as vast as the ocean).

 

The gemstone in his head can heal any ailment, and with it, the Tabib al-Bahr attends to other sea creatures by rubbing its head on their injuries, healing them instantly.

 

Usually, the Tabib al-Bahr doesn’t resist capture by humans, instead waiting patiently for the right time to escape.

 

Understandably, 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 just before the creature dies, it can be used to transmute base metals into gold, and to produce a potent elixir that prolongs life. It was that gemstone that drew Jabir ibn Hayyan into seeking out the Tabib al-Bahr.

 

With the help of a well-trained crew, Jabir ibn Hayyan set sail into the Indian Ocean. In the Jabirian Corpus of Persian Alchemy, Jabir describes the capture of one of these fish-like creatures which, upon being netted and brought aboard a ship off the coast of an island called Sindiyyat, showed itself, after the fashion of a mermaid, to be a beautiful woman. The creature was taken to a small cabin. Soon, all efforts to communicate ceased, since 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 neck problems. After the Tabib rubbed her gemstone on his back, the man was immediately cured. Soon after capture, a young sailor, awestruck by her beauty, fell in love with the strange creature. 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. The boy grew, and the mother was allowed to leave the cabin, as she seemed attached to the crew, keeping them company, tending to their injuries, and caring for her son. But after a long inspection of the boat, she finally climbed over the railing and dove into the water. Her sailor-lover was brokenhearted, but he swore to care for the son she left behind.

 

As they were sailing back home, 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 the Tabib al-Bahr sitting calmly on the surface and waving to them. All the sailors begged her to save them. In response, she transformed into a colossal fish, and swallowed huge quantities of seawater to lower 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.

 

Reference to this altruistic and magical creatures also appear in old Chinese texts, particularly those dedicated to the study of extinct species, which seems to indicate that Jabir and his crew may have been some of the last humans to see a Tabib al-Bahr alive.

 

 

References:

-White, D. G. (1997). Mountains of wisdom: On the interface between Siddha and Vidyādhara cults and the Siddha orders in medieval India. International journal of Hindu studies, 1(1), 73-95.

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

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