The Trickster Vagabonds Of Persia’s Medieval Underworld

By Debra Kelly on Wednesday, December 31, 2014
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“All stealing is comparative. If you come to absolutes, pray who does not steal?” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

In A Nutshell

It sounds like a fairy tale, or something out of mythology and folklore: a group of tricksters, thieves, vagabonds and burglars, roaming the shadowy, seedy underbelly of medieval Persia, armed with a bag of tricks and having a few more stashed up their sleeves. The Banu Sasan were at least partially real, although just how much of the lore associated with them is real and how much is fanciful myth is absolutely still up for debate. According to some, they were the wandering descendants of a dishonored prince, making a living any way they could, poets and artists . . . and according to others, they were cutthroats and murderers.

The Whole Bushel

There’s little that’s actually known about the Banu Sasan, and even less is known about how much of it is the truth.

The Banu Sasan were a group of rogues, vagabonds, and thieves working the shadows of medieval Persia. They were a criminal organization with the loosest of actual organization, and stories about them spread from China to Spain to India. They were the dark side of the golden age of Islam, and they were, by all accounts, pretty awesome.

They were known for having their own insider’s tricks for committing crimes and not being caught. Those that were big into burglary would carry a bag of sand with them as one of their tools; spread it around on the floor before you sneaked inside, and it would wake any light sleepers—or make a noise if someone did stir. And while you were doing your looting, chew on a crust of bread to make the unsuspecting homeowner think that the rustling noises he’s hearing is just a cat chewing on a mouse.

Anyone who came across some unsavory characters could be certain that they were Banu Sasan if they had a tortoise with them. The tortoise was something of a legendary medieval drone; stick a candle on his back and put him in whatever building you were breaking into, and he’d wander ahead to light your way.

Stealing camels? Create a little chaos first by releasing camel ticks, and then steal the ones you can grab.

Guard dogs a potential problem? Feed them, and add in a bit of hair clippings drenched with oil, to keep them from barking.

A lot of what we know about the Banu Sasan comes from literature written with the purpose of keeping people from falling for their tricks. The book called Unveiling the Secrets has been found to contain hundreds of tips on the kinds of crooked dealings they’re known for, from ways of making fake gemstones to making gold heavier than it really is (thereby increasing what an unsuspecting buyer is willing to pay for it).

They were apparently also well known for being adept at impersonating mystics and clerics of any religion, able to sing the praises of any religion in a number of languages . . . all for a small donation, of course.

So who were the Banu Sasan?

We don’t really know that, either. There are a couple of different stories about their origins. In one, they’re simply Persians who were forced into a life of crime by oppressive colonizers sometime in the seventh century. According to another story, they get their name from their “father,” real or figurative, a man named Sheikh Sasan. The sheikh was said to be a Persian prince wrongfully deprived of his throne, so he turned to a life of crime among the lowest of the low.

They were ingenious, they were creative, they were brilliant in their own way. Beggar lords and poets, thieves and vagabonds, perhaps even displaced royalty, the Banu Sasan were tricksters and frauds, but they were an all-inclusive sort of criminal element that certainly didn’t discriminate against the murderers and thugs, either.

Stories of the Banu Sasan date back at least to the year 900, and the terms and slang associated with them persisted well into the 14th century—with some Eastern European guilds of musicians, artisans, and craftsmen still using the same terms today.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: Islam’s Medieval Underworld
Encyclopedia Iranica: Banu Sasan