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Interesting, could you post one of them? The version from Lucian is as follows:

“Whenever we came to an inn, he used to take up the bar of the door, or a broom, or perhaps a pestle, dress it up in clothes, and utter a certain incantation; whereupon the thing would begin to walk about, so that every one took it for a man. It would go off and draw water, buy and cook provisions, and make itself generally useful. When we had no further occasion for its services, there was another incantation, after which the broom was a broom once more, or the pestle a pestle. I could never get him to teach me this incantation, though it was not for want of trying; open as he was about everything else, he guarded this one secret jealously. At last one day I hid in a dark corner, and overheard the magic syllables; they were three in number. The Egyptian gave the pestle its instructions, and then went off to the market. Well, next day he was again busy in the market: so I took the pestle, dressed it, pronounced the three syllables exactly as he had done, and ordered it to become a water-carrier. It brought me the pitcher full; and then I said: Stop: be water-carrier no longer, but pestle as heretofore. But the thing would take no notice of me: it went on drawing water the whole time, until at last the house was full of it. This was awkward: if Pancrates came back, he would be angry, I thought (and so indeed it turned out). I took an axe, and cut the pestle in two. The result was that both halves took pitchers and fetched water; I had two water-carriers instead of one. This was still going on, when Pancrates appeared. He saw how things stood, and turned the water-carriers back into wood; and then he withdrew himself from me, and went away, whither I knew not.”

Not the OP, but I was curious so I read a bit about Abhimanyu and Sañjīva.

Abhimanyu was a warrior in the Mahabharata who, while still in his mother's womb, heard Arjuna tell the secret of how to break into the powerful circular battle formation known as the Chakravyūha. His mother, and with her, Abhimanyu in her womb, fell asleep before hearing how to break out of the formation. Once an adult, Abhimanyu entered the Chakravyūha of his enemies, the Kauravas, and killed many of their soldiers. But, not knowing how to exit the formation, became trapped inside and was eventually weakened and killed by the combined might of his enemies' heroes.

The Sañjīva-Jātaka is a story-within-a-story. The main story tells of King Ajātasattu who followed Devadatta, the enemy of the Buddhas and how he paid for it. The story-within, tells of a young brahmin, named Sañjīva, pupil of the Bodhisattva, who taught him a spell to raise the dead. Wishing to impress his peers, Sañjīva cast the spell on a dead tiger. But, not knowing the counter-spell, he could not control the tiger, who bit him in the neck and killed him, then fell dead by his side. The story-within is meant to teach how an evil person cannot be a true ally and will soon turn against you:

  Befriend a villain, aid him in his need,
  And, like that tiger which Sañjīva raised
  To life, he straight devours you for your pains.
There are obvious parallels between the two stories and the Sorcerer's Apprentice tale (modern and ancient). However, Abhimanyu's story is also significantly different, in that the Chakravyūha is not his own creation that he lost control over.

If we take Abhimanyu's story as similar to the Sorcerer's Apprentice story, and accept that the theme is one of knowing how to initiate a process, but not how to stop it, then we may also heed the story of Phaethon, the son of Helios, the sun god, who asked to drive his father's chariot (i.e. the sun) but couldn't control it and was killed by Zeus to stop him wreaking havok to the Earth. This is a story from Greek mythology and therefore much older than the story of Sañjīva and at least as old as the Mahabharata.

Therefore, as a stereotypical Greek, I will claim the oldest telling of the story of The Boy Who Lost Control for the legend of Phaethon.



Abhimanyu's article on wikipedia:


Chakravyūha article on wikipedia:


The Sañjīva-Jātaka:


Phaethon's article on wikipedia:


Phaeton is a credible origin for starting-something-you-can't-stop stories but I think Sorcerer's Apprentice has a further facet, where the process that you start is autonomous to some degree and causes problems by doing exactly what you told it. (In the case of the undead tiger it was being more of a live tiger than Sañjīva expected.)

I think that the Sañjīva story is rather about a something that you awaken (call out) that you fully do not understand.

It would be similar to calling out a demon.

Lucian story is about giving orders to an existing automaton.

I think these stories are different.

Hey, I don't disagree completely, but it's hard to decide how to answer this kind of question. In short, we are trying to figure out a way to identify a class of stories, based on a single example and on the observation that it has some common elements with other stories we happen to know. The difficulty is in the fact that there are many such "common elements" we might decide to focus on, or ignore, and each set thereof can substantially change the stories we identify as "similar to" our single example, the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

So, for instance, we could broaden the description to include any story of losing control over one's, or someone else's creation- therefore "covering" stories as diverse as the legend of Icarus, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and of course the stories of Sañjīva, Phaethon and Abhimanyu. We might focus on the moral dimension of the story, which draws more stark parallels to the story of Sañjīva but also King Midas. We might choose to stay as close as possible to the them of "magical automation" in which case, we 'll only include stories like the original tale in Lucian's work, the Sorcerer's Apprentice many versions, and the story of the Golem of Prague, all of which include something like the Paperclip Optimiser AGI. And so on.

I guess now I make it sound like navel-gazing, but this is actually a legitimate problem with very real applications. For example imagine trying to organise the stories I list above, plus who knows how many others, in appropriate categories _automatically_ based on their narrative characteristics. It's probably impossible to do that sort of thing with current NLP techniques, or at least to do it in a way that would satisfy a majority of human classifiers. Not to mention, the problem of choosing what part of a _story_ (as opposed to what portions of _text_) to attend to when categorising a document is also not something we can currently solve convincingly.

So it's an ill-defined, hard, classification problem. Perfect subject for a machine learning paper :)

Interesting take on the topic, thanks! I think part of the problem is trying to categories stories on some kind of taxonomy rather than seeing them as bundles of attributes.

> Therefore, as a stereotypical Greek, I will claim the oldest telling of the story of The Boy Who Lost Control for the legend of Phaethon.

And of course, if that fails, just claim that Alexander discovered India so you basically invented the Indians :p

The Greek plan B :D

You know the Greeks well, friend :P

Thank you, this is a great thread.

I think the elements that make Lucian's version specifically like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are:

* the Sorcerer's magic is appropriated by another party that doesn't understand the magic

* a "broom or pestle" is the animated object

* the object is ordered to fetch water but won't stop, eventually filling the house with water

* the object is chopped to pieces in an attempt to stop it, but the pieces continue to fetch water

* this continues until the Sorcerer comes back and angrily reverses the magic.

Don’t trust evil people is an incredible theme.

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