As the hot summer sun beat down, an Egyptian envoy stood at the railing of his ship. It was floating northward along the Nile River in the direction of the Egyptian capital of Thebes on its return voyage from Nubia. One of the envoy's assistants, who was sitting nearby mending a garment, suddenly noticed that his boss seemed cheerless and depressed. "Why so glum, sir?" asked the assistant, approaching the other man.
"You look as though you have lost all your friends and your money, too."
"It might just as well be that way," said the envoy.
"As you well know, because of my reputation as a successful trader, the pharaoh sent me to Nubia to bring back a load of gold from the rich mines in that land. But the mines were all empty. What am I going to say to him when I reach Thebes with an empty ship? My reputation will be ruined. And he will have me scrubbing the floors in the House of the Dead, that dreadful, foul-smelling place where they mummify dead bodies. I just know it."
"Oh, come on now, sir," said the assistant, smiling.
"Don’t despair. Surely the pharaoh will understand that it is not your fault the mines were exhausted. After all, no mine has an endless supply of gold. He cannot expect you to squeeze blood out of a stone, now can he?"
The envoy shook his head and sighed heavily. "I appreciate what you are doing," he said, "but it is no use. Trying to cheer me up is like giving water to a goose that you are going to kill and eat an hour later."
"Ah, but situations that might at first seem hopeless often end up working out much better than you expected," declared the assistant, refusing to give up. "Take, for instance, the very first expedition I ever went on."
The assistant proceeded to tell his boss a fascinating story. And as the tale unfolded, the envoy became increasingly engrossed and seemed to forget his own troubles. "I was just a simple, inexperienced young sailor in those days," the assistant began.
"Like this one, the expedition was bound for the Nubian mines, only our boat was bigger because we took the Red Sea route instead of the river. A beauty she was - more than a hundred and eighty feet long and at least a hundred feet wide, I swear it, and with a crew of a hundred and twenty sailors. I got to know some of them quite well, and let me tell you, you have never seen a braver, heartier lot than them".
"As luck would have it, though, their lives were cut short. We were halfway down the coast, sailing along as smooth as silk under a totally cloudless sky, when out of nowhere, or so it seemed, a powerful gale blew up. The courageous crew scurried about, trying desperately to keep the ship on course. But the wind was just too strong, and before we knew it we were out of sight of land. Then a huge wave reared up and smashed into the ship, in a very real sense killing it, for every single man on board died (except for me, of course, since I could not be standing here telling you the story if I died too, now could I?)".
"Luckily I was able to grab hold of some floating wreckage, and for a whole day and night I drifted. Finally, I saw an island up ahead, swam for it, and managed to pull myself up onto the beach. I was too exhausted at first to do anything but rest; but by the third day my empty stomach told me it was time to go looking for food. Well, let me tell you, it did not take long to discover that the place was a veritable paradise - with grapes, and figs, and fruits of all kinds, along with plenty of wild birds and fish and other tasty treats. I stuffed myself, I must admit. Can you blame me? Then I lit a fire to make a burnt offering to the gods to thank them for my good fortune."
The Island’s Other Resident
"Do you mean to say that there was another shipwrecked sailor on the island?" asked the envoy, now fascinated by the assistant's narrative.
"Not a sailor, I'm afraid. In fact, not even a human being. All of a sudden a stand of trees shook and parted wide, and through the opening crawled a monstrous snake. It had to be at least fifty feet long and four feet thick, I swear it! But it was not just its size that made it an extraordinary serpent. It had golden scales all along its body, a long beard growing from its chin, and - strangest of all - it could talk! 'Who are you and what are you doing on my island?' the creature demanded. 'If you do not tell me immediately, I'll spit a stream of fire at you and reduce you to a pile of smoldering ashes.'
"Needless to say, I was so terrified that I could not speak, and I am embarrassed to admit that I just fainted dead away. When I woke up, I found myself in the snake’s home, a large cave that it had furnished and decorated and made surprisingly comfortable.
The snake explained that it had taken pity on me and carefully carried me in its jaws to this place. It promised not to kill me and actually professed that it was relieved at having found a companion, since it was unbearably lonely.
It told me that it was not mere chance that had brought me to the island, but rather some kind of divine force. This was an enchanted island, it said, where fruits and vegetables and game existed in abundance at all times and the weather was always pleasant."
"I told the snake that I appreciated its willingness to spare me and that I was relieved at having found so pleasing a spot to be marooned. But marooned I was; and the thought of spending the rest of my life away from my native land filled me with sadness. At this, the snake smiled and told me not to despair. 'Things that might at first seem hopeless often end up working out much better than you expected,' it said."
A Happy Ending?
"'Take my situation, for example,' the snake continued. 'There were originally seventy-five snakes like me on this island, the others being my relatives and close friends. We frequently played games and enjoyed the fine weather and free, limitless supplies of food. Believe me, you have never seen a heartier, happier lot than we were. But then sudden disaster struck us. A falling star came hurtling out of the heavens and ignited into a great fireball that burned up all of my fond companions. I was the only survivor. Needless to say, I was devastated and even thought of taking my own life. However, in time I came to realize that I still had my health and did not have to worry about making a living or starving, since the enchanted island gave me all I needed. So I managed to overcome my grief. In a similar manner, you will overcome your own apprehensions, for you will be rescued within a few months.'
"Exactly how the snake was able to foretell the future, I don't know," recalled the assistant.
"But its prediction indeed proved accurate. About four months later a ship appeared near the island. On board were some of my friends from back home, who had been searching all over for me. I implored the snake, who had become my close and trusted comrade, to come with me back to civilization. But it said that the island was the only civilization it cared to know. This island was where it was meant to be, and so it must stay, even though its ability to see into the future told it that the island would one day sink beneath the waves and disappear forever. As a parting gift, the snake gave me a precious cargo of spices, rare oils and perfumes, giraffe tails, monkeys, and other exotic valuables. With a touch of sadness, I bade it farewell and departed on the ship."
"When I reached Egypt, I went to the palace and asked to see the king. I told him my wondrous tale and presented him with the gifts the snake had given me. And he was so moved that he made me a palace official. You see? My misfortune of being shipwrecked had an unexpectedly happy ending."
The envoy placed his hands on the assistant’s shoulders and grinned broadly. "That was one of the best stories I ever heard, my good man. It was, I must admit, thoroughly entertaining. You certainly managed to take my mind off my troubles for awhile, and I appreciate it. But I am afraid I do not have any cargo of valuables to offer the king, as you say you did."
The envoy then turned away, leaned on the railing, and slipped back into his melancholy mood, for he knew he would soon have to face the pharaoh empty-handed. No one knows what happened to the envoy after the ship docked in Thebes. But everyone who hears his story hopes that Egypt’s ruler was understanding and did not punish him for his failure to bring back a ship full of gold.
Label: Egyptian mythology