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About the Word ‘Serendipity’

‘3 Brothers’,

Rajput Marwari painting,

17th century.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, is about the word ‘Serendipity’, which means a “fortunate happenstance” or “pleasant surprise”. It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter he wrote to a friend, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made by reference to a Persian fairy tale, ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’. The princes, he told his correspondent, were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”.


Horace Walpole.

The Three Princes of Serendip‘ is the English version of the story ‘Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo’, published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in 1557. Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Christophero Armeno, who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian, adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau’s ‘Hasht-Bihisht’ of 1302. The story first came to English via a French translation, and now exists in several out-of-print translations. Serendip is the Perso-Arabic name for Sri Lanka (Ceylan).

The story has become known in the English-speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” in which the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel. In a separate line of descent, the story was used by Voltaire in his 1747 ‘Zadig’, and through this contributed to both the evolution of detective fiction and the self-understanding of scientific method.


The Story

“In ancient times there existed in the country of Serendippo, in the Far East, a great and powerful king by the name of Giaffer. He had three sons who were very dear to him. And being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need.”

The father searches out the best possible tutors. “And to them he entrusted the training of his sons, with the understanding that the best they could do for him was to teach them in such a way that they could be immediately recognized as his very own.”

When the tutors are pleased with the excellent progress that the three princes make in the arts and sciences, they report it to the king. He, however, still doubts their training, and summoning each in turn, declares that he will retire to the contemplative life leaving them as king. Each politely declines, affirming the father’s superior wisdom and fitness to rule.

The king is pleased, but fearing that his sons’ education may have been too sheltered and privileged, feigns anger at them for refusing the throne and sends them away from the land.


The Lost Camel

No sooner do the three princes arrive abroad than they trace clues to identify precisely a camel they have never seen. They conclude that the camel is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. When they later encounter the merchant who has lost the camel, they report their observations to him. He accuses them of stealing the camel and takes them to the Emperor Beramo, where he demands punishment.

Beramo asks how they are able to give such an accurate description of the camel if they have never seen it. It is clear from the princes’ replies that they have used small clues to infer cleverly the nature of the camel.

Grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, so the princes had inferred that the camel was blind on the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road that were the size of a camel’s tooth, they inferred they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was evident because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

As for the woman, one of the princes said: “I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman, because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. Because some urine was nearby, I wet my fingers and as a reaction to its odor I felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said another prince, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating.”

At this moment, a traveller enters the scene to say that he has just found a missing camel wandering in the desert. Beramo spares the lives of the three princes, lavishes rich rewards on them, and appoints them to be his advisors.

The three princes have many other adventures, where they continue to display their sagacity, stories-within-stories are told, and, of course, there is a happy ending.”

Source: Wikipedia.

For a more lengthy study, go here.


As a matter of conclusion, we draw to your attention, the interesting similarity between the journey of the 3 Princes and the journey of the 3 Magus (though probably opposite in their archetypal dynamics) who went also to visit a (young) King, guided by their intuition and their practical knowledge in following the star that would lead them to him. In the picture we share with you below, they bring their presents and we can see beside a camel, hinting at its ‘qualities’. It represents the opposite of the camel in the story of the ‘3 Princes’ which displayed defects (lame, blind, one teeth missing) and here the higher self keeping the head over the sand storm produced by the lower egos.

The last picture comes from the famous work of Heinrich Khunrath, ‘The Amphitheater of the Eternal Science’ and represents an owl, wearing glasses and surrounded by candles and torches, though blind and unable to grasp a taste of the light of Truth, similar in defect to the camel in the story of the 3 Princes. Blessings, Nalan and Nico.


About the Word ‘Serendipity’

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