Norse Saga About The Buddha

I found something pretty wild in an essay by J.L. Borges this morning. There’s a 13th century Norse saga about the Buddha. And the story has other fine twists as well. This all revolves around a legendary tale of the Buddha’s early life.

In the 6th century BC a son was born to a petty king in what is now Nepal. He was named Siddharta, and it was prophesied shortly after the boy’s birth that he would become either a great king or a great holy man. His father then kept him carefully protected from contact with religion and human suffering, apparently to keep the boy away from the holy-man alternative career path. After 29 years of secluded luxury, Siddharta left his palace for a chariot ride with his driver and immediately confronted an old man (aging!), a sick man (disease!) and a dead man (death!). This freaked him out, but when Siddharta then met an ascetic holy man he took heart from the peaceful look in his eyes and decided to renounce the world.

This story is just a prelude to the part of the Buddha’s life that really interests Buddhists. But let’s fast-forward some centuries. In about the 3rd century AD, Manichaean Persians translate the story into Middle Persian. In the 8th century, Muslims translate that into Arabic. By now the honorific Bodhisattva (“enlightened existence”) of the original text has been misunderstood as the man’s name and rendered first as Budasaf, then Yudasaf, and then Yuzasaf. A Georgian version of the 9th century makes it Iodasaph, a Greek one of the early 11th century makes it Ioasaph, and then in 1048 a Latin version makes it Iosaphat or Josaphat. Along the way, Siddharta’s driver Channa has somehow acquired a more important role and been renamed Barlaam, and the story has been adapted as a Christian tale. This Latin version of “Barlaam and Josaphat” is what King Haakon IV of Norway has translated into Old Norwegian in the 13th century. An 1851 edition is on-line.

Meanwhile, Barlaam and Josaphat have come to be venerated as a pair of Christian saints, celebrated on 27 November in the Western Church. And Borges points out a delicious irony: in 1615 the Portuguese historian Diogo do Couto (who lived in India for many years) denounces the heathen Buddhists for believing in a story that is obviously just a garbled version of the legend of Saint Josaphat.

The meaty Wikipedia entry on Barlaam & Josaphat is a good place to start if you want to delve deeper into this story.


17 thoughts on “Norse Saga About The Buddha

  1. Considering that the 17th century Portuguese thought that they owned India (and the rest of non-Christian Africa and Asia, plus Brazil and Newfoundland) under the Treaty of Tordesillas, it’s no surprise that they would consider Buddhist mythology inferior to the Catholic history, which to them was obviously correct (see Ambrose Bierce).

    I’m familiar with some of Borges’s fiction, which I encountered in high school Spanish classes. (It’s widely considered, at least in Latin America, a serious oversight that Borges never won the Nobel Prize for Literature.) I wasn’t aware of his nonfiction. Do you have any good pointers, either to the original Spanish or to English translations?


  2. If Snorre Sturlasson’s contemporaries had caught that latinized story and incorporated it into Norse myth
    (the way the later version of the Balder myth -a resurrected Balder as creating a new future after Ragnarök- was borrowed from christianity) we would now have had Buddha running around with the aesir in Nifelheim and Jotunheim.
    Channa was of course Loke in disguise, messing with the mind of a potential rival.


  3. “This is the saga of Buddha Gunnarsson, son of Gunnar Eriksson, son of Erik who came to Island during Landnam”


  4. I agree that Balder is a thinly disguised Christ. But the loan was made no later than the 5th century, long before the Icelandic landnam. Balder and the mistletoe arrow is one of only two Eddic motifs that can be identified on Migration Period gold bracteates. The other is Tyr with his hand in Fenrir’s maw.


  5. I’ve heard that the Vikings traded with Iran via the Volga-Caspian route – maybe the legend entered their folklore directly from that contact?


  6. I thought it was generally agreed that the Swedish, Danish and Icelandic versions were translations by the versified German text by Rudolph of Ems. Is that not so? Then is it correct to call it Norse?


  7. I may have misunderstood what they translated. Can you recommend a source regarding the Old Norwegian text’s archetype? As for whether it’s Norse, I don’t understand what that has to do with the source language.


  8. There’s a good 1843 Pfeiffer edn of Rudolph von Ems “Baarlam und Josaphat” which is believed to be the way by which other mediaeval germanic versions were rendered. It is a complex narrative, where the Buddha element is just but one of many popular pious legends interwoven. I guess the Icelandic version could be called a Saga, that’s true.


  9. The frontispiece of the 1851 edition reads “Originally written in Greek in the 7th century, later translated into Latin, and thence again, freely reworked around AD 1200, translated into Norwegian”. But of course philology has made advances in 160 years.


  10. Could be worth comparing Haakon, Rudolph and the Latin version. It is nevertheless fascinating how a narrative could spread so widely and in so many forms.


  11. OT, but still it needs to be repeated, since the term viking was used above. There has never existed a tribe, a nation, or a people called vikings, this is an anglosaxian misinterpretion dating less htan 100 years. The term viking is mentioned in several medevial prime sources; The Beowulf, “Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum” by Adam von Bremen etc. Adam states clearly that world means “pirat” nothing more and nothing less: “Aurum ibi plurimum, quod raptu congeritur piratico. Ipsi enim piratae, quos illi Wichingos as appellant, nostri Ascomannos regi Danico tributum solvunt. ” = “There is much gold here (in Zealand), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king.” Observe, 1. Adam is surprised that they pay tax and mentions this is a vital information their own people call THEM vikings, which means that the rest of the people does not view themselves as vikings, so they even have a name for this minority. Furthermore, above is claimed “Vikings traded with Iran via the Volga-Caspian route”, this was NOT vikings, it was just simply scandinavians, most of them from present Sweden. Now, it may surprise you that the word viking is only mentioned on six runestones in Sweden, in 5 cases, its used as a personal name (without explanation) and in the sixth case its used about a man who was a viking watcher, he was a guard AGAINST vikings. This man, obvioulsy related to the royal family, would probably rotate in his grave, if he knew that millions of people call him a viking today. And to be more precise, vikingr was primarly an activity, and it was a temporarily activity, when a person was not piracing anymore, then this person could no longer be refered to as a viking. This is very precisely defined in Egil Skallagrimsson, when he is discussing Björn Farman: “Björn var farmaður mikill, var stundum í víking, en stundum í kaupferðum; Björn var hinn gervilegasti maður.” = english: Björn was a great traveller; sometimes as viking, sometimes as tradesman. A tradesman was a tradesman, a viking was a viking. The same perosn could of course change between the two activities, but it doesnt make them the same. A tradesman is a tradesman, a pirat is a pirat. It may surpirise you that probably less than 1% of the sedish people during medevial time commited piracy, and were, during that time refered to as vikings. Asa consequence, most swedes probably hated vikings as much as other people working hard for their food. There were NO viking kings, and although Harald Hårfager is named as viking king, in a lot of anglosaxian litterature, the truth is that he cleaned the shores of Scotland and Hebrides from vikings, most of them escaping the king to Iceland. Theres even a scandinavian source mentioning an attack from arabian pirats, and they were refered to as vikings. When arabic people were mentioned as pirates, this makes sense, once you understand that viking just means pirat. Forget about “viking ships” since pirats probably never had a wharf or made any ships. The correct term is long ships, and they were mostly used by non pirats, the royal navy “ledung” as an important example. A misunderstanding and abuse of a defenition that was clearly defined for over 1000 years, and the last 50 or so misinterpretation, will never help anyone to fully understand the complex medevial scandinavian society, which in fact was never dominated by vikings. Even if Spain and Britain had some pirats sailing the atlantic sea, this will never make the kings of spain and britain “Pirat-kings”. It will never make those countries peaceful farmers, shepheards, and fishmonglers to pirats. It is exactly the same for scandinavia. A misinterpretion, or a lie, will never become true, regardless how many people repeat it over and over again. Read the prime sources, and you will understand, what most important encyklopedias has not clearified, due to the popularity of what people in their phantasy see, when they hear the word viking, an archtype, which in reality never existed. Most ncyclopedias today state in their intro that vikings were not a people, and then is the rest of the articles an unclear story about pirats from scandinavia AND non pirats from scandinavia. Those articles discuss what vikings ate, drank, spoke about, etc, which clothes they wore, which weapons they used, etc, but all this archeological material is remains from scandinavians, not pirats. It has to be stated: Scandinavia had a flourishing society, which is known already in year 78 by Tacitus, and scandinavins still exist. They were builing ships, exploring, trading, and also pirating as vikings. But this doesnt make just any baker, shepheard etc, during medevial time , a viking. Most vikings were probably outlaws, and hated and disrespected by most Scandinavians. They had to flee to Iceland or Jomsborg, when the scandinavian kings lost their patience. Its time to focus on the original difference of the terms norse, scandinavians, vaeringar, rus and vikings. Allt hose terms had unique defenition for over 1000 years. Anyone can feel free to mix them together in a pseudo-scientific marmelade, but who, in the end benefits from that? In the end, its a matter of respect. All germans during the 40s can not be refered to as nazis, all americans can not be refered as cowboys? Why shall then swedes, living in akingdom already mentioned 2000 years ago, be refered to as vikings, just because some pirates were scandinavian during 800 AD to 1000 AD?


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