Barmecide

You could see it from the road: a dining table set up in the field near a winery,* with chairs, bowls, glasses, bottles… Someone’s dining al fresco!

But no one was there. So, since it was just a short walk from our destination of the hour, I went and had a look. And what did I find? 

Barmecide.

Well, no, technically I didn’t find the Barmecide, though I did find a barmecidal feast of sorts.

But what does that mean? You may not be familiar with the term. Did it feature the bodies of murdered barmen? Was it, like the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland, on the barmy side? Is there some barm- root indicating some pest that it was there to kill?

No, it’s just that, well… have you heard of a Potemkin village? A village that appears in passing to be real but is just façades, like one of those Olde Weste townes at some touriste trappe (though in the case of Potemkin originally referring to a deception of a tsar)? Well, a barmecidal feast is a kind of Potemkin dinner, or, I guess, a Pot-emkin-luck (say, do people still do potlucks?): an illusory feast, or anything similarly illusory. And the person who serves it – perhaps the same person who made the king’s new clothes, but now moved from tailoring to catering – is a Barmecide.

The term comes from a story in the Thousand and One Nights. A beggar is invited into the house of a rich person, one of the Barmecides, a family noted for their prodigality, and is served a feast… but everything is imaginary. The host pretends to enjoy delicious food and wine, and the beggar, for want of a better option, plays along, savouring every imaginary bite, even though he is terribly hungry.

So what’s with this name Barmecide? Does it have anything at all to do with homicide, pesticide, fungicide, or, um, can’t decide? It has served up such a clear morpheme, ready for immediate consumption, so…

It has done so barmecidally.

The Barmecide family was actually the Barmakid family, originally a Buddhist family from Balkh, now in Afghanistan, but subsequently converted to Islam and risen to a position of wealth and influence in the area now known as the Middle East under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. They’re named in a few of the tales of the Thousand and One Nights. At the time, they were a byword for wealth and generosity. Imagine a set of fantastic stories set in the United States in, say, the early 1900s – if someone mentioned Carnegies or Rockefellers or Roosevelts, you’d have an idea right away of what sort of people they were, right? Well, same with the Barmakids.

And the tale that gave them this particular fame – known to English speakers under the needlessly mutated version of the name, Barmecide – did not slander them. It doesn’t end with the illusory feast. After the beggar has played along gamely, the Barmakid laughs and says how happy he is to have found someone of good grace and good humour, and then he has his servants bring out an actual feast, and he invites the beggar to stay in his household. 

So in the original Barmecide feast, the illusion was ultimately only an illusion (how meta!). But in established English usage, since at least 400 years ago, the happy ending is forgotten.

And how did the barmecidal feast in a field I found end? No, no one served real food at that particular table. But we ate and drank quite well nearby. And I got some nice photos. So I can’t complain, you know?


*13th Street Winery, in the Niagara region of Ontario.

2 responses to “Barmecide

  1. Im reminded a bit of the bygone wedding feast of Miss Havisham in GREAT EXPECTATIONS yet that was a real feast that no one ever partook of. Interesting concept.

  2. Surprised you didn’t mention this lovely poem (there are quite a few more verses!):

    Through city and desert my mates and I
    Were free to rove and roam,
    Our diapered canopy the deep of the sky
    Or the roof of the palace dome
    Oh ! ours was that vivid life to and fro
    Which only sloth derides
    Men spent Life so, long, long ago,
    In the time of the Barmecides;
    Men spent Life so, long, long ago,
    In the time of the Barmecides.

    James Clarence Mangan – In the Time of the Barmecides

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