1902 Encyclopedia > The Thousand and One Nights

The 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 last century through the French translation by Antoine GALLAND (q.v.), and rapidly attained such universal popularity that it is unnecessary to describe the contents of the book. But the origin of the Arabian Nights claims discussion in this place. In the Journal Asiatique for 1827, p. 253, Von Hammer drew attention to a passage in the Golden Meadows of Mas_údí (ed. Barbier de Meynard, iv. 89 sq.), written in 943 A.D., 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 Hezár Afsáne, 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 Shírázád and her slave girl Dínázád. Other books of the same kind are the book of Ferza and Símás, containing stories of Indian kings and viziers, the book of Sindibád, &c." Von Hammer concluded that the Thousand and One Nights were of Persian or Indian origin.

Arabian Nights (Arabic manuscript, Syria, 14th C.) image

Arabic manuscript of the Arabian Nights, from 14th century Syria
(Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

Against this conclusion De Sacy protested in a memoir (Mém. de l'Acad. des Inscr., 1833, x. 30 sq.), 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 Jour. As., 1839, ii. p. 175 sq., a passage in the Fihrist, (987 A.D.), which is to the following effect:--

"The ancient Persians were the first to invent tales, and fake books of them, and some of their tales were put in the mouths of 'animals. The Ashghanians, or third dynasty of Persian king, and after them the Sásánians, 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 Hezár afsán or Thousands 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 Shahrazád, 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 Shahrazád had a son, and ventured to tell the king of her device. He admired her intelligence, loved her, and spared her life. In all this the princess was assisted by the king's stewardess Dinázád. This book is said to have been written for the princess Homái (MSS. Homání), 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 uninteresting production" (Fihrist, ed. Flügel, p. 304).

Persian tradition (in Firdausí) makes Princess Homái the daughter and wife of Bahman Ardashír, 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. Firdausí says that she was also called Shahrazád (Mohl, v. 11). This name and that of Dinázád both occur in what Masüdí tells of her. According to him, Shahrazád was Homái’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 Dinázád, but "the accounts," says our author, "vary." Plainly she is the Esther of Jewish story. Tabarí (i. 688) calls Esther the mother of Bahman, and, like Firdausi, gives to Homái the name of Shahrazád. 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 Shahraz4d 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," but the old story had, of course, some other word than "Moslems." Esther's foster-father becomes vizier, and Shahrazád's father is also vizier. Shahrazád's plan is helped forward in the Nights by Dinázád, who is, according to Mas_üdí, 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 be 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 3d 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 necessarily 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 probable that the Nights are older than the Sásánian period, to which Lane, iii. 677, refers them.

It is a piece of good fortune that Masüdí 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. Makrízí, describing the capital of Egypt, quotes from a work of Ibn Sa_íd (c. 1250 A.D.), who again cites an older author (Al-Kortobí), who, in speaking of a love affair at the court of the caliph Al-Ámir (1097-1130), says "what is told about it resembles the romance of Al-Battál, or the Thousand and One Nights (Hitat, Búdák ed., i. 485, ii. 181).

That the Nights which we have are not the original translation of the Hezár Afsáne is certain, for the greater part of the stories ' are of Arabian origin, and the whole is so thoroughly Mohammedan 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 boon 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 Hezár Afsáne. 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'1-Mahiásin, an Egyptian historian who died in 1470, writing of Hamdi, a famous highwayman of Baghdad in the 10th century, remarks that he is probably the figure who used to be popularly spoken of as Ahmed al-Danaf (ed. Juynboll, ii. 305). Now in the Nights Ahmed al-Danaf really plays a part corresponding to that of the historical Hamdi, being now a robber (Lane, ii. 9:04) and again a captain of the guard (Lane, ii. 249). It would seem that Abn'1-Mah&sin 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._

No doubt the Nights have borrowed much from the Hezár Afsáne, 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 Hezár Afsáne 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 Masüdí as distinct from the Hezár Afsáne. Thus the story of the king and his son and the damsel and the seven viziers (Lane, chap. xxi. note 51) is in fact a version of the Book of Sindbfid,2 while the story of Jalí_ád and his son and the vizier Shammás (M'N_aghten, iv. 366 sq. ; cf. Lane, iii. 530) corresponds to the book of Ferza and Símás?

Not a few of the tales are unmistakablu 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 Mohammedan. Sometimes, indeed, traces of Indian origin are perceptible, even in stories in which Hárún al-Rashíd figures and the scene is Baghdad or Basra.4 But most of the tales, in substance 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 Baghdad'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„ Mohammed b. Keláún of Egypt commanded" his Moslem, Christian, and Jewish subjects respectively to wear.5Again, in the story of the humpback, whose scene is laid in the 9th century, the talkative barber says, " this is the year 653 " (= 1255 A.D..; Lane, i. 332, writes 263, but see his note), and mentions the caliph Mostansir (died 1242), who is incorrectly called son of Mostadí.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, but 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 be added: thus the chronicle of Ibn al-Jauzí (died 1200 A.D.) contains a narrative of Kamar, slave girl of Shaghb, the mother of A1-112oktadir, which is the source of the tale in Lane, i. 310 sq., and of another to be found in M'Naghten, iv. 557 sq.; 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 mare 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 Baghdad 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 original of some of the most interesting tales in Galland's version, as "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp," "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," has just been discovered by Dr Zotenberg in a MS. recently acquired by the National Library at Paris. A careful examination of this MS. and of the Wortley-Montagu the Bodleian may lead perhaps to a more certain conclusion as to the time of composition.

The Thousand and One Nights became known in Europe through A. Galland's French version (12 vols., 12mo, Paris, 1704-12) ; 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 of these defects that 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., 8 vo., London, 1859). Lane's translation omits the tales which he deemed uninteresting or unfit for a European public. No full translation into English can be published, and, though two such have been privately printed, and one of these (by Sir R. Burton) is being reproduced in an expurgated form, Lanes version is still unsuperseded for all serious use. Of the Arabic teat of the Nights the principal editions are-(1) M'Naghten's edition, 4 vols., 8vo, Calcutta, 1839-42 ; (2) the Breslau edition, 12 vols., 12mo, 1835-43, the first 8 vols. by Habicht, the rest by Fleischer (compare as to the defects of Habicht's work, Fleischer, De Glossis Habichtianis, Leipsic, 1836); (3) the first Búlák edition, 4 vols., 1862-3. (M. J. DE G.)


(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 Saïf) retain their original local colour through all variations of language and style.

(2) On this famous book, the Syriac Sindibán, the Greek Syntipas, and the Seven Sages of the European West, see SYRIAC LITERATURE (vol. xxii. P. 850) ans SPAIN (vol. xxii.p 354).

(3) De Sacy and Lane suppose that the original title of the Arabic translation of the He_ar Afsáne was The Thousand Nights. But most is also the name given by Makrízí. 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 sq.

(5) Quantremère, Sultans Mamloucs, ii. 2, p. 177 sq.

(6) Lane, i. 342, arbitrarily writes "Montasir" for "Mostansir."

(7) See also Edinb. Review, July 18886, p. 191 sq.

(8) See De Goeje in Gids, 1876, ii. pp. 397-411.

The above article was written by M. J. de Goeje, Ph.D.; Professor of Arabic Language and Literature, University of Leyden; edited with glossary and trans. Jakubi, Beladhort, and other Arabic texts; author of several articles in Mémoires d'Histoire et de Géographie Orientales; continued Catalogue of Oriental MSS. begun by Dozy.

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