ABSTRACT. The fast-growing plant referred to in the biblical Book of Jonah is most often translated into English as “gourd.” However, this is a mistranslation that dates to the appended Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, in which the Hebrew word qiqayon (castor, Ricinus communis, Euphorbiaceae) was transformed into the somewhat similar-sounding Greek word kolokynthi (colocynth, Citrullus colocynthis). In translation of the Greek into Latin, kolokynthi became the similar-sounding cucurbita (gourd). This is reflected in early iconography, the plant most often depicted being a long-fruited Lagenaria siceraria (bottle or calabash gourd), a fast-growing climber.
Cucurbits are frequent subjects of art, literature, and myth. Since ancient times, people the world over have been fascinated by the fast growth of cucurbits, from seed to a rampant vine bearing prominent, attractive fruits within two or three months. Metaphorically, the cucurbits are associated with warmth, sunshine, health, vitality, fertility, sexuality, and abundance, leading to mirth and laughter (Norrman and Haarberg, 1980).
Cucurbit fruits have been valued by humans for thousands of years, for food and a multitude of other uses. The Cucurbitaceae are extremely polymorphic for fruit size, shape, and color and the fruits of
some species can exhibit great similarity to those of others (Chester, 1951). Often, the result has been different names for the same species and the same name for different species, resulting in the confusion that has afflicted cucurbit terminology since ancient times. This confusion has been enhanced by the translation of names to different languages and by mistranslations. One of the most striking cases of mistranslation occurred when the biblical Book of Jonah, which is read in its entirety by Jews as part of the afternoon prayer of the Day of Atonement, was translated into other languages.
Jonah, more accurately Yona the son of Amittay, is one of the remarkable figures of the Hebrew Bible. He was ordered by God to get up and go to Nineveh (a destroyed Assyrian city near the present-day Mosul, Iraq), the great city, and call upon it because its wickedness has risen up to Me. But Jonah disobeyed the Divine command and tried to run away, boarding at the port of Jaffa (Yafo, Israel) a boat bound for the city of Tarshish (a Mediterranean port, perhaps in Spain). However, the craft was soon overtaken by a squall, for which Jonah admitted responsibility and persuaded the crew of the boat to throw him overboard. Swallowed by a providential fish in whose belly he remained for three days and three nights, Jonah composed a psalm of thanksgiving. He was then vomited out on the shoreline. The Divine command to preach to Nineveh was repeated. As a result of Jonah’s exhortations, the populace heeded the warning of destruction and atoned, and the city was spared. Jonah, who had withdrawn and watched the city from a booth, was displeased at the Divine mercy toward Nineveh. A fast-growing plant had provided him with much-needed shade, but at the break of dawn one day a worm attacked the plant, causing it to wither. Jonah was rebuked for his distress at the loss of the plant, in view of his displeasure toward the Divine mercy that spared 120,000 Ninevans their lives (Jonah 4:6–11).
The Hebrew name for the fast-growing plant that provided relief for Jonah is qiqayon. Derived from ancient Egyptian, this word signifies castor, Ricinus communis L. (Euphorbiaceae), castor oil being shemen qiq in Hebrew. However, in a number of biblical translations, including the King James Version of 1611, qiqayon is translated as “gourd”:
And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm when the the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.
The story of Jonah is one of the best-known biblical tales and is referred to both in the New Testament and in the Qur’an. The giant fish, referred to as a whale by Jesus (Matthew 10:39–40), has captured the imagination of children, like the marvelous but less well-known miraculous “gourd” that resonates in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.
In the Qur’an, written in the 7th century, the plant at Nineveh is identified as yaqtin: there grew over Jonah a kind of yaqtin (Sura 37:139–146). Usually, the Arabic yaqtin is identified with Lagenaria siceraria. Commentators of the Qur’an have offered a spectrum of opinions concerning the identity of the yaqtin, which can be summarized as indicating an herbaceous, summer-annual plant lacking support tissue, a climbing, quick-growing vine, having large foliage. The identification of the Hebrew qiqayon as Ricinus communis, Arabic kharua’, is not accepted in Islamic tradition (Amar, 1998), echoing Latin translations of the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Bible or the Vulgate.