A Tale from Egypt
as Retold by Erica Helm Meade
There was once a king who often sailed up and down the Nile. One day while returning to port, he saw a fisherwoman knee deep in the water, casting out her nets. She was not the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but something about her struck him. Later the king could not get the woman out of his mind. He sent his advisor to find out whether she was single, married, or widowed.
The advisor returned saying, “The woman is married to a fisherman, and though he is poor, he is thought well of by his neighbors.”
“What a shame,” said the king.
The advisor said, “Don’t be discouraged. You are the king, and can have whatever, or whomever you want. If your conscience allows, there are ways to get rid of the husband.” The two put their heads together and devised a plan.
The next day the king sent for the husband. “Fisherman,” he said, “I shall ask something of you, and if you don’t succeed, I’ll have your head chopped off. You must come before me tomorrow riding and walking.”
“At the same time?” asked the fisherman.
“Yes, at the same time!” snapped the king.
The fisherman went home and told his wife the whole puzzling story. “It’s truly a paradox,” said the husband. “How can I ride and walk at the same time?”
“Don’t worry,” said the wife. She went off to take counsel with her sister.
“Borrow my she-goat,” said the sister. “Tell your husband to go to the palace with his back-side planted on the she-goat’s back, and his feet dragging on the ground.”
When the king saw the man coming to court both walking and riding he knew he’d been outsmarted. “Well, fisherman,” he said, “I’m going to require another task. Tomorrow you must appear before me dressed naked.”
The distraught fisherman went home and told his wife that being dressed naked was a great paradox, truly impossible. “Don’t worry,” said the wife, and she went to take counsel from her sister.
The sister said, “Tell your husband in the morning instead of putting on clothes, he must drape a fishing net over his shoulders.” This is exactly what the fisherman did.
When the king saw the fisherman dressed naked, he realized the fisherman understood paradox, and that the third and final task must be truly impossible. “Fisherman,” he said, “I want you to bring to the court, an infant who tells riddles and tall tales. If you fail, I’ll have your head.”
The fisherman went home and in great distress said to his wife, “Now I’m done for. Where on earth is there an infant who can tell riddles and tall tales?”
“I don’t know,” said the wife, “but I shall ask my sister.”
After hearing the third task, the sister said, “There is but one class of infant who can tell tall tales and riddles, and that is one who is half jinn and half human. There just happens to be such an infant in a nearby town.”
So the next morning the fisherman went before the king holding the seven-day-old infant in his arms. “You expect this one to tell riddles and tall tales?” bellowed the king.
The fisherman said nothing, but the infant called out, “Peace be on you, Oh Great King.” The king was taken aback, and the infant began his tall tale. “I’m a well-to-do fellow and here’s how I got my wealth. Fifty years ago I was poor and hungry. I stood beneath a date palm heavy laden with fruit. I tossed clods of dried earth trying to knock the dates down. But the dates held fast. Those dates were sticky as dates will be, and the dirt held fast to the dates, until there was nearly an acre of land up there in the tree.”
There was nothing the king loved more than a tall tale, “That’s very reasonable,” he said. “Go on with the tale, little teller.”
“So,” said the infant, “I got a plow and an ox and a handful of sesame seeds. I climbed the tree, and plowed, and planted, and the rains came, and the crops grew, and made me a wealthy man. I bought lands and have prospered ever since. Only there is one thing bothering me.”
“What’s that?” asked the king.
“Since that first harvest there’s been one sesame seed stuck in the bark of that date palm tree. I’ve been obsessed with it for fifty years. No matter how hard I poke and prod I can’t get hold of it. So, Great King, here’s the riddle: Should I forget about it and move on?”
The king was so delighted by the infant teller of riddles and tall tales, that he cried, “Of, course, clever one! You’re a rich man. You’ll never want for sesame seeds. Forget about it!”
The infant replied, “You seem to be a wise king, so why not follow your own advice?”
“My own advice?” puzzled the king.
“Yes,” cried the infant. “Your life is full of ease and pleasure. You have dozens of women showering you with affection. So forget about the one you cannot have. Let it go.”
This was a king who had planned that morning to behead someone. But the infant’s words went into his ears, down through his heart, and into his belly. All the way through him these words rang true. A smile came to his lips, and he said, “So be it. Go forth good fisherman and may God bless you and your wife.”
And that is the tale of the king and the fisherwoman, and the husband, and the sister, and the goat, and the net, and the half jinn infant, and the sesame seed. So let us remember my friends, when we think we cannot contend with paradox, perhaps we can. And before we go lusting after things beyond our reach, we must first take stock of the good things we already have.
In my book, The Moon in the Well: Wisdom Tales to Transform Your Life, Family, and Community, each tale is followed by commentary including a listing of themes from the story and true life examples as to how the story can be used in daily life. Here follows my commentary of “The Sesame Seed and the Date Nute Palm” from that book.
Unhealthy entitlement/ Misguided leadership/ Misuse of power/ Justice and fairness/ The inaccessible lover/ Letting go/ Humility/ Taking ourselves less seriously/ Gratitude: All of us at one time or another become fixated on someone or something that would be best let go. Like the king we may try all sorts of power maneuvers, but true joy will only come to us in accepting the truth that in the bigger scheme of things we probably have plenty to be grateful for, and the sought after object of desire might not be what we actually need. When put forth by the clever young half jinni, this truth is so resonant that the kingÕs grace and humility are restored. The half jinni acts as a marvelous arbitrator, befriending and delighting the king, priming him to see his own foibles, guiding him to enjoy the luxury of being able to laugh at himself, and let go.
Greed and acquisitiveness/ Sustainability/ Gratitude/ Intangible treasures: This tale is especially relevant in our materialistic society, where we take much for granted, and where we often obsess over what we next hope to acquire. The simplicity movement encourages us to take stock of what we have, and regarding those things we crave, to ask, “Do I really need that?” and, “Will I own it, or will it own me?” Sweeter than acquisition, and more illusive, is the sense of pleasure and gratitude in what we already have.
Cooperation and devotion/ Elder wisdom/ Help from wise elders: As in so many wisdom tales, counsel is sought from a wise elder, in this case, the sister. She is not intimidated by paradox. She is wise enough to know that two contradictory things can both be true at the same time. If the fisherman had been either walking or riding, either clothed or naked, he would have been enacting the either/or mentality which supports dualistic thought. This tale can serve as a marvelous introduction to the subject of paradox. It reminds us of times in our lives when the milk is both separate from and joined to the cream. For lovers, parents, friends, and employers it may suggest those moments when we must be both fierce and forgiving, both loving and strict, both demanding and kind. “That’s how we had to be when our teenage daughter got herpes,” said parents, Dave and Patricia. “We had to show her how much we love her, and we had to lay down the law.”
The wise elder comes to life whenever we transcend either-or thinking to embrace a greater whole. A CEO named Daphne said her greatest paradox was that at work she liked to be in charge of things, but that deep down she felt fragile and hated making decisions. “I guess the wise elder would ask me not to reject either part of myself, but to try to be conscious of and responsible for both.”
The more-than-human world/ Sustainability/ Intangible treasures: In Middle Eastern countries the date palm is seen as the tree of life. In the story within our story the date palm stands as a compelling central image. Rooted, enduring, and abundant, it stands in contrast with the themes of scarcity, obsession, and greed. The image itself is nourishing, calming, and healing. It speaks of things which outlast all acquisitions, and remind us that the cycle of life itself is the one lasting treasure.
My retelling of “The Sesame Seed” is based on “The One Sesame Seed” as found in Folktales of Egypt Edited by Hasan M. El-Shamy
Story and commentary are excerpted with permission from The Moon In the Well: Wisdom Tales to Transform Your Life, Family, Community by Erica Helm Meade, Open Court : Chicago, Ill., 2001. Purchasing information available at
About the Contributor
Erica Helm Meade is a Seattle-based psychotherapist and storyteller. She is author of Tell It by Heart: Women and the Healing Power of Story and The Moon In the Well: Wisdom Tales to Transform Your Life, Family and Community, both published by Open Court books www. opencourtbooks.com