1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Thousand and One Nights

THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS. The Thousand and One Nights, commonly known in English as The Arabian-Nights' Entertainments, is a collection of tales written in Arabic, which first became generally known in Europe in the early part of the 1 8th century through the French translation by Antoine Galland, and rapidly attained universal popularity. In the Journal asiatique for 1827, p. 253, von Hammer (J. von Hammer-Purgstall) drew attention to a passage in the Golden Meadows of Mas'udi (ed. Barbier de Meynard, iv. 89 seq.), written in a.d. 943, in which certain stories current among the old Arabs are compared with " the books which have reached us in translations from Persian, Indian and Greek, such as the book of Hezdr Afsane, a title which, translated from Persian into Arabic, means ' the thousand tales.' This book is popularly called The Thousand and One Nights, and contains the story of the king and his vizier and of his daughter Shirazad and her slave girl Dinazad. Other books of the same kind are the book of Ferza and Simds, containing stories of Indian kings and viziers, the book of Sindibad, &c." Von Hammer concluded that the Thousand and One Nights were of Persian or Indian origin. Against this conclusion Silvestre De Sacy protested in a memoir (M6m. de I'acad. des inscr., 1833, x. 30 seq.), demonstrating that the character of the book we know is genuinely Arabian, and that it must have been written in Egypt at a comparatively recent date. Von Hammer in reply adduced, in Journ. as. (1839), ii. 175 seq., a passage in the Fihrist (a.d. 987), which is to the following effect: —

"The ancient Persians were the first to invent tales and make books of them, and some of their tales were put in the mouths of animals. The Ashghanians, or third dynasty of Persian kings, and after them the Sasanians, had a special part in the development of this literature, which found Arabic translators, and was taken up by accomplished Arabic literati, who edited it and imitated it. The earliest book of the kind was the Hez&r afsSne or Thousand Tales, which had the following origin. A certain Persian king was

accustomed to kill his wives on the morning after the consummation of the marriage. But once he married a clever princess called Shahrazad, who spent the marriage night in telling a story which in the morning reached a point so interesting that the king spared her, and asked next night for the sequel. This went on for a thousand nights till Shahrazad had a son, and ventured to tell the king of her device. He admired her intelligence, loved her, and spared ner life. In all this the princess was assisted by the king's stewardess Dlnazad. This book is said to have been written for the princess Homai (MSS. Homani), daughter of Bahman. ... It contains nearly two hundred stories, one story often occupying several nights. I have repeatedly seen the complete book, but it is really a meagre and uninterestii.g production " (Fihrist, ed. Fliigel, p. 304).

Persian tradition (in Firdousi) makes Princess Uomai the daughter and wife of Bahman Ardashlr, i.e. Artaxerxes I. Longimanus. She is depicted as a great builder, a kind of Persian Semiramis, and is a half-mythical personage already mentioned in the Avesta, but her legend seems to be founded on the history of Atossa and of Parysatis. Firdousi says that she was also called Shahrazad (Mohl v. 11). This name and that of Dlnazad both occur in what Mas'udi tells of her. According to him, Shahrazad was Homai's mother (ii. 129), a Jewess (ii. 123). Bahman had married a Jewess (i. 118), who was instrumental in delivering her nation from captivity. In ii. 122 this Jewish maiden who did her people this service is called Dlnazad, but " the accounts," says our author, "vary." Plainly she is the Esther of Jewish story. Tabari (i. 688) calls Esther the mother of Bahman, and, like Firdousi, gives to Homai the name of Shahrazad. The story of Esther and that of the original Nights have in fact one main feature in common. In the former the king is offended with his wife, and divorces her; in the Arabian Nights he finds her unfaithful, and kills her. But both stories agree that thereafter a new wife was brought to him every night, and on the morrow passed into the second house of the women (Esther), or was slain (Nights). At length Esther or Shahrazad wins his heart and becomes queen. The issue in the Jewish story is that Esther saves her people; in the Nights the gainers are "the daughters of the Moslems," hut the old story had, of course, some other word than "Moslems." Esther's foster-father becomes vizier, and Shahrazad's father is also vizier. Shahrazad's plan is helped forward in the Nights by Dlnazad, who is, according to Mas'udi, her slave girl, or, according to other MSS., her nurse, and, according to the Fihrist, the king's stewardess. The last account comes nearest to Esther ii. 15, where Esther gains the favour of the king's chamberlain, keeper of the women. It is also to he noted that Ahasuerus is read to at night when he cannot sleep (Esther vi. 1). And it is just possible that it is worth notice that, though the name of Ahasuerus corresponds to Xerxes, Josephus identifies him with Artaxerxes I.

Now it may be taken as admitted that the book of Esther was written in Persia, or by one who had lived in Persia, and not earlier than the 3rd century B.C. If now there is real weight in the points of contact between this story and the Arabian Nights — and the points of difference cannot be held to outweigh the resemblances between two legends, each of which is neces- sarily so far removed from the hypothetical common source — the inference is important for both stories. On the one hand, it appears that (at least in part) the book of Esther draws on a Persian source; on the other hand, it becomes prohahle that the Nights are older than the Sasanian period, to which Lane (iii. 677) refers them.

It is a piece of good fortune that Mas'udi and the Fihrist give us the information cited above. For in general the Moslems, though very fond of stories, are ashamed to recognize them as objects of literary curiosity. In fact, the next mention of the Nights is found only after a lapse of three centuries. Maqrlzl, describing the capital of Egypt, quotes from a work of Ibn Sa'id (c. a.d. 1250), who again cites an older author (Al-ICortobi), who, in speaking of a love affair at the court of the caliph Al-Amir (1097-1130), says " what is told ahout it resemhles the romance of Al-Battal, or the Thousand and One Nights " (Hitat, Bulaq ed., i. 485, ii. 181).

That the Nights which we have are not the original translation of the Hezar Afsane is certain, for the greater part of the stories are of Arabian origin, and the whole is so thoroughly Mahom- medan that even the princes of remote ages who are introduced speak and act as Moslems. It might be conceived that this is due to a gradual process of modernization by successive generations of story-tellers. But against this notion, which has been entertained by some scholars, Lane has remarked with justice that, much as MSS. of the Nights differ from one another in points of language and style, in the order of the tales, and the division into nights, they are all so much at one in essentials that they must be regarded as derived from a single original. There is no trace of a recension of the text that can be looked on as standing nearer to the Hezar Afsane. And the whole local colour of the work, in point of dialect and also as regards the manners and customs described, clearly belongs to Egypt as it was from the 14th to the 16th century. Some points, as De Sacy and Lane have shown, forbid us to place the book earlier than the second half of the 15th century. Galland's MS. copy, again, was in existence in 1548. Lane accordingly dates the work from the close of the 15th century or the beginning of the 16th, but this date appears to be too late. For Abu'l-Mahasin, an Egyptian historian who died in 1470, writing of Hamdi, a famous highwayman of Bagdad in the 10th century, remarks that he is probably the figure who used to be popularly spoken of as Ahmad al-Danaf (ed. Juynboll ii. 305). Now in the Nights Ahmad al-Danaf really plays a part corresponding to that of the historical Hamdi, being now a robber (Lane ii. 404) and again a captain of the guard (Lane ii. 249). It would seem that Abu'l-Mahasin had read or heard the stories in the Nights^ and was thus led to compare the historical with the fictitious character. And, if this be so, the Nights must have been composed very soon after 1450.[1]

No doubt the Nights have horrowed much from the Hezar Afsane, and it is not improbable that even in the original Arabic translation of that work some of the Persian stories were replaced by Arab ones. But that our Nights differ very much from the Hezar Afsane is further manifest from the circumstance that, even of those stories in the Nights which are not Arabian in origin, some are borrowed from books mentioned by Mas'udi as distinct from the Hezar Afsane. Thus the story of the king and his son and the damsel and the seven viziers (Lane, ch. xxi. note 51) is in fact a version of the Book of Sindbad,[2] while the story of Jall'ad and his son and the vizier Shammas (M'Naghten iv. 366 seq.; cf. Lane iii. 530) corresponds to the book of Ferza and Simds.[3]

Not a few of the tales are unmistakably of Indian or Persian origin, and in these poetical passages are rarely inserted. In other stories the scene lies in Persia or India, and the source is foreign, but the treatment thoroughly Arabian and Mahommedan. Sometimes, indeed, traces of Indian origin are perceptible, even in stories in which Harto al-Rashld figures and the scene is Bagdad or Basra.[4] But most of the tales, in suhstance and form alike, are Arabian, and so many of them have the capital of the caliphs as the scene of action that it may be guessed that the author used as one of his sources a book of tales taken from the era of Bagdad's prosperity.

The late date of the Nights appears from sundry anachronisms. In the story of the men transformed into fish — white, blue, yellow or red according as they were Moslems, Christians, Jews or Magians (Lane i. 99) — the first three colours are those of the turbans which, in 1301, Mahommed b. Kala'un of Egypt commanded his Moslem, Christian and Jewish subjects respectively to wear.[5] Again, in the story of the humpback, whose scene is laid in the 9th century, the talkative barber says, " this is the year 653 " (= a.d. 1255; Lane, i. 332, writes 263, but see his note), and mentions the caliph Mostansir (d. 1242), who is incorrectly called son of Mostadl.[6] In the same story several places in Cairo are mentioned which did not exist till long after the 9th century (see Lane i. 379).[7] The very rare edition of the first 200 nights published at Calcutta in 1814 speaks of cannon, which are first mentioned in Egypt in 1383; and all editions sometimes speak of coffee, which was discovered towards the end of the 14th century, hut not generally used till 200 years later. In this and other points, e.g. in the mention of a mosque founded in 1501 (Lane iii. 608), we detect the hand of later interpolators, but the extent of such interpolations can hardly perhaps be determined even by a collation of all copies. For the nature and causes of the variations between different copies the reader may consult Lane, iii. 678, who explains how transpositions actually arise by transcribers trying to make up a complete set of the tales from several imperfect copies.

Many of the tales in the Nights have an historical basis, as Lane has shown in his notes. Other cases in point might he added: thus the chronicle of Ibn al-jauzl (d. a.d. 1200) contains a narrative of IJamar, slave girl of Shaghb, the mother of Moqtadir, which is the source of the tale in Lane i. 310 seq., and of another to be found in M'Naghten iv. 557 seq.; the latter is the better story, but departs so far from the original that the author must have had no more than a general recollection of the narrative he drew on.[8] There are other cases in the Nights of two tales which are only variations of a single theme, or even in certain parts agree almost word for word. Some tales are mere compounds of different stories put together without any art, but these perhaps are, as Lane conjectures, later additions to the book; yet the collector himself was no great literary artist. We must picture him as a professional story-teller equipped with a mass of miscellaneous reading, a fluent power of narration, and a ready faculty for quoting, or at a push improvising, verses. His stories became popular, and were written down as he told them — hardly written by himself, else we should not have so many variations in the text, and such insertions of "the narrator says," "my noble sirs," and the like. The frequent coarseness of tone is proper to the condition of Egyptian society under the Mameluke sultans, and would not have been tolerated in Bagdad in the age to which so many of the tales refer. Yet with all their faults the Nights have beauties enough to deserve their popularity, and to us their merit is enhanced by the pleasure we feel in being transported into so entirely novel a state of society.

The Thousand and One Nights became known in Europe through A. Galland's French version (12 vols. 12mo, Paris, 1704-1712); the publication was an event in literary history, the influence of which can be traced far and wide. This translation, however, left much to be desired in point of accuracy, and especially failed to reproduce the colour of the original with the exactness which those who do not read merely for amusement must desire. It was with a special view to the remedying qf these defects that E. W. Lane produced in 1840 his admirably accurate, if somewhat stilted, translation, enriched with most valuable notes and a discussion of the origin of the work (new edition, with some additional notes, 3 vols. 8vo, London, 1859). Lane's translation omits the tales which he deemed uninteresting or unfit for a European public. Sir Richard Burton's unexpurgated English translation, with elaborate notes, was issued in 10 vols., I 885-1886, with six supplementary vols., 1887-1888. A new French version (1809 seq.) was undertaken by J. C. Mardrus. Of the Arabic text of the Nights the principal editions are—(1) M'Naghten's edition (4 vols. 8vo, Calcutta, 1839-1842);. (2) the Breslau edition (12 vols., 12mo, 1835-1843), the first 8 vols, by Habicht, the rest by Fleischer (compare as to the defects of Habicht's work, Fleischer, De glossis Habichlianis. Leipzig, 1836); (3) the first Büläq edition (4 vols., 1862-1863). irabes (1901), vol. iv., by V. Chauvin, See the Bibliographie des ouvr. arabes

  1. The hypothesis of gradual and complete modernization is also opposed to the fact that the other romances used by Cairene story-tellers (such as those of 'Antar and of Saif) retain their original local colour through all variations of language and style.
  2. The Syriac Sindibdn, the Greek Syntipas, and the Seven Sages of the European West.
  3. De Sacy and Lane suppose that the original title of the Arabic translation of the Hezar Afsane was The Thousand Nights. But most MSS. of Mas'udi already have The Thousand and One Nights, which is also the name given by Maqrlzl. Both ciphers perhaps mean only " a very great number," and Fleischer (De glossis Habichtianis, p. 4) has shown that 1001 is certainly used in this sense.
  4. Gildemeister, De rebus indicis, p. 89 seq.
  5. Quatrem&re, Sultans Mamloucs, ii. 2, p. 177 seq .
  6. Lane, i. 342, arbitrarily writes " Montasir for '" Mostansir."
  7. See also Edin. Review (July 1886), p. 191 seq.
  8. See De Goeje in Gids (1876), ii. 397-4"-