A tale from the Peregrinaggio. WARNING: lots of dead animals.
The land of Becher was once ruled by an Emperor who had four wives. His favorite wife, the Empress, was his uncle’s daughter; the other three wives were daughters of great princes. This Emperor was a wise man of great learning, and he enjoyed the company of other learned and artistic minds. As a result, his court was always full of scientists and philosophers and poets and artists and other brilliant, cultured people.
One day the Emperor sat conversing with an aged philosopher who had traveled widely and seen many things. This philosopher told the Emperor that in the far western lands, he once met a man who knew how to transfer his life spirit and soul into the body of a dead animal, and then back again. This man had taught the philosopher the secret.
Naturally, the Emperor was skeptical, so the philosopher offered to demonstrate. The Emperor ordered a swallow to be brought to them. The philosopher took the bird and wrung its neck, while whispering an incantation over the body. Immediately the philosopher fell down as if dead, and the strangled bird sprang back to life and flew about the room. After a while, the swallow flew back over the philosopher’s lifeless body and sang a brief song. At the end of the song the bird fell down dead, and the philosopher came back to life, opening his eyes and standing up.
Well! The Emperor insisted on learning this miraculous trick, and the philosopher agreed to teach him. Within a few weeks, the Emperor had mastered the incantations and could move his soul back and forth at will.
After that, the Emperor would ask for a bird every day, and transfer his spirit into its body. Disguised as a bird, he would fly around among his vassals and subjects, learning what was going on in the land of Becher. He could stop coups and crimes, punish the wicked and reward the good. His empire was peaceful, and his reputation as a wise and just ruler spread.
His Chief Counselor noticed how the Emperor seemed to know the pulse of the land so accurately.
“How do you do it?” the counselor asked.
The Emperor was quite fond of his counselor, so he not only revealed the secret to him, but taught him the incantations. After much practice, the counselor also mastered the ability to move his soul from body to body.
One day the Emperor was out hunting, and he and his counselor had ridden out ahead of the rest of the hunting party. Eventually, they came across two deer, and killed them. This is what the counselor had been waiting for.
“I have an idea!” he said to the Emperor. “Why don’t we transfer ourselves into these two deer, so we can enjoy ourselves wandering through the forest a while?”
This sounded like a fun idea to the Emperor, so he dismounted from his horse, went over to one of the deer — a doe — and whispered the magic words. Immediately his human body fell down dead, and the doe sprang back to life.
As soon as the Emperor’s body collapsed, the counselor leaped over to it and transferred his soul into the Emperor’s body! Then he hid his own body, jumped onto the Emperor’s horse, and rode back to the hunting party.
At the end of the day, the hunting party returned to the palace, where the false Emperor “noticed” that the Chief Counselor was missing. He had a search made, but nothing was found, so everyone sadly assumed that the counselor had been attacked and eaten by wild animals after wandering away from the rest of the party.
Now the counselor ruled the kingdom, doing everything the real Emperor had done — including sleeping with the Emperor’s wives, a different one each night. But the night he slept with the Empress (whom he’d always secretly been in love with), she noticed that her “husband’s” lovemaking was different. The Empress was aware that her husband knew how to transfer his soul to different bodies, and remembering how the Chief Counselor had mysteriously disappeared, she got suspicious.
The next night, the false Emperor visited her again, but she jumped out of bed before he could touch her.
“I’ve had a terrible vision,” she said to her supposed husband. “I can’t tell you what it is, but because of it I’ve made a vow of celibacy. You are welcome to spend evenings with me in conversation and other diversions, but I won’t sleep with you. I swear that if you try, I will kill myself before I let you touch me.”
The “Emperor” wasn’t too pleased to hear this, but what could he do? He actually loved her and was afraid that she would really kill herself, so he agreed to settle for evenings of conversation and music. But other than that, he continued to play the part of the Emperor, and no one else seemed the wiser.
In the meantime, the real Emperor was still stuck in the body of the doe. He got tired of being harassed by all the bucks and attacked by predators, so he wandered farther away, keeping to himself. One day, he found the body of a dead parrot, so he transferred his soul into the bird, and traveled with a flock of parrots for a while.
While flying with his flock one day, the Emperor-parrot noticed a net set out by a bird catcher, and recognizing the man as being a native of Becher, he thought that this might be a good way to return to his own lands. So he let himself be caught and thrown into a cage with the other captured birds.
When the bird catcher wasn’t looking, the Emperor-parrot removed the peg that held the cage door closed with his beak. He opened the cage and freed all the other birds, but stayed behind himself.
The bird catcher returned and saw that he had lost all his birds, and began to moan and groan. But the Emperor-parrot spoke to him with comforting words — surprisingly intelligent conversation, for a parrot. This amazed the bird catcher, and after speaking with the parrot more, the man thought to himself that he might actually make a lot of money showing off this remarkable bird. So he returned to the capital city with the parrot.
They arrived in the city. Passing through the town square, they noticed a ruckus, centered around a prosperous looking man and a beautiful woman.
“What’s going on?” the parrot asked.
“That woman is the most famous prostitute in the city,” the man said. “She dreamed the other night that she had been in bed with that gentleman. So when she saw him in the square, she stopped him and demanded one hundred scudi from him, saying that was her price for sleeping with a customer. The man denied having sex with her and refused to pay. As you can see, they are still arguing.”
“Ask them to come to me. I’ll settle it,” said the parrot.
So the bird catcher went to the man and the woman and repeated the parrot’s offer. The crowd jeered at the bird catcher and mocked the parrot, but the gentleman was curious.
“I’ll hear what the parrot has to say, and abide by the decision.”
The woman agreed also. I guess she was curious, too.
The parrot questioned the two about the situation, then called for a table and a large mirror. An even larger crowd had gathered, and they were eager to see what would happen, so from somewhere someone produced the table, as well as a mirror, which the parrot told them to put on top of the table. Then the parrot said to the man:
“Put one hundred scudi on the table.”
The man scowled and the woman smiled, but the man did as the parrot asked. The parrot said to the woman:
“Now pick up the money that you see in the mirror without touching the money on the table. If you were with this gentleman in a dream, then your compensation should also be dreamlike.”
The crowd was amazed at how cleverly the parrot resolved the issue, and word spread. Soon everyone in the city was discussing this sagacious parrot.
When the Empress heard the story, she wondered if perhaps this was her husband’s soul within the bird’s body. So she ordered that the parrot and its owner be brought to her. When the bird catcher presented himself to the Empress, she questioned him closely about how he found the bird, and about its abilities. Then she offered to buy the bird from him, giving him in exchange an income of five hundred scudi a year.
Having bought the parrot, she ordered a beautiful, ornate cage to be made for it, which she kept in her own room. From then on, she spent most of her days conversing with the bird.
The Emperor was happy to be reunited with the Empress, even as a parrot, but he dreaded the idea of having to see his wife spending the night with the false Emperor. After two months, he realized that the “Emperor” never slept with the Empress, so he felt a little better.
Eventually the Empress said to the parrot, “Parrot, you always speak with such wisdom and intelligence that I’m sure you can’t be a mere bird. I’m convinced that you must be a man trapped in the body of a bird by some black magic. You can trust me; tell me the truth.”
So the parrot told his wife about the First Counselor’s treachery, and everything that had happened to him since then. The Empress told him that she had suspected this all along, and that she had refused to sleep with the imposter because of it. Together, the Empress and the parrot devised a plan.
When the false Emperor next visited the Empress, she was extremely friendly, pressing up close to him and caressing his hair and his face.
“I miss you so much,” she whispered to him. “It’s been killing me not to be with you, but I can’t rid myself of this little suspicion. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you transfer your soul into an animal as you used to. If only I didn’t have this tiny doubt, we could enjoy ourselves together the way we used to.”
The thought of finally enjoying the Empress’s favors again got the imposter very excited.
“Is that all!?” he said, “Bring me a bird, and I’ll put your suspicions to rest.”
They had a live chicken brought to the Empress’s rooms. The imposter wrung its neck while whispering the incantation, and the Emperor’s body collapsed as the imposter’s soul went into the chicken.
The Empress quickly unlocked the parrot’s cage. The parrot flew to his old body and in a twinkling was restored to himself. He and the Empress kissed and embraced passionately. Then remembering the counselor, the Empress cut off the chicken’s head and threw it in the fire. Goodbye, disloyal counselor…
Afterwards, the Emperor and Empress enjoyed their long-awaited reunion. The next morning, they arranged a great celebration for the entire court — just because.
Soon after, the Emperor divorced his other three wives — giving them generous settlements — and stayed with the Empress as his only, beloved wife. The two of them reigned peacefully over the empire and lived happily ever after.
This is a retelling of the first of the novellas embedded in Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo. You can read about the background of this sixteenth-century Italian text here. The Italian original is also online, at Italian Wikisource.
After the three Princes of Serendip return from India with the Mirror of Justice (the adventure is here and here), they find their friend Emperor Beramo seriously ill. Beramo is pining after his favorite concubine, whom he drove into the forest in a fit of rage, possibly causing her death. Now she’s disappeared.
The princes propose a cure that involves building seven castles, each castle with a beautiful princess and a storyteller. Every day for a week, Beramo is to live in a different castle, entertain himself in conversation with the castle’s princess, and hear a story. The story of the Emperor who turned into a parrot is the first.
Serendipity and the Three Princes: From the Peregrinaggio. Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
- Alfonso X of Castile, from the Libro de los Juegos (The Book of Games) (circa 1283). Source: Wikimedia. — Alfonso X, known as Alfonso el Sabio (Alfonso the Wise) was King of Castile, León, and Galicia from 1252 to 1284. He was known for his encouragement of learning and for his cosmopolitan court, which included Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars and artists. He encouraged the translation of Arabic and Latin works into the vernacular (Castilian).
- Detail of Bahrain Qur Pins the Coupling Onagers from the Shah-nama (Book of kings), Mir Sayyid Ali (circa 1533-35). Source: all-art.org
- The Parrot, Kamal-ol-Molk (1882). Source: WikiArt
- The Parrot addresses Khojasta (detail), from the Tutinama (circa 1565-1570). Source: Smithsonian Freer/Sackler Collection — The Tutinama (Tales of a Parrot) is a fourteenth-century Persian series of 52 stories: fables told by a parrot to his mistress, Khojasta, on 52 consecutive nights, to persuade her not to commit adultery.