Arabian Nights (The Thousand and One Nights)

The Oral Tradition of the Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights, the stories we know as the Thousand and One Nights are very old, having existed in their present form as early as the 13th century and many of them were told, by some accounts, as early as the 9th century. The were passed on in an oral tradition, but unlike European folklore, they were most likely passed on as true histories. This is because in early Islam culture, story-telling (telling a tale that is known to be untrue) is a lie and forbidden; hence the tales are often named Histories. So when these tales were originally told, they were recounted as historical events in an oral tradition.

The stories originally numbered about 250, broken into a thousand and one parts and held together by a framing story: Scheherazade was the daughter of the grand vizier to Sultan Shahriyar. The sultan's had been very much in love with his first wife but she had betrayed him. In his grief and anger, he had her executed and vowed that he would take a new wife each night and kill her the following morning. That cruel order was obeyed faithfully for three years, until Scheherazade convinced her father to offer her as the sultan's next wife.

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Kay Nielsen: Scheherazade
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Scheherazade persuaded the sultan to allow her sister to spend the night with them in the bridal chamber. The next morning, Scheherazade's sister begged her to tell a story. Scheherazade started to tell a tale but stopped short before finishing the story and so causing the sultan, who had listened as well, to put off her execution until the next day. Each evening, Scheherazade would continue her tales, never finishing but keeping her husband enthralled with story after story for 1,001 nights. In the meantime, Scheherazade had given the sultan three sons and the sultan, now convinced of his wife's fidelity and wisdom, revoked his death sentence.

Kay Nielsen: Arabian Nights
Together in a Graveyard
The Dervish's Arrangement:
Together in a Graveyard

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Kay Nielsen: Fisherman and the Genie
Tale of the Fisherman and the Genie

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The Lovers Perish in Fire
The Lovers Perish in Fire

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The Favorite Wife
The Sultan's Favorite Wife

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The Tale of the Young Thief
The Tale of the Young Thief

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The Arabian Nights in Europe The Arabian Nights became known in Europe in 1704-1712, when Antione Galland published a translation in twelve volumes. As even a single volume could be quite costly, the books themselves did not achieve wide popularity but they were a great success among those who did have access to them. Their fame spread. In 1840, E.W. Lane brought out his edition -- an incomplete but accurate work. He omitted parts of many stories and some entire tales.

Maxfield Parrish: Arabian Nights
Maxfield Parrish: Talking Bird

Arabian Nights: Talking Bird

Maxfield Parrish: Sinbad plotting to kill the Giant

Sinbad Plotting
to Kill the Giant

The Fisherman and the Genie by Maxfield Parrish
Maxfield Parrish: The Fisherman and the Genie

Maxfield Parrish: Ali Baba in the Cave of the 40 thieves

Arabian Nights: Ali Baba

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Maxfield Parrish: Pirates

Arabian Nights: Codadad

Maxfield Parrish: Pirates

King of the Black Isles

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Where the Tales Came From

Given their age and the oral tradition, tracing the talse is not direct. Surprisingly, the Tales of Sinbad were not part of the original 250 tales but were added later from another source. Some scholars divide the Arabian Nights stories into different stages:

  1. a Persian core "The Thousand Stories" (Hazār Afsānah)
  2. an Arabic version of "The Thousand Stories"
  3. the frame story of "The Thousand Stories" with new Arabic stories added
  4. a late Fatimid version (twelfth century)
  5. the sixteenth century Syrian manuscript that was the basis of the first European translation by Antoine Galland
  6. a final stage which introduces the materials from popular epics (Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba)

Edmund Dulac: Arabian Nights
The Queen of the Ebony Isles

Queen of the Ebony Isles

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Arabian Nights, Maidens on White Horses

Maidens on White Horses

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The Merman King


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The Ship struck a rock

The Ship Struck a Rock

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Layla and Majnun


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Fairies and Genies

European fairies were small, sometimes petty, occasionally powerful, but usually benign, The jinn in the Arabian Nights can be huge, take multiple forms, and are dangerous. The peris are always kind and good. And there were good and bad fairies, not tiny creatures, but beings with the appearance of men and women, capable of vanishing and changing forms. A genie might be controlled if you found the proper charm or talisman, but the fairies and peris could not. These strange beings, with talking birds and animals, populate the tales.

Virginia Frances Sterrett: Arabian Nights


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The Sultana had a
Conversation with a Man

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The son regained his form

The son regained his form

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History of the First Calendar

The History of the Second Calendar

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They Danced Before Me

They Danced Before Me

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The Great Serpent

The Great Serpent

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Aladdin and the Genie of the Ring

Aladdin and the Genie of the Ring

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Aladdin and the Sultan ate together

Aladdin and the Sultan

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Aladdin made is way to the Sultan's Palace

Aladdin Made his Way to the Sultan's Palace

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Aladdin saluted the princess with joy

Aladdin Greeted the Princess with Joy

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The Story of Baba Abdallah

The Story of Baba Abdallah

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The robber disguised himself

Ali Baba: The Robber Disguised Himself

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Ali Baba: Morgiana Danced with Much Grace

Ali Baba: Morgiana Danced with Much Grace

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Sinbad the Sailor

The Tale of Sinbad the Sailor

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The Third Voyage of Sinbad

The Third Voyage of Sinbad

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The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor

The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad

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The Thousand and One Nights

The Arabian Nights

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