ETHÉ, CARL HERMANN (b. Stralsund, Prussia, 13 February 1844, d. Bristol, England, 7 June 1917; Figure 1), German orientalist best known for his catalogues of Islamic manuscripts and his studies and German translations of Persian poetry. The son of a government surveyor, he went to the nearby University of Greifswald in 1862 to study classics and oriental philology. The next year he continued his oriental studies in Leipzig with Heinrich Fleischer, who edited several important Arabic texts in addition to writing works dealing with Persian, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Ethé later paid tribute to him by co-editing a festschrift (Morgenländische Forschungen: Festschrift H. L. Fleischer zu seinem 50 jährigen Doctorjubileum gewidmet von seinen Schülern H. Derenbourg, H. Ethé, O. Loth [a.o], Leipzig, 1875). Ethé graduated from Leipzig in 1865. He presented an inaugural thesis (Habilitationsschrift) to the University of Munich (Das Schlafgemach der Phantasie von Fettâhi aus Nîśâbûr: Erstes Kapitel: Vom Glauben und Islam, Leipzig, 1868) and was admitted to teach Oriental languages as a privatdozent.

In 1872 Ethé was invited by the Bodleian Library to come to Oxford and finish the catalogue of Oriental manuscripts begun by Eduard Sachau (Catalogue of Persian, Turkish, Hindûstânî, and Pushtû Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Vol. I, Oxford, 1889; the printing of Volume II began in 1893 and was completed in 1930) and to supplement the library’s Arabic catalogue. At the same time he was invited to describe the Persian manuscripts of the London India Office (Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the India Office, Vol. I, Oxford 1903; Vol. II, Oxford, 1937, consisting mainly of very detailed indices, was seen through the press by Edward Edwards).

Initially he worked as an assistant librarian at the Bodleian, on leave of absence from the University of Munich. In 1874 he abandoned his lectureship in Germany and settled down in Great Britain permanently. The motivation for this move may have been political, at least in part, because Ethé is described as “a German radical, . . . a persona ingrata with absolutist governments” (Herford, p. 97) and as someone “who was too liberal to live easily in Bismarck’s new Germany” (Ellis, p. 171). On the other hand, he did not adapt himself to his British environment and maintained a pride in his German nationality; except for his catalogues, he wrote most of his works in his native language.

In 1875 Ethé was appointed professor of Oriental languages at University College, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he taught Hebrew, German, and other Oriental and Western languages (see Figure 1; Plate I). He continued to work on the description of the manuscripts in Oxford and London in his spare time. Several times he tried to find a better position, applying for professorships in Königsberg (1881), Munich (1886), and Oxford (1888) without success (H. Ethé to M. J. De Goeje, 21 November 1888, Leiden University Library, BPL 2389). In 1887-89, and from 1893 onward, he served as a public examiner for the Oxford Honours School of Oriental Studies. At the beginning of World War I, an outburst of local anti-German sentiment forced him and his English wife to flee from Aberystwyth. Although the college refused to dismiss him, he could not resume his teaching. He retired on a small pension and lived his last few years in Reading and Bristol.

In Persian studies, his name lives on through the monumental catalogues of the Bodleian and the India Office collections, rich mines of information on all aspects of classical Persian literature. Ethé used the taḏkeras exhaustively and described the manuscripts in great detail; an example of his thoroughness is the inventory in the India Office catalogue of 1560 biographies occurring in the Haft Eqlīm of Amīn Aḥmad Rāzī (no. 724). The long delay in the completion of the catalogues has been attributed to Ethé’s planning of the indices—which he worked on until the end of his days—“on a far too ambitious and extensive scale” (Beeston, p. iv). This, however, in no way diminishes their great value to later generations of scholars. Ethé also described manuscripts of other British collections (The National Library of Wales: Catalogue of Oriental Manuscripts, Aberystwyth, 1916; M. Ashraful Huk, H. Ethé, and E. Robertson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Arabic and Persian Manuscripts in Edinburgh University Library, Edinburgh, 1925).

Hardly less important were Ethé’s contributions to the history of Persian literature. His chapter on “Neupersische Literatur” in the Grundriss der iranischen Philologie (II, pp. 212-368) surveys with great authority the state of the art at the end of the 19th century. Abounding in factual information, it rests to a great degree upon the author’s own work, not only his lifelong research in Persian manuscripts, but also the many learned articles he had published in German periodicals during the preceding thirty years. The importance of these pioneering investigations was repeatedly stressed by Edward G. Browne in his Literary History of Persia. Ethé was the first to extract the fragments of pre-Ghaznavid poetry from ʿAwfī’s Lobāb al-albāb and other anthologies (“Beiträge zur Kenntnis der ältesten Epoche neupersischer Poesie: Rûdagî der Sâmânidendichter” in Nachrichten, Göttingen, 1873, pp. 663-742; “Fünf Lieder Khusrawânîs und Abû Naçr Gîlânîs,” Sitzungsberichte, Munich, 1873, pp. 654-59; “Rûdagî’s Vorläufer und Zeitgenossen” in Morgenländische Forschungen, Leipzig, 1875, pp. 35-68). He also collected the Persian poems ascribed in these sources to the philosopher Avicenna (“Avicenna als persischer Lyriker” in Nachrichten, Göttingen, 1875, pp. 555-67) and to Ferdowsī (“Firdûsī als Lyriker” in Sitzungsberichte, Munich, 1872, pp. 275-304; 1873, pp. 623-53). He wrote a still valuable article on Asadī’s monāẓaras, or “strife-poems” (“Über persische Tenzonen” in Verhandlungen des fünften internationalen Orientalisten-Congresses, Berlin, 1882, II/1, pp. 48-135), but his contention that they were not written by the author of the Garšāsp-nāma is no longer accepted (Rypka, Hist. Iran. Lit., p. 164). Several of his publications show his interest in religious poetry. He assembled the quatrains of Shaikh Abū Saʿīd (“Die Rubâʾîs des Abû Saʾîd bin Abulchair” in Sitzungsberichte, Munich, 1875, II, pp. 145-68; 1878, II, pp. 38-70; see also Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia II, pp. 261-69) and the fragments of Kesāʾī’s poetry (“Die Lieder des Kisâʾî,” in Sitzungsberichte, Munich, 1874, II, pp. 133-53). His special attention went out to the Ismaʿili poet and philosopher Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow (“Kürzere Lieder und poetische Fragmente aus Nâçir Khusraus Dîvân” in Nachrichten, Göttingen, 1882, pp. 124-52; “Auswahl aus Nâsirs Kasîden,” ZDMG 36, 1882, pp. 478-508; “Nâsir bin Khusrau’s Leben, Denken und Dichten,” in Actes du sixième Congrès international des Orien talistes, Leiden, 1884, II/1, pp. 171-237). In addition, he published and translated one of the maṯnawīs ascribed to Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow (“Nâsir Chusraus Rûśanâinâmąoder Buch der Erleuchtung,” ZDMG 33, 1879, pp. 645-65, and 34, 1880, pp. 428-68, 617-42). Earlier he attempted to point out the mystical meaning of Alexander’s search for the water of life in Neẓāmī’s Eskandar-nāma (“Alexanders Zug zum Lebensquell im Lande der Finsterniss” in Sitzungsberichte, Munich, 1871, pp. 343-405).

Throughout his scholarly life, Hermann Ethé was an industrious translator. Many of his articles contain German translations of Persian poems in metrical form; from Arabic he translated the first part of Qazvīnī’s ʿAjāʾeb-al-maḵlūqāt (Kazwînis Kosmographie: Die Wunder der Schöpfung, Leipzig, 1868) and from Turkish a medieval picaresque novel (Die Fahrten des Sajjid Batthâl: Ein alttürkischer Volks-und Sittenroman, Leipzig, 1871). In his early years, he regarded the editing and translation of oriental literature as his most important task. He made a remark to this effect in the introduction to Morgenländische Studien (Leipzig, 1870, p. VII), a volume of mixed contents which included a metrical version of Helālī’s poem Šāh o gadā and a number of free adaptations of romantic Arabic stories. A second volume (Essays und Studien, Berlin, 1872) contains several critical studies on contemporary German literature. Before he left Germany, these “products of leisure,” as he characterized them, had earned Ethé the reputation of a man of letters. They provide interesting clues for the understanding of Ethé’s critical evaluations of Persian poetry, which are frequent even in his most rigidly philological work. He also wrote for a wider public on various Oriental subjects. In English he contributed articles on Persian literature and individual Persian authors to the Encyclopædia Britannica (9th ed., 1885, especially XVIII, pp. 655-60, s.v. “Persia, Modern Persian Literature”).

The last book he published was the first part of an edition of a maṯnawī telling the story of Joseph and Zolayḵā, then regarded as a work of Ferdowsī (Yûsuf and Zalîkhâ, by Firdausi of Tûs, Critical Edition, Fasciculus Primus, Oxford, 1908) but now generally ascribed to another hand (Rypka, Hist. Iran. Lit., pp. 157-58). Ethé was convinced of Ferdowsī’s authorship and considered it not only the first but also the most significant romantic poem in Persian literature (see also his “Firdausī’s Yûsuf und Zalîkhâ” in Verhandlungen des VII. Internationalen Orientalisten-Congresses, Semitische Section, Vienna, 1888, pp. 20-45; Grundriss II, pp. 229-31). Although several of his judgments have been superseded by more recent research, Ethé’s richly documented studies laid a solid foundation for Persian studies during the 20th century.


Bibliography (Ethé’s own works are in the article; for cited works not given in detail, see “Short References”):

A. F. L. Beeston, Cat. Bodleian Library III, p. iv.

J. T. P. de Bruijn, “Between Hammer and Browne: Hermann Ethé as a Historian of Persian Literature,” Acta Orientalia Academiae Hungarica 48, 1995, pp. 37-50.

Fr. Brümmer, Lexicon der deutschen Dichter und Prosaisten vom Beginn des 19. Jahrhunderts bis zur Gegenwart, 6th ed., Stuttgart 1913, repr. Neudeln, Liechtenstein, 1975.

E. L. Ellis, The University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1872-1972, Cardiff, 1972, pp. 171-73.

C. H. Herford, “Impressions of Aberystwyth, 1887-1901,” in I. Morgan, ed., The College by the Sea, Aberystwyth, 1926, pp. 97-98.

Nachrichten von der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften und der Georg-Augusts-Universität zu Göttingen, Göttingen, 1873, 1875, 1882.

H. Rupp, ed., Deutsches Literatur-Lexicon IV, Bern and München, 1972, p. 554.

Sitzungsberichte der philosophisch-philolog ischen und historischen Classe der königlichen bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Munich, 1871-75, 1878.

Who Was Who 1916-1928, London, 1947, pp. 333-34.


Figure 1. Hermann Ethé (back row, left) with unidentified staff members of the university at Aberystwyth, Wales. After I. Morgan, ed., The College by the Sea, Aberystwyth, 1928. Courtesy of R. Brinkley, Hug h Owen Library, The University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Plate I. Cartoon of Hermann Ethé. After Ap Rhobert, The A berdons: Twelve Caricatures, Aberystwyth, 1912. Courtesy of R. Brinkley, Hugh Owen Library, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

(J. T. P. de Bruijn)

Originally Published: December 15, 1998

Last Updated: January 20, 2012

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