image: Wikimedia commons (link).
Richard Francis Burton (1821 - 1890) "was one of those Victorians whose energy and achievements make any modern man quail," in the words of the novelist A. S. Byatt in the introduction to Burton's translation of the Thousand Nights and a Night, also commonly known as the Thousand and One Nights, or the Arabian Nights (xv). A partial list of examples ensues, of course:
He lived like one of his own heroes, travelling in Goa, Equatorial Africa, brazil, India, and the Middle East. He took part in the Crimean war. He went with J. H. Speke to find the source of the Nile and discovered Lake Tanganyika. He disguised in himself as an Afghan dervish and doctor and went on pilgrimage to the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina -- a journey where unmasking would have cost him his life. He wrote books on swordsmanship and geology. According to Borges he dreamed in seventeen languages and spoke thirty-five -- other sources say forty. xv.
When he died on October 20, 1890, we are told that, "alarmed by the sexually explicit content of her husband's papers, Isabel Burton burned almost all of his notes, diaries, and manuscripts -- an immeasurable loss to history" (vii -- this quotation from the publisher and not from A. S. Byatt's introduction, which begins on page xiii). That could be what happened, or it could be a convenient cover-story -- we will probably never know.
In any case, Burton's translation of the Nights was begun in the 1850s and finally published in the 1880s in sixteen volumes. The introduction by A. S. Byatt cited above declares that of all the translations of the Nights, "the most accessible complete translation remains Burton's extraordinary translation" along with its "immense apparatus of extraordinary footnotes" (xv). Of the massive work Burton himself said:
This work, laborious as it may appear, has been to me a labour of love, an unfailing source of solace and satisfaction. During my long years of official banishment to the luxuriant and deadly deserts of Western Africa, and to the dull and dreary half-clearings of South America, it proved itself a charm, a talisman against ennui and despondency. Impossible even to open the pages without a vision staring into view [. . .] Arabia, a region so familiar to my mind that even at first sight, it seemed a reminiscence of some by-gone metempsychic life in the distant Past [. . .] air glorious as ether, whose every breath raises men's spirits like sparkling wine [. . .] while the reremouse flitted overhead with his tiny shriedk, and the rave of the jackal resounded through deepening glooms, and -- most musical of music -- the palm-trees answered the whispers of the night-breeze with the softest tones of falling water. xxiii - xxiv.
Burton's translation -- and his voluminous endnotes -- are famous for their extremely sexually explicit nature, especially during the period that they first appeared, as a private printing of one thousand copies to subscribers only. Modern readers will find that their content (and perhaps their translation) also appears on the surface to be highly objectionable in terms of being both sexist and racist -- so much so, in fact, that they may prove difficult or even impossible for some to actually read.
And yet, as with other ancient tales, I would argue that the tales which made their way into the Thousand Nights and a Night are almost certainly deeply esoteric in nature, and that to read them only on a literal level is as mistaken as reading Herman Melville's Moby Dick as a story about whaling (this concept is discussed in my most recent interview on Truth Warriorwith David Whitehead, beginning at about 0:17:00 and continuing through to 0:24:00, as well as in the essay I wrote for Jacob Karlin's meditation and Selfless Self-Help site entitled "Clothing spirit with matter and raising it up again: How metaphor transcends and transforms the material realm").
The themes of the Thousand Nights and a Night ostensibly center around the differences between men and women, and their different "powers," and this is the approach to these fabulous tales that is most commonly employed today (simply search for them on the internet for a host of examples). In the world of the Nights, women appear on the surface to be less powerful in the extremely patriarchal (and violent) society that is depicted, and yet they ultimately prove to be far more powerful.
In fact, the entire tension of the story is established by the deflation experienced by first one royal brother, Shah Zaman, and then his brother, King Shahryar, when their wives "get the better of them," each of their frustrations being relived in turn only when each successively encounters an example even more egregious than his own humiliation (their humiliation is only relieved by the even greater humiliation of another man by his wife). Their humiliation leads to a predictably (if excessively) "male" response, the rule that sets the stage for the "thousand and one nights," an extreme and violent "solution" which is finally subverted and corrected by the wisdom, patience, grace, charm, wit, circularity, and feminine power of Shahrazad (or Sheherezad in some translations), assisted by her sister Dunyazad.
Throughout the tales, the power of women can be destructive and devouring, or it can be constructive and restorative, but it is almost always ultimately far more formidable than that of men, despite the latter's excessive bluster, arbitrary ultimatums, and readiness to try to solve most problems by immediately swinging at them wildly with a scimitar.
While the above theme of the "power" of women versus the "power" of men is undeniably present throughout the Nights, I would still argue that to read them on this fairly literal level, or to approach them as a sort of "women's studies" about how women "were treated" in some historical society and how they dealt with and overcame that treatment, is actually a mistake, in that it fails to see the Nights as deeply esoteric and as almost certainly metaphorical, not literal. The same can be said for the extremely racist episodes and descriptions in some of the tales: while the racist elements are highly objectionable and regrettable, and one would prefer that some other metaphor had been employed (the same could be said for some of the sexual content as well), it is likely that the real meaning of the tales is on a level other than the literal, and that the fantastical and often bizarre events and episodes which are related were originally intended to highlight aspects of our universal human condition, or were descended from ancient myths whose original intent was to do so (it is possible that the more racist elements came in later, perhaps during medieval times).
And this is the key: if the Nights in all their incredible tales and transformations and encounters with fire-beings such as jinns and janns and ifrits are actually describing a vision of the soul in its incarnations, and a vision of the universe as shamanic and holographic in nature, then they are not primarily about the division of humanity into men versus women, or this "race" against that one. When a wife is depicted as leaving an almost-ideal husband to chase after rag-bound and filthy and abusive adulterous lovers in illicit affairs, this can be seen as an esoteric depiction of our incarnate condition, in which we can so easily forget our innate (but hidden) spiritual or even divine component and embrace too thoroughly our "animal" or physical nature: a metaphor which applies equally to incarnate men as to incarnate women (see the many similar examples in the scriptures of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, including that of the Prodigal Son, who ends up eating husks among the swine before he remembers his true origin).
In other words, if we read the Nights on a literal level, they will almost certainly appear to divide humanity, along "racial" or "ethnic" or "gender" lines. They will also be quite disturbing and even revolting to many readers, or at least deeply offensive to their sensibilities -- even degrading to the human condition and destructive of human dignity. However, if we read them on a metaphorical and esoteric level, they can actually be seen as teaching a unifying and an uplifting and even a dignifying message -- because they show how our descent into the material realm (the very words
being feminine in connotation, related to the Latin word
or "mother") exposes us to death, to "beatings," to a type of enslavement, to oppressions, to exigencies beyond our control, to transformations, and subjugations, and yet opens the door for exaltation and transformation and even to a transformation that benefits others and enables them to be transformed as well (all of which Shahrazad experiences and demonstrates throughout the Nights).
See this previous post for more on this concept of unifying rather than dividing.
When profound truths put on the garments of metaphor, they descend from the spiritual realm to the material, in order to enable our matter-bound minds to see, through them, that spiritual realm which we have forgotten -- and then these metaphors leap back upwards to the spiritual realms from whence they came, and drag our consciousness along with them. This is what Melville's Moby Dick demonstrates, when deep spiritual subjects come down to put on the rough garments of a whaling vessel, and it is what the Thousand Nights and One Night demonstrate when profound matters of human incarnation and the nature of our spirit-infused universe are clothed in the often gratuitously violent and sexually explicit situations depicted in those tales.
This motion of "metaphor itself" in descending from the "realms of the ideal" into the physical trappings of the vehicle chosen to house or to clothe the metaphor in familiar material form, for the purpose of elevating our consciousness and pointing us back towards the spiritual and helping us to transcend the physical and material can be seen to mirror our own experience in this human incarnation. We descend from the realm of spirit into material and physical vehicles, with the purpose of somehow transforming and transcending and returning with new understanding, and elevating and "dragging along" and reawakening the spiritual which is hidden inside the material world in the process.
This esoteric understanding of the Nights is supported by an aspect of the tales that has rarely, if ever, been explored, and that is the fact that -- like the ancient sacred scriptures and mythologies of the human race, they frequently employ clear celestial metaphor, using the exact same system which underlies other myths the world over.
To demonstrate, I will here offer just two of the many hundreds of possible examples. However, at the request of an extremely insightful and astute correspondent who wrote to me about these interpretations, I will give my interpretation of the constellations underlying these two episodes from the Nights in a future installment of this blog in a couple of days -- enabling you, gentle reader, to work them out for yourself in the interim!
Feel free to post or message your "celestial interpretations" of these two passages, naming the constellations that you believe correspond to each important character (or object, in the case of the second of the two episodes).
Currently, the best places to post (or message, if you wish to be more private and less public) your interpretations are either Twitter (yes, you can fit your explanation in a single tweet or two -- you can just say "X = this constellation; Y = that one") or Facebook. If neither Twitter nor Facebook work for you, send me a message on one of those two channels and suggest a better place to communicate. I will look forward to reading your submissions, if you wish to post them, and then I will put up my own interpretations (which I have already formulated for myself -- obviously I'm not going to offer examples which I am not already fairly confident contain clear celestial correspondences which people can work out: that wouldn't be very helpful).
To get yourself warmed up, feel free to check out the many examples of star myths and their explanations listed here. There is also a previous post which discusses many different constellations, with diagrams and descriptions of where to find them in the night sky.
Here are the two episodes from The Arabian Nights, as translated by Richard Francis Burton:
First episode: the adulterous affair that started the whole story.
Shah Zaman, the younger brother of King Shahryar, is invited to go visit his brother after many years of separation (in which each ruled their own domain with great "equity and fair-dealing," but as Zaman begins to go, he returns for something he forgot. Here is how he begins to describe what took place:
"Know then, O my brother," rejoined Shah Zaman, "that when thou sentest thy Wazir with the invitation to place myself between thy hands, I made ready and marched out of my city; but presently I minded me having left behind me in the palace a string of jewels intended as a gift to thee. I returned for it alone, and found my wife [. . .]. 9.
Finding his wife with another, he says, Shah Zaman "drew his scimitar and, cutting the two into four pieces with a single blow, left them on the carpet and returned presently to his camp without letting anyone know of what had happened" (5).
Can you determine which celestial inhabitants might correspond to Shah Zaman, his adulterous wife, her adulterous lover, his scimitar, and the string of jewels that he forgot to take with him?
Second episode: the Fisherman and the Jinni.
This is the first story in which a Jinni comes forth out of a lamp. There is a story prior to this one which features a Jinni (and a beautiful and formidable woman, who proceeds to exercise absolute power over both Shah Zaman and his brother King Shahryar), but that one strides up out of the ocean onto the shore, and does not emanate from an ancient lamp. The Tale of the Fisherman and the Jinni is presented as the very first tale Shahrazad tells to King Shahryar on her first night with him, and it is long and involved and contains many "stories within stories within stories," but the first part of the action involves an old fisherman and his wondrous catch. Listen as Shahrazad begins her tale:
It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that there was a Fisherman well stricken in years who had a wife and three children, and withal was of poor condition. Now it was his custom to cast his net every day four times, and no more. On a day he went forth about noontide to the sea shore, where he laid down his basket; and, tucking up his shirt and plunging into the water, made a cast with his net and waited till it settled to the bottom. Then he gathered the cords together and haled away at it, but found it weighty; and however much he drew it landwards, he could not pull it up; so he carried the ends ashore and drove a stake into the ground and made the net fast to it. Then he stripped and dived into the water all about the net, and left not off working hard until he had brought it up. He rejoiced thereat and, donning his clothes, went to the net, when he found in it a dead jackass which had torn the meshes. 25.
The Fisherman is grieved at this development, but he gets it clear of his net and casts again, but with similar results. After a great deal of effort, he gets the net in a second time: this time we are told "found he in it a large earthern pitcher which was full of sand and mud; and seeing this he was greatly troubled" (26). So he has another go, but only brings up "potsherds and broken glass" (26).
Finally, he goes through the motions one last time, after first "raising his eyes heavenwards" and imploring "O my God! verily Thou wottest that I cast not my net each day save four times; the third is done and as yet Thou hast vouchsafed me nothing. So this time, O my God, deign give me my daily bread" (26). This time, we are told, he pulls up an old jar or lamp of yellow copper, with a seal stopping its mouth with a leaden cap. Removing the seal with great effort, we watch along with the Fisherman in amazement as:
presently there came forth from the jar a smoke which spired heavenwards into ether (wherat he again marveled with a mighty marvel), and which trailed along earth's surface till presently, having reached its full height, the thick vapour condensed, and became an Ifrit, huge of bulk, whose crest touched the clouds while his feet were on the ground. His head was as a dome, his hands like pitchforks, his legs long as masts and his mouth big as a cave; his teeth were like large stones, his nostrils ewers, his eyes two lamps and his look was fierce and lowering. Now when the fisherman saw the Ifrit his side muscles quivered, his teeth chattered, his spittle dried up and he became blind about what to do. 27.
Can you identify the net, the dead jackass, the "earthern pot," and the magic lamp? If so, you will probably be able to guess at who is likely to play the Fisherman in this tale. How about the smoke which pours from the lamp and spirals upwards? The Ifrit is a bit tricky, and could be one of a couple different figures, but you may want to give him a try as well.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).