Literary Excerpts

What's in a Word? Assassin

by John Bemelmans Marciano

as•sas•sin n. A political murderer.

"You shall learn all about the Old Man of the Mountain as I Marco heard related by many persons," began the Venetian traveler Marco Polo in his account of the Assassins, a Muslim sect that his audience was already well familiar with. The Old Man of the Mountain (OMM) was the European name for the Assassins' leader, a guy who comes off as a kind of medieval James Bond villain in Polo's rendering. In the garden of OMM's mountain-valley stronghold, he re-created Paradise as described by Muhammad, complete with fantastical animals, sexy singing women, and streams channeling fresh water, wine, honey, and milk. OMM would bring young men to his castle, slip them a mickey, and bring them into his tantalizing garden for a quick visit. Then he'd slip them another mickey, and they'd wake up with a taste for Paradise and a desire to do whatever it took to gain entry. (Much as for fundamentalist Christians, the end couldn't come fast enough.) OMM would then give them a killing assignment that would assure them of martyrdom if they happened to die in the act.

Polo's tale of the cult is one among many. The Assassins entered Western mind space during the Crusades, especially after a rumor circulated that Richard the Lionheart had hired a team of them to murder the French king Philip Augustus. The lyrics of Provençal troubadours further spread their reputation for terror. The Assassins were the sworn enemies of the respected Saracen warrior Saladin, who was said to have awoken one night in his heavily guarded tent to find a poisoned dagger, the signature warning of the Assassins. Its message: Withdraw from his fight against them or face the consequences. (He withdrew.) The Assassins were believed to gather courage for their nefarious deeds by getting high; in fact, assassin has long been believed to be a mangling of the Arabic term hashishiyyin, meaning "user of hashish."

Separating fact from fiction is all but impossible. What is known is that the Assassins were a messianic Shiite cult who controlled a major chunk of Syria and Persia beginning in the eleventh century and made effective use of political murder. The mythology surrounding them is said to be just another example of Western Orientalist fantasizing, especially the whole hashish idea. However, the source may not be the West but the Sunni Muslim Syrians who hated the Shiite Assassins; even if tales of their dope use are apocryphal — hashish isn't usually known for making a person want to go out and kill — to call the Assassins a bunch of worthless druggies would have been an effective means of dismissing and discrediting a despised enemy.

The extermination of the Assassins themselves was effected by Marco Polo's pals the Mongols, who broke them in 1256.

This entry is excerpted from Toponymity: An Atlas of Words, by John Bemelmans Marciano, and is reprinted here with permission.