Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable relates this tale under the heading “Sight (Far)”:
Zarga, the Arabian heroine of the tribe Jadis, could see at the distance of three days’ journey. Being asked by Hassân the secret of her long sight, she said it was due to the ore of antimony, which she reduced to powder, and applied to her eyes as a collyrium every night.
A collyrium! Well, I suppose it did clear ’em. I wonder if she could see all the way to Illyricum. Who? No, not the Who, though they did record “I Can See for Miles.” Illyricum was the Roman province roughly where Bosnia and Croatia now are. But though that’s a day’s journey now from Arabia, it would then have been somewhat more; she could only have seen it on television (“far-see,” which in German is Fernseh, meaning literally “farsee” and actually TV… but Zarga was Arabian, not Farsi). If she’d had one.
Perhaps she was wanting to see Mary, Queen of Heaven; if she was a Collyridian, she might have. They were a sect of the 4th and 5th centuries known for offering the Virgin little cakes (kollurida).
But where did she get her antimony? Perhaps from her television? It’s used in electrical alloys, after all. But, no, probably from stibnite, which was popularly applied to the eyes in powder form at the time (but was that really all that farsighted of them to do?). That form of antimony was called koh’l, which, with the article al, is the source of our word alcohol – through an obviously winding path of senses passing through alchemy.
But would she apply alcohol to her eyes? Ha! My eye! In this respect the guidance of etymology would force an antinomy with that of sensibility. No, such suggestions are collyrium – mere eyewash. She might as well get her dust from a colliery.
But, now, is collyrium another word for antimony, then? If the antimony is applied to the eyes, it can be. But collyrium can be any of a variety of powders – or liquids. The main is just that they are applied to the eyes, you see. Or, on the other hand, the word can also be used to refer to a cylinder of solid medicine to be stuck in some bodily opening (we don’t mean the mouth). And, from the “eyewash” sense, it can mean “nonsense.”
The word comes, anyway, from the Greek: kollura, referring to a small roll of coarse bread (and the root of kollurida – see above). I don’t quite see how that gets into the eyes, but there it is. The word has a nice lyric flavour to it anyway, with the liquid l‘s and the the look of the llyr. What kind of lyrics? Well, Zarga being Arabian, and being Jadis – and jadis, French for “in the past” – she might well have chosen ruba’i, a quatrain form, collected perhaps in a volume, named by the plural ruba’iyat. And then she could use her fine sight alternately between the book, a jug of wine (or other alcohol), a little cake or roll of bread, and the wilderness – whether Arabia, Illyria, or North Dakota (where you can watch your dog run away for three days). And, of course, her lover, who could recite to her Fitzgerald’s famous translation of Omar Khayyam’s eleventh ruba’i:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
And that’s not just collyrium!
I thank my mother, Mary Anna Harbeck, for suggesting this word, which she in turn heard from a friend, Pat Verge, who read it in a Baha’i book.