The Story of the People’s Tree ~“The White Elephant’s Gifts”~


We are in Granada, Spain, in a space-time bubble set in the 11th century. On the hill facing a Moorish Bath by the Darro River, known today as El Bañuelo by its Spanish inhabitants, a rooster has just greeted the sun with a clamorous quiquiriqui, the Spanish “cock a doodle doo”. And yes, the sun rises in every parallel universe you can think of! This is what we call a dreamtime world, where the spirit of Charlemagne has come to visit as a spider at first, and is now back in his human body. The Emperor is eager to finally learn more about the secret meaning of some of the presents he received from Caliph Harun al-Rashid of Baghdad. Charlemagne sent Frisian cloaks, Spanish horses and hunting dogs to Baghdad and received silks, candelabra, perfume, balsams, a huge tent with multi-colored curtains, a precious chess set, a brass water clock and a mighty white elephant. All this was made possible thanks to several embassies that went back and forth between Baghdad and Europe between the 8th and 9th centuries, honoring the Abbasid-Carolingian alliance that had been started under Caliph Al-Mansur and Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, to counteract the Umayyad power in Gaul and Al-Ándalus.

In this strange space-time bubble, Charlemagne’s etheric body is sitting at a table where a magnificent chessboard is on display. He is waiting for his new friend to come back from another room in the back of the Moorish bath. Charlemagne’s host is the spirit of Samuel Ha Nagid, vizier of the Berber king Badis, ruler of Granada’s taifa kingdom.

# mapa del reino zirí

Samuel has promised the Emperor to share some hidden truths behind the gifts of yestertime. Here comes Samuel, with a bottle of wine and two crystal glasses on a silver plate, theatrically holding one glass in front of his imperial guest:

-“My friend, tell me, when shall I pour you my wine? The cry of the cock woke me, and sleep has deserted my eyes. Come out and see the morning light, like a scarlet thread in the East. Make haste, take this cup, before the dawn starts to rise, of spiced pomegranate juice from the perfumed hand of my dearest Ziryab who will reveal some secrets while his soul revives and mine dies…

-A day has passed already? asks a bewildered Charlemagne. You sure drink wine early, then! he laughs.

-Oh but time is a mere illusion, answers Samuel. I was only rehearsing a poem I have just finished composing. I called it “An Invitation”. I may still change some of the words. However my invitation is real regarding the wine! I would love you to taste my potent pomegranate potion!

-It will be my pleasure, smiles Charlemagne as he puts the elephant chess piece he held in his hand back in the center of the chessboard. He is happy to take the glass his host is pouring for him.

GLOO, GLOO, GLOO, goes the precious red liquid in Charlemagne’s glass as he thinks out loud:

-After all, maybe you nicknamed me “Pomegranate King” because I was meant to taste that strange wine!

-Haha! Maybe, answers Samuel. You landed in the right place for me to call you so… The Jewish people call this magical city Rimon Sefarad, the pomegranate of Al-Ándalus, “Spain” for our descendants. What a perfect space for your alfil / elephant to “land” by the way, he observes after sipping some of his wine and basking in his connoisseur’s bliss.

-This wine has the most surprising taste! declares the Frankish Emperor in awe. I once had vineyards in the region of Beaune, Burgundy… I remember one winter that I rode my favorite horse on those lands, I spotted a hill where snow had already melted, and decided that vines should be planted there. The taste of your wine is so unique though! It’s like drinking directly from golden sun…

-I am glad to be in the presence of another connoisseur, smiles Samuel. It is an honor to share some other knowledge with you, like the hidden aspects of chess…

-The honor is mine, answers a grateful Emperor. To tell you the truth, I believe that back in my lifetime, I was not too eager to learn how to play because I wanted to banish the memory of war tactics once and for all. Not too many people know this, and I didn’t feel particularly proud about it, but from my spirit’s vantage point, it satisfies my soul: at times I would CRY my eyes out when I had to go into battle.

-I don’t blame you. I hated war too. You know how I coped with the terrible feelings after a battle? I would send my poetic interpretation of it to my son Joseph, through messenger pigeons.

-Oh, I wish I would have had time to learn how to read and write properly, sighs Charlemagne. I was so busy waging war all over the continent that I never really mastered that skill. I would hide my reading and writing exercises under my pillow at night and would often fall asleep feeling frustrated about my poor results… But tell me, didn’t your son ask you for “real letters”? I mean, letters in which you spoke more directly to him?

-My son would copy and compile my poems, because we wanted them to be saved for future generations. But this is a good question, I am not sure if he missed more “direct” talk from me.

-If it were me, I think from time to time I would have liked more directness…

-Thank you for pointing this out. However there was a specific purpose behind my style. I had to develop Joseph’s ability to read metaphorically, and to think “à la Sam”, when I was away on battlefields.

-I see, answers Charlemagne. Chess epitomizes battles to me, and it also reminds me of a story that was invented long after my death; it portrayed me in a way I disliked. I was said to have pardoned the so-called “Renaud of Montauban” for his rebellion, but then he slayed my nephew over chess, triggering new cruel deeds from me. Montauban didn’t even exist in my lifetime! Now I’m sure many people are convinced that all of this is true, no longer distinguishing fact from fiction!

-Ah… sighs “Sam”, if our reputation can spin out of control when we’re alive, the trend exponentially grows when we die… There is such a fine line between truths and half-truths, isn’t it…

-Indeed, answers a slightly annoyed Charlemagne.

-After I passed, Sam confesses, my son and many other members of our community died a horrible death because of untruths, or at least grossly exaggerated facts. Abu Isaac of Elvira’s gossip strategically angered the crowd, already envious of the prosperity of Jews. Even though it reminds me of my family’s own demise, I think it might be beneficial to analyze that “song of your heroic deeds”. Believe it or not, sometimes those untruths actually reveal, trigger or unearth deeper, cosmic laws… Which ‘cruel deeds’ of yours described in that story really bother you? Were there strange traits in the storyline?

-Well, reminisces Charlemagne, since that “Renaud” person killed a nephew of mine after playing chess, I obviously grew upset. Renaud and his three brothers were sons of Aymon de “Dordone”, an invented name which the scribe places in Ardennes, near where my Aachen palace is, but then DordoNe seems to get mixed with DordoGne, near where Montauban would be built.

-Hmm, realizes Sam. Don’t you think this inserted “G” seems to draw a parallel between “Dordone” and “Gorgon”? You know, those creatures with serpentine locks of hair and belts made of snakes… The first time I heard about them was from an uncle who described an ornament atop a huge clock in the city of Gaza…

-You’re right, agrees Charlemagne. I must admit sometimes I displayed some of the fiercest aspects of the Gorgons: flashing eyes filled with anger, a fury that can petrify people (if I did not cut their heads off before, ouch)… Those are not favorite traits of mine!

-Well, adds Sam, sometimes those aspects of Gorgons were misunderstandings about the real meaning of snakes… They carry the wisdom of the world since the dawn of times. If you’re asking me, I’d say this is the real reason why my religion prohibits snake consumption… They are too sacred. But of course many others disagree…

These mysterious words by his friend bring recent memories to the Emperor, who so dislikes the destructive actions driven by his bad temper: he is experiencing a flashback vision of the rattlesnake at the bottom of Blue Spruce Woman, with whom he first shared his pain near Red River, New Mexico. He has to acknowledge that the feeling emanating from the snake presence was both powerful and peaceful, unrelated to the scary images one is accustomed to, when thinking of Gorgons.

-Now that I think of it, remembers the Emperor, the tale is related to the magical red horse Bayard, “offspring of a dragon or a snake!”

-Ah! It seems that some symbolic light will be shed here… says Sam.

-Maybe, yes. So the Aymon man and his sons come to Paris to take part in a royal tournament I organized for the Pentecostal feast.

-Oh! interrupts Sam. Pentecost for Hebrews is also a time of harvest, and I believe it’s when the Apostles of your Christian faith received the ability to speak in tongues… Maybe we will find a new “translation” for your aversion toward that story!

-Thank you for your help in the process, smiles Charlemagne. Well, the scribe wrote that Renaud’s outstanding skills enable him to win the tournament. So I award him with Bayard, the fantastic horse, but then Renaud goes and kills my nephew after that doomed chess game, and he flees with his brothers on Bayard, whose body grows at will, to carry all the brothers on his back and leap across valleys like a huge snake-horse. I was just remembering a snake by a tree I have grown to love very much. The elf taking care of the tree’s initiation explained important things to me, related to that holy tree I once cut. And I am seeing a parallel here! An alternative name for that tree I destroyed, Irminsul, was Yggdrasil, “the horse of Ygg, another name for Odin”.

-Interesting, acknowledges Sam who starts spinning the chessboard on the table where he and Charlemagne sit.

-Wow, that motion makes me feel dizzy, says the Emperor. The elephant piece is going to fall off the board… I am having visions: the spinning contours of the chessboard are turning into the eight-pointed star of the ceiling. Wait a minute… That’s it! he exclaims, startling Sam who stops the spinning motion and picks up the elephant chess piece that indeed fell off the board when he started moving it.

-May I have my elephant again? asks Charlemagne. I NEED to put this piece back in the center of the board right now.

-Of course, says Sam. Why do you feel that urge?

-I think I have just come to a realization: if that Bayard horse is the equivalent of the “snake tree” of life, maybe its four riders are… men looking for secret and sacred knowledge, and their number is four because… this search for sacred knowledge has always happened in the four corners of the Earth! Well, the Earth is not shaped like a chessboard but…

-…but I think you are touching upon something very deep… Sam whispers.

-You know what I am starting to feel? When I cut that tree, I cut off part of myself from the search for knowledge; I cut off my own ancient roots. I killed a very important part of my soul. I severed my link with the one I thought I was defending… And maybe I chose that star motive to decorate my palace because I was longing to reconnect with, or re-center myself. Also, the black and white pattern I chose for my palace floor looks like a huge chessboard!


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-Beautiful, says Sam. You know what some Asians think of those two colors whirling in a circular embrace… They call it yin and yang, masculine and feminine, light and darkness… Maybe the one you thought you were defending through violence knew you had to go through that stage to eventually be ready to accept all the aspects of you.

-Well, if it is so, it took me a while to learn…

-You know what they say, “better late than never”. I guess your messiah died on the cross knowing his teachings would take “a while” to be fully grasped. Speaking of death, and how your elephant dropped dead by the river, maybe your big pet bathed in the waters that remembered your massacre of those who worshiped the tree of life, maybe he drank the water that carried somber memories to take upon himself the burden of your guilt and redeem you, but you did not understand and went on blaming yourself for all those years…

Charlemagne is now weeping and petting the chess piece in the shape of an elephant, as a tangible way for him to thank his real-life elephant of back in the day…

-Here, says Sam as he compassionately pours a second glass of pomegranate wine for Charlemagne, drink some more of my potion to feel better…

-Thank you, sobs Charlemagne. You know, there are two different endings for the “chess tale”. I end up pardoning the brothers on condition that Renaud go to the Holy Land on Crusade, and that their magical horse Bayard be surrendered to me. What bothers me is that so many stories use my persona to try and convince people to go and kill others in the name of what the church made us believe. I no longer want that for any of those who are coming after me. I also hated how the Pope used my coronation and my pride to guarantee his own safety and reinforce the omnipotence of the church. Of course I understood all this way too late and I guess people will always call me “Champion of Christianity”… But you know what? They can’t manipulate my spirit anymore. I am healing from what has been tormenting me for more than a thousand years, and I will send, through my spirit, better endings to stories I dislike!

Mazel Tov, my friend, mazel tov! smiles Sam as he cheerfully clinks glasses with the Emperor to a better future for the world. Let’s finish that tale once and for all!

Charlemagne, who sounds like a young boy eager to travel the world again, obliges.

-Yes!!! The ugly part of the Renaud story says that once I am given back the magic horse I order that the animal be drowned by chaining it to a millstone and throwing it in a river. When my spirit stumbled upon that part of the story, I swear I felt the millstone crushing my own body, as if I was being tortured by a Roman executioner in those times when so many Saints arose because of their martyrdom. Miraculously the horse escapes drowning, so in one version I think I kill Bayard cutting him into pieces, and in the other version Bayard escapes and lives forevermore, hiding in the woods and neighing at solstices and equinoxes.

-So which version do you choose now? asks Sam.

-None! vehemently answers Charlemagne. I ask the horse to show me his world now that I am ready to gallop towards my own ability to create magic!

-This sure sounds like a better plan, chuckles Sam.

-Right?? As we speak I feel as if a splinter, the relic of the Holy Cross I kept in a beautiful pendant also given by Harun-al-Rashid, had just come out of my “flesh-and-blood” heart…

# holy cross splinter

-I must say I will never understand that “relic-mania” of your Christian kind… Well, at least we are not dealing with a body part here! No offence…

-No, you’re fine, smiles Charlemagne. I am starting to understand that through such practice we might literally carry around the energy of crucifixion, the embodiment of guilt and sacrifice.

-I agree. But look at it this way now: you started your journey because you wanted to go back to what you disliked in yourself and heal it, so maybe you chose to appear in the guise of a spider to be able to weave a new “thread”, a better story than those the scribes made up for you. However before doing that, you had to retrieve those haunting memories, acknowledge them and then release them for good…

-Just like when fishermen release their catch, huh… says Charlemagne as he winks at his friend he first called “Fish King” when Samuel had assumed a fake identity. We, Franks, are mostly carnivore, so maybe I would rather lick those bones and suck their marrow until I build a better tomorrow.

-Haha! chuckles Sam. Even with such a raw topic, you’re kind of poetic! I like it… Some flutes are made out of bones, we could form a duo, heehee! But since we were mentioning fishes, let’s wonder what your elephant “who once sneezed a badis fish” has to symbolically tell us…

-Let’s see, ponders Charlemagne. From that central vantage point on the chessboard, the elephant can go in all four directions, in diagonal. It gives the elephant a wide array of choices.

-Perfect! says Sam. Those diagonals are the moves chess rules establish for the “bishop”, “alfil” or elephant actually. Do you intuit why?

-I have no clue regarding chess, but I am thinking that through the elephant, both real and as a chess figure, Harun al Rashid was offering me, both in a symbolic object and in the friendly presence of my pet, something to ponder, possible directions on my path towards wisdom, according to which direction I would take!

-Beautiful, encourages Sam. When exactly did you receive your elephant, by the way?

-I think it was around 802.

-That would mean Ziryab would still have been in Baghdad with Harun… The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that Ziryab did have something to do with your elephant and the rest of magnificent presents you were showered with… Who knows, maybe Ziryab’s master felt so jealous because of his pupil’s influence on the Caliph in matters regarding diplomatic relations too. Maybe that’s why that man threatened Ziryab, forcing him to leave the Court!

-Oh, that is unfortunate, Charlemagne says in a regretful tone.

-Or not! Sam differs. I think all is a matter of perspective. Al-Ándalus will forever be grateful for all the refinement Ziryab brought to us!

-Ah well in that case… I guess it’s all good.

-It is! exclaims Sam as he gets up and lights a menorah standing on a chest of drawers in a corner of the bathhouse. From one of the drawers he takes a beautiful hourglass held by two silver dragons, which he brings to the table.

# menora and hourglass

As Sam turns the hourglass over and takes place at the table, he shares with Charlemagne:

-The other night I dreamed I was visiting caliph Abd-ar-Rahman the Third in his beautiful Palace of Medina Azahara, in Qurtuba / Cordoba. It was before the civil war that forced me to flee to Malaka / Málaga before ending up here in Gharnata / Granada. I was talking to the caliph who received me in the Ambassadors’ Room, the one with the mercury pool… That room is surrounded by eight arch-like doors made of ivory and ebony decorated with pearls and gold. I remember I thought about the horse of ebony and ivory depicted in the Arabian Nights when I looked at those arches. Pillars of rainbow-colored marble and crystal hold those bicolor arches, and the sun bathes the room in magical hues. As I stood there something strange happened… One of the caliph’s servants stirred the mercury surface of the pool, and all of a sudden the whole room started spinning, because of the mercury reflections…

As he explains the phenomenon, Sam places a “knight” chess piece on each side of the dragon hourglass, and then pours some of his pomegranate wine on top. The liquid trickles down the dragons’ bodies and lands on the chess pieces whose horse figures start neighing and snorting! Samuel then chants ancient incantations over the chessboard. Charlemagne, in awe, is thinking that maybe he has had too much of that strange pomegranate wine! Sam has now closed his eyes and he recites a Spanish rhyme:

-Dice el sabio Aben-Habuz ~ Que así se defiende Al Ándalus.

Quiquiriquiiiii cries the rooster from the hill across the river. The cock’s cry comes from the southeastern side of the hill, there where now stands the Court of the Lions in the magnificent Moorish Palace of the Alhambra. Some say it was the former residence of Samuel, long before the Nasrid construction of the famous Moorish Palace. Maybe the Fountain of the Lions was part of Samuel’s palace…

-What a perfect synchronicity, smiles Sam. My rooster is remembering its iron counterpart on the weathervane of the Zirid palace here on the hill behind the bathhouse… The words I have recited appear in a 19th century tale by a man from the country you visited before landing in my world. The writer’s name is Washington Irving. I don’t think he ever realized that he was channeling my spirit when he wrote that story of the magical chessboard where battles were waged that mirrored what happened outside Badis’s palace. I also inspired his memory of the talismanic hand reaching out for the key above the Gate of Justice of the Alhambra, whose plans I designed room after room, there on the hill across the river, from where the rooster is singing…

Already shaken by what he sees and hears, Charlemagne cannot believe what comes next: Sam has just poured more pomegranate wine on the chessboard, whose black and white squares vanish in a shiny gray melting under the red liquid to form a luminescent mercury pool from which the elephant chess piece starts to drink… The ivory animal’s reflection in the liquid mirror multiplies, and soon the entire elephant army of Hannibal Barca is about to cross the Alps in a hallucinatory miniature peplum… Then Sam adds a chess pawn next to the drinking elephant. It is Hannibal throwing lightning bolts at his own reflection in the “po-merc-granate” pool. Where the last electric blow fell, Sam drops three pomegranate seeds, which soon birth a red lotus flower from whose heart a new figure arises. This is Indian Emperor Ashoka, weeping over the bloodshed caused by the war he waged at Kalinga. The tears he sheds over the chessboard pool soon give birth to another prodigy: a miniature, crystalline fig tree growing as fast as Ashoka’s last tear is running down his cheek.

-I believe you have recently found your own bodhi tree, Emperor, says the figure addressing Charlemagne. I am sorry you had to go through your own Kalinga Hell… It seems that some of us need to learn the hard way. We would give wine to our elephants to make them fierce in war, but the simple sound of loud ram horns sufficed to spook a whole herd and defeat its general… I now prefer to remember the flute melody that inspired me to carve elephants in stone to watch over my Buddhist edicts. It is never too late to reach enlightenment… Sit by your own tree, forgive yourself, and set your soul free…

As Ashoka vanishes after uttering his wise advice, the sound of fluttering wings is soon covered by a man’s voice and his chord instrument.

♫♫ الروح هي العنصر الخامس ♫♫

The soul is the fifth element…” This is the meaning of a melody rising from a corner of the hammam’s warm room. A musician accompanied by two blackbirds is playing his oud, the short-neck lute-type he made famous because of the fifth string he added to the beautiful instrument, to honor the soul.

-Samuel is right, my dear Emperor, says the musician. I, Ziryab, did inspire the gifts sent to you by Caliph Harun… Oh he was not always aware of my influence… Sometimes I was able to project my ideas into his mind without needing words or a physical presence. I knew some day you would finally understand the hidden meaning I wanted to communicate. In my lifetime I always wanted to bridge worlds through art and beauty. And even though our time and circumstances were filled with wars and violence, I still had hope that, through our refined culture, you and your people would eventually learn our ways and understand our codes, which would lead to our peoples’ friendship. It was a thing of Mektoub, destiny, for me to end up at the court of Caliph Harun’s enemy… Closer to YOUR Court. And believe me or not, I could sense you, your thirst for knowledge, beauty and culture. Men born in powerful families do not always enjoy the responsibilities implied by their “rank”. Many times they must set aside their true calling to secure the land their ancestors conquered. The beauty of life, though, is that our spirit never dies; it can only transform to create a better version of ourselves. Many of us sent you messages through times to help you cultivate your soul… I know you cherished Abul Abbas (did you know it was the name of the founder of Caliph Harun’s dynasty? It was Al Rashid’s mischievous idea to give a Christian King a vehicle named after his Muslim ancestor… I hope you will forgive him. It is wise to learn to laugh at ourselves.) I think Samuel’s magic display here succeeded in suggesting the metaphoric meaning of chess:

Life is a battle fought with ourselves as we perform on the chessboard of time.

Speaking of time, I believe you received another magnificent present from Caliph Harun, directly related with the passing of time. Am I correct?

-The water clock!! exclaims Charlemagne, no longer astonished by all the wonders occurring in his space-time bubble. Yes!!! None of us had ever seen such a prodigy. Through the power of water, the clock marked each hour with the corresponding number of bronze balls falling on a brass platform; at the end of each hour, a knight peeked through one of the twelve windows, which would open and then close behind each knight going back inside his “castle”.

# waterclocks

-The Muslim world has created many elaborate and fanciful water clocks, confirms Sam. One day as I woke up I had this idea: I imagined a fountain in the heart of a new Muslim palace whose most beautiful courtyard would represent the Garden of Paradise. The fountain would be a tribute to Solomon’s Brazen Sea, but instead of oxen it would have twelve lions sustaining the basin. Twelve is of course the number of hours contained in half a day, but it is also the number of Jewish tribes, and the lion symbolizes the specific tribe of Judah. Yeshua, the man you call “Jesus”, Charlemagne, descended from that tribe. Can you imagine, gentlemen, how wonderful it would be to have a symbol of our three respective creeds in one single object?

-This is so inspiring! muses Ziryab. Lions are also a symbol of kingship in my culture. I could imagine such a fountain flowing with perfume instead of the rose petals we usually scatter on the water surface, he adds.

-My fountain, proceeds Sam, would tell the hour through the water flow coming from the lions’ mouths. One o’clock would correspond with one lion emitting water, two o’clock two lions, up to twelve and then back to one. I am thinking now: wouldn’t it be a great idea to unite the elephant gifts with the clever mechanism of those water clocks? Badis used to praise me saying that I wrote with two quills, because of my bilingual poetry in Arabic and Hebrew, but he did not know about all my magic! Let me play two last tricks real quick for you, he says as he snaps his fingers.

More prodigies take form in the here and now of our historic friends. A real water clock representing a medieval automat servant (*) pours more pomegranate wine in Charlemagne’s glass, while Samuel is busy performing ample gestures in the middle of the room and Ziryab resumes his lute playing, taking mental note of the inventions of his Jewish host.

A few minutes later, Sam’s wizard mind has managed to unite two of Caliph Harun’s presents in one. A beautiful white elephant has become, instead of a war mount, a time teller carrying three men. The first man, who sits on the elephant’s back and seems to lead the animal, bears a striking resemblance with Charlemagne… Behind the Frankish Emperor, a scribe who looks like Samuel’s twin holds a qalam (reed pen) with which he marks each passing minute on a rotating platform. Finally, atop the structure held on the elephant’s back, a man with Ziryab’s facial features sits in front of a panel adorned with black and white circles.  Above him stands a phoenix upon a gilded dome, and he is surrounded by two hawks facing two dragons coiled around the two columns of the structure held by the elephant (*). Charlemagne would swear those dragons have just escaped the hourglass with which magic started. Awestruck by this last prodigy, the Frankish Emperor has not noticed that his two friends have now come behind him to whisper the true meaning of the elephant clock.

Minutes go round and round and round

Like our projections on the spiral of time

One day you emanate light

The next day you stumble in the dark

At each turn of the cosmic machinery

Presiding over mankind’s destiny

And with each new special birth

Through the white elephant’s omen

You are given an opportunity

To hear the divine testimony

brought by high-perching hawks

Willing to embrace us all

in the serpent’s wisdom below.

As above, so below

Phoenix will always put a show

To take us back where we belong

Once we recover our heart’s song…


(*) These descriptions portray water clocks designed by Muslim inventor Al-Jazari, whose elephant model is reproduced in the following video

5 thoughts on “The Story of the People’s Tree ~“The White Elephant’s Gifts”~

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