three pairs of lovers with space

THE THOUSAND NIGHTS AND ONE NIGHT

 

The Thousand Nights and One Night (Arabic: كِتَابُ أَلْفُ لَيْلَةٍ وَلَيْلَة) is an enormous collection of stories in Arabic derived mostly from Near Eastern and Egyptian folklore and literature.  The alleged setting of the stories, based on the characters known to be historical, ranges from the 7th to the 13th centuries. While some are historical and others not, most are of mediaeval origin, and all of them are at least told in the authentic voice of pre-modern Islam.  With an emphasis on the romantic and erotic, those concerning Greek love offer rich and eminently readable insight into its place in Near Eastern society between Antiquity and the beginning of modern European influence.

To understand the setting for all the stories, the framing one with which they begin is that the Persian King Shahryār, grown from bad experience too distrustful of women to marry, “ordered his wazīr to bring him every night a young and virgin girl, whom he ravished and, when the night had passed, caused to be slain.”  After three years, the wazīr’s daughter Shahrazād, offered herself for the royal bed with the plan, successfully implemented, of telling the king a story without its ending, which the King would be so curious to hear that he would have to postpone her execution.  This she succeeded in doing and repeating a thousand times until he finally relented.

There is no canonical text for the stories, which evolved over time and were written down in different versions in different times and places. Single manuscripts also mix sources.

 

Translations

1986 edition of the Mardrus & Mathers translation

Stories from The Thousand Nights and One Night have been translated into English countless times since 1708. Most translations have been of a selection and have been expurgated, with the erotic content of the stories the main target for excision. Given the attitudes to sodomy that prevailed in England until recently, the homoerotic content (which, in this pre-modern context, effectively means Greek love content), has been even more thoroughly excised.  Most translations have therefore been useless for the present purpose.

Three translations stand out as being unexpurgated and, roughly-speaking, complete. The first was in 1885-88 by the intrepid explorer and orientalist Sir Richard Burton,[1] who made a complete translation of the Arabic text (published in 1839-42) known as the Macnaghten edition or Calcutta II. This has the largest number of stories and mostly the fullest versions of them, but still left out many, including such famous ones such as Aladdin and Ali Baba. Burton’s translation is considered generally accurate, but was in prose that even then was excessively archaic.

In 1899-1903, Joseph-Charles-Victor Mardrus published a translation into French[2] that drew on several sources, and this was translated into English by E. Powys Mathers in 1923.[3] They were in very fine prose beautifully attuned to the exotic setting of the stories, but stand accused of inaccuracy, unscholarly distortion and even possibly embellishment.

Finally, another complete translation of “Calcutta II” was made in 2008 by Malcolm Lyons, Professor of Arabic at Cambridge.[4] This is reputedly even more accurate than Burton’s translation and is far more readable, but, though generally fine, makes occasional use of clinically modern words and is often found to be a little prosaic compared to Mathers.[5]

Presented on this website will be all the stories or passages of Greek love interest that appear in the translations of either Mathers or Lyons. Comparing the two on this content, all that are in Lyons are also in Mathers (though Mathers sometimes misses valuable detail), but (unsurprisingly, since he was not restricted to a single source) the latter has others besides. For this and for its beauty, the translation generally adopted for this website is Mathers’s, but carefully comparison has been made with those of Burton and Lyons, significant discrepancies have been footnoted and cross-references given so that scholars may easily resort to the many online versions of his work for greater accuracy. Where Mathers has missed anything of Greek love interest, recourse has been had to both the others, and to Anthony Reid for translation of the odd poem.[6] The names given to the stories are all Mathers’s.

Lots of Burton’s innumerable footnotes are also valuable, not only intrinsically, but also historically, since they drew on his own rich experience of the nineteenth-century world of Islam, so many of them have been added, including all those of Greek love interest. Mathers offered no footnotes and Lyons very few.

 

Greek love stories

The following stories are either entirely devoted to Greek love (three cases) or have substantial passages about it or are rich in allusion to it. The page references are to the 1941 edition of Mathers.  The nights stated are those in which the extracted texts were recounted according to “Calcutta II”.

Edward Powys Mathers (1892-1939), best known for his translation of The Thousand Nights and One Night

The Tale of the Third Kalandar
I 125-130.
14th-15th nights.

The Tale of the Wazīr Nūr al-Dīn, his Brother the Wazīr Shams al-Dīn, and Hasan Badr al-Dīn
I 180, 183-184, 192, 200-203, 213-217, 220-222.
21st-23rd nights.

The Tales of Prince Tāj al-Mulūk and his Friend Azīz
I 650-2, 709-717.  
109th & 131st-132nd nights.

The Tale of Kamar al-Zamān and Princess Budūr
II 2-3, 9-10, 14-15, 17, 23, 78, 79-80, 82-90, 93.
170th-171st, 177th, 180th-181st, 184th, 216nd, 231st nights.

The Tale of Happy-Handsome and Happy-Fair
II 112-114, 119, 125-126.
241st, 243rd & 245th nights.

The Tale of Alā al-Dīn Abū Shāmāt
II 128-165, 195-196.
249th-257th nights.

The Tale of Zumurrud and Alī Shār
II 337-339, 373-376.
311th & 326th-327th nights.

The Poet Abū Nuwās, His Boys, and the Caliph              
II 236-241.
339th-340th & 381st-383rd nights.

A manga spin-off with a Greek love twist: testament to the enduring place of The Thousand Nights and One Night in world-wide culture

The Youth and his Master
II 513-516.
384th night.

Girls or Boys?
II 569-578.
419th-423rd nights.

Salāh al-Dīn and his Wazīr
III 474-478.
697th-698th nights.

The Adventures of Mercury Ali of Cairo
II 732-733.
710th night.

The Adventures of Hasan of Basrah
III 222-232.
778th-785th nights.

The Tale of Kamar and the Expert Halīmah
III 641-648.
963rd-965th nights.

The Tale of Princess Zulaikah
IV 246-249.
Not in “Calcutta II”.

The Splendid Tale of Prince Diamond
IV 392-394.
Not in “Calcutta II”.

 

Other Greek love content

Isolated passages of Greek love interested are gathered together as “Short excerpts”. Besides these, the reader wanting to be sure of having seen every passage of possible  Greek love interest might want to consider the doubtful allusions in The Tale of Abū Kīr and Abū Sīr  (III 19, 20-21, 23; 935th-936th nights) and The Tale of the Leg of Mutton (III 680-681; not in “Calcutta II”).

The Thousand Nights and One Night are rich in poetry. Where poems appear in a Greek love context, they are obviously included with the rest of what is relevant in those stories. However, similar poems are scattered throughout the stories with no other Greek love content.  Often these are given in the context of a boy’s appeal to a girl or without reference to who might fall in love with him. Since little distinction is drawn between the characteristics of a boy that appeal to men and those that appeal to the other sex, boy characters of superlative beauty often being described as irresistible to both, these are of similar interest to those given in a Greek love context, and are presented as “Poems”.

[1] The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, 16 volumes (of which the first ten were a translation of “Calcutta II” and the other six were supplemental volumes with some stories from other sources), 1885-87.

[2] Les mille et Une Nuits, 12 volumes, 1899-1903.

[3] The edition used on this website is The Thousand Nights and One Night, 4 volumes, London, revised edition of 1941.

[4] The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights, 3 volumes, Penguin, London, 2008.

[5] As well brought out in a review by Elspeth Barker in the Independent, 15 February 2009.

[6] Anthony Reid published a large amount of the Greek love poetry in The Thousand Nights and One Night in his anthology The Eternal Flame, vol. I (Elmhurst, New York, 1992), pp. 287-298. In general, his translations are so heavily marred by exaggeration or invention of the homoerotic content as to be entirely untrustworthy. As a good example of this, see his “translation” (p. 287) of a poem he calls “Consummation” and turns into a detailed description of homosexual pedication, and compare it to its translation by Lyons, 216th night, where it is absolutely clear from not only the content, but the context (which Reid does not give) that the poem is describing heterosexual intercourse. Nevertheless, some of Reid’s verse is fine, and recourse has occasionally been had to it where he expresses most felicitously something the other translators confirm to be genuine in gist.

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